13 Books to Help Children Process Complex Emotions

Grief, anxiety, loneliness, fear, sadness, anger… children feel these emotions just as we do, though are unlikely to realise what they’re feeling, and almost certainly cannot verbalise them. Without an outlet for their emotions, their behaviour can appear erratic and out of keeping with their character, just as ours does when we try to bottle our feelings up. This article explains the bigger picture, and how your little one’s brain tries to cope with things it doesn’t fully understand and I’m a huge fan of Dr Laura Markham’s Aha! Parenting, which is split into sections from pregnancy to teen and everything in between. Many children who’re labelled as ‘naughty’ may simply need help processing, accepting and communicating how they’re feeling, and the tools to develop their resilience and emotional intelligence. It can be tempting to try to ‘shield’ little ones from things that, in fact, they need to learn how to face. Another major factor in aiding your child in this part of their development is that you may not have had your feelings validated in childhood – maybe you were told, “You’re OK!” even though you weren’t, or “Stop crying!” when you didn’t want to… Reading together can actually help you work through your own past too – some of these books really resonated with me when I first read them. Primary schools will also benefit from a shelf full of these titles, not only for helping individual students with complex emotions, but also to encourage understanding, sensitivity and kindness towards others who may be going through a tricky time.

These 13 books are a small selection of what is on the market. I hope its a helpful list.

FEAR/SADNESS/WORRY/ANXIETY

Ruby’s Worry by Tom Percival (Bloomsbury)
Ruby is a happy girl until, one day, a worry appears. At first, it is little but then grows and grows until it is ENORMOUS, and takes over everything she tries to do. Her ‘worry’ is drawn as a small, cloud of colour which expands on each page as she tries to ignore it. It has a knitted brow to show its pent up frustration – it would have been easy to go down the ‘scary’ route, but this is more subtle and is very effective. Fortunately, she realises that other people also have worries and that, if we talk about them, they usually disappear. A beautiful rainbow appears after she talks about her worry.
Tom Percival’s words are reassuring and sensitively put, without sounding condescending. His illustrations make great use of colour to depict Ruby’s mood – bright colours when she’s carefree, darker greys and blacks when she feels sad. In my opinion, this is perfect for particular events, such as a new sibling or starting school, but would also be useful if you cannot pinpoint why your child is anxious or worried.

Lucy’s Blue Day, written by Chris Duke, illustrated by Federica Bartolini (self published)
Lucy’s hair is yellow and bright but, when she feels strongly about something, it changes colour. When her little brother makes her angry, it turns red, whilst feelings of jealousy turn it green. One day she wakes up with dark blue hair and can’t understand why. Her parents ask her what’s wrong… ‘But giving an answer felt an impossible task, she didn’t know why she felt so low…’ It’s only when another blue-haired child at school points out everybody feels blue sometimes – even adults – that she realises it’s ok to have days like these, but it’s important to talk, so those days don’t take over.
Again, the tactic of attributing colour to emotions is a clever one – colours are something children understand far earlier than feelings. The use of an external feature such as hair to flag up these feelings is clever, too – a visible indicator of an invisible, untouchable idea. At the end of the book are activities relating to each emotion: What makes me angry/jealous/happy/sad and, when I am feeling each emotion, what should I/could I do? The book comes in a reusable activity bag, with coloured crayons and two letters – one for you, which includes a list of places to seek support if you’re concerned about your child’s mental health and wellbeing, and one for your child, from Lucy.

Everybody Feels… SCARED! by Moira Butterfield, illustrated by Holly Sterling (Quarto)
This book begins with scenarios that might make you feel scared, and the physical sensations that you may feel, in very child-friendly language (‘Your tummy is flipping round and round. Boom, boom! Is that your heart?’) It follows a day in the life of Omar, and then Chloe. Both centre around school – first day nerves for Omar, and presenting to the class for Chloe. Each child helps the other to feel calmer, so the ideas of support and kindness come into play. Each child’s story is then summarised and a glossary of words is included at the end, along with some ideas for further exploration of the feelings covered in the story.
A super little book for parents and schools alike – accessible for the very young. Other titles in the ‘Everybody Feels…’ series are: ‘Sad’, ‘Happy’ and ‘Angry’.

My Heart by Corinna Lukyen (Dial Books//Penguin Kids)
‘There are days it is broken, but broken can mend, and a heart that is closed can still open again.’ An important message – the way you feel right now won’t be how you feel forever. Alongside the lyrical text, each page features visual metaphors that represent the various states of our heart – open windows, shooting seeds, broken vases – and clever use of perspective, with tiny figures under looming rainclouds, and the juxtaposition of light and dark, where Corinna has used flashes of yellow amongst the monochrome palette, representing hope, love, trust and friendship – all the things that bring us happiness and lift our hearts. It is exceptionally beautiful, visually and in its message,
My Heart is one of those books that feels relevant to any age, Aside from helping little ones process their emotions, it encourages self care and kindness, whilst promoting empathy and starting important discussions – it feels like a pivotal read and I know it will grow with our children as they navigate their childhood years.

When Sadness Comes to Call by Eva Eland (Andersen Press) (US title: When Sadness Knocks on Your Door)
‘Sometimes Sadness arrives unexpectedly…’ It can be tricky to tackle a subject is ambiguous as sadness. Eva Eland has personified it here, making it a figure to be welcomed and nurtured (temporarily, at least), highlighting the importance of not ignoring it, but embracing it and working with it to help it on its way. Her muted illustrations are simple but full of feeling: ‘Sadness’ is a looming turquoise figure who looks approachable, huggable even. It needn’t be chased away, or hidden, or bottled up. But we must talk about it in order to make sense of how it makes us feel, otherwise it will hang around for longer.
The endpapers are talking points on their own, and may be useful in helping older children open up, if they feel ‘too old’ for stories – they feature people of all ages affected by sadness in various guises – loneliness, grief, depression, loss, confusion – everyone who has ever felt sad will find a figure they identify with. At the back, we see the same people once they have allowed Sadness ‘in’, accepted it and allowed it space in their daily life, for as long as it takes to disappear. I spent a while talking to my mother in law about the endpapers – the conversation around them is endless.

Me and My Fear by Francesca Sanna (Flying Eye Books)
“I want to go outside… but Fear won’t move.” In the same vein as When Sadness Comes to Call, fear is personified here by Francesca Sanna. It begins by introducing Fear, a little bit of which is a good thing, helping its owner to make sensible and safe choices. But, when our narrator moves to a new country AND a new school, her Fear begins to grow, until there is no room left for anything else – it is all-encompassing and debilitating.  Changes to behaviour are charted – self-imposed isolation, relationships with food, insomnia, anger – but then, when another child demonstrates kindness, Fear starts to shrink. Before long, life becomes pleasurable again; especially when she realises that everybody else has a Fear too.
This is so relatable – the looming figure of Fear filling a room is something that almost everyone will remember from some point in their life. Little ones can’t always reconcile adults with the idea of being at school, for example, but if an adult can talk about their own fears and how they’ve overcome them, the lines of communication are opened.

DEALING WITH SEPARATION/DIVORCE

Luna Loves Library Day by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Fiona Lumbers (Andersen Press)
Luna and her mum prepare for her visit to the Library – books, library card, book bag, CHECK! When she arrives, her dad is waiting. Together, they select books about monsters, insects, magic – a gloriously varied selection. There’s a mention of her Dad ‘disappearing’ when they come to books about magic tricks. Then, cleverly ensconced within the pages of the book as a secondary book; a fairytale. It is there they – and we – read about a mermaid and a troll who have a daughter. As they are unsuited, their relationship breaks down. Happily, though, the troll’s love for his daughter is stronger than ever…
I dearly wish there had been a book like this around when my parents divorced. As an eight year old girl I would have found great comfort between its pages and would wholeheartedly recommend this to any parent going through separation or divorce, to help their child(ren) make sense of the situation, and understand that neither parent’s love for them has diminished. It would be useful, too, for schools to normalise divorce and help other children understand what their friends are going through.

GRIEF/BEREAVEMENT

Grandad’s Island by Benji Davies (Simon & Schuster)
Syd visits his Grandad every day. One day, he discovers Grandad up in the attic, amongst all his treasured belongings. Together, they board a huge ship to an incredible island where Grandad no longer needs his walking stick. Their day is filled with adventure and happiness, until Grandad confesses that he will be staying, and Syd returns home alone…
Fans of Benji Davies’ work will know that the combined power of his illustrations and text are inspired. The magic of spotting things in Grandad’s attic and finding them hidden in the pictures of the island is so clever – the familiar objects that Syd associates with his Grandad have a new place in his new home. A postcard is delivered to Syd at the end (by a toucan!) and there is a nod to The Storm Whale. Older readers will understand the meaning behind the ship, the island and Syd’s lonely return journey but younger children who need these messages explained will find it gently accessible. I recommended this to a friend who lost her mother last year. It was the last book her children read with their grandmother and it brings huge comfort to them, months later.

If All the World Were by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Allison Colpoys (Frances Lincoln//Quarto)
‘If all the world were dreams, I would mix my bright Grandad feelings and paint them over sad places.’ My goodness me, this is a beautiful book. The love between granddaughter and grandfather is honoured through her happy memories and vivid imagination, taking us through the four seasons and everything they did together. Together, they explore nature and he gives her a special notebook and pencil to record her dreams, recounts tales of his own childhood, and buys second hand toys that transport them to other worlds… the time they spend together builds her emotional resilience and resolve so, when he passes away and his belongings are sorted, and she sees lots of things that remind her of the times they spent together, she is able to manage her grief and move forward, keeping his memory alive. This is a masterpiece of a book, and such a heartwarming tribute to the bond between grandparents and grandchildren. It is also a reminder that all children really want is our time – ‘stuff’ doesn’t really factor; just the memories of shared experiences.

Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley (Andersen Press)
‘Badger was so old that he knew he must soon die.’
Badger has made peace with the fact he is slowing down but wants to ensure his friends are comforted once he has gone. His death in a way that isn’t scary: Badger is described as going through the ‘Long Tunnel’… ‘falling and tumbling, but nothing hurt. He felt free.’ Over the cold winter months, his friends reminisce about Badger and all the things he taught them. There’s a combination of happy memories and the validation of their grief. Overall, his ‘parting gifts’ bring joy long after the sadness has dissipated, along with the idea that Badger can still hear his friends when they speak to him.
At 35 years old this year, this books continues to stand the test of time; it is very special.  When I first read it, I wondered why my parents didn’t share it with four year old me when I lost my brother but it is definitely more appropriate for children who’re losing/have lost an elderly figure in their life.

Missing Mummy by Rebecca Cobb (Macmillan)
‘Some time ago we said goodbye to Mummy. I am not sure where she has gone.’ This is so tenderly written and perfectly sums up the confusion of losing someone you’re incredibly close to, the person who knows you best, as well as the fear and anger and the layers of grief that resonate through other family members. It tackles and achieves so much in both word and picture.
The father in the story gives a sensitive and practical account of death: ‘you cannot come back once you’ve died because your body doesn’t work anymore.’ and, together with another sibling, they look towards the future, at the other caring figures around them, and ways in which to honour and remember Mummy.
As much as I hope nobody reading this ever needs to make use of it, I imagine it would bring a great deal of comfort to the recipient; Rebecca Cobb is incredibly sensitive and empathetic.

Goodbye Grandma by Melanie Walsh (Walker Books)
Bold and bright, this is suitable from a very young age and tackles the blunt, forthright questions children typically ask about death: ‘What does dead mean?’, ‘Why do people have to die?’ and ‘Where do people go when they die?’ It also discusses funerals and how to keep memories alive.
Melanie Walsh gives responses to these questions that offer children the kinds of answers they can grasp, whilst remaining tactful and sensitive. It’s accessible and would be a brilliant toolkit for a parent, not forgetting that they will have lost someone themselves, as it is about a grandparent.

 

The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb (Macmillan)
This was one of Primrose’s first ever picture books and she still loves it. Only now is she starting to understand the relevance of the little girl’s memory, with her ‘kind granny’ sitting amongst all the other things she’s lost over the years, as well as the meaning behind the ‘snipping’ of the paper dolls, and their being ‘gone forever’. It links to one of her favourite songs at the moment – ‘Gone but not Forgotten’ from Mary Poppins Returns. It’s lent itself to discussions about death, memories, growing up, kindness and being a mother – some of these are difficult concepts to explain and this book aids conversations around them in such a gentle way.

 

 

Jo, The Mother Side x

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