We all know books can be faithful companions in hard times. Today Palmerston North Youth Librarian Alan Dingley gets out his prescription pad and suggests excellent books for children going through tough stuff.
My six-year-old daughter asked me the other day, 'Dad, why do we have to be sad?'
I prefer to answer as honestly as possible without scaring them in these situations, so I replied, 'So we know that we’re missing someone, or know that something is wrong.'
She looked at me, sizing my answer up, examining it for fibs (as only young children can do), and said, 'That’s good, I’m sad so it must mean I miss Mum.'
Having lost her Mum just months before, this was a beautiful answer that meant I had to go and have a bit of a deep-breath-lie-down afterwards!
I lay there thinking what an awesome answer she gave, and but also thought about times to come when I may not have a suitable answer, or at least not one to her liking.
What do we have in our arsenal as parents and educators that we can use where children can draw their own conclusion from what is presented to them?
So I started to think about titles that I have come across in my librarianship that has served a purpose when words have failed in tough situations.
Alan on an iREADS tour
Things like loneliness, bullying, anxiety, depression, and even loss of a loved one are all things we prefer not to have to imagine children or young people dealing with… but we know they do.
That’s where some of the following titles can help. Books can the perfect prescription in these situations because each book is subjective to the person reading it. Readers can take from the book whatever it is they need at that moment. The subject and the substance are within their control to decipher how they see fit.
This list is of my choosing because at different times, in different situations, they have spoken to me or to someone else who needed them. These are all recommended to parents, teachers, librarians and anyone with a heart.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
(Anger management, dealing with loss, cancer)
‘The Monster showed up after midnight. As they do.’
This moving story shows Conor trying to understand why the Monster is visiting him and what it wants. As his anger and frustration grows, he comes to realise what it is the Monster wants.
The Monster wants the truth.
Fiction Suitable Ages 12+
Stickboy by Shane Koyczan
(Bullying, self-harm, loneliness, anger management)
Shane Koyczan is a Canadian spoken word poet who became widely known after his ‘For the bullied and the beautiful’ TEDx talk. That talk and this novel both sprang from his poem ‘To This Day’ which chronicles his battle with bullying, and the trials children face fitting in.
The novel Stickboy is a beautifully written story of how he faces the daily ritual of bullying, then the shock as he realises he’s becoming what he hates: a bully.
‘The fist stopped mid-air and dropped to his side; a dog being called home by his master.’
Fiction Suitable Ages 13+ (Contains coarse language)
The Red Tree by Shaun Tan
Shaun Tan is an Australian picture book author/illustrator who has produced such great works as The Arrival and Rules of Summer.
The Red Tree is a beautifully illustrated picture book that has minimal text, but maximum illustrative impact. The concept is simple.
‘Sometimes the day starts out with nothing to look forward to.’
The detailed art draws you in and at first you barely notice the words, until you stop to read them and are then forced to look at the pictures in a whole new light. It is a journey that shows you the dark places, but then simply, unpretentiously, shows you the light.
Sophisticated Picture Book Suitable Ages 10+
The Book of Hat by Harriet Rowland
(cancer, dying, resiliency)
Harriet Rowland was 17 when she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. She struggled with new life she had to face, but after reading (and falling in with) John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars she changed her life. The book has a John Green heroine feel to it, and it’s a refreshing, expressive read that leaves you rooting for Hat.
‘Plus I hear the scars are pretty impressive, and help us get boys. Who needs milkshakes?’
The Book of Hat is her honest, diary-like account of how life goes on in the face of uncertainty and illness. It is a collection of posts from her blog ‘myexperienceofwalkingthedog’, so titled because her parents say cancer is like a dog – fine if it stays in its own yard. Hat’s dog got out.
Non-Fiction Suitable Ages 13+
Haere: Farewell, Jack, Farewell by Tim Tipene
(Death, Tradition, culture, family)
This story about the importance of family, and losing a loved one, is a memorable tale that reflects traditional Maori (add macron) beliefs protocols surrounding the death of a whanau member.
The illustrations show more of the story, hinting at tupuna as figures present in rooms and the sky, the ways of death and tradition highlighted as the process unfolds.
‘It was night time when the first manuhiri came. They cried, talked, and sang to Koro Jack.’
The simple text, told through the eyes of a young child, describes what is happening at a ‘human’ level.
You can read more of Tim Tipene’s perspective on writing books for children with hard subject matter in his essay ‘We know where the wild things are’ for The Sapling here.
Junior Picture Book Suitable Ages 8+
So Special by David Hill
(Absent parent, anger management)
Part of the Force 4 Families series which was created in collaboration with the NZ Defence Force to help families deal with the difficult times that arise when a parent is deployed overseas, or absent for any reason.
Oscar finds it tough having his father away and gets angry and upset a lot. He misses his dad and doesn’t understand why he has to be away.
‘The Army look after one another, son,’ his mother said. ‘They’re like a team. So are we eh?’
You can read Sarah Forster’s review of So Special here.
Junior Picture Book Suitable Ages 5+
The Fix-it man by Dimity Powell & Nicky Johnston
(Death, Loss of parent)
A poignant picture book that explores how a child and her father rebuild their lives after the loss of her mother.
It's handy having a Dad who can fix just about anything. A young girl believes her father is the king of fixing things, but following the death of her mother, she discovers that broken hearts are not as easy to repair as damaged toys and cracked teapots.
‘Tiger needs urgent attention. He’s too broken to dance or to sing. We’ve run out of glue and I need some more fast because sticky tape is hopeless on bad dreams and teapots...’
The author’s counsellors encouraged publication of this book, having noticed the lack of stories of its type around. The Paradise Kids charity in Queensland endorses the book as part of their ‘Help heal the heartache’ programme.
I was lucky enough to have been given this book by a friend and its beautiful turns of phrase, and sweet accompanying illustrations, hit the perfect levels of melancholy, sadness and hope. Its quality means I still read it regularly, mostly to remind myself to stop and make sure I have plenty of glue and cups of tea.
Picture Book Suitable Ages 8+
These titles are some from what I call my ‘Prescription Pad’. I am constantly on the look-out for more titles to ‘add to my pad’ so if anyone out there has titles they use in tough time, I would love to hear about them. You can contact me via the Palmerston North City Library: firstname.lastname@example.org
I believe all parents, educators, and librarians out there need to be aware of what they can ‘prescribe’ when they come across someone in need, even if that person is themselves.
Alan is the Youth Librarian working out of Palmerston North City Council’s Youth Space, where he curates what he thinks is the most versatile of all collections, YA literature. He has a background in theatre (part of current NZ Theatresports champions ‘SpontaneoUS’) and enjoys using his theatre skills teaching story-building workshops, where he tries to give children, young people, and even adults the confidence to tell their stories, their way. He is a lucky Dad to two gorgeous girls, Sam and Georgie, who lost their Mum Kirsty last year. Books have played a massive part in their healing process.