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Telling Children About Death

January 5, 2012

How do you tell a little girl that her grandfather, her mother, her friend“¦ has died, and that he or she has gone forever? Txabi Arnal, a lecturer at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), has analyzed literary picture books that deal with death to see how they address this question. Taking this piece of research as the basis, he has defended his thesis entitled El tratamiento de la muerte en el álbum ilustrado infantil. Obras publicadas en castellano (How death is handled in illustrated children´s picture books. Works published in Spanish). As the author himself points out: “I have studied a subject matter that has barely been dealt with until now. My main aim has been to take away the fear, to tackle the taboo.”

In picture books, the illustrations and the texts combine to make up the narrative. Arnal has studied 57 books of this type for children; all of them published in Spanish, both original works and translations. It is also a contemporary sample, because these are works published between 1980 and 2008: “I wanted the picture books studied to be current ones in case anyone wanted to look for them and purchase them.” For example, some of the most well-known picture books he has studied are El pato y la muerte (Duck, Death and the Tulip) by Wolf Erlbruch; Regaliz (Jellybeans) by Sylvia van Ommen; and ¿Cómo es possible? (How is Possible?) by Peter Schössow. Certain aspects have been highlighted in all these narratives: the handling of the feelings caused by death, the main characters, the causes of death, the process the child goes through to understand it, the effort made in the narrative to destroy the myths surrounding death, etc.

The most natural thing in the world

Arnal´s conclusions were better than expected. “Death is handled in a very natural way. I had the preconceived idea that these books would be like a pamphlet, that the didacticism would have greater weight than their literary value, since whenever we are faced with such uncomfortable subjects we tend to give priority to what we want to transmit. And I got a surprise: most of the picture books have great literary value and face up to the subject naturally, to a certain extent leaving the didactic aim on one side. The most important thing here is not the subject, but the story,” he explains. He admits that words like death or dying have little place in the picture books, and that normally they are replaced by expressions, but he attributes this phenomenon to the very essence of the literature: “They are literary texts and the author can say it as he or she wishes: the word (death) is concealed but the concept is not.” 

Following the study of these picture books, Arnal also underlines the diversity that exists with respect to the approach. For example, with respect to the specific subject matter they deal with: “Sometimes priority is given to the subject of grief, other times to the fact of dying, or to the ceremony, etc.” The main characters are also diverse, those who die as well as those who mourn that death. As regards the deceased, in the sample studied the researcher has come across grandparents, mothers, dogs, the child him- or herself, etc.; in turn, the stories may retell the pain of an adult or that of a child, depending on the case. 

A tool for teachers

This thesis has been thought up so that it can be of use to professionals who work with children (Pre-primary Education teachers, educators, etc.) and who need help in order to talk to them about death. “I am offering resources. What I am saying is this: if you want to use literature, then you need to be aware that this book deals with death in this way. And you also have this other one that deals with it from that perspective, or this other one“¦,” explains Arnal. And this work, among other things, includes broad bibliographical references and a record card for each picture book studied. “We need to be aware that books of this type also exist. And also that they are a part of children´s literature and are very suited to being read by the children themselves,” he adds.

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