Childish things and death

Last week I attended the funeral of a dear friend’s father, which meant attending mass at the Catholic church in the parish where I grew up.

For the better part of 18 years, I spent every Sunday morning and often other days of the week besides in that cold — I’d forgotten just how cold — imposing bluestone church on the top of the hill.

On the very rare occasions these days that I attend mass — the time before was for the funeral of a friend’s father, too — I become overwhelmed with nostalgia. Not because of any desire whatsoever to return to the Catholic faith. But because I miss that simpler time when everything happened for a reason.

Christos Tsiolkas expressed a similar sentiment in his autobiography Jump Cuts (with Sasha Soldatow) when he wrote, ‘I miss God.’

It’s not that I want God back. I just miss having an easy explanation for everything.

 At the moment my child is obsessing about death, specifically the death of her parents. She worries aloud who will love her, cuddle her, read stories to her if we die. She tells me if we die, she wants to die, too.

I’m not alarmed by this. There’s something about having a child that brings back primordial memories of what it was like to be a child.

Having her ask to close the cupboard doors in her bedroom for fear of monsters emerging from those dark spaces, for example, reminds me I also used to need the cupboard doors closed at night for the same reason. And hearing her fret about her parents dying reminds me that I used to fret about the same thing at her age, too.

Thing is, when I was feeling fretful, my parents — both practising Catholics back then — had a comforting narrative they could give me about how all good people (I don’t think they were so gauche as to suggest you had to be baptised) went to Heaven when they died, where we’d all be reunited for eternity in a kind of glorious garden party.

Not a narrative I can use to comfort a weeping six-year-old with a secular upbringing.

Instead, I abandoned the bedtime story I’d picked out and took a book from her shelf called No Matter What by Debi Gliori.

The story has two characters, Small and Large, a mother and child in the form of foxes. It opens with Small feeling ‘grim and dark…playing toss and fling and squash’. Turns out Small is worried that nobody loves him, or that nobody would love him if he was difficult, or if he was dead.

My child’s eyes lit up when she saw the book. ‘I want to read this with you,’ she said, ‘because it’s just how I feel.’

So she read the part of Small and I read the part of Large and by the time we finished with, ‘Love, like starlight, never dies’, she’d moved on from her fears about dying and fell asleep trying to figure out how high a number she could count that would express how much we love each other.

It’s not the Bible. But I thank Debi Gliori for a narrative we can both make sense of.

Here are several outstanding books I’ve found useful for raising tough topics.

The Boy and the Toy by Sonya Hartnett with stunning illustrations by Lucia Masciullo is the story of a boy whose father invents the best toy in the world to keep the boy company. The toy seems marvellous, until anything else the boy shows interest in disappears and things start to get sinister. A cautionary tale about how jealously is the death of friendship.

Nobody Owns The Moon by Tohby Riddle describes the life of Clive Prendergast, a fox – ‘one of the only wild creatures in the world that can successfully make a life for itself in cities’ – and his friendship with Humphrey the donkey. Humphrey is doing it tough and often has no fixed address. But fate delivers tickets to a theatrical opening to the two friends, and Humphrey’s life is transformed for a day. Riddle says the story is dear to him for its idea of inner wealth, a kind of resilience of spirit. It’s also a gentle introduction to the issue of homelessness.

Also by Tohby Riddle (I recommend everything he’s ever written/illustrated), The Singing Hat tells of how Colin Jenkins’ life is thrown in chaos when a rare bird nests on his head during a nap and at his young daughter’s urging, he decides ‘it was not wise to interfere with nature.’ ‘From that day on…[p]eople divided into two groups: those who didn’t seem to mind what he had on his head, and those who did.’ This book is about having the courage to stand out from the crowd, and not only the hardships but ‘the most beautiful and improbable things’ that result.

Colin Thompson is another author/illustrator whose picture books are reliably wonderful. The Big Little Book of Happy Sadness and The Paper Bag Prince are both takes on the themes of loneliness, resilience and hope. Falling Angels is another book to help with discussions about death, particularly of a grandparent. In this story, Sally discovers she shares an ability to fly with her grandmother. ‘Some people see the world with their eyes,’ Sally’s grandmother tells her. ‘Some people see the world with their hearts.’ As Sally’s grandmother ages, she revisits all the wonderful places she has been ‘and when she came to her favourite place, she took her last breath and stayed there forever.’

All these books can be read for pleasure, too, with no didactic intent. None are preachy.

Any picture books you recommend for raising tough topics with children?

About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Her latest novel, Mother of Pearl, is published by Transit Lounge. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing, is former CEO of Writers Victoria, and currently works as CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.
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11 Responses to Childish things and death

  1. Jen says:

    Wonderful post, thank you. I have a son the same age who expresses very similar worries. Could your next post please feature books about how babies are made? (I’m only half joking.)


  2. Haydn Savage says:

    Dear Angela,you have asked me what advice I would give you as a parent.My reply was that no advice was needed and your handling of the death issue with Natasha confirms this.I salute your parenting!xxDADxx


  3. The Boy and the Toy just grows and grows on me. At first I thought it was strangely melancholy for a child but my son loves it. I think John Brown and the Midnight Cat is a wonderful exploration of old age and approaching death. It’s so beautiful, I get teary every time I read it.


  4. Samantha D says:

    Grumpy Little King by Michel Streich is a picture book about (some of) the reasons why wars happen. An excellent challenge to so much of the war games culture that is sold to little boys.


    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for the tip, Samantha. Will look out for Grumpy Little King for my daughter and nephews.


      • Samantha D says:

        The Littlest Refugee by Anh Do, is also very moving, and introduces children to the consequences of war in a remarkably age appropriate way. You do have to explain a couple of times why Mummy is crying as she reads. But Anh himself stresses that it is a story about resilience and the survival of his family through hard times.


  5. angelasavage says:

    Samantha, your story about having to explain a couple of times why Mummy is crying as she reads The Littlest Refugee makes me think of every time I watch Up, trying to stop crying long enough to read “Thanks for the adventure. Now go and have a new one. Love, Ellie” to my daughter…


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