I've long been a believer in the healing properties of reading and writing fiction. But the therapeutic power of storytelling is even deeper (and more official) than that.
Narrative therapy is a form of counseling that helps people ‘rewrite’ the stories they tell themselves about themselves, and one of its central tenets is a view of people as separate from their problems. Through linguistic framing that externalizes and personifies an issue, people are able to stop equating themselves with it. (“I am not the problem. The problem is the problem” is a mantra.)
Problems are given an external name, like ‘The Worry,’ or ‘The Sorrow’ (or sometimes for children, sillier names like ‘Mr. Mischief,’) and personified in therapy through questions like “How does The Worry try to convince you that nothing is okay?” or “When is The Sorrow most likely to visit?”
This framework might feel foreign to most adults, but it’s such a natural fit for the picture book format
This framework might feel foreign to most adults, but it’s such a natural fit for the picture book format, where we don’t bat an eyelash at villainous talking waffles, disgruntled runaway crayons, or emotionally evolved marshmallows.
Here are several illustrated books that model externalizing and personifying problems beautifully. Some represent clinical-level anxiety or depression, while others depict normal worries, sadness or bad moods. But each will help young kids conceive of themselves or their loved ones as separate from their problems...however severe those problems may be.
In Me And My Fear, Francesca Sanna’s follow-up to The Journey, a young immigrant girl has to travel to a new country and start at a new school. She is accompanied by her Fear who tells her to be alone and afraid, growing bigger and bigger every day with questions like "How can you hope to make new friends if you don't understand their language?" In addition to personifying and externalizing the main character’s fear, the book models the importance of sharing your Fear with others.
When Sadness Is At Your Door is a beautiful debut picture book by Dutch author-illustrator Eva Eland that externalizes and personifies a small child’s sadness. In contrast to books that center on conquering fears, the mindfulness-infused story treats sadness with curiosity and acceptance. I couldn’t agree more with the book’s official description, that “the beauty of this approach is in the respect the book has for the feeling, and the absence of a narrative that encourages the reader to ‘get over’ it or indicates that it's ‘bad,’ both of which are anxiety-producing notions.”
In When Sadness Is At Your Door, the feeling of Sadness isn’t us, nor is it our enemy. Rather, it’s treated as a guest, free to come and go as needed. Eland suggests activities to do with Sadness during its visit, like sitting quietly, drawing, and going outside for a walk.
In Maybe Tomorrow, by Charlotte Agell, grief is externalized (though not technically personified) in the form of a big block that Elba’s been dragging around for a long time. By contrast, Norris dances everywhere he goes, and is always surrounded by a happy cloud of butterflies. He’s hoping that they can make a trip to the beach together, but the block is too cumbersome for Elba to carry all that way. They set off, and he offers to carry her block for a while. When she gets tired, he sits and rests on it with her, and listens when she begins to talk about someone she’s lost. In the end, though the block does get a little lighter, Elba tells Norris that she’ll always have it, and Norris acknowledges that perhaps she will, but he will help her carry it sometimes.
In the wordless graphic picture book Small Things, a young boy feels alone with his worries, which manifest as tiny beings that crowd around him constantly, overwhelming him and literally gnawing away at him. Talented Australian artist Mel Tregonning created Small Things in the final year of her life. Her striking imagery is all the more powerful when, overcoming his isolation at last, the boy discovers that the tiny demons of worry surround everyone, even those who seem to have it all together. Short but hard-hitting, Small Things externalizes and personifies childhood anxiety in a way that opens the way for dialogue about acceptance, vulnerability, and the universal experience of worry.
In Mr. Huff, from award-winning author/illustrator Anna Walker, discontent is personified as Mr. Huff, who follows Bill around one day, making everything seem sad and difficult. He’s reluctant to talk about Mr. Huff, and exhausted by trying to ignore him. As in When Sadness Is At Your Door, it’s when Bill acknowledges and accepts Mr. Huff that things start to look up.
The Elephant by Peter Carnavas is actually a heavily illustrated young middle grade novel, by a beloved picture book author/illustrator. In it, Olive's dad's depression is personified as an elephant. When he drags himself to work in the morning, the elephant goes with him. When he comes home again, so does the elephant. It’s always there, heavy and silent, casting a shadow of sadness over him. Olive can’t stand to see her father burdened like this. With help from her grandfather and her best friend Arthur, she hatches a plan to rid her family of the elephant once and for all. Before long, she’ll learn that while happiness isn’t that simple, small things can move mountains―or elephants.
In Mr. Sherman's Cloud, Sherman’s bad mood is externalized in a bold graphic style, taking the form of a literal rain cloud, soaking him and making his mood―and the weather―worse. An unexpected encounter with imaginative children helps Mr. Sherman find the silver lining to his cloud and brightens his day, turning his outlook from pessimism into optimism.
When a young boy loses his mother, his grief is personified in the form of an invisible dragon who swoops in and perches on top of his head in My Big, Dumb, Invisible Dragon. The dragon follows him to school, sleeps on his chest at night (making it hard for him to breathe), and even crashes his birthday party. As the boy comes to terms with his mother’s death, however, his relationship with the dragon changes in surprising ways.
Author-illustrator Brooke Boynton-Hughes personifies fears as monsters in Brave Molly. Molly is tormented by monsters that nobody can see but her. At first, she runs from them. But they follow her down the sidewalk, getting in the way when she tries to make a new friend, popping up unexpectedly out of shadows, and multiplying. Until finally...Molly faces her fears. The story honors everyday acts of bravery and the power of friendship to banish the monsters that haunt us.
Worry Says What externalizes and personifies the “ways that worry whispers to young minds” and offers a way for children to redefine their relationship with their worries. Allison Edwards is also the author of the best-selling book Why Smart Kids Worry. Worry Says What? is designed to help children flip their thinking when anxious thoughts begin and turn them into powerful reminders of all they are capable of accomplishing.
The Snurch isn’t worried or sad - but he’s scribbly, scrunchy, grabby, burpy, and rude. And he’s wreaking havoc on some of Ruthie’s school days! From the team behind I Don’t Like Koala, this clever picture book takes a discerning look at the challenges of behaving and controlling your emotions—especially when your own personal monster keeps getting in the way.
In Caron Levis’ Stuck With The Blooz, the blues are personified in the form of a drippy, oozy monster called the Blooz. Through trial and error (Do you ignore it? Do you ask it lots of questions? Do you give it an ice-pop and hope it goes away? ), the child in this story discovers that while it may not be easy, it's not impossible to shake the Blooz. A read-aloud rhythm and whimsical illustrations add to the takeaway that occasional sadness is normal and manageable.
In Sam’s Pet Temper by Sangeeta Bhadra, Sam has to wait for everything on the playground one day, and this makes him mad. He gets madder and madder until he’s the maddest he’s ever been in his whole life. And then, suddenly, an unusual thing appears. It runs around, shoving and tripping and pinching and stomping, until all the other children have run away. At first, having a pet Temper is fun. But before long, the Temper starts causing trouble for Sam. And eventually, Sam comes to the realization that his Temper is something he needs to learn to control.
Jack’s Worry is a touching and reassuring story about the jitters associated with first experiences — and the satisfaction that comes with conquering your fears. Jack loves playing the trumpet, and for weeks he’s been looking forward to taking part in his first concert. But on the morning of the big day, Jack finds he has a Worry. And his Worry starts to grow. Even when Jack’s mother calls him for a special breakfast, even when he hides under the bed or runs around the yard, his Worry follows him. When it’s almost time to leave for the concert, Jack is completely overwhelmed by his Worry, before finding a way to shrink it down to a manageable size.
*This post was originally written for A Novel Mind, a hub for all things neurodiversity and mental health in kidlit*