Even though it's past her bedtime, I'd like to start this post with an enthusiastic Happy Birthday to Eleanor! You've been a mother for four years now -- does it feel like that? Parenthood has wreaked havoc with my sense of time: everything in my children's lives feels like it was either just yesterday, or forever ago.
It all goes so amazingly quickly. Four years ago she was just beginning to figure out how to focus her eyes; now she's fathoming why people in a story throw stuff at old men and whether she can make God happy by leaving him necklaces. It's a lot to wrap one's brain around.
I remember Mona asking, when she was around Eleanor's age, "Is death real?" When one is sorting out stories about fairies and worlds hidden behind wardrobes and lots of talking animals, it seems like a pretty reasonable question. There are books that help children deal with the deaths of people close to them (we can talk about those sometime), but the deaths that cry out for parental explanation are the ones that happen in stories. And because child development keeps charging through different stages, one is not always going to know how a child will react. There have been times when I've felt that the death of Babar's mother is much more disturbing to a parent reading The Story of Babar aloud to a three or four year-old than it is to the child. (See a great post at The Twin Coach blog on this topic.) You felt blind-sided by the death of Tacy's baby sister in Betsy-Tacy, but who knows how Ian and Eleanor will react to it when they finally hear it? It will probably depend a lot on how old they are. It could be more upsetting when they're five or six and able to understand a bit more what it's about.
I think this gets back to discussion of social justice books, in the sense that as kids grow, they're more able to see the world around them. As empathy develops, one can imagine the emotional pain of the death of someone close. And one can understand mistreatment of a person or a group, even if one isn't part of that group.