Children’s books to tackle childhood worries
As adults with complex worries of our own we can forget what scared us as children, how large those things loomed when a single day seemed so long. Here are some picture books, a short story collection and a junior novel that our children’s specialists love for the special attention they pay to childhood anxieties and the messages of hope they bring in funny, observant and beautiful packages.
I’m too shy at parties and things…
The Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade by Allison Colpoys and Davina Bell
Alfie is a thoughtful boy who gets nervous about social situations. You’ve seen him at parties, I’m sure. He’s the one who doesn’t want his mum to leave (perhaps you’ve even thought: ‘Oh, come on, Alfie, join in’). Alfie’s the one who would rather watch a fancy-dress parade than be in it with everyone gawping at him. Luckily Alfie’s mum knows just how to read him. Rather than let her expectations of what he should do dominate the situation, she gives him support and breathing space and the result is that Alfie is able to keep an open mind about next year’s parade. He now has a positive goal. The accompanying illustrations are tender and gently evocative.
Storms are scary…
Thunderstorm Dancing by Katrina Germein and Judy Watson
This is a perfect marriage of words and illustrations. The story begins on a beach as a storm draws in. A little girl’s family seem excited about the prospect but her worried face says it all. Accompanied by her dog, she’s the first to run inside — ‘Can you feel the storm coming, building and running?’ And then she ascribes each aspect of the storm to a member of her family — Daddy is the wind, Mummy is the rain, Poppy is the thunder — as they revel in the noise and flashes of light, apparently oblivious to the contemplative little girl who is waiting for it to pass. Which, of course, it does! We see the worry melt away as the sun comes out (‘Granny is the sun’) and as the little girl heads outside again she’s full of joy as she exclaims ‘I am the rainbow!’ Gorgeous.
It’s really hard being in a different place…
My Two Blankets by Irene Kobald and Freya Blackwood
This isn’t a new book but now seems like a good time to remind people about it. It’s the story of a young girl who is forced to leave a war-torn country and take refuge in Australia. This huge issue is handled with a remarkable lightness of touch, so that it could be used as a gateway into any discussion with a child about moving from one place to another. While the words get straight to the heart of the impact of this giant step — ‘When I went out, it was like standing under a waterfall of strange sounds… I felt like I wasn’t me any more’ — Freya Blackwood’s illustrations as usual have a wonderful sense of movement and a great use of colour to show us the contrast between the girl’s home versus this strange new place. This clever book is full of hope.
New people make me feel shy…
Those Pesky Rabbits by Ciara Flood
In Those Pesky Rabbits, a bear who seems grumpy and then even downright rude when his new neighbours repeatedly call on him is really masking his true feelings: shyness. What I like most about this fun story is that both parties shift their behaviour to bring about a different outcome — the rabbits try a new tactic, and the bear lets himself be vulnerable for a change.
Too Much For Turtle by Cat Rabbit and Isabelle Knowles
Much of the considerable charm in Too Much For Turtle is because of the handmade felt characters that form the illustrations — they are adorable — but it’s also a very sweet, simple story. A reclusive turtle’s treehouse home is invaded by various animals during a storm. Echidnas, rabbits, an elephant, alpacas and sloths create absolute mayhem, which proves ‘too much for turtle’ who escapes to her shell sobbing and in despair. But the animals all mean well and they soon make up for their raucous behaviour. Turtle is so touched that she invites them to build new homes in her tree. This also comes with a pattern to make your own felt turtle.
It’s dark in my room…
George in the Dark by Madeline Valentine
George is a pretty tough kid by day, but no one is immune to worry and for George it happens when the busyness of the day has ended, Mum and Dad have said goodnight and the lights are out. Children will immediately identify the anxiety on George’s face, and who among us has never used the really quite useless line: ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of’? (Subtext: I’ve had a long day, please just go to sleep.) George is empowered when he discovers that his beloved bear is lost in the darkest part of his bedroom. Here he can take on the parent role, where the sense of responsibility helps him to abandon his fears, at least for tonight.
Nobody really understands me…
Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall
We’re still learning how to drop the let boys be boys / let girls be girls attitudes that are so divisive for each generation and so limiting for the individual. In this story, a crayon is labelled Red but is quite clearly (to us) Blue. The power of a label is effortlessly demonstrated as ‘Red’ tries so hard to fulfill the requirements of being that colour, urged on by anxious relatives. There’s a lot of humour here, both visual and in the text, and the subtext can be used to discuss any challenges to a child’s unique sense of identity.
I don’t like it when people get angry…
The Day No One Was Angry by Toon Tellegen and Marc Boutavant
My advice: order a copy as soon as possible because Australia has already run out once and I suspect will run out again.
This is a brilliant, unique book. At first I was completely seduced by Marc Boutavant’s illustrations (the hippo and rhino cavorting in an autumnal forest is glorious) but it’s in sharing these stories with my children that I’ve fallen more and more in love with it. At first it was only my 8-year-old who wanted to listen, but hearing us laugh out loud my 11-year-old came to see what the fuss was about and she too was delighted with how clever and unexpected these quirky tales are. Every one is themed around anger — why we get angry with others, why we get angry with ourselves, why we deliberately make other people angry, how anger makes us completely blind to everything else, and most especially the incredible humour in anger and how to use that humour to dissipate it. I could rave about this book for hours.
My brother and sister think I’m babyish…
Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon
Dory is one of my heroes of 2015. She’s at the age when her imagination is queen and she’s able to extract the fun out of every day, but the trouble is that she also wants to be accepted by her two older siblings but they’re at the stage when being grown up, being sensible, and not being a silly baby has reached a crescendo. So much so that they try to intimidate Dory by creating an imaginary character to scare her. To their surprise, Dory accepts that character into her world and in doing so regains her sense of self and of her right to be the wonderful, carefree age she is. And of course they’re a little jealous when they see that, too. Maybe they’ll even play with her now, after all she is having a lot more fun. This is a gorgeous little novel, with plenty of illustrations, for 5-9 year olds.
No one listens when you’re little…
The Smallest Girl In The Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts and Christian Robinson
Shout-out to small people: in primary school, it is all about how tall you are. And no matter how many times you tell your small child ‘it’s not size that counts’ they do not believe you. At some point kids will be measured in class or perhaps they’ll have to lie down on a giant piece of paper while someone draws around them, and then they’ll be ranked. And someone will be the smallest. Well, this story is about that kid. Sally McCabe is so small that nobody notices her. But what this means is that Sally is the school’s eyes and ears — alone and disregarded, she sees everything that’s going on. She’s a little thing who notices every little thing. And one day she uses a very big voice to make those around her stop and notice too. A sweet story for powerful people in small packages.
My imagination won’t stop…
Use Your Imagination by Nicola O'Byrne
As adults we often envy a child’s imagination, and we encourage them to make the most of this very colourful resource but occasionally they can feel overwhelmed. The big bad wolves, trolls under bridges or wicked witches take control, the way out of the deep dark woods is blocked, and they panic. This story is a really fun way of teaching them that they are the storytellers and they can take back control of the story in their head and make it go the way they want it to. In this case, when the imaginary wolf gets too threatening for the rabbit, she remembers that she is the hero and promptly imagines a large rocket to blast wolf right out of her story. Fun and empowering.
Feelings are confusing…
In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek and Christine Roussey
Finally, this is your one-stop-shop for emotions. The heart in the centre of the book, die-cut all the way through, is ‘like a house, with all these feelings living inside’ which are described just the way a child would try to. Happy makes your heart feel ‘like a big yellow star’, while angry means ‘my heart is yelling, hot and loud’, and a sad heart is ‘as heavy as an elephant’. A simple, lovely book that could be used for so many important, reassuring conversations.
Emily Gale is the Online Children’s Specialist, and a Children’s & YA author the rest of the time.