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The power of children’s books

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Starting conversations with stories

There’s something about a bookshop – a calm and comforting sense that I am surrounded by stories. The knowledge that within each beautiful book are words, illustrations, and photographs from which I can learn so much. I gently run my fingers over the front cover of a book that I know my daughter will like. Turning it over, I scan the back. Inviting. Captivating… I flick through the unturned pages, a satisfying crispness. A few hours later, I’m snuggled up in my daughter’s bed, and we read well past her bedtime because a new book is a fantastic thing.

My children are lucky. As Caucasian, able-bodied girls, they see themselves in the lives of the children they read about. Role models. Heroes…

But not all children are this lucky. Those from minority ethnic groups, children questioning their gender identity, families who have fled war or young people living with chronic illness or disability… Imagine rarely, if ever, seeing a face like yours in the material you are reading.

Access to inclusive children’s literature is improving, but too often, these stories are still tucked away in bookshops instead of standing proudly on supermarket shelves. Many children we look after will never have stepped inside a bookshop or library, their access to stories coming only via school. We need a diverse and inclusive curriculum that allows young people to see themselves in the subjects they learn about, but we also need adults around them who can role model a love of reading.

Role modelling

You’re examining a 7-year-old boy. To distract him, you ask about his favourite TV show, and he tells you about the latest Marvel movie. You exchange some Iron Man related chat and complete your examination without a second thought.

But what if we made this conversation about books instead of movies? What if we used this opportunity to be interested in children’s favourite authors and the characters that inspire them? Do they like fiction or non-fiction, poems or jokes? Some children won’t have access to these conversations elsewhere.

Emotions and mental health

As a child, I struggled to find the words to describe my emotions. Confused and overwhelmed, many things were left unsaid. Developing emotional literacy from a young age is important and ensures children have the tools to reach out to the adults around them in times of distress. Stories are a great way to start these conversations.

Many fantastic books allow young children to explore feelings through words, colour and texture. More than the book itself, this is an opportunity to be curious. Interested. A window into their world.

The Colour Monster by Anna Llenas

The Colour Monster (3-6 years)

At the story’s start, we meet a multicoloured monster who feels all mixed up. With the help of a young girl, he learns to label his emotions, associating each one with its colour and sensation, before placing them carefully in a jar where he can observe them. This book offers young children a chance to think about what makes them happy, sad, angry or calm. It legitimises emotions with no kind of hierarchy – no good versus bad. It is a simple and engaging tool for teaching emotional literacy.

In My Heart by Jo Witek

In my heart (3-6 years)

This is a wonderful book for preschool children in which every emotion is awarded a double-page spread. Colours, illustrations and words describe how it feels to be happy, jealous, hurt, brave, angry… It’s an accessible way to give young children a new vocabulary and generate discussions about our feelings.

Ruby’s Worry by Tom Percival

Ruby’s Worry (aged 4-8 years)

Ruby’s Worry is a sensitive starter for discussions about anxiety. Early in the book, Ruby comes across a worry – a small yellow scribble with a face. As the worry follows her around, it grows bigger and bigger, draining the colour from her life. Then, she sees another child who also has a worry, and for the first time, she talks about what is bothering her. Suddenly, the world bursts with colour again, and Ruby returns to feeling OK. This subtle and gentle story highlights the idea that a problem shared is a problem halved and reminds children that they are never alone.

Diversity and inclusion

Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

Julian is a Mermaid (4-8 years)

This is the beautifully Illustrated tale of a young boy called Julian. One day he is travelling with his grandmother when he spots three women dressed as mermaids. Watching them with awe and wonder, he dreams of being a mermaid. Once home, he creates his own costume, but his grandmother greets him with a disapproving look. Quickly though, she returns with a gift, one that represents her unconditional love. This is a book that all children should read. It is a starter for conversations about diversity, inclusion and being proud of your identity.

The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammed and S.K. Ali

The proudest blue (4-7 years)

It is Faizah’s first day of school, and her sister’s first day of wearing her beautiful blue hijab. Faizah thinks her sister is a princess and longs to be like her, but not everyone at school agrees. This story teaches children about religion, intolerance, identity and the power of sisterhood—a beautiful read.

Neurodiversity

Meesha Makes Friends by Tom Percival

Meesha makes friends (4-6 years)

This is another subtle yet beautifully written book, by Tom Percival, about a girl who finds it difficult to make friends, to know what to say or how to behave. One day, her interest in arts and craft helps her connect with other children and make friends. Though not overtly about autism, this book will resonate with many neurodiverse children and those who struggle to feel confident in social situations—a heart-warming and empowering story.

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

A Kind of Spark (8-11 years)

Written by an autistic author, this book provides an authentic insight into life as a neurodiverse child. Addie is an autistic 11-year-old who knows what it’s like to feel different. Her strong sense of injustice kicks in when she learns about the marginalisation and mistreatment of the women who had been tried as witches in her village, and she embarks on a mission to make it right. Her fiery determination for justice is inspiring. With the support of her sisters and a loyal friend, she overcomes intolerance and opens people’s eyes to the special and unique attributes of being autistic.

A great read for both neurodiverse and neurotypical children. There is now a great CBBC series based on the book.

Can You See Me? by Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott

Can you see me (8-12 years)

Written by an eleven-year-old autistic girl in collaboration with an adult author, this book accurately portrays life as an autistic child. It describes the challenges, misunderstandings and frustrations that the main character, Tally, faces whilst navigating school, friendships and family.

Neurodiverse children will identify with many themes, whilst neurotypical readers will develop deep empathy and understanding. A good one to recommend to autistic young people – they will feel seen.

Refugee experiences

The Day War Came by Nicola Davies

The Day War Came (5-8 years)

It’s a normal day for one little girl until her town is destroyed and turned to rubble by war. She embarks on a long and challenging journey at the end of which she is not welcome. But an act of kindness from another child changes everything. This is the story of a child forced to become a refugee – a story that prompts discussions.

The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Rauf

The boy at the back of the class (8-10 years)

Onjali Rauf is one of my favourite children’s authors. She has an incredible way of making difficult topics accessible through children’s eyes. This is the story of Ahmet, a 9-year-old Syrian refugee, who fills the empty chair at the back of the class. Through kindness, compassion, determination and bravery, a group of classmates embark on an adventure to challenge prejudice and fight for justice for their new friend.

A brilliant one to read with primary-aged children to prompt conversations about refugee experiences.

There are so many books that deal with important themes. I encourage you to seek them out and use them to start conversations.

We all have a role to play in helping children feel seen, in educating and supporting them to develop empathy and understanding. Be the one who inspires them.

Author

  • Dr Jess Morgan is a Paediatrician and clinical fellow at RCPCH. With a passion for wellbeing and mental health, she believes in using stories to encourage children to explore and express their emotions.

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