Looking Back and Looking Up:
Finding Solace in Children’s Books Written in Troubled Times

by Dev Petty

Photo credit: Gary John Norman, DigitalVision Collection/Getty Images

Anyone else struggling to understand the events going on in the world right now? How about explaining them to your kids? It can be hard to remember these are teaching moments — especially when you just want to tune out and play a couple of phone games … you know. (I know.) If you’re finding it a tall order, you’re not alone. I am finding it a tall order.

I wrestle with whether, what, when, and how much to tell my 12- and 9-year-old daughters about the complexities of life today. I often seek help in books, because my girls LOVE to read, and there are thoughtful books out there with compelling characters that engage and inform in times of trouble. My daughters’ shelves are stacked with modern novels of every kind, but they’ve read them all, and I’ve been too busy to go to the library! I’m guessing I’m not alone in that either.

So I went digging. I have a big closet, and I went … spelunking, really. I dug out and stacked up the books that were in the box at the bottom. My kids have heard them dozens of times, but not since they had cubbies instead of desks in school and threw tantrums because their socks felt weird.

These were my books. The books of a weird kid in Berkeley, California, in the 1970s. This was a fruitful era for picture books. The tumult of the time comes through. Books about expressing yourself, not meeting expectations, loneliness, anger, powerlessness. These books, the ones I kept all these years and read to my young kids, remind us that life is difficult, messy, complicated, unexpected … and also wonderful. As I paged through them, I remembered reading them to my girls, answering questions. I also remembered asking my own parents the same questions.

So below, find a list of my favorites, which can help build a scaffolding of understanding for kids, something to expand upon. Sure, they can check out a book with a character that is a perfect fit for them and their specific problem — lice, retainers, picky eating. But these books are rich with silliness, grief, and hope. Even adults can find in them a sense of understanding and help coping with difficult moments.

I can’t wait until my kids get home. My stack is ready, and we will read! Maybe, in these difficult times, we’ll be inspired to use our concern and our questions to write our own stories and turn on some lights for the eager ears that might someday be listening.