For as long as I can remember, reading three books at bedtime has been part of our nightly ritual. Three books is our rule—at least until the kids are a little older and the books become a little longer.
Our kids love their books. Our highly sensitive son, who is now almost six, has had a love for books I have never seen in anyone else. By the time he was one, we owned over one hundred picture books. And now, almost five years later, we’re struggling with finding space in our little home for our ever-growing collection.
So clearly, books are important in this house. But when one of your children is highly sensitive, choosing the right stories, especially at bedtime, is a challenge I never thought we’d have to deal with. To me, stories like Little Red Riding Hood, The Gingerbread Man and The Ugly Duckling are children’s book essentials . At least, that was before my son made me realize what these stories really were.
The first one is about a little girl who is sent off into the woods on her own to visit her grandmother. Her mother clearly knows the woods are dangerous, which is why she warns her daughter not to stop or talk to anyone, but she sends her off anyway. Needless to say that was not the point of the story. The real message the story was meant to convey is clear to most people, but to those who pay close attention to detail, the point is completely lost while they try to figure out why in the world a mother would put her child at such risk.
“Why didn’t her mom go with her?”
I honestly don’t know. And things clearly get much worse after the wolf gobbles up little Red and her old grandma. And even worse when the woodcutter cuts the wolf open and pulls them out. And then even worse when they all decide to stitch him back up with rocks in his belly so he’d drown in the lake when he went there for drink. It’s just too much for any analytical mind to comprehend. I’d even say it was wrong, twisted, but at the end of the day, for most people, the story remains one about a little girl who learns not to talk to strangers. That’s it. But for twenty percent of the population, the highly sensitive bit, this “innocent” little book will lead to questions much too big and heavy to answer.
And then we have our poor gingerbread man who shortly after he’s born, is tricked by a fox and then gobbled up, bit by bit.
“The fox said he wanted to help the Gingerbread Man! Why did he eat him?”
And finally that poor little duckling, who isn’t ugly at all in my opinion, feels like his only option is to run away from home because no one will accept him. His mother seems to love him just the same, but doesn’t really stick up for her ‘ugly’ baby when the other farm animals make fun of him. The defenseless chick has to face the big, dangerous world while dealing with an identity crisis, all alone.
“Why isn’t his mom with him?”
That last question comes up a lot. Even more modern story books in which someone is separated from the family, as will often happen in children’s stories, my little boy will worry and cry for the main character who has to find his or her way back, regardless of how exciting and fun the journey back can be. To him, it is impossible to have a good time if you’re worried about something substantial—and being separated from your family is substantial. First we solve the problem, and then we can move on to other things, fun or otherwise.
A while back I asked a group of mothers of parents of highly sensitive children to share the titles that they thought were suitable for their little ones. I put all these titles down and hit the public library shortly after that. Call me crazy, but I enjoy reading children’s books more than I do “grown-up books”, so this was loads of fun.
After having gone through a good chunk of the books on my list, I realized that even though they were very different, they did have quite a few things in common. For one, they all had very simple and easy-to-relate-to plots. The stories are about everyday stuff we have gone through or could go through one of these days; things like birthdays, school, fear of the dark, visits to the doctor. These books tell stories that aren’t far fetched or unrealistic; stories that don’t trigger anxiety because we can’t possibly imagine ourselves being in the situations the book describes. A lot of these books are funny, depicting a character that has giggle-worthy reactions to certain things, while some focus on broader concepts like creativity or the ocean through fun text, without the use of characters or stories.
One of my favorite bloggers, Amanda van Mulligen, has compiled a list of nine books that would make great gifts to families with highly sensitive children. As for the list of recommended books I got from parents of highly sensitive kids, you can see that here.
Of course, our children are all different and will react differently to different things, even if they share the sensitivity trait. Some will enjoy a good adventure while others might find it too scary. For us, Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson and Stick Man by Julia Donaldson have stirred up some serious emotions because the character is either not with Mom or separated from the family. Some kids might laugh to the same children’s books that make other’s cry. If you really think about them, some of those Mr. Men stories can be quite upsetting .
But no matter what our children’s preferences, one thing remains true: finding the right children’s books for highly sensitive children can be a challenge. Once a book or concept or plot or character is analyzed and dissected to an extent it wasn’t designed to reach, the curious, sensitive little mind gets filled with serious questions that are difficult to answer. Anxiety takes over, and the point of the book is completely missed.
In my next post, I will share some very exciting news about the books I have been creating with two very talented mothers of highly sensitive kids: Barbara Moxham, an illustrator who can work magic with her pencil and paints, and Ruth Martin, a gifted editor who helped make our book as perfect as can be. Until then, please do visit our publisher website, My Quiet Adventures and find out more about our work.
Barbara Moxham, Illustrator of All Too Much for Oliver
Have you come across any good children’s books for highly sensitive children? If so, please do share them with us in the comments section below and I’ll add them to the list!
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