Washington - 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 says. "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."
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.
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.
Room for Bear by Ciara Gavin is about a bear who finds a new home with five little ducks. He doesn't quite fit, but "they all learn to love one another for their differences," says Rebecca Tanner, who, with sisters-in-law Jane Tanner and Tiffany Tanner, founded Bookroo, a book subscription service in Provo, Utah. This book works for adoption, as well as for the general concept of fitting in.
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.
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 author of Cottage Press Publishing. It's an all-encompassing story for any uncomfortable situation a child might experience.
Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman is a retelling for children of a segment of Edmund Spenser's "The Faerie Queen" in which the Red Cross Knight slays a dragon. Weitz, who raised five children, recommends stories like this for kids because she says "developing an imagination helps children to see that trouble is not the end of the story."
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 says.
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 says. Bright illustrations and simple text make the topic of a parent's illness accessible.
What a Beautiful Morning by Arthur Levine and illustrated by Katie Kath is about a child's relationship with his grandfather, and provides "a gentle approach to a topic that may be hard for the youngest child to understand," says Diane Capriola, co-owner of the children's bookstore Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Georgia.
In Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley, a beaver makes boats out of driftwood and sends them across the water in the hopes that they won't come back, which means they made it to his father. In a quiet moment, we see mama beaver grieve, too. "Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss" by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen and illustrated by Taylor Bills was handed to me by a counselor years ago because it's just as helpful for grown-ups as it is for kids. Grandy, who has just lost Pops, set out to make a soup of memories, good times and tears. Written by a nurse, the book includes a lot of advice about grieving.
Capriola says the new book Even Superheroes Use the Potty by Sara Crow and illustrated by Adam Record normalizes going to the potty "without being didactic or too obvious." It shows a superhero, ninja and firefighter stopping their adventures for toilet time. An added bonus: The book comes with stickers and a bathroom reward chart.
Is there a more uncomfortable subject to talk with kids about than sex? It's Not the Stork! by Robie H. Harris and illustrated by Michael Emberley not only answers kids' questions, it teaches them anatomically appropriate names for body parts and the difference between okay and not-okay touches.