“Benny’s Hat” – a beautiful book about a sibling’s death to cancer

Benny's Hat book cover

Benny’s Hat

Text by Juliet Clare Bell
Illustrations by Dave Gray
Published by Pomelo Pip in 2017


Benny’s Hat is a beautiful, fully illustrated children’s book, which gently deals with the difficult subject of a sibling’s death to cancer in a way very young children can understand.

It is the story about Friz and her big brother Benny, who has this crazy hat, which he wears all the time. When we first meet the siblings, they play frisbee outside, and it quickly becomes clear that Friz adores her big brother. He taught her how to play frisbee when she was little, and lovingly calls her ‘the Frisbee Queen’.

Benny's Hat - double page spread of Benny and Friz playing frisbee

The pair have a lovely relationship, but soon Benny gets ill. And it’s not the kind where you just stay off school. It’s the kind where you have to go to hospital.

Over the next few pages, we learn that Benny’s illness is progressing, and as we see him visiting ‘Saplings’, a children’s hospice, for respite, it becomes clear that his cancer is not curable.

Benny's Hat - Benny visits Saplings, a children's hospice

He keeps going to the hospital, then comes home again, then goes back to the hospital, but soon the time comes for him to stay at Saplings. Friz is angry, sad and confused, and doesn’t want her big brother to go, so she decides to hide his precious hat, trying to delay his inevitable departure. But Dad just says that they don’t have time to look, and that Benny will have to wear one of his hats.

Friz thinks that Dad’s boring hat looks all wrong on Benny, so she makes him a new one to go on top, before confessing that she hid it because she didn’t want her brother to come here. Because she doesn’t want him to die.

“Thanks for trying, Friz”, he says, before going to sleep.

Benny's Hat - hugs at the hospice

When their uncle brings the hat to the hospice later on, Benny gently encourages his little sister to wear it.

He dies later on that day. ‘Really quietly, like it isn’t a big thing. But it is.’

Benny's Hat - Benny has died

The book then goes on to describe what happens after Benny’s death – it talks about saying goodbye, how an angry Friz buries her brother’s hat in the garden, so she never has to see it again, the funeral, and shows the whole family sneaking into Benny’s bedroom one night, as their pain about his loss is raw and tangible and they are looking for some comfort in his smell and surroundings.

Benny's Hat - sneaking into his bedroom after his death

Time passes, but deep sadness and loss still live in their house. One day, Friz asks if she can go the park. Reluctantly her parents agree, and they all go together, but not before Friz digs up her big brother’s hat.

The book finishes where it started – outside, with Friz proudly, if a little sad, wearing her brother’s now pretty dirty hat, when she sees a little girl trying to throw a frisbee. All of a sudden, she knows what to do, and walks over. And with a ‘I can show you if you like. I’m Friz. I’m the Frisbee Queen.’, we know that there is life after loss. That it is okay to feel sad, but that it is okay to feel happy, too, and that we can carry on without ‘moving on’ and without forgetting our loved one…

Benny's Hat - playing frisbee outside after his death

A truly beautiful book, which deals sensitively with the death of a young sibling, and describes some of the confusing feelings a child – or anyone for that matter – may feel through such difficult times, like jealousy, anger, helplessness, sadness, joy and loneliness.

There are notes for parents at the back with tips on talking about Benny’s Hat with your child, activities you might try doing with your child, and links to organisations that are here to help you and your family.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

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