BOOKS THAT HELP – SERIOUS ILLNESS/ CANCER

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THE NIGHT CROSSING (Pia Jones, Sarah Pimenta)

The Night Crossing (Routledge, 2021) is an important book doing something powerful and beautiful with the most painful of topics – a child with an untreatable illness facing the end of their life.

The story features an unnamed boy who is bitten by a snake. The poison in his body goes to the boy’s blood and makes him feel very unwell. Despite their best efforts, the medical teams are unable to treat the boy because ‘the venom is too strong.’ The boy meets a polar bear who takes him on a night crossing, a journey from which he will not return. The boy knows he will not see his family again but learns that he takes the ‘stories’ of his life with him. The bear tells him he will not be forgotten by those that love him.

In a sensitive and accessible way, this story brings to fruition the metaphor of leaving this world and crossing over to a better place. It is not based on any one particular faith, broadening its appeal. The book has some front matter about how it could be used, which among other things suggests that a grown up should read the story and process its content alone first, before sharing with a child.

The author, Pia, is an arts psychotherapist and Sarah, the illustrator, is an artist and lecturer who also runs workshops for families. The team behind The Night Crossing have clearly put an enormous amount of love, time and well-researched insights into this book, creating something sympathetic and reassuring in an accessible and unthreatening way.

Whilst this is a story for an unwell child, it could also be used to support siblings or friends of very ill children who will undoubtedly be feeling an overwhelm of emotions and questions.

The Night Crossing is a remarkable book that will help many families and friends – young and old – at the most painful of times.


DADDY’S RAINBOW (Lucy Rowland, Becky Cameron)

Daddy’s Rainbow (Bloomsbury, 2022) is a pitch perfect, important story for a child whose parent is terminally ill.

Lucy Rowland – known for her dynamic rhyme – writes this story beautifully in crisp, clean but lyrical prose, full of heartwarming details about Erin’s daddy, who sees the colour in everything.  ‘In autumn, their walks were full of crunchy red, scrunchy orange and shiny-conker brown.’ But things start to change and Mummy tells Erin that Daddy is poorly.

This story was inspired by a real ‘Erin’ whose daddy died – a family Lucy Rowland is very close to. It shows. Emotions pour from the pages. Becky Cameron’s light watercolour illustrations are also full of love with a soft and fragile touch, significant for any family finding themselves in this situation.  

Despite the sadness and raw feelings captured when Daddy dies, the story ends with the hopeful takeaway that our loved ones live on in the memories we share and in the colour they gift to the world. Perfect for families who look to rainbows as a reminder of the people they’ve lost.


ONLY ONE OF ME (Lisa Wells, Michelle Robinson, Tim Budgen/ Catarina Echeverri)

Only One Of Me (Graffeg, 2018) is a special book written by Lisa Wells in collaboration with children’s author, Michelle Robinson. Lisa crowdfunded to create the books, gifting copies to children’s charities, before sadly passing away from terminal bowel cancer. Only One of Me was part of her lasting legacy to her daughters and her desire to help other families who face the heartbreak of the death of a parent. 

There are two versions of this book, one featuring a mummy (illustrated by Catarina Echeverri) and one featuring a daddy (illustrated by Tim Budgen) which helps the story to feel as relatable as possible to as many children as possible. The rhyme is soothing whilst also being honest, not shying away from the thoughts facing those with an imminent terminal illness in their lives. The books call on the community to support children whose parents is dying, whilst ultimately reassuring children that even after a parent passed away, love never dies. 


THE PERFECT SHELTER (Clare Helen Welsh, Åsa Gilland)

At first, nobody knew. It seemed like the perfect day, the perfect weather to build a shelter in the woods. But then they told me my sister was sick.

With gentle, lyrical text by Clare Helen Welsh, this book is the perfect springboard for you and your child to discuss the complex emotions surrounding family illness. Sensitively tackling an unnamed but serious illness, this heart-warming picture book tackles a difficult diagnosis with authentic and empathetic tenderness. Much like Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, A Shelter for Sadness or The Building Boy, The Perfect Shelter (Little Tiger Press, 2020) offers children a way to understand and articulate complex, often overwhelming emotions. What sets this picture book apart is that the child’s sister is the unwell character receiving treatment, not the grown up. This is not a book about grief or bereavement – there is an intentionally hopeful and more ambiguous ending about making the most of everyday.

Combined with Åsa Gilland’s flair for illustrating the natural world and capturing raw emotions, The Perfect Shelter is a powerful picture book that explores how we feel when someone we love is living with a serious illness – representing the uncertainty many families will be feeling at the time.


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