I’ve talked before about the kind of work picture books do – Kids learn everything from the alphabet to the existence of other galaxies from the books we read to them as young children. They’re essential tools for helping kids to have names for, & understanding of, everything inside & outside of their own experiences. But one of the greatest tasks reading with young children undertakes is helping them build their social & emotional vocabulary. We can use picture books to explain all of intangible things that make up the emotions young children might be encountering, some for the very first time. How else are you going to go into specifics about the way anxiety creeps up on you & overtakes your every thought? About how you can feel anger in your hands, feet, heart, & head? About how moods are normal & can change faster than the clouds move through the sky? Picture books have been helping kids learn about, label & process their emotions (and the emotions of those around them) since they were invented, & I – for one – am glad of it.
Two of the latest books I’m adding to my socio-emotional learning toolbox are Ava’s Triumph by Mary E Miller & Garrett Bear: Learning From Failure by K. Tang. In Learning From Failure, Garrett sets a goal to be his school’s rock climbing champion, and then has to learn how to deal with all the emotions that arise when he doesn’t meet that goal. In Ava’s Triumph, Ava, a felt bunny, is an artist whose art piece gets accidentally ‘ruined’, and she has to deal with all the emotions that that brings up. Each addresses the theme in different ways, but both are clear & focused without being preachy, (too often a pitfall of picture books that are trying to impart emotional skill building) & bring an essential understanding of what those words mean, what those feelings are, and how people can best cope with them.
K. Tang is a character educator, and Garrett Bear makes an appearance in multiple books in her Character Zchool series. On her website, you can access additional resources to accompany the books, including worksheets, & she has a pretty interesting Instagram presence where she discusses a lot of different aspects of character education. The book itself also includes a guide to help parents and educators help children learn to deal with failure at the end, which was a nice bonus. I really liked how she broke down failure into manageable concepts for even younger kids – what is failure, what does it feel like, what can we do about it? So, defining the different emotional pieces of how Garrett feels when he doesn’t meet his goal – his sadness, disappointment, & frustration – & moving from that, out to learning that everybody experiences failure sometimes, to finally learning the next steps to recover from failure in a concise & entertaining manner. The steps that Garrett’s adults suggest are then applicable to basically any situation where someone feels they have messed up/not met their goal, and that’s a takeaway that kids can internalize.
Ava’s process is also very clearly shown – through both the clever photographic illustrations & the brief, succinct vocabulary used. Ava experiences sadness, her disappointment that her efforts have been ruined is evident & not overlooked. Another hole some books about building emotional skills can fall into is not giving kids enough time to experience the hard feelings – to skip over the sad/frustrating parts in an effort to teach them how to recover. But accepting and experiencing those negative emotions is just as much a part of coping with hard times as the next steps are, and we do kids no favors by attempting to bypass theses moments. I’m glad that both books dedicate pages & explanations to the time, space & experience of the negative elements of these feelings. Otherwise, we’re not being honest with kids, and if we stick to positive toxicity & insist they skip over the feeling bad portion of these emotions, that won’t feel real to them, and they won’t be able to transfer the skills they’re supposed to be learning. So, when Ava does eventually get to resilience & persistence & happiness & creativity again, it doesn’t feel forced or fake, but authentic. Kids pick up on these intricacies & some authors don’t give them enough credit for it; I’m glad both of these books instead embrace it.
Ava’s Triumph is shorter, and has a different art style than most picture books, opting for photographs of a felt bunny & her environment. The photographs are bright, fun & cheery, and somehow still manage to capture the emotions of a frustrated piece of fuzzy cloth in a way kids seem to easily interpret.
Garrett Bear is more traditionally, but not less evocatively, illustrated, and has a higher text reading comprehension level – I’d say strictly early readers. I liked that Garrett interacted with other characters a bit more than Ava, receiving advice & help in a way that was realistic to how most young kids would take on their parent’s advice. (Which is to say, not at all, at first. But then to continue thinking about it until it made more sense to them, and then follow it just to see if it would work.)
Both books & both characters had great takes on resilience, perseverance, & understanding your emotions in the moment, so give them a try, if you’ve got a kiddo who struggles with those.
Both books were provided to me by NetGalley, in exchange for honest reviews.