Dear Aunt Debbie,
In answer to KPK's comment of a few days ago, I've been trying to think of books which address the issue of death for younger readers. The only picture book of this kind I remember from my own childhood is another by Tomie dePaola (who is starting to seem a little morbid): Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs. Nana downstairs is 4-year-old Tommy's grandmother, and Nana Upstairs is her mother, and in the book, Nana Upstairs dies. I haven't read it in a long while, but I remember it being sweet and sad.
Patricia Polacco would also be a good author to check out on this subject -- in many of her books, while death is not the main subject at hand, she takes her adult-role-model main characters all the way to death on the last page. This is true in Chicken Sunday and In Our Mothers' House, and The Keeping Quilt has death threaded through it, along with births and marriages. I've written more about these particular books here.
KPK mentioned The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, which I've never read, but in a conversation on this topic today, my friend Emily cited it as one of the main books about death in her childhood. She says it's a lovely, gentle story -- Freddie is a leaf, and he grows and then falls and dies, and becomes part of the earth and helps other things grow.
The books I read as a kid which made me think most deeply about death are all chapter books, only one of which would be appropriate to read to fairly young kids.
The first is actually referenced in your previous post as one of the books Doug reads to the kids he babysits (what a wonderful, reference-filled scene!): E.B. White's Charlotte's Web. I still remember my father reading me the scene where Charlotte dies; I still remember sobbing. Such a great book, and such a bittersweet ending -- all those baby spiders taking off and leaving Wilbur alone, but the promise of the one who stays, the generations to come. That's one we should break out fairly soon, I think.
The other two both have protagonists who are about ten years old, and I think that's probably the right age to read them: Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson, and Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt. I know I read both of them on my own (and then re-read, and re-read them, sobbing every time). Bridge to Terabithia is the story of the friendship between Jess Aaron, a fifth-grade boy, and a neighbor girl named Leslie. They create an imaginative world together in the woods near their houses (Terabithia, of course), and it's intense and wonderful, and then one morning while Jess is away -- I think at an art museum with his teacher -- Leslie tries to go to Terabithia in bad weather, has an accident, and dies. There is so much in the book about friendship and guilt and loss; it feels horrible and preventable but altogether real. I get choked up just writing about it. I heard Paterson once on NPR talking about how she wrote the book after her son's best friend, an eight-year-old girl, was killed by lightning. The book has that feel of truth to it -- she's trying to make sense of absolute tragedy.
In Tuck Everlasting, a ten-year-old girl named Winnie Foster meets the Tuck family, including one very attractive son a little older than she is. She learns fairly quickly that he's actually a lot older -- he and his family have drunk from a spring of immortality. Winnie is offered the chance to drink from the spring herself, and has to decide whether or not she wants eternal life and eternal youth. I suppose with all the vampire fiction around these days, there are other places kids are puzzling over the pluses and minuses of eternal life, but for me, this was the first time I'd really pondered it. It's hard to understand at age ten that people might want to grow old and even to die, when the time comes. I suppose it's hard to understand on some level at any age.