Every child is bound to experience difficult events as she grows up: a family member becoming ill or passing away; a divorce or separation; a move that takes her away from the familiar comfort of home.
When complex situations arise before a child develops the ability to articulate her emotions, books can help her feel less alone and more at ease with feelings like anger, frustration, or sadness. While a book can’t make everything better, stories often provide solace in ways that advice cannot.
Many authors are working to produce fiction that speaks to kids who are in the midst of crisis, struggle, or heartbreak. Here are 10 works that can accompany your child through a dark time.
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 difficult situations that families may have a hard time talking about with kids.
2. The Purple Balloon by Chris Raschka
Hospital workers have noticed that when children who have a sense of their own impending death are asked to draw a picture about their feelings, they frequently draw 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 to facilitate conversations about death between children and the people who love them. Aimed at helping readers 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 and Sasha J. Mudlaff
This book is meant for children who have witnessed or endured a traumatic experience. Sherman, the protagonist of the story, witnesses an unspecified, horrible thing and begins to have stomach aches and nightmares. 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 and 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 100,000 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 a loss.
5. Jenny Is Scared: When Sad Things Happen in the World by Carol Shuman
Shuman's story begins the conversation between child and caregiver about how to maintain one's sense of well-being in a challenging world. The book is for young readers who fear violence or terrorism, and focuses on providing them with both short-term and long-term coping mechanisms, like talking to those you love and being a tolerant person who transforms our society.
6. Moody Cow Meditates by Kerry Lee MacLean
MacLean's books are a staple in my household — and a gift I often give to new families. All children must learn to deal with stress and challenges. Moody Cow has a terrible day and ends up breaking a window in his house out of frustration. His grandfather teaches him how to meditate, and Moody Cow realizes that he has some control over his response to struggle. At the end of a long day of parenting, this book reminds me to breathe while also teaching my child how to cope with difficulties.
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 is so heartbreaking that it is even difficult for adults to understand — explaining it to children is all the more challenging. Mai, a Hmong child living in a refugee camp in Thailand, is reflecting on her past as she creates a traditional story cloth. Through a touching tale and soft watercolors, children are able to develop empathy for refugees like Mai.
9. The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco
This children's classic teaches kids about leaving home and maintaining connections to family. The quilt in the story, which Anna’s ancestors created from the cloth of their old clothes, becomes the thread that holds the family line together, even as Anna and her family 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 all 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 shares lessons about resilience in the face of tragedy, as well as the consequences of a tragic event that profoundly changed this country.
The National Association of School Psychologists has compiled an extensive list of texts that can help children deal with trauma and loss, and the Anna Institute offers a list that includes works focused specifically on abuse and violence. Those interested in learning more about the immigrant experience can check out The American Library Association's list of children's books as well.
I hope this list can offer some comfort to you and your family.
Looking for other ways to help your child through an emotional time? Check out our article How to Talk With Your Kids When Tragedy Strikes. Follow this link to find more book recommendations from education experts.