A good book can oftentimes be the best way for children to learn about, well, anything. And, let’s face it, sometimes us adults could use a little (or a heck of a lot) of help when it comes to broaching certain topics that we may even struggle to understand ourselves. After all, how does one explain that the world can sometimes be a gritty, unfair place, or that certain problems have no real solution, but you must face them anyway?

We look at 20 books for children and teens to help the youngsters in your life deal with, understand and process an array of topics, from the heartbreaking to the embarrassing. Who knows? They might even be good for you, too.

The Day War Came, by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
It might be a bit shocking to see such childlike, sweet illustrations accompanying such a scary topic as the refugee crisis. Author Nicola Davies and illustrator Rebecca Cobb have managed to strike the perfect balance between delivering a powerful message and making it digestible for children. In The Day War Came, young readers follow a little girl on a heart-wrenching journey in the form of poetry. This is a story filled with pain, yes, but its hopeful ending makes it an accessible, albeit forthright, tale for children.

Julián Is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love
Arguably the best thing about Jessica Love’s award-winning Julián Is a Mermaid is its exuberant, detailed illustrations. Follow Julián after he encounters costumed mermaids in the subway, and discover a new world of explosive wonder and self-expression in pages filled with colour, spare text and creativity. Perhaps, just like Julián, you’ll learn that everyone can be a mermaid, as long as they’re surrounded by support, acceptance and, of course, love. A book that shines with emotional depth and gorgeous art within its pages, you’ll have a hard time letting it go long after you’ve been dazzled by it.

LOVE, by Matt De La Peña & Loren Long
This one is hard to ignore, especially when browsing through the bookstore. It just has that certain something that catches your eye. A #1 New York Times bestseller, LOVE might just be one of the most heartwarming and visually striking children’s books out there, celebrating love in the many different ways we experience it and are connected by it. The writing is poetic, soulful and eloquent, with lyrical text that makes it the perfect read-along or bedtime story for you and your kids. After all, those are the moments we treasure most, right?

Hi, My Name Is Jack, by Christina Beall-Sullivan
Having a sick child can be devastating, but having a sick sibling can be that and, at the same time, extraordinarily confusing. Especially if you’re young and don’t quite understand what’s going on. Hi, My Name Is Jack is here to help children in such a situation. A book specifically for the healthy siblings of ill, disabled or dying children, it addresses and validates the feelings that they may experience. As it does not focus on any particular ailment or condition, it can apply to children and families in many different circumstances.

Duck, Death and the Tulip, by Wolf Erlbruch
Duck, Death and the Tulip has been translated from its original German into many languages, including Dutch, English and Spanish. The book follows the story of Duck, who makes an unlikely (and highly intriguing) friendship with Death, a creepy yet somehow endearing character who follows Duck around. The story is a clever way to approach what is perhaps life’s biggest mystery, in a manner that is both accessible and honest. Beware, however: while the subtle images might make the tale seem soft and somewhat neutral, this might just be one of the most thought-provoking books for children you’ll ever find.

And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson & Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole
This book is as award-winning as it has been controversial, telling the story of two male penguins who are given an egg to hatch (with some help). The egg eventually becomes Tango, their cherished daughter. The tale is actually based on the real-life story of two male penguins from New York’s Central Park Zoo who formed a pair bond. While the book doesn’t really take a stance on same-sex couples or marriage – it doesn’t preach or pass judgement in any way – it does focus on showing how different types of couples and families exist, and all are 100% valid.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., by Judy Blume
You probably devoured at least one of Judy Blume’s books growing up – and perhaps it was this one. Her works have a magical je ne sais quoi that makes them stand the test of time; they’re as relevant today as they were when they came out decades ago. Her 1970 novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. is no exception, following a young girl whose family has raised her with no religious affiliation, and exploring her quest for faith. The book also deals with some of the most typical coming-of-age topics for young women: the physical changes of puberty, the beginnings of sexual attraction, getting your period. Also, Blume is great at just being plain funny, so the book makes for an easy and sympathetic read.

I Am Jazz, by Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas
The times are changing (as they should!), and for many, being transgender today is no longer a cause for fear and anxiety, but rather a chance to live genuinely on their own terms. The story of I Am Jazz is based on the real-life experience of its author and spokesperson, Jazz Jennings, and it focuses on all the positivity she has experienced throughout her life, like having a loving and supportive circle of friends and family, and feeling free and empowered to be herself. The book is honest, optimistic and beautifully illustrated, but most important of all, it never apologises for celebrating one’s identity.

The Heart and the Bottle, by Oliver Jeffers
Oliver Jeffers is to children’s literature what Agatha Christie is to detective fiction. His books sell like hot cakes, and can often be found climbing the rungs of bestseller lists around the world. It’s no shocker, then, that The Heart and the Bottle has been such a success. A truly remarkable work, this touching book helps children deal with losing someone special, encouraging them to feel and cope with the heavy emotions that arise after such a loss. It also gives them hope that joy and laughter will always come back, and that wonder and magic are – and always will be – real.

Cry, Heart, But Never Break, by Glenn Ringtved, illustrated by Charlotte Pardi
Four siblings have to face reality: their grandmother is very, very ill. Oh, but they won’t just let Death waltz out with her. When Death does come, he first helps them come to terms with the significance of loss and life. And so they say farewell. Making sense of death is not simple, even for grown-ups, and Cry, Heart, But Never Break does a masterful and kind job at comforting young readers.

The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein
“Once there was a tree… and she loved a little boy.” Sound familiar? Beloved by many (and despised by some), The Giving Tree is a story that can be interpreted in numerous ways, and as such has proved divisive. However, it’s one of those books every child should read at least once. The relationship between the two main characters, a tree and a little boy who eventually grows into an old man, is one of either generosity and selfless love, or one of selfishness and abuse – and it’s really up to the reader to decide how to interpret it. One to read and discuss openly with your children, who can make up their own minds.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon
Oh, this one’s really fun. Like, laugh-out-loud, might-snort-milk-out-of-your-nose-if-you’re-not-careful fun. Mark Haddon’s novel is about a boy, Christopher, with an unspecified medical condition (there’s a whole debate on whether it’s autism, Asperger’s or something entirely different) who sets out to solve a mystery: his neighbor’s dog has died under suspicious circumstances. Along the way, he spouts off a litany of fun facts and faces a series of challenges that allow the reader to get to know this remarkable character. His quest turns out to be one of eccentric joy, intelligence and discovery, and will capture any child’s attention in a manner of mere minutes. Trust us, it’s a great book for schooling just about anyone on the importance of empathy.

Sad Book, by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Quentin Blake
If you look closely, you’ll notice that many ‘adult’ topics in life and literature concern children as well; the only significant difference between books for adults and children is the approach the author takes to such topics. This book, illustrated by Roald Dahl artist Quentin Blake, recounts Rosen’s own grown-up grief over losing his son, Eddie, who died of a severe blood infection at 18. If we had to pick one of the many things Sad Book excels at, it’s how it manages to depict the complexity of mourning. Rosen doesn’t try to sugarcoat the ugly sides of grief, and he definitely won’t tell you it’s an easy thing to overcome, but the emotions and realities he conveys are universal and important to address. Best for older children, or guided reading with younger ones.

Walk With Me, by Jairo Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng
Fathers can be nurturing and fun and knowledgeable… But what happens when yours leaves? Walk With Me tells the story of a little girl whose father no longer lives at home, and who conjures up an imaginary lion to accompany her in doing all the things her dad once used to. A simple tale on the surface but with great emotional depth, it’s both beautiful and heart-rending, and will give children a lesson in courage and hope.

What Do You Do with a Problem?, by Kobi Yamada, illustrated by Mae Besom
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by a problem? Well, now imagine how that can feel to a child. Kobi Yamada’s What Do You Do With a Problem? is here to help with… well, just that. The book tells the story of a problem that, it seems, just won’t go away, and a child who is faced with it. For some reason, the more they ignore the problem, the bigger and bigger it gets. Hit a little too close to home? No need to feel ashamed, this relatable book will resonate with anyone, at any age.

The Princess and the Fog, by Lloyd Jones
Though depression is most often associated with adults, in some cases it can affect young children – and when it does, it’s rarely something anyone is prepared for. The Princess and the Fog is an award-winning tale about a little girl who is happy and has everything she could possibly want… until one day, when her feelings come crashing down. Though the book focuses on a decidedly somber topic, it is splashed with humour, colourful images and compelling metaphors, so it manages to be an enjoyable read while providing hope, strength and understanding to both children and parents alike.

The Huge Bag of Worries, by Virginia Ironside, illustrated by Frank Rodgers
Handling powerful emotions is no easy feat for many of us, much less for someone who doesn’t quite understand them – and even less so in especially stressful times. In this book, children get to know Jenny and the big blue bag of worries that follows her around 24/7. The story has a way of appeasing and soothing worries, and encouraging little ones to open up about their concerns, fears and even anxieties.

My Sibling Still, by Megan Lacourrege, illustrated by Joshua Wichterich
In all honesty, we can think of very few things that are more painful than losing a baby. If you add having to communicate the sad news to your children, it becomes even more of a challenge. My Sibling Still is a letter written by a sibling lost to miscarriage to their surviving siblings. The book is gentle and comforting, and it treads lightly in a very tough situation, which makes it accessible even for very young kids faced with such a loss. More importantly, the message is reassuring and warm, so it feels like a huge bear hug when you most need it.

Paper Things, by Jennifer Richard Jacobson
In this book about a tough but important issue, child protagonist Ari is forced to choose between her guardian and her older brother who doesn’t have a place to live. When she chooses to stay together with her brother – fulfilling a promise she made to her dying mother – she suddenly finds herself moving from place to temporary place, trying to figure out how to still get good grades in school, see her friends and live her normal, everyday life. This book will help young readers empathise, yes, but also see different perspectives on what being homeless means, as well as its consequences and emotional repercussions.

Migrant, written by Maxine Trottier, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
The life of an immigrant is one of duality and constant movement, so it can prove difficult to find your identity and sense of belonging. That’s what Migrant is about. The story follows Anna, a child of Mexican Mennonites who go north to work the land. But Anna doesn’t feel at home in the new place; instead, she feels like a feather, drifting side to side in the wind, never really feeling like she belongs. The book, filled with pretty illustrations, is the ideal tale for any child who finds themselves in a position of frequent relocation for whatever reason, or who feels the sometimes confusing tug-of-war between different cultures.

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