Q&A with Sarah J. Dodd author of Beyond the Setting Sun

24 October 2021

This month we’re publishing Sarah J. Dodd‘s beautiful new picture book, Beyond the Setting Sun, that explores grief and loss— available to preorder today here today! Beyond the Setting Sun is a picture story book about bereavement to support young children, specifically those who have lost a parent. Sarah J. Dodd carefully researched the stages of grief for young children and sensitively portrays this in the response and actions of Ekundayo, a young elephant grieving his mothers death. Ekundayo’s story helps children express and share how they are feeling with those around them.

Many of you will know Sarah J. Dodd as the author of some of your favorite picture books — Just Like You, Legs, Alive Again, and The Lion Picture Bible. And we are thrilled to chat with Sarah about her new book, Beyond the Setting Sun, and how it can help both children and adults during the difficult bereavement process. Scroll down to read the full interview.

What inspired you to write Beyond the Setting Sun?

When Lion invited me to have a go at writing a book for children about grief, I drew on my own experiences of bereavement. Although this is something that happens to many people of all ages, it is probably the single greatest upheaval we can experience in life. I wanted to write a book that would show children that there can be hope and love throughout the process of grieving and beyond.

What does the title mean?

I am fortunate enough to live in a place with incredible sunsets over the mountains and the sea, and I always find them hugely inspiring and hopeful. They make me ponder spiritual things.  I imagined an animal might look at a sunset and wonder what lies beyond, which is a question we humans often ask ourselves about death, isn’t it? What is it like? Is there anything more? As a Christian, I have clear and positive views about this, but I wanted to write something that would give hope to everyone, regardless of their beliefs. And the beautiful thing about a sunset is that we know it’s not the end of the light, just a period of darkness before everything starts again. In the book, Momma is very positive when she sings that she would one day like go beyond the setting sun, and I wanted to foster an environment where children feel safe to ask their questions in a similarly positive way.

What do you hope children will learn and feel after reading the book?

Firstly, I hope their experience of reading the book – or having it read to them – with a comforting adult presence will be a positive thing in the midst of a time of loss. I also hope they will see that it’s normal to have different reactions such as feeling angry, feeling lost or crying a lot. Through the pages of the story, they see Ekundayo attending Momma’s funeral, which will help them to understand that this is a healthy way for everyone to come together and say goodbye. The characters in the book all fondly remember and repeat Momma’s songs, so hopefully it will encourage children to remember lots of lovely things that were unique to the person (or pet) they have lost.

Most of all, I hope they will feel loved and strengthened. I have no doubt the book will bring tears, but they will see that Ekundayo cries a lot too, and that afterwards he sees the sun and the bright flowers and is able to see that not everything is lost.

What did you learn when writing the book?

I did quite a lot of research into the stages of grief that children go through – things like not really understanding what is going on, having tantrums, going through a phase of searching for the person who has died etc.  One of the things that really struck me was that adults are advised to be clear about what has happened, not using phrases such as ‘fallen asleep’ or ‘passed on.’  Apparently this can leave a child thinking that the person really is asleep and will wake up again, or that they have left and might come back. That’s why, in Beyond the Setting Sun, Aunt Jamila corrects herself. She first says that Momma has gone beyond the setting sun because that’s how the elephants talk about death, but Ekundayo can clearly see her lying beneath her favourite tree. So Aunt Jamila tells him she has died.  This can feel like a very blunt statement, especially when reading it aloud, but bereavement experts agree it is important to state this.

I also took a while to choose a name for the baby elephant, settling on Ekundayo because (as far as I understand it from Internet searches!) it’s a name that can be used for both boys and girls, and it means ‘From Sorrow to Joy.’ Using an animal character makes the story universal, in that it’s not about a boy or a girl or a person from any particular culture. Everyone can identify with Ekundayo.

How was it working with Cee Biscoe and bringing your story to life through her drawings?

I have never had the privilege to meet Cee, but her illustrations are what really brings the story to life. When I write a picture book text I usually have clear images in mind, so I jot down some suggestions but I never know how they will be interpreted. It was an absolute thrill, then, to see how Cee brought them to life in full colour. Her rich colours evoke not only the African setting but also the emotional changes throughout the story – the darkness of Ekundayo’s grief in the rain, and then the vibrant warmth of the flowers blooming around a full waterhole. She also captures his expressions perfectly, making him a living character. I am in awe of her talent and very grateful for her work.

Is this book only for children?

It was written very much with children in mind, but some adults who have read it say that they too have found it helpful. I am told that it has also been useful for older people with dementia, especially if they lost a parent when they were very young, at a time when they weren’t given the opportunity to ask the questions they wanted to. It does have a very emotional effect on people, but sadness is an appropriate, healthy response to grief. If all the books in the world were happy or funny, they wouldn’t represent the full range of normal human life. And that, after all, is what books do so well.

Beyond the setting sun

Beyond the Setting Sun

by Sarah J. Dodd and Cee Biscoe

The waterholes of the African Savannah have dried up and there has not been enough to drink for some of the animals. Ekundayo, a young elephant, struggles to understand the loss of his mother, but the support of his family help and guide him through. 

At the end, Debbie Duncan also provides helpful advice for parents and carers as consider how to talk about death and dying with young children.

Sarah J. Dodd

Sarah J. Dodd

Sarah J. Dodd grew up in the north of England and spent her time walking with her family, reading as many books as she could get her hands on, or dreaming about horses. Her first career was in Science, with a degree in Environmental Science and a PhD in Plant Ecology. Then she discovered her passion for working with children and became a primary school teacher. After living in Australia for a while, she returned to the UK and settled in Lancashire, where she still lives. When she became a full-time mum, she began to pursue her childhood dream of becoming an author, and her first book was published in 2008. A lover of mountains, maps and mysterious paths, she will try anything once and loves to get her hands and clothes dirty in the name of fun and adventure. She is the author of Beyond The Setting SunJust Like YouThe Lion Picture Bible and Legs.

Other picture books by Sarah J. Dodd: