Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Tackling Tough Topics . . . With Picture Books -- by Christy Mihaly

Boston Public Library: Illustration
by Jessie Wilcox Smith
from Wikimedia
Many parents and caregivers turn to books to help children understand and face new challenges, from the first day of school to the birth of a new sibling. Books can be especially comforting when a child confronts a frightening experience. I remember my four-year-old self, before my tonsillectomy, asking my parents to read and re-read a book about a child undergoing this surgery. (The main point as I recall it was that, after the operation, one eats a great deal of ice cream.)

Today, there are children's books on many tough topics, even for the very young.

Where to find these books? 

The library, of course.

I asked Nicole, my children’s librarian, to help me identify appropriate books for small children dealing with difficult issues. 

She directed me to the Parenting Shelf in the children’s section. There, interspersed with parenting guides and books for divorcing parents, parents of special needs children, and so forth, was shelved a diverse selection of picture books, designed for adults to share with kids. I checked out a pile.

What a range of topics! 
There are picture books about: 


The death of a pet, a family member, a friend

These books help children understand what death is, and how we grieve. They can help kids talk about, and work through, the loss of a loved one.

Divorce and Separation

Many picture books aim to help kids understand that their parents still love them, even though they aren't together -- and it's not the children's fault!

Depression and other family mental health issues 

When a parent suffers from depression or other mental or emotional conditions, the child may be suffering too. Books can offer explanations and start conversations. 

A parent in prison

The pain of a child whose parent is absent because he's in prison, the potential for shame and embarrassment, and the joy of visiting day are treated in these and other books for young kids.

Serious illness: of the child, or a parent or friend

Picture books feature characters coping with range of illnesses, from diabetes to chicken pox to cancer. In some, a child is ill, in others, it's a friend or family member. 

The Famous Hat --
A story book to help children with childhood cancer to prepare for treatment, namely chemotherapy, and losing their hair

Physical differences: eyeglasses, hearing aids, disabilities

There are books to help a child deal with, and discuss, disabilities and adaptive technologies from eyeglasses to wheelchairs and beyond.

Post-traumatic stress

This picture book is written for children, ages 4-8, who have witnessed violence or trauma (from an accident to domestic violence to war). It explains the physical symptoms, and the terror, that a child can experience, and suggests how to talk about what happened. Yes, it's tragic that such a book is needed. But how wonderful that it's available, to comfort a child who needs it.

There are more books on other tough topics, including these: 

  • Developmental differences
  • Drug or alcohol abuse (in the family)
  • Visits to doctors, dentists, hospitals
  • Dealing with shyness and other anxieties
  • Adoption
  • A parent in the military going to war

The right book can be hard to find, and quality may vary. Even if a book appears relevant, it's not always appropriate for a particular child and situation. The parent or caregiver should preview a tough-topic book before reading it to the child, and pay close attention during the reading. How much content is the child is ready for? Does the book appear to worry her? You'll know it's a keeper if she says:
 "Read that again!"

Note to picture book writers: 
Do you want to write a book about one of these tough topics, or do you see a need not addressed by the titles listed here? Does one of the pictured books inspire you to write your own, updating an old classic theme or providing a modern perspective for today’s youngsters? 

Some of these books are by mainstream publishers; others are published by nonprofit organizations or specialized presses. If there's a topic you're particularly interested in, or familiar with, consider contacting an appropriate organization with your book idea. Perhaps one day your tough-topic picture book will have a child begging, "Read it again!"


  1. Chris, these are important topics and ones all writers should consider. Kids with problems need to see themselves in our work, too. Thank you for the pile of books today.

  2. This is a great list and just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tough topics. Thank you!

  3. Thanks for posting about this topic. We need books of all kinds to share with children. Your post makes me think about Lucille Clifton's book: Everett Anderson's Good-bye. It's about a little boy dealing with his father's death. Gorgeously illustrated and lyrically written, I highly recommend it.

    1. Jilianne, Thank you, and thanks for the recommendation. I will check that book out!

  4. Great list, Christy. I've been wanting to read Judith Viorst's book for some time after my daughter's pet hamster died. Very traumatic for us.

  5. What a variety! Thanks for showcasing these books, Chris.

  6. And there's the gorgeous picture book (starring a pair of beavers), Boats for Papa, about the death of a father.

  7. That's a tall stack of excellent books, Chris. Thank you for debuting these titles about topics that are important.