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Uplifting Picture Books That Don't Preach
Sometimes Bad Things Happen
Sometimes Bad Things Happen
by Ellen Jackson, illustrated by Shelley Rotner
Millbrook Press/Lerner,(July 2002)
Sometimes bad things happen. You may feel sad, scared, hurt, or angry.
Your game is canceled because of rain.
Your brother tells you that a bully pushed him.
You see scary news stories on television.
A few people do bad things. But most people want to make the world a better place for everyone.
--Sometimes Bad Things Happen by Ellen Jackson, photographs by Shelley Rotner, p. 2-12.
This is not a story, but rather a direct, gentle, and encouraging way of helping readers (young and old) cope with bad things that happen. This is an uplifting, feel-good book that doesn't dwell or focus on what's hard, but gently soothes. It is carefully crafted to leave the reader with a good feeling, and to understand that there are ways to cope and deal with painful events.
Jackson's (Earth Mother, Cinder Edna) text is strong and direct, and moves quickly from the brief, general reasons a reader might feel bad, to the turning-point suggestion that most people want to help the world, to a much longer section on how to feel better, and an uplifting ending. The 5 pages of brief text about upsetting things are not overly traumatic, and the few examples that could possibly be upsetting are written in very general terms ("grown-ups fight"). This vagueness may allow greater reader identification with the emotion or their own situation, and also make it easier for the reader to read and think about their own situation. From the turning point onward, the sentences are often longer or more per page, giving the positive greater weight. The list of upsetting situations is followed by 3 pages that directly contrast them, where positive things that some people do to help the world better are listed (building homes for the homeless, rescuing people, caring for animals, helping children feel safe). This may help reassure the reader and remind them that there are good people in the world, and people who can help. There are then 11 pages of text that are positive or suggest concrete ways that a reader can make themselves feel better, such as to think about the good people you know, hug a friend, listen to a poem, kick a ball, etc. This gently encourages the reader to feel some control over their lives, and to help themselves feel better. The book also ends on a strong upbeat note, reminding readers that "Something good will happen. It always does." This uplifting, reassuring, positive ending may be just the attitude a reader needs to help them feel some hope.
Though the text offers suggestions on how to deal with upsetting situations and emotions, it does not have a preachy or instructive attitude, but more one of positivity and hope. There is no fake cheerfulness or talking down to the reader, as can sometimes be found in books such as this, but just a matter-of-fact, positive, and reassuring outlook. And the text never minimizes what a reader feels; rather, it validates the reader's emotion, and then offers coping methods and hope. The text is skillfully written, with care.
The text and the photographs work well together--seamlessly, for the most part. Rotner's (Every Season, Lots of Feelings) color photographs are of real children showing emotion that readers will identify with, and that fit the emotional content of the text well. The people always stand out in each photograph, through the use of color, lighting, composition, and focus (except for one photo). The children's emotions are strong and vivid, and always clear; one boy who looks like he needs to cry is pictured behind a window dripping with rain, evocative of tears. The children are all cute and easy to like and identify with. There is some variety of ethnicity, although most of the children are Caucasian, and there is a balance of gender. The photographs often show the children against settings in nature, which adds to the overall sense of calmness or rightness, or settings with few details (such as paint-chipped steps or plain white siding) which aids with reader identification.
One quibble I have with the photographs is that when they initially depict people who help, especially in the most recognizable professions such as fire fighters, police, and army, most of the adults are men, and they all come together at a clump, which seems sexist and gives the initial impression that the adults who help save people are all men. Safe or comforting women are later shown, as is one man; I would have liked a broader representation. I also have a slightly negative reaction to the one full-spread photograph that is supposed to show an adult helping a child feel safe; the child's head is partially turned away, and the child's head held there by the woman's hand as she kisses her. This does not evoke a feeling of safety or comfort for me, but the opposite; however, I may be overly sensitive or this may just be my own personal reaction. Other readers may find it reassuring.
Most of the photographs take up a complete page, bleeding right to the edges, while others are smaller with the white of the page creating a border, and a few have two or more per page. The photographs move from showing children obviously upset, depressed, or distressed, to showing helping professionals, to then showing happy children using the coping skills the text mentions. A child is also shown crying, reminding readers that this is another way they can cope, and that that is all right. The last photograph is particularly uplifting and completely fits the text, with a young boy leaping up, arms outstretched, throwing leaves. This movement from feeling awful to feeling good works well, is paired perfectly with the text, and greatly helps to bring an uplifting feeling.
This book can be used as a means of comfort, a list of valuable suggestions on how to cope, or as a starting point for greater discussion. It may help readers feel they are not alone, while giving them simple, concrete ways to shift their mood and feel better. Fresh, reassuring, and uplifting, this is a positive book that offers hope. Highly recommended.
-Added May 2007
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