Children are concrete thinkers. Picture books offer an opportunity to tap into concrete, visual thinking to address abstract concepts. Here are five recent picture books have that have delved into difficult topics, each using a different strategy:
In this paradigm-shifting metaphor of a picture book, memories are balloons. James’s Grandpa has the most balloons, and the best of those are the ones he shares with James. When Grandpa’s balloons start to float away, James is heartbroken, until he learns that he can share his balloons, one by one.
Alzheimer’s disease can be painful for loved ones, and Jessie Oliveros creates a gentle and caring approach for children and adults, by addressing that sadness directly, and creating a new way of thinking about the memories we create together.
Another book that does this well is AFTER THE FALL by Dan Santat. We all know Humpty Dumpty is an egg who suffered trauma by falling off a wall. But what’s inside an egg? And what is inside you after you have lived through trauma? Can you let that heart take wing?
When Sadness is at Your Door by Eva Eland
Sometimes it really does feel like sadness walked up the sidewalk and knocked on your door, uninvited. Eva Eland’s charming and emotive illustrations and spare text walk the reader through a grieving process by turning an abstract concept – sadness – into a concrete character. Young children often don’t yet have the language to label and process their big feelings, but author-illustrator Eva Eland pictures sadness as something outside of one’s self, that one can communicate and relate to. Eland’s illustrations show the main character first trying to hide sadness, who is too big to shut into her closet, but eventually talking with sadness and taking it for a walk. “Try not to be afraid of sadness. Give it a name,” is pretty profound advice for navigating a grieving process.
Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, Ann Hazzard, and Jennifer Zivoin
Some topics feel so complex that it is hard as a parent to figure out how to break them down into chunks understandable by young children. Enter the expert picture book – books written by child psychologists who have spent years studying and talking about difficult issues with kids.
After discussing the police shooting of a local Black man with their families, Emma (a white girl) and Josh (a black boy) raise difficult questions with their families. The psychologist coauthors don’t sugar coat the situation, but instead show the two main characters grappling with big emotions and questions. Ultimately, the two kids are able to be active bystanders for another child who experiences racism at school.
The backmatter in this book is a wealth of resources for parents and caregivers. It includes resources for discussing race and racism with children, child-friendly definitions, and sample dialogues.
Jennifer Zivoin’s illustrations for this book illustrate the wide variety of ways that people cope with difficult news in a way that is sensitive, subtle, and without judgement. In one scene, the chess-paying Josh’s father copes with his own feelings about the news while playing chess. The illustrator shows a series of small moments, including the father’s stoic face, and his hand, holding a white knight, knocking a black pawn off the board. In another scene, Emma is pictured talking intensely and with great emotion with her mother, while a teenage sibling lurks in the background scrolling a phone.
Another book that weaves together lyrical storytelling and research-based back matter is Traci Sorell’s At the Mountain's Base (illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre), about a Cherokee family waiting for a deployed service member to return home.
Simplicity and Directness
Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham
Anastasia Higginbotham is not afraid to tell it like it is, and has a freshness in her approach to talking honestly with kids about difficult topics without talking down to them. In NOT MY IDEA, she tackles the concept of whiteness and the history and current state of white supremacy in the United States from a child's perspective.
Higginbotham’s scrapbook-style illustrations, like her text, are at their best when they are the simplest. In one scene, we see the main character in the back seat of her car, her mother’s eyes visible in the rear-view mirror. The choice to frame this conversation within the back seat of the family car creates a sense of intimacy as the main character asks her mother “Why didn’t anyone teach me real history? I do see color! I see yours, mine, and everybody’s!”
The main character feels like a real kid, struggling with real questions. The success of this book and Higginbotham’s other books is due to her ability to make space for those tough questions that kids have, without jumping immediately to adult answers.
Which picture books on difficult topics speak to you?
Jeanette Bradley has been an urban planner, an apprentice pastry chef, and the artist-in-residence for a traveling art museum on a train. Her debut picture book LOVE, MAMA was published by Roaring Brook Press in 2018. It contains no cities, pastries, or trains, but was made with lots of love. She is also co-editor and illustrator of the forthcoming anthology NO VOICE TOO SMALL: FOURTEEN YOUNG AMERICANS MAKING HISTORY (Charlesbridge, 2020) and illustrator of WHEN THE BABIES CAME TO STAY (Viking, 2020). Jeanette lives in Rhode Island with her wife and kids.