How should we answer questions about death, divorce and cancer? If we ever lack the words, books can act as mouthpieces to start conversations that are difficult to have...
When we’re faced with difficult situations, we feel lost, alone and afraid, but children can experience them a little differently. Their lack of understanding can make a terrible situation seem all that more terrifying and if we lack the words, how do we comfort them? If their favourite bedtime story can help them sleep, a picture book could help them understand (but maybe not just before bedtime!). Books aren’t afraid to cover heavy topics like cancer and divorce, breaking down confusion and grief into something more processable and reassuring. We’ve picked out ten books for little people about big problems…
18 children’s books about serious topics
Books for kids about dealing with loss
Missing Mummy by Rebecca Cobb
“The other children have THEIR mums. It’s not fair.” As a little boy looks around the house to find his mummy, he only finds the things she left behind and has to be told mummy is not coming back. Straddling the line between acknowledging pain and moving on, Missing Mummy helps kids confront their fear, anger and guilt at the death of a loved one and talk about the things they still have – they still have a family, they are still able to do things together, even with a missing mummy.
I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
Elfie is the kind of pet dog that anyone would want for their home. Together with her tiny human owner, the two go through everything together, and every night, her owner would always tell her, “I’ll always love you”… until one day, when Elfie doesn’t wake up. This simple, tender book is sure to bring a tear to your eye and is a good reminder that pets are also like family, and that their deaths will hit just as hard.
I Miss You: A First Look at Death by Pat Thomas
It can be difficult for children to express grief, especially after the demise of a close friend or family member. This reassuring book explores the topics of death for young children and helps them to understand their loss and how to deal with their feelings. Written by psychotherapist and counsellor Pat Thomas,
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book by Michael Rosen
Illustrated by the beloved Quentin Blake, Michael Rosen’s Sad Book certainly doesn’t pull any punches. It discusses depression in a frank manner, detailing a father’s experiences following the loss of his son, and introducing coping methods but not prettying them up. For those who appreciate honesty, this book lets us know we are not alone when sadness finds us, neither are we alone when things don’t immediately go back to normal.
A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith
In this moving tween novel, Smith writes of Jamie, who’s always getting in and out of trouble… until something terrible happens to him. His best friend then has to face the tragedy by himself. How can you lose your best friend so suddenly, and how do you deal with the repercussions?
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
In the aftermath of 9/11, a little boy grieves the loss of his father. But when Oskar finds a key sealed in an envelope labelled “Black” inside a vase that belonged to his father, he embarks on a journey throughout New York to find every person with the last name Black. Why do people die and how do the ones they leave behind move on? As Oskar learns: try to keep moving, meet people and solve a mystery.
Books for kids about mental illness
Why Is Dad So Mad? by Seth Kastle
This narrative story, told from a family’s point of view, is of the father who struggles from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and its symptoms, such as anger, forgetfulness, and nightmares. How does it affect Dad? And, in turn, how does the rest of the family cope? Even though this book is specifically meant for military families, it is a good resource for kids and families to learn and understand combat related PTSD.
The Red Tree by Shaun Tan
“Sometimes, the day begins with nothing good to look forward to, and things go from bad to worse.” Shaun Tan uses magical illustrations to depict a young girl traversing a monstrous, cluttered surrealist nightmare, a metaphor for difficult situations and emotions. The Red Tree elicits the kinds of emotions we find trouble talking about and lets us know that there is always hope and things do turn out okay.
Not Today, Celeste! by Liza Stevens
Celeste used to be the happiest dog in the world who had the best owner, Rupert. One day, Celeste noticed something different about Rupert – the colour slowly drains out of him until he eventually collapses into a chair, saying “Not today, Celeste!” What is a poor dog to do? Well it’s not the dog (or the child’s) fault when parents have depression, it’s an illness that people can get help with. But despite his illness, Rupert’s still kind, funny, handsome, clever and brave and Celeste is still the happiest dog in the world!
Where’s Grandma by Edmund Lim
Written by local author Edmund Lim, Where’s Grandma is told from the view of Luke who comes to terms with his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease. His Grandma cared for him dearly and they used to do everything together, but since her fall, Grandma can’t remember her way around the neighbourhood, she can’t even remember Luke’s name. You’re going to need tissues for this one (and a hug).
Helicopter Man by Elizabeth Fensham
Pete’s dad thinks he is being pursued by a secret organisation and that both their lives are in danger, which is why they never stay in the same place for very long. Pete has never questioned any of it… until now. Using journal entries and short stories, Pete sets out on a quest to understand more about his father’s mental state, which may have been the cause of their unusual life.
Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella
Audrey almost never goes out, wears dark glasses all the time (even indoors), and finds it near impossible to connect with new people. One day however, she meets Linus and slowly, starts opening up to him. They eventually fall in love, but there’s still an obstacle in their way – Audrey’s past. A “tragicomedy” that explores the lasting effects of bullying while still remaining entertaining from start to finish.
Books for kids about serious illness
Why Does Mommy Hurt? by Elizabeth M. Christy
Are you aware that there are people with invisible illnesses among us? This book succinctly breaks down the definition of chronic illness, its symptoms, and how such ailments can affect family life. Parents can also refer to the Tips and Resources section for further help.
Nowhere Hair by Sue Glader
A little girl wonders where her mother’s hair has gone and tries to find it. Instead of hair, the child and her mother find love, comfort and loads and loads of crazy hats. Using reason (and a whole lot of rhyme), Nowhere Hair tackles the fear and guilt children feel when their loved ones fall ill. This stylish blast of colour is great for helping parents talk about the misconceptions of cancer.
When Mommy Had a Mastectomy by Nancy Reuben Greenfield
How do you tell your child that you’ve had breast cancer? And how do you talk to them about mastectomy and reconstruction? This children’s book simply explains the painful illness and trauma of breast cancer and the process of recovery. Be sure to have tissues ready – reviews claim that there were no dry eyes in the house after reading this…
Books for kids about divorce
Two Homes by Claire Masurel
Alex has two homes. Sometimes he lives with Daddy and sometimes he lives with Mommy. Two front doors, two rooms, two of everything! Two Homes tells kids that divorce means they will have two of everything, but the love they have will never change.
I Don’t Want To Talk About It by Jeanie Franz Ransom
When her parents told her that they’re getting a divorce, the young girl goes through a gamut of emotions and starts imagining herself as an animal in order to express her feelings. Included in the book is a two-page note to parents on how to deal with their children’s reactions after breaking such devastating news.
Divorce Is Not the End of the World by Zoe and Evan Stern
As the book title implies, divorce is not the end of the world, and the Stern siblings know a thing or two about that. After their parents split up, Zoe and Evan decided to pen down their experiences in this positive and practical guide for kids. With some help from their mother, the two tackled topics such as managing emotions, adjusting to different houses, and adapting to stepparents. The book also includes an update from them 10 years later.
I Know They Still Love Me by Vanessa Danker and Kimberley Bruce
This illustrated storybook revolves around Mason and explores how he feels when he faces the prospect of his parents going through a divorce. The book considers the rollercoaster of emotions that kids can go through at this time, such as confusion, guilt and anger, as well as hope. It’s illustrations also bring the story to life, so it’s sure to resonate with kids.
We hope you’ll find these books useful. And psst – did you know that we have our very own book club?