Although she was best known for her adorable Goodnight, Moon and The Runaway Bunny, Margaret Wise Brown had a darker side, as shown by the publication (posthumously, which is appropriate) of a re-illustrated edition of The Dead Bird (1938). But the veteran children’s-book author clearly understood children. While parents are all too eager to usher their kids past the little corpses that turn up in the yard, garden, and gutter—and, often, to avoid the hard truths about animals and even grandparents who have gone “to a better place”—kids are fascinated by dead things. Over the years, we’ve seen other slim books that use big pictures and simple text to share the morbid truths at story time. Ready to talk forensic science and metaphysics with your five-year-old? Read on!
After the Kill, by Darrin Lunde and illustrated by Catherine Stock
The star of this little number is a rotting zebra carcass. Hakuna matata! The story goes like this: a hungry lioness bites a zebra in the neck. The zebra dies. The lioness and her pride eviscerate the ungulate before animals lower in the food chain take their turns: vultures, jackals, hyenas, right down to meat-eating beetles. Yes, life in the wild is a constant struggle to survive, just like kindergarten. “Hyenas have specialized teeth for slicing tough skin and crushing hard bone,” you’ll read in soothing tones. “Their long canines help them grip and pull slippery meat.” Sweet dreams, little one.
The Dead Bird, by Margaret Wise Brown
A bunch of kids find a dead bird, its little corpse still warm. Naturally, they bury it, because who wants to look at a rotting, maggot-ridden corpse? That’s all well and good, but instead of leaving the dead bird alone, they form a peewee death cult, returning to the woods again and again to perform their morbid rituals, singing and placing freshly killed flowers upon its grave. Then, one day, they stop coming, presumably because they’ve found some new dead thing to obsess about. Young people can’t help but be fascinated by death, but if you ask me, these tots’ interest is a little too healthy.
Duck, Death and the Tulip, by Wolf Erlbruch
“For a while now, Duck had a feeling.” You’d have a weird feeling, too, if you were being followed by a skull-headed character that was cute and creepy in equal measure. But while Duck is alarmed, Death assures it that Life, not death, is the one who ends things. The two stage a mini Bergman film, sharing cryptic conversations that address the afterlife and what gets left behind. Spoiler alert: Duck dies, and Death moves on, in a somber resolution that’s not entirely comforting. But why should it be? This one’s from Germany, where you’d imagine they have shelves full of this sort of thing.
The Flat Rabbit, by Bardur Oskarsson
Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: here’s a picture book about roadkill. A dog and rat find a dead rabbit in the street and are curious, naturally. She’s flat, of course, yet familiar looking—yes, she’s a neighbor! Feeling a sense of obligation (it would be unfortunate if their neighbor was randomly eaten, after all), they peel her up and perform what we can only imagine is the Faroese (author Oskarsson hails from those islands) version of a sky burial: they tape the rabbit to a kite. It’s a weirdly tender crucifixion that, while some may find repulsive, others will find moving. “Do you think she is having a good time?” asks the rat, looking up at the kite. Sure to be a fun conversation starter at bedtime.
Gon, the Little Fox, by Nankichi Niimi and illustrated by Genjirou Mita
This popular, modern folktale by a beloved Japanese author is a perfect illustration of how cultural differences hold fast despite the sometimes seeming sameness of the world. Gon is a mischievous fox who steals food and hassles farmers. One day, he goes too far, swiping an eel that was meant for Hyoju’s dying mother. Gon, remorseful, tries to make it up to Hyoju with little gifts, also stolen, but Hyoju is blamed for those thefts by the other villagers and beaten. When Hyoju sees Gon again, he shoots him. If Wes Anderson is looking for a story to turn into a film noir, this is it.
Last Laughs: Animal Epitaphs, by J. Patrick Lewis and Jane Yolen, illustrated by Jeffrey Stewart Timmins
For children too young to read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, this collection of morbid animal epitaphs may be the next best thing. A cow is memorialized thusly: “This grave is peaceful, / the tombstone shaded, / but I’m not here— / I’ve been cream-ated.” (Actually, this might not be poetry but a Burma Shave campaign left over from the 1930s.) Thirty animals, thirty deaths, thirty grim and gruesome rhymes. And the art? Well, Timmins turns doggies and ponies into nightmarish beasts, which may be the stuff of nightmares for sensitive kindergartners. Warning: there will be blood.
Mummy Cat, by Marcus Ewert and illustrated by Lisa Brown
This rhyming picture book takes a unique approach to teaching little kids about ancient Egypt—by using a dead cat as the storyteller. You see, once a century, Mummy Cat wakes from his deathly slumber to see whether his friend, the girl queen Hat-shup-set, is back from the underworld and ready to throw little crumpled balls of papyrus for him to chase. Murals on the chamber walls depict scenes from the lives of cat and queen, blending actual historical information with a heartwarming story about feline-pharaoh friendship. But there’s a (mummified) elephant in the room: though Ewert cleverly has them both meet their makers via scorpion sting, in real life, the cat (along with a few dozen lucky servants) would have been killed in order to provide the dead girl with some companionship. Don’t that give you the warm fuzzies?