Wednesday, March 25, 2020

ReFoReMo Day 18: Author/Illustrator Jeanette Bradley Reflects on Difficult Topics

As Maurice Sendak often pointed out, childhood is difficult and full of danger. Children know that terrible things exist in the world. We need to let kids know we are willing to talk – and willing to listen. 

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:

Objects as Metaphor
The Remember Balloons by Jessie Oliveros and Dana Wulfekotte

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.

Dana Wulfekotte made the illustration choice to use grayscale for the characters and colors for the memory balloons, which creates a powerful sense of the memories themselves as main characters in this book.


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?


Characterization of Emotion
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. 

Research-Based Storytelling
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 is giving away a copy of WHEN THE BABIES CAME TO STAY to one lucky U.S. winner! To be eligible for prizes throughout the challenge, you must be registered by March 2, comment on each post, consistently read mentor texts, and enter the Rafflecopter drawing at the conclusion of ReFoReMo.

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.

101 comments:

  1. Wow — such a timely theme. I’ve found a few of these books comforting in recent years. I’m sure they are for children as well. Thanks for this list.

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  2. Jeanette, THANK YOU! I absolutely love your takeaway from AFTER THE FALL and I have a feeling that it and WHEN SADNESS IS AT YOUR DOOR will be increasingly useful as we weather this current pandemic. I can't wait for a chance to really look at NOT MY IDEA (it was on hold, before my library closed....) This was such a helpful post!

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  3. I always loved the book "Grandpa" by John Burningham - reflects the love of a child for her grandpa and shows his death simply as an empty chair. Very powerful. Thank you for this group of titles.

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  4. These are just great -- and I absolutely loved THE REMEMBER BALLOONS. Thank you so much for sharing.

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  5. Thanks for these examples. The Remember Balloons is such a well-done book.

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  6. Thank you Jeannette for these great examples and insight. One of mine is BUG IN A VACUUM by Melanie Watt. From one of the opening lines “it was on top of the world when it happened. Its entire life changed with the switch of a button. “You ate completely drawn into the story of sudden loss. It beautifully takes you through each of the Kubler Ross stages of grief. The main story is at a children’s level with beautiful illustrations, but there is also an underlying adult level to the story. I actually gifted this book to my father to say the things I was not able to say about his sudden illness. This is the beauty of these picture books that are addressing important topics, they’re not only for the children but for the adults. I hope to write a book someday that is like that. The challenge is often not being too didactic.. Very much looking forward to your book NO VOICE TO SMALL.

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  7. Such a profound selection! Thank you, Jeanette.

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  8. These are indeed such important topics to cover for children, no matter how hard they seem. Thanks for these excellent mentor text recommendations.

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  9. Great post! I related to Jessie's The Remember Balloons since both my father and now my FIL suffer from dementia. Dana's illustrations show that memories are still vibrant if passed on.

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  10. Jeanette, ty for such a great set of books. These topics need to be discussed with kids and picture book are a great instruction to "hard" topics. I love the book STILL A FAMILY by Brenda Reeves Sturgis which is about homelessness.

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  11. I appreciate the simplicity and accessibility of When Sadness is at Your Door. Very timely during the current situation.

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  12. You're right children know bad things happen. Finding a way to have that conversation and being able to voice their own feelings is so necessary. How wonderful to have these books to begin that process.

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  13. Jeanette: THANK YOU for tackling this TRULY IMPORTANT topic HEAD-ON! It is something those of us working in the children's book world (and ESPECIALLY parents) need to be aware of and discuss more openly. We all LOVE the sunny, happy books which allow us to escape into another world. But at the same time, kids NEED to have access to books that speak the truth about their own world and their own personal experiences within that world. To be able to connect with a character who has gone through similar things--this is life-changing, giving hope that "if they could do it/get through it, so can I!" SO POWERFUL! I CAN'T WAIT to REALLY dig into these book examples you've provided. I appreciate the different categories you included, as well as the in-depth analysis of the illustrations. One book that came to mind that handles the difficult topic of childhood illness in a BEAUTIFUL, simple, and relatable way, is: "Another Way to Climb a Tree" by Liz Garton Scanlon. TRULY BEAUTIFUL! It spoke right to my own heart and soul!

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  14. Thank you so much for the great post. Difficult topics are so challenging and you provided some great mentor texts to study that show examples of how to get it right. I really want to get my hands on Anastasia's books and learn from them! Thanks again!

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  15. Thanks for featuring these books. They handle difficult topics so well and with such varying styles.

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  16. EXCELLENT book recommendations! Thank you! I already own The Remember Balloons and love it. I read the others for the first time today and they were fantastic.

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  17. Thanks for the great recommendations! I tend to write about similar topics and will be getting those I haven't read from the library when it reopens.

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  18. I got to the bottom of the stack I got from the library before it closed. I look forward to researching these titles online.

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  19. THE REMEMBER BALLOONS is brilliant! Conceived and executed as a child's book, but perfect for bringing a level of understanding and comfort to anyone dealing with a family member or friend in the throes of dementia or Alzheimer's. Thank you for your insightful, informative, inspiring post!

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  20. This kind of book is so appropriate for the times. Children certainly need books to help them through life. Thank you.

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  21. Thank you Jeanette. So much heart in each of these.

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  22. Fortunately I'd already read The Remember Balloons before my library closed. Great book selection! Thanks for your thoughtful post.

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  23. Oh, thank you for this. The Remember Balloons is one of my all-time favorites, and so many of these are wonderful bibliotherapy books. Thank you for sharing!

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  24. Thanks Jeanette for the thoughtful and thought provoking books.

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  25. A powerful list indeed Jeanette. The book I keep thinking about is MADDI'S FRIDGE by Lois Brandt and illustrated by Vin Vogel (Flashlight Press) which tackles childhood hunger, friendship and community.

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  26. Thank you for this timely collection of books. It is always comforting to see difficult topics presented in a way kids can understand. They have worries, too, which must be addressed.

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  27. Thank you for this thought-provoking list.

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  28. Thank yo for reminding me or past read titles and a new one.
    thought proving books for us adults as well as children.

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  29. Wow! This post blew me away! Thank you for this excellent resource of picture books dealing with difficult conversations. And, your take on how and why they work is so useful. Again, THANKS!

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  30. So much information on this post. I've come away with a lot to think about and some great resources. Thank you.

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  31. Great examples. I loved the book The Remember Balloons. This book is close to home in that I have been dealing with my mother and her severe dementia. She gets very upset when she doesn't remember things. I keep telling her to just remember that now you are experiencing everything new again and how exciting it is.

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  32. Thank you, Jeanette, for your thoughtful descriptions of each of these meaningful picture books. YOU ARE SPECIAL by Max Lucado is another valuable picture book helping young children to see how bullying is hurtful and guiding them to see how much they are loved. Books like these open doors to listening and sharing at the heart level, with compassion.

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  33. Thank you, Jeanette, for the titles all on difficult subjects. Kids need to know about these topics but handled in a special way that these books do. I'm looking forward to reading each of theses titles once the library reopens. Thanks again, Jeanette.

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  34. Love this helpful post. The Remember Balloons blew me away. Looking forward to reading the others mentioned. Thank you for the detailed analysis of each.

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  35. The Remember Balloons is one of my all time favorite books. When Sadness is at Your Door is another excellent one I enjoyed.

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  36. This was a wonderful post; so timely. I love the books you selected and would add one more - Ida, always. The story of the polar bear at the zoo is such a poignant tale, very well done.

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  37. You have provided a perfect selection of books with important topics to share with our children. Thank you, Jeanette.

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  38. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and this selection of books.

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  39. Good selection of titles each a little different method b all the same theme. Nice job. Thank you.

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  40. Thanks for these examples- such powerful stories! "Try not to be afraid of sadness. Give it a name." Great lessons, without being preachy.

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  41. These titles are some of my favorites. Thank you for a great post!

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  42. I loved that you shared your analysis of the books. I liked being able to compare my reactions to the books with yours! Thanks!

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  43. It is a type of alchemy, taking a tough topic and making it understandable and meaningful to a child in picture book form. You've listed some great books that do this. Thank you for your thoughtful post!

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  44. I absolutely love this topic and these mentor texts! Thank you for your thoughts on them - I love your perspective. These are the books I would love (and am trying) to write.

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  45. Great theme - wonderful books to read and use as mentor texts. Thanks so much.

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  46. Thank you for sharing these picture books that deal with difficult topics.

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  47. You covered a difficult topic well! Thanks for sharing these titles.

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  48. Great book recommendations! I imagine this was written before COVID-19 became widespread in the US, but these titles feel especially relevant now. Some of my favorite books that cover tough topics include FRENCH TOAST SUNDAYS (grief), RISE!: FROM CAGED BIRD TO POET OF THE PEOPLE (rape), and FLOWERS FOR SARAJEVO (war).

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  49. Children do know when bad things happen. Thank you, Jeanette, for these titles which examine such emotional subjects.

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  50. Great list of mentor texts that broach difficult subjects, Jeanette! Picture books can be a lifeline, helping children address hard topics, improve individual lives, and make the world a better place.

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  51. Thank you, Jeanette, for your timely post on picture books addressing difficult topics. Bravo to these authors who broach these subjects with compassion, insight, and tender skill. Excellent examples! [Posted by: LouAnn Silva]

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  52. Wonderful examples. Tough topics. Thanks

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  53. Great post, Jeanette! Thank you for these wonderful mentor text that address difficult issues faced by children. Picture books are an excellent way to introduce children to tougher topics.

    Two books that are not on your list but are ones that I love are "Sea Bear" by Lindsay Moore and "The Lonely Polar Bear" written by Koha Lee which are excellent books about climate change. I also loved "Mattie’s Fridge" by Lois Brandt which tackles the subject of poverty and hunger. They are all sitting in my bookcase.

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  54. This post was perfect timing as I just happened to watch the Maurice Sendak documentary "Tell Them Anything You Want" yesterday! This is such a lovely, thoughtful collection--I especially love the concept of memory balloons to help explain Alzheimer's disease.

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  55. This is a great theme to discuss! Books that pick hard topics for kids. I love Remember balloons and When Sadness is at your door” they show so much emotion n their stories. Not my Idea is a great way to introduce your child to racism and white supremacy. I don’t get to read a couple of them, but hopefully I will soon.

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  56. Thank you for your excellent post. The mentor texts suggested touch on such important topics for kids in ways that touch their hearts and help them to understand difficult circumstances. They are such fine examples of "little books" with big ideas!

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  57. Brilliant post. Thanks for sharing your insight and the different approaches and strategies.

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  58. Thank you for these suggestions. Tackling difficult subjects takes bravery and art. I will learn from these. ( After the Fall was given to me after a hip fracture in June...cracked indeed.)

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  59. Can’t wait to dig into these

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  60. I absolutely love "The Remember Balloons" - What a beautiful way for young children to learn how to deal with someone losing their memories. Thank you for a great post and reminding us all that children are aware of the bad things in the world and need us to help explain them.

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  61. Jeanette, I just saw the PW had a review of When the Babies Came to Stay. How timely! Thanks for the list and your thoughts.

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  62. Thank you for the very insightful and informative post! I appreciate your detail. The Remember Balloons is one of my most favorite books ever. It is beautiful in text, art and concept.

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  63. A powerful set of books on difficult topics. Thanks for sharing these, Jeannette.

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  64. Thanks for the list. I look forward to reading them. I like to write about important issues that may be difficult for children.

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  65. The heartfelt, creative stories today provide a simple, caring way to explain social issues for all ages! Thank you!

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  66. These are a great list of books to read to my son. I feel I should have been more aware of difficult topics when I was younger. I feel learning tough topics would have helped me better cope with adversary as an adult than living in a bubble as I did. I'm trying to expose my sons early on.
    -Ashley Congdon

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  67. This struck a cord with me: "Sometimes it really does feel like sadness walked up the sidewalk and knocked on your door, uninvited." How true is this for us, right now?! With what is going on in the world and all of us confined to homes, isn't sadness right at our door, inviting itself into all our homes???! So, that being said, dealing with major issues through books is so important. Just reading this picture book comforted me with the sadness I myself have been struggling with these days. I have also always been SUPER impressed with The Memory Balloons- wonderfully done.

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  68. When I first scanned our reading list, I was looking forward to your post, as I sensed it would be about difficult topics. Thank you, Jeannette, for delivering such thoughtful comments on each mentor book. As a psych nurse, I appreciate books that open conversations and can help children heal. I loved the simple elegance of WHEN SADNESS IS AT YOUR DOOR. One of my own favorites is THE RABBIT LISTENED. I've added another dozen books to my reading list just from favorites shared by others in their comments on your post!

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  69. Great selections! I particularly liked The Remember Balloons. It is such a direct, simple telling of a very sad situation with a lovely 'solution' of the boy giving memories back to his grandfather. The story reminds me of another good book 'Forget Me Not' by Nancy Van Laan & Stephanie Graegin. When Sadness is at Your Door is a book for all ages.

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  70. It is amazing how abstraction and metaphor can take the form of something concrete and familiar when used appropriately. "When Sadness is at Your Door" and "The Remember Balloons" are perfect examples of this. Thank you!

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  71. Wow, such powerful books. Thanks for sharing!

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  72. Thanks so much for sharing these wonderful books and telling us how they make a difference.

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  73. This is one list I’ll be coming back to when the library opens. I’d love to read all of these books!

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  74. Wow! What a wonderful and deep analysis of books that tackle difficult topics. I have only red Dan Santat's, I hope I can get my hands on the other ones soon. Thanks, Jeanette.

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  75. Thank you for showing and telling us about these titles and how each is handled with the author's writing style. It will be helpful in future writing.

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  76. Wow. What fantastic books. I'm inspired to did deeper.

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  77. Jeannette picked a them we didn't know how much we would need on March 25th, 2020. Thank you for highlighting these important books.

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  78. Thank you for this list. I love seeing new to me titles.

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  79. Great books, and I truly think it's critical for young children to continue to read about difficult topics. It helps them on so many levels...

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  80. These book provide great ways for parents and teachers to begin to discuss difficult topics. Very valuable.

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  81. Thank you for this list. I'm only familiar with the first two and am looking forward to reading the others when my library re-opens.

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  82. I like how you break down the difficult topics into these areas. I look forward to reading your suggestions and your upcoming book about young Americans making history.

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  83. Thanks, Jeannette, for this important collection of books—I haven’t read them all, but I will!

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  84. Jeannette! This post warms my ♥️. Thank you for many outstanding titles to share with kids during this unprecedented time.

    Suzy Leopold

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  85. Wow. What a timely topic and analysis, Jeanette. Thanks for highlighting these excellent books. And I'm really looking forward to your upcoming anthology.

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  86. Wow! Such a timely post, as so many grapple with how to discuss our current unprecedented situation with kids.

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  87. Thank you for your post and analysis of these texts! Lots to think about here.

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  88. A beautiful list, thank you! Another book I've found lately is The Scar by Charlotte Moundlic, in which a young boy deals with the death of his mother.

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  89. Thank you. Yes! The Scar is another one we love.

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  90. Thanks so much for this profound list. You asked what other picture books on difficult topics speak to us. BADGER'S PARTING GIFTS is one. And DADDY, UP AND DOWN was was written by two sisters and author Melanie Friedersdorf Humphrey after the girls's father died. I always felt that was an amazing way to handle profound grief — to write a book to help other kids in that situation.

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  91. Thank you for these wonderful texts. I also love Boats for Papa and The Rough Patch. Working on a book about loss myself, so these are especially helpful mentor texts.

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  92. What a wonderful list of mentor texts for heavy topics. Thank you for sharing!

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  93. Picture books for difficult topics are so important. I love how you highlight their ability to take abstract ideas, and present them in ways that young readers can process.

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  94. Thank you, Jeanette, picture books can indeed address the big tough topics in a small child's life.

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  95. I'm so thankful to the authors, illustrators, and publishers who have the courage to address tough subjects through picture books. Thank you for these great examples.

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