Emma’s Question

Emma’s Question is based on my family’s experience dealing with my mom’s cancer. Many of the details are true: the little girl and her mother visit Grandma in the hospital, much like my daughters and I visited my mom. They bring the game Chutes and Ladders; we usually brought Guess Who.  Like the grandma in the story, my mom told her grandchildren that her IV rack was her “dancing partner.” This made them laugh and kept them from being scared. 

However, I did make up many of the details in Emma’s Question; for example, my mom was too polite to go to a restaurant and make up stories about the people at the next table.

The most important truth in Emma’s Question is the overall feeling behind the story. At one point, Emma notes that ‘with Grandma sick everything was different.’ Even though I was an adult at the time of my mom’s illness, I kept wishing everything could return to the way it was before. I wanted to stop feeling scared and sad.


Make a Card for Someone Who is Sick or Hurting
When people are sick or hurt, a card can make them feel better. With a little bit of creativity, you can make a unique card: a pop-up card or one with band-aids and googly eyes.

When Someone You Love is Really Sick:
Helping Children Understand Illness and Death 
In this Q & A psychologists explain why it’s important to talk to children about illness and death and how best to approach these topics in conversation.

Books about Illness and Death
In the course of creating Emma’s Question, I have compiled a list of books to help both children and adults cope with illness and death.


“Without heavy messages, this lively, honest picture book confronts big questions many preschoolers are afraid to ask. When Emma’s beloved grandmother gets sick and has to stay in the hospital, Emma gets in trouble at kindergarten and at home. Clear ink-and-watercolor illustrations show her tension building, with her friends at school, with Mama at home, and, in a climactic close-up, with Grandma at the hospital, where she is frightened by the tubes and bags taped to Grandma’s arm. Grandma is frail, but she knows Emma has a question, which finally bursts out: “Are you going to die?” Grandma’s answer is direct and reassuring: “Sometime … But not now.” Then Grandma and Emma play Chutes and Ladders as they tease and talk with each other. Great for grief counseling, before and after a death in the family, this will help kids cope with loss and celebrate the lasting bond with someone they love.” (Booklist)

“Emma’s grandmother has become gravely ill and is hospitalized the night before she is scheduled to read to her granddaughter’s kindergarten class. Emma is doubly disappointed because she and Grandma have bagels together in a restaurant every Wednesday and will have to miss a date. But, most of all, the girl is scared. She has a question that she’s too afraid to ask. Her mother inquires if Emma wants to talk about her grandmother, but the five-year-old can’t formulate the words. When she visits her in the hospital, Emma finally blurts out, ‘Are you going to die?’ Though her mother is shocked by the question, Grandma’s answer is frank and honest: ‘Not today. I have a Chutes and Ladders game to play.’ And, when her granddaughter presses the issue a bit, the woman concedes that it will happen ‘sometime, but not now.’ Large, bright pen-and-ink and watercolor cartoon illustrations help alleviate the sadness of the situation. This open-ended story offers a child-centric vehicle for discussion and is just right for one-on-one sharing.” (School Library Journal, Maryann H. Owen, Racine Public Library, WI)

“When someone close is seriously ill, children may worry about whether the person will die. This is Emma’s struggle when her Grandma becomes ill and is hospitalized just as she’s scheduled to read to Emma’s kindergarten class. Emma immediately wonders whether Grandma is dying, but can’t bring herself to ask, even when Mama invites her to talk about Grandma. Emma’s parents are sad, her classmate is insensitive, and she’s so preoccupied that lots of little things go wrong. She misses the security of her routines with Grandma. When Emma is finally allowed to visit Grandma at the hospital, after several days, she can’t help asking whether she’s dying. Although Mama is aghast, Grandma is accepting, and tells Emma that she isn’t going to die right away— ‘Sometime … But not now.’ With Grandma, Emma finds ways to adapt their routines during the hospitalization, and this helps restore Emma’s sense of security and connection. Without giving false reassurance, this story offers hope, along with acceptance children’s worries.” (Healing Stories, Jacqueline Golding)

Cathy’s note:you can learn more about Dr. Golding’s book Healing Stories: Picture Books for the Big and Small Changes in a Child’s Life by visiting her blog: www.healing-stories.com.

“Grandma is sick and five year old Emma is worried. Like so many children she has serious questions that ‘scritch and scratch’ at the back of her throat—questions she is afraid to ask. This is a tender book that addresses an all too common experience. This just might be helpful for such moments in the life of a family. There is no final answer here, nor a happily ever after glossing over. It’s a gracefully crafted story that shows the true grit of Grandma and how life goes on even in the face of uncertainty.” (Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award — Spring Book Reviews)

Emma's Question

written by Catherine Urdahl
illustrated by Janine Dawson
Charlesbridge, 2006

Find this book at your public library
or your favorite used bookseller.