April 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Why Did It Happen? Books to Help Kids Cope with Tragedy

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Parents and teachers will be combing home and library bookshelves over the next few weeks and months for stories to comfort their children and students. While there are no books that specifically address the events that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut or more recently in Orlando, Florida, there are titles that will ease young fears and offer kids hope. Below you’ll find some recommendations from School Library Journal’s Book Review staff. We welcome your suggestions; please feel free to add them to our comments section.

Black Rabbit on paint drizzled backgroundEmpson, Jo. Rabbityness. illus. by author. 32p. Child’s Play. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-1-84643-492-1.

K-Gr 3–In this deceptively simple tale, Rabbit likes hopping, jumping, twirling his whiskers, and washing his ears just like all rabbits, but he also enjoys unrabbity things. With paint brush held between his ears and another one between his paws, he leaves vibrant bursts of color in his wake. With his wonderful horn, he fills the air with music to the delight of wide-eyed birds. The other black rabbits share his happiness in a wood full of color and music, until one day Rabbit disappears. The gray woods are quiet, and Rabbit’s dark hole beckons his sorrowing friends. In that deep, dim place they find Rabbit’s legacy–paints and brushes and musical instruments. They think of him, and in time they, too, fill the world with color and music. Stunningly conceived, Epson’s black rabbits cavort against white spaces, experience happiness as well as loss, and ultimately claim Rabbit’s gifts. The mystery of his disappearance may speak to the sadness children feel when friends or family go away without explanation. Perhaps they will also find gifts left behind that will make their world a better place. This story will grow richer with each reading and will resonate in hearts and minds for years to come.

fergusonKlein, Carol Swartout. Painting for Peace in Ferguson. 47p. Treehouse. Feb. 2015. Tr ISBN 9780989867160. Pap ISBN 9780989867153.
K-Gr 2–Some people were mad/Some people were sad/But everyone, everywhere/Felt pretty bad.” Sparing youngest readers the graphic details of racial violence that occurred in Ferguson and St. Louis, MO, Klein captures the spirit of community goodwill that spread into the streets in the multihued, peace-themed images on boarded-up shops and buildings around Ferguson in the aftermath of the violence there. Rhyming verse carries the narrative about the participation of young and old, and hundreds of photos show how the vibrant images in the form of murals, window paintings, and messages of understanding that brightened up community spirits. A web link offers teaching tools for talking with children about civil unrest while reassuring them about their safety. One tip suggests acknowledging that most police want to protect and serve the community and legitimate protestors don’t loot and burn shops. While intended for the youngest of audiences, older students may be inspired to start art-based peace initiatives in their own locales.—Vicki Reutter
Red Fox in Blue colored woodsLunde, Stein Erik. My Father’s Arms Are a Boat. tr. from Norwegian by Kari Dickson. illus. by Oyvind Torseter. 32p. Enchanted Lion. Feb. 2013. Tr $15.95. ISBN 978-1-59270-124-7.

K-Gr 3–This quiet, melancholy picture book spans a long, lonely night with a boy and his father. Unable to sleep, the youngster climbs into his father’s lap and through a conversation that lasts several spreads starts asking about the animals outside: “’What about the red birds?” “Are they asleep?” “Is the fox asleep too?” “Is Mommy asleep?” Mommy is asleep and here readers finally learn why this book told from the boy’s perspective feels so forlorn–Mommy isn’t going to wake up. The cut-paper collage illustrations are somber and ethereal, and the paper-doll details and layouts in black, white, and blues with touches of orange draw children in. After the father carries his son outside to look at the stars, they come back in and comfort each other through the rest of the long night. Neither sleeps, but on the final page, done in warm orange, the father’s words offer solace and hope. “Everything will be all right,” says Daddy.” “Are you sure?” “I’m sure.” This distinctive look at life, death, and grief is beautiful and thought-provoking.

Little girl in yellow in field of flowersMaier, Inger M. Ben’s Flying Flowers. illus. by Maria Bogade. 32p. Magination. 2012. pap. $9.95. ISBN 978-1-4338-1132-6; Tr $14.95. ISBN 978-1-4338-1133-3. LC 2011040290.

K-Gr 3–As this story opens, three-year-old Ben and his seven-year-old sister, Emily, are running through a field of clover as Ben exclaims, “Look! Look! A flying flower.” They watch some butterflies for a while but then Ben gets tired and has to rest. Emily recognizes this as a symptom of Ben’s “serious illness.” Over the next days and weeks, readers see him lose his strength and eventually go to the hospital after celebrating his fourth birthday. He does not return, and Emily goes through a range of emotions as she grieves for him. She draws dark pictures and she cries. Over time, she manages to be less angry by snuggling with her parents, talking with caring adults, and playing with her friends. Whimsical illustrations keep this story from overarching sadness, and the combination of black and white with pops of color is quite effective. The back matter is likely the most important part of this work. Tips for explaining death to a child along with the stages of grief for siblings and coping techniques will be helpful for families going through the tragedy of losing a child. An asset to parenting sections.


Cohn, Janice. Why Did It Happen? Helping Children Cope in a Violent World. illus. by Gail Owens. Morrow. 1994.

K-Gr 3-Daniel’s friend owns the neighborhood grocery store. When Mr. James is injured during a robbery at his store, the six-year-old child must deal with fear and anger. Helped by his parents, teacher, classmates, and Mr. James himself, Daniel learns how to cope with his feelings. An introduction aimed at parents explains how they can help their children understand the existence of violence and develop compassion and empathy in spite of it. Cohn presents the issue in a sensitive and generally nonthreatening way. The actual assault is never shown and the injury is not serious; just enough is described to initiate discussion. The full-color pastel illustrations provide a comforting view of Daniel and Mr. James’s story, as well as of the multicultural community. Given the presence of violence in almost every community, the topic will, unfortunately, be familiar to most readers. An excellent book for both school librarians and parents to share with their young children.-Mary Rinato Berman, New York Public Library

Gellman, Nathan & Thomas Hartman. Bad Stuff in the News: A Guide to Handling the Headlines. North-South/SeaStar. 2002.

Gr 6-10–In the introduction, Rabbi Gellman and Monsignor Hartman explain that their intention is to help readers avoid becoming either overly frightened by or desensitized to the ongoing flood of bad news on television and in the newspapers. In each chapter, they elucidate ways to understand why these things happen as well as ways to fix them, if not now, then as readers grow up. Chapters cover terrorism; school violence; natural disasters; physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; hatred and racism; “bad sportsmanship”; serious illness; and more. The discussions offer definitions and examples, followed by sections called “Stuff to Understand,” about the forces and factors that precipitate such events, and “Stuff You Can Fix,” practical suggestions for coping with disaster or contributing to solutions. The authors emphasize, however, that many problems are for adults to handle. They remind readers that there is oftentimes room for negotiation and mutual understanding between children and parents, and that some things, like clothes, are about taste, which is different from good and bad. They close with the gentle reminder that the world is not yet perfect, but that that is OK. The book is illustrated with collages of headlines. It would be useful in a number of classrooms, including social studies, civics, and journalism, and for initiating discussions on the realities of the destruction of the World Trade Center.–Sylvia V. Meisner, Greensboro Montessori School, NC

snowflakesMacLaclachlan,  Patricia. Snowflakes Fall. illus. by Steven Kellogg. Random, 2013.

PreS-Gr 3–A gentle picture book created as tribute to the victims of the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. In his dedication, Kellogg expresses his hope that this book “celebrates the laughter, the playful high spirits, and the uniqueness of the children of Sandy Hook and of children everywhere.” And indeed, the image of falling snowflakes–“Flake/After flake/After flake/Each one a pattern/All its own–/No two the same–/All beautiful”–makes an affecting metaphor. MacLachlan’s lyrical and understated poem describes snowflakes swirling “together/Like the voices of children” to blanket backyards and sleeping gardens, rolling countryside, and the town’s familiar sites. Though a nighttime storm may bring shadows that “darken dreams,” morning always comes again, revealing a shining world and the opportunity to play outdoors. In springtime, “when the flowers bloom/The children remember the snowflakes/And we remember the children–/No two the same–/All beautiful.” Throughout, Kellogg’s paintings dazzle with brightly clad kids joyfully romping through winter scenes. As flowers bloom, some of the youngsters dance into a still-snowy sky, and the back endpaper shows a row of 20 snow angels taking flight from a moonlit hillside and soaring into the heavens. Accentuating the rebirth found in nature’s cycle, text and images depict the process of healing and renewal, the comfort of memory, and the power of hope. Adults can share this book to address tragic events, discuss grief and the recovery process, and remind children of the precious beauty of life.–Joy Fleishhacker, School Library Journal


Book cover- Earth on white backgroundPatel, Andrea. On That Day: A Book of Hope for Children. illus. by author. Tricycle. 2002.

PreS-Gr 2–How does one address the attacks of September 11, 2001, in a picture book for young children? Patel’s efforts to make her own peace with the subject have resulted in a book that does so quite effectively. Her tissue-paper collages depict, at first, a world that is “very big, and really round, and pretty peaceful.” The white expansive backgrounds allow viewers to focus completely on the images and message. The author goes on to explain that “sometimes bad things happen because people act in mean ways and hurt each other on purpose.” (Even preschoolers know this to be true.) The accompanying scene is simply a collage outline of America. Patel then offers a variety of ways that children, or anyone, could help the world: sharing, playing and laughing, taking care of the Earth, and being kind. Concluding pages point to the strength of the goodness that exists; listeners are reminded that they are part of that. Short sentences build into longer, cumulative lines; this repetition plugs into a familiar, oral tradition, while providing reinforcement for the ideas. Both this textual pattern and the circular, connected lines of the art break at the delivery of the terrible news. They resume, subtly, in the denouement. This book will be welcomed by those who want to mark the anniversary of the tragedy with children; it is worth noting that it would also be useful to open a dialogue in the context of any violent act.–Wendy Lukehart, Washington DC Public Library

Rotner, Shelley & Sheila Kelly. Good-Byes. photos. by Shelley Rotner. Millbrook. 2002.

PreS- Gr 1-As readers come to learn there are all kinds of good-byes and at times they can be difficult. Accompanying this simple text are clear color photographs depicting children saying farewell to a host of familiar people from a parent at the start of a school day to the local grocery store owner when as they leave a shop. The author touches on the good-byes of a child who has two homes, between friends when families move, and when a loved one has died and the feelings these events evoke. The author states: “The hardest good-bye is a good-bye that’s forever…” Every page includes a large photograph, except this last one. The book ends on a lighter note with the line: “…but most good-byes are ‘Good-bye for now!’” A superb choice for introducing this subject with young children.-Meghan R. Malone, East Milton Public Library District, MA

The following titles were not reviewed in School Library Journal, but are recommended for libraries:

Holmes. Margaret M. A Terrible Thing Happened. Magination Pr. 2000.

Kubler-Ross, Elizabeth. On Children and Death: How Children and Their Parents Can and Do Cope With Death. Scribner. 1997.




  1. Janet Thompson says:

    I suggest A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (Candlewick Press, 2011) for the helplessness and anger Conor experiences and how he is able to come to terms with what is truth. This is for older children, grades 6 and up, and even adults might benefit from this incredible story. Perhaps SLJ can add their review.

  2. I would also recommend Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine.

  3. Dana Tunick says:

    I looked on Follet Titlewave to purchase Why Did it Happen? Helping Children Cope in a Violent World for my elementary school library, and the book is no longer in print.

  4. Daryl Grabarek says:

    If you have any discretionary funds, Why Did It Happen? can be purchased through Amazon. Hopefully some libraries already own a copy.

  5. One of the best books about coping with death that I’ve ever read is
    I Remember Miss Perry… by Pat Brisson. About the death of a teacher.
    The book shows as part of the story, how to help kids process
    grieving. Sadly I just discovered that it has gone out of print, but it may be in many libraries and used copies are available on Amazon.

  6. Yes, our hearts are truly saddened, but evil can not be stopped by laws such as gun control. CT is one of the States with the strictest gun laws – – but it did not stop evil.
    Then on Friday – – 22 Chinese children in China were stabbed by a male assailant. Shall we ban knives, sticks and stones, baseball bats, and fertilizer that can create bombs? Sad to think our world is dark as Max Lucado said in his prayer.

  7. These are great books. Unfortunately, if they don’t already have them, libraries will be out of luck as most of the titles listed are not available for current purchase (only the ones listed as recommended but not reviewed in SLJ are available new). I hope that commenters will have some suggestions of books that are available.

  8. It would also be appreciated if people could use this forum for suggested books instead of their personal views on gun control — there certainly is no shortage of other places to discuss views on gun control and “evil.”


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