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Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs

by Tomie DePaola


This story provides a gentle and reassuring consideration of such heavy topics as dying, death, and grief.

Tommy loves his Sunday visits to see his two Nanas. One Nana lives upstairs in bed because she is ninety- four. One day she dies. Tommy rushes to the bed where she once was, only to find it empty. Tommy must come to understand that death means not seeing Nana again, at least as the person he remembers. But, Tommy wonders over a falling star, perhaps Nana Upstairs is not so far off after all.

Read aloud video by Lights Down Reading

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

Topics like dying, death, and grief are important, but also difficult to discuss with children. Luckily for us, there are books like Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs, which gives readers a gentle and reassuring way in to a philosophical discussion about the nature of death. Death is an inevitable and natural part of life. It is also the part we know the least about, since to date, no one has come back with a description. In spite of this, we try to understand death as best we can. We try to draw parallels to things we can understand. We say things like Tommy’s mother says to him, that dead loved ones live on in our memories.

But what is it really to die? Is the notion of surviving death at all even coherent? Many dominant world religions seem to suggest so. In fact, if one is good in life, some traditions claim, then life after death is very pleasant. But as Tommy notices, Nana is gone. So whatever survives death must be quite different from anything we would normally associate with a person. And what of memories? Philosophically speaking, it means something to say that our memories can somehow contain the essence of a life lost. How could a memory store such an essence? Do memories have contents like this? Or is a memory more like a historically-informed imagining? Tying the notion of surviving death to memories seems to raise more questions than it answers.

Nevertheless, many seek comfort from grief in such thoughts. Tommy feels comforted by the idea that in seeing the shooting stars, his Nanas are still somehow with him, in more than just memory. His comfort comes not from memories, but from some kind of perception of the essences of his Nanas; that their presence was somehow real, even if not tangible. Philosophically, we may wonder just what the nature of this essence is, and whether we actually perceive them in the way that Tommy believes he perceives his Nanas in the shooting stars.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Tommy is told that Nana Upstairs has died.

  1. Has someone close to you ever died? If so, how did you feel when you found out?
  2. Tommy wonders where Nana Upstairs went. Where do you think we go when we die? Do we go anywhere?
  3. What do you think happens to a person when they die?
  4. Do you think it is possible to survive death? If so, how so? If not, why not?

His mother tells him that Nana lives on in his memories.

  1. What does it mean to live on in a memory? Is it the same as being alive? How is it different? Are there any similarities?
  2. Do you think that being remembered is a way to survive death?
  3. Do you think your memories of people or pets that have died somehow allow them to continue to survive after death?
  4. Do you think other people’s memories of you will allow you to survive death someday? How? What do you think reality will be like?

One day, Tommy realizes that Nana Downstairs has come to be very much like Nana Upstairs.

  1. Have you ever noticed that some people are older than you? Have you ever noticed that someone has gotten older?
  2. What do you think happens when you get old? Is it scary? What makes it seem scary? Why might it not be scary?
  3. Both of Tommy’s Nanas were very old when they died. Do you have to be old to die?

At the end of the story, Tommy says that both of his Nanas are “Nana Upstairs”

  1. Why does seeing a shooting star make Tommy think of his Nana? Do you think there is a connection between his Nana and the shooting star? What is the connection?
  2. What does Tommy mean when he says that both of his Nanas are “Nana Upstairs”? Why do you think so?
  3. Does Tommy think that his Nanas have survived death? Why do you think so? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion archived here. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

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Back to All Books Cover image of the book Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs with an illustration of two older ladies with a young child standing between them. One of the ladies wears a pink dress and stands while the other lady wears a sleeping jacket and sits in a wooden chair. A small bunny sits at the feet of the seated woman. Download & Print Email Book Module

About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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