Whether your child is facing down bullies or questioning their sexuality, there’s a story that can help them navigate the challenges of growing up.
Meadhbh McGrath rounds up a must-read list
A good read will stay with us long past the final page, and children’s literature has an especially formative power. If you have a child in your life who is dealing with a difficult time, you may want to look beyond the bestsellers and new titles. An edifying book can make a lovely gift — here, we break down the best reads for children to find solace and guidance in.
For a child who is worried about bullying
RJ Palacio’s Wonder was a publishing sensation for good reason. It tells the story of Auggie, a boy born with a genetic facial difference, who is homeschooled until the age of 10. We meet him as he is navigating a new life at public school, faced with taunts from his classmates. The novel shows the impact of our words — both good and bad — as well as the importance of showing kindness and respect to others.
Almost all of Jacqueline Wilson’s books cover bullying in some form, but our pick is Bad Girls, about 10-year-old Mandy, who is cruelly tormented by three classmates. Her burgeoning friendship with Tanya, a quirky 14-year-old being fostered by a neighbour, helps Mandy to brush off the bullies’ gibes and learn the value of finding your own path.
For younger children, Malorie Blackman’s verse novel Cloud Busting follows two very different boys: new pupil Davey and class bully Sam, who become friends and start to see from each other’s perspective after Davey saves Sam’s life. Yet Sam’s desire to keep their friendship a secret has terrible consequences, forcing Sam to look at himself and the world in a different way.
Jacqueline Woodson’s picture book Each Kindness is similarly bittersweet. It is narrated by Chloe, who behaves coldly to new girl Maya, making fun of her secondhand clothes and laughing at her for playing alone. Putting readers in the bully’s vantage point, it offers an unflinching look at the effects of Chloe’s actions, as she must deal with her regret when Maya doesn’t return to school.
For a child of separated parents
A nice festive treat for young children is Last Stop on the Reindeer Express by Maudie Powell-Tuck, about Mia, a girl who embarks on a magical journey to deliver a Christmas card to her father. As well as being a cosy winter read with gorgeous illustrations, it’s a sweet story about Christmas for a child whose parents are separated.
For ages 9+, there’s Jacqueline Wilson’s much-loved novel The Suitcase Kid, which centres on Andy, a 10-year-old caught between her parents’ bitter divorce. As she shuffles from one home to the other, Andy grapples with her mam and dad’s new spouses, her step-siblings and growing isolation, and Wilson chronicles the painful readjustment with her signature humour and compassion.
For a child who is questioning their sexuality
Louth author Meg Grehan’s verse novel The Deepest Breath approaches same-sex relationships with sensitivity and warmth, telling the story of 11-year-old Stevie, who is confused about her feelings for another girl at school. Too shy to ask anyone out loud, she seeks answers in books at the local library, and eventually builds up the confidence to speak to her mam about it.
Most of David Levithan’s young adult novels focus on or around LGBT issues, but for an introduction to his work, try Two Boys Kissing, recommended for ages 12+. Narrated by a Greek chorus of gay men lost to AIDS, it is about two 17-year-old boys setting out to break the Guinness World Record for the longest kiss, and also features interconnected stories of boys exploring online hook-ups, open relationships and new love. A powerful book that would benefit not only young readers but their parents and families too.
For a child who is dealing with illness
In Two Weeks with the Queen, Morris Gleitzman manages to make a story about cancer and AIDS both incredibly moving and very funny. Aussie Colin is sent to stay with family in England while his brother is seriously ill, and decides the Queen can help him cure his brother’s leukaemia. On his quest to meet her, he becomes friends with a gay man whose partner is dying of AIDS, and Gleiztman brings welcome moments of humour to these serious issues.
For older children, Dublin-based author Brian Conaghan’s The Weight of a Thousand Feathers is about 17-year-old Bobby, whose mother is suffering from debilitating MS. As well as caring for his mam, he must look after his 14-year-old brother, who has an undiagnosed psychosocial condition. Conaghan handles this weighty subject matter with wit and heart, illustrating how difficult it is to cope with the terminal illness of a loved one.
For a grieving child
For older children, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness beautifully evokes the heartbreak, rage and helplessness of grief. A giant, destructive monster helps 13-year-old Conor deal with his own anger and confusion over his mother’s illness, as he comes to terms with the full spectrum of emotions surrounding the loss of a loved one.
Younger children who have experienced bereavement may identify with the girl at the centre of The Heart and the Bottle by Belfast author Oliver Jeffers. The inquisitive protagonist retreats into herself when she loses someone she loves, putting her heart in a bottle to avoid being hurt again, until one day she makes a friend and is reminded of who she once was.
For a child who is thinking about their gender identity
Alex Gino’s groundbreaking novel on gender transition has recently been renamed Melissa. The 10-year-old main character struggles with self-doubt and fitting in with her peers after she is denied the chance to audition for the lead role in her school’s production of Charlotte’s Web due to her being labelled a boy. Gino keeps things light while dealing with what can be a heavy topic.
In Cat Clarke’s The Pants Project, 11-year-old Liv sets out to challenge his school’s uniform policy for the right to wear trousers instead of a skirt, while also contending with bullies and intolerance from his friends as he gathers the courage to come out as transgender.
For ages 12+, David Levithan’s Every Day features a 16-year-old who wakes up in a different body every day: male, female, queer, straight, alone or with family and friends. The novel explores first love with great tenderness while also raising questions about identity, gender and sexuality.
For a child who is scared of climate change
The climate crisis can be difficult to explain to very young children. One of the books that has an environmental theme yet won’t bog kids down with facts and figures is Dr Seuss’s The Lorax. The classic story follows a boy determined to find out what happened to a legendary creature known as the Lorax after the forest of Truffula trees was chopped down, and along the way, it teaches the importance of plants and the impact of pollution.
For ages 9+, there’s Run Wild by vet and author Gill Lewis. It focuses on Izzy and Asha, who discover a hidden urban wilderness that is home to an injured wolf. The two friends must protect the wolf while trying to save the area from developers.
For a child who is struggling with self-esteem
Whether it’s body image issues, loneliness or a lack of confidence, all children have feelings of insecurity at one point or another. Dublin activist and educator Sinead Burke’s Break the Mould is a celebration of inclusivity and the power of being different, filled with examples of “unsung heroes”, personal anecdotes about her experience of disability and encouraging facts to boost young readers’ self-belief.
For a quiet kid who might need a little help finding their voice, Lisa Moore Ramée’s novel Something to Say is about Jenae, a shy 11-year-old who has no friends and is quite happy to keep it that way, until she is paired up with a new student for a class debate, and must face her fears about speaking in front of an audience.
In Lisa Fipps’ verse novel Starfish, 11-year-old Ellie learns self-acceptance after being tormented about her weight at school and at home. The arrival of a new neighbour who can empathise with being judged on your appearance bolsters Ellie to stand up for herself and love her body as it is.