BOOKS TO HELP CHILDREN COPE WITH SEPARATION, DIVORCE, AND STEP-FAMILIES
Steven E. Zemmelman, M.S.W., Ph.D.
My literature search found over 100 books specifically for children dealing with divorce and remarriage. However, there is little available to guide professionals and parents in the recommendation of appropriate books that can be helpful. This review attempts to fill that gap.
Parents’ familiarity with and love for their children puts them in the best position to assist their children in comprehending changes in the family and developing positive adaptive coping strategies. However, it is not uncommon that parents own stress during and after divorce inhibits their ability to initiate discussion of family changes in helpful ways. Children’s books can provide a forum that can help parents bridge this difficulty. Furthermore, even in the absence of direct parental involvement, children’s books about divorce offer many potential benefits.
Bernstein (Books to Help Children Cope With Separation and Loss, 1977) points out several advantages of reading as a way of helping children cope with separation and loss. Reading is a relatively non-threatening way for children to discover their own problems when they perceive these problems in literary characters. Insight can be developed through understanding the underlying nature of one’s experience through the life of the characters in the book. Through identification with characters who cope positively, the reader is helped to think about solutions to his or her own problems. The child is helped to realize that he or she is not alone in having a problem. Embarrass-ment can be minimized when one can read privately. Finally, reading with a parent can facilitate discussion of problems that are troubling to a child. While there are several potential benefits, Bernstein cautions adults about forcing books onto children: books should be made available and used by the child when he or she is ready for them. Similarly, adults should be available for discussion, but should not force a child to talk about his or her feelings.
Books concerning divorce and remarriage fall into three types: fiction, non-fiction, and books that combine the two. Fortunately there are now good books of each type available for children from pre-schoolers through adolescents, so adults can guide the selection of reading materials based on their understanding of the needs and preferences of each child. The non-fiction books offer explanations about divorce usually including reasons it occurs and what to expect. The better books of this type also address issues such as blaming (self or others) and childrens’ hopes for reconciliation. These books also discuss positive coping strategies for different common situations such as parents asking children to be messengers or pressuring them to choose sides. The fiction books employ a more subtle method of addressing divorce issues: they each tell a story about a child whose parents divorce and use the story as a vehicle to illustrate the emotional reactions of the characters and the coping skills that are tried, both successfully and unsuccessfully. Books that combine the two approaches usually consist of fictional vignettes followed by non-fiction passages that discuss the problems illustrated in the vignettes.
Fortunately there are many different options available for children who are open to reading about separation and divorce. This review does not include every book for children on this subject. There are probably many excellent books that are available which are not discussed in this article. The selections for this piece were made on the basis of their representing quality reading for the different age groupings. The books included in this review are grouped according to the age of the child for which they are recommended: pre-school (3-5 year olds), lower elementary grades (6-9 year olds), upper elementary grades (10-12 year olds), and adolescents (13-17 year olds). I believe that they are available through most major library systems and quality bookstores either in stock or by special order. A special thanks goes to Terry Works, Oakland Public Library Children’s Librarian, for her guidance in identifying many of the books in this review.
Books for 3-5 Year Old Children
Caines, Jeannette, Daddy, (N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1977). Illus. by Ronald Himler.
Fiction, 32 pp. Daddy is a warmly told story about the joys of a child visiting with father and step-mother each Saturday. It is the only book in this review that focuses exclusively on an African-American family. Although this book is not specifically about divorce, the loving and caring relationships portrayed in the step-family offer the child a sense that he or she continues to be loved by his or her father after divorce and remarriage.
Perry, Patricia and Lynch, Marietta, Mommy and Daddy are Divorced (N.Y.: Dial Press, 1978). Non-fiction, 26 pp.
Using simple language and family photographs, this book portrays two very young children’s feelings about their parents’ marital separation. It explains the reasons for divorce in terms pre-schoolers can understand: mommy and daddy argued too much and made each other too sad. It offers reassurance to the children of the parents’ continued love and involvement with them.
Steel, Danielle, Martha’s New Daddy, (N.Y.: Delacorte Press, 1989). Illus. by Jacqueline Rogers. Fiction, 27 pp.
This charming and beautifully illustrated book is about a child’s feelings regarding mother’s remarriage. While acknowledg-ing feelings of loss, confusion, and fear, it offers reassurance and hope. This book is compassionately written.
Watson, Jane Werner, Switzer, Robert E., Hirschberg, J. Cotter, Sometimes a Family Has to Split Up, (N.Y.: Crown Publishers, 1988). Illus. by Cat Bowman Smith. Non-fiction, 29 pp.
This book is designed as a “read together” book for parents and young children. The story consists of a boy telling the story of his parents’ arguing and deciding to divorce. It acknowledges hurt and angry feelings, and offers a sense of hope that things get better over time. This book is particularly strong in helping dispel preschoolers’ fantasies of responsibility for causing their parents’ divorce.
Books For 6-9 Year Old Children
Brown, Laurene Krasny and Brown, Marc, Dinosaur’s Divorce, (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1986). Non-fiction, 29 pp.
A family of dinosaurs provides the vehicle for helping children understand divorce, life with a single parent, visitation, living in two homes, relating to friends, and parents’ dating and remarriage. This book is unique in offering a section to help children identify their own feelings about divorce. It also emphasizes what children can do to help themselves. Dinosaur’s Divorce is non-threatening and captivates children’s attention. The illustrations are superb.
Christiansen, C.B., My Mother’s House, My Father’s House, (N.Y.: Atheneum, 1989). Illus. by Irene Trivas. Fiction, 27 pp.
This book is recommended for younger elementary school age children who spend part of the week with each parent. It is more about a child’s experience of living in two homes than it is about divorce, per se. The story reflects a child’s appreciation for what she enjoys with each parent and her wish to have one place to call her own. The illustrations are colorful and nicely done.
Fassler, David, Lash, Michele, Ives, Sally Blakeslee, Changing Families: A Guide for Kids and Grown-Ups, (Burlington, Vt.: Waterfront Books, 1988). Non-fiction, 179 pp.
This is a new and improved version of The Divorce Workbook, published several years ago by the same authors. Changing Families is a workbook for children and parents to use together. There are many pages that engage the child reader through activities such as drawing, writing, and circling appropriate responses. The book uses children’s drawings and a child’s writing style to express common thoughts and feelings about separation, divorce, and step-families.
Girard, Linda Walvoord, At Daddy’s on Saturday, (Illinois, Albert Whitman & Co., 1987). Illus. by Judith Friedman. Fiction, 29 pp.
This book may be helpful for children after they are told about separation when the parents’ plan is for them to live primarily with their mother and to visit their father regularly. The book reassures the child of the ongoing relationship with his or her father after he moves out of the family home.
Pursell, Margaret Sanford, A Look At Divorce, (Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Co., 1976). Photos by Maria S. Forrai. Non-fiction, 30 pp.
This book emphasizes the enduring bond of parent-child relationships within the context of family change accompanying divorce. It explains that changes in the family accompanying divorce will be difficult and will require special effort on the part of all family members. This book is not recommended for children who have little or no contact with either parent after divorce because the model it presents is one of continuing relationships with both parents. The photographs are well done and use subjects from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Tax, Meredith, Families, (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1981). Illus. by Marylin Hafner. Non-fiction, 32 pp.
Families is short, sweet and to the point. There are all kinds of families: “The main thing isn’t where they live or how big they are . . . it’s how much they love each other.” This book normalizes differences between families of many types. It is recommended for children who feel stigmatized by coming from a divorced family. Families is culturally sensitive. The illustrations are great.
Books For 10-12 Year Old Children
Berger, Terry, How Does It Feel When Your Parents Get Divorced?, (N.Y.: J. Messner, 1977). Non-fiction, 57 pp.
Using words and photographs this book articulates a child’s feelings and thoughts about her parents’ divorce. The story is told from the point of view of the child two years post-divorce. This book realistically addresses the child’s painful experience of divorce, portrays it as changing over time, and then discusses the possible positive developments that can follow divorce, including feeling more important, learning to be more independent, and getting to know one’s parents more realistically.
Blume, Judy, It’s Not the End of the World, (N.Y.: Bradbury Press, 1972). Fiction, 169 pp.
This excellent book is the story of how a girl and her siblings react to their parents’ separation. Karen is concerned about how the family will manage financially, who will take care of them, and fears her parents will remarry. She tries to get her parents to reconcile. Her 6 year old sister develops fears of the dark and of being left alone. Her 14 year old brother runs away for a few days. Karen meets another girl whose parents are divorced and learns from her some ways of coping adaptively. This book incorporates a recommendation for reading The Boys and Girls Book About Divorce. By the end of the book Karen begins to accept the reality of the divorce, has come to see it as better for her parents, has stopped trying to get them to reconcile, and is re-orienting her life to a different and hopeful future. The story is realistically told with warmth and compassion. This book is particularly recommended for 10-13 year old girls.
Dragonwagon, Crescent, Always, Always, (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1984). Illus. by Arieh Zeldich. Fiction, 26 pp.
This book is about a girl whose parents divorced when she was a baby and whose parents live in different parts of the country. She lives with her mother during the school year and with her father each summer. This book articulates the child’s ambivalent feelings about leaving her mother and going to live with her father, reiterates the reasons for divorce, and reassures the child of both parents’ love for her.
Mayle, Peter, Why Are We Getting A Divorce?, (N.Y.: Harmony Books, 1988). Non-fiction, 28 pp.
Although short, this book is packed with information that might be helpful for children. It puts divorce in perspective by addressing why people get married and have children, and how some parents come to the decision to divorce. This book offers some ideas about the reorganizing family that are positive and offer hope for children, such as having special time with each parent separately. It also encourages children to have some empathy for their parents and to take responsibility for helping with house chores and caring for themselves. Why Are We Getting a Divorce? is an updated version of Peter Mayle’s previous book, Divorce Can Happen to the Nicest People.
Newfield, Marcia, A Book for Jodan, (N.Y.: Atheneum, 1975). Illus. by Diane de Groat. Fiction, 39 pp.
Jodan’s parents separate and she moves with her mother from New York to California. The book focuses on Jodan’s feelings of longing for her father and offers strategies for bridging long distance parent-child relationships (letters, photos, and creating a scrapbook). The scrapbook that Jodan’s dad makes and presents to her as a surprise can inspire the child reader who has a long distance parent to use his or her creativity to create projects that help maintain the bond.
Park, Barbara, Don’t Make Me Smile, (N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981). Fiction, 114 pp.
This is the story of Charlie, a bright, sassy 11 year old boy. He reacts to his parents’ separation by blaming them for ruining his life. He refuses to talk with them and runs away from home to the local park. The book portrays a healthy resolution through Charlie establishing a trusting relationship with a psychologist who helps him understand and talk about his feelings. This story is engaging and humorous. It will probably appeal more to boys than to girls.
Paulsen, Gary, Hatchet, (N.Y.: Viking Penguin, 1987). Fiction, 195 pp.
This story is a wonderful, action-packed metaphor for how children can and often must learn new skills to help themselves when their parents divorce. Brian, in the custody of his mother during the school year, is the only passenger on a single engine plane as he goes to visit his father in the Canadian wilderness for the summer. The pilot has a heart attack and Brian manages to crash land the plane into a lake. Brian must learn to survive on his own in the wilderness. Using the hatchet his mother gave him for his trip, he learns how to truly see, hear, think, and use every resource available to him. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and exciting adventure story that reflects how kids need to learn to use what resources they have when their world is drastically altered.
Books for Adolescents
Gardner, Richard A., The Boys and Girls Book About Divorce, (N.Y.: Bantam Books, 1970). Non-fiction, 155 pp.
This is a straightforward, thorough and practical guide to understanding common feelings and thoughts about divorce. The emphasis is on what children and adolescents can do to help themselves. The author recommends that the book be kept on hand to be used as an “encyclopedia” that can be referred to at different times, when the topics covered become relevant. The book addresses the tendency to attribute blame, anger, fear of being left alone, how to improve relationships with divorced mothers and fathers, step-parents, and the role of therapists. It also specifically addresses what children can do when parents use them to hurt one another, try to get them to take sides, ask them to “spy” on the other parent, and expect them to act too grown-up or too babyish. The author advocates helping children accept what cannot be changed. He coins “Field’s Rule” (as in W.C.) as a general principle for children whose parents continually disappoint them: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. If after that you still don’t succeed . . . forget it. Don’t make a fool of yourself.”
Green, Constance, Ask Anybody, (N.Y.: Viking Press, 1983). Fiction, 150 pp.
This is a story of a coming of age of a young girl in rural Maine. It is a story about disappointment and hurt within the context of divorce, and about growing up
and learning one can still enjoy the support and help of both parents even if they are no longer a couple. This book does a particularly good job of portraying some of the nuances of emotion and behavior that arise in families where parents are divorced and forming new romantic relationships.
LeShan, Eda, What’s Going to Happen to Me?, (N.Y.: Four Winds Press, 1978). Illus. by Richard Cuffari. Non-fiction, 134 pp.
This book is a guide to common feelings and thoughts of the older child in relation to divorce and family re-organization, including remarriage. The focus is on understanding, accepting, and communicating feelings, as well as developing realistic relationships with both parents after divorce. It includes practical steps children can take to help themselves. The book is written in a warm and compassionate manner. The parts dealing with how kids can be tempted to play one parent off against the other and develop fantasy notions of the less seen or absent parent were particularly well-done. I would recommend this book for parents as well as for adolescents.
Nickman, Steven L., When Mom and Dad Divorce, (N.Y.: Julian Messner, 1986). Illus. by Diane de Groat. Non-fiction, 76 pp.
This is a sensitive and well-written book that will be helpful to adolescents at any point during or after their parents’ divorce or remarriage. It addresses common fears, what happens legally in a divorce, forms of custody, parental dating, and step-families. The book is filled with practical steps children can take to help themselves and their parents. It is easy to read: each section begins with a vignette followed by a simply written, direct, practical piece that explains the vignette and offers ideas for what a child in this situation could do to help himself or herself. The book emphasizes children’s right to not have to grow up too fast in order to help their parents and taking advantage of available resources when times are difficult.