Sunday Salon: Cancer and Picture Books

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Those of you who read my blog on a regular basis know that I was away from the internet this week because I was a camp counselor at Camp Kesem, a camp for children with a parent who has or has had cancer. The purpose of the camp is to give children a break from the stresses of having serious illness in the family. Most of our time was spent in making crafts, playing games, swimming, and other similar summer camp adventures. However, in addition to a few special activities, we had a nightly "cabin chat" with our campers in which we could discuss anything from our favorite activities of the day to more serious topics.

I worked with 6-8 year olds, meaning that our discussions were often about how awesome swimming was, our favorite jokes, or occasionally silly questions posed by the campers to the counselors (examples: what was our favorite makeup; what was our favorite stuffed animal). However, one night our group leader, Daisy (we use only our camp names at camp - if you say someone's real name you have to go kiss a tree) pulled out this book, When Mama Wore a Hat by Eleanor Schick, and asked the girls if they would like to read it. We'd read another picture book about cancer the night before around the campfire, but the girls were excited to read this one.

I was amazed at the power it had to allow them to open up and talk about cancer. Before, we'd kept our conversations to our daily activities - sometimes I even forgot that the campers had this looming presence and fear in their lives. However, as we went through the book, the story was interrupted by comments and thoughts - "My mom doesn't smile very much either." "My mom isn't bald anymore, she has really short spiky hair." "My mom has a lot of hats too!" I think the book served two really important purposes that night. First of all, it let the girls know that they were not alone. They recognized in each other and in the characters of the book that other people understood their experiences. Secondly, it allowed them to talk about their experiences. They could laugh at some of the sillier aspects of changing hats like moods and how it felt to rub their hands over their parents' short, spiky hair and they could open up about the more serious aspects, like the fear of losing a parent, the relief of knowing they don't need any more treatments, or the confusion about what exactly the cancer does to their parents' bodies.

I've honestly never given picture books much thought. I enjoyed them when I was young, but I bounced out of them as quickly as possible, devouring Babysitter's Little Sister and American Girl books as soon as possible and leaving the "baby books" behind. I was astounded at the power that was packed into this little volume, and for the first time realized that books not only touch and help those of us who are mature and "educated" - they can also heal and comfort smaller people. I don't have any children yet but this experience really opened my eyes to the importance of carefully selecting picture books for my future children's bookshelves. Yes, I love and look forward to reading the silly childhood classics, but knowing that these "silly" little volumes can also pack a powerful lesson has resonated so powerfully with me. I am hoping to start a collection of books for my own library and possibly also for when I am a nurse. I think stories are some of the most powerful threads that link humanity together, and I am glad I could have that lesson reiterated to me through the eyes of the children that taught me this week.


  1. Great discovery about picture books. My daughter had certain ones that really made an impact on her (when I got divorced there was one about divorcing bears that worked very well). The best were the ones by Jamie Lee Curtis (Today I Feel Silly and I am Going to Like Me).

    The camp sounds like a wonderful place for both the campers and the counselors. Children are so wise and strong and we forget that sometimes

  2. Books offer such wonderful opportunities for people to share thoughts and feelings, and especially young children who might not otherwise open up.

    Great idea!

    Thanks for sharing.


  3. Thanks for pointing out this book. I've added it to my too read list.

  4. That camp sounds absolutely wonderful. How neat that you were able to work there.

    I love picture books but I have such a hard time getting my kids to look at them because they want to be grown up and read older books.

  5. Sometimes I think it might be a good thing for high school librarians to toss all their books in favor of picture books. I'm a big proponent of picture books. Good picture books cross all age boundaries. One I read this week that could be read by any age person is The Arrival by Shaun Tan, for example.

    Here's my Sunday Salon for this week: Sunday Salon: I Wish I Were a Better Blogger. And don't forget to sign up for the Readerbuzz August Giveaway!

  6. There are some amazing picture books out there for older readers that deal with bigger issues. Michael Rosen's Sad Book is a good one that deals with depression and grief after the loss of a family member.

  7. Oh Lorren, this almost made me cry. What a great camp, and what a great way to help children talk about serious things. I'd never thought about that before.

  8. "I think stories are some of the most powerful threads that link humanity together" - this is so true, and stories have a lot of power to help people, too.

  9. That's so lovely that you give of your self for these kids dealing with such hard things. I'm a school psych, and I often leave picture books (especially Tracey Moroney's When I'm Feeling....) lying around my office for kids to pick up if they feel like it. They're really useful for working with little ones, but actually I find teenagers usually pick them up and the simplicity of the language and the message really resonates with them, and sometimes that's all it takes for them to start talking. It's amazing to me how that works! Also, I've just read A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness which is utterly brilliant, but probably for the older readers that would be at the camp.

  10. Wonderful post - very touching and a pleasure to read. I linked this over at Kate's Library in my "Friday Five" this week.


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