Picturing Mental Health

May is Mental Health Month across the country. In our libraries, you can view displays, attend programs, and check out books and videos related to mental health. One place you might not think to look for mental health resources is the picture book section of your library. But there are amazing, wonderful picture books that address mental health issues, and in fact, they are some of my very favorite picture books, because they successfully tackle difficult subjects through simple text and well-chosen pictures. They’re worth exploring and reading whether you’re a child or an adult.


My favorite-favorite recent picture book (on any subject!) is The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld. In it Taylor, a young child, builds something new. Something special. Something amazing. And then it gets ruined. His animal friends one by one try to help him ‘get over it,’ but he doesn’t want to! The rabbit ultimately helps him, by simply staying with him, being with him, listening to him. It’s a gorgeous book, with a superb message that speaks to all ages. Read it.


Another wonderful recent book is Me and My Fear by Francesca Sanna. Here, Fear is presented as an actual character. In the beginning Fear is just a small, friendly-looking creature (a bit like Casper the Friendly Ghost) that looks after its young human, keeping her safe while she explores her world. But then her family immigrates, and her Fear grows bigger and bigger, until it prevents her from doing anything. Her discovery that other children also have Fear companions helps her to put her own Fear back in perspective, and allows her to venture out into her new world. I love this book both for the way it approaches the issue of anxiety, and for the way it shows the many challenges facing someone in a new place.


The Dark by Lemony Snicket also tackles the problem of fear. Here, the dark is a character in the story, who lives in the basement of Laszlo’s house and only comes out at night. Laszlo is afraid of the dark, until one night the dark calls him and leads him down to the basement, where he finds . . . well, you’ll have to read it for yourself to find out what happens.


The Dot by Peter Reynolds is another of my favorite picture books (yes, I have a lot of favorites!). It’s not about fear, not in the same way as The Dark or Me and My Fear, but it’s about a girl who lacks confidence in her creative ability. It’s a wonderful tale that encourages readers to be brave enough to try something new, something uncertain, something you don’t know if you’ll be good at or not. And it’s inspiring, as Peter Reynolds’ books so often are!


Mental health is a broad and complex topic. One way picture books can contribute is to raise awareness of things that have a positive influence on life, such as Now by Antoinette Portis. Now is a celebration of the little things in each day that add up to a happy, fulfilled life, and an encouragement to readers to do the same.

This is my favorite breeze — This is my favorite leaf — This is my favorite hole (this one) because it’s the one I’m digging.

And while this may be simplistic, it’s also very good advice! Advice that adults as well as children should take to heart.

bad mood

But we can’t succeed every single day in staying positive and upbeat. Just as our sunny moods can influence others, so can our cloudy moods. Lemony Snicket’s The Bad Mood and the Stick is a great object lesson in this; it follows the ‘travels’ of a bad mood from a little girl, to her mother, to a passing man, to a cat, to a bird . . . It shows that everyone has bad moods from time to time, and unfortunately it’s all too easy to share a bad mood with some one else! As to the stick, well, you’ll just have to read it for yourself.


Sadness is an emotion that can be confusing to anyone, especially children, particularly when there’s no obvious cause. When Sadness is at Your Door by Eva Eland explores this in a gentle, helpful picture book that introduces sad days as a part of life, and offers suggestions for things to do when feeling sad. The book doesn’t try to brush off the feeling, but rather to accept it and work with it. A helpful book for children struggling with this confusing emotion.

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Picture books tackle far more serious issues than bad moods and sad days. Loss and grief have been sensitively explored in a number of lovely picture books. Each offers a unique perspective on the subject. Michael Rosen’s Sad Book is a grieving father’s testament to his love for his son, and it can speak to anyone who has lost a loved one. The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers is the story of someone who tries to avoid her grief through blocking out the past — though the strategy ultimately fails. The Memory String by Eve Bunting touches on both remembering past love and being open to new possibilities.

terrible thing

Unfortunately, violence and trauma are all too possible in children’s lives. One book that tackles this difficult subject sensitively is A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret Holmes. In it, a young raccoon has witnessed something terrible. So terrible that he can’t talk about it. He tries to block it from his mind, but it keeps breaking in, giving him horrible dreams, keeping him from eating, making him lash out at others . . . Fortunately, he finds an adult who helps him express his feelings and work through his trauma. It’s a helpful book for any child who has witnessed a traumatic event. If you are looking for a book of this sort, it may help to talk to a library staff member; sometimes these are in the non-fiction or Child Development section, depending on your library.


Even board books can contribute to mental health. One of my favorite board books is La Catrina: Emotions-Emociones by Patty Rodriguez and Ariana Stein, a bilingual Spanish-English board book about emotions. The illustrations are based on the iconic sugar skull (catrina) of Dia de Muertos  and they are just wonderful. Love, curiosity, confusion, anger, and much more are gorgeously depicted. Just looking through this book makes me happy (feliz). By the way, this is part of a series of bilingual board books put out by Lil’ Libros, each of which presents simple concepts through art that reflects an aspect of Hispanic culture. A superb series.

Another board book series dealing with emotions is the My First Comics series by Jennifer and Matthew Holm, including I’m Sunny!, I’m Grumpy!, I’m Silly!, and I’m Scared!. Presenting simple comic panels and featuring weather elements as characters (Sunny the sun, Chilly the snowflake), each simple book shows how your feelings can affect those around you, and offers possible resolutions.

There are many, many more wonderful picture books out there that delve into emotions, feelings, mental health issues and more. I hope you enjoyed reading about this sampling.  Explore at your local library to find more great picture books!