Seasons of Change: The Children’s Books That Helped Us Get Through the Year

It was near the end of winter’s long tail—that time after the thaw but before blossom and bud, when it’s tough to believe that the buoyant lift of spring will ever come—when I began to perceive that something was different. Began noticing how, after two especially exhausting years, we seemed to be holding our hurt out toward one another, brimming with tenderness and want. Everyone kept talking about the schisms dividing us, but what I felt, instead, was a desperate desire to connect after so much isolation. People dropping their masks and their defenses.

It’s a feeling that has hung about all year as we—as a culture, as a world—have moved from one demoralizing setback to another: The omicron variant of early 2022 knocking many back into their hidey-holes, and then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In late May, the agonizing news from Uvalde, and the painful fear of bringing children to school in the following days. On June 23, the long-feared overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US Supreme Court. The crushing decision was handed down on my twins’ last day of kindergarten; they moved up, the country lurched backward.

This past year, the curveballs came faster than I could reset my stance, and, as a parent, I found myself grasping. My children were hearing the awful news, and I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to offer false promises of assurance or safety, but knew I couldn’t leave them alone in their angst and ache. I had to find a way to meet them, there, in the dark, theirs and mine. And so I turned, as I always do, to books.

With the topic of death in the air—in Russia and Ukraine, in an elementary school in Texas, among women denied access to safe, legal abortions—my children had big questions about safety, choice, and lives cut short.

At just the right moment, I discovered Kate DeCamillo’s beloved Because of Winn Dixie (Candlewick, 2000). Through the words of the sage Miss Franny, DeCamillo offers a better ethical maxim than any I could’ve conjured myself: “He soon found out the truth… that war is hell.” India Opal, a child who is coming into her own, responds, “Hell is a cuss word.” Franny responds, “War should be a cuss word, too.” I’m in full agreement.

So is the main character in Nahid Kazemi’s Shahrzad & the Angry King (Enchanted Lion, 2022), who, in seeking better ways to resolve and avoid conflict, goes to the rotten core of what patriarchy has wrought—the isolation and shame, the posturing and emotional pain—recognizing them as the root of so much violent conflict. In trying to reduce harm by reconciling deeper wounds, Shahrzad rejects the right/wrong and win/lose binaries altogether.

My kids are growing up fast, as all children do. They are, already, growing past me. And while I can’t keep them innocent, I hope I can help them stay soft.My twins, too, troubled binaries of all sorts this year. My two children, each assigned a different gender at birth, now both inhabit some middle-ground. One of my kids is out publicly; the only child, at present, who is in their school. I want them to know they’re not alone (and, as recent studies suggest, they won’t be for long), even if their peers’ current appearances and pronouns might suggest otherwise. A slew of marvelous books helped.

Tyler Feder reminded us, plainly, that all Bodies Are Cool (Dial, 2021), and, at the same time, that our bodies needn’t define who we are. Calvin by JR and Vanessa Ford (ill. Kayla Harren, Penguin, 2021) helped my child navigate starting first grade with new pronouns, ones they’d been quietly experimenting with through the spring and summer.

My other child yearned to see a different set of possibilities made manifest, the sort that show up in Jodie Patterson’s Born Ready: A Boy Named Penelope (Random House, 2021). These books offered up only a few representations among the endless ways we can experience and express gender, for as Maya Gonzalez reminds readers in The Gender Wheel (Reflection Press, 2017): “This is our world. Like many things in nature it’s round and holds everyone at the same time. This is the Gender Wheel. Like our world it’s round and holds everyone at the same time too.”

What Are Your Words? (Katherine Locke, ill. Anne Paschier, Little, Brown, 2021) offered a broad palette of self-expression, and recommends patience in sorting through identity, reminding us that things take the time they take, and that coming into one’s self isn’t a one-and-done kind of thing. Make Meatballs Sing: The Life and Art of Corita Kent by Matthew Burgess (Enchanted Lion, 2021) uses a true story about the transmutative power of art to demonstrate that some elements can remain central to a person’s identity across their lifespan while other pieces come and go. The message really landed for my most deeply feeling kiddo; what an unburdening, to be relieved of the need to know how the story ends.

We could all use more reminders that becoming is the work of a lifetime. How to Make a Mountain by Amy Huffington (ill. Nancy Lemon, Chronicle, 2022)—“just 9 simple steps and only 100 million years!”—humbled us in its whimsical but fact-packed descriptions of geologic time, contextualizing our human lives as mere flashes in the pan. Matt de la Peña’s Patchwork (ill. Corinna Luyken, Putnam, 2022) helped us remember not to jump to conclusions about who we will be (or, parents, who our children will become) in the future, as did As Glenn As Can Be (Sarah Ellis, ill. Nancy Vo, Groundwood, 2022). In this strength-based take on neurodiversity (Gould’s experience of Asperger’s, though foregrounded in Ellis’s book, is, strangely, completely overlooked in The New York Times review of the book), Ellis tells the story of pianist Glenn Gould, who, though labeled a willful, “problem” child early on, was recognized by all the world for his talent and genius once he found his niche.

There is always more awaiting us than we can, in moments of uncertainty and despair, perceive.Nikki McClure’s Old Wood Boat (Candlewick, 2022) reminded us that something needn’t be new to hold the chance of a new beginning, and in characteristic fashion, McClure urged us to pump the brakes in our own lives to combat grind culture. Both Old Wood Boat and Build a House (ill. Monica Mikai, Candlewick, 2022)—the latter by Grammy- and MacArthur Genius-award winning musician, Rhiannon Giddens—promote deceleration and rest as means of resistance, and emphasize the importance of allowing ourselves pleasure and play. The Big Bath House (Kyo Maclear, ill. Gracey Zhang, Penguin 2021) is an exemplar of both, with its scenes of people utterly at home in their bodies, unabashedly pursuing physical and relational pleasure.

Nurturing shame-free, embodied kids is an uphill battle, and so I try to lead with openness and transparency about my own experience in my body in order to offer space for my kids’ exploration and questions. My twins often sit on my bed as I shed pajamas and dress in the day’s clothes, huddle close to watch as I empty blood from my menstrual cup when I’ve got my period, and have grown accustomed to the sight of my vibrator charging in my bedroom; it’s a toy I use in private, I tell them, to help my body feel good.

Feeling good isn’t easy to do in a dominant culture still so hampered by puritanical taboo, and this is where the brilliant educator, author, and activist, Cory Silverberg, and their illustrative other half, Fiona Smyth, come in. Silverberg believes in equipping young people with the tools they need to understand, protect, and enjoy their bodies as they move through the world. I began reading their What Makes a Baby? (Seven Stories, 2013)—an early readers’ picture book with inclusive imagery and anatomically correct language and information on fertility, gestation, and birth—to my twins in their earliest days; as the result of IVF treatment, I wanted to normalize, from the jump, their experience of coming into the world. I brought Silverberg and Smyth’s 2015 Sex is a Funny Word (Seven Stories) into our home as soon as my kids had words, and it has proven an invaluable toolbox for meeting my children’s questions about bodies, language, and sensation as they arise.

But it’s Silverberg and Smyth’s latest, You Know, Sex (Seven Stories Press, 2022), that, this past year, has become a constant companion, always open on one of my children’s beds. From gender identity to crushes, privacy versus secrecy, masturbation to physical intimacy with another to disinterest in sex altogether, hiding in shame to the liberating experience of feeling seen, You Know, Sex covers enormous ground, using playful, inclusive images and clear, accessible, and up-to-date language to navigate the murky waters of growing up. I can’t imagine parenting without this duo’s pathbreaking work. I feel so fortunate that I don’t have to.

The graphic novels of author/illustrator Remy Lai—we read her latest, Pawcasso (Henry Holt, 2021), first, and then, in quick succession, devoured Pie in the Sky (Holt, 2019) and Fly on the Wall (Holt, 2020)—tell the stories of kids who are confused and hurting (and, in two of her three books, appear androgynous and perhaps gender creative, too), kids with anxious, overstretched moms and dads who have grown distant or are altogether gone. In response, the kids sometimes become angry and withdrawn; they blame, lie, and feel remorse.

I resist tidy answers with all my might, wanting for them to grow comfortable with ambiguity and to recognize all the ways of loving and being that dominant culture obscures from the menu.Seeking control, they are defiant and sometimes even cruel, all while still longing to feel loved, protected, and held. I watched my kids light up as they recognized facets of their own lives reflected in Lai’s work, and I was especially grateful for the author/illustrator’s portrayal of characters’ return to one another after hurt, and her emphasis on the importance of accountability and repair.

Marie-Andrée Arsenault’s gorgeous Pebbles From the Sea (ill. Dominique Leroux, Groundwood, 2022) channels the bewilderment that often accompanies loss and change outside children’s control. “We are the bridge that connects their islands,” the girls in Arsenault’s story say of their relationship to their separated parents. And though Leroux’s characters need time to grieve and to acclimate to their family’s new shape, ultimately, “I know,” the older sister realizes, “we’ll be just fine here.”

There is always more awaiting us than we can, in moments of uncertainty and despair, perceive. “If this world looks empty, look closer,” writes Claire Saxby in Iceberg: A Life in Seasons (ill. Jess Racklyeft, Groundwood, 2022), a journey through an Antarctic year that is as much poetry as science. Saxby reminds us that even ice—which can hold life, temporarily, inert—is as animate and cyclical as everything else in the natural world.

There were times, in this difficult year, when I found myself seizing up, wanting to pull my children back closer within my clutches, into a false sense of safety and control. Moments when it was hard to see a way forward. But my kids are growing up fast, as all children do. They are, already, growing past me. And while I can’t keep them innocent, I hope I can help them stay soft.

Skinless, that’s what US Poet Laureate, Ada Limón, called that feeling of raw exposedness that’s stayed with me all year. It’s a risky thing, to be supple and open, porous to the world’s agonies as well as its wonders. On balance, though, I’d rather be vulnerable than toughened. It’s what I want for my children. It’s what I want for all of us. Because in dark times like these, we would all do well to let a little more light come through.