Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Death and Loss in Middle Grade Novels

I've gotten my share of teasing about why I read and love books about death and loss from friends and colleagues - both novels written for adults, and chapter books and picture books written for children and young adults.  Even some of my students have laughed when I say I can't wait to share a book with them, and they say, "Does someone die, Mrs. Mueller?!"  It's time to defend myself in this blog post about why I think books about death or dying make for some of the most profound literature! ;-) I'm going to concentrate on intermediate grade novels, and one very special picture book.

Death, dying, loss, and the fear of loss seem to preoccupy a lot of us.  I just read a Facebook post about a friend celebrating her anniversary, and how it makes her sad to think time is going by so fast.  Even celebrations can make you feel the sting of mortality:  weddings, birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, retirements, even births.  The older you get, the faster time seems to fly.  The loss of a loved one can especially make you realize how fleeting this life is, and how each day needs to be celebrated and lived fully.  I think we'd be surprised how many children have been touched by death, illness, or loss: divorce, a parent losing a job, a sibling or best friend moving away, moving, a pet's illness or death ( DON'T discount this one!), a family member injured, ill, or passing, etc.  When a book brilliantly addresses the very real pain of loss, but then shows us how to embrace hope and life, I'm hooked.  I just finished See You at Harry's Jo Knowles by Jo Knowles, and I spent the next few days thinking about what it is that makes that kind of story so moving.  It's the impact a death makes on your life.  It makes you think about your own story and how you want it to touch someone else.  You want your story to exist before you, and you want it to continue after you're gone.  Like Knowles says in her book, "When all that's left of me is love, give me away."  That's what we want - something that lasts of us after we leave.  Not long before my grandmother died, she gave my children and me pictures of her and said, "Remember me.  You won't forget me, will you?"  When one of my best friends recently passed away, his dying words were, "Remember me in the good times, okay?"  We all want our legacies to remain in the friends and family left behind.  Kids get that, and when they're dealing with loss, one of the best gifts we can give them is a story about that very thing, and remind them they're not alone.

Here are some of my favorite middle grade stories that address death, dying, injury, illness, disabilities, abandonment, or loss and then help us choose hope:

Each Little Bird That Sings


Chasing Redbird

Hattie Big Sky

Love That Dog

Same Sun Here

Greetings from Nowhere

May B.

How to Steal a Dog
See You at Harry's

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life

Ida B. . . and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World
Out of My Mind

Bridge to Terabithia

The Absolute Value of Mike

Dead End in Norvelt

One for the Murphys

Okay for Now

The Mighty Miss Malone


Fig Pudding


The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Chains (Seeds of America, #1)

Eight Keys

The One and Only Ivan

Tuck Everlasting

Kindred Souls

Because of Winn-Dixie

A Corner of the Universe

Missing May

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane


Everything on a Waffle

Our Only May Amelia

Charlotte's Web

Bud, Not Buddy

Because of Mr. Terupt

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1)

Small as an Elephant

A Mango-Shaped Space

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Harry Potter, #7)

Summer of the Gypsy Moths

And one incredibly moving picture book...

City Dog, Country Frog

And one young adult novel I recently read that has to be included in this blog...
The Fault in Our Stars

I know this list is not by any means exhaustive, and there are some books on my "to-read" list on Goodreads that will undoubtedly be added.  What are some of your recommendations (old or new) for books to read on this topic?


  1. Great collection of titles! Thanks!!

  2. I finished See You at Harry's last night and it's been with me all day. I've been thinking about the kids who came into my library asking for "a sad book" because that's what they needed right at that moment. I remember so well the student who read Micke Hart Was Here, all year long. And Bridge to Terabithia? Katherine Paterson says that book was about so much more than death; it was about friendship. Thank you for this post!

    1. Oh yes! Micke Hart Was Here would be a great one to add to this list. I love that you said kids even ask for sad books because that's what they need. It's like wanting to listen to sad or angry music when we need it! Bridge to Terabithia is a masterpiece. The ending of that book is a perfect example of how a person's legacy can live on, and it is most definitely about friendship, life, and hope.

  3. Great post, Holly. Now I really can't wait to read See You at Harry's!

  4. Old Yeller by Fred Gipson and Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls were a part of my learning how to face loss and death.

    1. Yes! I LOVED Where the Red Fern Grows! We could do another whole blog on dog books!

  5. Hey! I am so honored to see One for the Murphys listed among these other books. Thanks so much for including it with such stunning company. :-)

    1. Thank you so much for following me! I'm also honored!

  6. Thanks for including May, Holly. This is quite an impressive list, and I'm honored to be included.

    1. Caroline, I'm happy to include your book on all my favorite lists! Can't wait to read your next one!

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  8. Deathly Hallows is definitely not Middle Grade. WAY too dark and violent. Only the first two Harry Potter novels are Upper Middle Grade.

  9. Can you recommend a book for this age specifically about the suicide of a family member?

  10. Thank you for sharing this, I like books and I appreciate them after the pet cremation in hampton roads of my beloved Tassy, Instead I get mad to the world because of losing him I spent my days in reading to divert my grieve.

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