Sunday, May 31, 2009

Of Death Do We Speak? Helping children cope with death of a loved one.

My paternal grandfather died when I was eight years old. I cried as I watched my parents and two older siblings drive away to attend the funeral.  I was not allowed to go to the funeral. I guess my parents felt I was too young and it would be too hard on me. Or maybe they were just so steeped in their own grief to think of my need for closure. I loved grandpa. I did not want to be left out of anything that involved him. And I knew I would never see him again.

Grandpa's death was never talked about in my presence. Maybe no one talked about it. I think in those days, people, at least in our family, hid their grief. If anyone cried, they did it privately. Death, like sex, was a subject children should never hear or speak of. So what did I do with my grief at age eight? I guess I stuffed it somewhere deep down and out of sight, adding death to the many mysterious evils that I was to fear, but not to question. 

I think—hope—it is generally different today. Children who experience the death of a peer,  a parent, or anyone close to them are often taken to a therapist for grief counseling. And therapists often use books or stories to help children better understand the feelings they are experiencing. When children read of a character with whom they relate and see that character experience the same feelings they suffer, they can better accept that they are not alone, and that their feelings and reactions are not wrong. 

Because death is natural, inevitable, and universal, it has found it's way into many of the children's novels I have written. It is my belief that children who have suffered or will suffer the death of a beloved person or pet will be better prepared for sorrow that threatens to overwhelm them by reading about a character who is going through the same grief. 

Janet Burroway, in her book, Writing Fiction, wrote, "Literature offers feelings for which we don't have to pay." Kids will find it easier to articulate their own feelings when they can relate them to those of a character in a book. 

Characters in my books who, each in his or her way, have each dealt with loss of a loved one through death are Danny in Danny's Dragon whose father is a casualty of the Iraq war, Kyleah in Kyleah's Tree whose mother died, and her father, and brother, with whom she is separated. Miranda, who lives with her grandparents in Miranda and Starlight, knows nothing of her father until she gets a letter from him and an explanation of the accident that resulted in his missing at sea and presumed death in Starlight's Courage. In Starlight Comes Home Miranda loses a mentor who is like a grandfather to her. Kids and adults alike like these books for the emotions, happy and sad, that they experience when reading them.

For other books, both fiction and non-fiction, written to help kids deal with death, I Googled "books to help children cope with death." One site that gives a nice list of books, most of which I confess I have not read, is:

Although I still encounter parents, librarians, and teachers who would "protect" children from "sad" topics in books, I also find that kids like to have their emotions touched, and their favorite books are the ones in which the characters feel deeply about life's problems that they may also face.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Kyleah's Tree is a finalist

Kyleah Ralston's mother has died. She doesn't know where her father and brother are or even if they are still alive. She joins her friend Benjamin to leave the foster home in Kansas where they both live. Though she seeks to find her lost brother, it is her true self she is looking for—and finds, through the many hair raising adventures they encounter from Kansas to Canada.  

Kyleah's Tree, by Janet Muirhead Hill has been selected as one of three finalists in the fiction category for the Parmly Billings High Plains Book Award. Read on for the entire press release:

2009 High Plains Book Award Committee Announces Finalists

Thirteen books have been selected as finalists for the 2009 Parmly Billings Library High Plains Book Awards. All finalist books were published for the first time in 2008 and written by a regional author or writing team, or are literary works which examine and reflect life on the High Plains region.  The High Plains region includes Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota and South Dakota and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.  Nominations were received from 20 publishers and several individuals in the U.S. and Canada. 


The finalists have been selected in five categories : Best Novel; Best Nonfiction; Best First Book; Best Poetry and Zonta Best Woman Writer.  The Best Poetry award has been added this year.  A five hundred dollar cash prize is awarded in each category. The finalist books are: 



Kyleah's Tree, Janet Muirhead Hill, Raven Publishing; So Brave, Young, and Handsome, Leif Enger, Grove/Atlantic; Another Man's Moccasins, Craig Johnson, Viking/Penguin



In Contemporary Rhythm, Peter H. Hassrick and Elizabeth J. Cunningham, University of Oklahoma Press; The Wide Open, Ed. by Annick Smith/Susan O'Connor, University of Nebraska Press; Legacy of Stone, Margaret Hryniuk, Frank Korvemaker and Larry Easton, Coteau Books



Made Flesh, Craig Arnold, Ausable Press; Prairie Kaddish, Isa Milman, Coteau Books; The Baseball Field at Night, Patricia Goedicke, Lost Horse Press


First Book

Horses That Buck, Margot Kahn, University of Oklahoma Press; Sherlock Holmes: The Montana Chronicles, John Fitzpatrick, Riverbend Publishing; Wind River Country, Bayard Fox and Claude Poulet, Fremont County Publishing




Zonta Best Woman Writer


The Wide Open, Edited by Annick Smith and Susan O'Connor, University of Oklahoma Press; Road Map to Holland, Jennifer Graf Groneberg, New American Library/Penguin; Horses That Buck, Margot Kahn, University of Oklahoma Press


More than 40 local volunteers read and evaluated the nominated entries.  The top three books in each category will be sent to regional judges for final selection as award winners.  Judges are published authors in the various genres with strong ties to the High Plains region. 

“We are hoping bookstores and libraries will publicize the nominees and finalists so the public will have an opportunity to read this interesting array of books,” said Parmly Billings Library Director Bill Cochran.

Winners in each category will be announced at the High Plains Book Awards Banquet on Friday, October 2, 2009 in Billings, MT.  The event is the kickoff for the 7th annual High Plains BookFest. For more information go to: