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There’s a book for that…Using children’s books to have difficult conversations

By Brandy Browne

Surely, as a parent, you have wondered what words to use to have a particularly difficult conversation with your children…often, just attempting to start a conversation that is not organically happening in the moment can be quite difficult. Events around the world or even happenings within your own communities and families can precipitate the need to have such conversations, as can the simple desire to mold your child into an open minded, resilient, kind human. 

Speaking from a parent and kindergarten teacher’s point of view, using children’s literature can be a great gateway into discussing current events and issues (as well as hard to tackle themes such as loss of a loved one, divorce, and social injustices) with children. Louise Derman Sparks from Social Justice Books (part of Teaching for Change) agrees, stating: “Children’s books continue to be an invaluable source of information and values. They reflect the attitudes in our society about diversity, power relationships among different groups of people, and various social identities (e.g., racial, ethnic, gender, economic class, sexual orientation, and disability). The visual and verbal messages young children absorb from books (and other media) heavily influence their ideas about themselves and others. Depending on the quality of the book, they can reinforce (or undermine) children’s affirmative self-concept, teach accurate (or misleading) information about people of various identities, and foster positive (or negative) attitudes about diversity. Children’s books teach children about who is important, who matters, who is even visible” (Keene, 2019, retrieved from https://vawnet.org/news/how-can-childrens-books-be-used-promote-social-justice-and-peace). Shades of People by Shelley Rotner is a powerful story to begin to open children’s eyes to the idea of “race.” The beautiful photographs illustrate all different colors of skin and types of hair, and asking open ended “what do you notice” questions will tune children in to the many different types of people that make up Earth. This conversation opens the floor for discussions on race and discrimination. Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport tells the tale of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and other important figures of the civil rights movement. Use stories like this one to talk about being an activist and catalyst for change. 

There Might be Lobsters by Carolyn Crimi tackles the often elusive subject of mental health disorders, such as anxiety. She tells the story of a little dog who is afraid of the ocean, sand, lobsters, etc. However, when a wave takes his stuffed toy, he summons his courage to go out into the water to retrieve it. This type of story can be useful to share with a child learning to manage anxious tendencies. 

Monday, Wednesday, and Every Other Weekend by Karen Stanton tells the tale of Henry, who travels with his dog in between his mother and father’s separate homes. The many children transitioning between homes due to divorce can relate to the feelings of confusion that Henry and his dog feel about which home to call “home.” 

WIld About Us by Karen Beaumont talks about the unique attributes of wild animals, from elephant’s long truck to the big ears of his friend the monkey and why each is worth celebrating. The moral here is that all of us are unique and that is worth celebrating. 

The Invisible String by Patrice Karst enables children to process notions of loss and grief. In this tale, a mother tells her two children that they are connected by an invisible string (love). Love connects us all…even if we cannot see a loved one, we can still feel their love and presence in our heart. A comforting message for those grieving with the loss of someone special. 

Concluding Thoughts

Most importantly, children’s literature can prove to be a starting point for difficult conversations or tough to tackle themes, such as racism, discrimination, etc. These books do not replace the need for a conversation with children. Asking open ended questions to entice children to share their thoughts and answering their questions honestly must also occur. 

Sources

Keene, C. (2019). How can children’s books be used to promote social justice and peace? Retrieved from https://vawnet.org/news/how-can-childrens-books-be-used-promote-social-justice-and-peace

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