Picture Books in Grief and Crisis: A COVID19 Reflection by Oona Marie Abrams
On April 3rd, my mother-in-law died due to COVID19 complications. Here in New Jersey, flags are flying at half-staff to honor those who have succumbed to the virus, a number which now exceeds that of state residents who died on September 11, 2001.
Prior to sheltering in place with my family, and long before the tragedy of their grandmother’s death struck, my sons and I had checked out books, movies, video games and custom cake pans from our local public library. In the way other people were hitting the warehouse clubs for paper towels and toilet tissue, we went after the books, because we knew the library would be closed indefinitely. It’s been three weeks now, and guess what? We’ve still got an abundance of toilet paper, we’ve made three cakes, the video game disks and cartridges are back in their cases, and that huge stack of library books? Turns out it wasn’t enough. Let me explain…
I spoil my children with very few things, but book choice is one. Even though I have four apps on my phone that link me to two different county library digital holdings where I live and work, there are not enough picture books immediately available for checkout. Shocker. Every parent sheltering in place in Bergen County and Morris County New Jersey is probably trying to do what I am doing. The selection is meager and the wait lists are several weeks. Just as we are learning to do without high demand groceries, we are going to have to do without the easy book access to which we have become so accustomed.
Right now, it’s time to love the books we’re with, and to be grateful they are in our house. Maybe one of them is on your shelf, and like me, you’ve forgotten. Now is a good time to be reunited with them. My family’s world is forever changed, and we are re-reading these books together, to comfort ourselves, to laugh, to embrace this slowdown instead of trying to push against it.
I am guilty of one of the bad reading habits of good readers that Carol Jago writes about in The Book in Question, which is valuing speed over reflection. Jago writes that these readers “seldom pause between books to think about what they’ve read, reaching for the next one with barely an intake of breath.” If there was ever a time to breathe with books, it is now. Being accountable to read alouds with my children each day is one way of guaranteeing that I myself am reading. The boys and I have a stack of what my friend Joellen McCarthy calls “heartprint” picture books. We’ll be reading them over the next several days as we continue to grieve.
Before I roll out my top ten list, I know what you’re thinking: “How the heck am I supposed to get this book if my library doesn’t carry the e-book version?” Believe me, I am having the book FOMO right along with you. I get it. I’m practically twitching. Put them on your “Want to Read” shelf on Goodreads.Try to love the books you’re with right now. Let them read you in new and different ways than you might have read them before all of this. Here’s our list:
Extra Yarn written by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen: The boys and I talked about how Annabelle and Grandma were alike. Grandma had lots of magical love to share with everyone, and that love multiplied the more she gave.
Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall: The lighthouse keeper lives a solitary existence amidst the beauty of nature, and when illness strikes, he is cared for lovingly by his wife until he recovers. As we shelter in place, it provides us with a great message of hope and resilience.
Spoon written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Scott Magoon: Maybe your kid is jealous of the kids who have their own basketball hoops or cooler bikes, just like Spoon is jealous of Fork, Knife, and Chopsticks. But Spoon’s mom, in all her wisdom, says we need to change our perspective and think of all the blessings we have. She also affirms Spoon’s feelings without judging him, something all parents can do at a time like this.
Be a Maker written by Katey Howes, illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic: This one reminds us that creating helps us all to relax and be more present. It’s been especially meaningful as my children create letters and drawings to be placed at their grandmother’s gravesite, which they won’t be able to see in person. It’s helping me now as I write this post, because writing is not nearly as hard as reading is.
You’re Snug With Me by Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry: I can relate all too well to this book about a mama polar bear hunkered down in her den for the winter with her cubs. Their nonstop reflective questions don’t seem to faze her in the least. I’m trying to take a page out of her book as my children ask question after question.
Big Red Lollipop written by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall: We’ve had our share of drama and fighting between siblings in our house. It’s stressful sharing common living spaces. And the pull and push of sibling tensions in this book helps us to feel less alone. It also helps us to see that small gestures of generosity matter.
Saturday by Oge Mora: We might start our days with plans for how they should go, and we also love our family rituals and traditions, just as the mother and daughter in this book do. But some days things will just not work out, and we are left to collect ourselves, put aside our disappointments, and find gratitude in our imperfect time together.
Benji, the Bad Day, and Me written by Sally J. Pla, illustrated by Ken Min: The mom in this book must juggle working from home with caring for her two sons, one of whom is on the autism spectrum and the other of whom is neurotypical. This reflects the makeup of our family as well. Seeing how our children are caring for each other in their own special ways, just as the brothers do in this book, is a privilege my husband and I will carry in our hearts long after these times.
A Stone Sat Still by Brendan Wenzel: What a beautiful book to help us see that the world is so much larger than ourselves, that the circle of life is beautiful when we turn to nature for comfort. And the cadence of Wenzel’s words creates a small bit of solace for me during read alouds. I enjoyed reading this book not only with the boys at bedtime, but also by myself outdoors or on the screen porch.
Listen written by Holly M. McGhee and illustrated by Pascal Lemaître: After reading this, we went to visit the bird sanctuary a few blocks away from our house, where we watched some of the world’s quietest woodpeckers moving through layers of moist bark. The red bird in the book reminds us of the cardinals that regularly visit our own back yard this spring.
Please share the hope-filled books that you’re reunited with on your shelves at home these days. I’d love to know which ones are speaking to your heart and your children’s hearts right now, so in comments, share how your books are “reading you.”
Oona Marie Abrams (@oonziela) lives in northern New Jersey, where she is currently staying home with her family, responsibly socially distancing, and teaching high school remotely. She looks forward to returning back to school as soon as it is safe to do so.