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New Mom Dispatch: Finding the right children's book for the tough talks

Learning the parenthood ropes one month at a time


Last year my nephew Noah was turning 3 and his big sister, Anya, was acting bratty about his birthday. Talks didn’t help. Tipped off by a friend, my sister, Sarah Bergman Lewis, showed Anya a YouTube recording of Russell Hoban’s children’s book A Birthday for Frances. “It totally did the trick,” she reports. “While the grumbling didn’t disappear completely, it certainly diminished.”

Everyone knows that reading is important. Few things make me happier than seeing my 15-month-old paging through a book, even if she chews the pages. But we were both surprised at just how well Frances worked.

Behold the time-honored power of fable. As Sarah puts it, “talking about an issue as it relates to another person (or badger, in Frances’ case) makes it more accessible.” And it adds some distance: “I find that reading books is like having hard conversations in the car. It’s that safety of not looking face to face.” With the right book for the right time, parents don’t have to reinvent the conversation wheel every time a tough issue arises.

Inspired (who doesn’t like parenting hacks?), I polled my sister, a pediatrician, and two other parents, both of whom work in education — Jenny Fox, mother of Nora, 3, and Anna, 7, and Anne Beatty, mother of Rowan, 1, Eva, 4, and Dominic, 7 — about books that have helped their families.

The books are enjoyable for both kids and parents. Nobody wants a lecture, even if it's illustrated:

Going to the Doctor Franklin Goes to the Hospital, by Paulette Bourgeois: “This can be helpful for a kid anticipating a potentially scary medical event,” says Sarah. “I particularly like Franklin because it is reassuring, but also includes details like him getting an IV.”

Nighttime Fear There's a Nightmare in My Closet, by Mercer Mayer: “Written in the 1960s, this book has kind of a strange vibe and doesn’t seem like it should make kids feel better about nightmares per se — and includes a boy shooting the monster in his closet with a BB gun,” says Anne. “But it did help my son a lot during his nightmare phase."  

LGBT Families And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell: “This is based on the true story of a male penguin couple raising a baby chick together at the Central Park Zoo,” says Jenny. “It's very sensitively written and does a beautiful job normalizing the "two-daddies" family.” 

New Sibling A Baby for Grace, by Christian Birmingham: “This book is tender, poignant, and true in a way no other new sibling book I found, in those hard early months of having two kids, was,” says Anne. Honorable mention: Bear With Me, by Max Kornell

Transitions The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn: “I read this to Anya when she was starting preschool at age 2,” says Sarah. “It’s a sweet story about Chester the Raccoon feeling nervous about leaving his mom. The ritual that his mom uses is actually something our family uses to this day.” 

Death Badger’s Parting Gifts, by Susan Varley: “I discovered this book when my grandmother was dying,” says Sarah. “When my own heart was heavy and my thoughts muddled, how would I explain what was happening to my 3-year-old? This book is nonreligious but deals with the idea of legacy.” Honorable mention: The Invisible String, by Patrice Karst

Losing a Tooth One Morning in Maine, by Robert McCloskey: “The protagonist of Blueberries for Sal is back, several older, with her first loose tooth and full of curious questions about it,” says Jenny. Honorable mention: Bear's Loose Tooth, by Karma Wilson 

Constipation Softy the Poop, by Thomas R. DuHamel: “As a pediatrician, I am always looking for good books in this area, and this is one of the most-read books in my office,” says Sarah. “It’s funny and works for different ages.” 

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