A recent article in the journal Language Arts addressed the importance of sharing children’s books about death and grief in elementary classrooms (Husbye, Buchholz, Powell, & Zanden, July 2019). Often, as educators, we like to have a deep understanding of topics that we are going to discuss with our students. Death is one issue that we are not able to completely understand, as no one is able to provide us with a first person perspective of the experience or what comes after. Death and grief are not easy for anyone to talk about, but since they affect everyone, they are essential topics of conversation.
While the article in Language Arts was specifically about picture books, there are also many juvenile fiction titles that include death or grief. One such title is Pie in the Sky, by Remy Lai. In this illustrated novel, we are introduced to Jingwen, who has just immigrated to Australia. He makes this transition with his mom and his little brother, but without his father who died in a car crash. Jingwen remembers spending hours on the weekends with his father planning for the cake shop they would open in Australia. It would be called Pie in the Sky and would serve only the most special cakes, ones that they baked together on the weekends.
Jingwen struggles in school when he arrives in Australia because he doesn’t speak English. It sounds like an alien language and this is depicted in Lai’s remarkable illustrations. The only thing that brings him comfort is baking the Pie in the Sky cakes with his little brother when his mom is at work. She has forbidden them from going anywhere near the stove, but Jingwen comes up with a plan that will allow them to continue baking without telling the worst kind of lies, which his father defined as, “those that will benefit oneself but will hurt others.”
Pie in the Sky is a book that has so much to share with its readers who are asked to step into the shoes of a boy who is not just moving to a new school or even a new country, but to a place where he cannot understand the language or customs of those around him. He is also dealing with the trauma of losing a parent. Jingwen has so much to overcome and he has to learn to trust those around him in order to move forward. This would be a great book to choose as a read aloud or for a novel study. There are so many complex issues to discuss and Lai addresses all of them with a deep sensitivity and a sense of humor that will appeal to young readers.
Diversity 6: I like knowing people who are like me and different from me, and I treat each person with respect.
Diversity 8: I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.
RL.1- Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
RL.2- Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.
RL.3- Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., a character’s thoughts, words, or actions).
RL.7- Make connections between the text of a story or drama and a visual or oral presentation of the text, identifying where each version reflects specific descriptions and directions in the text.