Picture books are an influential medium, they have the ability to make children ponder, imagine, and question. There’s so much beauty and power in their brevity and visual appeal. Growing up in India, I did not have access to this category of books. I was introduced to them as an adult. And as a parent raising kids in the U.S, I’ve relied on them for everything – from potty training and early learning to first-times and friendship woes. I fell in love with them so much that I followed my heart and began writing them. However, I often wonder about themes that are not commonly seen in mainstream picture books (while I find them more accessible in books that cater to older children). If you think about events, people, places, and experiences that young kids are exposed to on a daily basis through social interactions or via media, we don’t really include most of them in our stories.
Many families are caught up in all sorts of struggles, small and big, everyday or long term. And children are great observers and sensors – they notice, listen, and particularly pick up on the mildest disruptions. Why then do we shy away from centering stories around topics like poverty or terminal illness, alcoholism, disability, guns, divorce, adoption or death? These things happen to us, around us. All the time. When my kids lost their first grandparent in India, they were confused, their grief compounded by immigrant-life challenges. My daughter was 6.
Creating stories around difficult topics is a challenge. They must be handled with extreme sensitivity, and in small doses, peeling layers carefully. However, when done right, these books could offer children safe spaces during difficult times. When children relate to an experience in a story, they parse emotions and find coping mechanisms. Stories allow children to form opinions. They start conversations, and encourage kids to think deeper and find words to express complex thoughts.
In my picture book, “The Yellow Suitcase,” (Penny Candy Books, March 2019) I tell a story about a bicultural girl struggling to process her grandmother’s death. She traverses an emotional arc, going through the different stages of grief – denial, anger, guilt, sadness, and acceptance. In the end, “The Yellow Suitcase” hopes to help kids identify feelings around grief or separation, both familiar and unfamiliar, and to find comfort in memories.
Books on difficult themes for young children are as valuable as those that strive for humor, imagination, or moral education. They can foster emotional intelligence, empathy, and resilience. Stories should come in all shades, from light hearted to dark, and every shade in between. Mainstream literature must make room for stories that are quiet, sad, or uncomfortable. Because picture books don’t just inspire, they also have the power to heal.
Meera Sriram grew up in India and moved to the U.S at the turn of the millennium. An electrical engineer in her past life, she now enjoys writing for children, teaching early literacy, and advocating diverse bookshelves. Meera has co-authored several children’s books published in India. “The Yellow Suitcase” is her debut picture book in the U.S. She believes in the transformative power of stories and writes on cross-cultural experiences that often take her back to her roots. Meera currently lives with her husband and two children in Berkeley, California, where she fantasizes about a world with no borders. For more information visit