May 14, 2012

Oh Susanna - Are There Taboo Subjects In Picture Books?

OK.  Twitter?

Here's the problem:

I could spend ALL DAY there!!!

Seriously!

Everybody posts all these awesome links to fascinating, must-read articles and blogs and photos and etc. etc. etc. and no sooner am I done with one there are 20 more I'm dying to check out.

How do y'all get any work done?

Twitter is the Anti-Work!

Clearly there are going to have to be some strict ground rules or there's going to be some world-class time-frittering going on over here :)

So which one of you self-disciplined types is going to lay the rules out for me?

And enforce them?! :)

Alrighty then.  Now that that's out of the way, I hope you all had wonderful Mother's Days however you may have celebrated!  I spent mine like this:
(Well, not really, but I would have if I could have :))

I hope you're all as excited as I am about the Birthday Contest coming up at the end of this week!!!

And I must apologize in advance if I'm a little behind in visiting you all this week.  I have three days of back-to-back school visits, so my time will be limited.  But be assured that even if I don't have time to comment I will be reading!  (I am abysmal at trying to comment from my phone... whilst driving... and trying to listen to my GPS... also the police frown on such multitasking and it is of course illegal so I would never do it... even if I was coordinated enough. :))

So stop encouraging me to break the law and let's get onto today's Oh Susanna question.

I have actually chosen two questions which I will address together because I think they are related.

First is Saba's question:  Are there any subjects that are considered taboo in the picture book industry that children's writers should stay away from?

And second is Catherine's question (which I'm paraphrasing slightly): [In my story] Cheeku the Cheeky Chinese Chicken... I took out the chef because someone said kids can't think about chickens going to be killed... The motivation for Cheeku to run away was so as not to be eaten. I had to change it to he didn't want to be cooped up forever, but although it's fun, it has no story as such. Do you think i should put the chef stuff back in?

These are interesting and related questions, I think.

Saba, I'm sure you aren't referring to things like graphic violence, murder, torture, what I will refer to as "adult topics", and things of that nature.  I don't think any of us would ever consider writing a picture book about a subject that was so obviously inappropriate for children.  I think what you might mean is what I would call sensitive topics.  For example, is it appropriate to write a picture book about a family with same sex parents, or a picture book about war, death, or serious illness?

And that is a question that I think different people might give you different answers for.  Some would say those topics should be avoided - that they're not appropriate.

But I think most would say that picture books are badly needed on those topics, because children who are experiencing those situations have just as much need (possibly more) to explore their feelings and feel validated, understood, comforted, and reassured as children who read books about being scared of the dark or getting a new sibling.

One glance at the Perfect Picture Book list will show you that there ARE picture books about war, poverty, illiteracy, death, illness, disability, non-traditional families, slavery, and a host of other sensitive and difficult topics.

To a large degree, I don't think it's the topic that is the issue, but more how it's addressed.  Pretty much any topic - even a story about bears - can be written so it's not appropriate for the picture book audience.  But by the same token, pretty much any topic can be written about in a sensitive and careful way so that it is not only appropriate, but valuable for this age.  For example, a book like Beatrice's Goat most certainly addresses poverty, but in a way that is very palatable to children and filled with hope.

It all depends on how it's written.

This is not to say that every book is appropriate for every child.  What's right for one family may not be right for another.  Parents, teachers, and librarians must use their discretion.  While a book about a child losing his mother (as a very powerful example, I would cite the picture book The Scar by Charlotte Moundlic) might be terribly upsetting to many children, it might be just exactly what a boy or girl who has just lost a parent might need to hear to feel that they are understood in their grief and loneliness, that others have gone through this, and to help give voice to their emotions.  And while some families might welcome a book that addresses where babies come from in a very exact way (for example, Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle) others families might prefer to preserve the mystery a little :)

As writers, we want to reach all children, the ones that struggle with the hard things as well as the "every day" things (and I put "every day" in quotes because nothing feels every day to a person who is going through it, but as adults we know that there are some experiences that are normal and common for childhood and others you hope no child will ever have to bear, yet some of them do.)

Catherine's question about her manuscript I think ties into this discussion.  Is it appropriate to write about a chicken who is afraid of being eaten?  I think it can be if it's done right.  If there is humor, if the emphasis is more on the escape then the reality of being eaten, if it ends happily, and if there is a level at which it relates to common childhood experience - perhaps having to do something you don't want to do, or needing to find a better way to do something, or finding your place in the world - then I think it can work.  There are certainly a host of fairy tales where some pretty scary stuff goes down if you think about it too carefully (Red Riding Hood, anyone?!) but that hasn't stopped parents from reading them or children from enjoying them.  And anyone who has seen Disney's Little Mermaid has seen the chef singing "les poissons, les poissons" merrily preparing to cook Sebastian the crab and I think most kids find that scene deliciously fun :)  So again, I think it's all about how it's written.  And again, depending on how it comes out, it might be a story that is not be appropriate for every child (perhaps more sensitive children would be better steering clear) and that parents, teachers and librarians might want to be selective about.

Saba and Catherine, I hope that answers your questions.  If not, please feel free to clarify or ask follow-ups in the comments!

Everyone else, Saba, Catherine and I are all VERY interested in your thoughts on this matter.  Are there subjects that are taboo in picture books?  Or that should be?  Should a writer stay away from the topic of a chicken who is afraid of being eaten?

I will look forward to your thoughts!  Especially if you have first-hand experience with having a story turned down by traditional publishers only because of topic.

Have a wonderful day! :)



Reactions:

59 comments:

  1. I love the questions and answers. I know you really won't, but don't do all that multi-tasking in the car! :) You'll find your way with Twitter. While I love it, I'm not on there as much as I used to be. I check in a few times a day (stopped all my notifications, because you can check this via the @connect or @mention tab on your profile). Good luck with all of your school visits.

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  2. I'm so glad you enjoy Oh Susanna. I really do too - I love hearing what questions people have and opening them up for discussion among the group. I think we all learn a lot! I promise not to multitask and drive - I'm actually militant about that because I have kids learning to drive and I want to set a good example - they do what they see, after all! Thanks for the twitter advice and good wishes :)

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  3. Oh, Susanna is such a great resource. Today's questions from Saba and Catherine were excellent. You have responded in an in depth and sensitive way, Susanna, and I have to say I wholeheartedly agree with what you have said.

    I do a mad twitter and FB hour at night after work....If you are using something like tweet deck, make sure you are adding columns of the most pertinent hashtags for you!

    Hope those three school visits go really well. They are so important!

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  4. I think the chef should stay in the story. I like your answer to the question Ms. Hill. Books about some subjects people may not like to talk about (like dying or divorce or other subjects) may be able to help some kids.

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  5. While I don't always get the chance to comment on every blog I read each day, I just wanted to let you know that I LOVE this series you are doing...it answers every question I have about the whole writing process as well as ones I didn't even think of!

    Thanks for all you do for the writing community!

    Donna L Martin
    www.donasdays.blogspot.com

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  6. Oh Susanna, you are so good at this! As you say, it's all in the telling. The beloved Charlotte's Web is about saving the pig from getting slaughtered, but that part is understated. Rather, the story focuses on the spider and pig relationship and ends happily. Great questions. And I LOVE the napping kitten!

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  7. How well are stories around child nudity accepted by editors and publishers? I have a MS which explores the theme, but am not sure if there will be takers for it.

    And thanks for this wonderful blog Susanna. Like you, I too am new on twitter, and am finding it hugely distracting! But on the other hand, am glad I'm on twitter now, otherwise I wouldn't have stumbled upon your blog:)
    @RichajhaJha

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  8. Speaking as a parent, it all comes down to the handling of the subject matter. Here's the truth: Little kids go through a whole lot more than what we want them to. They've endured, seen, experienced things that should be reserved for later years, but life happens, with no respect of age. So there are controversial topics, like same-sex parents, dealing with family problems and others. I suppose, because we wish to instill more innocence within our children during their young years, there are topics we wish to ignore. But we can't. The story about the chicken should probably be told from the "chef going to make a meal out of him" angle. I think Chicken Run had something to do with that too.

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  9. Susanna, you are a font of sage advice. Seriously, I think this series is wonderful, and you're very good indeed!

    All I can say is...what SHE said!

    And Catherine, leave the chef in! As Susanna said, if done with humor and a light touch on that aspect, it would be just fine.

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  10. I agree that there is a place for serious topics--it's important that kids not feel alone in scary times of illness or divorce, but I also think in that case it should be clear that is what the book is about. I remember my kids picking up a pic book at the library--it had a cute cover with a cartoon hen or chicken. But when I was reading it to them at home I found out in the middle that it was about death. I could've used a little heads up! The only indication on that book was on the copyright page where it lists subjects.
    Anyway, I also agree that humor is a great way to handle it--esp in the case of Catherine's story. That Little Mermaid scene is an excellent example.
    Happy Monday Susanna--I'm going to be keeping that cat image in my mind today. It made me smile, thanks!

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  11. Stina LindenblattMay 14, 2012 at 9:17 AM

    Brilliant answers as always. And you're right. Every parent has a different definition of what they feel is acceptable in a PB.

    Twitter can be a major time suck because it is so easy to say, "Just one more." I tend not to spend much time on it. I did at one point, but it got to be dangerous.

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  12. Penny KlostermannMay 14, 2012 at 9:25 AM

    Oh Susanna...great questions and great answers. I, also, love this series! Sooo helpful.
    Love the cat! Too funny :•)
    Twitter and other social networking is a job in itself. I'm still trying to find my way with all of it.

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  13. Ah, the great conundrum facing today's writer: Social networking. You need to Twitter (or whatever you chosen social network) in order to be effectively heard and when you do it steals away time from your writing, your household chores, and your life.

    What I do is enforce a limit of my time on Twitter. I check it a couple of times a day and make sure that I follow links to only a limited number of items. Knowing that, I make sure whatever I take time for is really worth it.

    Although, I always make sure to respond to anyone who has tweeted me. That is top of my list.

    Hope that helps a little.

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  14. When I remember to turn my Tweetdeck on in the mornings, I can either let myself become overwhelmed with all the notifications floating past my peripheral vision, or just glance at them, stay in the loop, and only click if something really interests me. As it is, I often forget to turn it on in the morning!

    I write about sensitive topics, and I have recommended books for PPBF about sensitive topics, so I think it's fairly obvious where I stand, but I agree that the book has to be well done, and handle things in a way that shows compassion both for subject and for reader. It's also helpful to somehow have an indication to the parent what the book is about, although I don't know how one does that. I know that parents' time is very limited, but I think it would be a good idea to at least glance through a book prior to borrowing it from the library or buying it, to ensure that there are no surprises mid-read. I have also brought books home from the library thinking they are going to address a particular topic, and have found that they're duds. Another reason for a pre-read!

    As for the chicken, kids know that chickens get eaten, unless they don't realize where that KFC comes from. (A friend's sister hated potatoes when she was a kid, but loved french fries... until someone mentioned that they were potatoes. She exclaimed in horror, "Fries are POTATOES?" and promptly stopped eating them. Forever.) As others have said, if it's handled with humor, and not with graphic dwelling on the subject, go for it. It certainly makes for a more interesting story.

    Sorry for writing a thesis!

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  15. Thanks so much Susanna and everyone, I'm so happy to keep the chef and it's great to know for other stories. You rock Susanna!

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  16. Great questions ladies and great answers, Susanna. I think any topic that may be perceived as controversial, can be written about if is an exploitive, written well and has a great message. Chuckled, many of the PPB books you mentioned, I contributed to. Kids are growing up with much more information available to them. I would rather read a book on a a topic and then enage the child in a conversation. And, there are many more issues cropping up among children today, that I'm sure books will be written about. The subject that comes to mind are the transgender children were seeing on a Barbara Walters special and other shows.

    Catherine, I think you should have more than one opinion. And listen to what to you wanted to show.

    Susanna, how do expect any of us to set rules for you when we all face the same issues. I know of what you speak. That's why I rarely use twitter and even FB.

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  17. Thank you for the thesis :) - all very worthy and helpful thoughts! And I don't even know what a tweet deck is - a nautical term perhaps? :)

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  18. That helps a lot. Thank you, Randy. How much time do you allow per day, just out of curiosity?

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  19. Glad you like it, Penny! And I thought that kitty was too cute not to find some way to put up :) As for social networking, I think I need a secretary... :)

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  20. Twitter, FB, LinkedIn etc... they all suck time... and yet we need to stay in touch with our peeps! Social networking - can't live with it, can't live without it! Thank you for your use of the work "brilliant" - you have brightened my day :)

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  21. You are totally right about that. It seems like it would be pretty easy to give folks a heads up on the jacket copy! Although in a perfect world you would preview every book, no one has time for that! So if a difficult topic is going to be addressed it should be made obvious at a quick glance. Titles often sound innocuous - The Tenth Good Thing About Barney - no warning in that title that it's about the death of a beloved family cat! Glad you liked the kitty - I thought it was SO CUTE I had to share :)

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  22. I'm so honored that you think I am a font! :) and glad you enjoy the series. I really do too - I find the questions very interesting, and I love hearing what everyone else has to say! Hey - I drove through your home town this weekend... twice... in the same day!

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  23. So true, Angela. We all want to protect out children, but when we can't, it's great if there are excellent picture books to help discussion of difficult topics and to model examples of coping and resolution.

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  24. Hi Richa and welcome! I'm so glad you found your way over here! I can't quite imagine what kind of picture book would center around child nudity - it seems like an uncommon topic, and something that would likely be more incidental to a story than central. I think acceptance by editors and publishers would really depend on what exactly the story was about and how it was written. I can't say it's something I've seen.

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  25. Thank you so much for your kind words, ida - they mean a lot coming from someone as knowledgable and accomplished as you! And Charlotte's Web is a great example. And I just couldn't resist this kitten - too cute :) I think she needs a story about her :) I'll think one up and you can draw cute baby kittens to go along with it :)

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  26. Thank you so much, Donna! I really appreciate you letting me know you read and enjoy! I'm so glad if it's helpful.

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  27. Thanks so much for your comments, Erik. I'm sure Ms. Johnson will find it very helpful to hear your opinion, since you are closer to the age of her intended readers!

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  28. Thanks so much, Joanna, for your kind words and for your twitter advice :)

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  29. Susanna, you do such a great job at addressing their questions. For Catherine, I and my children LOVE a book about a turkey hiding from the farmer on Thanksgiving. The humor is great and it ends happy. So yes, I it can be done. :)

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  30. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Pat! And apparently I don't pay enough attention to Barbara Walters - I guess there will be books about transgender children before long.

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  31. I think picture books can provide a safe place for children to first visit challenging topics. Because of the nature of the media, I think it's easier to learn about war, poverty and so on from a picture book versus a movie or TV news. But, I do agree, that only the parent knows when the content is appropriate for the child.

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  32. That is such an important point, Kirsten. I really believe that the books should be out there for kids who need them, but absolutely not every book is appropriate for every child, and ultimately it is our responsibility as parents to do the choosing - at least when they're this age :)

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  33. I do about a five minute pass through the daily tweets and pick out 4-5 posts to read. So that is usually about 15 minutes a day for Twitter.

    If I had a better developed network I would be willing to spend another 10-15 minutes just responding to tweets. As it is I can usually do that in just a couple of minutes.

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  34. So glad if you like it, Janet! And thanks for your helpful comment for Catherine!

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  35. Thanks Randy, that is good to know. It gives me kind of a ball park idea :)













    Randsay1 (unregistered) wrote, in response to Susanna Leonard Hill:

    I do about a five minute pass through the daily tweets and pick out 4-5 posts to read. So that is usually about 15 minutes a day for Twitter.
    If I had a better developed network I would be willing to spend another 10-15 minutes just responding to tweets. As it is I can usually do that in just a couple of minutes.



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  36. omg ...I just read that as "I guess there will be books about transgender chickens before long." I think I need to call it a night!

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  37. You just totally made me laugh! :)














    Cathy (unregistered) wrote, in response to Susanna Leonard Hill:

    omg ...I just read that as "I guess there will be books about transgender chickens before long." I think I need to call it a night!

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  38. Grace announced at dinner that her class had started their new read-aloud book today, Charlotte's Web. She took one look at my face and said "OK, Mom. Who dies? Wilbur? Fern?" I totally bluffed and said I couldn't quite recall..I don't want to spoil it and am so glad I do not play poker...

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  39. I would be abysmal at poker! I can't lie, and I haven't got anything remotely resembling a poker-face :) but it sounds like you did well with Grace :)













    Cathy (unregistered) wrote, in response to Iza (unregistered):

    Grace announced at dinner that her class had started their new read-aloud book today, Charlotte's Web. She took one look at my face and said "OK, Mom. Who dies? Wilbur? Fern?" I totally bluffed and said I couldn't quite recall..I don't want to spoil it and am so glad I do not play poker...

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  40. Elizabeth Stevens OmlorMay 15, 2012 at 12:48 AM

    I love that cat! Too funny!

    I also love serious subjects in kids books! I think your interview with Corey D., author/illustrator of LITTLE BUNNY FOO FOO is a perfect example of toning down something that might be too much for kids. With her oven mit and spatula, she bops those field mice on the head. Then she uses the fairy wand to pick her teeth at the end?! Seriously demented and sweet, all rolled into one! :) Also, Ruth Vander Zee, the featured author on my blog last week is a pro at writing about serious subjects!

    Thanks so much for these great questions!

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  41. Twitter can be time consuming. I usually spend less then 15 minutes per day on Twitter. It much easier, at least it is for me, to read about a sensitive topic then it is to talk about it. Humour is one of the best ways to talk about sensitive topics. I think laughing makes something seem less scary.

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  42. Thanks for chiming in, Rena. That is helpful on both subjects!

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  43. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and the great example (which Catherine actually referred to in her question but I didn't put that part in :)) Glad you liked the kitten :)

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  44. You go there more than I do! I assume it still has just the one street... :)

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  45. Great post, Susanna! I was just giving some thought to inappropriate picture book subjects with my new wip. Thank you for validating my own thoughts. If it's done with grace (an in my my case, humor), I believe subjects such as you mentioned are definitely appropriate.

    Children every day deal with these issues, whether in their own lives, lives of their friends or someone they know. A well-written picture book on tough subjects can be a perfect way for these issues to be relative and understood.

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  46. Here here!! I wholeheartedly agree :)

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  47. Oh, see, that's one reason I'm resisting Twitter (and Pinterest) who can afford another time drain? But I am glad you're having fun with it =)

    Great Oh Susanna questions and answer, as always! Thanks so much for sharing your expertise.

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  48. Uh-yup! That's about the size of it :)














    Renee LaTulippe (unregistered) wrote, in response to Susanna Leonard Hill:

    You go there more than I do! I assume it still has just the one street... :)

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  49. Don't even say Pinterest! I am not going there! No more! I can't take it :) Glad you enjoyed Oh Susanna :)

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  50. *hangs head* I'm late to the party. Sorry. *hangs head even lower* Head is down at the floor now. My friend's daughter died on Mother's Day and my sis-in-law has been in the hospital since late last week. She's dying. *sigh*

    I love this advice, pal. YOU ARE MADE OF BODACIOUSNESS MIXED WITH AWESOMENESS WITH A LOT OF TREMENDOUSNESS ADDED. (Hmm. I am thinking tremendousness is not a word. But I coined it. Maybe folks will use it now.) *wink*

    What about the picture book titled, I'd Really Like To Eat a Child? I think if it is done with humor as you say, Susanna, it can be a great thing. So to Catherine I say, "Put the chef back in!"

    Back to the hospital. I am sending Phyll on her flight in the morning. I am sorry for the delay, but I have been at the hospital A LOT! Hugging you tightly!

    Phooey on work. Tweet on, my friend. *wink*

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  51. Oh, Robyn! So sorry for all your troubles! I'm glad you enjoyed the post, and the PB you mentioned is an excellent example, and don't worry about delays, and you just come on over here and hang out in happy land or tell us what we can do to help when you're having such a tough time! I'm sure I speak for everyone when I say we are here for you!

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  52. Love the cat, Susanna! As far as Twitter goes, I was hooked early on, but then lost interest. I do try to tweet posts that might be helpful to others at least a few times a week, and I did, at one time, designate Tuesdays and Thursdays for Twitter days (all T's). Maybe that would work for you...
    I do agree that it should be up to the parent, who knows her child best, to determine which books are appropriate.

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  53. Thanks for chiming in, Jarm. I appreciate your thoughts!

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  54. I came over to check out this post after what you said on mine about The Scar. Love this. I think it is our responsibility as educated adults to provide material for children that helps them sort their challenges in life. Great post.

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  55. I agree wholeheartedly Kimberley. Thanks for coming over to read.

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  56. Great post, Susanna. I agree wholeheartedly that almost any topic can be tackled in children's books if done with sensitivity and humour. That doesn't mean every book will be right for every child, but there will be some little person out there who was very glad the book was written. :-)

    P.S. Put the chef back in, Catherine!

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