By Janelle Mathis, University of North Texas
While many books position children in personal and social roles that can present challenges, this year’s Outstanding International Books List (OIB) and submissions include some titles unique in both topic and format. The intended audience for these books is child and adolescent readers, however adult readership can gain insights into personal issues faced by children, how they cope, where they need support and the situations in which these issues can be contextualized.
Me and My Fear (Great Britain) by Francesca Sanna uses an interesting white, ghost-like creature to personify fear and share the main character’s attitudes. Her “tiny friend called Fear” has always kept her safe, but since they arrived in a new country, “Fear isn’t so little anymore.” Fear keeps her from going outside and socializing in school, not to mention it dreams loudly and makes her feel lonely.
When the girl finally makes a new friend, she begins to notice that the other children in her class have their own fears. Once she begins to understand more about her new home, her fear shrinks back to its normal, useful size. Me and My Fear is simply told story, but with bold colors that allow fear to stand out. All students can recognize their own fears, but this books carries an especially important message of welcoming new students and helping them to keep fear at a more manageable and useful level.
Small Things (Australia) by Mel Tregonning is a unique look at anxiety that surrounds everyone as it focuses on one young boy who feels alone in the midst of his worries. This wordless picture book is created in shades of black, white and gray with graphite on paper. The story of a young boy who does not feel accepted is easily followed through a variety small and full page frames. As the story progresses, small demon-like figures begin to eat away at the boy and increase as the reader follows him through various activities in his life— in school, at home studying and even in his dreams. As his anxiety increases, his normal functioning as a student and family member is limited. Once he discovers that all people face these anxiety demons, even those most successful, he is able to put his worries into perspective and begin to offer support to others. The images share much detail that invites discussion about how anxiety can affect all people— a powerful message to consider. An end note speaks to the significance of childhood anxiety that affects all children and explains the danger of the negative cycle of failure that can result.
As is true of many adolescent stories, personal coping and coming of age is intensified when immigration is involved in the story. The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle (United Kingdom) by Victoria Williamson is a chapter book that tells of two teens coping with the effects of life events and factors that leave them feeling lost and alone. Comments on the book’s cover address them as “the refugee and the bully.” Readers are invited into the personal lives of a Syrian immigrant and a young girl living with a depressed, alcoholic mother both of whom live in Glasgow, Scotland. Each tries to cope with their own situations, but it is when they discover a common concern for an injured fox and her cubs that they begin to work through the mental and emotional challenges they face.
While the two picture books mentioned earlier focus on personal internal issues that cut across events in one’s life, one picturebook that was not on the final OIB list stood out as significant to me- Hazelnut Days (France) by Emmanuel Bourdier, illustrated by Zaü. The realistic images using tan and neutral shades of black and gray focus on facial expressions that help readers identify with the boy’s emotions. We are introduced to a young boy and his father as the boy describes his father wearing peppermint cologne rather than a hazelnut one; joking comments follow. As the story unfolds of how the boy responds to classmates asking what his father does as well as revealing other visits with his father, readers realize that the boy is visiting his father in jail. The boy’s perspective, as shown in the first person narrative, points to a realistic, sometimes humorous but sad approach to their relationship. While he dislikes that his Dad causes a “fog” appearance to his mom’s eyes, he shares experiences with his mom that point to their positive relationship and the security she provides. He also comments, however, on his dad’s strength, humor, and knowledge of sparrows— accepting any quality upon which he can build a relationship, it seems. As the guard ends the visit, the boy plans for next week’s visit. Readers are reminded of the layers of emotions with which a child in this situation must use to deal with building a relationship. Few books touch on this topic well, yet many children are in this situation world-wide.
Me and My Fear and Small Things can be aligned with the purpose and uses of books such as those that deal with childhood depression ( Willy and the Cloud by Anthony Browne or The Red Tree by Shaun Tan), while Hazelnut Days connects well with books on children dealing with social issues. The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, as is characteristic of realistic fiction novels, provides inside perspectives of characters and how they are facing the challenges that society and their own life experiences present. In the case of all these stories, however, it is the role that other individuals play that determines how well the situations are handled. The role of others, no matter how seemingly different, is critical in supporting those within their community since working for the good of others strengthens one’s own personality and ability to confront issues in positive realistic ways.
I’m sure many books come to mind that reveal significant insights as to how children and young people handle emotional and societal pressures. What are some titles that have been especially meaningful to you as you contemplate this topic?
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