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A Conversation with Cheryl Coon, Author of Books to Grow With: A Guide to the Best Children's Fiction for Everyday Issues

Cheryl Coon, who reviews children's books for this magazine, has a passion to help, whether it is through her work as an environmental lawyer or her work with children.

Once she became a mother--her two children are now teenagers--Coon, then a high-powered environmental lawyer, slowly realized that her passion for the environment was shifting to a passion for children. In response she cut back her environmental work to half time and began volunteering in the public schools three days a week.

As a mother of two, Coon had learned that it often helped to have a children's book that dealt with a topic her kids were grappling with. Whether it was the challenge of a new sibling or the illness of a grandparent, she found that her children were more receptive to her support when they heard her message in a book. However,when she searched in libraries for books on subjects that would help both her own kids and the school children with whom she worked, she was surprised that she could not find resources that listed recommended books on specific children's topics.

Using her finely honed research skills, Coon began to compile her own annotated lists of good books as she discovered them. She wasn't looking for books that convey a didactic message, but rather good children's fiction that imparted empathy and self-awareness as kids perceived the consequences of certain behaviors, such as bullying, in the life of the book's characters.

"Children hear in a much more profound way what the fictional characters have to say to them than what adults have to say," Coon says. In her classroom "children talked more easily about characters and what the characters were feeling or might have done alternatively," as opposed to having similar discussions directly about their own lives.

In the course of four years, Coon gradually assembled an annotated bibliography that recommends 500 books of fiction on 100 different topics, including kids' relationships with other children or with their parents; chronic illness, such as asthma, epilepsy, learning and physical disabilities; kids' relationships with grandparents, including grandparents with Alzheimer's and situations in which a surviving grandparent helps a child cope with the loss of that grandparent's spouse; divorce and stepfamilies; and issues connected to physical appearance.

As an intermarried mother, Coon made a point of including resources for interfaith parents--such as books on multicultural, interracial families where one parent is Jewish, the December holidays, and international adoption.

For Latino readers, a special index indicates which books can be obtained in Spanish.

Books to Grow With focuses on resources for children ages 2 through 10, but Coon is currently compiling a new bibliography for kids 10 through 13.

In fact, Coon's work and volunteer schedule has recently shifted again. She now spends a significant amount of time conducting workshops for teachers on how to effectively utilize her recommended books in various classroom situations. And she also sets aside time to regularly review books for InterfaithFamily.com.

Coon believes that there is no substitute for a parent or grandparent sitting and reading to a child. She hopes that Books to Grow With: A Guide to the Best Children's Fiction for Everyday Issues and Tough Challenges ($17.95), will offer parents tools to help their children cope with whatever issues they are facing, and that the process of reading the books together will help unite parent and child to solve the problems as a team.

Ronnie Friedland

Ronnie Friedland was the founding Web Magazine Editor of InterfaithFamily.

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