January is Mental Health Awareness month in Canada. The conversation, especially around Bell Let’s Talk Day on January 29th, is getting louder, more nuanced, and larger in scope, yet it can be hard to address these issues with children. I’m so grateful to the team at CTV Your Morning who continue to support children’s books and literacy, especially with this selection of kids’ books that address mental health & wellness. You can watch the segment here, or read on for my suggestions below.
Picture Books, ages 3-7
This first book in a series starring adorable Australia animals is a great book to introduce the concept of bad days, feeling sad, or even depression. It has a light touch and celebrates friends as a means of support. This topic is familiar ground for Genevieve Godbout, who is also the illustrator of the lovely fable The Pink Umbrella.
This sequel to New York Times bestseller Grumpy Monkey introduces and normalizes the concept of social anxiety, something that is on the rise among children. Jim Panzee is invited to a party and becomes anxious that he can’t dance. The book is very funny and takes the sting out of anxiety, showing that people can be nervous about all sorts of things, and many of those fears can be conquered, with a little help from your friends.
Molly draws dogs everywhere, even on her math homework, which gets her in trouble. What the adults in her life don’t realize, is that Molly draws dogs so she doesn’t have the fear the ones in her head. This gentle story both personifies how anxiety can feel to children and demonstrates how art and different forms of expression can be useful coping mechanisms.
This is a quirky parable about acting and reacting. In this world we can only ping, we cannot control other people’s “pongs.” This is a poignant and very visual metaphor for social-emotional awareness, learning to identify how we feel, why we feel that way, and understanding that we can’t control other people’s reactions.
Some of the societal messages kids pick up on can be damaging to their mental health, including the old saying, ‘boys don’t cry.’ In this story, a little boy tries to take his father’s advice, that big boys don’t cry, despite being nervous about his first day of school. But during the day he sees a number of examples of grown men crying and when he is reunited with his father after school, his father cries and apologies for giving him that advice. A great book for parents and kids.
Other Picture Book Reads:
Middle Grade, ages 9-12
If you have a reader between the ages of 8 and 12, chances are you’ve heard of Raina Telgemeier and her wildly popular graphic novels. What parents might not realize is how topical, empathetic and comforting Telgemeier’s subject matter is for kids. In Guts, the author-illustrator shares the very personal story of her own journey with anxiety, stress, and therapy, starting at a young age.
The multiple award-winning Canadian novel OCDaniel is also based on the author’s personal experience. This book could be described as a satisfying middle grade mystery, but Wesley King has taken a popular genre and deepened it with issues of familial expectations, first crushes, and school pressure, as seen from the perspective of a character who is suffering from what he learns, eventually–from the help of the school outcast who becomes a friend–is obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is written as the journal of a boy who is in therapy following his brother’s suicide. It deals with grief, PTSD, and what it’s like to live with family members suffering from mental illness. Despite it’s heavy subject matter, the book is funny and up-lifting and very popular among kids.
Other Middle Grade Reads:
Young Adult, ages 13+
Calvin introduces us to a teen who is experiencing a schizophrenic break, humanizing an often sensationalized and misunderstood experience. Told almost exclusively in dialogue, and with the breakneck pacing of an outdoor adventure story, this is a unique and conversation-starting novel. The Agony of Bun O’Keefe features an ensemble cast of characters in 1980s Newfoundland, dealing with a range of challenges, including depression, anxiety, hoarding, and PTSD. They find solace, understanding and support in their found family. Teresa Toten’s The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B is an absorbing story about a teenage boy falling in love and dealing with challenging family relationships while managing his OCD. In all of these novels the teens learn that despite their challenges, they are deserving of love, and there are there are ways not only to survive but thrive.
Other YA Reads: