Death of Cupcake: A Child’s Experience With Loss (Susan Nicholas, MD)

Hello, friends. We’re back today with an advantageously-timed review: Death of Cupcake: A Child’s Experience With Loss, written by Susan Nicholas, MD and illustrated by Basia Tran, a transcendental look at what happens to loved ones when they leave this world.

Like the seasons, all things must change, going through a cycle of aging and renewal that is universal to all living things. And since the people and creatures we love are themselves living things, occasionally we must say goodbye as they move to the next stage of existence. Following a group of children as they experience personal losses – a boy’s grandma, a pair of sisters’ grandfather, and a girl’s dog, Cupcake – the narrative weaves through moments of the children processing their losses with thoughts on what happens to our consciousness after this life is done.

Books about grief for children can be tricky, from striking the proper tone for little ones to working within or around wildly divergent religious and cultural beliefs about the afterlife. And while Nicholas’s metaphysical prose and rotating narratives are occasionally confusing for young readers, the overall theme is nicely, and occasionally beautifully, explored. Tran’s energetic and soulful illustrations add immensely to this, creating scenes that are colorful and comforting (one exception being the depiction of the boy and his father grieving over the very recently departed body of his grandmother, which while toned down and fitting the theme, still feels a little intense). The text’s meditation on the transference of conscious energy is heavily influenced by the author’s background in the metaphysical, but the simpler lessons prove to be the most universal, such as comparing passing away to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly (accompanied by a stunning illustration depicting the same). The length is fine, and JJ enjoyed the art. This one is a little convoluted, a little repetitive, a little too wordy, and oddly lacking in Cupcake’s story, but is still filled with enough heart and genuine emotion that these stumbles are easily overlooked. Earnest, sweet, and Baby Bookworm approved.

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the author in exchange for an honest review.)

The End Of Something Wonderful: A Practical Guide To A Backyard Funeral (Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic)

Hello, friends! Our book today is The End Of Something Wonderful: A Practical Guide To A Backyard Funeral, written by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic and illustrated by George Ermos.

Step one of holding a backyard funeral: you need “Something Dead”. A Something Dead is something wonderful that was once alive, but is now gone. Walking readers through steps like choosing what to say, whether or not to play music, what kind of box to choose, and even a “burial at sea” (i.e. toilet) for deceased fish, this guide helps little ones deal with the practical process of loss, and the reminder that just because something is gone doesn’t mean you have to love it any less.

Readers will know that we are, unfortunately, in a relevant position to review this book – we lost our dog Quigley just this year. There are a lot of books out there to help little ones deal with grief and loss, and this one tries to set itself apart with its darkly humorous tone, with varying degrees of success. Some scenes, such as the tongue-in-cheek “burial at sea” spread that encourages kids to pay ode to their lost fishy friends in their native “fish language”, are charming, as are some of the bigger lessons, like that it’s okay to cry, grieve, visit their pet’s grave, and even to move on. Unfortunately, some of the humor is simply too dark to work in a children’s book: a sequence that jokingly advises to make sure one’s pet is dead before burying it is uncomfortable, and the look of sheer horror on a boy’s face when he realizes he’s killed his pet bug by sitting on it is simply grotesque. While there’s nothing wrong with books that seek to demystify the processes of death and grieving, it’s still a deeply emotional time for kids and their families and requires a delicate balance, one that this particular tone doesn’t always achieve. Still, there are several instances of legitimately graceful comfort, and some really lovely illustrations as well. I would say parents should skim this before sharing to see if it’s right for your little reader; this may or may not be the book on loss for you. For us, the ultimate message of healing after mourning was enough, and we’re calling it Baby Bookworm approved.

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

The Rough Patch (Brian Lies)

Hello, friends! Our book today is The Rough Patch by Brian Lies, a heartbreakingly lovely story about loss and healing.

Evan and his faithful dog did absolutely everything together. They played games, shared treats, went exploring and on long drives, always side-by-side. The thing they loved the most was working in Evan’s beautiful garden, working day in and day out to grow healthy, happy vegetables and plants. That is, until one terrible morning when Evan’s dog is suddenly… gone, and the farmer must lay his friend to rest in a corner of their garden. Heartbroken, Evan shuts himself inside, no longer interested in tending his plants. In desperate grief, he emerges one morning and hacks to garden to pieces, destroying the healthy, fertile plants and letting sharp and stinging weeds take over the soil – since he is bitterly sad, so too will the garden be. That is, until a small pumpkin vine wheedles it’s way in, and begins to change everything.

Powerful. Using the garden as a moving metaphor for emotional and mental state, especially after a traumatic loss, Lies spins a deeply poignant story about overcoming depression, and does it well. Most impressively, the story walks a delicate line that encourages the reader not to let their sadness poison what makes them happy, yet promises that if they do, this is a normal and understandable reaction, and there is still hope. It’s such an important message, and beautifully done: Evan’s vine eventually grows a massive pumpkin, which brings him to the fair, where he reconnects with old friends and activities that made him happy. The compassionate, atmospheric art is pitch perfect, and the attention to detail superb. The length is great for any age, and we loved it – an affecting tale with an important message, and Baby Bookworm approved.

(P.S. – I wish I could introduce Evan to Victoria Turnbull’s Pandora – I think they’d make great friends.)

Tim’s Goodbye (Steven Salerno)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Tim’s Goodbye by Steven Salerno, a story about how we deal with loss.

The day is bright and sunny, but Margot doesn’t feel it. Margot is sad because Tim is gone. She tries to feel happy with the sunshine, but she can’t, so she simply sits and feels. She leaves for a moment to be alone. Melinda arrives then, with her French horn, and Roger brings a box. Vincent holds balloons and Otto wears his best hat. Buddy the dog is there, faithful to Margot in her time of need. The friends contribute what they can – the box, the balloons, flowers, a song. Then Margot delicately places Tim – her late pet turtle, who has been slyly visible to the reader along – into the box with the flowers, and watches his balloon-powered rise into the sky. Later on, she thinks of Tim swimming among the stars, with warm sun to bask in and cool waters to swim, “forever a happy turtle”. She feels Tim’s peace, and it makes her happy too.

Oh, this was really quite something. Heartbreaking, uplifting, comforting, and dear all at once. The way the progression of Margot’s grief unfolds – first her sadness and need to be alone, then buoyed by the support her friends give, and at last her acceptance of Tim’s death – is a subtle and powerful way of letting kids know that mourning is just that: a process. Furthermore, in her friends’ gentle and thoughtful actions, it shows young children how they can be there for someone who is dealing with loss. Finally, the non-denominational depiction of Tim’s beautifully serene afterlife will give children comfort for their own losses. All of this is drawn in timeless, minimal, beautiful illustrations in black across soothing tones of yellow and blue. This is pure, powerful, and perfect in its simplicity and earnest heart. Wonderful, and Baby Bookworm approved.

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

A Stone For Sascha (Aaron Becker)

Hello, friends! Our book today is A Stone For Sascha by Aaron Becker, a picture book that examines loss, time, permanence, and love.

The wordless story opens on a young girl collecting yellow flowers. She is bringing them back to her family, where they are holding a funeral for their recently deceased dog. She lays the flowers down over the large stone used to mark the grave and mourns. A short time later, the family leaves for a lakeside retreat. The girl is sad, watching other children play with their dogs, but at dusk she finds a small oval stone near the water. The art cuts to a large meteorite falling from space. It impacts, and the reader follows along as the stone takes an eons-long journey: first a sharp natural feature, then cut and carved into a rock circle centerpiece. With each new owner and destination, the rock finds new purpose: part of a great statue, a gifted sculpture, a stolen treasure. As history plays out around it, the rock remains, adapting to each new entity until at last, it finds itself at the shore of a lake, picked up by a little girl and brought to her home. She lays it on her dog’s grave in memory – a piece of time and the universe as the symbol of her love.

I mean. Wow. This felt like a book as much for adults as it was for children. The story is so moving and passionate without a single world, the concept is profound and humbling, and the art is incomparable. It’s remarkable in scope, moreso that it never feels like it reaches too far or goes too big – it encourages the reader to think about life and death and the passage of time as something that is enormous and vast and small and personal all at once. It’s breathtaking, awe-inspiring and yet comforting too. We loved it. Baby Bookworm approved.