AN EXPLOSION OF NEW BOOKS ADDRESSING THE CHALLENGE OF CHEMO-CAUSED HAIR LOSS ON CHILDREN AND FAMILIES IS AN UNFORTUNATE SIGN OF THE TIMES.
As cancer has increasingly become a huge concern for Americans, there has been an explosion of books that address various aspects of the illness. This explosion has been felt in children’s literature, where a fairly large number of books look at cancer from several angles. Following are reviews of three books that have a specific emphasis on the hair loss often accompanying treatment for cancer.
Two of these books feature protagonists who are children with cancer; the other, The Year My Mother Was Bald(Magination Press, 2003), written by Ann Speltz and illustrated by Kate Sternberg, features a child whose mother is the cancer fighter. Despite its title, the focus in this book is on much more than the mother’s baldness. True, baldness does take up a good portion of the book, as the child narrator deals with her mother’s hair loss from chemotherapy and makes a ceremony out of keeping the hair her mother loses, saving it in a box and giving it to birds so they can use it in their nests. But much more of the book is taken up with matters unrelated to the baldness — signs and symptoms of cancer, diagnosis, treatments, recovery, and so forth. It thus provides a good soup-to-nuts approach but in a compact, easy-to-digest form.
A project of the American Psychological Association, The Year My Mother Was Bald spends a good deal of time focusing on emotional issues that arise in a family facing cancer: fear, depression, anger, sadness and guilt — all of which are acknowledged — but also happiness, playfulness, warmth and hopefulness. Ann Speltz writes with a sincerity and understanding that readers will appreciate and does a very good job of presenting some complicated medical information in easy-to-understand bites. Kate Sternberg’s artwork is colorful and engaging, with a light line that is playful. Parents may also appreciate the many resources listed at the end of the book.
Soccer Princess faces hair loss and chemotherapy
Another Magination Press book, The Bald-Headed Princess: Cancer, Chemo and Courage (2010), by Maribeth R. Ditmars, covers much of the same ground as The Year My Mother Was Bald, but it does so from the perspective of an 11-year-old girl who has been diagnosed with cancer. Izzie, the book’s protagonist, is a talented soccer player (nicknamed the Soccer Princess) who all of a sudden finds herself weak and unable to play. She is diagnosed with leukemia, and the book details her yearlong odyssey from angry, unhappy victim to a girl in charge of her life and health and willing to help other kids deal with the difficulties of cancer treatment.
It’s a classic “healing journey” kind of tale, since Izzie deals not only with the baldness that gives the book its title but also with all the other changes her cancer brings: frequent hospital visits, home schooling, weakened immune systems that keep her from seeing other kids, the nausea and weakness of chemotherapy, resentment about being sick and the sorrow of knowing another child with cancer who doesn’t survive. But it also teaches her about her own strength, self-reliance and ability, as well as about the love and caring of her family and friends (both new and old).
Ditmars, whose own son did not survive cancer, writes compellingly and with both emotion and humor. She’s quite effective at giving believable voice to the roller-coaster emotions that are typical of any 11-year-old and most especially of an 11-year-old put into a serious medical situation. Her warmth, love and caring come through quite clearly.
Hair loss and cancer book aims at younger audience
While The Bald-Headed Princess is a “chapter book” more appropriate for independent readers, Kathy’s Hats: A Story of Hope (Albert Whitman & Company, 1992), written by Trudy Krisher and illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott, is very much a picture book and can be easily enjoyed by younger audiences. Here the focus is more specifically on the hair loss that accompanies the young protagonist’s treatments. While the book does spend time covering the onset of the cancer and the feelings aroused by this, most of story takes place after chemotherapy has begun and Kathy begins “shedding, just like my cat, Mittens” and is “as bald as when I was a baby.” She soon mourns the fact that her friends “had bangs and barrettes and ponytails and curls. AllI had was hats.” Eventually, Kathy stumbles on the idea of decorating her much-disliked hats with pins of teddy bears, Halloween jack-o’-lanterns, Santa Claus and valentines. Personalizing the hats helps her to accept them — and her baldness — more.
Krisher’s writing is clear and easy to follow, and she tells her story well. The approach is straightforward, and her message about acceptance is brought home. Westcott’s illustrations are sweet and have charm. Younger children in particular will get a lot out of Kathy’s Hats.
Hair loss can be a very difficult challenge for children, even more so than for adults. When the person losing hair is a parent, it can be confusing and disturbing, but when that person is a child, it can be traumatic. These three books all help to address these emotions and to assist a child in learning to cope with these difficult situations.