Can Children's Books About Cannabis Change the Future of Weed?
A new generation of children's books are discussing cannabis in a way that's both educational and cautionary. Talking (and reading) to your kids about pot has never been so fun and vibrant.
Published on August 21, 2019

Lead image from "It's Just a Plant" by Ricardo Cortés

From the start, the campaign to demonize and criminalize marijuana destroyed every opportunity for cannabis education. The War on Drugs colored public education and discourse about drugs with prohibitionist rhetoric, ranging from naive misinformation to blatant propaganda. And while it’s easy to laugh now at ludicrous cautionary tales like 1936’s Reefer Madness, many people of that time blindly accepted danger and death from pot as scientific fact.

As recently as the 1990s, 75 percent of U.S. schools were participating in the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, which allegedly aimed to prepare students for the dangers of a substance abuse-plagued society with role-playing and exaggerated warnings of the risks associated with cannabis and other street drugs. State, local, and federal agencies spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the program over the years, despite numerous studies showing zero evidence of DARE achieving its goal of preventing drug use by kids. 

As the truth (the actual truth) about cannabis began to spread, the need for educational materials focusing on the plant's many benefits became increasingly apparent. Books and magazines dedicated to the power of pot were published. And then came the Internet, which became a vast depository for cannabis information. But nearly all of this media was intended for adults, leaving kids out of the marijuana education curriculum.


 Illustration from "It's Just a Plant" by Ricardo Cortés

To fill this need, a handful of authors have created children’s books that attempt to explain aspects of the cannabis experience. Ricardo Cortés, an author and illustrator based in Brooklyn, New York, is a pioneer in the genre, penning It’s Just a Plant in 2004. He was active in drug policy reform advocacy and wanted a tool to help people look at pot from a new perspective.

"I thought the book was a way of reaching an audience on a topic that I think a lot of people had already made their own decisions about, whether or not they thought marijuana should be legalized at the time,” Cortés told MERRY JANE in a phone interview. “So I thought this could be a Trojan horse way of getting into a provocative conversation, knowing that people would get upset about the idea of talking to children about marijuana.” 

It’s Just a Plant follows a young girl named Jackie who becomes curious about marijuana after walking in her parents’ room one evening to find them smoking a joint. A journey of discovery ensues, leading to a farmer who grows cannabis (although he doesn’t use it) and a doctor who discusses potential benefits of the herb while clearly stating that it’s not for kids. Excited by her new knowledge and confident that marijuana is a good thing, she is suddenly faced with the harsh realities of prohibition as she witnesses a group of young men being arrested for smoking weed.


 Illustration from "It's Just a Plant" by Ricardo Cortés

Cortés says It’s Just a Plant is an honest look at society’s relationship with cannabis and in no way promotes use by children. But the cultural and legal landscape 15 years ago was much more delicate, and he was unable to find support for the book.

"I sent it out to a bunch of different publishers and nobody wanted to touch it," he said.

Undaunted, Cortés published the book himself in 2005. It’s Just a Plant found its market, selling out its original run and prompting two more printings. He also just finished a new cover and art for a 15th-anniversary edition of the book which will be available online in April 2020.

Although It’s Just a Plant takes the format of a children’s book, Cortés explained that for parents it’s intended to be "a tool to help get the conversation going and also a little bit of affirmation that you're not alone in this."


Callie Cannabis illustration by Corbin Hillam

Providing resources for parents was also the motive behind Kris Morwood’s “Callie and Friends” book series. Working in the cannabis industry and with the non-profit Foundation of Unified Cannabis Standards, the dearth of educational materials about the plant was brazen to Morwood. So she and friend Juliette Benz, who worked for a school district in Colorado, created “Callie Cannabis” with the help of illustrator Corbin Hillam in 2014.

Morwood made it clear that Callie should be interpreted as an older character and not a young girl because she is not advocating cannabis use by kids. Instead, Callie is a guide that shares knowledge about the plant in a manner that kids find engaging. In the first book, Callie Chats About Cannabis, the history of herb and current attitudes including different state laws are explored. Like Cortés, Morwood says that the messages in her work have deep implications.

"It's not just for children,” she said. “You can give it to your grandmother who has glaucoma or you could give it to your aunt who thinks it's the devil's lettuce or you could give it to your nosy neighbor who's wondering what plants you're growing in your greenhouse."

Morwood stresses that responsible cannabis use and storage is imperative for parents. But kids can also be empowered to stay safe without encouraging use.


Hana Hemp illustration by Blair Barbour

"We can teach children not to touch a hot stove, we can teach them not to cross the street,” said Morwood. “We can teach them not to talk to strangers. And we can also teach them not to touch mom's cannabis, or put it safely away. So safety is our number one concern."

In 2017, “Hana Hemp” joined the “Callie and Friends” series for A Healing History of Hemp, which discusses the history and uses of hemp. It was even updated this year to include language from the 2018 Farm Bill that federally legalized the crop.

Callie’s next adventure is already in the works, with a multi-generational tale about the geriatric uses of the plant coming soon. As cannabis policy continues to spread and evolve, there needs to be an alternative to propaganda and inflammatory rhetoric.

"It's a societal issue now that we really have to look at and we have to normalize the conversation,” Morwood says. “We have to get over the fact that we have had misinformation. We have to move forward."


Illustrated by Gustav Davies

Normalizing the conversation around cannabis is also the goal of Susan Soares, a cannabis activist and founder of the non-profit Cannabis Advocacy, Rallies, and Events (C.A.R.E.). The advocacy group’s logo and slogan, Just Say Know, are purposefully reminiscent of those plastered on DARE ephemera for years. Soares became an activist after cannabis ended the migraine headaches she suffered as a result of a head injury.

She was inspired to write her own children's book, What’s Growing in Grandma’s Garden, when a radio show host asked her how she had talked about cannabis with her children, who are now grown up.

"He asked me how I talked to my children about cannabis, and I didn't because it was right before [Proposition] 215 had passed. It was very illegal,” Soares explained. “I was still a Mormon and it was something that I definitely hid from my children."

In Soares’s book, a young boy enjoys spending time with his grandmother in her garden. He loves learning about all of the plants and creatures that live there. When he becomes curious about the cannabis plants growing in her greenhouse, Grandma explains that these special plants should never be touched because they are for adults only. The story, Soares explained, can serve as a conversation starter for parents who may not know where to begin. 


Illustrated by Gustav Davies

Although she never intended to be an author, Soares believed a children’s book could be an opportunity to teach kids about cannabis’s new place in society. She published the book this year, and it is currently available online.

Soares says that What’s Growing in Grandma’s Garden also has a message for parents and the other adults in kids’ lives.

"I want grown ups to realize that the children are smarter than you think they are,” she said. “If you think you're hiding your cannabis use from kids, you're not. They know. And what are you teaching them if you hide it from them?"

And in jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana, like her home state of California, Soares wonders why parents are still trying to conceal their consumption in the first place.

“We don't hide our alcohol use from our children. Why are we hiding our cannabis use from our children?” she asked. “As long as you're not right next to them and in a room with no circulation, they're not going to get a second-hand high. In the book, during the family barbecue, Grandma is over by her greenhouse, downwind smoking a joint. Because it's acceptable now. Let's own it!"


Illustrations by Rob Benavides

While the books by Cortés, Morwood, and Soares attempt to explain cannabis to children, Eve’s Return by Allison Ray Benavides and her husband Rob Benavides tackles the often still taboo subject of cannabis use by children. 

The book is based on the Benavides’ personal experience with pediatric cannabis and relates the story of a mother whose young son is facing a serious illness. Unsure where to turn for help, the young mom relies on her instincts and experience with a special — albeit forbidden — plant to heal her son. Allison says that she had found herself in the same situation. 

When their son Robby was diagnosed with a seizure disorder known as Doose syndrome and traditional pharmaceuticals weren’t effective, they turned to a Charlotte’s Web tincture for help.  Five years later, Robby is essentially seizure-free. Allison told MERRY JANE that her son is part of a special group of kids that caused the modern medical community to finally accept the notion of cannabis as medicine. She sees these kids as heroes and wants them to understand the important contribution that they’ve made.

“My hope is that the children will take away how special and brave they are, that they are worth any risk,” she said.


Illustrations by Rob Benavides

She also wants to show the kids how brave their parents are by following their intuition and trying cannabis, despite the pressures against doing so. And perhaps most importantly, she wants others to join the conversation.

"The more we've talked about this, the more it's gotten better for our kids,” Benavides says. “So let's keep talking about it."

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A.J. Herrington
A.J. Herrington is a freelance writer focusing on cannabis news, business, and culture and has written for publications including High Times, Sensi, and HEMP. When he's not banging away at the keyboard, you'll probably find him tending to his plants in the garden.
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