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Books of Life

C. B. Lieber

More and more frum children’s books address difficult topics with bright illustrations and refreshing openness. Why milestone books evolved, and how parents can use them best.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

I’ll admit it: I’m a bookaholic. Friends and relatives who remember me from my elementary school years will tell you how I was never seen anywhere without a book. I used to swallow them whole: breakfast, lunch, and supper. My kids can’t escape bookaholism either — I’ve been reading to them since infancy. So when, as a newly divorced mother of two toddlers, I wanted to explain our new reality to my kids, I naturally turned to the bookstore. I thumbed through several attractive secular picture books with titles like Dinosaurs Divorce and Was It the Chocolate Pudding? None of them sat well with me, though. How could I explain a subject as big as divorce with a book about chocolate pudding? Unsettled, I put that plan on hold. Fast-forward nearly a decade, and I was so excited to see Tzvia Ehrlich-Klein’s release, I Live with My Mommy (Menucha Publishers, 2015). My kids are too old for these books now, but other frum children aren’t. Today’s frum literature is addressing more than just divorce. I Lost Someone Special, by Brachah Goetz (Judaica Press) and Will I Ever Be Happy Again? by Rabbi Avidan and Chaya Milevsky (Feldheim), both about the loss of a loved one; Our New Special Baby, by Chaya Rosen (Feldheim); and even I Go to the Dentist, by Rikki Benenfeld (published by Hachai), cover topics that parents may find difficult to address on their own, with bright illustrations and refreshing openness.   Small Children, Big Concepts As a single parent, I wanted a book on divorce to show my children that they weren’t alone in their situation, to normalize it, and to demonstrate how other kids dealt with the same circumstances. I felt it would give them an outlet to talk about what they were going through and create a safe way for them to express their feelings. I’m not the only one to think this way. This is precisely why milestone books — books for young children dealing with life cycle events like the birth of a new sibling or the death of a grandparent, or those on normal developmental stages like starting first grade or making friends — are so popular. “Often when children go through something, they feel like they’re the only one,” explains Esther Heller, a former social worker and today editorial director of Menucha Publishers. “It doesn’t occur to them that other kids are also going through it. When you read something in a book, it validates the feeling and makes it normative. Children get comfort from that, and also important information about how other people cope.” Parents may find it too overwhelming to talk directly about a stressful situation with a child, or a child may not readily share his or her feelings with the parent. By reading about someone else’s situation, they’re able to find release in a way they might not be able to with a more direct approach, Esther notes. For happy events, like the birth of a new sibling or a child’s upsheren, milestone books are often bought as gifts, says Chava (Kathe) Pinchuck, a librarian and book reviewer who is past chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee of the Association of Jewish Libraries, and coeditor of Children’s and Young Adult Book Reviews for the Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter. For less-happy events, parents are often looking for an objective way to present the situation, or for the right approach or terminology to broach a subject. In this case, they can go to the library and seek out something on the topic, or perhaps a therapist or a teacher will know of a book that has been helpful in similar situations. The parent should read the book before sharing it with the children, Chava cautions.

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