All children are bound to experience difficult events as they grow up: family members becoming ill or passing away; divorce or separation; moves that takes them away from the familiar comfort of home. In these moments of great sadness and struggle, parents and caregivers might wonder what can be done to ease children’s pain.
When complex situations arise before children develop the ability to articulate their emotions, books can help them feel less alone and more at ease with feelings of anger, frustration, and sadness. While a book can’t make everything better, stories can often provide solace in ways that advice cannot.
Many children’s authors are working to produce fiction that speaks to kids who are in the midst of crisis, struggle, and heartbreak. Here are 10 works that can accompany children through darker times:
1. The Life’s Challenges Series by Eric Braun, Trisha Speed Shaskan, and Nancy Loewen
In this collection of books, the publisher explains, “Gender neutral animal characters and inviting illustrations gently explore difficult situations, allowing children going through tough times to find comfort in characters with whom they can relate. Sidebars offer important and empowering coping tips.” Tackling the death of a pet, the jailing of a father, the separation of a family, and the passing of an uncle, the characters in this series confront many complex real-life scenarios that can be difficult for families and kids to discuss.
2. The Purple Balloon by Chris Raschka
Hospital workers have noticed that when a child who has a sense of his or her own impending death is asked to draw a picture about his or her feelings, he or she frequently draws a blue or purple balloon freely sailing into the sky. Raschka, in collaboration with Children’s Hospital International, created a book built around this moving symbol in order to facilitate difficult conversations about death. Aimed at helping children and their loved ones work through their feelings of confusion and grief, this book manages to radiate love, compassion, and courage.
3. A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret M. Holmes
This book is a wonderful resource for children who have witnessed or endured traumatic experiences. Sherman, the protagonist of the story, witnesses an unspecified, horrible thing, and begins to have stomach aches and nightmares in response. He keeps his scary story bottled up, and it affects the way he feels and interacts with others. When his teacher, Ms. Maple, encourages him to share his emotions, Sherman learns that he can recount what he saw; he discovers that talking to a trusted adult can make him feel better.
4. The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
This book has quite the pedigree, having sold over 200,000 copies around the world. Karst’s classic is about an invisible string that connects people who love one another, even when they are not in the same place. This moving metaphor is a great way to help children through separation anxiety or loss.
5. Jenny Is Scared: When Sad Things Happen in the World by Carol Shuman
Shuman’s book is for young readers who fear violence and terrorism. The story begins the conversation between child and caregiver about how to maintain one’s sense of well-being in a challenging world, and focuses on providing children with both short-term and long-term coping mechanisms such as, talking to loved ones and transforming society through tolerance.
6. Moody Cow Meditates by Kerry Lee MacLean
All children must learn to deal with stress and challenges. MacLean’s Moody Cow has a terrible day, and ends up breaking a window in his house out of frustration. Lucky for him, his grandfather teaches him how to meditate, and Moody Cow realizes that he has some control over his response to struggle. This staple can remind parents and children alike to cope with difficulties in a calm and thoughtful manner.
7. Smoky Night by Eve Bunting
Winner of a Caldecott Medal for its dramatic illustrations, this book helps children understand violence in their own neighborhoods. Not all of the people — or pets — in this story’s Los Angeles neighborhood get along. But as rioting breaks out in the community, neighbors must come together to face the violence and support one another.
And for older readers, Bunting’s book Gleam and Glow is a sensitive introduction to the hardships of war.
8. The Whispering Cloth: A Refugee’s Story by Pegi Shea
The international refugee crisis can be challenging to discuss with children; many stories are so heartbreaking that they are even difficult for adults to understand. Shea approaches the subject through the story of Mai, a Hmong child living in a refugee camp in Thailand. Mai reflects on her own painful past as she creates a traditional story cloth with her grandmother. Through her touching tale and Anita Riggio’s soft watercolor illustrations, children are able to develop empathy for refugees like Mai.
9. The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco
This classic teaches children about leaving home and maintaining connections to family and tradition. The quilt in the story, which Anna’s ancestors created from the cloth of their old garments, becomes the thread that holds Anna’s family line together as they flee from their country of origin.
10. The Survivor Tree: Inspired by a True Story by Cheryl Somers Aubin
Aubin tells the true story of a tree that survived the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In spite of everything it has been through (and the scars it bears), the tree manages to flourish and nurture life as birds come to nest in it. This book addresses the consequences of a horrible event that profoundly changed this country, while still sharing lessons about resilience in the face of tragedy.