“Your mother can’t be with you anymore”: 17-plus entertainments that teach children about death
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1. Bambi (1942)
It may be the most traumatizing death in cinema, even though it happens offscreen and the body is never seen: With the crack of a hunter’s gunshot, Bambi’s mother dies, leaving the fawn alone in the blinding snow, futilely calling for her. In the frantic moments between the gunshot and Bambi’s father telling him, “Your mother can’t be with you anymore,” his innocence and vulnerability pierces the heart; the child isn’t ready to face the world alone yet. But Bambi is fundamentally a movie about life, and though Bambi’s mother dies of unnatural causes, it follows that death is a natural part of it. Decades later, Disney underlined this theme in the splashy “Circle Of Life” production number in The Lion King, but Bambi gently acknowledges that growing up involves coping with death. With innocence lost comes knowledge gained, and it’s no accident that Bambi reaches maturity in the next phase.
2. Sesame Street, “Farewell, Mr. Hooper” (1983)
As if what happened at Pearl Harbor in 1941 wasn’t enough to permanently tarnish the reputation of December 7, it’s also the day Mr. Hooper died. Okay, so it was actually Will Lee, the actor who played Sesame Street’s resident shopkeeper, who succumbed to a heart attack that day in 1982. As a result, the Children’s Television Workshop made the tough decision to teach children about mortality by having Lee’s character die, too. Michael Davis’ StreetGang: The Complete History Of Sesame Street details how the show’s research director, Lewis Bernstein, convened an advisory group of psychologists and religious leaders to provide head writer Norman Stiles with guidance on how to discuss death and dying with a kindergarten-age audience. The result was the moving “Farewell, Mr. Hooper,” which acknowledges the miracle of life and the naturalness of death, highlighting the importance of expressing one’s feelings of loss while still embracing the fond memories of those who have died. All of these emotions are articulated through Mr. Hooper’s most devoted customer, Big Bird, who demands to know, “Why does it have to be this way?” before eventually sighing, “You know, I’m going to miss you, Mr. Hooper.” Caroll Spinney, the man inside the bird suit, has said of the episode’s final scene, “There wasn’t one of us whose face wasn’t streaked with tears.” An entire generation of Sesame Street viewers could say the same.
3. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, “Death Of A Goldfish”
Fred Rogers always believed the best way to talk to children was to be direct, and in “Death Of A Goldfish,” he succinctly, sweetly explains what it’s like to have something or someone you love die. When one of his fish is found dead at the bottom of his aquarium, Mr. Rogers quietly buries it, wrapped in a paper towel, in his garden. Without preaching or telling children what happens after death, he says that we all lose things. Then he tells the story of when he was a boy and lost his beloved dog Mitzy, sharing his favorite memories of her. After he and a neighbor mark the fish’s burial spot with a sign to remember it by, he sings a song that gently lets children know that of all of the “whys” they ask, why someone has to die is one they may never be able to answer.
4. Baby raccoon and dead bird, Calvin & Hobbes
Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes encountered death twice over the comic strip’s 10-year run, first through a baby raccoon the two found outside and failed to nurse back to health, then through the carcass of a dead bird the two found outside where it landed after colliding with a window. In both, author Bill Watterson ponders the mystery of death, but suggests nothing too concrete. It’s simply a part of life, something we often need to ignore to keep going without being paralyzed by fear of it at every turn. Watterson offers no answers for what comes next, nor any suggestions that death has some greater meaning. All we can do, Calvin says, via his mom, is the best with the knowledge we have. And that will have to be enough.
5. Mo Willems, City Dog, Country Frog (2010)
There’s no better storybook author working today than Mo Willems, who rose to prominence with series like Don’t Let The Pigeon…, Knuffle Bunny, and Elephant And Piggie—all playful, funny, graphically innovative, and in some instances, disarmingly heartfelt and moving. Willems usually writes and illustrates his own books, but for City Dog, Country Frog, his exquisitely simple tale of friendship and loss, he turned the pictures over to Jon J. Muth, an illustrator known for his painted artwork. Between Willems’ economic storytelling and Muth’s soft watercolors, the book becomes a pleasing, harmonious look at the friendship between the eponymous characters as the seasons pass. In spring and summer, the dog and frog play games together in the country, but by fall, the frog is growing old and tired, and the two sit on a rock, remembering the fun times they had together. By winter, the frog is gone. When spring arrives again, the dog returns to their meeting place to find another friend, but he “smiles a froggy smile,” taking the memory of his old friend with him to a new season. The ending is bittersweet perfection.
6. Fly Away Home (1996)
Carroll Ballard’s deep, beautiful Fly Away Home was inspired by the story of Bill Lishman—a Canadian inventor and naturalist who trained a flock of geese to follow him in an ultralight aircraft—though Ballard and screenwriter Robert Rodat add a story about parenting and maturation that enriches Caleb Deschanel’s stunning aerial photography. Anna Paquin plays a preteen whose globe-hopping mother dies in a car accident, forcing her to live with her eccentric artist dad, Jeff Daniels. When Paquin finds a nest of abandoned goose eggs, she displaces her grief into becoming a surrogate mother to the flock, eventually working with Daniels to guide the hatched birds to a wildlife refuge in North Carolina. There are villains in Fly Away Home—hunters, land developers, and game wardens—but Ballard makes only a halfhearted, awkward stab at demonizing them. Instead, he emphasizes the differences between man and beast: How animals are born with an innate sense of what to do to survive, while humans seem to wander about in a fog of confusion, waiting for guidance. Yet all creatures, when necessary, adapt.
7. E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web (1952)
Even on its most obvious surface, E.B. White’s charming, enduring fable Charlotte’s Web is about choosing to do something meaningful with life, then gracefully accepting death as inevitable and natural. But even more than most kids’ books (and films, given the sweet, faithful 1973 animated screen adaptation) that address death, Charlotte’s Web overtly addresses the circle of life: The eponymous Charlotte, a spider living on a farm, befriends a pig named Wilbur, who’s slated for butchery at the end of the season. She devotes her short life to saving him, then dies, leaving him with a sac full of her eggs. The following spring, he befriends her children, and in the years that follow, their children, and their children’s children. The whole book is a classroom lesson in death—Charlotte scolds Wilbur for his terror over his impending demise; models a more mature, accepting attitude; then teaches him by example about the continuity of generations—but it also doesn’t judge Wilbur for mourning over her death, which is just as natural. Scratching the surface of this obvious but well-wrought lesson will get adult readers to a deeper level, where the lesson is about the sacrifices adults make for children, from expending all their time and attention to making kids’ lives better to bowing out when their time comes.
8. Judith Viorst, The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (1971)
Judith Viorst begins her picture book The Tenth Good Thing About Barney with the straight-up line “My cat Barney died last Friday. I was very sad.” This is a book as much about the mourning experience as about death itself; like Viorst’s all-time children’s classic Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, it’s about the subjective emotions of childhood, and how they’re blunt, simple, and matter-of-fact, but simultaneously outsized enough to take over all experience. It also addresses how grief fades over time, and how death is part of the natural world: When the unnamed kid protagonist sets out to make himself feel better by listing 10 good things about his cat, the 10th is ultimately that Barney’s body will help the flowers grow. For such a sweet book, this is pretty grim stuff, particularly when a self-righteous neighbor kid tells the protagonist that his cat is in heaven eating tuna and cream, and he flatly responds that no, Barney is in the ground. Fortunately, Dad steps in as a mediator, pointing out that no one really knows anything for sure about heaven. With discussion opportunities like that, Tenth Good Thing is pretty much the ultimate even-handed book for teaching kids about death once it becomes necessary. Just be warned that it may prompt bawling from reader and readee alike.
9. Marion Dane Bauer, On My Honor (1987)
Most art that tries to guide children through the process of discovering their own mortality takes a low-key approach. There’s enough drama inherent in death without needing to exaggerate it, and writers are trying to reassure, not terrify. By its conclusion, Marion Dane Bauer’s short novel On My Honor has reached a place of relative peace, but the story that leads up to that ending is like a film-noir plot translated into afterschool-special language. Joel and Tony are best friends. Tony has a bit of an edge, and one day he dares Joel to go climbing and swimming around Starved Rock, a spot Joel has sworn to his father that he’ll never visit. Joel follows Tony’s lead and breaks his word with his dad, and Tony winds up drowning in a river. Overcome with guilt over what happened, and believing that by disobeying his father, he effectively murdered his best friend, Joel lies to his and Tony’s family, but unlike the dead, lies only stay buried for so long. On My Honor leans on the moralization of death a bit harder than similar books, with a lesson that’s as much about being open and honest with your parents as it is about the inevitability of corpsification, but it’s still a direct, ultimately forgiving story about loss and loneliness.
10. Brothers Grimm, “Hansel And Gretel” (1812)
Modern authors approach death on tiptoe, but in an era when most children died before reaching adulthood, mortality was a fact of daily life. Read almost any fairy tale written before the 20th century, and the matter-of-factness with which characters are dispatched—not to mention maimed, scarred, or otherwise brutalized—can be shocking. Take as just one example the Grimm brothers’ “Hansel And Gretel,” in which two wayward children are nearly cooked alive by a hungry witch, who ends up in the oven herself (actually “burned to ashes,” as the Grimms have it). Even Walt Disney’s fairy tales retain some of their original morbidity, though in present-day animations, it’s been stamped out by the studio’s fear of giving offense. People still die, though not as young as they used to, but these days that’s a secret closely kept, held off in its own corner until there’s a pressing need to clue the kiddies in.
11. The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson (1990)
It’s often hard to explain to children that those who’ve died can live on through those who remember them and their work. The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, produced shortly after Henson’s death, suggests that Jim Henson was a wonderful man, and that it would be a shame to let his work die with him. The Muppets don’t know who Jim Henson is, but with the guidance of Fozzie (left in charge of a tribute by an absent Kermit), they learn all they can. Then, in a heartbreaking moment, they learn he’s died. After reading letters from his real-life fans, they launch into the show tune “Just One Person” (one of Henson’s favorites). The song concludes with Kermit arriving (voiced by someone other than Henson for the first time) and Kermit’s suggestion that life—and Henson’s work—will always go on, even if it’s in the form of silly gags.
12. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling (1938)
The dog that has to be put down in Old Yeller is a heroic, noble beast, but he’s become rabid, and when his owner shoots him, it’s like the mercy-killing of a werewolf. The situation in The Yearling—both Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ 1938 novel, and Clarence Brown’s fine 1946 movie version—is simpler and less clear-cut. The hero, Jody, is part of a poor, self-sustaining farm family living in the Florida backwoods, and while the orphaned deer he adopts as a pet doesn’t turn into a monster, it becomes as much of a threat to the family’s survival as a rabid dog. As the fawn grows bigger, it just won’t behave: It gets into the crops, it won’t stay penned up, and it resists Jody’s efforts to drive it off for its own good, because Jody is its family. When Jody has to kill the animal he loves, it’s an obvious metaphor for the moment when a child becomes an adult by making an impossible, unfair, but necessary choice. But he’s also a kid who has to kill his deer.
13. Katherine Paterson, Bridge To Terabithia (1977)
For much of its length, Katherine Paterson’s 1977 novel Bridge To Terabithia seems to be a pre-teen love story about an unhappy budding artist, Jess, and the new kid in school, Leslie, a tomboy daredevil with so much confidence that she can afford to spread it around. Jess has a crush on one of his teachers, who in turn recognizes and encourages his talent, but it’s his friendship with Leslie that liberates his imagination and makes it possible for him to express his own hidden possibilities. This part of the book perfectly captures the romantic soulmate fantasy of many a smart, lonely kid. The big twist comes when Jess blows off his usual routine of spending the day with Leslie to go to the National Gallery with his teacher, and returns home to find that, in his absence, Leslie was killed while swinging on a rope, trying to cross over to a secluded area that she had turned into their private playground. The first reaction—both Jess’ and the reader’s—is that the world has just turned to ash. But by the end, it’s clear that part of Leslie’s legacy to her friend has been to give him the strength he needs to go on without her.
14. Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit (1922)
The Velveteen Rabbit has the somewhat dubious distinction of turning generations of children into stuffed-animal hoarders (“I can’t throw it away, mom. What if it’s real?”), but the classic tale has also done more than encourage children to anthropomorphize their toys. The book, by Margery Williams, as well as its various film and TV adaptations, also conveys powerful lessons about love and mortality. In the book, a young boy receives a humble stuffed rabbit for Christmas that quickly becomes his favorite toy. After the boy comes down with scarlet fever, his infected toys, including the rabbit, are sent to the incinerator. The rabbit narrowly escapes the flames, but the looming threat of death by immolation—and the rabbit’s despair at being forgotten by his former owner—make for a harrowing read at almost any age. More than anything, though, The Velveteen Rabbit teaches children about the bittersweet process of aging. As the wise old skin horse tells his friend, the velveteen rabbit, “Generally by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out.”
15. Ponette (1996)
It isn’t children’s fare per se, but Jacques Doillon’s Ponette rigorously sticks to the point of view of its 4-year-old protagonist (the extraordinary Victoire Thivisol) as she assimilates the news of her mother’s death. Doillon interviewed hundreds of children to prepare the script, and the sociological approach shows in Ponette’s startling lack of sentimentality, and its account of naïve innocence and unconscious cruelty. (One of Ponette’s classmates tells her, without apparent malice, “You killed your mother.”) Ponette certainly isn’t packaged like most works that address children, cut into bite-sized chunks and topped with a tidy moral, but perhaps there’s a use in reflecting young people’s lives back to them, mirroring their experience rather than telling them how to feel.
16. The Last Unicorn (1982)
Based on Peter S. Beagle’s novel, The Last Unicorn is reminiscent of The Little Mermaid, wherein an enchanted creature becomes a mortal woman. In this case, though, it’s an immortal unicorn (voiced by Mia Farrow), on a quest to discover her kin who were driven into the sea by the menacing Red Bull, and she’s turned into a mortal woman by magic gone awry. This transformation has its upsides and downsides. On the up: a hunky prince, voiced by Jeff Bridges, falls in love with her human form. On the downside, the former unicorn begins to forget her quest—not to mention the fact that, as a human woman, she can now grow old and die. Eventually, Farrow is turned back into a unicorn and defeats the Red Bull after he kills the prince. Farrow, as the unicorn, revives her former love and departs, making her the only unicorn that will ever know regret and mortality. Thanks to the subject matter and long-lashed cartoon unicorn, The Last Unicorn may at first blush seem like nothing more than a girly fairy tale, but those who remember watching the film growing up know that it’s much darker and more complex than just a story about a pretty princess, unicorns, and a handsome prince.
17+ A Day No Pigs Would Die, Old Yeller, Where The Red Fern Grows, Julie Of The Wolves, etc.
Children’s literature of decades past is packed with stories in which a (usually rural) kid temporarily enjoys childhood and nature as represented by an idyllic, close relationship with an animal. Often, the kid protagonist hand-raises that animal, or they grow up together, moving toward maturity at the same time. But maturity for farm kids in part means accepting unwanted responsibilities and stepping away from sentimentality about food and/or work animals, so in an act of symbolically killing their own childhoods, these kids wind up having to kill their animal companions, or at least philosophically accepting their death at someone else’s hands. (There are enough of these books that we did a separate inventory of Classic Instances Of Animal Snuff For Kids back in 2006; it’s also in our Inventory book.) These books were a lot more common from the ’30s through the ’60s, when more American kids lived on farms, and more city-dwellers would have seen the family farm as symbolic of a rough-hewn, honest, in-tune-with-nature kind of life: They taught kids about death, but more significantly, they modeled tough-minded behavior for adolescents, letting them know that adulthood is about accepting grim choices without caviling or complaining.