8 Best Books That Help Families Heal From Trauma

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We are living in a world filled with trauma, and trauma produces symptomology that affects learning and memory and physical and psychological wellbeing.

The causes of trauma are many and varied:

  • natural disasters
  • viruses
  • community violence
  • racial and ethnic bias
  • family distress (including from job loss, illness, death, and divorce)

Trauma can cause uncertainty in terms of what the future holds for us; the absence of a sure pathway forward is disquieting for many.

We also need to recognize that we are not good at accepting and adapting to change and transitions, whether caused by school openings and closings (and reopenings), moves to a new location, new employment, or changes in family structure.

For some, change and transitions feel traumatic.

One thing is clear: trauma and its symptomology take away or at least limit our capacity to play and find joy. We become so mired in the experience of trauma that we lose sight of the importance of positives, the critical role of play, and the need for reciprocity – even if physical human touch is sorely limited.

The following categories of books, with selected books identified as examples of the “best” within each category, can be used by families and educators to help students experience joy and laughter and play.

These are not storybooks; these are not trauma-themed books. These are a type of “activity” book that encourages people to work and engage together.

Here’s the important point: while death and illness and other traumas are sad indeed (and they never actually go away), we do not need to lose forever our capacity to find positives and pathways forward. And importantly, these books allow families to play together, to talk together, to share together – all of which are critically important given the levels of stress, anxiety, and trauma that surrounds us.

Whether over dinner or over Facetime or Zoom or sitting in the living room, these are books aimed at action.

One note: there are some books that contain a bit of (or almost) everything suggested below — jokes, riddles, knock-knock jokes, word plays, tongue twisters, and fill in the blanks. My preference is separate books that have some focus as well as illustrations and drawings. The latter is important for visual learners since some of the activities are auditory focused.

Related: 18 Best Children’s Picture Books of All Time

I prefer books that can serve as launch pads for creating similar activities to those displayed in the book or developing added activities based on the book. Also, several books mean readers/users can change things up easily and experience the approaches and efforts of different authors.

The selected books can be used by people of different ages and stages. They do require a willingness to try new things.

One important feature: if you can use these books, they will allow new neural pathways to open up; they will allow the brain to shift off of its focus on the negative and move to more positive feelings. And the more we can name positive feelings, the better off we are.

Joke Books

There are many different kinds of joke books – ranging from actual jokes to riddles to specific types of jokes (Knock-Knock jokes). The key here is to uncover jokes that are not mean-spirited jokes but rather ones that can engender laughter and even lead to the creation of new jokes along the same lines.

It is true that, within even excellent joke books, not everyone will find all of the jokes are funny. And, some books contain jokes that may be offensive to some; if that happens, that can be the topic for a conversation too.

The key here is to find jokes that work for many age groups and allow adults to enjoy the jokes, too (in addition to the laughter from children). Think about it like animated movies that work at different levels and oft-times appeal to views of many ages.

This small but tall book, designed like a giraffe, is filled with giraffe jokes. Some are easier to “get” than others, but they all tie into how giraffe looks and behaves.

In addition, the book has a “higher” theme, namely that giraffe are becoming extinct, and a portion of the book sale proceeds go to giraffe conservation. There is also information about giraffe at the end of the joke portion of the book.

In addition, the book allows readers to name the many giraffe in the book – and these are not real giraffe; they are made of wood and glass and metal and plastic and recycled flip flops. Just looking at all the giraffe is fun. And, there is a poster available of all the giraffe together, made from the cover.

After telling and sharing giraffe jokes, people can develop similar sets of jokes for other animals of their choosing. There is an opportunity for groups to create their own animal joke books that they can be shared with others.

This book was written in Washington DC, where things that occur are often NOT funny. So, developing jokes were a way of dealing with a difficult environment.

I am always asked: “What is your favorite giraffe joke in the book?” Here it is:

What did the giraffe say to the lifeguard at the local pool?”

Answer: “Where’s the deep end?”

2. The Ultimate Pirate Joke Book

Rachel Weight (2020)

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03/08/2024 01:35 am GMT

This is another quality joke book, although it takes a few jokes to get the hang of it. The book has a fun start: readers pick a Pirate name based on the first letter of their first and last name. My pirate name based on the book is Mad Dockwalker.

Here’s my favorite pirate joke from this collection (which has an absolutely wonderful pen and ink drawings to animate the jokes):

“What’s a pirate’s favorite exercise?”

Answer: “Planks.”

There is wordplay in many of these jokes, and one learns something about pirates too. Even explaining some of the jokes to others is fun.

3. Lots of Knock-Knock Jokes for Kids

Whee Win (2016)

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03/08/2024 07:10 am GMT

Here is another terrific book about the kind of jokes kids enjoy and adults remember: Knock-Knock jokes. This book lists Knock-Knock jokes by category, starting with jokes about names (they are not listed alphabetically sadly!); it has Knock-Knock jokes about animals and food and places.

Here’s one of my favorite name Knock-Knock jokes (one I had never heard before but it perfect for this time in our nation):

“Who’s there:”
“Sloane, Who?”
“Sloanely outside; Let me in.”

Word Play Books

These are books that literally play with words in a wide array of ways. Some use tongue twisters. Some use Mad-Like Libs. Some use puns. Some identify spoonerisms. In finding the right wordplay books, the goal is to identify ones where the readers can create their own wordplay within the framework of the book.

And, sometimes, the ones we create are better than the ones in the book.

At least with tongue twisters, readers have to be ready, willing, and able to make mistakes and laugh at them; there is a real joy for kids in seeing adults try tongue twisters and mess up. And, we all mess up with we are learning new things; so, there is a powerful lesson built-in.

One more plus: while word playbooks are not exactly reading, they do build awareness of words, they enrich vocabulary, and they focus on the fun that words can generate.

1. Tongue Twister Challenge for Kids

Laughing Lion (2020)

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03/09/2024 06:01 am GMT

This is a well-organized book filled with tongue twisters. The key here is that the twisters are labeled based on the number of words and start with the easiest and ramp-up to really difficult tongue twisters. While some are “known” tongue twisters, others are new and clever.

The title references “kids,” but these are good enough tongue twisters for all ages and stages, including adults. There is educational value in doing/trying tongue twisters: they have long been used by speech coaches and speech therapists to improve enunciation and facility with words!

My favorite tongue twister (hard to pick just one) is: “They threw three thick things.”

Try saying that three times fast. Impossible.

2. Tongue Twisters and Beyond: Words at Play

Karen Gross (2020)

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03/07/2024 01:36 pm GMT

This is another of my books, which I consider a trauma-responsive tool to enable students to re-set their brains and concentrate more ably moving forward.

Related: 8 Best Trauma Responsive Books for Children

In addition to tongue twisters written out in the usual way and many listed alphabetically, my favorite part of this book is tongue twisters framed in shapes – triangles, squares, and circles. There is lots of space where readers can make their own tongue twisters in shapes! There are also Mad-Like-Libs (based on children’s poems) and spoonerisms.

My favorite tongue, twister is in a section called “Love Twisters.” Here it is (and say it fast three times): “I love you hundreds of hedgehogs harmoniously howling hourly.”

There is space to create one’s own Love Twisters too.

Fill in Word Books

This category contains a myriad of ways in which kids can use their imagination to complete stories or create fanciful stories or answer fun, unexpected questions.

The most common fill-ins are Mad Libs; these are where individuals come up with words that get added to existing stories, and then the stories are read with the inserted words in them. What emerges are sometimes outrageously funny stories or stories that make no sense. Laughter emerges.

Then, there are books where readers make up endings or even parts of a story, again encouraging imagination and creativity. And, it is fun to see different people coming up with different endings to the same story.

There are books with funny or odd or unexpected questions that readers can answer aloud and everyone can add in their own answer and sometimes even uncover the actual answers to the presented questions.

“Would You Rather” questions are particularly fun, and there is a myriad of books that offer up these questions, sometimes themed and sometimes random.

1. The Best of Mad Libs

Roger Price and Leonard Stern (2008)

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03/07/2024 06:51 pm GMT

“Mad Libs” have been popular for decades, and they allow readers to come up with words acontextually, and then a story is read with these selected words in them, and the results can be hilarious. These are good for children of all ages and stages, and adults can have fun with these word games too.

There are many Mad Lib books, so if one runs out of stories in one book, one can always order another.

The “Would You Rather” books allow children and adults to deal with funny comparisons and then make choices (and explain why). Some of the comparisons are ridiculous; others are a bit disgusting (involving food); others are thoughtful.

Asking questions, in and of itself, is a powerful activity, especially if participants are open and willing to answer.

This particular “Would You Rather” book is theme-based, and since holidays are often upon us, this is an example of how a “holiday” can produce laughter, even if we need to change traditions. That said, a couple of the “Would You Rather” choices are not apt for all families, such as those experiencing illness or those for whom food scarcity is a real issue.

Here’s one of my favorite “Would You Rather” questions from this book (which is in large print):

“Would you rather scoop all your Thanksgiving food onto your place using only your hands or mash the potatoes by stepping on them with your feet?”

The illustrations are pen and ink and clever cartoon-like representations of the choices.

3. Through the Forest

Steggie Brocoli (2016)

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03/06/2024 04:30 pm GMT

As children progress through this book, they have many options and choices, including the ending. With truly wonderful illustrations, readers feel empowered to navigate their own pathways.

The book is well structured and easy to follow as readers walk through a forest and elect what to see and where to go within the forest. And, one can read the book again and make different choices, a powerful lesson about life.

There are plentiful other books that allow children to create their own adventure.

Some involve outer space or moving back in time (say to the Ice Age). Depending on a student’s particular interest, it is worth finding open-ended stories that are keyed to those interests.

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Website: Karen Gross Education

Karen Gross is an author and educator who specializes in student success. A former college president and tenured professor, she currently teaches including in the continuing education program at Rutgers University Graduate School of Social Work and serves as Senior Counsel to Finn Partners where she focuses on crisis management in education.

She speaks, writes and blogs about trauma and its impact on student learning and psychosocial success. She is a certified Psychological First Aid Provider and has worked at disaster sites. Her work grounds theory in real, day-to-day practice, enabling educators to reflect on and then adapt and utilize her suggestions for enabling students to become their best selves.

Her most recent book, winner of the Delta Kappa Gamma DC Chapter Apple Award, is titled Trauma Doesn't Stop at the School Door: Strategies for Educators Pre-K -- College (Teachers College Press June 2020). She also has produced several books and guides to facilitate implementation of her new book. Her website lists these items and contains additional her blogs and media appearances.