Young children understandably often have a tough time navigating grown-up issues, such as death and divorce, and parents can have a hard time explaining things. Enter picture books.
It’s easier for kids to process things they hear “third-hand” during reading-time cuddles, says Wayne Fleisig, a clinical psychologist and member of the board of advisers for “Parents” magazine. “Books can be a good and nonthreatening platform in which to discuss difficult subjects,” he says. “There are pictures to distract them if things get overwhelming and they do not have to approach the subject head on, but instead can take in a small amount at a time.”
Fleisig says parents need to vet the book first to see if it’s age-appropriate — or appropriate for your kids’ personalities — and to help you anticipate questions. Also be willing to say, “That is a good question. Let me think about it and I will get back to later with an answer.” If a child is resisting a subject, or seems uncomfortable, put the book down and try again later.
Here is a quick guide to picture books to read during hard times, or to help explain distressing subjects. Use it for you, or find one for a friend who is guiding her kids through a valley. If you can’t find a topic here, ask your closest independent bookstore for recommendations.
ADD/ADHD: New this year, with three awards already, “Mrs. Gorski I Think I Have the Wiggle Fidgets” by Barbara Esham and illustrated by Mike and Carl Gordon is about a boy who gets scolded often for not paying attention in class. He comes up with his own plan to minimize his “wiggle fidgets.” Shona Snowden, bookseller for the Bookies, a bookstore in Denver, suggests this book as an introduction to ADHD.
Adoption: “Room for Bear” by Ciara Gavin is about a bear who finds a new home with five little ducks. He doesn’t quite fit, but “they all learn to love one another for their differences,” says Rebecca Tanner, who, with sisters-in-law Jane Tanner and Tiffany Tanner, founded Bookroo, a book subscription service in Provo, Utah. This book works for adoption, as well as for the general concept of fitting in.
Anxiety: A book as helpful to adults as children, “Jonathan James and the Whatif Monster” by Michelle Nelson-Schmidt addresses all the things that could go wrong for the monster Jonathan James in new situations — and then all the things that could go right.
Bad Days: “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Ray Cruz is a must-have classic for Kathy Weitz, the author of Cottage Press Publishing and director of curriculum development at Providence Prep in Purcellville, Va. It’s an all-encompassing story for any uncomfortable situation a child might experience.
Bravery: “Saint George and the Dragon” by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman is a retelling for children of a segment of Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen” in which the Red Cross Knight slays a dragon. Weitz, who raised five children, recommends stories like this for kids because she says “developing an imagination helps children to see that trouble is not the end of the story.”
Bullying: The Bookies’ staff recommends “Red” by Jan De Kinder, in which a child is bullied for blushing on the playground. “The fantastic thing about this book is that it shows not only how easy it is to hurt someone’s feelings and trigger bullying, but also how hard it is to go against the flow and stand up for the victim,” Snowden says.
Cancer: More than 10 years old, “Mom Has Cancer” by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos and illustrated by Marta Fabrega is “still one of the most straightforward and reassuring books about cancer for young children,” Snowden says. Bright illustrations and simple text make the topic of a parent’s illness accessible.
Dementia: “What a Beautiful Morning” by Arthur Levine and illustrated by Katie Kath is about a child’s relationship with his grandfather, and provides “a gentle approach to a topic that may be hard for the youngest child to understand,” says Diane Capriola, co-owner of the children’s bookstore Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga.
Deployments: A board book for the very young, “Home Again” by Dorinda Silver Williams and illustrated by Brenda Grilliam was a book I was given when I had my first child and my husband was deployed. We have since read it to our son, and now our daughter, during U.S. Army Reserve training and then active duty training. It’s published by Zero to Three, which also gave us a little board book that we can slip pictures of my husband into for illustrations.
Divorce: After a family of bandits splits up, the dad marries a princess and the mom marries a dragon. “No Ordinary Family!” by Ute Krause “shows how the children [in the story] navigate their new lives and adventures,” Tanner says.
Glasses: Sometimes, something as simple as getting glasses can be tough for a young child. Seeing bears wearing glasses — and dogs wearing shoes and birds wearing tutus — can help! “Bear’s Got Glasses: A Touch and Feel Story” by Marcia White has been a favorite of my son’s since he got glasses when he was 2.
Grief: In “Boats for Papa” by Jessixa Bagley, a beaver makes boats out of driftwood and sends them across the water in the hopes that they won’t come back, which means they made it to his father. In a quiet moment, we see mama beaver grieve, too. “Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss” by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen and illustrated by Taylor Bills was handed to me by a counselor years ago because it’s just as helpful for grown-ups as it is for kids. Grandy, who has just lost Pops, set out to make a soup of memories, good times and tears. Written by a nurse, the book includes a lot of advice about grieving.
Moving: In Eric Carle’s fable, “A House for Hermit Crab,” a crab knows it’s time for a new shell, but he’s frightened about searching in the scary ocean. When he does find a new shell he reaches out to other sea creatures to help him decorate it and make it feel like home.
New Siblings: While some children are thrilled to have a new baby in the house, others are not. “Julius, the Baby of the World,” by Kevin Henkes is a modern classic recommended by Capriola. “It is a funny and incredibly honest look at all that can happen — both good and not so good — when a new baby comes home.”
Picky Eating: “But I Don’t Eat Ants” by Dan Marvin and illustrated by Kelly Fry follows an anteater and his diet. Of course, he doesn’t like ants, and he wonders, why are “anteaters” named for what they eat anyway. At the end of the book, his mother serves him something red, crunchy and yummy, and he likes it, not realizing it is fire ants — at which point my son chuckled, catching on to the joke. He does eat ants, it turns out.
Potty Training: Capriola says the new book “Even Superheroes Use the Potty” by Sara Crow and illustrated by Adam Record normalizes going to the potty “without being didactic or too obvious.” It shows a superhero, ninja and firefighter stopping their adventures for toilet time. An added bonus: The book comes with stickers and a bathroom reward chart.
Sex: Is there a more uncomfortable subject to talk with kids about than sex? “It’s Not the Stork!” by Robie H. Harris and illustrated by Michael Emberley not only answers kids’ questions, it teaches them anatomically appropriate names for body parts and the difference between okay and not-okay touches.
Special Needs: Picture books are an especially wonderful tool for helping children with special needs understand themselves and their place in the world. While many are for specific disorders, disabilities and needs, “Not So Different: What You Really Want to Ask About Having a Disability” by Shane Burcaw and illustrated by Matt Carr lets kids know it’s okay to ask questions about differences. “While this isn’t a traditional picture book and isn’t written with a particularly young audience in mind, we road-tested it at a preschool story time and the kids responded really well,” Snowden says.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Shona Snowden is the owner of the Bookies, an independent bookstore in Denver. Snowden is the store’s bookseller. The story has been updated.
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