'I just hope that it can help': Susan Varley on her iconic book about grief, Badger's Parting Gifts

Published on: 12 March 2019 Author: Susan Varley

Badger's Parting Gifts, the iconic picture book about bereavement and grief, is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. Author-illustrator Susan Varley tells us how she wrote it - and what it was like to revisit it recently...

Badger's Parting Gifts and author Susan Varley

Badger's Parting Gifts began as a college project in my final year at Manchester Polytechnic. The idea for it was not my own - it was 'given' to me by my tutor, Tony Ross.

He liked a drawing I had done of a badger character and told me a story he had in his head about a badger who dies, which he graciously allowed me to use. My much-loved grandma had died earlier that year, so the story struck a chord with me and it became my college project.

In the book, I used the seasons to emphasise the passage of time. Having grieved in the dark days of winter, the spring – a time for new beginnings - heralds the start of the animals beginning to remember and celebrate the life of the their much-loved friend. In today's fast paced lifestyle, we have to be kind to ourselves and allow ourselves to grieve at our own pace. 

So much has changed over the years about how we talk about death, especially with young children. When Badger first came out, some booksellers were unwilling to take it because of the subject matter. Today, people are much more open about their feelings and willing to discuss difficult issues.

Death is still a hard subject to talk about with children, but with thought and sensitivity, it can be done.

Back in 1982 when Badger was written, I was 21 years old with little knowledge and experience in life. I didn't do any research into death or grieving - Badger came simply from who I was at the time, and I was and am no expert on the subject.

Revisiting Badger for the 35th anniversary

It's lovely that for the 35th anniversary of Badger's Parting Gifts we have some incredible resources written by Child Bereavement UK at the back of the book, with more available online

They can help adults have those difficult conversations with children and young people about death using the book – I just hope that it can help in people's time of need.

It came as a complete surprise when Andersen Press asked me to draw a new front cover for the 35th anniversary edition. I hadn't looked at Badger for many years, but revisiting it evoked a lot of memories.

The characters in the book are very much a part of me and I can clearly remember drawing the original illustrations, but just like handwriting, pen-touch changes with time, and I know I can't draw in exactly the same way I drew then.

The technique I use isn't a very controlled one. It's really more like doodling - simply a series of marks made by the pen feeling its way around the character. It was much freer then than it is now, so I was a little worried about putting pen to paper.

The new drawings aren't the same as the originals, but they don't look out of place either, and I'm pleased with the way they turned out and to have had the opportunity to make a few additions to the book.

How stories can help at difficult times

Badger's Parting Gifts doesn't work for everyone, but over 35 years I have had so many heart-warming responses - not only from individuals, but also from people who use the book professionally. Teachers have used the book in the classroom - one school even put on a performance complete with songs.

One particularly poignant moment was when a doctor showed me his well-thumbed copy of Badger. Touchingly, the endpapers were completely covered with the signatures from bereaved families who had borrowed the book over the years.

I never imagined when Badger was written that it would reach so many people or be so enduring. I recently met someone who had been given the book as a child and was now giving the book to their own child!

Resources from Child Bereavement UK on Badger's Parting Gifts are available on the Child Bereavement UK website.

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