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Though often quiet in form, these picture books, novels, and nonfiction resources—led by one wordless offering—take monumental steps when frankly addressing mental health for middle readers.
Mental illnesses—and discussions surrounding them—have long been stigmatized. A large portion of children’s literature today addresses grief, sorrow, and dread, but often only as responses to traumatic events (e.g., the loss of a loved one, new-school jitters, ruthless bullies). Although these conversations are no doubt necessary, they may also leave readers wondering: What about anxiety, depression, or mental illness that has no clear root? What about anxiety or depression that just is?In her remarkable posthumous wordless picture book–graphic-novel-hybrid Small Things (2018), Mel Tregonning tackles this quandary head-on, introducing an unnamed boy wrestling with biting anxiety. His demons appear on the basketball court, in the classroom, even at home—and they aren’t merely metaphorical. Snaking black tendrils lurk beside the boy’s sneakers, atop his arithmetic test, at the nape of his neck. And though they start small, the jagged, creature-like curls soon grow, trailing and surrounding the boy at every turn. Before long, his skin begins to chip away like cracked porcelain. But the boy is not alone; in fact, he soon finds almost all people have demons of their own.Giving a face—or shape—to an often-unseen, solitary struggle, Small Things, intended for lower middle-grade audiences, also shines a light on a facet of childhood so often relegated to the dark. The following books, ranging from playful explorations of “the blues” to up-to-date research from clinical psychologists, get to the heart of what it means to be a child with worries, anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses—and keep a light shining.Feelings-Forward Picture BooksGarmann’s Summer. By Stian Hole. Illus. by the author. Tr. by Don Bartlett. 2008. Eerdmans, $17.50 (9780802853394). Gr. 1–3.This poignant picture book, originally published in Norway, looks at uncertainty from the inside out, not as the by-product of the first day of school but as an organic thread in the fabric of life. Rather than simply tackling the worries that come with change, this book plumbs the underneath, capturing the abstract feelings that reside in a child’s heart. An elegant exploration of the nature of fear and the strength and hope required to conquer it.I Am Thomas. By Libby Gleeson. Illus. by Armin Greder. 2012. IPG/Allen & Unwin, o.p. Gr. 3–6.This unclassifiable Australian import squirms into the inner mind of a boy named Thomas, who feels hounded and battered by the humiliations, cruelties, and demands of the status quo: “I lie in the shelter of my headphones, sometimes silent, sometimes spitting angry words across the empty spaces. ‘You are heading for failure,’ they say. ‘You will amount to nothing.’” Give this urgent, uncompromising ode to individuality—carefully—to older-than-their-years kids fighting to break free from the suffocating crush of expectation.Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. By Michael Rosen. Illus. by Quentin Blake. 2005. Candlewick, $17.99 (9780763625979). Gr. 3–6.Rosen’s son, Eddie, has died, and in clipped, first-person text, accompanied by Blake’s scrawling black-and-gray line work, Rosen speaks of his own sadness. With black humor and staggering portrayals of both despair and hope, Rosen and Blake tell children what they already intuit: sadness is part of the human condition. Ultimately, this book’s power comes from its utter honesty. Rosen and Blake take readers by the hand and pull them just past the heartbreak. They also show children they are not alone.Questions Asked. By Jostein Gaarder. Illus. by Akin Düzakin. Tr. by Don Bartlett. 2017. Archipelago/Elsewhere Editions, $14 (9780914671664). K–Gr. 3.In this moving and meditative Norwegian import, author-philosopher Gaarder (Sophie’s World, 1991) traverses a surreal landscape from the perspective of a young boy, posing 30 unanswered questions. Gaarder’s queries, centered across a stark white backdrop, range from existential and theological to infectiously introspective. Though each flip of the page prompts a fresh question, a combination of recurring themes (memory and dreams, language and loss) and interconnected illustrations suggests an ethereal narrative. An eerily enchanting, one-of-a-kind collection for curious youngsters.Sad Days, Glad Days: A Story about Depression. By DeWitt Hamilton. Illus. by Gail Owens. 1995. Albert Whitman, o.p. K–Gr. 3.A foreword by a medical professional introduces this sensitive bibliotherapeutic picture book about a child whose mother suffers from depression. Though the story’s ending is upbeat, Hamilton offers no false promises. Instead, Hamilton portrays an honest, loving mother-and-child relationship that’s constantly being tested and a child who learns that she’s neither the cause of nor the solution to her mother’s problem. Owens’ double-page-spread illustrations, in mostly cool colors, noticeably darken on sad days; on happy days, the pictures glow with bright hues.Stuck with the Blooz. By Caron Levis. Illus. by Jon Davis. 2012. HMH, $16.99 (9780547745602). K–Gr. 3.In this story about one girl’s battle with the blues, her feelings are anthropomorphized into a giant blue blob named Blooz. “You weren’t invited,” the little girl says to Blooz, but he doesn’t care and proceeds to dribble into her glass of chocolate milk and trickle into her socks. Meanwhile, Davis’ soft illustrations use plenty of white space and effectively bring a child’s internal struggles into focus. A nonthreatening tool for discussing negative emotions with young children.Preteen Protagonists Dealing with Anxiety, Depression, and MoreCrenshaw. By Katherine Applegate. 2015. Feiwel and Friends, $16.99 (9781250043238). Gr. 3–6.It’s been years since soon-to-be fifth-grader Jackson’s imaginary feline friend, Crenshaw, appeared on the scene, and Jackson can’t figure out why he’s back . . . or how to make him go away. It soon becomes apparent all is not well in Jackson’s home. Throughout, Jackson’s anxiety is central to the narrative, and his concerns will resonate with readers familiar with stressful situations. This weighty, quick read encourages people of all ages to be honest and value family and friends (real and imaginary!).The Nest. By Kenneth Oppel. Illus. by Jon Klassen. 2015. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9781481432320). Gr. 5–8.Something’s wrong with Steven’s baby brother, Theo. And when a papery nest appears just outside Theo’s room, Steven begins dreaming of an angelic wasp who promises to fix the baby. At first, Steven is comforted. Then the wasp’s plans turn downright sinister. As Oppel seamlessly integrates the wasp’s cruel beliefs about worthiness into Steven’s own fears about himself, readers learn that Steven, who has a therapist to deal with his anxiety, believes he, too, is broken. An outstanding tale of triumph over monsters, both outside and in.The Notations of Cooper Cameron. By Jane O’Reilly. 2017. Carolrhoda, $17.99 (9781512404159). Gr. 4–7.After witnessing his grandpa’s death, traumatized Cooper now heeds a voice inside himself that worries about those around him and compels him to protect them through repeated, irrational actions. His life is constricted by anxiety and the need to hide these coping mechanisms, particularly from his father, who is angered by their strangeness. Delving into the mind of a character affected by OCD, this third-person story makes for equal parts perceptive character study and quiet, involving novel.Real Friends. By Shannon Hale. Illus. by LeUyen Pham. 2017. First Second, $12.99 (9781626727854). Gr. 3–6.In this winsome graphic memoir, best-seller Hale gives readers insight into her own sometimes-rocky relationships. From early on, young Shannon feels like the odd one out. And as the story progresses and Shannon’s anxiety becomes more pronounced, each chapter focuses on a pivotal relationship, demonstrating the shifting loyalties, petty jealousies, and tiny moments of short-lived triumph common to childhood friendships. Through the years of bristly bullying, though, Shannon finds real friends—and gains a better appreciation for her own strengths. Wistful, affecting, and utterly charming.Some Kind of Happiness. By Claire Legrand. 2016. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9781442466012). Gr. 4–7.Eleven-year-old Finley sometimes has “blue days,” when she wakes with unshakable sadness or racing panic. The only thing that helps is the stories she writes about the Everwood, a magical forest. But it soon becomes evident that it will take more than stories to free Fin from her blue days; a dark secret threatens the Everwood, and if Fin is to save it, she must first confront her own darkness, which weighs heavily on her heart. This beautiful tale will resonate with readers who enjoy pondering life’s bigger questions.Stanley Will Probably Be Fine. By Sally J. Pla. 2018. Harper, $16.99 (9780062445797). Gr. 4–8.Stanley is an expert at comics trivia. Comics give him comfort in the world when he feels overwhelmed from sensory overload and his anxiety rears its head. With Stanley’s best friend acting distant, his dad overseas for a job, and his middle school’s alarming safety assemblies, Stanley has a lot to worry about. But an imaginary superhero, John Lockdown, may be able to help Stanley overcome his fears. Sensitively portraying Stanley’s unease at every turn, this is a refreshing, relatable glimpse at a middle-grader tackling sensory-processing disorder and anxiety.Nonfiction Resources12 Tips for Managing Stress and Anxiety. By Maddie Spalding. 2017. Amicus/12-Story, $9.95 (9781632353849). Gr. 4–6. This slender volume from the Healthy Living series spotlights ideas for dealing with stress and anxiety. The 12 tips include exercising, visualizing, managing time, limiting caffeine, listening to music, talking with friends, keeping a journal, and getting sufficient sleep. Spalding presents each topic in a two-page spread featuring a few simply written paragraphs, two captioned photos, and two text boxes presenting related information. For readers looking for ways to cope with stress and anxiety, the book offers brief introductions to suggestions that are worth pursuing.Know about Mental Illness. By Margaret O. Hyde and Elizabeth H. Forsyth. 1996. Walker, $14.95 (9780802784285). Gr. 5–8.The authors sort out the confusing messages and information about mental illness disseminated in our society, describing the symptoms of some of the better-known illnesses, such as agoraphobia and anorexia, and covering schizophrenia and depression in separate chapters. The final two chapters discuss 15 myths about mental illness (“All mentally ill people are likely to be violent”) and explore the ways young people can help if mental illness strikes a family member. A glossary, a list of organizations, and a reading list are appended.Living with Depression. By Allen R. Miller. 2007. Facts On File, $34.95 (9780816063451). Gr. 6–12.Written by a licensed clinical psychologist, this accessible, sensibly organized resource in the Teen’s Guides series offers readers concise information about depression and its treatments. Miller touches upon subjects that include symptoms, the difference between depression and “the blues,” and bipolar disorder. Chapters on treatments offer detailed information on psychotherapy, antidepressants, and self-help approaches, such as diet, exercise, and stress management. Given recent reports about increasing diagnoses of young people with depression and the rise in teen suicide, this book is a timely, useful resource.My Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic. By Michael A. Tompkins and Katherine Martinez. Illus. by Michael Sloan. 2009. Magination, $14.95 (9781433804502). Gr. 7–12. According to the authors, 1 in 20 teens in the U.S. suffers from extreme anxiety. Short enough to read in a couple sittings and imbued with an optimistic tone, the book lays out common kinds of anxiety and triggers, describes breathing and relaxation techniques, and offers up various logs to fill out as the reader begins to make progress. In a departure from similar titles, the authors stress the importance of finding a supportive helper, and the conversational language, including analogies to everything from LeBron James to MP3 playlists, creates an aura of familiarity.Scared Stiff: Everything You Need to Know about 50 Famous Phobias. By Sara Latta. Illus. by G. E. Gallas. 2014. Zest, $12.99 (9781936976492). Gr. 5–8.Relying heavily on up-to-date research and contributions from clinical psychologists, Latta seeks to explain and demystify phobias and anxieties. With a conversational tone and plenty of quotes from individuals with firsthand experience of specific fears, each phobia is explored in biological and historical context before possible triggers are detailed. In each chapter, famous people who share individual fears are mentioned. Imparting the ideas that phobic people are in good company and that hope exists for eliminating persistent fears, this is factual, fun, and encouraging.Briana Shemroske is a Marketing Associate at Booklist.
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