I’m often asked how we approach BIG topics with little children. My answer is: ever so gently. Mindful that it is our responsibility as parents to filter out information that is in Kim John Payne’s words, too much, too fast, too soon, it is imperative that we approach important subjects in a way that is appropriate for the age and maturity of the child. There is a delicate line between sharing enough and sharing too much, which can mean the difference between a child feeling empowered with information or fearful of the world around them. So how do we approach BIG topics with little children? I like to begin with a storybook.
There is an abundance of beautifully illustrated, richly told storybooks introducing BIG topics ranging from social injustice to mortality. Below I’ve listed a few of my favourite children’s books that are guaranteed to spark conversation about difficult topics through superb story telling and illustration.
I Know a Bear
by Mariana Ruiz Johnson
With its whimsical illustrations and minimal text, I Know a Bear brilliantly approaches the subject of animal captivity and very gently asks the reader to question it. Told from the perspective of a young girl, this moving story is one of my favorite picture books to gift to little ones ages 3-6.
by Francesca Sanna
Hauntingly beautiful, The Journey is the story of a mother and her two children who are forced to leave their home in search of somewhere safe. Undeniably relevant, this heart-breaking yet hope-filled story is a powerful way to broach the topic of immigration with children as young as 5 in both our classrooms and our homes.
by Jon Arno Lawson and Sydney Smith
This important wordless picture book is an ode to everyday beauty, compelling us to slow down and put away our distractions long enough to witness the extraordinary within the ordinary. In an age where people hardly look up from their devices, Sidewalk Flowers offers a timely reminder of how the small things that surround us are really the significant things.
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women
by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo
Rather than a storybook, this is a collection of stories inspired by the lives of extraordinary females. Appropriately, the sixty different artists who contributed to the striking artwork in this book are all female and come from all corners of the world.
Although quickly becoming a feminist classic, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is about so much more than gender. The stories in this book and its follow up, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2, cover a broad range of historical struggles from the civil rights movement to medical discovery and highlight the profound courage it takes to be a change-maker.
My only criticism of this book is that it’s marketed to girls. Empowering stories about women throughout history need to be heard and celebrated by both girls AND boys, women and men.
Stories for Boys Who Dare to Be Different: True Tales of Amazing Boys Who Changed the World Without Killing Dragons
by Ben Brooks and Quinton Winter
When we first brought home Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, my son asked why there wasn’t a book like that about boys. I explained that stories of men and their accomplishments have been shared throughout history while women’s have not, making a book celebrating women necessary and long overdue. But his question got me thinking – couldn’t there be a collection of stories about men that I could really get behind, men who embody qualities that I would like to nurture within my own little boy?
To answer that need comes the newly released Stories for Boys who Dare To Be Different. This is a collection of stories about men who have made the world better, not through violence and force but through qualities not historically associated with masculinity, such as compassion and generosity. This book offers a counter narrative, a much-needed and long overdue reframing of what masculinity is.
Again, it is disappointing that this book is marketed to boys, making the focus on gender once again instead of on the HUMAN qualities that we need to cultivate within all children, all people, both male and female.
by David McPhail
This nearly wordless picture book takes us on a young boy’s journey to mail a letter. His route takes him though what appears to be a war-torn country until he arrives at his destination where a bully tries to prevent him from mailing his letter. The young boy stands up to the boy repeating the word NO twice before mailing his letter. On his walk back home, the landscape has changed from devastation to hope. The most compelling part of the story is saved until the end when the boy’s letter is revealed. Although NO has received mixed reviews from critics, I believe it belongs on this list because it leaves the reader with a three-fold message, a message that the world desperately needs to hear: There is hope amid the darkness. We can take effective action without violence or force. And even the smallest of voices can effect profound change. (Most suitable for children 5+)
Children’s books such as those listed here make space for conversation about complex issues and present an opportunity to teach our children about reading critically. In this way, they serve as a starting point for an ongoing dialogue between parent and child about important subjects.
Our children naturally come to us when they are little, and just as storybooks aren’t meant to provide all the answers, neither are we. My hope is that by making space for meaningful discussions about complex issues, my children will continue to come to me as they grow older…not for the answers, but because I’ve created a safe space where we can talk about the tough stuff.
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