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books for big issues

Beccy talks to Tessa Strickland of Barefoot Books about using books to broach difficult issues with your kids…

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to broach sensitive, difficult or adult issues with children. I’ve found that often a good story book that illustrates one of life’s big themes is the perfect way to take that difficult first step. Barefoot Books in Bath produce some great ‘issue-based’ books and I decided to find out what inspires editor-in-chief Tessa Strickland, as a mother and a publisher.


“My mum used to read us ‘Robinson Crusoe’. She also had Louis Untermeyer’s ‘The Golden Treasury of Children’s Poetry’ and she did an excellent rendition of Ogden Nash’s ‘The Tale of Custard the Dragon’. My dad had a set of the Junior Encyclopaedia Britannica, and a big, illustrated edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales which I loved.” And did her parents talk to her about ‘big issues’ when she was growing up.

“My mum suffered from severe depression and was hospitalized quite a lot. I wish my parents or one of my aunts or uncles had explained to me what was going on because I think that would have made my mum’s absences easier to cope with. There was a story I read again and again at that time called ‘The House above the Trees’ and it was about a girl who is an orphan and goes to live in the forest with a character called ‘The Tree Mother; she learns all about nature and the difference between good and evil.


One City, Two Brothers. Written by Chris Smith, illustrated by Aurelia Fronty

“I think my recognition of the way in which stories helped me in my childhood, and my sense of how they can be used to help prompt parent-child conversations around important issues has been a significant factor in my Barefoot work.”

Of course you can’t just chuck a book at a child and think that’s that, job done. “Treat the book as a springboard,” Tessa suggests. “Children are able to deal with huge blows of fate, providing they have the opportunity to express their feelings, not stick them in a cupboard. Often the challenge is more with the parent – their dis-ability to deal with painful emotional responses. It’s fine to cry with children, and not always put on a brave face. In fact, crying together while reading a book can be very healing.”

I asked Tessa how she uses books with her own children. “My approach has been to share a lot of picture books with my children and then let them choose – they know what they need to read to work through whatever is preoccupying them as they try to bring their inner and outer world into some kind of alignment. Some children are confronted with big life issues such as death and early separation at a far younger age than others. But even if there appears to be no major issues there, there may well be major dramas at work in the psyche of a small child and we adults have to look out for that.

“For my children and for me, probably the most significant shift in our lives was when I left their dad and we all moved from London to the West Country. The book that my oldest son wanted again and again was John Birmingham’s ‘Diana and the White Rhinoceros’ (now out of print); and I wonder if he needed to hear it because its theme of continuity and of life-into-death (at the end of the book, Diana and her white rhino are both ghosts) somehow comforted him. He was five when we moved; he is now 21 and he still treasures this book, which is now loved almost to shreds!

“The other story that we read a lot as a family was one of Barefoot’s first books, ‘The Mountains of Tibet’. This story traces the life, death and rebirth of a little boy who loves to fly kites and who, when he has passed away, is given the chance to choose where he has his next life and what form it takes. He decides to come back as a little girl, and she too loves to fly kites! It is very uplifting and thought-provoking to read.

“At the moment, one of my nephews, Felix, is struggling with his position as the middle child, so I have sent him Miriam Latimer’s ‘Shrinking Sam’, published by Barefoot earlier this year. In this picture book, Sam shrinks every time he is ignored, and he ends up becoming so small that he is washed away down the plughole. Fortunately, the situation is redeemed! Felix loves this book so I think it speaks to his predicament in a way.” Full catalogue online.

Contact Head Office in Bath for details of local booksellers: there are plenty all across Sparkland, tel 0800 328 2640.

Barefoot also supports young mums who work as stall-holders – see the website for how to get involved. Our local rep is Paula Brown (

Written by Beccy Golding. First published issue 51 (winter 2007/2008)


Disclaimer – details were correct at time of going to press, but may now have changed. Please make your own checks.


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