Picture Book Review: ida, Always by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso

For many children the first time they experience the stress and despair of death is when a pet dies.  On occasion I have had kids who had lost a parent or grandparent at an early age. Unfortunately, I have also had to experience the deaths of children in my nearly a quarter of a century of working with kids.  Fewer moments in life are as challenging and gut wrenching as when a child passes away.  A quick of search of Amazon reveals a lot of self-help books designed to help kids and adults alike in maneuvering through the stages of grief.

I am not one to cry frequently.  That’s not to say that I don’t think men should cry.  It’s quite the opposite.  I’m an analytical thinker.  In moment of crisis someone must be in charge.  That would be me.  I will cry and mourn once the crisis has passed, but in the moment I try to remain calm and collected.

I picked up a copy of ida, Always by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso on the advice of a colleague.  The cover was stunning and the interior illustrations were dreamy.  But when I read the book, tears welled in the corners of my eyes and dripped down the apples of my cheeks.  For a brief moment I was taken back to 1988 and the death of my Papa David.  The book reminded me that it’s ok to mourn the passing but it’s more important to treasure the memory.

ida, Always tells the story  of Gus and Ida, a pair of polar bears at New York City’s Central Park Zoo.  The pair are insperable and spend their time together enjoying the sights and sounds of the city around them.

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Until one day, Ida doesn’t come out of her cave.  Gus hears her and sense her presence nearby, but she remains hidden away.  A zoo keeper comes to tell Gus that Ida is sick and will soon pass away.

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Gus and Ida must come to understand what Ida’s passing will mean.  They both have questions that can not be answered.  Gus has a moment of despair when he begs Ida not to go, but Ida reminds him that they still have lives to live together.

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As the days pass, some are good and some are bad.  But they live in the moment and cherish each day together.

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The day comes when Ida’s body simply stops working.  We share the moment with Gus and Ida as she softly and gently passes away.

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Gus must learn to go on living.  He mourns her loss and sometimes forgets that she is gone.  But ultimately it is her memory and the love he has for his friend that helps him find peace.

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Even as I write this post I feel the frog in my throat.  The story is stunningly beautiful and treats a delicate subject with grace and tact.  Other picture books I have read deal with death in an indirect way.  In this story we see Ida’s passing.  There is a quiet dignity in her death I believe kids need to see.  Dying is a part of living.  ida, Always doesn’t celebrate death; it celebrates the lives we lead and the lives we touch.

This title is an essential addition to all elementary collections.  For families dealing with the death of a loved one or the terminal illness of a friend or family member, buy this book and read it with them.  Don’t just hand it to the child.  READ IT WITH THEM.  Reading is best when it’s shared with others.  Let this wonderful story heal your heart and give you hope that death isn’t an ending.  It’s a celebration of a life that brought joy to others, a memory to live in our hearts forever.

Teacher Notes

I encourage you to use this book even if you don’t see the immediate need of counseling due to a loss in your school or your children’s personal lives.  The story is beautifully written and deserves to be read aloud.

The Central Park Zoo has a website that you may wish to share with students to give them background knowledge.

Scholastic offers an excellent lesson on grief for grades K-2.  It involves drawing an image to show the children’s emotions.  It can be modified for older grades as well.

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