Writing a Picture Book about a Tough Topic

It isn’t that picture books about tough topics are few and far between. Bug in a Vacuum by Melanie Watts is about the five stages of grief. Mouseboat by Larissa Thuele is about the death of a parent. Night on the Sand by Monica Mayper is about being a refugee.

The trick to writing about a difficult topic is to tell a story. In My Brother Is Away, the young narrator tells about the relationship she has with her brother. He could carry her on his shoulders, read and tell her stories, and just generally shower her with love.

Then he did something awful. The author doesn’t specify. Because this isn’t the older brother’s story but the young narrators. That’s why the focus is on her feelings. Eventually we accompany her on a trip with her parents to where he is incarcerated.

Books about serious topics may not be uncommon, but this is the first one that I’ve seen about a child whose sibling is incarcerated. There’s a lot about the character’s emotions – her anger, sorrow and fear. But there’s just as much if not more about her love. The love that she and her brother feel for each other and that which is shared by her and her parents. Then the story steps back even farther and we see her concern about the other children around her..

So how do you write a picture book about a serious topic?

  • Tell a story.
  • Create compelling characters.
  • Tune into the emotion.
  • Leave the reader with a note of hope.

This is an essential book for every classroom library. Because, let’s face it, we aren’t going to know which young readers may need this book. Young readers with an incarcerated sibling will feel seen. Those without will have an opportunity to gaze through a window and learn how their friend is feeling and why.

This one definitely tugs at your heart. If you want to write about serious topics, this is a picture book that you should study.