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Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in Between, by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen, is so valuable because it speaks of a subject matter that is rather unusual for a children's book; lifetimes.
Many non-fiction children's books look at life cycles - focusing on the metamorphosis of caterpillars to butterflies or exploring the growth of animals. Yet these tend to focus on the 'beginning' (birth) and the 'lifetime' (growth) without necessarily touching upon how very natural and universal it is that these beginnings and lifetimes will eventually reach an end.
There are also some children's story books that deal with the subject of death or loss. Yet these often fall into the trap of focusing more on the emotion than the factual reality. It is admirable that these books deal with the emotion of loss but it is also very, very difficult to do this effectively. Loss affects every individual so uniquely - and this is particularly true for young children who can't always effectively express or articulate their feelings - so it is quite a gamble to provide a child with a book that supposedly "captures" or "deals with" the emotions of loss. It is always a risk that these sorts of stories will actually introduce new layers that will trouble the child in a way he/she hadn't previously thought of, or that it will deal with the emotion differently from what the child is experiencing and thus seem irrelevant.
'Lifetimes' (as I affectionately call it, although the official title is 'Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in Between') is the book that I hand to any family who experiences bereavement. It offers a simplistic but honest explanation for a young child who might be struggling to understand why a loved one's lifetime has come to an end.
Lifetimes simply, but beautifully, explains that all living things have a beginning and an ending with a lifetime in between. The book weaves through the natural world, using examples of insects, animals, plants and people who all follow this same pattern; beginning, lifetime, ending.
The language used is beautiful, the images artistic, and the narrative poignant.
Lifetimes does not sugar coat or use metaphor - it explains these complex concepts in a way that even a young child can make sense of. It provides the comfort of a straight-forward and honest discussion.
It also does not fall into the trap of offering too much information.
Many 'children's books' that I have read relating to life or death tend to go overboard by trying to explain too much or offer too many platitudes or reassurances. Lifetimes understands the 'less is more' philosophy. It essentially offers a child the sustenance and satisfaction of an explanation without trying to overdo it with explanations or allegories. This ensures that it does not patronise the reader. It also does not impose any conclusions - it allows the reader to make their own decisions about whether they wish to ask for more information.
Lifetimes is essentially an 'agnostic' book. It does not, at any point, refer to any sense of an 'afterlife'. It does not promote nor dispel this idea because it simply does not feature. It is therefore an entirely appropriate resource for a secular school as it does not carry any religious undertones. It is, however, equally appropriate for a family (or learning environment) that does follow a particular religious school of thought because the book itself does not contradict anything that a religious teaching might offer. Regardless of belief about the afterlife it is universally undeniable that the physical life of an individual has a beginning, a lifetime, and an ending.
I have read this story to my pre-schoolers...but I have also read it to myself. Even as an adult I find this a comforting resource. When 'death' just feels so big - so scary and endless and complex and confusing - I find it reassuring to step back and remind myself that;
"No matter how long they are, or how short, lifetimes are really all the same.
They have beginnings, and endings, and there is living in between."
The elegantly simple words of Lifetimes helps me to remember that the ending does not erase the lifetime. It makes me feel that the lifetime matters always - that the ending does not detract from the meaning of life but gives it that meaning.