Whew. It was a rough week for a lot of us, losing both David Bowie and Alan Rickman to cancer. It made me think about how we deal with grief and discomfort, and how we model that for our kids. Looking through my stack of picture books, I actually found quite a few books that touch on difficult topics.
These are books for younger kids, so most of them take a light-hearted approach to things, but they do address a lot of troubles that kids may experience. Some may seem trivial to us, like playing well together at a playdate or getting new glasses, but there are others about difficult teachers or bullying kids or losing a loved one.
Todd Parr is well-known for his colorful, simple illustrations and encouraging words for kids. The Goodbye Book is about saying goodbye, and the many different feelings you might have when saying goodbye to a loved one. The book never specifically calls it death, so for younger kids it could also apply to somebody who’s moving away. Parr doesn’t tell kids not to feel sad, but instead acknowledges that they’ll have up days and down days, and that it’s okay to feel sad or mad. But he also encourages them to remember the good things you’ve shared, the special times, and how much you love them.
This picture book is about losing a grandparent, told in an imaginative way. Syd goes to visit his Grandad often, but one day his Grandad takes him up to the attic and shows him a big metal door he’d never seen before. When they go through, they find themselves on a huge ship, sailing across the sea to a wonderful little island where they have a grand time together… and then Grandad tells Syd that he’s going to stay on the island and they hug goodbye. It’s a lovely image of “going to a better place” and although Syd misses his grandfather, he is left with the memories of all the things his grandfather enjoys.
The Plan is almost a wordless book, and it’s sort of a word game. It starts with “plan,” and then it’s just a series of words in which one letter is changed: plan, plane, planet, plant… while the illustrations tell the story of a young girl with a plan to fly to Saturn. As you read the book, you discover that her deceased mom was a pilot, so then plan then seems like a way to honor her memory.
Miss Keller is the toughest writing teacher in school–rumor has it she’s never given anyone an A. When Trisha starts her class, she finds that the rumors are true: Miss Keller is harsh and critical, and says that Trisha’s writing has no emotional connection with the reader. But then Trisha suffers a personal loss: her good friend and mentor passes away. Her heartfelt tribute to Pop finally earns her an A, and starts her on the path to becoming a writer. This true story by Patricia Polacco is touching and inspiring: it is about losing a loved one and dealing with a difficult teacher, but also about using words to honor someone’s memory.
There are a lot of upsetting things that can happen to a kid–losing your balloon, breaking a toy, scraping a knee. This book is about looking for the rainbow when life gives you rain, finding a new perspective. It’s a little more simple (and a pretty short picture book) so it’s probably most suitable for little kids, but it couldn’t hurt to have this as a reminder even as an adult.
A little oak tree loves his leaves. When fall comes and the other trees around him let go of their leaves, he clings to his, because he can’t imagine what he would be without them. And so then when spring arrives, he’s still covered in dead brown leaves, while life and growth go on around him. Little Tree is a beautifully illustrated parable about having the courage to let go. It struck me especially because I had written a poem with a very similar story back in college, and I was reminded again that there are seasons in our lives–sometimes we have to admit to ourselves when a season has ended and a new one has begun.
Another one by Parr, this time about making mistakes. From wearing two different socks to falling down to getting upset, there are lots of different mistakes that we can make, some with more serious consequences than others. But Parr explains that everyone makes mistakes, and there’s often something we can learn from them.
The Holm siblings, known for their Babymouse and Squish comics, have teamed up again for these “My First Comics” books for very young kids. They’re board books, but done in a comics format. In I’m Sunny, Sunny is a happy sun with a balloon who learns a lesson about sharing. In I’m Grumpy, Grumpy Cloud just gets grumpier when Sunny tries to cheer him up, but then feels bad for lashing out and apologizes. While neither book gets very deep into the details of difficult issues, they do offer brief lessons about being friends, and get your wee ones primed for reading more comics later. Speaking of the Holm siblings, their comic Sunny Side Up (for middle-grade readers) is about loved ones struggling with addiction–I mentioned it in this Stack Overflow.
This book’s story and cute illustrations may make it just a little easier for a kid who’s just gotten their first pair of glasses. Rex (a young lion) just got some new glasses, and he hates them. So he tries all sorts of things to hide them when he gets to school–combing his mane over his face, hiding his glasses inside his sandwich, and so on. Finally, though, he gets a little encouragement from his teacher and a classmate, and realizes they’re not so bad.
Dennis is a little different. He dresses in black and white stripes and is quiet… really quiet. Where other kids climb trees, Dennis pretends to be a tree. But then one day he meets Joy, who understands him, and a friendship begins. It’s a lovely little story about being different and being yourself.
Simon has just gotten a brand-new doggy bed, and he can’t wait to take a nap in it… but then he discovers Miss Adora Belle the cat has decided to call it her own. He spends the rest of the book trying different tactics to get her out. (Okay, spoiler: he finally gets to sleep in his own bed, by sharing.) Maybe the lesson is that sometimes you just have to accept compromise when you’re dealing with stubborn jerks. Or maybe the lesson is that cats are mean.
When the little snowplow joins the Mighty Mountain Road Crew, they all look down on him. What use is such a tiny snowplow? But he does his exercises every day and trains for the winter, and when the big snow comes, he surprises them with just how much he can do. The story feels familiar, a little bit The Little Engine That Could and a little bit Katy and the Big Snow, and Jake Parker’s illustrations are really cute.
Missy loves going to Miss Brooks’ story time, but Billy Toomey is always trying to bother her along the way, stealing her hats unless she takes the long way around. So when Miss Brooks asks the kids to come up with their own stories, Missy tells one about an ogre, a pet boa constrictor, and Billy Toomey… and she finds a happy ending. It’s a cute book about dealing with bullies and the power of a good tale.