Tender Topics

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“From a very young age, we’ve got to make sure our children have access to books that reflect their world, reflect their lives … also books that show them the world that is outside of themselves.”

~Kwame Alexander, poet and educator who has published 21 books for children

Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and social media, we are perpetually bombarded with the news of the day, good and bad. Kids see and hear things that were unspoken and out of sight 30 years ago. Now they’re exposed to violence, war, catastrophic illness, mental health issues, all forms of abuse, gender issues, and discrimination on a daily basis. Parents, teachers, social workers, and caregivers are often besieged with difficult questions about tough topics.

Fortunately, there is help.

The field of children’s and YA literature is chock full of titles that deal with challenging situations. Exposing children to the right titles can help them develop skills to understand and cope with difficult subjects and situations. These stories serve to open conversations and help struggling kids realize they aren’t alone.


In Llama, Llama and the Bully Goat, children see an example of a good way to cope with bullying when Anna Dewdney’s beloved llama crosses paths with a sand-kicking Billy goat at recess.

For the older kids, John David Anderson’s Posted is an excellent choice to open a conversation about bullying. After a cell phone ban, middle school students write their messages, jokes, opinions, and insults on post-it notes and slap them on each other's lockers for all to see.

The Survival Guide to Bullying Written by a Teen offers strategic advice for kids being bullied. Aija Mayrock draws on her own experiences of being bullied through middle and high school, gives excellent advice on identifying bullying behavior, and offers tips on finding help.


Finding Audrey, by Sophie Kinsella, tells the story of 14-year old Audrey who suffers from a year of vicious bullying, which leads to a severe anxiety disorder and prompts her to withdraw largely to her room. The Kirkus review notes this is “an outstanding tragicomedy that gently explores mental illness, the lasting effects of bullying, and the power of friends and loving family to help in the healing.”

For the younger set, dyslexia is a cause of anxiety for the protagonist in Patricia Polacco’s Thank you, Mr. Falker. Trisha cannot wait to go to school and learn to enjoy all those wonderful books her family is always reading. However, when she gets there, she can’t make out the shapes of those wiggly lines, which earns her jeers and laughter from her classmates. Finally, her fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Falker, recognizes her learning disability and gets her special help.


There have been several recent titles dealing with Asperger’s Syndrome, a developmental disability on the autism spectrum. Isaac and His Amazing Asperger Superpowers!, by Melanie Walsh, provides a terrific affirmation for children with Asperger’s and an education for those unaffected by the syndrome. At the beginning, Isaac tells you that he is different because he has superpowers. At the end, he admits that he doesn’t have superpowers, but has Asperger’s. Even so, he says, his brother understands.

For the high schoolers, Fransisco X. Stork has written a powerful story about a 17-year old who is high functioning on the autism spectrum. In Marcello in the Real World, Marcello loves taking care of the ponies at Paterson, his special education school. He is obsessed with religion, hears music in his head, and has trouble interacting with others. Beautifully written and compelling, the book will help many kids who are facing their own “real world.”

Family Situations

Families are more diverse than ever these days. Books normalize kids’ experiences.

Kids who come from the homes of single-sex parents will enjoy And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson. After the failed attempt by two same-sex penguins to hatch a rock-shaped egg, the zookeeper gives them a fertilized egg. And out comes Tango!

Anyone who has a parent in jail will be comforted by Jacqueline Woodson’s Visiting Day, which tells about the one day every month when a grandmother and a little girl visit the girl’s father in jail.


Beginning with the classic Dinosaurs Divorce by Laurene Krasny Brown, there is a plethora of titles to help little ones.

Kids whose home lives have experienced this kind of upheaval will also relate to Weekends with Max and his Dad by Linda Urban and Monday, Wednesday, and Every Other Weekend by Karen Stanton. Single parents and blended families are in as many stories for older kids as not; we no longer regard families like these as exceptions.

Adoption, Foster Care

Three Pennies by Melanie Crowder is a tender story about 11-year-old Marin, who has been bounced around in the foster care system since she was four.

Another 11-year old who has experienced foster care is tough-talking, completely unmanageable Gilly in The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. She has been in more foster care homes than she can remember, and she’s hated them all.

You Don’t Know Me but I Know You by Rebecca Barrow is a title about adoption for older teens. Main character Audrey finds herself pregnant and struggles—along with her boyfriend, her adoptive mother and stepfather—to make the best decisions for everyone involved.


A child’s first brush with death may occur when a pet dies, and this loss can be devastating. In her 1938 classic, The Dead Bird, Margaret Wise Brown understood that death could be handled in a way that children could comprehend. Newly illustrated by Christian Robinson, the story sensitively portrays the reaction of children who find a dead bird and honor it with a burial.

Bone Dog by Eric Rohmann is another picture book that can comfort and help a child journey through the grieving process. After her death, Ella, an old dog, saves her young master from a group of threatening skeletons on Halloween.

No one who has read Katherine Paterson’s iconic Bridge to Terabithia will ever forget the emotions it evokes. One day, Jess, an aspiring artist, is invited by his music teacher to visit an art museum in the city. Jess goes but decides not to invite best friend Leslie. He returns home to discover that Leslie has died while trying to swing across a rain-swollen creek to the imaginary kingdom that the pair created together. Families of both children offer Jess love and support as he works his way through his grief.

Knowledgeable librarians, parents, teachers, and caregivers can steer youngsters to the right books at the right time, to help them deal with difficult situations. Brodart has a list of books on tough topics for kids and teens. Click here. This list includes all titles mentioned in this article, plus those that touch upon homelessness, poverty, drugs, race, ethnicity, war, trauma, physical abuse, sexual abuse, gender roles, immigration, body image, self-esteem, and more.

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Why Read? A blog about kids and books