Normally quiet nine-year-old Dan (not his real name) started having angry outbursts at home and at school. While no one could identify the exact cause, his mother discovered that he had suddenly started feeling anxious.
Dan’s mother visited me in the school library and I suggested she try a well-known book called The Huge Bag of Worries by Virginia Ironside and Frank Rodgers.
A few weeks later, she reported back to me that reading the book with Dan had helped him to see that it was best to share his worries rather than bottle them up, and that those worries could be "thrown away" once he and his family have dealt with them together.
Dan now often requests this book at bedtime as it calms him before sleep, she said, and he is feeling much happier and relaxed.
Talking about problems
As well as supporting children educationally, teachers and support staff are increasingly being called upon to help children who come to school with complex emotional and social needs. These aren’t necessarily the children already identified by the social care system, either. A child who was previously happy and confident can, like Dan, suddenly become angry or anxious, because of a change in circumstances (such as a depressed or ill parent, bereavement or marital problems).
If you’re looking for help in supporting these children, the school library is an excellent place to start. I do not pretend that a book alone can provide a quick fix for issues that children experience with their mental health, but books can help them to make sense of what they are feeling and provide a reference point to support them in talking about their problems.
I have put together a list of books that I believe work particularly well for this purpose.
I have focused on quality picture books, rather than books written specifically with mental health in mind, as I find that these are often most popular with children because they can be enjoyed and shared by everyone, not just the child experiencing difficulties.
Books to support mental health
1. The Bear Who Stared by Duncan Beedie
This humorous book about a socially awkward bear is great for showing children how they could try to make friends.
2. Silly Billy by Anthony Browne
Billy worries obsessively about everything until Grandma suggests that worry dolls might help him to cope better. This book takes a sensitive and gentle approach to dealing with childhood anxiety. Many of Browne’s other books are also good for supporting discussion around emotions.
3. You’re a Rude Pig, Bertie! by Claudia Boldt
Bertie, the rude pig, is a good example of how unkind behaviour can drive away friends – and what you need to do to put things right.
4. Hello Happy! and No Worries! in association with Child and Family Psychotherapist Sharie Coombes
These are activity books aimed at young people who might feel sad, angry or worried. I use these books a lot with children who could do with some TLC. They love the activities, which include drawing what makes them happy, sad and mad, so they can discuss these things later.
5. Bob's Blue Period by Marion Deuchars
Bob's best friend Bat has to go away for a while and Bob feels so sad that he paints everything in blue. However, his other friends get together to show that there are many other beautiful colours in the world and Bob starts to feel better. A perfect book about expressing emotions and how to feel better when you're "blue".
6. Beyond the Fence by Maria Gulemetova
Thomas thinks he knows what's best for his friend Piggy and orders him around. Piggy becomes sad until he meets a wild pig, who helps to show him what true friendship really means.
7. The Huge Bag of Worries by Virginia Ironside and Frank Rodgers
Jenny carries a huge bag of worries with her wherever she goes and is desperate for someone to help her. This book shows children that a problem shared is a problem halved.
8. Happy, Sad, Feeling Glad by Yasmeen Ismail
This is part picture book and part activity book. Children are asked to help draw illustrations of things that might make the animal characters feel happy, thereby reinforcing their own stores of good memories.
9. My Daddy’s Going Away by Christopher MacGregor and Emma Yarlett
Children whose parents often work away from home in the military, or in other professions, could benefit from this book, which is sensitively written by Colonel Christopher MacGregor, based on his own experiences of deployment.
10. Black Dog by Levi Pinfold
The youngest and bravest member of the Hope family is the only person who tames the Black Dog, a metaphor for depression, which grows bigger and bigger each time you try to ignore it. A particularly useful book for children who live with parents with mental health problems.
11. Augustus and His Smile by Catherine Rayner
Augustus the tiger has lost his smile and is feeling sad. However, as he starts looking for it, he gradually discovers that joy can be found in all sorts of everyday situations.
12. Sad Book by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake
This lovely book discusses Michael’s grief at his son Eddie’s death from meningitis. It is reassuring in its message that, while sadness is often unavoidable and difficult, there are better days too.
13. Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg
This fun book helps perfectionists to see that mistakes and accidents can actually turn into things that are quite amazing.
14. On Sudden Hill by Linda Sarah and Benji Davies
Sometimes strong friendships can break down when a new person joins the group. Try using this book for children struggling with playground politics or those who don’t know how to share friendships.
15. My Many Coloured Days by Dr Seuss
This title explores the different moods and emotions a person can feel on any given day and helps children understand how common those moods are and how to identify them.
Sam Pope is a primary school librarian and writer in Oxford