Yeah, I know, that’s a loaded subject line.
I don’t know how many times in the past dozen years or so I’ve heard these questions, but lets just say that since working as a bookseller I’ve heard thousands of these variations on a theme. It goes like this: a parent enters, well-intentioned and polite, asking us for a book about a particular topic. The question is never about whether such books exist for the issue at hand, because the assumption is there, but whether or not we can recommend a “good one” from the many we surely must have on hand. Examples include:
“Can you point me to the books on…
“…a child dealing with the death of a pet (insert animal here, everything from gerbils to spiders to larger farm animals)?”
“…dealing with the loss of an older sibling to gang violence?”
“…dealing with being adopted from another culture, specifically (insert name of emerging country here)?”
“…contracting an infectious disease?”
“…jealousy among friends (mainly girls)?”
“…parents suddenly dying?”
“…fear of flying?”
“…anxiety over (insert a specific food item here, my favorite was ‘dairy products)?”
And many others I have long forgotten. I should probably note, almost without exception these are adults asking for books on these subjects intended for small children, many of whom have not learned to read yet. They are looking for picture books that (they hope) will explain these difficult topics for them. While I can sympathize with the problem of explaining difficult topics in simple terms to small children, most of the reactions we booksellers receive when we explain that lack of books suggests disinterested parenting.
“What do you mean there isn’t a picture book about surviving a land mine? How am I suppose to explain this to a child?” (A true response, said with a level of incredulity so piercing that I winced.)
The fact is, there are probably more books not written about specific issues then there are books written for them. The major topics – adoption, sibling rivalry, bullying, first-day-of-school-anxiety, &c. – are all represented, and in many cases there is more than one good title to suggest. For the topics not generally considered common there are usually two good reasons, both of which equally sound, neither of which is acceptable to the adults who hear them.
First, the topic isn’t popular enough to warrant a publisher dedicating resources to a title that won’t turn a profit. The idea that profit is even part of the equation so incenses some adults that they practically yell at us booksellers as if it is our fault, some conspiracy to keep kids from getting the books they need or deserve. In some adult minds books for children should be free, a public service, in which everyone from the writer and illustrator to the publisher and printer gladly and lovingly devotes their time and energy. The most withering response I could levy in the regard is “This is a business, and without profits you don’t even have the opportunity to talk to me about it.”
The second reason is that there are many topics that cannot be easily explained to everyone’s satisfaction and should be dealt with by the adults in charge of their wards. Yes, this is about parental laziness. And, yes, when Fifi is old and near the end, it can be difficult to explain to a child that she’s lived good and hard in her 105 dog years and that her time has come. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it should be avoided, or worse, explained away with the aid of a book specifically designed to the situation at hand. I have seriously had adults reject a book on the death of a pet because the type of animal in the book was wrong. I’ve had adults reject a book on dealing with grandparents with dementia because the grandparent in question was the wrong gender. And when it comes to adoption, if the kid and their adoptive family doesn’t look like the ones in the book, well, forget it, because “That isn’t the same thing.”
Many of these conversations finally come around to a half-hearted thanks for my efforts to help them and begrudging acknowledgment that it isn’t my fault. That’s very big of them, and I usually offer up a cheery suggestion:
“You know, maybe you should think about writing that book!”
The only thing perhaps more shocking than a lack of books that enable this unwillingness to interact with their children is the suggestion that they should be part of the solution and not part of the problem.