Parents are no strangers to children’s books, often referred to as kid lit. From a child’s birth we rely on sweet illustrations and rollicking rhymes to soothe, nurture and teach our kids — and not just literacy, but kindness, empathy and community. Duck & Goose, Elephant & Piggie — you’re like family. But just as children are aging out of their favorite board books, parents may find that kids are struggling in ways even these beloved books never prepared them for. Two Marin therapists-turned-writers are meeting families’ needs by penning books about social, cultural and psychological diversity.
Merriam Sarcia Saunders is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Kentfield who raised three kids with what she refers to as possessing a “cocktail” of neurodivergent traits. She’d spent years searching for kid-friendly books that addressed ADHD, both for her own kids and for her practice, when she decided to write her own. “Adults have so much life experience to draw on when we face problems. We don’t know who to talk to or how to seek help. Kids don’t have that kind of agency. Books help them do that,” Saunders says.
Her novel, Trouble With a Tiny T, is directed at middle schoolers and offers an enjoyable glimpse into the mind of a smart, creative kid with ADHD who stumbles upon a bag of magic and accidently brings toys to life. “You don’t have to be neuro-atypical to enjoy it; it’s just a fun book. But maybe it will create a little awareness or empathy in kids who may be in class with someone with ADHD. Because there is one in every class, at least one,” says Saunders.
Books can be a powerful ally to kids who are feeling isolated. “We’ve all had that experience where you lose yourself in the world of a book. So for a kid that may be feeling isolated, it can be especially meaningful to share something in common with a book character. For some, it could even feel like a friend,” says Saunders. And it’s not just the kids who are struggling. Parents, now more than ever, are running on fumes. Saunders talks about the vast lack of understanding around ADHD, which leads people to think it’s a matter of poor parenting. With her books she seeks not only help kids, but to help families feel seen and give them a toolkit to talk to their kids.
“My favorite emails are the ones from parents that simply say, ‘Thank you,’ ” she adds. Her two picture books are designed for parents to read to their younger children and come with a notes section that helps parents lead conversations with their kids and even change their own way of seeing their family. My Whirling, Twirling Motor is about a kid who just can’t settle his body, which gets him into plenty of trouble each day. But then his mom pulls him aside to tell him all the great things he did that day — and he feels loved and motivated to focus on the positive. My Wandering Dreaming Mind follows a girl who can’t seem to pay attention, which makes her feel terrible about all the things that she’s lost track of. Her mom helps her reframe her negative thoughts and focus on what an amazing kid she is.
Michael Genhart, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in San Francisco and Mill Valley. After hearing repeating emotional themes from his clients, he wanted to be able to help a broader audience and has, in just five years, written 11 books. He noticed the teenagers and adults he worked with at his practice often had challenges navigating their friend relationships, so he went about creating books he wished they could have found at a younger age. Peanut Butter & Jellyous, Mac & Geeeez!, and Cake & I Scream! help kids understand why their friends may exhibit distressing behavior, and he does it in an accessible and disarmingly funny way. Ouch! Moments: When Words Are Used in Hurtful Ways and So Many Smarts! help kids understand bullying and bolster self-esteem.
Genhart also set out to create more inclusive literature, drawing on his own experience. “Representation is one of the main things I was thinking about,” he says. “It’s super important for kids to see themselves and their families in a book. If you don’t see yourself in books, you can feel invisible.” Rainbow: A First Book of Pride explains the significance of the rainbow flag while showing families with two moms and two dads. Accordionly: Abuelo and Opa Make Music shares how two grandfathers from different cultures find common ground through their shared love of music. He is releasing two more books this fall: May Your Life Be Deliciosa and They’re So Flamboyant.
Rudine Sims Bishop, who has been called the mother of multicultural children’s literature for her research on the topic, has talked about the importance of children’s books as windows, sliding doors and mirrors. Windows allow you to see into another world, sliding doors let your imagination become part of that world, and when conditions are just right, mirrors reflect the world back to us as part of a larger human experience. As many communities in Marin struggle with a lack of diversity, books can expose kids to the wider world. “We should prepare our kids for the beauty of a diverse world and to celebrate that and take part in that. And one way of starting that is through books,” says Genhart. “It’s important for teachers and parents to introduce conversations about differences because we’re all different from each other and how beautiful is that?
Where to Turn
Need some help navigating challenges with your kids? Here’s where to begin:
Pediatrician: Your doctor has likely seen it all and can advise you on whether your children’s behavior is a typical developmental stage or requires additional support.
Teacher: You know your child better than anyone, but your teacher sees your kid in a different environment and may recognize behaviors you don’t.
A Novel Mind: Co-created by Merriam Sarcia Saunders, this website is a resource for finding and exploring books that touch on neurodiversity and mental health issues, www.anovelmind.com.
Local children’s librarian: They have a handle on what speaks to children and what’s new on the shelf.
Magination Press: The publishing arm of the American Psychological Association, which published many of Genhart’s and Saunders’s books, includes notes for parents, www.apa.org/pubs/magination.