by Carol Hinz, Associate Publisher of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books
How do we prepare our children for hard times? And how do we help them recover from trauma? As a parent, I don’t like to think about my children–or any children–experiencing bad things. Many of the picture books in our home prompt smiles, spark curiosity, and inspire empathy. Yet children also need books that gently, respectfully tell them the truth about difficult experiences and offer them tools that might help as they navigate their own difficult times. And honestly, these books do not speak only to children. The following books have something to offer us all.
All of a Sudden and Forever begins with the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and much of it addresses what happened afterward, focusing on a tree known as the Survivor Tree. Before the bombing, this tree was a rather scraggly American elm in a parking lot across the street from the Murrah Building, but it received care and began to heal.
The roots of the Survivor Tree wind their way through Nicole Xu’s illustrations, connecting humans. Barton’s text gently acknowledges that nothing lasts forever–even the Survivor Tree will one day die–and closes by addressing the way stories and memories connect us and help us move forward after tragedy. It is a moving reminder that we need to share stories and connect with others in order to heal.
Sachiko Yasui was six years old in August 1945 and living in Nagasaki, Japan, when the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on her city. Sachiko was just half a mile from the hypocenter, and her family experienced devastating loss. When they returned to the rubble where their home once stood, her father miraculously found a ceramic bowl fully intact. This delicate, green, leaf-shaped bowl—which once held their daily meals—now holds memories of the past and serves as a vessel of hope, peace, and new traditions for Sachiko and the surviving members of her family.
Caren Stelson’s narrative in A Bowl Full of Peace follows Sachiko over the course of more than fifty years. It culminates on the 50th anniversary of the bombing when Sachiko speaks about her experiences for the first time to a group of children and shares a message of peace. Akira Kusaka’s evocative illustrations balance images of devastation with those of hope. While the story takes place in a specific time and place, its messages of the value of peace and hope are universal.
The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre has been in the news this past year, and May 31, 2021, will mark the 100th anniversary. Yet while news stories often focus on the horror of the massacre, this narrative starts earlier, first telling a story of Black excellence and success in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This approach allows readers to better understand what was destroyed–and why–in the course of sixteen hours.
In free verse, Carole Boston Weatherford sensitively chronicles the rise and fall of Black Wall Street. Floyd Cooper’s expressive illustrations feature many children and help readers tap into the emotion of the events without being too graphic for a young audience. Unspeakable concludes with a call to rejected hatred and violence and to instead choose hope.
A Map into the World tells the fictional story of Paj Ntaub, a young Hmong American girl who is curious about everything around her. In the course of a year, she experiences the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of life and death, welcoming twin baby brothers and watching her neighbor grieve after the death of his wife. When Paj Ntaub creates a drawing on her neighbor’s driveway as a map into the world for him, readers see how her act brings great comfort.
Kao Kalia Yang’s story, which is based on real events, carries a powerful message that we all have a map inside our hearts that can help us, and those around us, navigate life’s most difficult moments. Seo Kim’s art beautifully brings this book to life, helping to create a book that acknowledges both the pain of loss and the profound importance of seeking connection with others, in whatever form that may take.
As much as we want to protect young children and keep them safe, this past year has certainly shown us in numerous ways we cannot always do so. Perhaps the next best thing we can to is to speak openly and honestly about the fact that bad things do happen, and that we can find numerous ways to support each other and get through them. Silence cannot erase tragedy. But by sharing stories, we can offer comfort, hope, and the strength to heal.