Etan Boritzer follows the success of his first two books What is God? and What is Love? with the third in his series of explaining abstract concepts to children. What is Death? is appropriately a thin book with just sixteen pages of text. Facing each page are colorful, intricate drawings by artist Nancy Forrest. Each picture illustrates the concepts presented on the facing page. The aithor starts the discussion by describing the big question – what is death? We know that everything dies. But we don’t know what happens afterward. People die when they are old, very sick, or have accidents. Some deaths are peaceful, some are not.
The author discusses why some people are scared of death – it’s like walking into a dark room. And we all have seen beautiful things in nature die. Why is that? He offers an explanation of culture and religion, and the fact that different people have different ideas about death and dying. Some people are buried, some are cremated. The Egyptians wrapped their dead in cloths.
Boritzer hits the mark with children by getting them to relate to the death of someone’s grandfather. He suggests that sometimes it looks like the person is just sleeping. Then he talks about the sadness people have after someone dies. He asks the provocative question – what happens to the dead person’s goodness, their love, their stories, the stuff inside – after the person’s outside, their body, has died.
This leads to a discussion of different ideas regarding a soul, that element of personhood that some people believe lives on, in some other place or maybe to be reborn again in another body. He touches on Hindu, Christian, Islamic, and Jewish beliefs about death. He also points out that there are people that do not believe in a soul or afterlife. The author appeals to common childhood experiences, like moving to a new home, to illustrate more abstract concepts.
So, maybe if we start to think of Death / in all these good ways, / we’ll be able to do good / and living things in Life.
Discussing abstract subjects such as God and Death can surely be difficult for parents. But such things do come up. This is perhaps especially relevant to families dealing with cancer, whether the death is imminent of just a possibility. These questions are difficult to answer with any concrete finality. But the discussion must take place. Boritzer’s books are a good starting point. He approaches the subject in a step-by-step way, appealing wherever possible to typical experiences children may have already had. Since he deals with the topic from multiple viewpoints, the book is valuable for parents from a wide range of belief systems. The illustrations are mostly soft and soothing, relying on pastels and fluid lines to express concepts in realistic but nonthreatening ways.
Whether you are a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, whether you are facing cancer in your family or not, What is Death? is liable to make a valuable addition or gift to the children in your life.
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