A friend once told me a story from her childhood that had left a lasting impression on her. Her favourite teacher told her grade school class that when someone dies, they become characters in a book. All we need to do is find the book in whose pages they are hiding.

I think about this story a lot, especially when I read books for children that deal with death and coming to terms with the loss. Nandita Basu’s new book Starry, Starry Night, was the latest to remind me of this story.

Losing and healing

Starry, Starry Night is a graphic novel about two characters learning to cope with their individual losses and trying to live life while battling grief. Kunal has recently lost his mother and is now being sent to live with his father’s cousin, Tara, in the hills where he will attend boarding school. His parents divorced when they were younger and his father now lives with his new family in the city.

Kunal struggles with the fact that his mother is no longer around him and must now learn to live with a total stranger, while adjusting to a new school and new town. He is moody, easily irritable, and isn’t inspired to draw or paint. Tara, his father’s cousin, teaches an elite music programme at the boarding school and lives by herself in a small cabin. She moved to the hills years earlier to cope with the loss of her best friend.

Tara understands – from her own experience – that Kunal needs time to grieve and gives him time and space but she isn’t prepared to be responsible for another human being. Learning to cope with the loss of her friend has also resulted in her hallucinating a mysterious figure of Death. She sees him around her and even talks to him. When Kunal comes to stay with her, she realises she can now see figures of Death everywhere in the form of auras around anyone she meets, causing her severe anxiety. The book looks closely at how Kunal and Tara cope with their loss – individually and by coming together – with the healing power of art, music, and community.

Writing about death and ways to cope with it is always a tall order, especially when it comes to writing for children. Author Nandita Basu achieves this tricky balance with grace and beauty. She uses different panel formats to show present and sing past experiences, a non-linear story format where the characters crisscross between time periods, and experiments with typography. Writing about the subject matter and telling such a layered story makes one wonder whether it is appropriate for young kids, but Basu said she was sure about writing this book.

Talking about loss

“It was an intentional choice to write about death and grief and loss,” Basu said. “Simply because loss, death is not exclusive. It has little to do with age. People don’t like to talk about it – as if you can protect anyone from these emotions. As if it is a bad, horrible thing. That is why I chose to write about it, especially with kids because as adults we don’t know how to deal with it therefore, we don’t know how to talk about it with kids. So, the cycle remains unbroken. The book is all about emotion. So, making it rely only on words would never work for me. The other aspect is even though death is a very complicated topic, I knew what I wanted to speak about here. So, I just picked a few aspects – loss, grief and dealing with it. There are endless aspects to death but I stuck to this.”

While both characters try to understand what it means to die, Tara is obsessed with trying to find out what it feels like when the moment comes. She has watched her friend Nysa suffer from an illness resulting in her death. She has also witnessed the passing of a squirrel and is moved by how gentle and beautiful death can be when one is accepting and connected to nature. The reader is led to discover interesting facets of the character’s personality through these anecdotes in the plot.

Basu said, “Readers aged ten and above these days read a lot of things, including manga that can be very complicated. And when it comes to loss these emotions are not restricted to age, they are experienced in different ways. Also, the inherent idea that a young reader cannot process layers in a story is a misconception. So, I have used a non-linear storytelling pattern, and different panel layouts simply because it is a story based on emotion, not actions. The whole thing is to let the reader experience and question...what is loss. Is it really about fear?”

In the past, there have been some fantastic books in Indian children’s literature about bereavement. Books like Gone Grandmother by Chatura Rao and Boo! When My Sister Died by Richa Jha (to name a few) are helpful when parents want to have difficult conversations with their children. Now you might also want to add Starry, Starry Night to the list because children being children will not be satisfied with stories of the dead becoming stars in the night sky or even characters in picture books, they will want to know more. And an honest conversation helps makes grief easier to bear.

Starry Starry Night, Nandita Basu, Duckbill.