“Mommy, did you know a man shot a lot of little kids in a school a few days ago?” my oldest son asked during dinner.

I sputtered, choking on my mashed potatoes. It was December 2012, a week after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. My son Colin was in first grade. We live 20 miles from Newtown, and the tragedy was at the forefront of everyone’s heart and minds. Our local schools were having lockdowns and drills in its wake. As parents, we’d been advised by our school district to keep children away from the upsetting headlines and television broadcasts.

My husband and I had already decided not to mention the tragedy to our children, then 6, 4, and 2. We thought they were too young to make sense of what had happened. Our son Colin is a worrier by nature, and we didn’t want him fretting or too frightened to go to school. Yet there he was at the table, his eyes wide and confused, informing me of the very tragedy we’d been trying so hard to shield him from. Later, I learned that he’d overheard some fifth graders on his bus talking about the shootings.

In the moment, though, I floundered, unsure of how to answer him in a way that was truthful and comforting. Finally I told him that, yes, I knew what had happened. We talked about how sad and horrible it was, then talked about the ways his school and our community was working to keep everyone safe.

Versions of our first discussion continued for weeks afterwards. For the first time in Colin’s life, tragedy had struck close to his own little universe. For the first time in my parenting life, I had to make difficult decisions about how to guide him without paralyzing him with fear.

I rehashed our discussions later, wondering if what I’d told him was helpful, second-guessing my words and abilities. Then I did something I’ve done my entire life. I looked for a book — a book to read to him that would address his fears and questions. I wasn’t looking for a book to cheer him up or distract him. Instead, I wanted one that would speak to what he was experiencing.

That winter, we read Kathi Appelt’s Newberry-Medal winner, The Underneath. The book was beautifully lyrical — a story about loyalty and friendship, but also about tremendous loss. It was sad, and there were moments reading it when we both felt tearful. There were times I worried that the book was too mature for him, and I thought about putting it aside. I was glad I didn’t, because, as children often do, Colin surprised me.

He asked thoughtful questions. We cuddled on his bed while we talked about death, hope, and the destructiveness of hatred. The story resonated with him, and in turn, made me braver in selecting books for him.

The following year we read The Liberation of Gabriel King, by K.L. Going. The book was about a chronic worrier who reminded me of Colin. It was also about racism and prejudice. Colin had never heard of the Ku Klux Klan before we read the book, but soon we were discussing it along with aspects of the Civil Rights Movement he hadn’t yet touched on in school. Last year, his third-grade class read Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie, and that spurred a discussion about drugs and addiction.

So far my children have led sheltered lives, which is exactly why I want them reading books about difficult, uncomfortable topics. They’ve never experienced violence or prejudice firsthand, but I believe reading about it will broaden their views and open their eyes to others’ lives and experiences.

For children born into hardship, abuse, or tragic circumstances, reading books about what they’ve experienced assures them that they’re not alone. We find solace in sharing grief, and often people who’ve suffered through similar losses are the ones to offer us the most comfort. Solidarity grows from facing hardship together. Characters from books have the power to offer that solidarity as much as any living person.

Recently I was discussing my newest young adult novel, Serendipity’s Footsteps, with a mother who was interested in purchasing it for her daughter. I cautioned her that it dealt with the Holocaust and contained violent scenes. Then I added, “There’s pain, but it’s purposeful.” The pain of historical persecution and brutalities must be revisited by each generation, even if it’s as remembrances in the pages of a book. It’s the only way we can hope to break cycles of repeated malice or discrimination.

As a mother, my instinct is to protect my children from pain. But life won’t always be fair or kind to my children. It will be messy, glorious, and terrifying. It will deal them blows I feel they’re too young or ill-equipped to handle. People they meet may be wonderfully kind or unforgivably cruel. It’s my job to give my children love, but also to give them ways to navigate the unexpected and painful.

There are times when I, too, feel lost. That’s when I reach for the best maps I know of. Books. Yes, I turn to them for happy endings, but I also turn to them for answers to questions I don’t have the wisdom, strength, or courage to answer on my own. Why shouldn’t my children do the same? Books without easy answers open doors to discussion. They offer connections to other people, places, and cultures.

By portraying characters facing difficult or tragic circumstances, they provide us with tools we need to learn empathy or to survive similar challenges ourselves. Books — especially the ones that keep us up at night, that bring us to tears, that make us angry at injustice, prejudice, and senseless violence — have much to offer, if we’re brave enough to accept it. They can guide us on our journey through this imperfect world.

Nelson is the author of Serendipity’s Footsteps, Cake Pop Crush, and other novels for middle grade and young adult readers. A former editor, Nelson worked for Scholastic, Penguin Books for Young Readers, and Holiday House. She tweets @snelsonbooks.

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