Picture books to help children talk about tricky topics
Published on: 24 October 2022
Finding just the right book to read together can open a door to helping a child understand and process difficult subjects like illness, loss, and big change. Author Jeanne Willis, who lost her dad to dementia, recommends some of her favourite children's books for talking about tricky topics.
Jeanne Willis and the cover of I Remember
Even if memory fails, the heart still remembers
I’ll never forget losing my dad to dementia. It’s a cruel disease but it wasn’t all bleak. Along with the rage, anguish and confusion (mine and his), we enjoyed many hilarious and tender moments which to be honest, we hadn’t often done pre-dementia. Even when he’d forgotten who I was, he greeted me with all the love he’d never been able to show before. Maybe I’m kidding myself, maybe he was like that with the hospital porter too, but it doesn’t matter. In that instant, he loved me whoever I was and that was enough for grown-up Jeanne.
But say I was only five and my soul mate, Grandad, forgot my name? Ouch! I wouldn’t understand, I’d think he didn’t love me anymore because of some heinous thing I must have done, and that the love we shared was just a cruel illusion. I would have blamed myself, as children often do, and suffered in miserable silence.
I kept meaning to write a picture book about that for children who found themselves on the receiving end of dementia but I couldn’t think where to start until a friend returned from visiting his own father who had Alzheimer’s. Their conversation went something like this:
"Who are you?"
"It’s me … Patrick!"
Although their relationship had always been distant and frosty, his father’s eyes lit up and bursting with pride he exclaimed, "Ah! I have a son called Patrick… Do you know him?"
That was the trigger for my picture book I Remember. I hope the story will be used as a gentle tool to explain to the very young why Grandma isn’t quite herself and reassure them that even if her memory fails, her heart still remembers.
Illustration: Fiona Lumbers
Scary things can be easier to bear with a story (and a cuddle)
Dementia. It’s a tricky subject for a picture book, right? Actually, it’s probably the best place if you’ve still got most of your milk teeth. Sad, scary and bewildering things that happen to children can be a little easier to bear if a suitable story is read to them, un-hurried and preferably with a cuddle. Post-story, warm and sleepy, it creates the perfect space for them to ask questions and share their woes. "Why oh why did my hamster die?" If we don’t know the answer or can’t find the right words, the right book can offer solace, a little wisdom and be a catalyst for conversation. If we can’t fix it, at least we can listen and dry their eyes.
In this ever-changing world, thankfully picture books are being published by the bold and brave on subjects that were once strictly taboo. Here’s a list of some of the best, including some tried and tested classics. Think of them as Calpol for the soul.
Sex Education: Where Willy Went by Nicholas Allan
Refugee Crisis: My Name is Not Refugee by Kat Milner
Death: Badger's Parting Gifts by Susan Varley and Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlburch
Dementia: I Remember by Jeanne Willis and Raquel Catalina and Elmer and the Gift by David McKee
Two Homes: Two Homes by Claire Masurel and Kady Macdonald Denton
LGBTQ: My Shadow is Pink by Scott Stuart and Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love
Disability: Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross
Visual Impairment: Mole’s Sunrise by Jeanne Willis and Nicola Davies
Deafness: Listen by Shannon Stocker and Devon Holzwarth
I Remember, written by Jeanne Willis and illustrated by Raquel Catalina, is available now.
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