Loss and Change in Childhood
"Life imitates art far more than art imitates life"
- Oscar Wilde
When it comes to children, few topics are harder to discuss than loss. Whether that loss or change is death, divorce, or sudden change in economic circumstances, it can often be hard to answer all of your child’s questions. That’s where great fiction can come in. When real life is reflected in fiction, kids especially can relate to books and have some of those questions answered. While nothing will ever be better than a hug and a listening ear, a good book can go a long way in starting the conversation.
Here’s a list of children’s middle grade novels that tackle some of life’s biggest challenges. For a list of great picture books that tackle these issues, check out the list Loneliness in Words and Pictures.
Threads by Ami Polonsky
Threads is a unique novel that realistically portrays both the grief of losing a sibling in childhood and overseas adoption. Clara loses her sister, Lola after a long battle with leukemia. Extraordinary circumstances lead her and her family back to her sister’s native China. By going back to her beloved sister's birthplace, Clara begins to see that letting go of her pain is not the same as forgetting. In addition to the way loss is thoughtfully discussed, the story that unfolds is equally enthralling. This book gets kids asking about larger world issues, such as poverty and worker exploitation.
Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier
Ghosts is a rare gem of a graphic novel. It tells the story of two sisters - one suffering from cystic fibrosis and one going through being a teenager. Through beautiful artwork and touching scenes, both sisters come to terms with frailty of life and how scary facing death can be. Ghosts discusses loss and acceptance more thoughtfully than many adult novels. This gorgeous graphic novel also handles reclaiming family history and the regrets one faces after the death of a family member in a tender and compassionate way.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
It may be said that the pivotal "loss" at the end of this novel is not the main takeaway. Without spoiling the ending, Bridge to Terabithia would not be the same book without the tragic loss of one its characters. The bond that is fostered throughout the book is only truly realized when Jess is able to revisit his magical land of Terabithia and say goodbye to the friend he lost. This is also one of the best books depicting the loss of one’s childhood, putting others before yourself, and growing up.
Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer
While not this main part of the story, grieving and dealing with the loss of the parent is an important part of this fantastical series. Especially in book one, brother and sister, Conner and Alex have recently lost their beloved father to illness. They discover a magical fairy tale world inside the book of stories he used to read to them. Armed with the knowledge of their father’s stories, the twins must find their way through the magical land to make it back home. Only by facing their grief and honoring their father's legacy can the brother and sister complete the task in front of them.
Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
Still a classic today, Beverly Cleary writes a beautiful book that explores the truly personal relationship that can be formed through letters. Sixth-grader Leigh writes to his favorite author, Mr. Henshaw, for a school assignment. Surprisingly, the author responds and the two begin a friendship via letters. Only through these letters can Leigh open up about the challenges of starting over in a new town after his parents separate. Dear Mr. Henshaw answers some of the hardest questions children have about divorce and the loss one can feel after a parent leaves.
Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate
One of the hardest obstacles a child can experience is uncertainty of the future. Economic hardship, loss of the family home, illness, and even childhood hunger are all too common today but these issues are rarely discussed children’s literature. Crenshaw tackles these issues while still evoking humor through the main character’s imaginary friend. When Crenshaw returns, Jackson’s family is at its worst point, sleeping out of the car with little money for food. The young boy begins spending time with Crenshaw - a larger than life/ somewhat rude, imaginary cat. Crenshaw is a rare book in the way depicts the anxiety children can experience in uncertain surroundings. If a child has questions about these larger issues, Crenshaw is a good introduction to a very serious topic.