Reading Stories to tackle the Mental Health Crisis
For World Mental Health Day, Lucy Christopher shares five favourite picture books that explore issues of mental health in young children and why we need more books like these
In April this year, The Guardian reported the mental health of school children was at “crisis point” (Weale, 2019). In July, the BBC also reported “a near 50% increase in referrals to child health services from pupils ages 11 and under, over the past three years” (Thomas, Titheradge, 2019). And yet, a year earlier, the National Literacy Trust released a report entitled “Mental Wellbeing, Reading and Writing” (2018), where a survey of almost fifty thousand young people revealed that those “.. who are the most engaged with literacy have better mental wellbeing …”.
So, in some ways, an answer to this problem seems obvious, doesn’t it?
Find engaging stories for children that speak to this crisis. But what are some of those stories? And how do we find – or write – them?
I have always wanted to write about issues of mental health for very young children. I already do this in my fiction for young adults – here I’ve talked about Stockholm Syndrome, PTSD, and loss - but YA is a medium that allows me eighty thousand words to explore these sensitive and nuanced topics. I’ve always wondered: how might I approach this for a picture book audience?
I was a child who moved house five times, and moved countries three times, by the time I was six years old. By this time, my parents had also separated, with my father moving back to Australia while my mum and I moved to live with my Grandma in Wales. I was a lonely child, without siblings or friends.
I wondered – were there others like me who felt like I did? Could I explore some of these complex feelings in a medium of so few words?
In my debut picture book story, Shadow, a young child moves into a new house. Ignored by her stressed-out, depressed, Mum she finds a shadow under the bed who she makes friends with. Together they make mischief and run away to the woods across the road, where the shadows are everywhere. After a lonely time alone, our protagonist is eventually found again by Mum. It’s a story about loneliness and sadness and how this might manifest itself in the very young. Ultimately it’s a story of an awareness of darkness – and shadows – and coming together in spite of this. Because of this deeper theme, I think the story is best suited for a slightly older audience – maybe, 5-7 year olds – an area where I couldn’t find a lot else being published in the current UK picture book market that spoke to darker themes.
So, I’ve begun to keep a list of what I do find. What are some of the other books out there that speak to issues of mental health for younger readers?
Here are some of my favourites:
The Red Tree – written and illustrated by Shaun Tan
I could spend this whole list just talking about Shaun Tan’s work – everything he writes is deep and nuanced, full of rich feeling and mental exploration. However, The Red Tree is my absolute favourite book that speaks to feelings of loneliness, and hope, for the very young. Here, a young girl wakes and finds dark leaves falling from her bedroom ceiling. As she moves through her story, she is overwhelmed and feels there is “nothing to look forward to”. However, when she returns to her bedroom, she finds a beautiful red tree is beginning to grow, spreading light out into the room. As is always the case with Tan’s work, the illustrations are stunning and moving, and the story has a kind of fable quality.
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book – written by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Quentin Blake
This list wouldn’t be complete without this book on it. Michael Rosen’s Sad Book is a heart-breaking account of Rosen’s own feelings of grief after losing his son. It tackles the idea of sadness head on with its simple message that sadness is sometimes necessary and unavoidable. Blake’s illustrations fit the feelings of the book perfectly. It’s masterful – a piece of deeply moving memoir for the very young.
The Dark – written by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen
Here’s another powerhouse author/illustrator combination with Snicket and Klassen. In some ways this book has a similar theme to mine – here the child protagonist discovers the dark and goes down to the basement to try to understand it. It is also a book about learning to live with the darker side of life and realising that darkness is just the flipside of light. Klassen’s illustrations are muted and simple, adding to the scary, spooky but ultimately reassuring message of this book.
Lost and Found – written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
While this book isn’t as dark or sad as some of the others, it still has a theme of loneliness and coming together. Here a boy helps a lonely penguin find meaning and connection through friendship. The final image where the boy and penguin find each other again and share a hug always brings a lump to my throat when I share it with my young friends. This is a great book to start discussions about friendship and loneliness but without things getting too scary.
Way Home – Written by Libby Hathorn, illustrated by Gregory Rogers
This Australian book is 25 years old now, but it’s still just as relevant, important and beautifully told. It tells the story of Shane, a homeless boy who finds a stray kitten and wants to take it home. I came across this book when I first taught Writing for Young People for undergrad students and used it as an example of a picture book with deep and confronting themes – see, it can be done, I used to tell my students, not all picture books are about puppies and parties. Often, the undergrads found themselves deeply moved by this story too.
Check out Shadow, Lucy's first picture book:
In our old house, Ma told me there was nothing to be scared of. No monsters hiding behind doors, or in wardrobes, or under beds. She said there were no dark places at all. But, in the new house, under my new bed, THAT’s where I found Shadow.
Click HERE to look inside the book.
Lucy Christopher is the Course Director of the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University and the award-winning author of Stolen, Flyaway, The Killing Woods, and Storm-Wake. Shadow is her first picture book.