Grief strikes people at odd and often unexpected moments. In the summer of 2013, my brother Peter died of a reaction to a prescription medication. At the time, I found it difficult to discuss his loss with the kids. Pete had suffered for years from addiction and mental illness, which had made him a stranger to them both. Also, there was no particularly easy way to describe how or why he died. Just then, I could barely face the tragedy myself. In any case, I don’t think that I came to acknowledge my own deep sorrow until this fall. Of course, the kids noticed my sadness and began to reflect it, too. So, we’ve gone back to basics. As a way to work through our feelings about Pete’s troubles and his death, we’ve been looking at some favourite books. These don’t necessarily address illness or death head on, but they do get us talking about our sorrows and our fears.
Today, in partnership with TD Reads, I’m offering you a look at our “Out of Trouble” books, the books that help to get us through:
JonArno Lawson’s Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box (Porcupine’s Quill, 2012) may look, at first glance, like another “serious book of grown-up poetry,” as Bea would say. Open it up, however, and any kid would be delighted by Lawson’s poems and by Alec Dempster’s accompanying illustrations, which look like Papel Picado, those elaborate paper cut-outs used in Day of the Dead festivities. This book became a favourite of Toby’s when it came out two years ago, and it’s been a go-to read as of late. Right now, we’re all memorizing a poem called “The Truth,” which enables us to acknowledge our sorrow and to accept change:
There is an important truth;
that seems both consistent and constant to me:
the truth is that the truth is never
what anyone wants it to be.
I’ve also taken to reading aloud one of Toby’s favourites, “Robot Bones,” which describes the “bones” of two robots who are lying “side by side together / in the crackling electrical undergrowth.” Having knelt down for a “digital prayer,” the speaker of the poem is “saddened” to recall a very colourful image of the robot couple, “his tungsten hand on her copper hair.” We use this poem to talk about how sadness sometime strikes us out of nowhere. Bea often follows this up, too, by talking about her fascination with the last lines of “Underneath the School,” the revelation that “like you, yourself, earth has a molten core.” In light of Pete’s loss, she’s really interested in talking about the fire everyone has within and how we need to tend it properly.
We’ve also been looking at the Visions in Poetry series published by Kids Can Press. These are classic poems presented with fresh new illustrations by Canadian artists. My brother Pete loved baseball, and Toby absolutely adores Joe Morse’s rough-and-tumble urban take on Ernest L. Thayer’s classic, Casey at the Bat. Morse’s illustrations show the tension and anxiety felt not only by Casey, who is trying to get a hit and win the baseball game, but by everyone in the crowd:
Forget the words, the images themselves depict how my brother often felt during his illness, and how we worried for him, too. Bea, meanwhile, has been exploring the mysterious grief of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott by trying to reproduce the illustrations of Geneviève Coté on her own.
Because of our interest in Cote’s illustrations, we just picked up her latest solo venture, Good Night, You (Kids Can Press, 2014). The most recent addition to her Piggy and Bunny series, this book might look as if it’s pitched towards a younger crowd. [We bought ours, initially, as a Halloween gift for a toddler.] But, the sweet illustrations and the enchanting story gave us yet another way to get ourselves “out of trouble.” Piggy helps Bunny overcome a fear of monsters:
Piggy scares Bunny on purpose to help Bunny acknowledge fear and move on. “It was only my shadow,” Piggy insists, when Bunny thought a monster was around. The book not only provides a great way to get the kids talking about what scares them — It also teaches that it is important for kids to check to see if those fears are based in fact or if they can be let go. The lesson of the book, then, is the lesson that my brother’s loss leaves us, too: don’t let your worries go too far. Our fears and our feelings are legitimate, but we don’t have to break ourselves by giving them too much credence. Like Lawson’s Down in the Bottom …, I think Coté’s Good Night, You is destined to become a classic, at least in our home.
So, what are your “Out of Trouble” books? What books help you and your family deal with grief?