Let Books Do the Heavy Lifting

Curiously this year I found issue-oriented books in picture book and novel form…the result:

*This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Kids & Books.*

When I felt squeamish about introducing difficult subjects to my children, I turned to books.  Books provided role models who faced the same situations they did and authors gave me words to address topics that felt uncomfortable.  It was as if I held in my hand a concrete vehicle to discussions I would not have known how to broach.

Picture books made it easier for me to talk about issues when they were younger.  When they reached older elementary grades, early novels with more complex layers better matched their abilities to think in more sophisticated ways, launching us into deeper conversations. Below find topics with book suggestions for both age levels.

Gender and Families



Schiffer, Miriam B. Stella Brings the Family (2015)

Stella’s teacher has announced a Mother’s Day celebration. Who is Stella to invite when she has two fathers? Bewildered, she talks to her peers who are confused about who fills the traditional role ascribed to mothers.  Their questioning doesn’t make sense to Stella and this is the beauty of the book—she is so anchored in the normalcy of her life, she doesn’t understand the differences her classmates see.  Stella solves her problem by inviting all her caretakers and though it’s hard to make all those invitations, everyone is happy with her decision…except maybe the overwhelmed teacher. This reaction begs the obvious question: do you think she’ll do things differently next time? (ages 4-7)

Gino, Alex. George (2015)
Fourth grader George shuts herself in the bathroom with a stack of girls’ teen magazines she’s collected from the recycling.  She imagines herself wearing a bikini, applying lipstick, and introducing herself as Melissa, “the name she called herself in the mirror when no one was watching.” Her older brother arrives home and she hides the magazines.  She also hides her wish to play the female lead in the school play and her heartache of appearing male, but identifying as female.  Eventually, George tells her best friend her secret and the loyal friend promises to keep it, help George play the female lead, and go out in public as Melissa.  The discussion-worthy novel has both tender and painful moments, some of which are relieved by comforting scenes and characters who understand. (ages 8-11)

Economic Hardship






Bunting, Eve. Yard Sale (2015)

Callie’s family is having a yard sale because they’re moving to a “small, but nice” apartment and the family’s belongings are spread all over the lawn. As people argue about prices, Callie feels confused and overwhelmed.  When a woman notes her cuteness and teasingly wonders if she’s for sale, Callie breaks down. Her parents assure her, they’d never sell her “not for a million, trillion dollars. Not ever, ever, ever.” By story’s end Callie’s realized that all the furniture wouldn’t have fit in her new home as she attempts to adopt a more optimistic viewpoint. (ages 5-8)



Applegate, Katherine. Crenshaw (2015)
Rising fifth-grader Jackson’s loving parents “try not to burden their kids with grown-up problems,” but their situation reminds Jackson of a time in first grade when his family lived in their car. Jackson, who loves science and facts, is tired of his parents’ false cheer and horrified when Crenshaw, his imaginary cat friend reappears after three years. Another complicated problem: Jackson’s five-year-old sister Robin senses trouble and Jackson realizes she wasn’t old enough to remember the last time they were homeless; how can he explain what will happen? Applegate balances facts with fantasy, symbolism with details, humor and pathos. All unite to describe a loving family that’s doing the best it can to find comfort and endure.  (ages 8-11)



Family Changes





Appelt, Kathi. When Otis Courted Mama (2015)
Cordell is a coyote who has a “mostly wonderful life” with a “perfectly good mama” who knows how to “hunt down pack rats and chuckwallas; even the sneakiest rattlesnakes can’t hide from her.” He has a “perfectly good daddy” who makes the “most fantastic jalapeno flapjacks with just the right amount of saguaro syrup.” His parents don’t live together and that’s fine with Cordell until the neighbor, Otis, comes to court Mama.  Cordell has to admit Otis can stir up prickly pear pudding that makes taste buds hum and he finally accepts his mother’s suitor. Appelt’s vernacular, similes, and details sing in this playful view of stepparenting. (ages 4-8)





Mills, Lauren.  Minna’s Patchwork Coat (2016)
For 25 years, ever since Mills published The Rag Coat, children have written her wanting to know more about its heroine, Minna.  Now the fuller novel-version begins with a portrait of Minna’s coal miner father — his playfulness, love for her mother, music and his family.  When he gets black lung disease and dies, Minna wakes the day of his funeral with the wind wanting to come into their little house “and sweep me away with it.”  The despair of this grieving, impoverished family is counteracted as Mills shows more of the supportive community.  The novel (with Mills’ memorable old-fashioned drawings) will satisfy an older audience by introducing new characters, themes, and more vivid descriptions of the Appalachian setting. (ages 8 and up)



Oppel, Kenneth. The Nest (2015)
Anxiety-prone Steven has disturbing dreams and many concerns that multiply when his parents bring home a baby sibling who has severe problems. Temporary relief comes when Steven’s dreams introduce winged beings he thinks are angels.  But these dream “angels” are really threatening gray and white wasps and their sinister presence seems linked to a wasp nest growing outside the baby’s room. Steven fears for himself, the baby, and his family.  As reality and fantasy blur, Oppel anchors his story in scientific truths about wasps.  Jon Klassen’s illustrations add to the book’s eerie tone, but the ending is hopeful. Steven is on the way to accepting imperfections in the baby, himself, and life. (ages 9 and up)






Meyer, Susan.  New Shoes (2015)
Ella Mae is thrilled when her mama “scrapes together money for new shoes.” But at the shoe store, her experience is different than the little blonde girl who is fitted and treated politely as she tries on shoes. The clerk tells Ella Mae’s mother, “Pencil and paper are over there, gal” and Ella Mae must use a traced outline of her foot to select her shoes. Eric Velasquez’s illustrations sensitively express Ella Mae’s feelings as, “Even though I have new shoes, I feel bad most of the day.” Ella Mae finds a way to bring fairness and choice to her community, starting a store stocked with reasonably priced used shoes so “anyone who walks in the door can try on all the shoes they want.”  (ages 5-8)



Draper, Sharon. Stella by Starlight (2015)
Eleven-year-old Stella and her brother Jo-Jo sneak out of the house and see “nine robed figures dressed all in white. Heads covered with softly pointed hoods.”  Poetry and tension continue as the children see reflections of “peppery-red flames” shimmering on the pond as they wait in crunching “traitorous leaves” before dashing to tell adults of the Klan’s appearance.  Stella recognizes and fears the KKK, but the story is just as much about her struggles with school work.  The imagery, humor, and warmth depict the strength of family and community in a 1932 North Carolina small town where black families knew “they had to take care of their own problems and take care of one another.”   (ages 9 and up)







Kobald, Irena and Blackwood, Freya. My Two Blankets (2015)
“Auntie used to call me Cartwheel. Then came the war.” So begins the story of a young girl and her aunt who seek safety in a new country.  But Cartwheel finds people, food, animals, plants and “even the wind” strange. When she leaves their new home all encounters make her feel as if she’s standing under a cold waterfall of unfamiliar sounds. Often she remains home, wrapping herself in a warm, soft, imaginary blanket woven of her past. But one day a girl talks to and smiles at Cartwheel, and after a time, her words don’t sound “cold and sharp.” Cartwheel realizes that these words are weaving “a new blanket.” The lyricism and symbolism balance the story’s painful elements. (ages 7 and up)




Hilton, Marilyn. Full Cicada Moon (2015)
Inhabitants of 1969 Hillsborough, Vermont ask Mimi Yoshiko Oliver, “What are you?” Her reply: “I am / half my Japanese mother,/ half my Black father,/ and all me.” Newly moved away from her cousins in Berkeley, California, Mimi is passionate about science and sees herself as a future astronaut. She stays true to her dreams despite being badly treated, both intentionally and unintentionally, by peers and adults. Gender and race take a back seat to this seventh-grader’s inventiveness, determination, and courage.  Ultimately her steadfastness has an inspirational effect on those around her. The lyrical rhythms and many symbols help convey Mimi’s growth, her parents’ gentle support, and the comfort of making two compassionate friends.  The spare, elegant verse evocatively describes the alien world in which Mimi finds herself.   (ages 8-12)


The world seemingly grows ever more complex. Our young ones are surrounded by complicated situations that even adults sometimes struggle to understand. Luckily books have become braver, more honest, and more thoughtful, providing many more ways to initiate meaningful conversations. 

Leave a Reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>