Teaching children about animal death
The Please Nana: What is death? book meets an important need
“Faithful are the wounds of a friend” says Proverbs 27:6, so with that in mind, I went to see my Christian friend Graham, the principal of a Christian school, who didn’t (and, sadly, still does not) share my ‘young-earth creation’ views. (Now semi-retired, Graham still teaches at Christian schools part-time.) With his long-age views, I was grieved that he was thus defrauding himself of key ministering opportunities to the children in his charge, and I was eager to do my utmost to rectify that.
“Graham, tell me, have any of the children in your care ever asked you, ‘Sir, why did my pet have to die?’
Graham answered that they had indeed. “What did you tell them?” I asked him.
“That animals have to die, that’s the way it is, always has been—the God-ordained natural order of things.” And then, evidently knowing where the conversation was heading, Graham said defensively, “The Bible only says there was no human death before the Fall,” and proceeded to cite favourably the writings of ‘day-age/progressive creationist’ Hugh Ross and others of the organization Reasons to Believe. (Which have been comprehensively rebutted in Dr Jonathan Sarfati’s book Refuting Compromise.)
I won’t go here into all the details of our ensuing discussion. Suffice to say, I was frustrated and sad—sad for Graham, and sad for those many youngsters in his sphere of influence. Not least because such long-age compromise is all so unnecessary (as well as destructive)—there’s a plethora of resources and freely-available information online which shows that true science supports a straightforward reading of the biblical account of origins. No death or suffering before Adam sinned, no carnivory before the Fall, all the animals were originally vegetarian. Young children exposed to their first-ever animal death, and distressed by it, intrinsically know that something isn’t right, though ignorant of the event in history which caused it.
Alas, as I ruefully reflected in the wake of my (unsuccessful) entreaties to Graham, although there is plenty of material suitable for adults on this topic, there wasn’t any children’s book that I knew of which directly addressed that point. Something that could help a child better understand the death of an animal, in the event that proper teaching from the adults in their life was absent or neglected.
Well, now there is one I know of. It’s called Please, Nana: What is Death?, by Margaret Wieland, beautifully (and, as we shall see, very strategically) illustrated by Caleb Salisbury. The book opens with:
A little girl stands quiet and still,
Her mind is all a-muddle:
Why does the pretty bird that flew
Lie lifeless in the puddle?
She then asks her ‘Nana’ that key question: “Why, Nana, why’d he die?”
Nana then says that the little bird died just as the little girl’s grandma had died, too. In other words, linking the issue of animal death and human death. And this logically enough leads to the little girl asking, “Please, Nana, what is death?”
A moment of truth for Nana—here’s a ministering opportunity if ever there was one. Wouldn’t it be easier to just give a ‘fob off’ answer? No, instead she realizes:
"I looked into those big brown eyes,
So fixed upon my face;
There may not be a better time
Or any better place."
So Nana boldly begins to answer, of course going back to the beginning of the true history of the world:
“There was a world long years ago,
Where nothing ever died;
No-one got sick or hurt themselves,
And no-one ever cried.”
Now this brings a major challenge to the illustrator. How to portray Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?—a traditional ‘minefield’ for Christian artists. The risks of misrepresenting Eden are huge, not to mention the fact that the pre-Fall Adam and Eve were naked (which poses all sorts of difficult issues for post-Fall eyes, both young and old). The artist, Caleb Salisbury, solves the problem magnificently, introducing ‘Eden’ pictorially as if seen in the little girl’s mind, with a simple stylized black-and-white sketch, with Adam and Eve as stick figures:
Author Margaret Wieland then moves quickly into paraphrasing succinctly the Genesis 3 account, with the illustrator using his simple black-and-white medium to delightfully emphasize the “Don’t eat the fruit” command from God, and the “Bad snake” lurking behind the tree:
The next few pages take the reader further into this calamitous event early in the world’s history that would so impact people’s and animals’ lives thereafter. But we now arrive at another challenge for the artist. Committed to drawing Adam and Eve as stick figures, how can he now evoke in the reader’s sight the realisation of their nakedness? Well, speaking as a non-artist myself, I really think the p. 17 illustration absolutely ‘nails’ it (at right).
And so the story continues, with Nana arriving at this essential teaching point for the little girl (p. 20):
“Because of this all living things
Most certainly will die;
Yes, every kind of animal,
On land, in sea or sky.”
And not just animals, but people, also, now face death:
“And that means human beings too, Yes, grandmas, you, and me;
That’s why we need to understand
Our early history.”
And, as you would surely expect, Nana concludes her answer to the little girl (p. 23) by referring to the hope we have through the Gospel of Jesus Christ:
“And you and I and everyone,
Can live again if we
Believe and put our trust in Him,
And claim His love—it’s free.”
If what I’ve referred to above represented the entirety of the book, it would be a great book. But there’s more. The final eight pages of the book comprise twenty detailed end-notes (or ‘Nana Notes’ as the author has titled them) designed for older readers who want to explore further the many theological and other issues intrinsic to any discussion of the momentous account of the Garden of Eden and the Fall in the opening chapters of Genesis. Here’s just one as a sample—it’s Nana Note #11, re the ‘serpent’:
Was this ‘being’ just another creature that God had created on Day Five? Yes—and no—certainly the ‘serpent’ was in animal form, but the fact that it could speak in words clearly understood by Eve makes it very different from every other animal in existence at that time. The Bible states clearly that God made all things in heaven and earth in those six days (Exodus 20:11), so even the angels had to be created during that time (Colossians 1:16)—and it is likely that they were created in the first part of Day 1, just before the earth (Job 38:4&7). These created angels all remained true to their Creator right up to the very end of Day 6 of the Creation Week, when God pronounced everything He had made ‘very good’. But the Bible also indicates that somewhere after that point and before the temptation of Eve, there was a rebellion in Heaven led by a being high in the angelic hierarchy, whom we now call the devil or Satan. He is described in glowing terms (Ezekiel 28:11–19). He may well have been an amazingly beautiful being. Before Eve and then Adam made the choice to go against God, so had this ‘anointed cherub’ who, as it appears, also encouraged no less than a third of the hosts of angels to join with him in this mutiny (Revelation 12:4). So, yes, this serpent was a real animal but Satan gave him voice (Revelation 12:9). For more, see creation.com/who-was-the-serpent.
In short, I recommend this book not just for children, but adults, too. In fact, author Margaret Wieland prefaces the book with this note: “This is a book to be read to (with) children, not just given to them.” Now if I could only get my Christian teacher friend Graham to actually want to read it, not just for himself but out loud to his young charges …
The real ‘Nana’, and the real little girl who questioned her
Please Nana: What is Death? and the earlier book in the series, Please Nana: Who is God?, started out as a collection of poems by Margaret Wieland for sharing with her littlest neighbour/‘granddaughter’,1 Mary-Beth Bergmann, born in 2004. Mary-Beth would often ask Margaret searching questions. Margaret relates how ‘Why, Nana?’ became a regular feature of their conversations as a young Mary-Beth began to explore her world:
“And then, one fateful day, we saw a little bird misjudge a passing car and end up in a heap on the ground almost at our feet. It was our first shared experience of death and I decided I would create something to explain ‘death’ to her and its presence now in what was originally God’s wonderful and perfect creation.”
“When it came to selecting a title for these books ‘Please, Nana’ won hands down. Without Mary-Beth and the little bird they would doubtless never have been written.”
More at www.pleasenana.com