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Six Books to Help Children Face Life’s Challenges

One of the toughest parts of being a parent is knowing that, no matter what you do, your child will have to endure sadness, confusion, and pain. It’s just the way of the world. The best we can do is to help our children to prepare for, and react to, the challenges life will bring.

Reading stories together is a positive way to acknowledge the difficult and trying situations that people face, to give your children empathy for others, and to offer them models for how to cope if and when they find themselves in a dark place. Here are six picture books that can help you do just that.

My Name is Not Refugee

This is a story that is both tender and pragmatic. Milner shows refugee migration—all too frequent a news story reality—through a child’s eyes and ears. The child is told ‘Only take what you can carry.’ She sees trains, boats, vans, and ‘lots of new and interesting things’. To the reader, Milner directs questions that are both sensible and sensitive: ‘Do you think you could live in a place where there is no water in the taps and no one to pick up the rubbish?’ or ‘How far could you walk?’ If the young reader were a refugee, he could expect to ‘walk and walk and walk’, then ‘wait and wait and wait’. Sugarcoating is shelved, and instead we get a clear and uncomplicated sequence of events. Because, goodness knows, this issue is really damn complicated. In our house, this story provoked much concern and some worry, but it also educated and encouraged compassion. Nothing opens a mind like the sense of being in someone else’s shoes, and it’s important that children are allowed open theirs. 

Perfectly Norman

Norman’s life is perfectly ordinary until he makes a sudden discovery: he has wings! Shock is followed by delight—these wings lift him; he swoops, banks, and feels alive in a way he never thought possible. But when he’s called to dinner, Norman worries: how will his parents react to this change in him? Illustrations are bright and zingy, and transport us to Norman’s highest heights and his lowest fears, including his decision to don a heavy winter coat to hide his wings, and his misery when he cannot bear the weight of it all. With love and support, this everyday boy becomes brave enough to shed that coat, and show his wings. My children felt the weight of Norman’s coat—they looked visibly relieved when he got to spread his wings and be himself again. What struck me on reading this book were the many possible life changes that this tale might address. While Percival is careful not to say what exactly the wings symbolise, a story like this could be helpful if a child is identifying as homosexual, or struggling with gender identification.

The Tenth Good Thing about Barney

Barney may have been written in 1971, but neither the issue of grief nor a child’s emotional reactions have changed one bit. Viorst’s direct language echoes a boy’s bitter sense of loss as he deals with the death of the family cat. Sensing he needs direction, his mother tells him they should give Barney a funeral. Mum also urges him to list ten good things about Barney. He comes up with nine, but at the tenth, he stumbles. But when guided and minded by a parent through difficult times, a child can find answers and, crucially, that tenth good thing. Blegvad’s pencil illustrations are painstakingly detailed and realistic, capturing this child’s sadness and confusion. Because honest reflection on life and death is always needed, this book has stood the test of time.

The Heart and the Bottle

Jeffers spotlights a fundamental reaction to intense confusion amid pain and sadness—a need to protect ourselves. When life changes irrevocably for Jeffers’ main character, she does the only thing she can and puts her heart in a bottle. This story can help readers to make as much sense of their life issue as circumstances allow. The bottle metaphor was enough to captivate my four-year-old. When I asked him why the girl put her heart in a bottle, his reply was wise and concerned: ‘To mind it’. From the mouths of babes…

Nutmeg Gets Adopted

Foxon and Rawlings have paired up to create a number of ‘Nutmeg’ books, all dealing with social issues, and this tale offers hope and reassurance to those who experience foster care. Nutmeg the Squirrel is forced to leave the only home he’s known, say goodbye to his brother and sister, and live with a different family. A wise owl serves as ‘judge’ and adjustment to his new home is slow, but Nutmeg learns that the move is not his fault. He learns that with the right support, even a small creature can live again. 

The Most Precious Present in the World

Mia asks her adoptive mum questions like why her eye and hair colour are different to Mum and Dad’s. She asks others that wrench us even further. Sometimes as parents, we too hear these difficult questions, but Edwards helps verbalise some of the answers that elude the rest of us. This book resonates with young readers, allowing dialogue and frankness to become real tools in understanding their move to adoptive homes.

Nothing soothes like knowing someone else has been in your shoes. What are the picture books that have helped your young reader make sense of life changes?


Nicola writes web content, including pieces for the Irish Independent, SavvyAuthors.com and a dating website. She writes romantic fiction under the name Nikki Weston. She lives in Dublin, Ireland.


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