This blog post discusses sensitive subject matter; reader discretion advised.

There are some topics you can’t really find children’s books about. If you want to read about the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, for example, you need a teen or adult book or an encyclopedia. Sometimes these gaps seem surprising since there are books about other horrible and disturbing topics, even when they usually come up in the school curriculum when children are a little older, such as in middle school.

I have written previously about resources available, both from the library and from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for learning about the Holocaust. The following is a quote from the educational materials on the museum’s website:

“Genocide is an internationally recognized crime where acts are committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. These acts fall into five categories:

    1. Killing members of the group
    2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
    3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
    4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
    5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

There are a number of other serious, violent crimes that do not fall under the specific definition of genocide. They include crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and mass killing.”

I bring this up because of recent stories in the news about hysterectomies performed on women in ICE custody. Involuntary sterilization and eugenics are two subject headings that you can search without bringing up any books in the children’s section, although there are titles for teens and adults.

I am aware of a few books in the children’s section that touch on these topics, if only briefly. They are excellent, and I highly recommend them. Click on the titles below to find a copy.

by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Three Great Books on a Terrible Topic (Sensitive Subject Matter), Fountaindale Public Library

Lost in the Black Forest, Otto meets three mysterious sisters and finds himself entwined in a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica–and decades later, three children (Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California) find themselves caught up in the same thread of destiny in the darkest days of the twentieth century, struggling to keep their families intact, and tied together by the music of the same harmonica.

Echo is related to the subject of eugenics because Friedrich’s older sister, who has been spending time with the Hitler Youth, has convinced herself that she ought to volunteer to be sterilized because of the possibility that she might have a child with a disability. Despite the sometimes grim subject matter, there is hope running through the novel that reaches a crescendo as all three characters’ stories finally come together. Music is important throughout the book, and a wonderful feature of the audiobook version is that when a piece of music is mentioned, you get to hear it as part of the recording.

If you want to teach Echo, Scholastic offers free online materials on its website, including videos, comments from Pam Muñoz Ryan about the book, and a discussion guide for Echo and other novels. In 2016, it won a Newbery Honor as one of the most distinguished contributions to American literature for children.

This title is also available as an eAudiobook.

Three Great Books on a Terrible Topic (Sensitive Subject Matter), Fountaindale Public Library

Monique Gray Smith, an author with mixed Cree, Lakota, and Scottish heritage, writes about Canadian history in this book, in particular the history of Indigenous children being taken from home and placed in residential schools.

She notes that two provinces passed laws allowing schools to sterilize students and that more than 3,500 girls were affected (although the full total of students who were sterilized is not known). To quote Paige Rowse’s review in School Library Journal, “Though Smith does not specifically address U.S. history, many of the laws and actions described in Canada have been and are mirrored in the United States.”

Rowse and other reviewers strongly encouraged people to buy and read the book, and it won the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable Information Book Award for 2018. Students may be interested in videos of the author speaking about her books on the publisher’s YouTube channel.

This title is also available as an eBook from hoopla.

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement
by Carole Boston Weatherford; illustrated by Ekua Holmes

Three Great Books on a Terrible Topic (Sensitive Subject Matter), Fountaindale Public Library

Presents a collage-illustrated treasury of poems inspired by the life and work of civil rights advocate Fannie Lou Hamer.

This book was the first we saw of artist Ekua Holmes’ work as a book illustrator. She won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent for it in 2016 (as well as a Caldecott Honor) and went on to be the Illustrator Award Winner in both 2018 and 2019. Is it any wonder that the book was adapted into a video? Carole Boston Weatherford was already established as an author (having won a Coretta Scott King Author Honor in 2009 and having published many books).

Both the author and the illustrator earned a Sibert Honor, as well, for its quality as an informational book. Weatherford’s poems describe key events from Fannie Lou Hamer’s life, including growing up, getting married, how a doctor sterilized her without her consent, trying to register to vote (facing an unfair literacy test, losing her home, paying a poll tax and facing violence before she succeeded), becoming a leader and running for Congress. The author’s notes and a timeline add more information.

If you are teaching this book and looking for supplemental information, you can find a video interview with Weatherford and other materials at Reading Rockets. You can also use the Curriculum Resource Center created for the 40th anniversary of the Coretta Scott King Awards to access materials from Teaching Books for free (which would otherwise require paying for a license).

This title is also available as an eAudiobook and video from hoopla.