Mental Health in Picture Books


 You may argue that most books are ‘mental health books’ if you look at this definition by the

World Health Organisation

Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or
her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and
fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.
I like this definition as it has the potential to remove much of the stigma around the topic.

Many of the books I have chosen are about feelings and the abundance of emotions we experience each day. Others delve a little deeper and try to explain the inexplicable: those feelings of hopelessness, sadness and dark clouds that stay around far too long.

Writers, of course, suffer more than their fair share of depression and many picture books do such a great job of showing what it feels like to suffer from depression that they should be on the reading list of adults who want to know more about how it feels.

From the outside it may look like malingering, bad temper and ugly behaviour –  and who can empathise with such unattractive traits? Tim Lott

Let’s start with clouds and depression.

Willy and the Cloud by Anthony Browne

Anthony Browne is a genius. Here is Willy who decides to go to the park. A tiny cloud starts to follow and, annoyingly, gets bigger. Willy reports it to the police, who only laugh at him so he closes the curtains to block it from view. But of course, the cloud is still there when he opens them a few hours later. In despair he shouts at the cloud to ‘GO AWAY!’ and it does. The relief is glorious and Willy feels like singing, dancing and going to join his friends in the park. Moods, or clouds, can disappear as suddenly as they arrive.

A simple introduction to feeling glum for little ones and a perfect introduction to the sense of isolation, despair, misunderstanding and lack of reason for older readers.

That’s a bit annoying, he thought. The cloud seemed to be following him.

The Cloud by Hannah Cumming

Everyone is enjoying art class, apart from ‘one girl who sat by herself and drew nothing’.  She has a black cloud over her head, which seeps into her speech and onto her drawings. One little girl wants to be her friend and after many attempts and an invite to draw something together she manages to get a smile. The other children decide they want to join in and soon everyone is drawing together on a big piece of paper. And the cloud is gone, ‘well, sort of!’

The strength 
of this book
is empathy.

The little girl is clearly in need of a friend and understandably is alone most of the time.

Why does one girl decide to be her friend?

Why does she keep trying even after being given a mouthful of ‘black cloud’?

I think this is a good book to really prompt discussion about friendship and understanding why someone might be rude, unpleasant and alone despite best efforts by those around.

The message about not giving up and that the ‘black cloud’ is always there lurking in the background is a good one.

 A very useful book in have in your collection.


Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault

Trying to connect with someone who is scaring everyone away with their bad mood is the theme of this brilliant picture book. Virginia is feeling ‘wolfish. She made wolf sounds and did strange things…’ Her sister Vanessa does her best to cheer her up using her talent for drawing but that doesn’t work, neither do friends calling and Virginia’s sensitivity to noise soon turns the whole house dim ‘Glad became doom’. Vanessa persists, offering treats  and making funny faces but nothing changes so she curls up in bed with her sister and pleads. Finally, after a long silence, Virginia says that flying to a perfect place might feel better and so Vanessa paints Bloomsberry and ‘brought the outside inside’ where everything is quiet but colourful and Virginia begins to join in by telling a story about a ‘grey-shelled snail that passed along the earth and reached the top of a mountain without realising it’. Finally, the ‘whole house lifted…Dim became bright’ and the next day when Virginia comments that the ‘flowers are floppy and the trees look like lollipops’ she declared the drawing as perfect and ‘sheepishly’ agrees to feeling better and going out to play.

I really identified with the feelings in this book. One person’s mood sours the whole household and everyone in the family is left to creep around them not making a noise or doing anything that will upset them – even Vanessa cleaning her teeth makes Virginia complain. So all credit to Vanessa, an understanding and compassionate sister who does everything she can to pull Virginia out of her bad mood. She doesn’t give up and the tender moment of her laying beside her in bed ‘two quiet lumps under the blanket’ is so touching,  Depression sucks energy from the sufferer and from those around them and so it is left to Vanessa to make sense of how she can help by doing something she enjoys doing. And for me, that is the lesson here. If you live with a depressive you have to be understanding, of course, but you also have to pursue the things you enjoy. Maybe by getting lost in her drawings Vanessa has created just enough of a gap to let some light into the bleakness. Has she inspired Virginia? Absolutely. Will it work next time? Maybe. Maybe not. But for Vanessa, and maybe the real sister of Virginia the modernist painter, Vanessa Bell, it is an escape route that stops depression from ruining everything.

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

‘Sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to’
is the opening of this superbly illustrated and evocative picture book.

The little girl stumbles from bad to worse through a room filled with decaying leaves, trapped in a bottle, lost in a maze of time and paper robots. Like Willy and the Cloud the feeling of isolation, of life passing by and despair setting in as

‘sometimes you just don’t know what you are supposed to do’

are suddenly lifted as the little girl returns to her room to find a red tree growing ‘bright and vivid, quietly waiting’. With very few words and imaginative, surreal illustrations this book is very thought provoking. A great one to use for art and emotions with enough complexity to coax most ‘high-lo’ readers into giving their opinion.


Michael Rosen’s Sad Book by Michael Rosen
and Quentin Blake

The book begins with a colourful picture of Michael looking happy. He explains that he is only pretending to be happy because he thinks people won’t like him if he looks sad. This first page alone can prompt so much discussion about how we think we should feel and behave in front of others.

In reality, his sadness can be all consuming and the next illustrations show him grey, alone and extremely tired. Michael writes that the reason for this is because his son Eddie died and that also makes him very angry and sometimes he doesn’t want to talk about it and sometimes he does crazy things like shouting in the shower. 



Michael explains that everyone feels sad and it is a normal part of life. It doesn’t stop you from enjoying happy memories or nice things like birthdays.

Sadness is a reality and everyone will experience loss so why not have a picture book about it?

Michael said he wrote the book after a reading with a group of children who asked, matter-of-factly, about the death of his son. Their curiosity and ability to ask questions (when most adults would be silent or even walk the other way) is a good reminder that children have an enormous capacity to understand life in their own way.

Night Shift by Debi Gliori

Like Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, Night Shift is Debi Gliori’s own story of coping with depression. She describes it as a fog rolling in ‘every night and during the day too’ and she illustrates it as a dragon ‘because of their ability to turn a fertile realm into a blackened, smoking ruin’.  The dragon interrupts her day like a cat, pawing her awake or constantly demanding attention, so she is left tired, full of dread and ‘hollowed out’. The only colour in the book is the bright orange and yellow flames that shoot out of the dragons nose and consume the small, child who is ‘holding fast to nothing in the knowledge that nothing will last forever.’  Unlike Michael Rosen who shows himself interacting with others, Gliori is very much alone in her battles and only finds hope when exhausted she examines a stripy, beautiful feather and ‘something shifted’. At the end of this small picture book is an explanation of her battle and her loneliness. I think this is a very advanced picture book and one to use with students who need to understand their parent’s depression, or perhaps, their own.


After the Fall : How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again
by Dan Santat

One of my favourite books in this collection. What happened to Humpty Dumpty after ‘all the king’s horses and all the kings men couldn’t put Humpty together again’?  Well, he became frightened of heights and couldn’t enjoy his birdwatching hobby (he was on the wall to be closer to the birds), he couldn’t even climb the ladder to his bunk bed or to the tallest shelf in the supermarket. But then he had an idea, he would try to make paper planes so he could at least fly them with the birds. He struggled to make them and after many attempts he made one so perfectly that it zoomed up and away over the wall. Agh! The dreaded wall. There was only one way to get it back, so with much tenacity and fighting his terror he climbed the ladder step by step. Reaching the top he realised he was no longer afraid and hoped he would be remembered not as the egg that fell but as the bird that flew. Brilliant.


Thank Goodness for Bob by Matthew Morgan and Gabriel Alborozo

Max worried. A lot. Unlike his dog, Bob, who didn’t worry at all.

This is  super testament to the power of animals and to all those schemes that encourage children to read to a dog. Max is isolated. His worries are making home life very unhappy. On one side of the page he sits by himself, huddled in a chair. On the opposite side of the page his sister is engaged in the chat mum and dad are enjoying. Dad has his arm around mum as she knits and at her feet is Bob the dog lying asleep in his bed. Max can’t share his worries. He thinks his sister will tease him, his parents are too busy and his teacher would think him a fool. But his worries about friendships, clothes, spiders, aliens, even taking a bath are making him feel ‘dizzy and numb’. But of course, everyone knows it is just that they don’t know what to do to help. Thank goodness for Bob. The patient dog who knows when to ask for a pat and will lay next to Max as he talks about his worries. As each worry turns into a bubble, Max and Bob see how small and silly they look and take turns to pop them with karate chops and jumps and bounces. Max learns to share his worries and it seems the whole family is in debt to the brilliant canine therapist Bob.

Emily Brown and the Elephant Emergency
by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton

I am a big fan of That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown (a great book to read aloud) and this is equally as good. Emily Brown is off on adventures with her rabbit Stanley and her friend Matilda. They are all having a great time and coping admirably with whitewater rafting, searching for new species in the land of the dinosaurs and climbing Mount Everest. There is just one problem, each adventure is interrupted by Matilda’s mummy who uses the emergency telephone to convey her concerns. She is worried that Matilda doesn’t have her wellington boots or something to eat for tea or that she has forgotten to wear her nice clean socks. No nonsense Emily Brown explains very firmly that Matilda does not need any of those things and the emergency telephone should only be used for EMERGENCIES! When Matilda does feel unwell and calls Mummy there is no answer. So the friends set off to find Mummy who has been ‘kidnapped by great, grey busy-ness’ and forgotten her telephone.  This is a great book for worrying mums, busy mums, clingy children and any child who has just been given a phone for emergencies.

Into the Forest by Anthony Browne

You can depend on Anthony Browne’s wondrous illustrations and extraordinary story-telling to depict anxiety as a living nightmare. With father gone, and no news about when he is coming home, a boy must take a cake to his sick grandma. Wanting to be home as soon as possible (just in case his father has returned) he takes a shortcut through the woods and comes across familiar fairytale characters. There is Jack trying to sell his cow, Hansel and Gretel huddled next to a tree and Little Red Riding Hood’s coat. But despite being familiar, they have a strange, nightmarish quality feigning sickness, wanting cake and missing lost parents. When he finally reaches Grandma’s house, she gives him a big smile and tells him she is feeling better and when he turns around there is Dad!  The books ends with mum’s arms outstretched ready to embrace him in a big hug.

Mr Worry by Roger Hargreaves

Poor Mr Worry.
Whatever happened, he worried about it. 

A good book for introducing the idea of writing down worries.  Mr Worry is caught up in a cycle of worry. If it rains he worries about his roof leaking and if doesn’t rain he worries his plants will die. He worries about shopping and money and friends. One day he meets a helpful wizard who tells him to write down all of his worries and the wizard will personally see to it that they never happen. Which he duly does, but of course Mr Worry then starts to worry that he has nothing to worry about! Typical silliness from beloved Mr Men characters providing a good start to talking about worries and what we can do about them.

Wemberley Worried by Kevin Henkes

Wemberley worried about everything.
Big things, little things, and things in between.

Some people are born worriers, and Wemberly’s worries are stopping her from enjoying everything from playing on swings to sleeping through the night. Despite having lots of hugs from her parents they seem unable to reassure her with their plea of ‘Don’t worry’. In fact, her parents are not helpful at all, Mother tells her she worries too much and father says ‘When you worry, I worry.’ Grandmother likes to go with the flow and offers her advice of ‘Too much worry’. Thank goodness Wemberly finds a friend at school. The build up to her first day is terrifying, but fortunately her new teacher introduces her to a friend called Jewel who seems as lost and as scared as Wemberly. They both leave school happy and looking forward to the next day.  Maybe a good book to use for first day fears but this is not the most useful book to have in your arsenal. What would happen if Wemberly didn’t find a friend on the first day? 

I wanted to make sure you were still here.


The Book of Feelings by Amanda McCardie 
illustrated by Salvatore Rubbino

There are so many feelings in this book that there is an index! Sam and Kate live with their mum, dad and dog called Fuzzy Bean. They experience all sorts of feelings during a typical day doing typical things. This is such a good book to discuss behaviour and how it changes when we feel different things. When happy, Kate is more likely to share, hug and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. But, when grumpy, Sam doesn’t feel loving or kind at all. Reading out loud makes Sam feel nervous ‘He gets a sick feeling, as if he is in a lift going down too fast’. Maddie, Kate’s friend ‘Needed people close to her to understand how hurt she was and to love her even when she pushed them away’ when her parents said they couldn’t live together anymore. In the Author’s Note McCardie says that some children may want to talk about how they feel or prefer to talk about the characters’ feelings or maybe just want to think without talking. Great advice.

The Feelings Book by Todd Parr

“No matter how you feel, don’t keep your feelings to yourself. Share them with someone you love” writes Todd Parr on the final page of his fantastic book all about feelings. Brilliant to use with the very young. Lots of colourful, humorous drawings which will provoke lots of giggles and maybe some reflection on how they are feeling.

There are No Animals in this Book (Only Feelings) by Chani Sanchez

It took a few readings of this book to really understand what it is about. I first objected to the idea that animals and feelings don’t go together – the title is so strange! Was it influenced by ‘There are Cats in this Book’ by Vivianne Schwarz or maybe trying to capture some of the humour like ‘The Book with No Pictures’ by B.J. Novak. It is neither. It matches art to feelings. Best to see the pictures below to get the idea.

Anh’s Anger by Gail Silver
Illustrated by Christiane Krömer

Anh and his anger sat together silently.
They sat.
They breathed in.
They breather out.

This is one of my favourite books to read aloud as we can all imagine what anger looks like. When Grandfather calls Anh for dinner Anh has a temper tantrum because he wants to keep playing. He tells Grandfather to ‘Go away! I hate you’ and Grandfather tells him to go to his room and sit with his anger. As Anh cries and wonders how he can do that a hairy, red creature appears and after dancing and spinning and making lots of noise they finally sit together in silence. When Grandfather enters the room, Anh is ready to say sorry and Grandfather is ready to share his story about when he met his anger. I really like that anger is portrayed as a friend, part of us that needs to be recognised. It takes away this pressure to be constantly happy and the danger of bottling up emotions. An interesting read aloud and a good introduction to mindfulness. 


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