Stack Overflow: Tackling Tricky Topics


Reading Time: 11 minutes


Stack Overflow: Tackling Tough Topics

It’s easy to talk to our kids about being nice, playing outside, and having adventures. But some topics get a bit tougher: how do you deal with the death of a grandparent, or worries, or racism? Well, you could start with some of the books in today’s column: here’s a stack of picture books that touch on issues that we sometimes avoid. I’ve also got a couple comic books and a book for adults at the end.

Just Ask!

Just Ask! written by Sonia Sotomayor, illustrated by Rafael López

What do you do when you notice that somebody is different from you? It’s common for us to shush our kids when they point out differences or express curiosity—we’re trying to be polite, but the unintended consequences is often that we stigmatize those differences. Sonia Sotomayor explains that when she was a kid, she had to give herself insulin injections because of diabetes, but the other children didn’t ask about it. It made it feel like she was doing something wrong. This book introduces us to lots of different kids: kids who are deaf or blind, who use wheelchairs to get around, who have autism, who speak with a stutter. Each one explains what it’s like, and asks a question that prompts empathy.

The book uses the analogy of a garden: it would be boring to have an entire garden made up of the same plant, and it would be boring if everyone were exactly the same. But even with our differences, we can learn to appreciate each other’s distinctions and strengths, and they make the world a more interesting and better place. A small detail I noticed is that the book uses the Dyslexie typeface, which was specially designed to help those with dyslexia. One of the kids in the story has dyslexia, and it’s cool that this book has kids like her in mind.

Mama's Work Shoes

Mama’s Work Shoes written by Caron Levis, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Perry loves her mom’s shoes: soft slippers for snuggling and padding about the house, zip-zup shoes for playing outdoors, galoshes for splashing in puddles. But one day her mom is wearing click-clack shoes, and Perry is fascinated by them … until she’s introduced to a new routine, because mom is going to work! It’s a tough transition, and Perry isn’t happy with it: she wants to hide mom’s shoes so that they can’t take her away.

Parents going off to work can often be difficult for younger kids to understand and accept, and this book addresses that through mom’s shoes. Perry’s mom explains that the same shoes that click-clack away in the morning are the shoes that bring her back to Perry in the evening. I like the way that she’s able to reframe the story—and while it is still hard for Perry sometimes when mom leaves, she also learns to anticipate the moment they’re reunited. For kids who miss their parents when they go to work, I think this book is one example to help them think about it a little differently.

Maybe Tomorrow?

Maybe Tomorrow? written by Charlotte Agell, illustrated by Ana Ramírez

Elba the hippo drags around a big black block, so she can’t join Norris the alligator on a trip to the ocean. Norris is always dancing, surrounded by a cloud of butterflies, but he understands that Elba can’t just ignore her block. So he comes to her, and spends time with her, and when she says she’s not able to go to the ocean, he says “Maybe tomorrow?” and doesn’t push her further.

Elba’s block, as it turns out, represents the loss of a friend and the sadness she feels, and Norris is eventually able to help her carry her burden a little. What I think this book does well is that it doesn’t pretend that the block is gone forever, or that it’s easy to cheer somebody up when they’re depressed: instead, Norris meets Elba where she is, and doesn’t press her past what she’s ready for. When she does feel ready to attempt the trip, Norris is prepared to help. Although not all children are dealing with the same sort of loss or depression that Elba is facing, I think it’s never too early to learn about compassion and empathy, and Maybe Tomorrow? does an excellent job of modeling those.

When Sadness Is at Your Door

When Sadness Is at Your Door by Eva Eland

This picture book depicts sadness as a large blue figure who shows up and follows a child around, sometimes overlapping him or enveloping him completely. It shows the way sadness makes us feel, but with the sadness made visible, and then—more importantly—gives some ideas about what we can do about sadness. As with Maybe Tomorrow?, this book doesn’t try to chase sadness away, but rather encourages you not to be afraid of it. “Give it a name. Listen to it. Ask where it comes from and what it needs.” It’s teaching some valuable emotional skills: sometimes you can just feel those hard feelings, and then sometimes they’ll go away after you’ve spent some time with them.

Ruby Finds a Worry

Ruby Finds a Worry by Tom Percival

In a similar vein, Ruby Finds a Worry also brings an invisible feeling to life: Ruby’s worry is a scribbly yellow cloud that follows her around. But since nobody else seems to see it, she pretends not to see it either, despite the fact that it continues to grow and grow. Eventually it’s preventing her from doing the things she loves. The secret, according to this book, is talking about your worry, which helps it shrink. Again, it doesn’t mean you won’t ever have worries—but it helps to know that they won’t be there forever.

I’ll admit that this one felt like the solution was a little too easy: sometimes worries don’t go away entirely just because you talk about them. But I do think encouraging kids to talk through their worries is a good first step, and the visual reminder of the worry cloud following Ruby around can help them see worries as something separate from themselves, and something that can be addressed, just like the sadness in the previous book.

Grandpa's Stories

Grandpa’s Stories: A Book of Remembering written by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Allison Colpoys

The little girl in this story remembers her grandpa through the four seasons, the various things he brought into her life: exploring a garden, playing with racecars, writing and drawing, and sharing stories from his childhood. But her grandpa passed away, and she wishes she could bring him back and keep him alive forever. She uses a notebook he made for her to capture his memories, with words and pictures. This book focuses on remembrance as a celebration of a loved one’s life, and does so in beautifully poetic language.

I Miss My Grandpa

I Miss My Grandpa by Jin Xiaojing

Is it possible to miss somebody you never met? Jin Xiaojing’s grandfather died before she was born, but she can still feel the impact of his absence throughout her family. So she asks her grandma what he looked like, and she compares him to her uncles, aunts, cousins, and mother, with the features that they share and how those features related to the world around him. With these connections, Jin is able to “meet” her grandfather and see that he’s still alive in those around her. The back of the book also includes a Chinese translation of the story, including Mandarin pinyin.


Ping by Ani Castillo

Ani Castillo frames our actions to others as “pings”—we send out messages, songs, emotions, gestures, and hope that the recipient sends back a “pong.” But the truth is, we can’t always control what comes back to us. We might get the “pong” we imagined, but sometimes we don’t. It’s a neat metaphor, and the illustrations are adorable and evocative. Castillo encourages us to ping freely, bravely, and wisely, and to be ready for the pong … but to remember that the pong isn’t up to us. It’s a helpful reminder to be kind, and to learn how to receive the responses.


Sulwe written by Lupita Nyong’o, illustrated by Vashti Harrison

Sulwe’s skin is dark like midnight, unlike the rest of her family, who have a range of lighter skin. Her sister gets nicknames like “Sunshine” and “Ray,” but Sulwe is called “Blackie” and “Darky” by kids at school. She tries all sorts of ways to lighten her skin, from erasers to makeup to prayer, but nothing works. One night, though, a shooting star visits her and tells her a fable about Night and Day, two sisters. Day was beloved by people, and Night was feared—until Night decided to leave, and people realized all the reasons they needed the darkness as well as the light.

Lupita Nyong’o explains that she was also teased for her dark skin when she was a child, and it wasn’t until she was much older that she was able to see herself as beautiful—both inside and out. This book offers encouragement to kids with darker skin, helping them to understand their own beauty. But I think it’s just as important for those with lighter skin to read, because it can prompt conversations about the way we look and the fact that differences in skin color are nothing to be ashamed of.

A Kids Book About series

A Kids Book About Creativity by Sara & Stewart Scott-Curran
A Kids Book About Money by Adam Stramwasser
A Kids Book About Racism by Jelani Memory

Just launched last week, this series of books tackles a lot of tricky subjects head-on, from racism to depression to body image. The books are primarily text, with some colorful layouts and fun typography, but aren’t really “picture books” in the traditional sense, though they look a bit like picture books at first glance. The books address the reader directly, often introducing the writers as if they’re just having a conversation. I was sent three of the books to check out, and read them together with my 6-year-old.

A Kids Book About Creativity has Sara and Stewart each represented by a color of text, as they explain how Stewart was always seen as “creative” as a kid, but Sara was not—but that creativity isn’t just about your ability to draw or sing or write stories. Creativity is broader than that, and Sara and Stewart give examples.

In A Kids Book About Money, Adam Stramwasser gives a basic overview of what money is for, how you get it, and some basic ideas about spending. He recommends the “save a little, spend a little, give a little” model, though without getting into specific amounts.

Finally, A Kids Book About Racism digs into a particularly prickly topic, but in a way that is approachable for kids. Jelani Memory explains that his dad is black and his mom is white, so he is “mixed”—and this is also demonstrated with the text colors. He explains what racism is, and what it feels like to be its target, but he also celebrates difference and explains how it’s good that we aren’t all the same.

Each of the Kids Book About titles has notes for parents at the beginning and end of the book: while they are books that kids can read on their own, ideally they’re meant to spark conversations with a grown-up. These author notes give parents a little direction and encouragement for those conversations. I like the way that the books present the topics in a straightforward way: they’re expressive and visually interesting. I think the books serve as a good introduction, but don’t go into a lot of depth on each topic: that’s what the conversations are for!


Stargazing by Jen Wang

This comic book centers on a Chinese-American community, inspired by some events from Jen Wang’s own childhood. Christine plays violin in her church orchestra along with several of her friends, and her mom teaches many of them Chinese lessons. When Moon moves in next door, Christine doesn’t know what to think of her: she’s a vegetarian and a Buddhist, she listens to K-pop, and she’s loud and exuberant—all things that are completely unlike Christine and her friends. They quickly become good friends, until jealousy threatens to drive a wedge between them.

Things do work out in the end, fortunately, with the expected lessons about being a friend and knowing when to apologize. However, the thing that struck me about Stargazing was that it highlights differences even within a community. I think it’s often easy to lump people into categories based on their ethnicity or community, and at one point Christine even thinks to herself that Moon isn’t Asian because of the differences in personality. As a Chinese-American myself, I appreciated a kids’ comic that shows that there’s diversity and variety even within this community.

No Ivy League

No Ivy League by Hazel Newlevant

This autobiographical graphic novel recounts Hazel’s summer job as a teenager, clearing invasive ivy from forest parks in Portland, Oregon. She is homeschooled, and is saving up for concert tickets with her friend—but she soon discovers that many of the other kids in the No Ivy League program are at-risk teens, whose families aren’t as affluent as her own. Her interactions with them are eye-opening, and she begins to learn some uncomfortable truths about her own privilege and Oregon’s racist history.

There are some really important lessons in this memoir, but there’s a lot going on in the book, so it can feel a little unfocused at times. It’s meant to be a memory of the summer, not a thesis statement, so there are subplots like Hazel’s infatuation with one of the program directors, and a video competition for homeschoolers that she entered—these don’t all feel connected thematically to the lessons she learns about herself, but they’re just other things that happened that summer.

They Called Us Enemy

They Called Us Enemy written by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott; illustrated by Harmony Becker

I’ll close out this column with two books I purchased for myself at the bookstore. They Called Us Enemy is a graphic memoir by George Takei, recounting his family’s time in internment camps during World War II. It’s a powerful story, showing the devastating impact that the internment had on the Japanese-American community, and the way that they responded and tried to build a life for themselves within the fences. The book shows snippets of daily life within the camps, but also portrays some key moments in history, such as the mandatory questionnaire sent to the camps in 1943 to assess their loyalty, at a time when American needed more troops for the war. There are a lot of details about the war and American policy that I didn’t know, so I found this book elucidating.

My only complaint was that the framing story felt a little disorganized at times: when we cut back to the present day (or more recent past), sometimes it’s Takei at a TED talk, and sometimes it’s during a 2017 visit to the FDR Museum and Presidential Library—but these are usually brief snippets, and it took me a while to begin placing where exactly he was when we snapped back to the present.

Aside from that, though, I think this is a great book for learning more about the internment of Japanese-Americans from a personal perspective. Takei, who was quite young at the time, was sheltered from a lot of the harsh realities by his parents, who bore most of the burden and tried to create a happy life for their children. It was only as a teenager that Takei really began to understand what his family had been through and why, and even then he was unable to find details about it in history books and could only find out more by talking to his father. It’s an important lesson about our history—that sometimes our democracy, even though it can be great, can make “gravely wrong” decisions that it needs to own up to.

So You Want to Talk About Race

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

I mean, the truth is, you probably don’t want to talk about race. It can be a hard subject, and it makes people uncomfortable when you bring it up. On top of that, sometimes you’re trying to combat racism, and then somebody accuses you of being racist—then what do you do? Well, Ijeoma Oluo addresses that question and many more in this book, which is written to provide a lot of information about race and racism without pulling any punches. This book is written primarily for white audiences, specifically those who already feel racism is wrong, but aren’t really comfortable talking about it. If you’re totally okay with racism, well, this book isn’t for you, and probably won’t change your mind about anything, but you never know.

Oluo covers a lot of ground: what does it mean when somebody says that racism is systemic? She defines terms like “intersectionality,” and “privilege,” and “microaggressions.” She talks about police brutality, affirmative action, not touching Black hair, and why you can’t say the “N” word even though your Black friend does. I will reiterate: this book isn’t written to make you feel comfortable with yourself, and Oluo isn’t going to pat you on the back just for picking up her book and starting it. But it’s a needed conversation, and I think this book is an excellent (if intense) way to start that conversation. It took me a while to read through it, and I’ve been digesting it and thinking about a lot of its lessons since I started.

My Current Stack

Well, that’s a lot for today, and I have even more books in this category that I couldn’t quite get to today. We’ll pick it up again in the future! In the meantime, I’ve set aside a small stack of spooky (and spoopy) books for Halloween, which I hope to share with you next week. Hope you read some great books that initiate meaningful conversations this week!

Disclosure: I received review copies of the books in this column except They Called Us Enemy and So You Want to Talk About Race, which I purchased myself.

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