Difficult Topics – Picture Books to the Rescue

posted on July 7, 2023 by Eve Panzer

Difficult Topics – Picture Books to the Rescue
(First published in First Chapter Plus April 2022)

Lately, it seems that topics challenging to broach with children abound. The pandemic, January 6, LBGTQ+ rights, the rise of racism, and hate crimes are just a few. And now the war in Ukraine, horrifically playing out in front of us on TV every day! It is challenging to discuss these kinds of topics in developmentally appropriate ways.

As a school librarian, I found picture books were often the best springboard to start difficult discussions. Picture books, generally written for audiences ages 4 – 8, are a familiar format familiar for these younger children, and the pictures add to the topic without being scary. For older kids, even middle and high schoolers, the subject is laid out in simple terms and not in-depth. The questions and observations made by the older children will determine how much detail to discuss with them.

You may think that older children may balk at the use of picture books, thinking of them as babyish. However, that was never an issue. Instead, my older students loved a break from longer chapter books and appreciated the artwork.

A few months ago, I wrote about the growing and alarming trend of removing and banning books from school libraries. Not only are books being censored, but in some school districts, teachers cannot discuss topics such as racism and LBGTQ+ with their students. In some cases, history is being whitewashed to prevent some students from feeling uncomfortable.

Recently, I heard the story of a gay Kindergarten teacher in Florida. Every year he teaches a unit about families. All the children bring pictures of their families to post on the class bulletin board. In past years, the teacher had posted a photo of himself and his husband. However, because of a recent law passed there, he feels that he – and any other students in his class with a non-traditional family unit – will feel they cannot share their family photos. Just describing their family would be against this new Florida “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.

I realize that some of the books that would be useful to introduce tough topics could be the same being targeted by schools for censorship. Children can no longer depend on their schools to provide information and allow discussion on many relevant subjects. This makes it imperative that bookstores and public libraries stock their shelves with these pertinent books.

Below are two timely books that are useful to discuss the war in Ukraine with children.

Zahra’s Blessing: A Ramadan Story
Written by: Shirin Shamsi
Illustrated by: Manal Mirza
Published by: Barefoot Books
Hardback: $17.99
Paperback: $9.99 (Also available in Spanish)
Ages: 4-9 years

Rich language and beautiful art weave a meaningful and timely story. Zahra’s Blessing takes place during Ramadan (beginning the evening of April 1 ending the evening of April 30, 2022), teaching the reader about the holiday through the storyline and endnotes. But in addition, this book includes a story of a displaced young girl, Haleema. As the story progresses, Zahra, the main character, learns to empathize with Haleema’s significant loss

Nour’s Secret Library
Written by: Wafa Tarnowska
Illustrated by: Vali Mintzi
Published by: Barefoot Books
Hardcover: $17.99
Paperback: $9.99
Ages: 6-10 years

Nour’s Secret Library is based on a true story. Although this book is about war in Syria, it is the perfect book to help children think about the war in Ukraine. The community takes refuge in basements in this book as their city is bombarded. Children start collecting books they find when it is safe to roam the streets and eventually build a library. These books offered the residents of this beleaguered city a way to escape from the harsh realities of war. Endnotes include the author’s real-life wartime experiences, information about and a map of Syria, a glossary, and more. This book is a timely and beautiful ode to the power of the human spirit and books.

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-Shirin Shamsi, author of Laila and the Sands of Time and the Barefoot Books title Zahra’s Blessing: A Ramadan Story which received rave reviews from the School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews.

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