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Can Children’s books be used to talk about Serious Issues?

Should children’s books be used to deal with controversial issues?

Nowadays we are fortunate enough to have an incredibly diverse array of children's books available to cater to each child’s individual preference. If one was to peruse the local library or review the selection of books on a prereaders shelf, you would come across a variety of different genres, ranging from magical worlds, factual anthropomorphic narratives, and books based on real-life scenarios. It is widely known that exposing children to literature from a young age, has renowned positive effects on their overall cognitive development. Reading helps children develop empathy and greater emotional intelligence. It also fosters a child’s ability to creatively interpret any given storyline, and to develop their own opinions alongside an ability to vocalize the same. Children’s books that relay generalized real-life-based storylines, help children to make sense of some of the challenges they face in their own lives. Similarly, the reading process enables children to strengthen the relationship they have with their parents. As well as solidifying the parental bond, reading children’s books may facilitate the formation of a healthy sleep routine, as reading can often help children relax and wind down.

There has been much debate throughout the years as to whether Children’s books could be used as a vehicle to discuss/explain serious matters with young people. Historically speaking, strict censorship regulations often prevented authors from relaying important facts to children, especially children who were attending school. Rather than achieving the goal of protecting young minds from what was perceived as harmful information, this consequential cultural illiteracy caused by censorship created societal harm. When children are exposed to real-life scenarios / or factual concepts in an age-appropriate/sensitive manner they will ultimately flourish. Some of the more contentious topics that could be addressed via children’s books include divorce/ abandonment issues/ grief and loss etc. This blog reviews some of the issues that impact children, and how they can be remedied/explained via the children's book’s narrative.

Parental incarceration

The topic of parental incarceration is one of the most controversial and challenging issues to address. However, it is an important topic to address as it has a severe impact on children and society at large. A survey carried out in 1999, explicated that children aged five or younger represented over 22 percent of minors with incarcerated parents. We can’t choose to remain silent, as it could be said that young children are the true victims of the criminal justice system. The lengthy penal process could be viewed as violating children’s rights to attention and care as per Article 9(3) of the Un convention on the rights of the child, and Article 18.5 of the European Convention on Human rights. Without proper guidance and support, children face a multitude of different challenges due to the psychological strain caused by the imprisonment of their parental figures. I have outlined some of the issues they face below.

1. Psychological issues – Children whose parents have been incarcerated may face issues such as Anxiety, Depression, Anti-social behaviors, etc. It is important that children feel supported, and that the situation is properly explained in an easy-to-understand manner, a process which would be facilitated via the reading of children’s books.

2. Future Criminal Involvement – It has been said the children of parents who have been imprisoned are six times more likely to become criminals themselves.

3. Economic wellbeing – Without income originating from both parents, the overall household income can dramatically decrease, with economic resources no longer being available to meet children’s needs.

4. Abandonment issues – Without a parental figure to lean on, children can suffer from abandonment issues. Similarly, the children of incarcerated parents often do not have an overall supportive familial dynamic to fall back on and may suffer more than children with other supportive relatives.

How can reading a simple picture book make a difference for children enduring this kind of hardship? For younger children, a situation like parental incarceration can be completely overwhelming. Due to a lack of understanding of the overall situation, they may take on some of the blame/guilt of the situation. They may feel isolated or alone due to the stigma attached to imprisonment, and or a lack of familial or peer support. Even schoolteachers / educational establishments may be ill-equipped to deal with difficult situations akin to this. Children’s books may serve to bridge the gap and help young people to understand the barrage of difficult emotions that may threaten to readily consume them because of incarceration. Picture books serve this purpose particularly for younger children as illustrators often illuminate the difficult nature of the situation via simple pictorial representation and foster an understanding in children which may help with the healing process. Luckily there are numerous children’s books available that deal specifically with the topic of Parental Incarceration. I have listed some of the wider known published works below.

Jakeman’ – by Deborah Ellis.

This novel by Ellis deals with the topic of parental incarceration in a tasteful yet imaginative manner. Our main protagonist Jake, and his sister must manage the incarceration of their single mother and the associated devastating effects. Refreshingly the novel deals effectively with the duo's transition into the foster care system and visitations to the prison etc. Both children handle the loss of their parental figure in a unique yet relatable manner. Jake regresses into the comforting recesses of his imagination, starring in his own private comic books series. His sister, on the other hand, tries to manage the situation by assuming the role of a parental figure. Overall, this is an excellent read which effectively deals with this contentious issue in a thought-provoking manner.

Visiting day – by Jacqueline Woodson

This work by award-winning novelist Jacqueline Woodson focuses predominantly on children’s perception of the prison visitation process. It caters to younger children dealing with parental incarceration due to the colorful artistry of Illustrator James Ransome, whose illustrations may help children feel at ease, and comfort them during the daunting visitation process.

Kofi’s Mom – Richard W Dyches

This novel was written by former psychologist and children’s book novelist Richard Dyches. The narrative focuses on the grief and sense of loss which resonates from the incarceration of a parent. The main character Kofi shares his feelings of loneliness and confusion with his classmates in the presence of his teacher. The novel may serve as an excellent resource for adults/teachers who wish to support young children throughout this difficult process.

Divorce / Parental Separation

Divorce is a much more common situation than incarceration for children to face, with over 50 percent of young adults coming from divorced families by high school graduation. However, it can still be an incredibly overwhelming situation for children of all ages. Some of the issues which may be faced by the offspring of divorced parents are outlined below.

1. Dealing with severed attachments- Often upon break up, children may need to spend time with each parental guardian separately, dividing their attention and time between parents accordingly. This may lead to separation anxiety, and or a sense of guilt if the parents do not deal with the situation in an appropriate manner.

2. Change of home/ environment – Often children may end up having to leave their home or move between two homes which can be very disruptive to the child’s sense of safety and or their routine.

3. Insecurity/ Anxiety - Often when a family dynamic becomes unstable, this instability may lead to a sense of insecurity / Anxiety forming in children given they may not be receiving the same level of individualized attention.

Storybooks can be highly useful tools to explain the divorce process to children and may help them to cope with the overwhelming feelings of sadness, frustration, confusion, and anxiety they may be feeling. Numerous books are dealing specifically with divorce, but it is fundamentally important to select a novel that matches a child’s specific circumstances as a narrative that aligns with a child’s current family dynamic will help them feel less isolated. Similarly, if your child does not wish to deal with to engage or deal with the divorce do not force them to do so. This may cause more emotional damage. The reading process should be relaxing and enjoyable and does not have any negative connotations attached to it. I have listed some of the main works that comprehensively deal with separation/divorce below.

Dinosaurs Divorce’- by Laurie and Marc Brown

Anthropomorphic narratives are often very useful in helping children to generally understand the procedural elements of a divorce. Dinosaur’s divorce covers divorce-related jargon, new partners, and new homes, etc. The generalized yet fun approach taken to the topic may make it an excellent introductory novel for younger children dealing with divorce.

‘When my parents forgot how to be friends’ – by Jennifer Moore – Mallinos

This work deals directly with the associated guilt and shame children may feel throughout the divorce process. It helps to reassure children that they are not responsible for the breakup of their parent's marriage and nothing that they could have done or will do can change things. Furthermore, it assures children that their parents still love them dearly even if they no longer love one another.

The Suitcase Kid – by Jacqueline Wilson

The suitcase kid by award-winning author Jacqueline Wilson deals with the topic of divorce in an imaginative yet sensitive manner. The narrative discusses the difficulty our main character Andy has upon the divorce of her parents. Andy deals with the erosion of her sense of belonging and the destruction of her once stable home environment. This novel is perfect for children who are aged 9 and upwards handling the complications of a recent divorce.

Bullying and Discrimination

As well as dealing with children’s issues, the children’s book narrative can also be used to tackle some of the wider cultural issues prevailing in society at large. Societal problems such as bullying / racial discrimination/ gender stereotyping etc are often cultivated because of a lack of education and or understanding in childhood. It is important to ensure children are emotionally aware and have respect for others regardless of their upbringing/ ethnicity/socioeconomic background etc. It is often the case that members of minority groups are the victims of bullying/discrimination. Therefore, as a society, we should take responsibility to educate children via the vehicle of storytelling on matters such as diversity, class privilege, negative stereotyping, etc. Picture books help to facilitate this purpose, as the illustrations may be able to accurately depict the rich tapestry of different cultural ethnicities in a way that celebrates differences but recognizes solidarity on a globalized scale. Reading children’s books may also be useful to tackle some of the internal biases that we have even as adults! We must encourage tolerant principles in our children, as the effects of bullying and discrimination are both wide-ranging and incredibly damaging. I have outlined some of the main negative effects below.

1. Psychological issues – Victims of bullying often suffer from psychological problems such as anxiety/depression/ and insomnia.

2. Physical health issues – Children who have been bullied may also suffer from digestive health issues/eating disorders / and migraines.

3. Decreased academic achievements –Those who have been targeted by bullies may have lower GPAs / higher absences from school.

I have also listed some of the main novels which effectively deal with bullying/ discrimination.

The Other Side – by Jacqueline Woodson

This beautifully illustrated book illuminates the topic of racism/discrimination in a subtle yet easy to comprehend manner. The narrative focuses on the formation of a blossoming friendship during a time of racial segregation. The interracial friendship between Clover and Anna is forbidden by adults but the two girls defy these strict prohibitions and meet secretly at the fence. This poignant story is accompanied by ornate watercolor illustrations depicting the depths of their clandestine friendship.

Llama Llama and the Bully Goat – by Anna Dewdney

This book deals with the topic of bullying in an accessible manner catering to kids aged 3-5. Gilroy Goat taunts Llama Llama humiliating him. Llama remembers the advice of his teacher, which is to notify a grown-up to resolve the situation safely.

10,000 Dresses- by Marcus Ewert

Bailey has a larger-than-life wardrobe and likes to wear a vast array of different dresses. Sparkly dresses…sequined dresses.. technicolor dresses. Bailey loves them all! However, his parents reprimand him reminding him that boys are not allowed to wear dresses. Fortunately, his new friend Laurel accepts him wholeheartedly helping Bailey to feel comfortable in whatever attire he chooses. This quirky descriptive story may assist children to understand gender stereotyping and help them develop tolerant empathy for themselves and others.


Overall, we can see from this that the value of children’s books and storytelling should not be underestimated when it comes to dealing with contentious issues. As adults in a society that values equality, it is our responsibility to educate our children and give them the tools to deal with life’s challenges in an age-appropriate, sensitive, and non-judgmental fashion.

Author: Jessica Mc Carthy



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