There are times when my work as a librarian and my life as a parent of young children overlap. My younger kids are four and nine years old and very curious. Like a lot of kids, they have questions about the way their world works and (especially the nine-year-old) have a strong sense of outrage when they discover something that isn’t fair. As a parent, I sometimes struggle to answer their big questions in age-appropriate ways. Also, there are topics I want them to be aware of that my kids (in their really pretty privileged, sheltered lives) might not think to ask about. It can be hard to find the right words or know how much information to give them. Fortunately, I can turn to the children’s section of the library and find some books to share with them when I’m feeling at a loss. 

Children’s books can be an incredible resource when tackling a tricky topic with children. Whether your child is asking you about something they saw on the news, something that is happening in their lives or the life of a friend, or something they’ve observed and don’t understand, books can give you a jumping off point for conversation. Reading a book together gives an issue context and a shared frame of reference. Picture books, especially, can pack a lot of information into an easily accessible format.  

A personal example of this is when I read the nonfiction picture book, All the Way to the Top, by Annette Bay Pimentel, to my then-eight-year-old. The book tells the true story of a young girl who used a wheelchair and whose activism helped pass the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. After we finished the book, my son’s first reaction was to say, “I’m really glad I don’t have a disability!” Then he thought about it for a little while and said, “You know, I wear glasses to help me read. My glasses are kind of like her wheelchair.” I was floored at his perceptiveness and impressed at the book’s ability to inspire him to find common ground with someone who he at first thought was pretty different from him, creating opportunities for deeper discussions on the topic of disability. Children’s librarians and educators like to talk about books as mirrors that help readers learn something about themselves and windows that help them learn about other people. Sometimes a book can be both. 

Disability is one of many tricky topics that a parent or anyone who spends time with children might run into. It can be tempting to avoid the hard subjects, thinking that kids don’t need to worry about that kind of thing yet. The truth is, life is full of challenges. Difficult things happen to children whether we want them to or not, and children grow up more quickly than we realize. Books are a valuable tool to equip a child with the context and vocabulary to navigate hard things, either before something happens or after.  

Parents and other caring adults sometimes come to the library looking for a book that will help a child navigate a death of a pet or a loved one, a family’s divorce, or scary things in the news. Others come hoping to find a book that will help them talk with their children about heavy topics like racism, climate change, violence, homelessness, abuse, or mental illness in an age-appropriate way. Sometimes, the request is for books that celebrate diverse lives, highlighting the many types of families in the world, people standing up for what they believe in, or strength in the face of adversity. As librarians, we do our best to find materials that facilitate those conversations and provide quality information on the topic at hand.  

There’s a lot of territory to cover on this topic—more than a single blog post could hope to include—so my colleagues and I have created some lists of library materials on various Tricky Topics that are good for sharing with young children. Some topics are weightier than others, but all can pose a challenge to an adult who wants to do right by the subject matter and the children in their lives. We’ll keep adding to these lists as new books come to our attention, and please let your local librarian know if there’s a tricky topic you’d like to see covered. 

You’re also invited to join Monica (our Children’s Librarian in Medford) and me on Thursday, February 10th for  a conversation over Zoom on some of our favorite tricky topic books to share with children and some techniques on how to use them as conversation starters. Don’t forget to register for the event so you will be sent a link to join the meeting.

In the meantime, thank you for your dedication to raising the best kids you know how. The world is complex and this stuff can be hard. Please know that your library is a resource, and consider reading a book with your child when you’re searching for an entry point to a tough conversation.