8 books to read together in difficult times
Published on: 23 November 2020 Author: Laura Dockrill
Butterfly Brain author Laura Dockrill shares 8 children’s books that bring in the light when you need it most - and which are perfect for adults and children to read together.
Although written for children, these are books that guided me through recovery and I learnt from them to remind myself that we all encounter hard things, but we can get through them. Instead of shying away from change and unpleasant feelings we can make space for them and for our emotions, and this is something I am proud to teach my son.
Love from Alfie McPoonst, the Best Dog Ever by Dawn McNiff
This book had me in tears over a grown up meeting; it’s delicate, warm and gentle, it handles the fragility of loss so tenderly but celebrates life too. The illustrations are delightful with characters you just want to wrap your arms around. They are so cute! It is comforting and offers relief and a torch in the darkness.
Death, Duck and The Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch
A sophisticated, bold little book that speaks of death so gracefully, with a twinkle in its eye. Darkly humorous, there are parts that are blunt and stoic, but I think they are well-placed and perfectly timed. It's an original, slick, witty book with an energy of its own, and I think of it often.
Illustration: Quentin Blake
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book illustrated by Quentin Blake
This timeless book is now rightfully a classic and something I thought of a lot myself when I was in recovery. It breaks the stereotypical rules of everything a children’s book should be, shattering expectations of what a reader thinks they should find within its pages. Sad Book is not balloons and bright colours, this book is blurry, faded, muted, washed out in drab colours, scribbly and well…sad.
That said, don't think it doesn’t pack a punch. It's doing a huge amount of work in letting itself exist in this scratchy grey darkness. It is offering solace and companionship. It gives permission to the reader saying ME TOO – I felt sad too and that’s ok. It encourages a great space for healthy sadness as a lead emotion, big enough to make a whole book about it – and that is a precious lesson to learn; we don’t have to pretend to be ok. And for Rosen to generously let readers in on his own trauma is a perfect place to start in tackling the heavy stuff. He is showing rather than telling – encouraging us to ask for help and talk.
Of course we also learn that with darkness comes light too, it’s ok to look for the little lights in life that keep us going, there is no guilt or shame in that. And of course life goes on and we do recover. And there will always be candles on the birthday cake.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, Siobhan Dowd and Jim Kay
When I think of this book this is what I see: roots of huge old trees being pulled from the earth. Claws of branches open and ripping into the heavy brown sky. Derelict buildings. Roaring winds. Smashed shards of glass. Big, scary, scratchy shadows everywhere that make you feel tiny. Monsters.
And that is what it can feel like to go through something hard. Poetic. Scary. Unapologetic. Fearless. Heart-breaking and gut-wrenching. Leaning into the terror, not running or hiding. It is A LOT. And so it should be – why would we pretend to children that ‘bad’ things don’t happen? Children are far more resilient and robust than we think, they can handle the big stuff – it’s us adults that are the fragile ones! This book is one of those rare pieces of literature that make you think to yourself, thank goodness you exist. If my child was scared and didn’t have me to cuddle, he could turn to this book. And that is a light in itself, to turn towards the shadows and guide you through.
Illustration: Jim Kay
Where The Snow Angels Go by Maggie O’Farrell, illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini
A beautiful, romantic new fairytale that is majestic and elegant. Pure, true storytelling, it is captivating and enchanting. It has all the ingredients to transport a reader to a dream. It will sit with you reader, at the end of your bed, take you through, sprinkling its soft magic dust and courage. The illustrations are ridiculously beautiful too.
The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson, illustrated by Nick Sharratt
How could I put together this list and not mention the Queen, Jacqueline Wilson? The Illustrated Mum is my favourite of her books. It is raw, moving, challenging, uncomfortable. It offers a young person a mirror to see themselves inside, a hand to hold, a voice to use and an ear to confide in. This book offers visibility for anybody who has had their life touched by mental illness - none of us are immune to it. You are not weird. Or broken. Or a failure. Or wired wrong. It remembers that in a classroom, not everybody is going to have two neurotypical parents waiting for them at home… and that is ok. Bye bye, shame!
Illustration: Nick Sharratt
Luna Loves Library Day by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers
The first grief I ever knew was my parents breaking up. It was long and painful and scary and sad and confusing and overwhelming and heartbreaking and terrifying all at once. I was sad and scared for us and for my parents too. Nobody had died but I felt grief – real grief – of the past and of their love. It was entering the complete unknown. What would the future look like? Who could we all turn to when we couldn’t turn to each other?
Luna Loves Library Day, in a really subtle way, like a little hidden Easter Egg, disguises the terror Luna is experiencing. It addresses this BIG grief, which, for many children, can be their first loss. And so I was so grateful to see that in a picture book and see books themselves offer company, comfort and support with that very thing. Luna Loves Art offers that same comfort too. Not all families look the same –and that is a great message to celebrate.
Skellig by David Almond
Poetic, mysterious and so powerful. It gently walks beside you. It is a wise book full of secrets and magic. Like a shaken up bottle of fizzy drink waiting to have the cap screwed off – it inches and creeps up on you and YES, YOU WILL BE CRYING ON THE BUS.
Illustration: Fletcher Sibthorp
More books to let the light in
Explore our favourite books which talk about emotions and mental health.
Books that acknowledge or explore mental health issues can help to increase awareness, encourage dialogue, reduce stigma and develop real understanding. The following suggestions offer a spectrum of different perspectives and are well worth seeking out.
Picture books can be a great way to get children to discuss their feelings.
Books can help children to understand sad feelings – from losing a cherished toy to the death of a family member.