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 said. “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, owner of the Bookies, a bookstore in Denver, suggests this book as an introduction to ADHD.
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 Cottage Press Publishing author 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.
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 said.
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 said. Bright illustrations and simple text make the topic of a parent’s illness accessible.
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 said.
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.
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 OK 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 said.