when life is full of bruises…children’s books on emotions and emotional distress

In my ten years of blogging here at Orange Marmalade, I’ve never tackled issues of mental health, but that’s not because these are not represented in children’s literature.
In fact, large numbers of books exist dealing with self-esteem, grief, death, anger, bullying, that for various reasons I’ve not included thus far.
Today, however, I want to provide some resources on emotions and emotional distress targeting children ages 12 and under.

2020, as we are all well aware, has been marked with huge challenges for many families.
COVID and other illnesses, distance learning, loss of jobs, stressed-out parents, financial pressures, isolation, protests and counterprotests, hurricanes, massive wildfires, evacuation orders, loss of homes, uncertainty, election news…all of this is directly and indirectly impacting children.

For many of you, reading a book about this may not be an optimal solution.
However, a book can be a welcome gateway into helpful conversation, an invitation to share thoughts and feelings;
a book can give a child the language to articulate ideas and emotions they haven’t had the words to express;
a book can be a window onto a friend’s or loved one’s experience making it more understandable, less scary, and somewhat easier to cope with.
Some of today’s books serve a general audience of kids, while others are best read with children experiencing specific issues of anxiety, trauma, or depression. I’ll include enough specifics in my reviews to help you share them wisely with the children in your sphere.

Later this week, I’ll have a longer list of books replete with kindness, community, love, generosity —
in other words, books that buoy our spirits, draw our attention to the riches around us and within us even during such heartsore times, beckon us towards ways of living that make the world a better place and make all of us feel warmer and happier inside, good medicine for weary folk, large and small.
Look for that later this week.
Meanwhile, please feel free to share this blog with those it may help, and to share via the comments other titles you have found helpful.

Books for chatting about emotions:

What Makes Me Happy, written and illustrated by Catherine and Laurence Anholt
published in 1996 by Candlewick

For pure preschool charm, you just can’t beat the Anholt team with their keen, childlike sensibilities. Here a catalog of emotions are explored as we discover precisely what makes these ordinary, diverse kids feel happy, jealous, scared, mad, silly, and more.

Lighthearted, honest, and an easy invitation to add our thoughts to the mix. Ages 3 and up.

Tough Guys Have Feelings, Too, written and illustrated by Keith Negley
published in 2015 by Flying Eye

Not everything goes swimmingly, even for the toughest, strongest, fastest heroes in the world, and it’s perfectly fine for tough guys to talk about this.

Negley’s minimal text and smashing illustrations combine to hit just the right note for wiggly kids. Maintaining a matter-of-fact, utterly non-sappy tone, this is a great entry point for engaging kids ages 3-7.

In My Heart: A Book of Feelings, written by Jo Witek, illustrated by Christine Roussey
published in 2014 by Abrams Appleseed

Die cut hearts tunnel throughout this book and crayon-bright artwork elevates the energy as we explore a wide range of feelings including bravery, sadness, anger, and happiness.

Lyrical descriptions of how these emotions make our hearts feel — elephant-heavy or bright as a shiny star — provoke imaginative ways and present tangible words to express our experiences. Ages 3-8

Stories of ordinary kids coping with bad days:

Sweep, written by Louise Greig, illustrated by Júlia Sardà
published in 2019 by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

“Ed in a good mood is a very nice Ed. Ed in a bad mood is not.” When a bad mood completely hijacks Ed, the whole town is swept up in all of its outrageous mayhem. Finally, a zephyr of something better blows in and Ed is able to lift his eyes and see the things that always give him delight. Next time that bad mood whispers in his ear, he’ll think twice about giving in to it.

Delightful exaggeration, a deep understanding of the power a bad funk can have over us, and superb illustrations will captivate readers ages 4 and up.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, written by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz
reprinted in 1987 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

This classic has been around since 1972! That’s almost 50 years of bad days, and it’s still the source of numerous phrases that automatically come to my mind on a crummy day.

I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now theres gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Commiserate with Alexander as everything goes wrong on one terrifically bad day, and feel the unique bond that comes from being a fellow sojourner in a world where some days are just like that. Humorous, epically relatable stuff for ages 5 through adult.

Books focusing on anxiety and trauma:

Ruby Finds a Worry, written and illustrated by Tom Percival
published in 2019 by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Ruby hardly notices when a little Worry begins accompanying her everywhere. But as time goes by and that Worry rears its head from dawn till bedtime, it begins to grow, to bother, to squelch. Now Ruby is starting to worry…about that Worry!

One day Ruby discovers other folks have their own Worries, and that when those worries get talked about, they shrink!  A forthright tale with a realistic depiction of anxiety and good advice about managing it. Ages 5 and up.

Me and My Fear, written and illustrated by Francesca Sanna
published in 2018 by Flying Eye Books

I particularly love this book which also pictures fear as an intruder that keeps enlarging, squeezing out the good, taking over. In this case, the child is a new immigrant who harbors fears and grief over the tumult left behind, and anxiety over the newness of her current home.

Sanna’s illustrations and words illuminate the way fear works and show us a comforting way forward. This is an excellent book both for children experiencing fear and for those who want to be a shelter for others. Honest, empathetic, brilliant for ages 5 and up.

A Terrible Thing Happened, written by Margaret M. Holmes, illustrated by Cary Pillo
published in 2000 by Magination Press

This publication comes from the American Psychological Association and is specifically aimed at children who have witnessed violence or experienced trauma whether that is due to abuse, natural disaster, crime, accident, war.

In gentle, perceptive language, we discover that Sherman has seen a “terrible thing” that is deeply upsetting. He does not like the lingering memories, so he works hard to avoid thinking about it. This plan doesn’t really work, though. The memories continue to bother him, and he starts to lose his appetite, have stomach aches, feel sad.

Walk with Sherman through his experiences and into some art therapy sessions where he eventually is able to talk about this incident with nice Ms Maple and let those bad feelings out. Simple and brief, this book could function as a gateway to conversations about counseling or trauma for young children. It may also help some children better understand a close friend or family member experiencing trauma. Included is a lengthy note to caregivers with suggestions for helping traumatized children. Ages 3 to 8.

Books focusing on sadness/depression:

When Sadness is At Your Door, written and illustrated by Eva Eland
published in 2019 by Random House

With its pared back language and tender illustration work, this book gently explores sadness. “Sometimes sadness arrives unexpectedly,” we read, as a plump, downcast, amorphous fellow appears on the doorstep.

This personified Sadness hovers untenably close, so close “it feels like you’ve become Sadness yourself.” But the small person in question has a bag of calm tricks for coping with it, living with it, and one day, that heavy Sadness is gone. A massively sympathetic, wise entry, eschewing simplistic responses, for ages 4 and up.

Maybe Tomorrow?, written by Charlotte Agell, illustrated by Ana Ramírez González
published in 2019 by Scholastic

Elba, a bubble-gum pink hippo, and Norris, a cheery alligator who has a cloud of butterflies dancing around him wherever he goes, star in this allegory about grief, sadness, and the healing capacity of a good friend.

Elba drags a large, dark block along with her these days, a block of grief that weighs her down. When Norris meets her, he is full of curious questions. What is inside it? Can Elba let the something out? Does she want to go for a picnic? As Norris patiently, persistently offers Elba his friendship, she finally begins to tell him about her dear friend Little Bird who she misses dreadfully. Gradually, Elba’s block diminishes in size. It is never completely gone, but it’s now manageable.

This realistic yet hopeful story offers comfort and a way forward for those weighed down by sadness as well as a road map for friends who want to help. Bright colors and friendly illustration work lift the mood nicely for young children who will absorb varying amounts of its truths. Ages 4 and up.

Virginia Wolf, written by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
published in 2012 by Kids Can Press

Vanessa’s sister, Virginia, is currently in a wolfish mood, snapping at everyone with a surly tone that makes the whole household feel quite topsy turvy.

Vanessa tries all the ways she can think of to coax Virginia back into brightness and the pleasures of life but nothing works until the two of them being imagining a dreamy place, “a place with frosted cakes and beautiful flowers and excellent trees to climb and absolutely no doldrums.” Vanessa begins to paint this fab location on Virginia’s walls. Soon the beauty of art and the wonders of imagination contrive to make Virginia feel…better.

This story is so gorgeous in both word and image. It would easily be enjoyed at one level by anyone ages 5 and up. It could also be especially meaningful, though, to children whose siblings, parents, friends, are struggling with depression.

The Color Thief: A Family’s Story of Depression, written by Andrew Fusek Peters & Polly Peters, illustrated by Karin Littlewood
published in 2014 by Albert Whitman and Company

Finally, this book is written for children with a parent experiencing depression. Children with an older sibling, grandparent, or other close adult managing depression would also benefit from it.

An unnamed boy narrates the story of what happened in his family when his dad, who used to be so full of life, one day is “full of sadness, all the way to the top.” The color has seeped dramatically out of Dad’s world.

As the father’s depression deepens, the child feels sad, confused, disoriented. He repeatedly reaches out for assurance that this is not his fault, that he has not done something wrong to cause this. After a long journey, with counseling and medication for his dad, finally the colors reemerge in Dad’s world.

I like most of this book. I love the warm, comfy, insightful illustration work. I like the honest, keen depictions of the experience of depression and its impact on family members. I feel concerned that the ending is too tidy as this will not serve some children well. I also notice that at one point the child is told his father is “very ill” and wish they had left the “very” out in order to not further alarm readers.

All in all, though, it’s one of only a few picture books addressing parental depression and has only minor flaws. Ages 4 and up.

If you have a child experiencing these kinds of difficulties,
I honor you for the voluminous love, strength, and shelter you offer daily,
and pray you discover peace and brighter days.

Do come back later this week for stories full of the healing power of love, kindness, and community!