When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Read Books

By Cindy Baldwin

When I was eleven, my worst fear came true: I was checked into the hospital and put under general anesthesia for a procedure called a bronchoscopy — where a doctor used a tiny camera to examine my lungs. I was hooked up to IV antibiotics, and given a bed in the children’s hospital for a few nights while my doctor tried to figure out why no previous treatment had made my persistent cough go away.

I have cystic fibrosis (CF), a genetic disease that creates thick mucus throughout the body and clogs the lungs, pancreas, and other organs. As a child with CF, in many ways I was lucky; most people I knew didn’t make it to eleven before needing their first hospital stay, hooked up to an IV for two to four weeks. Still, I was terrified. I didn’t even like sleepovers at my friends’ houses — staying at the hospital, all by myself since my mom was on bedrest with a triplet pregnancy and my dad had to take care of my two brothers at home, was the loneliest, scariest thing I could imagine.

Although that hospitalization ended up being fairly short, the feeling of loneliness stayed with me through middle school. All of my friends were focused on things like crushes, boy bands, and American Girl dolls, while I was doing twice-daily breathing treatments and learning that my disease was considered life-shortening. At the time, the life expectancy for a CF patient was about 34, so I had to face the fact that I might never be able to get married, have children, or have a career. I felt like nobody could understand what I was going through — like my life was so different from my friends’ lives that I didn’t even know how to bridge that gap.

I’ve wished many times that I’d been able to find books back then about kids like me — kids who were dealing with issues that felt too huge, too different, too frightening. Sometimes, I think, we adults hesitate to expose children to difficult topics in media — but kids in elementary and middle school are frequently dealing with challenges that many adults can’t even imagine. Books that hold up a mirror to kids, showing them that they aren’t alone, that there are people who have gone before them, can be powerful tools.

In my debut novel, Where the Watermelons Grow, these are exactly the children I wanted to speak to: kids who feel like nobody can understand what they’re going through. Kids who feel responsible for solving grown-up problems. Kids, like me, who desperately need reassurance that their lives are beautiful and worthwhile, even if they look different from everyone around them. My protagonist, Della, is wrestling with her mother’s mental illness, something that 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience.

One of the most surprising things that’s happened after the book released this summer was the number of people — many of whom I’ve known for a decade or more — who have privately sought me out, whispering to me about how much Della’s story resonated with them. “This was my story as a kid,” person after person has said, “and nobody ever knew.” It’s been an indescribable honor to know that telling Della’s story has helped these readers feel less alone.

One of the most beloved and well-read picture books in my home is one that my five-year-old daughter was given by the social worker at my cystic fibrosis clinic. With simple illustrations and straightforward text, it tells the story of a boy whose mom has CF, and the various things that entails for their lives together. This book has helped my daughter feel seen, helped her realize that there are other kids just like her. When I’ve struggled through bouts of pneumonia and ended up back in the hospital or on IV antibiotics at home, my daughter has understood not only what that means, but why it’s important — all thanks to this simple story.

When we — as authors, as parents, as gatekeepers — give kids access to books about tough subjects, we allow kids dealing with big issues to process their feelings, while teaching those who aren’t to develop empathy and compassion. Honesty and forthrightness allow books to act as mirrors, lifelines, and best friends — showing children how to thrive, survive challenges, and better understand their world.