Should parents and guardians shield kids from scary topics like death and racism? Author Anastasia Higginbotham, who is featured in PEOPLE’s 25 Women Changing the World, says no.
“It’s important [to discuss difficult subjects] because they are part of kids’ everyday reality,” she tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “They’re something that we often think of as adult subjects, as too complicated or too painful for children to have to think about… But they are experienced.”
The 47-year-old mother of two created her children’s book series Ordinary Terrible Things — which delves into tough topics like divorce, death, sex, and race — because she believes that children need a medium in which to learn about and discuss the hardest aspects of life. Higginbotham’s latest book in the series, Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness, is the first children’s picture book to break down white supremacy.
“I think that children who read my work see their own internal lives on the page. Some of the bigger, harder-to-manage emotions, they’re on the page,” Higginbotham explains. “There’s a sense of not being so alone, there’s a sense of, ‘My life is important,’ ‘What I’m going through is important, even though it’s ordinary.’ Half of all families are experiencing divorce, and everybody has to face death.”
She continues, “[My books give kids] permission to feel everything. And permission to say some of the things out loud.”
Acting as both writer and illustrator, Higginbotham released her first book, Divorce Is the Worst, in 2015. It helps the kids of divorced parents by validating their individual experiences, she explains. The book also helps the adults.
“You want to show up for your kids in the best way, but maybe you question your own capacity to do so because you still have some pain or resentment or some scars,” Higginbotham explains. Her series, she argues, can help adults parent as they deal with their own trauma.
“The death book [Death is Stupid] focuses on the death of a grandparent. That means one of the parents lost one of their own parents: a mother or father,” the author says. “If the adult is in crisis about a loss or separation then it’s nice to have a book that you can go through with the child. The author did the emotional work for you… You can be present for your child at a time when you feel very depleted or consumed by whatever is happening in your life.”
For full coverage of PEOPLE’s 25 Women Changing the World, pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday
Along with external circumstances, Higginbotham also addresses internal changes and questions that kids face.
“Tell Me About Sex, Grandma is really not about the mechanics of sex and sexuality, but about self-discovery,” Higginbotham says. “Who can you trust to ask those questions? Who will tell you the truth? And I don’t mean the truth about the mechanics of sex, once again, I mean the truth about the fact that you are a beautiful human being and you deserve to be exactly who you are.”
Higginbotham’s themes of inclusivity, self-evaluation and love translate over to her latest book, Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness.
“It’s targeted specifically at white kids to help them feel connected to this conversation about racism and the reality of racism in our lives,” she explains, “[I want to] invite young children to connect in an emotional and spiritual way to justice.”