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Book Clinic: Answering difficult questions
Where do babies come from? What happens when you die? Are all families the same? Isabel Popple is here with a selection of books to help you answer the most curious child.
What are the most difficult questions young children ask? The ever persistent “Why?” is probably cringingly familiar to most parents, along with queries about bodies and identity and difference and the meaning of life. And when most of us adults are still trying to figure out the answers ourselves, how do you begin to answer your children? Why, books of course! Unfortunately we can’t predict the exact questions your little treasures are going to ask, but here are some books that might help explain some of the biggies, and the differences between people and families.
How the world works…
compiled by Gemma Elwin Harris
From "Why is the sky blue?" and "Why is water wet?" to "How do you make electricity?" and "How do they know all snowflakes are different?" this book contains questions from over 100 small children, answered by the experts, from Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough, to Jarvis Cocker and Jacqueline Wilson. It’s pretty much a must-have in a household with curious children and, as well as revealing the fascinating ways that children think about their world, it’s pretty interesting reading for us too!
Bones, bodies and bits…
by Katie Daynes and Marie-Eve Tremblay
A classic and simple Usborne lift-the flap style offering. Each double page features a handful of questions (with accompanying illustrations) about how our bodies work; you then lift the flap to uncover the answer. Questions include things such as: "Where does blood come from?", "How does medicine make me better?", and "Why do I yawn?" It’s quirky, fun and informative.
by Babette Cole
A more boundary-pushing book, Mummy Never Told Me considers some of the more scientific questions like the title above, as well as those questions that you’re just not sure how you should answer (like "Why do Mummy and Daddy shut their bedroom door?"). Babette Cole is sharp and witty, her drawings full of humour - this is a good option for parents who prefer to be more frank with their children about life stuff, helping you tackle the more taboo subjects in an open and amusing way.
Different kinds of families…
by Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith
Families come in all shapes, sizes and ethnicities, something that The Great Big Book of Families embraces, showing how every family is unique. Peer inside to find families of mixed race, families with different parenting make-ups, families with disabled members, and a multitude of different family lives, different jobs, different food, different celebrations. This book is a brilliant way of introducing the idea of diversity and variety. If you enjoy this, you could also try: Welcome to the Family or The Family Book.
by Leslea Newman and Carol Thompson
These two titles are day-in-the-life-of storybooks featuring a family with same sex parents, simply doing all the things that a mum-and-dad family might do together, from playing hide and seek to bath time and a goodnight kiss. It’s told in rhyme and stars a child who can be interpreted as either a boy or a girl, making it very universal. Other titles with a similar appeal include: And Tango Makes Three or King and King
Dealing with death…
by Doris Stickney
Probably the "go to" book on explaining death, though bear in mind it does have a Christian slant, with Stickney’s fable of a waterbug changing into a dragonfly being reminiscent of resurrection. It’s a simple but quite visual story with a message of hope and analogy that works well.
by Susan Varley
Badger does his best to prepare his friends for his death, but they are of course still devastated when he dies. Gradually, though, they’re able to appreciate their happy memories of Badger and his friendship and to remember him without so much sorrow. The story is told with simple language in a way that enables young children to relate to and understand more clearly what has happened to Badger, with a positive rather than negative focus. You could also try: Always and Forever or Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. And there are a good selection of picture books available that consider specific types of death, such as a parent, grandparent, or pet. The children’s bookseller in your local store should be able to help if you want to know more.
by Giles Andreae and Vanessa Cabban
This storybook introduces the concept of a new baby being on the way, why mum might be tired, and the changing family dynamic without going into the ins and outs of how babies come to be. Simple rhyming text and a light-hearted approach make it the perfect way to prepare little ones for a new family member. There’s Going to be a Baby is great too, or you could try I’m a Big Brother/ I’m a Big Sister for once the baby arrives.
by Nicholas Allan
For the tougher baby questions, this story from the hilarious Nicholas Allan turns the reproductive process into a racing competition as Willy, a little sperm, sprints for the prize: an egg. It gives the basic facts without over-bearing detail – sex itself is not discussed; instead, the focus is on the science of what happens inside our bodies, turning what could be a difficult conversation into a funny story.
by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom
Aimed more at primary school-aged children, How Did I Begin? is more detailed again, explaining reproduction in terms of genes, conception, and the months of pregnancy, using cartoons and illustrations to show processes and the baby’s development. It doesn’t dig as deep as titles that focus on puberty, but is a good book to turn to if Where Willy Went doesn’t answer all of your child’s questions! You can also try: Mummy Laid an Egg!, or Let’s Talk About Where Babies Come From.
Puberty and sex…
by Babette Cole
Babette Cole introduces the idea of puberty and the fact that your child’s body will change as they grow older, but without going into the gritty details of puberty itself – the message here is that it’s normal for your body to be changing and hair to start growing ‘in funny places’, and to look upon these changes with humour rather than feeling scared.
by Susan Meredith and Robyn Gee
For older children (maybe 9 or 10 year olds, depending on your feelings on the subject), this is a clear, informed guide to puberty that covers not just physical changes but emotional ones too, as well as how we can best take care of ourselves (food, exercise, hygiene, etc). This is a book that covers all the details and includes a glossary with terms that might make some parents uncomfortable, so apply personal judgment when deciding whether to use it as a tool for answering tricky questions, or whether to give your child the book to read themselves. You can also look at: What’s Happening to Me? (Girls) and What’s Happening to Me? (Boys).
On gender stereotypes: 10,000 Dresses, or My Princess Boy. On divorce: Two of Everything by Babette Cole, Mum and Dad Glue, or Two Homes. On cancer: The Secret C: Straight Talking About Cancer. On anxiety: The Huge Bag of Worries, The Worry Tree, or Walter and the No-Need-to-Worry Suit.
Isabel Popple, for Waterstones.com/blog
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Whether you’re trying to find the next fix for your Science Fiction addiction, looking for the perfect literary page turner for your holidays, or just can’t face ploughing through all the PG Wodehouse books to find the truly great ones – whatever the dilemma, let us know in the comments below…