By Christine Yunn-Yu Sun
On January 26, 2011, I published an article entitled Saddest Children’s Books, recommending some of the books that help young readers understand and express grief. Eleven years and seven months later, this article came to mind, shortly after my previous review appeared in this column. This review was of the children’s book Pink Punk Mum, written by Queensland author Kala Heinemann and published on May 23 of this year.
I read about the book on April 3rd and tracked it down. My review was written on August 17th, went to press on August 24th and was published on August 30th. Then, on September 1st, I learned the sad news that Mrs. Heinemann had already lost her battle with cancer in June.
The news hit a chord as I was still trying to process the loss of my mother-in-law on August 26th. With my own family on the other side of the world, she was like a mother to me in Australia. I had and feel her generous love every day.
Now I can’t help but think how easy it was for me to write this review about the importance of having open and honest conversations about life-threatening illnesses. How easy it used to be to talk about the need to process what was lost while sharing a sense of belonging and togetherness with those left behind.
At first I saw grief as something personal and private. Even within the same family, each family member’s memories of their loved one are unique, and each can only retreat to their own “darkroom” to process them, like printing life’s precious moments onto paper.
Then my own article came to mind and I realized that these children’s books are sad for me because I read them as an adult. For example, only those who are parents themselves can truly understand the messages conveyed in books such as Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever (1986) and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1999).
And it makes sense that only those who fought for and then lost loved ones can understand the sense of disappointment and despair expressed in Chris Raschka’s The Purple
Balloon (2007) and Michael Rosen’s Michael Rosen’s Sad Book (2008)
Ultimately, I suppose, growing up is a learning process in how to discuss death and loss in a “sober” way, as Rosen described it. It’s a process of getting used to the idea of being sad but having to pretend to be happy.
Unlike children, whose facial expressions can be short, sharp, and direct as a slap in the face, adults often have to hide their tears. No one likes it when a grown man or woman yells their eyes out.
Maybe that’s why we, as adult readers, need the saddest children’s books. They offer us a rare opportunity to shed our tears openly, without embarrassment or embarrassment, so that we can free ourselves to process our deepest and dearest feelings afterwards.