5 gentle picture books about common childhood fears

Published on: 18 June 2023

Author-illustrator Angie Morgan shares some top books for soothing common worries that little ones might have.

Angie Morgan and the cover of Small Stanley's Big List of Scary StuffAngie Morgan and the cover of Small Stanley's Big List of Scary Stuff

The top ten childhood fears

Before I start I want to stress that I am not qualified in any way to talk about childhood fears and worries – in as much as I have no degrees in Psychology and I am not a professional counsellor. My only qualification is that I have dealt with various fears that my children experienced growing up and to which I always reacted by winging it and thinking on my feet – which is what most of us do, with a variety of outcomes – some good and some not so good!

So when the idea popped into my head of writing and illustrating a story involving a small boy who collects fears by writing a list that grows longer and longer until the list becomes so big that it stops him playing with his friends, I found out that that there is a world of things for children to be scared of – but fortunately very little of what they are scared of will actually harm them.

When I did the research for my book, which became Small Stanley’s BIG List of Scary Stuff, the list of common childhood fears was long and quite unsurprising. The overall top ten are:

  • the dark
  • monsters
  • ghosts
  • creepy crawlies
  • loud unexpected noises
  • storms
  • teachers being cross
  • dentists
  • injections
  • being lost/losing parents.

Number one – the dark – is an irrational fear for most children because, as we grown ups know, a room is still the same room whether or not there is a light on. What is scary is NOT BEING ABLE TO SEE – so shapes that are comfortingly recognisable in daylight suddenly take on a sinister appearance.

5 picture books that talk about childhood fears

The cover of Can't You Sleep Little Bear? by Martin Waddell and Barbara FirthIllustration: Barbara Firth

Can't You Sleep Little Bear? by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Barbara Firth

A book which deals with being afraid of the dark perfectly is Can’t You Sleep Little Bear?. This is a near-perfect book which was a great favourite in my family and deals with the fear of the dark, but setting it in a cosy bear cave with shadows dancing on the walls. It also highlights every parent’s feelings when their child won’t go to sleep and all they themselves want to do is rest and read a book, thereby creating the perfect story which appeals to both parents and children alike!

Most of the things that children are scared of are not the same as the things that their parents are scared of on their behalf. Stranger danger doesn’t appear in the list but teachers being cross does, so we can deduce that children are usually fearful of the small things that impinge directly on them – because bigger things, like global warming, are thankfully beyond their comprehension.

The Monster Bed by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Susan Varley

The Monster Bed deals with the perennial fear of monsters lurking beneath the bed. If a child has a bed that has space underneath (usually filled with slippers, fluff and dead woodlice) it is perfectly understandable that they would imagine that scary monsters would creep underneath at night. Who doesn’t recall this fear? I know I do. In this book Jeanne Willis turns the whole idea upside down by making the protagonist a monster called Dennis who is scared of finding a human under his bed. Genius.

Illustration from Badger's Parting Gifts by Susan VarleyIllustration: Susan Varley

Badger's Parting Gifts by Susan Varley

Another book illustrated by Susan Varley, and also written by her, which helped my children deal with the death of their much-loved grandma, is Badger’s Parting Gifts. Fear of death and of people you love disappearing forever is a massive cause of anxiety in children, and for families like ours who don’t believe in a god or heaven this book provides a comforting way to both remember and say goodbye. It is hard enough for grown ups to come to terms with the idea of never seeing someone again, so grieving is another fear which all children will encounter at some time in their lives – and to my mind this book has never been bettered.

The Whatifs by Emily Kilgore, illustrated by Zoe Persico

The Whatifs deals with the familiar nagging negative doubts that we all carry around with us, like the protagonist Cora. ‘What if my dog runs away?’ ‘What if any number of awful things happen?’ The Whatifs are delightfully illustrated as small colourful gremlins that change to friendly imp type creatures as Cora learns to realise that Whatifs can be good and positive instead of negative, and she learns to imagine what if something good happens instead of something bad.

Illustration from Ruby's Worry by Tom PercivalIllustration: Tom Percival

Ruby’s Worry by Tom Percival

Ruby's Worry is an inspired book which illustrates simply how a small worry can grow out of control unless you talk about it. The illustrations work in parallel with the narrative in making the colour gradually disappear from the pages in Ruby’s world as her worry gets bigger and bigger until she finally meets another child who has a worry too, and the pages are alight with rainbows and happy colours as they both learn that talking about and sharing a worry is the best way to deal with it. 

Small Stanley’s Big List of Scary Stuff by Angie Morgan is out now.