Best Books for Kids » Happiness & Mental Health

Best Human Body Books for Kids

recommended by Sonia Joseph

An understanding of the human body can help children nurture both physical and mental health, as well as build knowledge and vocabulary about this fascinating topic. Paediatrician Sonia Joseph talks us through her pick of five books about the human body for kids, with something for every age from baby board books to middle grade non-fiction.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs

There are lots of books for kids about the human body. What do you think fascinates people enough to keep publishing new books on the same topic?

Your body is part of you and who you are, and you can’t separate the two. You go from being a baby that has to be carried around to being a fully functional, fully grown adult, and as your body changes, so does your mind. So I think it’s very important that children have an understanding of it. Often when children are very young they don’t see themselves as separate from their parents. Usually it’s only when they get to about three years old that they realise that they’re a separate person, and later that they’re a completely different person.

It’s hard to understand this cognitively for children unless you actively explain it. So that’s why reading books to them about the human body and using words like “your body”, and giving children a sense of ownership over it, is important. Also, what we’re hoping for, as a professional body of paediatricians, is that if children of this generation have a better understanding of nutrition and exercise, then they will be physically and mentally healthier adults.

Do you think that if children read books to gain awareness of everything that goes on in the human body, they might develop healthier habits for life?

Yes, healthier bodies and minds. Above the age of nine, the frontal lobe, which controls your emotional connections, starts expanding significantly. They also get an understanding of consequences. Often children suddenly start experiencing significant anger, frustration, concerns and anxiety about exams, when they previously wouldn’t really have thought about it. Sometimes I find that children come to see me in clinic for very physical feelings in their body that actually have emotional triggers. My wish for all children is that they have an understanding of themselves, their physical body, their mind, and their thought processes and feelings. The sooner we start teaching children not just about their physical body but about their feelings, and understanding the difference between feelings and behaviours, the more it will help them to deal with the world. With the explosion of social media, children are exposed to a lot of unfiltered information. Photos of individuals on social media are not a reflection of their real lives. With an understanding of their body when they’re young, children will hopefully respect their own body, treat themselves with kindness and hopefully be able to separate fantasy from facts when they’re older.

Kay’s Anatomy: A Complete (and Completely Disgusting) Guide to the Human Body by Adam Kay, illustrated by Henry Paker

On that note, let’s start with the book about the human body which you’ve picked for 8-12 year old kids, which will help equip them with reliable information. Adam Kay is well known in the UK for his bestseller for adults about his time as an obstetrician, and now he writes for children as well.

What I love about Kay’s Anatomy is that it uses a lot of humour. It breaks the body down into its component parts, and explains the practical uses of what that piece of anatomy is meant to do. But it ties in funny stories, jokes and history – things that the Romans did, things that happened at different points in history – around the body. If you manage to inject any sort of humour and storytelling, then people can usually remember things better and it demystifies the subject. I have to talk to children about lots of personal things about their body. I have to get them to try to trust me so they will tell me what’s happening so that I can then try and understand what might be going wrong for them. Kay’s Anatomy gives children confidence. These books enable me to have a common language with the children I care for and it stops them feeling frightened to talk about pee and poo and the heart and your eyes and lungs. The images in it are really good as well, because they’re all almost comic, and the graphics are great. Any book that breaks down the fear factor for a hospital appointment is fantastic.

This book is full of information about the human body, and random facts that kids are likely to enjoy. But it also tackles medical conditions that children might experience. And it touches on anxiety and body image and alcohol and other issues that they might encounter, but which often people feel shouldn’t be written about for kids.

I can understand why we have a tendency to want to protect our children. The leading cause of death in children younger than two years old is usually congenital problems. Between two and five, you get the introduction of injuries and cancers, especially brain tumours, and more infections. Between five and nine, you have the same thing: significant accidents, brain tumours and cancers, and still some infections. But then after the age of nine, the stark reality is that the most common cause of death in children is suicide. Between the age of nine and 13, most children go through puberty. So even though you can’t see it on the outside of their bodies, their hormones are increasing to more of an adult pubertal pattern. And those hormones affect not just your physical organs, in terms of growth; they also affect your brain. We need to talk about all these things with our children so that they’re far better prepared, so they can understand that if they’re suddenly in a rage with their mum it might be something that mum has done but it can often be to do with their emotional lability during puberty.

Between nine and 13 is also when we get more of a conscious understanding of time. That’s often when grandparents or people that we love are really ill. It’s important that children understand about disease processes because they become consciously aware that one day granddad was there and the next minute he wasn’t, and why do I feel the way I feel? Well, grief is the loss of love and an expression of sadness at that loss. So, I do think it’s important that we discuss these things. As parents it can feel incredibly uncomfortable bringing up emotional wellbeing or sexual health in pre-teenage and teenage children, but it’s our duty to prepare children for the world around them.

This kind of book for kids about the human body can be very helpful for parents if there are things they want to talk with their children about, but they don’t know the answer or they feel awkward about starting the conversation.

Often the best time to talk to a teenager about their health is when you’re walking along beside them, or in the car, at an idle time when there’s no agenda. If there’s been a death in the family or a relative that’s been ill, it’s really important to discuss grief, to be open about your own emotions related to grief or sadness, because children are very perceptive, they’re very good at understanding if the adult in their life is unhappy or unwell.

Adam Kay’s book demystifies the body but what I also really like about it is that it discusses some of the emotional aspects that starts impacting on children at this age, when they are too young to fully understand what the impact is, but they know that something’s not right. They themselves will have been used to waking up every morning feeling really happy and they won’t suddenly understand why sometimes they’re in a mood or just really fed up. It’s important that children understand that emotion is normal. Human beings have a terrible habit of binary thinking: black or white, happy or sad, cool or uncool. Culturally, over the last decade or so, it’s always about maximal positivity, but it’s ok to talk about both negative and positive. Books like this one give children the words to understand.

The author is so enthusiastic. He’s obviously fascinated with the wonderful and sometimes quite repulsive nature of the human body and I think that he manages to transmit that enthusiasm to kids in this book.

Yes, Kay’s Anatomy is wonderful at breaking down the barriers of awkwardness and enabling engagement. You know, the longest journey you will ever do is with your own body. The sooner children get into the habit of using sunscreen the better, and the sooner that they understand their feelings the better, because the person you will spend the most time with is yourself.

Indeed. Have you listened to the audio version of this book? Apparently it’s quite special.

I haven’t but my friend’s daughter’s listened to it. She loved it; she thought was wonderful.

Look inside Your Body by Louie Stowell, illustrated by Kate Leake

Let’s move on to the next book about the human body, for slightly younger kids, probably for readers between five and nine years old. Why did you pick this one?

I love the Usborne books, especially their illustrations. It’s engaging, with images that are slightly cartoonish. Again, this book demystifies the human body a bit for children. I like the fact that there’s quite a lot of interaction and engagement with it. So it keeps it fun and not scary. It’s just the right amount of disgusting and squeamish for children in this age group.

A lot of information is packed into a very accessible format. There are flaps to lift with text underneath, so this book contains a lot of text about the human body but it doesn’t look dense on the page.

Yes and also it’s a voyage of discovery with all the interaction that it has. You’re not just sitting reading lots of facts; it makes it into a game and gets your imagination flowing. Children between five and nine, they’re absorbing and learning facts all the time. Anything that engages them, anything that makes their learning interactive, is a complete gift. Books that help children understand the body can enable children with chronic diseases articulate concerns or understand what’s going on with their body or a friend’s body.

A book like this, which can help children understand what’s going on when they’re sick, do you think it helps make it less frightening?

I think they’re still frightened, but I think the more information children have, the more they can process what’s happening. Often, I’ll use this book in clinic with children after they’ve been in hospital to talk through what happened. It’s not just the parent that needs to understand everything that happened to the child, the child needs to understand it themselves, whether it was a one-off bad thing that happened, or whether it’s something that’s going to stay with them. In that case, I need them to understand that it’s part of them, but it doesn’t define who they are.

In terms of understanding normal anatomy, demystifying it, engaging with it and giving different words to children about the body, this book is great. But it’s also an incredibly helpful tool for a parent, and especially for a professional in clinic. It is something non-threatening that I tend to have on the clinical room table. First I ask them if they like storybooks and 99% of children say yes. Then I open the book on the right page and talk about their body, I talk through what happened and what medicines they got and why. Once they have the book in their hands, they don’t feel as intimidated or scared and often you see them getting a better understanding of themselves and why they need to keep going with a medicine or why they had a lot of medicine and now they’re fine.

Body by Stephanie Babin, illustrated by Ilaria Falorsi

Shall we move onto your next book pick for kids about the human body?

Yes, this one is for two to five year olds. Again, it has nice illustrations. It doesn’t talk a lot about function, but it doesn’t need to at that age. It has just the right amount of information and very friendly language.

And it’s interactive with tabs to pull and push to reveal the skeleton in the x-ray and that sort of thing, a sturdy-looking board book.

Yes, anything that enables the children to interact is wonderful because then they can engage with the book themselves if you’re not reading it with them.

This human body book for kids is much broader than anatomy, right? It’s about the five senses, feelings, eating, toileting, going to the doctor…

Yes, it’s a fantastic all-round book to start children on their journey with their own body. And it will help them realise that it’s their body, so anything that will give them that gift of understanding and make them feel a little bit more in control is helpful. It’s really important that they know that it’s their body; they can be in charge.

Pirate Pete’s Potty by Andrea Pinnington, illustrated by Melanie Williamson

Let’s move onto a key human body topic now: a book for kids about toilet training.

The reason that I picked Pirate Pete’s Potty – and there’s Pirate Polly’s Potty and Princess Polly’s Potty as well – is that 15% of referrals to our outpatient paediatric clinic are for constipation. So those are children that are bad enough to have needed referral from their local doctor to a hospital. A study in 2018 showed that 48% of consultations for children aged between two and five going to see their GP [general practitioner] was related to constipation, potty training or anxiety around that.

That’s extraordinary.

It’s a huge problem. The amount of money that goes on constipation in a year for the NHS [the National Health Service in the UK] is unbelievable and it’s totally avoidable. If you lay the foundations of the child understanding the function of the bowels, the function of passing urine, the fact that they should drink and eat regularly, then we know that the best intervention is a good routine: being able to sit properly on the toilet or a potty and put their feet flat, and a good healthy balanced diet. We call it idiopathic constipation when there’s no disease. Everyone worries about Thyroid disease and Coeliac disease and I understand that, but last year in all the children that I saw for constipation, only one of them had a health problem. That patient was anaemic and the rest of them were all absolutely fine but they weren’t drinking enough water. Some were drinking too much milk and not eating a nutritious enough diet. Some just weren’t taking the time for their bodies to have this function because they were on the Xbox or running here and there. Often on holiday in hot places, children don’t drink enough water, they get constipated and do a hard poo and get sore, and they will then try to hold in their poo. So it goes round and round in a vicious circle and then we tend to see them in November and December in clinic. This is totally avoidable for the majority of children that don’t have specific learning needs or social communication needs. So that’s the reason why I think this book is important.

This book suggests that children get involved in choosing some underpants, and overall tries to support the toilet training process. Do you think it can help take the stress out of what can be a messy situation?

I think children that haven’t managed it tend to feel like they’re somehow alone and that they as a person are bad. What I really like about this book is that Pete has an accident and it’s okay to have an accident. This is their body that they will be with their whole life, so let them have a sense of control over it again. When I see children in clinic, often they feel that they aren’t in control at all. So I talk to them about the nervous system, about how there are a whole lot of computers that are in charge of their tummy and their bowels and their pee. What I like about this book is that it explains that they might find it hard, that they might have accidents, but it enables children to have an understanding.

I suppose this book would be equally useful if you don’t want to use a potty but maybe one of those little detachable seats and a stool for stepping on?

Yes, absolutely. If the child is going to use the toilet, make sure there’s a set of steps or big hard box that they can put their feet on so that their feet are nice and flat rather than dangling, because if their feet are dangling below the toilet, then they wouldn’t have enough muscle strength to push out. If their feet are flat then all of their muscle groups will help them. Another benefit of using the book to frame the activity is that it acts as a bit of a distraction if they’re sore or uncomfortable. So they will associate going to the toilet with being fun, and broadly anything that is fun in their routine enables them to gain that understanding. It goes back to the same thing about Adam Kay’s book: anything that injects humour in an activity and an explanation is ideal, because then it takes the fear factor out of it.

There’s a ‘hurray’ sound button in this book which I am sure motivates some children but it might drive their parents crazy or the parents might like to minimise battery use. Do you have any recommendations for a book without the sound?

There are sticker variations of the Princess Polly and Pirate Pete books with no buzzer, and there is a company called Penwizard that does a potty training book which you can order with your child’s name so the story becomes about them. They have male, female and non-binary versions. Or, if the child doesn’t particularly like storybooks, you can use reward charts. You can order stickers from RewardCharts4kids.com, for example, with the child’s name, and the majority of their things are free. Also, there are two really good websites for families with regards to healthy eating and toileting: www.infantandtoddlerforum.org and www.eric.org.uk.

Anatomy for Babies by Jonathan Litton, illustrated by Thomas Elliott

Let’s move on to your final book pick for kids about the human body. This one is for very young children, from birth to around two years old, another board book that helps children think about all the things the body can do.

Yes it’s sturdy, which is good because it’s going to get thrown around a lot. The reason why I picked this little book for very young babies is, again, for their sense of awareness. Often, when health staff assess a child’s development, they’ll say things like “can you point to your eyes?” and “where is your nose?” and they’ll make an assessment on how that child is developing based on their understanding of anatomy parts. That song ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ is a good song to sing with children when they’re around two years old, because it gets them to learn about their body. Having a book and using that for story time helps children start on their journey with their body, to understand and explain it. I’ve had children who, when they’ve been ill, have pointed to the right body part and said that they’re not well and if I get the book then they’ll point to it in the book. It’s incredible. They might not have complex language yet, but they can use pointing and a book to help explain it to you.

One thing I’ve noticed with these books, except Kay’s Anatomy which is for middle grade readers, is that they use cross-section diagrams to illustrate, without showing any genitals. Do you think that’s age-appropriate or would it be healthier to have a more matter of fact attitude to all our body parts?

I would welcome a more mature approach to it. I think with these books there are a lot of limitations in different countries about what you can and can’t show. But certainly, in terms of talking to very young kids in a practical way about their body and their genitals, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has a really good programme called PANTS. It’s very important because it’s about trying to get children to understand and to speak up if they’ve got any concerns about sexual abuse. The way that they do it is they talk about what’s in your pants, and that it belongs only to you. It’s very good for pre-schoolers and kids up to around seven years old, using songs and a funny storyline to get across an important message.

So it talks about your private parts belonging only to you, without associating any shame with those parts of the body?

Yes, there’s no shame, it’s very practical. There’s a song called ‘pantosaurus’, and they have all these dinosaurs that are running around in underpants. The song is lovely, it says that your pants cover up your private parts and things like that. It gives parents advice on when to bring this topic up with children and why that’s important. Children, even really young children, if something happens to them you can see that they have a sense that something is just not right, but they don’t know what. And so it’s really important to try and get them to have that understanding. Sexual abuse transcends all the social classes and all children need to understand that their body is a gift for them and that they have the right to control it. Then if something is happening that is wrong, they understand that it’s wrong.

I’m very keen that children have an understanding of their body. If children have an understanding of anatomy, and that it’s their body and nobody else’s body, then they know how precious their body and mind are for their future.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs

July 21, 2021

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Sonia Joseph

Sonia Joseph

Sonia Joseph is Consultant Paediatrician and Clinical Director of Medical Paediatric Specialties at the Royal Hospital for Children and Young People, Edinburgh, Scotland. She is passionate about the health and wellbeing of children and the power of education.

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Sonia Joseph

Sonia Joseph

Sonia Joseph is Consultant Paediatrician and Clinical Director of Medical Paediatric Specialties at the Royal Hospital for Children and Young People, Edinburgh, Scotland. She is passionate about the health and wellbeing of children and the power of education.