AKA Why this week’s library haul had me in tears.
There’s a lot to go over in this review, so I’m bear with me: There’s a reason these books are together like this, I promise.
Dad & The Dinosaur by Gennifer Choldenko –Nicholas isn’t brave like his dad: He’s afraid of all sorts of things, like bugs, & darkness, & manhole covers. But he has a secret weapon: A dinosaur that “likes the dark, bugs are nothing to them, and they eat manhole covers for lunch, and everything under them for dinner.” As long as his big, brave dinosaur is with him, Nick can do anything. So of course, Nick loses his dinosaur. And the night is at its darkest, and bugs are at their biggest, and manhole covers almost swallow Nick & his parents whole. He can’t even go to sleep, without his brave dinosaur friend under his pillow. Then Nick’s dad notices something is wrong, asks him what’s up, and waits patiently for his son to answer. Nick tells him all about his secret dinosaur & it’s power to confront evil on Nick’s behalf, & his dad understands. Even though it is bedtime, they go looking for the dang thing, in the middle of the night, at the soccer field Nick thinks he dropped him on.
Nick’s dad doesn’t downplay either his worries, or the curative powers of a four inch plastic dinosaur. Instead, he basically says “Ok kid: let’s go find your magic dinosaur.” And when his wife gives him the “What the heck is happening” face as he takes his pajama-d kid out of bed and out into the car, he simply tells her that they’re doing “guy things.” It’s GUY THINGS TO EMOTIONALLY VALIDATE YOUR YOUNG CHILD’S FEELINGS & EXPERIENCES. Hell yeah it is! Anyways, they obviously find the dinosaur and there’s a happily ever after and all, but it’s the simple, likely-overlooked-by-most addition of “guy things” that got me. Children’s books these days are out there DOING THE GODDAMN WORK.
What if, Pig by Lizzie Hunter – Pig is the very best of friends: He’s kind and generous & fun. He’s such a good friend that he has so many other good friends, and decides that the best thing to do would be to throw an amazing party. But before the date of the pig party arrives, Pig starts to worry about it. A Lot. And as party time draws nearer, his worries grow and grow, and become more absurd, and more overwhelming, and Pig worries so much that he has to cancel the party, just to get through the day without all of his huge worries attacking him. His friend, Mouse, understands: The idea of throwing the party was too much for Pig right now… but it turns out that Pig is not only a good friend, he also HAS really good friends, because after he cancels the party, they all get together and decide to throw the party FOR him. Surprise! The party isn’t the only surprise in store though, because all of Pig’s friends also have their own worries – sometimes BIG worries – and they all share them at the party, making all of Pig’s what ifs seem a little less scary.
This illustration of an anxiety spiral – because when I was 5 – if I had someone to illustrate an anxiety spiral so well in a book I was reading, maybe I would have better understood what the heck was happening in my brain. Why it got so caught up on hypotheticals, and why that’s not a really weird thing that only I was doing. Pig’s dissent into panic is believable, and relatable, and -just- this side of overwhelming.
Captain Starfish by Davina Bell- Alfie, our hero, is supposed to play the top Starfish in his costume parade. At first, he’s excited about his role. But as the day gets closer, poor Alfie starts to feel a familiar feeling, and not in a good way. It’s the feeling he had about his friend’s birthday party, when he had to ask him mum to turn her car around and go home instead. Other times, too, Alfie felt this heavy weight, this weirdness, this ____ feeling that sometimes keeps him awake all night long. When the morning of the parade comes, Alfie knows he just can’t be Captain Starfish. Because of that feeling.
And that’s when this book went from good to “Ok but will I be able to read this aloud without crying” (the answer to this question is no, but that’s fine, all of my niblings know I get really emotional about things: People have emotions, and sometimes crying is happy and sad at the same time.) Because after a night of tossing and turning, of dreaming that he was carrying the whole wide ocean on his back, and whispering his fears to his cowboy wallpaper in the hopes that it would fix everything,
“Mom came in and sat on his bed, and Alfie said to her, “I can’t.” He turned to look at her face and said, “Please don’t be angry.”
If you’ve never had anxiety, if you’ve never felt like you were letting down every single person in your life, and even people you don’t even know, because you just COULD NOT do the thing (whatever that thing might be), then probably that page won’t make you burst into tears. But if you do have anxiety? Or you’ve ever had anxiety? Or the kid you’re reading with has anxiety? The simple illustration of that little boy, his face almost blank, looking up at his smiling, caring mother, hoping she won’t reject him or be too upset with him, well it might hit a tender spot for you, too.
Alfie and his mom – who is not mad at him – go on a little adventure, instead of school and the dreaded costume parade, that day, and the world doesn’t end. Alfie still has that feeling at different points in his day, when he remember what was supposed to be happening, and what he was supposed to be doing – because anxiety doesn’t just disappear, even when the main stressors are removed, sometimes – but he’s ok. He gets through it. His day ends with a bath, just like always, and he thinks that next year, he might try something more in the lines of a clown fish – a fish that peeks out and then retreats, hides behind the coral, for his costume parade. (And later, we see that he does.)
You’ve Got Dragons by Kathryn Cave – You’ve Got Dragons broke it down piece by piece
“Your heart thuds & Your knees shake & Your head whirls & You feel hot & Cold &
You can’t breathe & Your tummy hurts & You can’t believe It’s happening to you,
but it is. It really is. You’ve got dragons.”
“You ignore them & run away from them &
You hide from them & You pretend they’re not dragons &
You shout at them & You don’t want to turn out the light &
you pay attention to them & you tell them jokes &
you can’t think of anything else then suddenly….
… something feels different.”
This book never once mentions anxiety, but wow, these dragons: They show up everywhere! And man, are they hard to manage, especially at first! And then, once you talk to some people who know things about dragons and how to mange them, what do you know? They start to get easier for you to manage too!
When You Are Brave by Pat Zietlow Miller – Echoing a lot of what gets covered in You’ve Got Dragons, the focus here is more on practicing being brave, and the different situations you might need to do that in.
” Because once you find your courage, it’s easy to use again and again.
The next time life seems scary to you or you start something new,
you can remember
when you were brave.”
The completely validating emotional aspects of all of these stories (in so many different ways), are one of the reasons I love them so much. Pig is buoyed and appreciated by his friends, regardless of his anxiety. Alfie misses something that seems “important”, but the world doesn’t end when he misses it. His parents LISTEN to him, and BELIEVE him, and let him choose, and deal with the consequences of his choices. Dragons exist, and can be conquered. Sometimes they just happen, on any ordinary day, and there are ways to deal with them, no matter how overwhelming they feel.
Pig’s illustrated ‘what if’ spiral; Alfie checking in with his dad after the day goes crooked; Nick’s Dad taking him to the soccer field in the middle of thing night to find a magical dinosaur – all of these books are VALIDATING the emotions of young children in hugely positive, forward thinking ways. Pig’s descent into panic is believable, and relatable, and just this side of overwhelming. Nick’s Dad understands the need for a comfort item without question. Alfie’s parents figure out an alternative to the thing that was giving their kid sleepless nights.
Learning that Dragons aren’t a punishment, or a thing you have to pretend away, and that being brave takes practice, but gets easier the more you do it. It’s the way Alfie is able to express “All around him, the ocean felt as heavy as the world,” and we know what he means. And – more importantly – KIDS will know what he means. Without ever mentioning (ever!) the words anxiety or panic, all of these books convey those FEELINGS in a way kids can understand and connect to.
And having it broken down like that? Is such a valuable tool for teachers, and parents, and kids. Because that tornado of ‘worst possible things that could happen’ is NOT rare, and anxiety – in these pandemic times, especially – is so common, that it’s its own mental health crisis. We should be addressing it now, as it’s happening. Kids deserve to have books that treat mental health like just another part of their life, body, & experiences. They need these kind of books to help them build the social-emotional vocabulary, and essential skills that understanding how our brains work, & how to adapt to our brains, requires from us. It’s not even that difficult to incorporate coping skills and understanding into everyday stories, honestly? As illustrated beautifully in each of these books.
I don’t know about you, but my goal for the kids in my life – big & little – is to help them build their emotional intelligence up to the point that they’re eventually able to recognize, express, and feel all their feelings – even the really hard ones – in as healthy a way as possible. Having books like these around, as part of our emotionally literate library, is one of the tools I consider essential for that.
Hence, my gift giving book budget continues to grow & grow, and I have yet to feel even the tiniest bit sorry about it.