Thursday, March 8, 2018

ReFoReMo Day 6: Keila Dawson Takes on Tough Topics

by Keila V. Dawson

Books that take on tough topics introduce kids to characters who have figured out how to cope with difficult circumstances or problems. Often these stories are based on real people or true events. Even if the character’s troubles are unfamiliar, children empathize with their feelings. Readers are connected to that one thing we all share in common – human emotion. And tough topics spark thought provoking conversations that may inspire kids to explore beyond the book and into others parts of the world.


COME WITH ME by Holly M. McGhee, illustrated by Pascal Lemaaitre 


Topics: fear, kindness, courage


When surrounded by negativity, our actions  matter.







THE WATER PRINCESS by Susan Verde, Georgie Badiel, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds 


Topics: survival, perseverance, hope


Even in despair, never give up.









MAYBE SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood by F. Isabel Campoy,  Theresa Howell, illustrated by Rafael Lopez 


Topics: art, community, empowerment


Small actions can inspire big change.  







MALALA'S MAGIC PENCIL by Malala Yousafzai, illustrated by Kerascoet 


Topics: courage, girls’ right to education, activism


Feeling brave is magical, but taking action is courageous. 





THE ROOSTER WHO WOULD NOT BE QUIET by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin


Topics: bullying, courage, perseverance


Everyone has a voice and should never be silenced. 





Which tough topics have you tackled in your mentor texts?


Keila is giving away one critique of a cover letter or pitch. To be eligible for prizes throughout the challenge, you must comment on each post, be registered, and consistently read picture books throughout the challenge.

Keila Dawson is a ReFoReMo Contributor. She’s hiked the rice terraces in the Philippines, climbed Mt. Fuji in Japan, and Mt. Sinai in Egypt. Keila finds adventures in picture books too. When she isn’t traveling, researching, or digging in genealogical archives, Keila is reading, writing, and visiting schools. She enjoys sharing her love of Louisiana and world cultures with others. Her debut picture book THE KING CAKE BABY, was illustrated by Vernon Smith and published by Pelican Publishing Co., Inc. in 2015.




299 comments:

  1. I tackle a tough topic in one of my manuscripts. What do you think about using more abstract terms rather than a specific situation? Kind of like in What Do You Do With a Problem?

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    1. I think that book works because having a problem is so universal and our reactions are emotional. The only others I can think of that are abstract are about death.

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  2. Nice sample of mentor texts, Keila! I haven't read the Water Princess, yet, so I've got to find that one. I've read the others, and they're stellar. Thanks! Oh, and you forgot to mention in your bio that you get to eat lots of tasty food created by your son!

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    1. I think you will love Water Princess Jilanne. LOL, I have an ms going to acquisitions that is indeed about food! Apparently universal theme in my household. :)

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  3. Thank you for your post and focus on tough topics. I found it inspiring to look at different ways to write about important issues.

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  4. Thank you, Keila! I’m looking forward to checking out The Water Princess!

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    1. I hope you love it as much as I do Michelle.

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  5. I am always interested in the ways author's tackle tough topics. I admire Nancy Coffelt's use of a dog in "Fred Stays With Me" to deal with feelings of divorce. And Phillip Stead's use of large stuffed "guardians" in "Lenny & Lucy" to deal with moving and fears.

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    1. I haven't read Fred Stays With Me, thanks for the recommendation. Divorce is another tough topic. And I agree, I love how Stead creates the guardians to help anxiety of moving, adjustment, and loneliness. Since there's no mother, the topic could be divorce, or illness, or death or separation.

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  6. Really interesting topic. I borrowed Maybe Something Beautiful and it's such a wonderful celebration of community. Malala's Magic Pencil still hasn't come in to our library yet.

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    1. Agree about Something Beautiful. I hope you like Malala's Magic Pencil. What a brave young woman she is.

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  7. These are perhaps the hardest types of picture books for me to write...finding that balance of info and heart is tough. I've read The Water Princess but not the others. Thanks for the recommendations.

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    1. Welcome Tanya. Finding that balance is indeed a struggle!

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  9. Thank you Keila; your post is an important one. What a great list of titles! The Water Princess has me intrigued. Can't wait to track these down.

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  10. Looking forward to reading these. Yes, picture books are a great starting point with tough topics.

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    1. I can't wait to read your story Tina!

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  11. Thank you for a great list. Have you read Manjhi moves a mountain by Nancy Churnin? It's hard to believe it is a true story but it is...

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    1. Yes! Another great title by Nancy. A stellar example of persistence! And love that it's a true story.

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  12. Great mentor texts! Thank you for the good post - insight is so helpful!

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  13. These books are so important! I’ve tackled grief and loss of a love one and keeping their memory alive. Thank you for your post!

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    1. So sorry for your loss. I know I find solace in picture books about death. They are so well written. On the ReFoReMo FB Page there's a list.

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  14. very good choices that show todays topic.

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  15. These picture books equip children to deal with tough issues. It requires skill to entertain them while gently nudging them to reflect on more serious issues. Thank you for this list of mentor texts. Great post!

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    1. Thanks Ginger. That's what makes these so stellar, they have the right balance.

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  16. Excellent selction to teach tought themes. Thank you for a great list.

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  17. I particularly liked The Water Princess. That pulled me in and reminded me the value of clean, cool water for our everyday lives. I haven't found Come With Me yet, but have read the others. Such a good variety of topics and an excellent rendering through picture book formats.

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    1. Thanks Sherri. I know you will like Come With Me, such a timely book.

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  18. Thank you for your post. Tough subject matter is great, but it has to be done right. So many times I get my manuscripts back and they say it is too in your face. So this is most helpful!

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    1. Welcome Joan. These are challenging to write, that's for sure. Working on one myself.

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  19. Wonderful selection of books that take on tough topics. Thank you!

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  20. Thank you for categorizing these mentor texts. I am still waiting for one to come back to the library but really appreciate this grouping.

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    1. Welcome Elizabeth. Enjoy reading them.

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  21. Thanks for your post. Feeling dismayed myself about the ever-breaking news, Come with Me is a gentle reminder to just keep going. Nonfiction books show the courage of children to carry on, in Water Princess and Malala. The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet is a wonderful allegory. Great selections! Another one of my favorites is The Boy Who Caught the Wind.

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    1. Oh yes, I wrote about that book in my post on beginnings a few months ago. It's such a hook.

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  22. Great mix of mentor texts--some allegories, some stories, so tackling the issue head on...and all beautiful. COME WITH ME was new to me, and I'm so glad to have read it. Thank you!

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    1. Hi Laura! I know you will enjoy COME WITH ME, so timely.

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  23. Thanks, Keila! I love THE WATER PRINCESS and the included back matter.

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    1. Hi Manju! Backmatter gives something special doesn't it? Learning more about the topic and or main character is always a plus.

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  24. With all the debate on twitter over SAD kidlit, this is a timely post. I think what makes these books, and any book with a tough topic successful is the balance of sadness/fear with love/hope. For every "dark shadow" or "people against people" there is a "hand in hand" and "think of the world as a family."

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    1. Agree! Not always easy to pull off, but the writing must leave the reader with something positive.

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  25. Had not read Come With Me, but I love it now. So perfect for the past few weeks

    Will you, by chsnce, be at the SCBWI JambaLAya Conference next weekend? I'm flying down from NC Can't wait!

    Love The King Cake Baby! So cute! Makes me want some delicious King Cake!

    Thanks for the post on tough topics

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    1. Hi Maria, Come With Me chokes me up every time I read it. I'm not going to be at the SCBWI conference in Louisiana, just returned from New Orleans. Have fun! And thanks for your thoughts on my naught baby. :)

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  26. Difficult topics are some of my favorite books. Thanks Keila for sharing some of your favorites. Carole Calladine

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  27. Thanks for the list of calming books among the more raucous selections on the shelves. Can't wait to read your book as well! My husband makes a rockin' gumbo and a local bakery makes king cakes that send a line out the door. Thanks!

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    1. There will always be a place for quiet and reflective books. I just returned from New Orleans with a suitcase filled with blue crab, gulf shrimp, pickle meat, and hot sausage! And got some peeled crawfish for my crawfish pies! I need to keep eating King Cake throughout every Carnival season so I can add a green baby to my collection. LOL!

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  28. I am in awe of how some authors tackle tough topics. Thank you for sharing such fine examples, Keila.

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  29. It was really interesting to read each of these books. I especially like when a true story is made into a picture book. Never too young to learn!

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    1. I am always learning from picture books!

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  30. What an awesome selection of books - each one with a specific message, and yet all together they seem to say: step up and do your part to make this world a better place for everyone.

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  31. More children than we know have to deal with tough topics. This is a nice assortment of many different types of tough topics. TY, Keila.

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    1. Indeed they do Kathy. And I am happy there are books like these for them and the adults in their lives to share with them.

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  32. Wonderful selections. Thank you for sharing.

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  33. Great reading list of how tough topics can be handled adeptly. I especially love "The Scar" by Charlotte Moundlic for dealing with loss. Thanks, Keila.

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    1. Every time I read The Scar I get a huge lump in my throat. Kids need these books.

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  34. Thank you, Keila, for sharing some greats books, and getting us to consider tackling topics we may tend to shy away from.

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    1. Welcome David. I am so happy they are available and so well written.

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  35. Picture books can definitely help a child ease into tough conversations or help them to explore more difficult emotions and situations. Thanks for suggesting these titles. I haven’t heard of some of them.

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    1. Welcome Jessica. Hope you enjoy the books.

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  36. Thank you for introducing me to these books and the topics discussed. Opens my eyes to writing about difficult topics in young picture books.

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    1. Hi Sheri, there's always room for more.

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  37. I have a MS in which I try to tackle growing up in poverty. I haven't found the right approach yet. But something that struck me about what makes today's selections work is that they all have a theme of hope. This helps to keep things positive despite the heaviness of the topics. I'll try to take this idea and use it in my MS.

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    1. This sounds like a really important book to get out there - glad you're writing it! I like the way MADDI'S FRIDGE handles this topic.

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    2. I second using MADDI'S FRIDGE as a mentor text. It tackles poverty very well. I just heard Baptiste Paul talk about his new book THE FIELD. He grew up in poverty in St. Lucia, but playing soccer brought his joy. He said the lack of material things made life difficult but he still had a happy childhood.

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  38. Thank you for your thoughtful post on this topic.

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  39. Hi Keila, I LOVE this list of books. The book, FRED STAYS WITH ME, by Nancy Coffelt, is another great "tough topics" book. It deals with divorce, and how the only constant for the MC is her little dog who tags along as she is shuffled from dad's house to mom's house. Thanks again!

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    1. I love FRED STAYS WITH ME, too!

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    2. You're the second person to recommend that one Rita! I must read it. Divorce is another tough topic.

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  40. Love Love LOVE this topic! It is so important not to underestimate our youth. Some great titles here that I will definitely be sharing with my littles
    Thanks Keila!

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  41. Great selection, Keila. These books show how important word choice is. I love the line "My thirst is so heavy, like the water I carry" from The Water Princess and "...art followed like the string of a kite" from Maybe Something Beautiful. Just two of my favorites. Thanks again.

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    1. Lyrical language does make a difference!

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  42. Thanks for the great list, Keila. I just read NOT SO DIFFERENT by Sean Burcaw and it does a great job of helping kids see how people with physical disabilities have the same basic needs and wants as everyone else. And it does it with humor. Great book!

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation Lori. I haven't read that one. And I taught children with physical challenges so it's a must that I do!

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  43. I’m looking forward to reading these books. I love books that empower children to deal with tough emotions and situations. Parents are often relieved to have a way to introduce a difficult subject in a gentle way.

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    1. Exactly. These books give the adults in children's lives options.

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  44. thanks! I love the rooster! Looking forward to taking a look at the rest of these!

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  45. Great list, Keila! THE WATER PRINCESS handles its tough topic so lyrically and hopefully and lovingly with the parent/daughter relationships and the support from the community of women who gather at the well each day.

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    1. Doesn't it? The school my kids attended still has an annual event to sponsor a village in Kenya. The kids walked the track for miles carrying gallons of water in the heat!

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  46. I'm always looking for mentor texts that help kids understand tough situations. Thank you, Keila, for adding these to my list!

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  47. I'm especially drawn to nonfiction PBs, biographies particularly, that inherently incorporate exemplary character traits like perseverance and "being true to yourself". Examples include The Noisy Paintbox: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky's Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock, A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant, and Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by L. C. Hill. Thanks, Keila!

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    1. NF PB's are such great ways to introduce kids to character and characters! I haven't read A Splash of Red, thanks for the recommendation.

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  48. Great list--books that give the reader a chance to experience empathy rather than being didactic or preachy. It's a fine line, isn't it?!

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    1. Yes! And these books do that so well. Great messaging through great writing.

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  49. These books are eye-openers for me. Thank you, great list!

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  50. I have been working on some PBs with tough topics. These are great examples. Thank you! I especially enjoyed MAYBE SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL, and COME WITH ME.

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    1. The world needs more of these, happy to hear you are writing them!

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  51. Love this post! These are all amazing books, thanks!

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  52. These mentor texts skillfully teach without being didactic. What do you (or any of the posters) think about using anthropomorphized animals to approach difficult and sensitive topics?

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    1. I think that rooster was the perfect character choice in The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet. Roosters are noisy so kids can identify with what it would mean for him to loose his voice. There's another book, Always Remember and the character is a turtle, then there's Ida Always. All use animals.

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  53. Dealing with tough topics without being preachy is difficult. Thank you for sharing this well written books.

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  54. Thanks for a terrific post, Keila. It's so helpful to have these mentor texts to connect with when writing about difficult topics.

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    1. Welcome Melissa. We all have to deal with life's ups and down. Happy there are books to help.

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  55. Thank you Keila for sharing these book titles and showing us how to handle tough subjects.

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  56. Loved Malala's Magic Pencil and I'm excited to read these other titles.

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    1. Happy to hear! She is one brave lady.

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  57. Love this post, Keila! And your mentor texts are some of my favorites!

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    1. Thanks Kirsti. There are so many, picking 5 was "tough" too.

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  58. I think using picture books to tackle tough topics is a great idea. I am working on a PB MS that tackles a tough topic now. Thank you for posting these mentor texts.

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    1. Happy to hear! Kids need more books like these.

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  59. Thank you for your suggestions, Keila, and the list of mentor books.

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  60. Thanks for these examples of how books with tough topics can give courage to kids, and parents!

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    1. Welcome Lisa. We can all use a little inspiration.

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  61. The Water Princess touched my heart. We take so many things for granted. I could feel the precious water being sipped, lighting the body with renewal. Thank you, Keila, for sharing these thought provoking mentor texts.

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    1. That one tugs at the heart strings. And kids get to peek inside the life of the less fortunate. Hopefully, they have room for empathy.

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  62. The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet is a great example because it's such a universal theme. The setting is specific but the message is broad enough that in can be applied to many situations.

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    1. Agree Sara! Many of us have been there.

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  63. I absolutely loved the Water Princess, from the poetry of the words to the gorgeous illustrations, even the font used! I'm currently working on a "tough" ms and if I can generate as much love and dreams as WP does, then I'm golden. Thx for all these mentor reads!

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    1. I'm rooting for you! Kids need more books like these.

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  64. Thank you sharing this important post about the power of picture books that tap into strong and complicated emotions and subjects.
    Jenna Feldman

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  65. So excited for these examples! Thanks!

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  66. These were wonderful books. These are challenging times to parent and these books are hopeful and helpful in starting difficult conversations. Books can help parents to raise compassionate, thoughtful, creative kids. Thank you for sharing them. I have many books in my past that did the same for me...universal problems and stories of children who were compassionate and strong. (Francis Hogson Burnett, The Little Princess)

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    1. Takes a village and writing these books certainly help. Compassion and strength is a stellar combination.

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  67. Keila - what fantastic books. I aspire to write something that makes the reader feel like any of these does. Thank you for the inspiration!

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  68. I’m amazed by PBs that can convey so much in so few words without being didactic. I will reread the books you selected with extra care. And check out yours as well. Thanks, Keila!

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    1. Isn't that amazing? Kudos to the writing and sticking to the message.

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  69. Thank you for sharing these suggestions. I had chills reading Malala's in particular. I think as parents we often try to shield children from difficult subjects, but it's important to remember that they can handle it in this safe way.

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    1. Welcome Lisa. Anyone with a heart has to love what Malala did and what she continues to do today.

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  71. re: tough topics. I think it is a very good point to highlight that even though the tough topic may not be familiar to the young reader, the understanding and compassion of the humane emotion being felt is still universal. So, as we write on tough topics, it really isn't so much about the topic we should focus on, but how it makes us FEEL. what does it do to us? Good thinking points...

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    1. Yes! Emotions are universal even when situations differ.

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  72. Thank you for introducing me to these books with such meaningful messages. Each one touched my heart. I will definitely refer back to these mentor texts.

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  73. Thanks, Keila. So many wonderful books help children deal with difficult topics. I loved using Patricia Polacco's DEAR MR. FALKER with my 4th graders. It is an essential one for teachers to read, providing inspiratIon for many students who have problems in school. And I hope I help elementary school children deal with a shared custody situation in my book, WHERE AM I SLEEPING TONIGHT? (A Story of Divorce). Thanks for your list!

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    1. I so adore Patricia Polacco books. Her storytelling is amazing. I did a ReFoReMo author study on her last year. Haven't read Where Am I Sleeping Tonight. Thanks for the recommendation. Divorce is certainly another tough topic.

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  74. Some great ways to cover these topics.

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  75. What beautiful books you shared! I think the hardest part about tackling tough topics is doing so in a non preachy way. Thanks for your insights, Keila.

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    1. Yes, the writing and staying on message makes books like these work.

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  76. Thank you for sharing some tough topics mentor texts!

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  77. Great idea for a ReFoReMo focus, Keila. I'm always impressed with how relevant and beautiful such books can be for children. And how they can open up new worlds to the reader.

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  78. Writing picture books about difficult topics is a favorite of mine. I love the mentor text suggestions. Thank you!

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    1. The world needs more, happy to hear you write them!

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  79. I love this post, Keila! Thank you for this list of meaningful mentor texts.

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  80. I have always struggled with how to tackle difficult but relevant topics for kids in a PB and not preach. I dream of doing this in a way that is fun and entertaining, but in the end, retrospectively, they realize they learned something.

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    1. It's a writing challenge for sure Stephen. Hopefully reading lots of them will help guide you.

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  81. Thank you so much for this list of books. Tough topics tend to be what come out of me when I'm writing and there is definitely an art to conveying them in a child friendly way that I'm still trying to master.

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    1. These are so well written, kid-friendly and not preachy.

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  82. What wonderful books! Great post Keila

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  83. These examples are done so well and shine a light on what some kids face every day with amazing courage and ingenuity. Thanks for highlighting them!

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  84. Thank you for sharing today! I like books with a cause and look forward to reading more of them. Books that give hope to kids are a passion of mine.

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    1. Me too! I enjoy what kids can take away from them.

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  85. I love the topics these books address. Thank you, Keila!

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  86. These are wonderful mentor texts for tough topics, Keila! They illustrate how a book about a difficult situation can not only suggest possible solutions, but beyond that it can energize children's natural possibility thinking as they see hope and joy in being proactive toward an effective answer. And right at the end, when emotions are tender, The Water Princess adds a substantive opportunity for children to give to the water project to help the people in this African village. Becky Loescher

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    1. Absolutely! Kids learn how even in dire circumstances, action and perception can have a positive effect.

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  87. Thank you for this post, Keila. Oh, my gosh, so many wonderful mentor texts.

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  88. Wow! I actually know a ReFoReMo presenter! Congratulations! I love today's books selections from topic and motto, and I can't wait to read 4 new books! I already read the rooster book. I loved it so much I reviewed on my site. Congratulations again!

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    1. I was impressed with Matt De la Peña and Loren Long's treatment of sensitive topics in Love. Sometimes, the illustration brings up such a topic. A child may not even recognize it, or he or she may recognize something there that sparks an important and urgent conversation.

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    2. Ha Rinda! That rooster rocked. And Carmela, I loved what Matt wrote about not shielding kids from darkness. It was spot on. Here's the link if you haven't seen it. http://time.com/5093669/why-we-shouldnt-shield-children-from-darkness/

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  89. Keila,
    These are all delightful and well done stories that do deal with the harder stuff. Thank you for the reminder of mentor texts needed for one of my stories that is currently shelved. Now I have the resources to help me understand my problems with the manuscript. Just the boost I needed!

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    1. So happy the post helped! Good luck. Kids need more stories like these.

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  90. Tough topic books are so important in children's lives. Some people think we should shield them from such topics, but we must trust that children will come back to these books (once planted in their hearts) when they need them in their own lives.

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    1. I agree with what Matt said - no shielding kids from darkness. Here's the link if you haven't seen it. http://time.com/5093669/why-we-shouldnt-shield-children-from-darkness/

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  91. I'm not sure why, but I'm always drawn to picture books dealing with difficult topics. Heart strings, I suppose. :) Thanks for this list of mentor texts!

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    1. Nothing wrong with having a big heart J.D. Better than a small one!

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  92. Great suggestions, thank you! Tugging at the heartstrings with tough topics often makes excellent and such important books.

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  93. Kids have tough problems to deal with. Thanks for alerting us to it.

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  94. I think this has been my favorite day so far. Awesome mentor texts. I have been writing about tough feelings and it is a delicate balance in picture books. Great examples thank you!

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  95. What a great list and interesting category of books to highlight! Thank you!

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  96. Thanks for introducing me to The Water Princess. It is not a book I would have picked up on my own, but I thought it was beautifully done. Gie Gie's challenges are so different than those most Americans face -- but it's easy to identify with her spirit and hopes.

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  97. These are wonderful books! Thanks for the list. I like how each author discussed the difficult issues in child-friendly ways. I'm still waiting for Come With Me to come in from the library but I really enjoyed the rest.

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  98. Great post and book list. Come with Me and Malala's Magic Pencil are gentle introductions to tough topics.

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  99. Wonderful mentor texts! I am inspired by people brave enoughto tackle tough topics. I do have one MS about Alzheimer’s.

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  100. I have always thoughts that picture books are small books with big ideas. Today's mentor texts certainly reinforced that idea for me. These books really spoke to me and touched my heart, for I truly believe in the power of one person to make a difference in the world. Perhaps as more and more children read books like these, they will realize their potential to be agents of change - no matter how samll. Books like these in the hands of children can help hope to enter, and with hope, anything is possible. The beautifully written texts and wonderful illustrations reinforced the concepts being presented. Thanks for the suggestions, Keila.

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  101. Not only were these fabulous books in and of themselves, but I really appreciated the structure of your outline for us, Keila. Your listing the topics each book addressed and the underlying themes was a great way to teach us how to study this type of book.

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  102. Thank you for your post and covering tough topics. I appreciate these mentor texts.

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  103. Thanks for great examples of kids’ books of how to write about tough topics.

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