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7 books for kids to understand times of crisis

Patricia L. Scharer
April 28, 2020

Young children are some of our most vulnerable in times of crisis. Their youth cannot protect them from experiencing life’s challenges: death of a loved one, parental divorce, absence of a parent, loss of a friend.

In this immediate crisis caused by COVID-19, children may wonder why they cannot go to school or play with their friends. Children may find such experiences confusing; they may also misunderstand what is happening.

The books in this collection were all published in 2019 and provide a way for adults to talk about difficult subjects with children.

Our early childhood education experts also have devised questions parents and guardians can ask to start a discussion with children when reading together.

Book jacket for Across the Bay

Across the Bay

By Carlos Aponte
NY: Penguin Random House

Carlitos’ father has been missing for a long time. All he knows is that his father is across the bay, so he bought a ticket for the ferry in hopes of finding his dad. He shows an old photo to many different people in hopes of finding someone who might know him. A storm forces Carlitos to find cover where a ranger explains to the young boy that “When sad things happen, I think of them like dark clouds. No matter the storm, the sun will always return.” Although unsuccessful in finding his father, Carlitos is happily reunited with his family who loves him. Bright colors and bold black lines illustrate his trip across the bay.

Book jacket for Henry and Bea

Henry and Bea

By Jessixa Bagley
NY: Holiday House, Neal Porter Books

Henry and Bea are best friends who understand everything about each other. Bea is surprised when Henry didn’t want her to sit with him at lunch. She is hurt and confused. This is so unlike him. The day of their school trip to the farm, Bea finds Henry in the barn crying and learns that his beloved cat, Buddy, died last week. The two learn that being a friend in times of sadness is just as important as when things are going well. White boarders frame watercolor illustrations.

Book jacket for Paula Knows What to Do

Paula Knows What to Do

By Sanne Dufft
Toronto, On, Canada: Pajama Press

Paula sees that Dad is so sad that he wants to stay in bed rather than do the things they usually do, such as read books together and drink hot chocolate. Mom is missing, and both Paula and Dad are grieving. But, Paula know what to do. Still in their pajamas, Paula paints all of the places the family has loved — going for sailboat rides and traveling in the car — so the two of them can drink their hot chocolate and remember the fun. The story does not divulge why Mom is missing but shows how even the young can help families experiencing grief.

Birdsong

By Julie Flett
Vancouver, BC, Canada: Greystone Books Kids

A young girl moves with her mother away from her beloved sea to a home in the midst of a field. In summer, the girl notices an older woman, Agnes, who lives in the house nearby. The two discover a shared love of art—Agnes makes things out of clay, and the girl paints birds. Their friendship grows as the girl continues to visit the woman during the winter months. By spring, the girl notices that Agnes is much weaker and plans with Agnes’ daughter to cover her bedroom with pictures of birds. She sits with Agnes and talks about making things with string, song, paper and words. “And then we sit quietly together on Agnes’s bed, until it’s time to say goodbye.” Collage illustrations with a warm palette create the seasons of time and the feelings of loss, grief, joy and love.

Book jacket for What is Given from the Heart

What Is Given from the Heart

By Patricia McKissack
Illustrated by April Harrison
NY: Penguin Random House, Schwartz & Wade Books

2020 Coretta Scott King Award
2019 John Steptoe Illustrator Award for New Talent

“We were already poor, but we got poorer last April when Daddy went to sleep on the front porch and never woke up.” Mama and James Otis have few possessions in life but their health and each other. They learn in church that a family has lost everything in a fire. The congregation is challenged to give something from the heart for love boxes for families in need and to bring their gifts on Valentine Sunday. Mama cuts up her only tablecloth to make a fine apron but James Otis isn’t sure what to make for the little girl in the family. Finally, he decides to make a book he titles, From My Heart to Your Heart. Imagine their surprise when they return home from church to find a love box given to them, full of gifts from the heart. Collage illustrations provide a warm, loving background to this heartfelt story of giving.

The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden

By Heather Smith
Illustrated by Rachel Wada
Victoria, BC, Canada: Orca Book Publishers

Black and white illustrations bring the reader immediately in touch with the loss, death and destruction of the “big wave.” Everyone in the village has lost family members, and grief is everywhere. In the midst of sorrow, Mr. Hirota builds a phone booth in his yard and is heard talking to his son, who was swept away in the tsunami. The two-page spread showing a young boy on a dock mourning for his father includes a powerful, deep orange reflection in the sea of a father holding a boy’s hand. The story ends on a hopeful note, as the young boy uses Mr. Hirota’s phone to “call” his father and talk about how he feels without him.

Book jacket for Home in the Woods

Home in the Woods

By Eliza Wheeler
NY: Penguin Random House

A mom and her eight children are carrying everything they own because “Dad lives with the angels now, and we need to find a new home.” Their new home is a worn-out shack and outhouse, which certainly does not look like home for them. Over time, they work together to fix up the shack, grow vegetables and trade with neighbors until it’s no longer a shack — it’s home. Many shades of green in the illustrations clearly position their new home in the beauty of the woods.


Patricia Scharer is a professor emerita of reading and literacy in early and middle childhood education for the Department of Teaching and Learning. She is known for improving literacy learning for thousands of students through her role as a teacher educator at Ohio State. She trained teacher leaders to work with teachers using the short-term, highly effective intervention, Reading Recovery®, which helps struggling first-grade readers catch up with their peers. She was also a trainer for Literacy Collaborative®, a comprehensive school reform project designed to improve the reading, writing and language skills of elementary- and middle-level students. Scharer edited a book for inservice and preservice teachers: Responsive Literacy: A Comprehensive Framework, published by Scholastic.

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