As a Gen X latchkey child of a single mom, I knew the solitude and sadness that come from having only the distracted supervision of one (preoccupied) adult. My parents divorced and my dad died before I started school, so I didn’t move between two homes, but I had plenty of friends who did. Our divorce bible was “It’s Not the End of the World,” by the inimitable Judy Blume, in which Karen, a white sixth grader from New Jersey, tries scheme after scheme to get her parents back together before eventually giving up. Their reasons for separating are vague, so Karen looks for answers in “The Boys and Girls Book About Divorce,” which she special-orders in 1972 for the “very expensive” price of $7.95. (Blume has always understood the power of books to explain and heal.)
As a grown-up youth librarian now, I am in the happy position of recommending books that help children cut the big problems they are facing down to kid size. While “It’s Not the End of the World” is still in print, a new generation of divorce books builds on its emotional resonance to explore issues of identity, class and culture with nuance and care.
“Tadpoles,” by Matt James
A father, carrying a big blue umbrella, picks his son up from school on a rainy day to safely deliver him to his mother’s house. On their way, they pass a flooded field. The father explains that the “giant puddle” is an “ephemeral pond” that will vanish when the storms pass. What remains unsaid in the text but is shown in vivid, water-spotted illustrations is that the pond will go back to being a field, and the tadpoles the boy catches and releases will turn into frogs, while the father’s devotion to his son is immutable. When the boy’s mother receives him with a smile on the very last page, the circle of love is complete.
“Tuesday Is Daddy’s Day,” by Elliot Kreloff
Young children thrive on routine, and the beribboned, brown-skinned narrator who splits her time between the cozy homes of her Black mother and her white father in this brightly collaged book is no different. Tuesdays and Thursdays belong to Daddy and his partner, Harry; Mondays and Wednesdays mean walking home with Mommy. So when Mommy shows up on a Daddy day because “Daddy had something special to do,” she’s upset, until the reason for Daddy’s absence is revealed: a puppy named Surprise, warmly conveying the message that change can be delightful.
“Pebbles to the Sea,” by Marie-Andrée Arsenault. Illustrated by Dominique Leroux. Translated by Shelley Tanaka.
The charming maritime village of La Grave, Quebec, is the backdrop to this lyrically written Canadian import about two young sisters processing their parents’ separation. Flo and Fée decorate “treasures” they find on the beach, then take a walk, leaving painted stones in their wake so Maman and Papa, who live in different houses now and “don’t always make a good pair,” can track them. After visiting the marina and local shops, where kind neighbors offer stories and sweets, they reach the far end of the shore, where their parents have just finished painting a playhouse for them: a third place that will be the girls’ own. The scrapbook-style illustrations feature real photos, lending this comforting tale an autobiographical air.
“How Tía Lola Came to Stay,” by Julia Alvarez
Everything is different now that Mami and Papi are getting a divorce and Mami has moved Miguel and his little sister, Juanita, from New York to Vermont. Then Mami invites Tía Lola to visit from the Dominican Republic and watch the children after school. Like a Latina Mary Poppins, Tía Lola arrives with a flowered carpetbag, a piñata and boundless good cheer. But her colorful personality and broken English make her stand out, when all Miguel wants to do is blend in. Will Tía Lola’s visit ever end? Soon, of course, as her breath-of-fresh-air outsider perspective helps them all to heal, he no longer wants it to. This twist on a classic story demonstrates that difficult transitions can be eased by new connections. Or a possibly magical aunt.
“Weekends With Max and His Dad,” by Linda Urban. Illustrated by Katie Kath.
It’s Max’s first weekend staying at Dad’s new apartment, and nothing is quite right. The kitchen is too white, his bedroom is too blue and it’s hard to sleep with the sound of footsteps overhead. But as Max becomes more familiar with Dad’s neighborhood (including a retro coffee shop that serves bacon-and-pineapple pancakes), he begins to realize that two homes might be better than one. The book also contains fun asides for adults, who will likely chuckle at Dad’s hunt for a new couch at “Ineeda” and Max’s third-grade definition of a documentary: “They just sat there and talked.”
“Stepping Stones,” by Lucy Knisley
After her parents divorce, Jen moves with her mom and her mom’s boyfriend, Walter, to an upstate farm. This city mouse couldn’t feel more ill equipped to care for chickens, milk cows and make change for customers at the farmers’ market with Walter’s bossy older daughter, Andy, who visits on weekends along with her sister. Yet Jen and Andy develop a grudging admiration for each other that becomes a genuine friendship. Knisley, herself a child of divorce, based this heartfelt graphic novel on her own tween experiences.
“The Wondrous Wonders,” by Camille Jourdy
Small, sassy Jo, tired of being labeled a brat, runs away from the campsite where she’s vacationing with her dad and new stepmom and stepsisters. Soon she’s lost in a parallel pastel-colored universe where talking animals and miniature rainbow ponies known as the Wondrous Wonders are engaged in a Henry Darger-like battle with an evil feline emperor and his beaky minions. No one in this world thinks Jo’s parents’ divorce is a terrible thing. One nice witch asks, “Is that really so bad?” By the time Jo finds her way back to her worried family at the end of this outlandish graphic novel, the answer is no, not at all.
“Blended,” by Sharon M. Draper
As the daughter of a white mother and a Black father, 11-year-old Isabella already feels trapped by other people’s assumptions about her. But when her parents divorce and she has to shuttle between two homes, she develops “weekly whiplash.” As soon as she adjusts to one home, it’s time to go back to the other — and among the legally designated “Mom weeks” and “Dad weeks,” she complains, “There are no weeks for me.” It’s only when calamity strikes that Isabella’s parents understand how much their squabbling has impacted her and resolve to do better. While Draper may have written this for a middle grade audience, there’s plenty here for grown-ups to ponder as well.
Jennifer Hubert Swan is the library department chair at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, N.Y.
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