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 RememberJeanne 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:

"Hello Dad."

"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 LumbersIllustration: 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.

Fear: Black Dog by Levi Pinfold

Depression: The Colour Thief by Andrew Fusek Peters and Polly Peters and When Sadness Comes to Call by Eva Eland

Anger: I Am Angry by Michael Rosen and Robert Starling 

Sex Education: Where Willy Went by Nicholas Allan 

Refugee Crisis: My Name is Not Refugee by Kat Milner 

War: The Day War Came by Nicola Davies and Rebecca Cobb 

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 

Stammering: I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith 

Colour: Mixed by Arree Chung and Happy in Our Skin by Fran Manushkin and Lauren Tobia 

LGBTQ: My Shadow is Pink by Scott Stuart and Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

Two Dads: And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

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.


You might also like...

Looking for more books to help children talk about difficult subjects? Explore our booklists below.

Books about grief and loss for 5 to 8 year olds

Books can help children to understand sad feelings – from losing a cherished toy to the death of a family member.

Best children's books to help talk about divorce and separation

Family break-ups are a sad and delicate time for everyone involved. Here are some of our favourite children's books for easing those difficult conversations, suitable for a range of ages.

Books with positive images of disability: See the best of the year

Here are the children's books in 2022 that BookTrust think show positive images of disability, as well as titles that may prove useful in discussing disability and inclusive issues with young readers.

Tips and advice

Get useful tips and advice about how to read as a family, setting up a great bedtime routine, and how to encourage reading in your school.

Have a look