Hot Topics Made Palatable for Kids

In another article, I wrote about the ethical considerations that writers of children and teen material sometimes face. I mentioned that certain hot topics might be suitable for an older group but not for the younger crowd.  Since then I’ve had time to stew, and – not that I’m taking back all of my words – but really, that last statement is a teeny bit misleading.  It’s not always the topic itself that matters.  It’s the treatment the sizzling number is given that makes a huge difference.  For a sensitive writer attuned to the wants and needs of young children, and with a gift for dealing truth in a palatable way, even grown-up subjects can be given their fair and honest due.

Here are a few examples that I unearthed on a recent trip to my neighbourhood bookstore. Each is a masterful treatment worthy of further study, so for a more concentrated look-see please hunt down these books.


I found a dead birdNon-Fiction: I Found a Dead Bird: The Kids’ Guide to the Cycle of Life and Death by Jan Thornhill, Owlkid Books (2006), age range: 9 -13 years

I found a dead bird. It made me sad but I had a lot of questions, like: Why did it have to die? How did it die? What would happen to it next now that it was dead?

Starting with the discovery of a dead bird, Jan Thornhill covers not only the cycle of life, but also a broad swath of related subjects – loss, coping, and the physical and metaphysical questions that arise when a loved one dies. Thornhill uses clear, no frill language, but never talks down to the young reader.  Information is superbly organized, each piece locking into the next in a logical progression.  Honest, pragmatic, and as one reviewer called it, “life-affirming” too.


the tenth good thingFiction: The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Erik Blegvad,  Alladin Paperbacks (1971), age range: 6-9 years

My cat Barney died last Friday.  I was very sad. I cried, and I didn’t watch television. I cried, and I didn’t eat my chicken or even the chocolate pudding. I went to bed, and I cried.

A classic.  Starting with the death of a beloved family cat, Viorst takes readers on a journey through the tangled threads of grief.  Understated, but powerful in its message, the simple story addresses the questions asked by youngsters who are encountering death for the first time.  A sensitive treatment with a lingering, positive message.



My Secret BullyFiction:  My Secret Bully by Trudy Ludwig, illustrated by Abigal Marbel, Tricycle Press (2005),  age range: 6-9 years

Kate is my secret bully. A lot of people would be surprised to know this because they think she’s my friend. And she does act like my friend – sometimes. But lately, I’m not so sure.

Through the story of Monica, a kindergarten student, Ludwig covers the finer points of aggressive behavior – name-calling, teasing, manipulation and exclusion.  In the words of one reviewer, the book “expands our understanding of a ‘bully’ from the boy in the school yard who steals your lunch money – to the person who might want to be your best friend.”


Aging & Alzheimer’s

whats-happening-to-grandpaFiction:  What’s Happening to Grandpa? by Maria Shriver, illustrated by Sandra Spiedel,  Little, Brown & Company (2004), age range: 3-6 years

One Sunday, while visiting her grandparents, Kate noticed that her grandpa was repeating the same stories.

 Shriver broaches a difficult subject with the story of Kate and her grandfather.  Gentle in tone, yet unflinching in approach, the story deals with the issues created when a loved one is affected by Alzheimer’s and undergoes not only memory loss, but also a personality change – in essence becoming a stranger to the rest of the family.



the kissing handFiction: The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, illustrated by Ruth E. Harper & Nancy M. Leak, Tanglewood Press (2006), age range: 3-8 years

I know a wonderful secret that will make your nights at school seem as warm and cozy as your days at home. 

Another classic.  Frequently used by kindergarten teachers on the first day of school, Audrey Penn’s story is about a young racoon who, like the young reader, is just beginning school.  Reluctant to leave the security of home and anxious about what lies ahead, the young racoon is reassured by his mother in a way that will resonate with anyone who can recall those fresh-today-as-yesterday beginning school moments.

Facts of Life

where did i come fromNon-fiction:  Where Did I Come From? The Facts of Life Without Any Nonsense and With Illustrations by Peter Mayle, illustrated by Arthur Robins,  Citadel – Kensington (1977), age range: 6 and up

After leaving the man’s penis, the sperm make their way up the woman’s vagina like tiny tadpoles swimming up a stream.  What they’re hoping to find is one of the eggs that the woman produces inside her every month.  

Straightforward, no holds barred, and using language and illustrations kids will understand, Mayle & Robins unravel the mysteries of puberty, sex, conception, and birth.  On bookshelves for almost 40 years, the book has helped many a blushing adult answer delicate questions that bubble unencumbered from the lips of curious youngsters.



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