Grief and Loss in Comics | Roundtable
Today, as we begin to emerge from the pandemic, we look at some graphic novels with themes of grief and loss.
It’s hard to believe that a year ago the lockdowns were beginning. My world is small here in New York. Hearing that the New York City Department of Education was going remote is seared into my memory. At the time, I still wasn’t convinced that we had to worry about COVID, but it only took a few weeks to realize the sheer magnitude of what we were facing.
Over the spring, so many people suffered loss. Children lost parents and grandparents. The disease hit young and old. In the spring, our school community lost both a student and a staff member to COVID-19, and at least one student lost a parent. More recently, my school community lost a student to her battle with cancer. As I was compiling books with grieving characters, I reached out to my Good Comics for Kids cohorts to focus on comics with grieving.
Note: Bibliotherapy has always been controversial. Not every reader finds solace with reading books about grief. But as a parent, sometimes I don’t know how to open difficult conversations with my children and find that a book, especially books with pictures, gives me the words and vocabulary to discuss difficult topics.
I know of late, my reading choices have been leaning towards upbeat and sweet. As the pandemic rages and wanes, I’m trying to stay away from sad titles, because I need a break from the stress and anxiety of real life. Reading and our connection to books and stories is very personal. Its effect is different on everyone. While going through difficult times, some may want to read books that demonstrate how others cope with the pain of missing and grieving. Books and stories are windows and mirrors. Not only to our sense of self, but our sense of feelings.
So here are some suggested titles that may or may not give readers an opportunity to read their pain away.
High School Titles
By Brian Fies
Read Mom’s Cancer from the beginning.
This is Fies’ memoir about what it was like to care for his mother, who was diagnosed with cancer. The heart-wrenching story is told from an adult perspective, but the experiences of taking care of an ill parent really have no age label.
The Wendy Project
By: Melissa Jane Osborne & Veronica Fish
Wendy is driving her brothers when their car careens and lands in the water. She and her younger brother survive, but Michael does not. Yet Wendy insists that he is alive and that he was taken by a flying boy. Wendy’s insistence lands her in therapy, where she is given a notebook. There she draws the world she sees her brother in. Which is real? The Peter Pan story provides a known metaphor for dealing with survivor’s guilt. By retelling elements from a female perspective, it improves upon a fantasy where boys never grow up and women are shackled with caretaking while showing the reader dream-like images to capture the overwhelming emotions of loss. (Johanna)
Rosalie Lightning: A Graphic Memoir By Tom Hart
St. Martin’s Press
When his daughter dies weeks before her second birthday, Hart and his wife are left reeling and desperate for explanations. As time moves on, Rosalie’s parents begin to adjust to a life without her. But all it takes is something as ordinary as a phone call to pull him back into grief. Using stories from popular culture, mythology, and folklore as metaphors for his own experiences, Hart takes an extremely personal experience of loss and grief and makes it universal. (Eva)
By Cyril Pedrosa
First Second Books
The idyllic country life is filled with fun and adventurous days for young Joachim and his parents Louis and Lise. They tend to the orchards but enjoy spending their time together as a family. When three fates appear on the horizon, Louis knows that they have come to take Joachim to the realm of the dead. Now Louis and Joachim are on the run, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the deathly shadows and save his boy. The story was inspired by the death of a close friend’s young child. [Note: This title is no longer in print but is still readily available in libraries.] (Mike)
Middle Grade/Middle School Titles
Will & Whit
by Laura Lee Gulledge
Will (short for Wilhelmina) fixes up lamps because she’s scared of shadows and the dark. Her only family left, after an accident a year ago, is an aunt, who runs an antique shop, but that’s ideal because Will loves old things. It’s a way of escaping the pending decisions she and her friends are facing, as they’re about to begin their senior year and are feeling the pressure of figuring out the next step in their lives. The summer shown in this book includes young people putting on a carnival, a huge storm hitting the town, and learning how to balance being busy, being creative, being uncomfortable, and coming to terms with loss. The idea that making things can be an escape and an acceptance is remarkably wise, and the portrait of supportive friends is ideal. That it’s all told with creative use of pointillism and shade effects makes the messages, about life and change and moving on, more memorable. (Johanna)
by Sarah Winifred Searle
Harriet spends the days by herself when her family moves to Chicago. Her days are filled with wondering if the apartment she lives in is haunted and writing letters to friends making up stories about her summer adventures. When Harriet spends time with her landlord and elderly and retired librarians, she learns about the son who battled polio as a child. While no one experiences death in this title, Harriet faces her own disability and learns to cope with it through stories of Nicholas the landlord’s son. The melancholy and lonely tone extends throughout the story. (Esther)
Early Reader Titles
Julia’s House Moves On
By Ben Hatke
In this beautifully illustrated picture book by graphic novel artist Ben Hatke, Julia’s friends are listless and ready and so Julia is ready to move on. She has a plan and begins to pack, but when the turtle that the house is sitting on decides it’s time to move, he picks up and begins walking into the sea, upending Julia’s plan. For each scenario, Julia has a plan until she is alone with her plan. But is then rescued by the sea queen. And all of Julia’s lost creatures help. And though she is out of a plan, it’s okay. The lush coloring brings a story of helplessness and resilience together. And though the message of the story may be buried behind the whimsical illustrations and text, it is there for those struggling with loss and helplessness in these unusual times – especially the roller coaster of life.
Benny and Penny in How to Say Goodbye
by Geoffrey Hayes
The field mice siblings deal with the loss of an acquaintance with various shades of mourning, including denial, disgust, and the ceremonies around it. Although a short book, it well portrays sadness and memory for young readers. (Johanna)
About Esther Keller
Esther Keller is the librarian at JHS 278, Marine Park in Brooklyn, NY. There she started the library's first graphic novel collection and strongly advocated for using comics in the classroom. She also curates the Graphic Novel collection for the NYC DOE Citywide Digital Library. She started her career at the Brooklyn Public Library and later jumped ship to the school system so she could have summer vacation and a job that would align with a growing family's schedule. On the side, she is a mother of 4 and regularly reviews for SLJ and School Library Connection (formerly LMC). In her past life, she served on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Committee where she solidified her love and dedication to comics.
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