Children’s Books Don’t Make Death Easier, Just Easier to Talk About

This post isn’t going to be as heavy as it sounds.

It also contains serious Little Women spoilers, so if you haven’t read that most cozy of classics, please stop reading this post, grab a few pickled limes (you know you have some handy) and read Little Women right now before someone ruins it for you.

(And read it in time for Christmas when the new film adaptation comes out!)

My husband somehow made it to college without reading Little Women (poor soul), despite the fact that his high school sweetheart was named after two of the sisters (Megan Elizabeth here, nice to meet you). He and I have always loved reading aloud together, even before we had tiny Asbys, and as soon as I realized the giant hole in his literary experience, we added Little Women to the top of the read-aloud list.

All this to say . . .

(Spoiler Alert!)

Marcus and I were sitting inside his red Grand Prix (I’m still so nostalgic about that car) between classes, reading about the first time Beth gets sick. Once Marcus knew for sure she was going to make it through, he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “I was really going to hate this book if Beth died.”

Um…yeah, well.

In the end, Marcus didn’t hate the book. To be honest, he was probably afraid I wouldn’t marry him if he did. And anyway, his favorite character in any novel or movie or miniseries is always the Beth character, and she always dies. He’s had to get used to it.

I’m speaking lightly, but death, real death, isn’t light, and it can be hard to know how to talk about it, especially with children.

I do talk to my kids about death. I talk to them about everything, really, and I’m sure I’m blundering massively along the way. Nevertheless, I fall firmly into the let’s-talk-about-it camp, and I’m in good company I think (check out Mr. Roger’s “Death of a Goldfish” episode, which – full disclosure – I haven’t actually seen, only read about). I believe that it is possible to talk about death with children in a way that is honest without being overwhelming.

The following are titles that have made it easier for me to talk to my sweet boy and girl about the reality of life and death and loss. Do preview them before sharing with your children, as some of them are heavier than others. And have a box of tissues handy, if only to signal that it is okay and important to cry.


Of course Margaret Wise Brown knew that kids want to talk about death. Beautifully illustrated by Christian Robinson, The Dead Bird follows a group of children who find a dead bird and hold a ceremony to honor it. My children asked to read this over and over when they were younger.


Ida, Always is the first book that comes to mind when I hear a child has experienced a loss. This one feels pretty close to perfect to me.


Rosie & Crayon is about the death of and grief over a beloved pet.


Aunt Mary’s Rose tells the true story of one family’s loss and love through generations.


Grandpa’s Stories is poetically written and beautifully illustrated and is “for everyone who misses someone.”


My Big Dumb Invisible Dragon and  Maybe Tomorrow? tackle the grief that children carry after loss. And Oliver Jeffers does the same in:


The Heart and the Bottle


Her Mother’s Face explores loss when the memories of the loved one are few because the time together was short.


I almost didn’t check out Cry, Heart, But Never Break, because the cover felt a little too scary. I couldn’t resist the title, though, and it is more gentle than the cloaked representation of death would suggest.


Finn’s Feather is about a child whose brother has died. It manages to be both deeply sad and uplifting.


Walk With Me is imaginative and poignant and explores a complicated grief exacerbated by poverty.


For a graphic novel that explores loss, check out Pilu of the Woods.


Imaginative, dream-like, A Ladder to the Stars is fantasy, and as such, can invite some questions that a more literal book may not.


The Purple Balloon by Chis Raschka is inspired by children drawing purple balloons as they approach their tragically early deaths.


Boats for Papa describes a child who makes boats and sends them to his Papa, lost at sea. The Pond is another book about creating something to honor a father.


The boy in The Scar has lost his mother and is desperate to hold on to anything that will keep her memory present with him.


And What Comes After a Thousand is a celebration of relationship, first and foremost.


Where the Red Fern Grows is one of many chapter books that addresses death and grief, but it was the first (after Little Women) that I thought of for this post, in part because I could hardly get the words out through my sobs when I read it to my son, and since he too rarely sees me cry it felt very important in our family’s story. There are thousands of chapter books that deal with death and loss, of pets, family members, friends and strangers. My children are still young and we have barely scratched the surface of the chapter book world, so please share in the comments the novels that have helped you or your children think about death and grief and life with loss. I would love to hear from you.

Hugs from the Asbys.



The Best Part of Halloween is Reading Spooky Books


My children are acutely aware of my personal failings, and (in their opinion) chief among them is my laissez-faire attitude about decorating for the holidays, specifically Halloween.

In my defense, isn’t Halloween sort of awesome all by itself? Don’t other people do enough to made the day special without my interference? Look at that spooky yard across the street with all the gravestones! What about that house with eighteen carved pumpkins elevated on stakes? And their school even has a costume parade which makes me feel like my children live in a Beverly Cleary novel.

With all that effort being expended, I feel pretty good about the two things I manage to do every year: 1. Carve a pumpkin (okay, my husband and kids always do that, but I buy it), and 2. Purchase costumes and take the kids trick-or-treating.

This year I decided to surprise those monkeys and decorate one day while they were at school. Yes, this was in part because I got to the library early and it wasn’t open yet, and YES, Target is just across the street, so I thought I might as well pop over and buy some of that incredibly wasteful stretchy spiderweb so my children would love me again.

And oh, they did. You would have thought I had spun the web myself.

If life were fair, my children would also note that they have read the absolute BEST spooky books, thanks to the valiant efforts of their superhero book-master mother. But I suppose books at this point feel like a given.

Happy reading and Happy Halloween!!

(Because we Asbys are total wimps, this list doesn’t include Coraline or, you know, anything by Stephen King. If you prefer scary over spooky, you’ll have to look elsewhere.) 


The Widow’s Broom is the book that made me decide to write this post. I get spooky chills every time.


The Bake Shop Ghost is long but lovely. I heard a librarian read it to a large group of sugared-up Halloweeners and (even though I love it!) I thought, “There is no way they’re going to make it through this entire book,” but I was absolutely wrong. Never doubt a children’s librarian.


The Spider and the Fly is a poem I remember reading again and again as a kid. While I felt mostly nostalgia, my children found this one very scary. They kept shouting, “No!” and I think felt really outraged at the end. The illustrations are perfectly terrifying in this one.


Zen Ghosts is another soothing delight from Jon J Muth.


She Made a Monster  has one truly scary page, but if your kids can handle it, it’s a beautiful read.

Frankenstein Takes the Cake and Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich marry silly and spooky in two volumes of poetry and fun.

What There is Before There is Anything There is a thoughtful and beautiful, like everything I’ve read by Liniers.


The Dark – Snicket and Klassen. Enough said.

Creepy Carrots is both funny and just scary enough to delight.

Leo: A Ghost Story is about friendship and kindness and inclusion, so obviously I love it.


There’s No Such Thing as Ghosts! Right??


Spooky Old Tree, a classic!


How to Make Friends with a Ghost is a cheerful not-scary-at-all read for the anti-fear crowd.


For the littlest spooks, try Ghost in the House


Now put these on hold at your library and plop down by a bowlful of candy!


Books for Kids Feeling Presidential


As previously established, I am spectacularly cool, so I don’t mind sharing that I sing the names of the American presidents to the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” while I brush my daughter’s teeth. Actually, when I started this ritual, I had to add all the presidents after Coolidge, and then still had a couple of lines of verse to go after Obama. To finish it off I sang, “Maybe if she had more time then next would be your Mama!” You should invite me to your next Fourth of July BBQ. I’m a riot.

In the early days of this routine, my daughter was still very young and mispronounced many words. A vocabulary staple was “bama” instead of bottom, as in, “sit on your bama,” or “wipe your bama.” When I got to “Obama” the first time, her eyes widened in delight and then she rolled over laughing. “Oh- BAMA?? Oh-bama?!

But despite my ability to crank out the names of the presidents in chronological order, I realized my actual knowledge about those presidents was less impressive. Ever on alert for personal failings, I medicated my ignorance with a very fun binge of The Washington Post‘s Presidential podcast. Then to reinforce my newfound knowledge, I stocked up on the excellent books recommended in the podcast a bunch of children’s literature featuring presidents.

If you’re like me, and absolutely loyal to Lillian Cunningham, you will note that some of the following authors get it wrong. I found myself saying, “It was the contaminated water, not the long-winded speech in the rain!” or “His legacy is MUCH more complicated than that!” or simply, “But Lillian said!” Nevertheless, I took a breath, relaxed a bit, and found the following reads a joyful jaunt into our nation’s history.

Happy reading! And don’t forget to crank up the Hamilton soundtrack.


Susan Katz delivers delightfully silly poetry that even the most poetry-averse young patriot will enjoy.


David Small illustrated this one. That’s all you need to know. (Okay, also the original version won the Caldecott.)


Lives of the Presidents: Fame, Shame (and What the Neighbors Thought) (Lives of . . .) by [Krull, Kathleen]

I have to say I’m always a little surprised when I pull out the dinner time books and my kids say, “The president book!” when I ask which book they want first. Lives of the Presidents provides a short bio (some very short, like Polk’s or Fillmore’s) for each president in chronological order. While the illustrations are cartoonish and really quite fun, the content itself is academic in format, but interesting and informative.


Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library will help any young book enthusiast find our third president a kindred spirit. Rosenstock does mention that Jefferson bought and sold people, though she doesn’t emphasize the point. This can be a book that sparks a conversation about Jefferson’s complicated and contradictory relationship with liberty, but it is not a book that explores his participation in slavery in depth.


In another picture book from Kathleen Krull, kids learn about President Lincoln’s fondness for jokes, limericks, and the like. My son really enjoyed Lincoln’s childhood poem, “Abraham Lincoln/his hand and pen/he will be good but/god knows When.” This book manages to tackle a heavy time in our nations history in a lighthearted way that doesn’t belittle the darkness of the time.


Those Rebels, John & Tom explores a complicated friendship, which I find to be very relatable for children, who are no strangers to friend drama. And if they can’t get enough, try Worst of Friends, too.


Speaking of relatable, Don Brown presents Teddy Roosevelt’s childhood, a story of grit and perseverance and enthusiasm sure to inspire any kiddo.



My kids loved Dream Big Dreams, a collection of photographs from Pete Souza, especially this one:

When his trip director weighed himself at the University of Texas and Obama stepped on the scale for laughs


Grace for President because WHERE ARE THE GIRLS??


Madame President and John, Paul George & Ben are pure fun, two more Lane Smith treasures.


Lafayette! (Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales #8): A Revolutionary War Tale by [Hale, Nathan]

Gettysburg the Graphic Novel is worth it for the powerfully illustrated “Gettysburg Address” at the end alone. If the beginning is too slow for your kids, encourage them to skip ahead. Speaking of graphic novel histories, my kids have also enjoyed reading about American history via Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales. I haven’t read them, but I’ve seen my children disappear behind their covers for hours, so at the very least they are interesting.

For kid-pleasing independent reads about the American Revolution, check out the Magic Tree House #22 Revolutionary War on Wednesday or I Survived the American Revolution, 1776.


What Presidents Are Made Of is full of interesting portraits and fun facts. It’s a quicker read than some of the others, so it’s nice for the shorter attention spans of younger children.


And for the tiniest of readers, check out This Little President. So, yeah, they’re mostly just going to be interested in the sounds of the rhyming text and the bright colors, but, hey, you can pretend they’re little prodigies if you like.


Books for Kids with Rocks in Their Heads



I’m not a collector. I was not a kid who collected stamps or Pokemon cards or N*SYNC posters. And as much as I love books, I rarely buy them (news flash: they’re free at the library). The only collection I did have was collected for me by my mother, and as she can attest, I did not appreciate those porcelain dolls nearly as much as they deserved. As for sentimental items, I’m more likely to get rid of something than store it because one day maybe my children could possibly . . . take it to Goodwill. That’s just the reality.

I promise I’m not heartless. I’m very sentimental about stories, and I’ve typed almost every sweet thing my children have ever done. I just don’t connect those stories to objects.

There’s one exception. For whatever reason, I like stripey rocks. I like looking for them on the rocky beaches of the Pacific NW. I like seeing them sit on my bookshelf. I love that my children will run up to me with a striped rock and ask hopefully if it meets my strict criteria.

All this to say, while the blog has been sleeping this month, I have been (among other things) strolling along the beach, scanning for striped rocks with my extended family. One evening, while looking over my haul (much too large because I couldn’t break my children’s spirit and tell them that, no, in fact, their rocks were wrong), my older brother talked about his own rocks (is this a family trait?) – one from the Berlin Wall, another from an asteroid, maybe a moon rock, I can’t even remember. My rocks are special only to me, the only history they hold my own, but it made me happy to think that we both have stones piled on our shelves.

My son briefly caught the family geology bug, and went through a serious rock phase. While my brother cares about the history of his rocks, and I care only for their beauty, my son was into the science. My quiet boy surprised everyone on a first grade field trip to a rock museum by volunteering the answers to all the questions: “Igneous! Metamorphic! Sedimentary!” My niece once filled a garbage disposal with rocks to see what would happen, but I don’t think that really counts.

Whether your child is saving her allowance for a rock tumbler or just filling a slingshot, these reads should please any rock enthusiast.


Rocks in His Head is a lovely family story about being true to yourself and your passions.


A Rock is Lively marries science and beauty in one gorgeous and informative read.


Rhoda is my kindred spirit. A little rock collecting makes any outing more fun.


Dave’s Down-to-Earth Rock Shop always makes me think of Ed’s House of Gems in Portland.


Roxaboxen is perfect for kids who love rocks for their pretend play possibilities.


You need to know the ten rules for finding a rock. Baylor and Parnall will help you.


Stick and Stone will be interesting to even the kid with the most desultory interest in rocks. The stone is just a vehicle for a story about friendship.


It’s impossible to read something written by Drew Daywalt or illustrated by Adam Rex and not chuckle. The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors is no exception. 


Happy reading and rock hunting!

**Just as a fun little side note, and due to my little brother’s telepathic superpowers, he and his husband sent this photo from Switzerland today:

Books for Quiet Kids

I am an ambivert.

For years, I thought I was an extrovert, but when I became a new mom my alone time dropped to essentially zero and I was quickly introduced to my introverted side.

In retrospect, I wonder how I could have missed the signs. While other kids were playing t-ball and tag and breaking windows with BB guns (it was Texas after all), I was climbing into an upper bathroom cabinet with my flashlight and the latest Baby-Sitters Club

Looking at that cabinet now, I wonder how I fit inside for so many years. I even decorated it with posters. I suppose this also illustrates that I’m sort of the opposite of claustrophobic. When I said this to my husband, he said, “What, agoraphobic?” No, I mean I love small, confined spaces. Small means cozy, small means I don’t have to move much, small means just enough space for a book and not enough space for a pile of laundry to be folded or ball to be dropped.

My children are clearly still figuring out who they are, but they both love their alone time (even my “loud” child), and my daughter definitely inherited the gift of crafting tiny cozy spaces. We have three indoor play tents (two purchased by the children at garage sales), and recently added a cardboard kitty condo:

(The only thing kitty about this condo is that my daughter often pretends to be a cat. The house number is completely random, but is clearly the right choice.)

And, of course, my husband is a ten-for-ten, nothing ambi- about him, introvert.

All this to say, the Asbys value quiet. We think solitude is absolutely lovely. And while some of us need more than others, every single one of us takes some time in the kitty condo now and then (well, not literally – my kitty condo is a hammock).

If you or your littles are Pro-Quiet like the Asbys, check out these excellent reads celebrating the softer moments:

Deborah Underwood and Renata Lewska gave us “jelly side down quiet.” I am forever grateful.


More magic from Sarah Stewart and David Small; their Isabel likes small-space quiet just as much as the Asbys do.


Beautifully illustrated, Albert’s Quiet Quest is great for promoting understanding and compromise between introverts and extroverts in the same neighborhood, family or classroom.


A little Hum and Swish for the quiet creatives out there.


The Silence Slips In is a great reminder that silence is a friend you can take anywhere.


The Invisible Boy is heavier, but empowering for any kid who feels as if they fade into the background and is definitely an excellent empathy tool. Kindness steals the show in this one.


Even the illustrations feel quiet in this lovely read-aloud from Erin and Philip Stead.


The protagonist in Quiet Girl in a Noisy World is not really a girl at all – she’s in her mid- to late-twenties. That said, I think teens and even pre-teens can relate to her. Full disclosure, I don’t remember if there’s any grown-up content (I think not, but check it out yourself first).


Quiet for the grown ups and . . .


Quiet Power for the kids! My son and I just started reading this one together (lots of “that’s exactly how I feel!”), but since I really loved Quiet, I assume the teen/pre-teen version is full of the same celebration of quiet souls that I loved so much in the original version.

Happy reading, in whatever kitty condo suits you best.

Now excuse me while I peruse tiny homes on Instagram . . .



Books for Little Pranksters



I have many good qualities. I am generally reasonable in a conflict. I like to bake scones. I am an above-average crossword puzzler.

I do not, however, take well to being pranked.

I have a sense of humor. I can theoretically see how the following incident was amusing:

It’s past lights out for the children, but everyone is running late. Meg walks into the bathroom to turn on the water for her daughter to try to save even three minutes of time in the marathon that is bedtime. As usual, even after months of living in her new home, she turns the knob the wrong way and the shower turns on instead of the bath faucet (this is clearly a design flaw and not a personal failing). But wait. Something is wrong! A jet stream of water is spraying her directly in the face! She manages to stop the spray and proceeds to bellow the name of her son. 

At the time, I was only mad. So, so angry. I even claimed my phone was wet, but it wasn’t really. It was safe in my crossbody anti-theft travel pouch that I wear at home as a sort of extra pocket. (I’m truly a spectacularly cool person.)  But when I retold the story to my husband, he chuckled. And I had to admit, it was a pretty solid prank. From turning the shower head just right to setting it to jet stream, my son really did maximize the effect the water had on his unfortunate mother. But unfortunately for him, he then had to deal with Meg the Aggrieved the rest of the night. She’s really a blast.

If you would like to delight your own mischievous little prankster, check out these silly read-alouds:


We read The Magic Word every night for months and giggled every time. Alakazoomba!


Speaking of Mac Barnett, my son highly recommends the chapter book The Terrible Two. I haven’t read this one, but I’ve heard about all the pranks second-hand, and it sounds like a kid-favorite for sure. There are three books in the series, so plenty of vicarious pranking to be had. For more chapter book pranking, you could check out Harry Potter (no one tops the Weasley twins), Matilda (brilliant!) or The Twits (classic).


B.J. Novak pranks the grown-up reader! The Book With No Pictures must be read aloud, but probably not at bedtime, because kids won’t stop giggling.


The Complete Calvin and Hobbes

Bill Watterson is the BEST. Every. single. strip. of Calvin and Hobbes is excellent. And for more comic strip pranking, don’t forget about Lucy in PeanutsPoor Charlie Brown.


Check out The Miss Nelson Collection, because kids can’t have all the fun.


Another silly one from the mind of Mac Barnett


It IS.


Now if I could only get my hands on one of those pens


Nothing like pranking a magical being, right?


Speaking of magical beings . . . how did I miss How to Trick the Tooth Fairy in my tooth fairy post??


Sometimes the prankster has your best interests at heart; Tom the Tamer certainly does.


And sometimes they have ulterior motives.  


Refe and Susan Tuma are seriously the coolest parents ever.


Happy reading, and now excuse me while I put a prepared bowl of cereal in the freezer.




Books for Little Nightmare Warriors


My husband has always been mild, gentle, pleasant, and laid-back. For example, when accidentally left behind in a grocery store as a kid, he just waited in the aisles, thinking to himself, “They’ll figure it out and come back for me soon.”

His future wife, on the other hand, was not a particularly easygoing kid.

Had I been left in Lacey’s Grocery Store, I would have been scream-sobbing next to the gallons of Blue Bell, then running through the aisles, begging someone to call the police because I had been abandoned.

This intensity of mine was ever present, but most certainly at bedtime when I was desperately afraid to go to sleep because of The Nightmares. My nightmares today consist mostly of social faux pas, like arriving at my in-law’s Christmas celebration only to realize I forgot to buy presents for anyone or accepting a job only to have to back out because I didn’t think about childcare options or being publicly shamed for forgetting to write a thank you note. When I was a child, though, I was being chased by abominable snowmen or about to be run over by a truck and my legs wouldn’t work.

So I did the only reasonable thing I could do and refused to go to sleep.

Following should probably be a story of how my mother coaxed me to sleep night after night, but parenting is a thankless job, so this is a story about my cool older brother assuaging my childhood fears.

My brother suffered from night terrors, so my dreams must have seemed like small potatoes to him, but nevertheless he sat across from me at the dining room table (no chance of falling asleep there!), took my fears very seriously and suggested a solution to all my problems.

What if he hopped into his bed at the same moment I lay down in mine? Then he would travel to my dreams, meet me there, and take me flying through the world to see beautiful and amazing sights and keep all the nightmares at bay.

Because everything Neill said was absolutely true and he certainly had magical powers (he could travel to the moon at the speed of light, in case you were wondering), I believed him wholeheartedly, and skipped off to bed where I fell asleep quickly, so as not to miss my aerial appointment.

Unless you have a cool drum-playing, light-speed-traveling high-schooler at your disposal, this approach may not work for your child, but you can at least enjoy these read-alouds for little nightmare warriors.

**It’s hard to make a list of “nightmare” books that aren’t at least a little scary. Check out these feel-good books or maybe these if you’re looking for a distraction from the scaries at bedtime**

Everyone needs a Nightlight to guard against Pitch, the Nightmare King.

(And William Joyce is certainly a fantasy king, in my book.)


Full disclosure, I’ve forgotten most of this book. But I love Jessica Meserve’s cheerful illustrations and I’m going to pop this one on our holds list again, because everyone needs a story about learning to be brave when your protector is missing.


Humor is the best armor against fear! 


Speaking of humor, there’s No Such Thing as a boy on top of the bed.


Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen collaborating on childhood fear? YES.


Yarlett’s Dark is not close to as scary as Snicket and Klassen’s, if you’re looking for lighter (and fabulously illustrated) fare.


There’s an Alligator Under My Bed and There’s a Nightmare in My Closet are classics, but couldn’t be left off this list.


Speaking of classics, nothing is more classic than Seuss. And this one apparently glows in the dark!


I’ve mentioned Tiger vs. Nightmare before (it is excellent and warrants mentioning more than once), but fair warning – it is definitely scary. Don’t let the cute tiger fool you.


For your chapter book readers, check out these:

Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King brings Joyce’s brilliance to the big kids.


My son recommends The Last Kids on Earth, but says you should definitely start with book one. I haven’t read these, but if Netflix is investing, it’s probably solid, right?


We just put Nightmares! on hold; it has great reviews and falls solidly in this category.


Join the BFG and watch out for those trogglehumbers!


Happy reading and lovely dreams!