In late fall 2012, I was designing a topical essay assignment for a graduate course in children’s literature. I was looking for a current topic that would be appropriate for a class that included graduate students studying public libraries, candidates for school library licensure, and people working, volunteering, and completing field experiences in a variety of children’s library settings. It was at this time that the shocking and frightening school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, took place. In the following days, conversations with friends, family, and colleagues inevitably turned to this story and the various dimensions of coping and talking to kids about tragic events.
In searching for information and answers to understand such a tragic event, I realized that there was a difficult but important topic appropriate for the class essay. For children experiencing times of trial and tragedy, whether on a personal level or in relation to local or national events, libraries and librarians can be sources of information, stories, support, solace, and community. In the end, this unit became a valuable experience in teaching and learning as side-by-side we constructed questions, identified subtopics, and evaluated resources and information. With a focus on materials for the elementary level, this article presents three themes that emerged from the unit: resources that align with specific life or world events; more general materials that heal or inspire; and support and interactions among librarians, educators, kids, and families. The following information contains comments from the graduate students in this class.
MATERIALS TO HELP UNDERSTAND TRAUMATIC EVENTS
Librarians are often asked for books to support conversations about challenging life events. In our class discussions of this subject, we came to appreciate that “trials” in life are relative and unique, and that grief and expressions of emotion manifest across all types of traumatic times. Whether children are moving to a new school or mourning a death, we concluded that the “seriousness factor” isn’t ours to judge.
When selecting books to represent this broad topic of trial and tragedy, several of the graduate students shared books on death and dying. Kimberly Rowley introduced the class to Always and Forever by Alan Durant, one of several selections in which the main characters are animals. Kimberly points out that in this story,
The characters are not labeled as ‘Mom,’ ‘Dad,’ etc. which makes it highly relatable to a variety of circumstances… The book shows the stages of healthy grieving such as crying, being too sad to go out and do things, being reminded of the person by places and things and becoming sad, and finally starting to remember the good things about the lost loved one…
Allowing for different stages and ways of grieving was a consideration for evaluating books on death. Katelyn Nelson notes that Aliki’s The Two of Them “emphasizes the importance of remembering loved ones when they were alive and healthy, and serves to validate the grieving process by acknowledging that it takes time to recover from the sadness you feel.” The Two of Them portrays a “message of quiet sadness and grief,” according to Ellen D’Ambruoso, “teach[ing] children that the grieving process takes time, and there is no ‘quick cure’ for the sadness one feels after the death of a loved one.”
Top selections relating to divorce or separated parents were books that acknowledge the day-to-day experiences and emotions that kids might face. Courtney Davis explains that with Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families, “child readers can relate to the events and the emotions depicted, while still maintaining a comfortable distance from the text as the characters are dinosaurs and not people.” This book also explores “the whys, whens and hows of a divorce,” and introduces “special vocabulary and the way in which certain events might make a child… or, in this case, a dinosaur… feel.”
Elizabeth MacNeil recommends Fred Stays with Me! by Nancy Coffelt, about a girl whose dog lives with her as she divides her time between the separate homes of her parents. Elizabeth explains that “this book addresses the issue of divorce less directly and clinically than the others that I read (the word ‘divorce’ doesn’t even appear), but I think that children who live in circumstances like the narrator’s will recognize the similarities without having anything spelled out explicitly.”
Perhaps further from home for many readers but still a significant subject, several graduate students identified a need in some local collections for elementary age-appropriate books about war, violence, and conflict. As Courtney recounts, “I see a lot of kids books in the children’s room that deal with more day-to-day trials, and even though those are no less important in terms of a child’s sense of safety and his/her emotions, it’s important to also include cultural and global issues. There are only a few books that I know of that talk about war in terms of the way it’s experienced by children of other cultures.” Among the titles discussed were Playing War, Pink and Say, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, Smoky Night, and Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan.
RESOURCES TO HEAL AND INSPIRE
Materials that support children through tough times aren’t limited to focused, subject-related books. When building a “caring collection” or offering suggestions, consider resources that soothe, heal, or inspire in other ways, such as poetry, stories of heroes (real or imagined), or lighthearted tales that lift spirits or change an outlook.
Having a rich poetry collection and reading poems all the time (not just in tough moments) will help children “acclimate” to the idea of connecting emotionally to poetry. Poetry has an accessible quality across levels of reading ability and enjoyment, though the habit of turning to poetry for a smile or empathy is perhaps an acquired appreciation that librarians can work to foster. Consider these titles: This Place I Know: Poems of Comfort (selected by Georgia Heard, published following the 9/11 attacks, with illustrations by notable picture book artists); Honey, I Love (poems voicing a range of children’s emotions, by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon); and There Was a Place and Other Poems (poetry about feelings of loss, by Myra Cohn Livingston). Also remember the inspiration, imagination, and humor of classic children’s poetry by such poets as Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, Paul Janeczko, and J. Patrick Lewis.
Melissa Roderick recommends The Kissing Hand as a story for children encountering new places or being apart from their families; this was a class favorite that we discovered was a title sent by volunteer groups to the children at Sandy Hook Elementary. Courtney emphasizes the importance of warm, comforting titles like The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn and The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, noting that as librarians, “often we can sense that a child patron is going through something tough, but because of our professional distance we’re unsure what that something might be.” Consider polling teachers for their best comfort stories, and start keeping a list for moments when the familiar refrains may be just the right thing for a class or child feeling sad.
SPACES AND INTERACTIONS
With resources at the ready, librarians must also consider the interactions and library spaces that support children and families in trying times. Work with the school counselor or mental health professional to talk through some of the kinds of interactions that you might experience or observe with kids in need. Use this information to help you understand and prepare for working with students, and also to critique and perhaps adjust your library space to allow for different settings for quiet, alone time, or for community. Continue to do what you always do in striving to establish the library as a safe space for seeking information, stories, and trust.
Be mindful of the limitations of your role and expertise. Although school librarians are trained and practiced in matching books with reading and interest levels, our expertise only goes so far in predicting children’s emotional responses, particularly in sensitive situations. When possible, encourage parents to preview books, and provide stories and resources with varied approaches for exploring tough topics. Be honest and open with children about books’ content and themes, and, as appropriate, check in on kids’ needs with teachers, parents, or other school staff.
Although the immediacy of the school shooting topic was clear when our course commenced in early 2013, by the time we reached the scheduled week for the topic, Newtown wasn’t as common a conversation anymore, even though it was in fairly close proximity to our college in Boston. I wondered if I had reacted to a topic with too specific a context, and I was glad to see that students interpreted the subject through a wide lens. As March turned to April and the graduate students conducted peer reviews of their essays, I considered adjusting “trial and tragedy” as a topic for future classes, maybe shifting to resources for difficult times at home. Then, on an otherwise beautiful spring day, we were stunned with another unimaginable act of violence, the bombings at the Boston Marathon. As a community and nation, we were again searching for answers, and again the library listservs lit up with requests and suggestions for resources to help children understand what was going on.
These unexpected moments affirm the urgency to cultivate your “caring collection” now. As Katelyn describes, “when selecting materials [for this unit], I decided to stick to those that were immediately available in nearby libraries. I did this because, while systems like ILL and universal library cards are great, when tragedy strikes, adults seldom have the luxury of waiting 6-10 days for materials to arrive before addressing tough issues with children.”
Now is a great time to consider new books for purchase, review your existing collection for subject-related items, and build bibliographies of go-to stories and collections for humor, comfort, and inspiration. As a class community, we are also acting on the need for conversations and materials on this topic. Although the formal class has ended at this writing, a team of students is compiling and formatting their completed essays for publication in eBook form, motivated by the potential for librarians to be ready with materials and insights to offer children when tragic moments unfold.
I would like to extend special thanks to the graduate students whose book suggestions and comments are included here: Ellen D’Ambruoso, Courtney Davis, Elizabeth MacNeil, Katelyn Nelson, Melissa Roderick, and Kimberly Rowley.
Aliki. The Two of Them. Greenwillow Books, 1979.
Beckwith, Kathy. Playing War. Tilbury House Publishers, 2005.
Brown, Laurene Krasny, and Marc Brown. Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families. Little, Brown Books, 1988.
Brown, Margaret. The Runaway Bunny. Rev. ed. Harper Collins, 2005.
Bunting, Eve. Smoky Night. Harcourt Children's Books, 1994.
Coerr, Eleanor. Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. Hampton Brown, 1997.
Coffelt, Nancy. Fred Stays with Me! Little, Brown Books, 2007.
Durant, Alan. Always and Forever. Harcourt, 2004.
Greenfield, Eloise. Honey, I Love. Amistad, 2002.
Heard, Georgie, ed. This Place I Know: Poems of Comfort. Candlewick, 2006.
Livingston, Myra Cohn. There Was a Place and Other Poems. McElderry Books, 1988.
Penn, Audrey. The Kissing Hand. Tanglewood Press, 2006.
Polacco, Patricia. Pink and Say. Philomel, 1994.
Williams, Mary, R. Gregory Christie, and Gregory Christie. Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Lee & Low Books, 2005.