Posted 11:30 a.m. Monday, Dec. 5, 2022

Engagement and Curriculum Collection Librarian Teri Holford helping a student locate a book in the Curriculum Center

Using children’s, teen and young adult books to address difficult themes

By Teri Holford (she/her/hers)

Since the mid-18th century when the broad genre “children’s literature” was introduced, children, teen and young adult readers have traditionally been protected from the harsh realities of the adult world. However, Grimm’s fairy tales and other folktales, in their original versions, are a clear contradiction to the idea that children need to be protected. Recurring themes of dark forests, big bad wolves or hags and witches waiting for lost and vulnerable children are thought to have been told over and over to children as life lessons based on the necessity of fear in order to survive.  

In roughly the last ten to fifteen years, there has been a slow expansion of harder themes introduced through picture, teen and young adult books (both fiction and non-fiction). These are themes that no longer sugar coat or deny the harsh realities that many children are grappling with in their family or personal lives. This new reality, reflected in the publishing world as well as school and public libraries, is bringing subjects close to home that make many adults uncomfortable, especially in the presence of children: death; loss; separation; gender and sexual identity; physical, cognitive or emotional abilities; emotional management; suicide; sexual assault; divorce; incarceration; substance abuse; domestic violence; war; illegal immigration; religion; homelessness; etc. The list is long.  

Whether children and teens should have access to these books has recently driven political agendas further into classrooms and libraries. The American Library Association makes our professional position clear: access to information is our right as American citizens. Parents may, and should, step in and navigate what they think is best for their own children, and school teachers are now trained to work with parents to give optional reading choices. However, one person or one group of people should not have the right to make a decision for another person or group of people.  

The question remains though: can children and teens digest these topics? They may have classmates who are going through very difficult experiences at home or personally. This is where the beauty of reading can come in to help individuals process information, emotions or situations. When they read books where characters are going through the same experience, books become a mirror and they realize they are not alone. When they read books about the experience of others that may not mirror their own lives, books become a window to the lives and struggles of others, giving them as readers an opportunity for learning about compassion.  

Research studies have argued that children and teens actually can process tough topics, with conversation being a vital part of this process. National Public Radio’s “Life Kit” podcast gave several takeaways as to how to talk about difficult topics children and teens might see or hear about from news sources:  

  1. Limit exposure to “breaking news” 
  2. Ask them, “what have you heard and how are you feeling?” 
  3. Give kids facts and context 
  4. When they ask why something happened, avoid labels such as “bad guys” 
  5. Encourage processing through art and play 
  6. Bring their attention to how people are helping each other and taking care of each other to overcome hard situations in the news 
  7. Take positive action together 

Murphy Library’s collection of picture, informational and teen fiction in the Alice Hagar Curriculum Collection strives to collect books that represent a wide range of experiences that children, teens and young adults may experience or will learn about from others. It may not be easy to find the appropriate subject search term, but librarians are ready to help at the Reference Assistance desk on the first floor. Engagement and Curriculum Collection Librarian Teri Holford’s office is now situated in the Curriculum Center, where anyone can find assistance to find the book they’re looking for.  

A selection of books on some of these topics within Murphy Library’s Curriculum Collection can be found below.  

Additional resources: 

Books located in the Murphy Library Curriculum Center

Book cover of "The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family."

The Proudest Blue,” written by Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali and art by Hatem Aly deals with the topic of peer pressure for wearing cultural headwear at school.

Book cover of "Wednesday"

Wednesday” by Anne Bertier discusses overcoming differences and “othering” to cooperate and creatively work together.

Book cover of "The Boy Who Loved Maps"

The Boy Who Loved Maps,” written by Kari Allen and G. Brian Karas covers the topic of self-awareness, opening one’s world to others with different interests.

Book cover of "The Library Bus"

The Library Bus,” written by Bahram Rahman and illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard covers the importance of access to education for girls in countries where it has been taken away.

Book cover of "Two White Rabbits"

Two White Rabbits” by Jairo Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng is a story about a father and daughter who ride on top of trains to find a better life.

Book cover of "Finn's Feather"

Finn’s Feather” by Rchael Noble and Zoey Abbott is about finding meaning in nature’s tiniest signs as a way to find hope after the death of a loved one.