As the new school year gets under way, some students have bigger concerns than keeping up with homework: Demand has grown steadily for children’s books that deal with traumatic events such as school shootings.
Sales of books for young readers about violence, grief and emotion has risen for nine straight years, with nearly six million copies sold in 2021 — more than double the amount in 2012, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks U.S. retail print sales.
As anxiety and depression have increased among young people Americanssay educators and advocates that children’s books can play a role in helping them cope.
“While it may be second nature to try to shield children from life’s harsher realities and scary news, it has proven difficult to avoid major societal problems,” said Kristine Enderle, editor-in-chief of Magination Press, the children’s publishing arm of the American Psychological Association. “Children face these problems and challenges in their daily lives.”
A book, “I’m Not Afraid … I’m Prepared,” was reprinted several times to meet demand after the massacre at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School in May, according to the National Center for Youth Issues, the nonprofit group that published the book. The story, first published in 2014, features a teacher showing children what to do when a “dangerous person” is in their school.
Booksellers around the country see interest in titles from the genre rise and fall depending on local and national headlines, according to bookstore Barnes & Noble.
Some newer titles engage directly with real-world gun violence.
In “Numb to This,” a graphic novel published this month, author Kindra Neely describes the 2015 Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon, which she survived, and the aftermath as she tries to heal from repeated shootings elsewhere. At first, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers editorial director Andrea Colvin said she was shocked when Keely pitched the idea.
“I had to remember that yes, that’s how our stories are now. That’s what young people have experienced,” Colvin said.
Michele Gay, whose 7-year-old daughter Josephine was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, turned to children’s books herself to help her two surviving daughters. One picture book she read to them was “The Ant Hill Disaster,” about a boy ant who is afraid to go back to school after it is destroyed.
“It was one of many books that was comforting to them and gave them a little bit of confidence to just get through one more day, one more minute, because we can do it together,” said Gay, entering for improved safety in schools through a nonprofit she co-founded, Safe and Sound Schools.
Parents should make sure that books about trauma are age-appropriate and supported by psychologists, experts say.
It’s important to be aware of whether children are paying attention to or feeling stressed by scary things in the news, said Aryeh Sova, a Chicago psychologist who works with children who attended the Fourth of July parade in suburban Highland Park, Illinois, where seven people were killed in a shooting. A child who asks a lot of questions about an event may mean they are anxious or fixated on it, he said.
“If it comes from the needs of the child, then books could be a great way for children to learn and read with their parents and to go through it on their own and process it at their own speed, at their own pace,” Sova said.
But bringing up violence when a child isn’t concerned about it can increase their anxiety unnecessarily, Sova said.
Some young children experience gun violence at alarmingly high rates, especially in communities of color.
For them, it’s important to start early to address the effects, said Ian Ellis James, an Emmy Award-winning Sesame Street writer known by his stage name William Electric Black. He is the author of the illustrated children’s book “A Gun Is Not Fun.” He said young children in areas affected by gun violence are more aware of it than parents might think.
“They know about flowers and candles and cards on the street. They walk past them every day,” he said.
Through children’s literature and theater, Black works to reduce violence in cities. “If you start when they’re 5 and you go back when you’re 6, 7, 8, 9, you’re going to change behavior,” he said.
This spring, he will partner with New York public school PS 155 in East Harlem with a series of workshops on gun violence and prevention for early readers using puppetry, storytelling and reenactment.
“They don’t even want to get rid of assault weapons in this country. So my thing is, we’ve got to go in and we’ve got to help them save themselves,” Black said. “We’re really failing in a way.”
Claire Savage is a staff member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues. Follow Savage on Twitter at https://twitter.com/c_thesavage.