The Illustrated Mum: understanding mental health through books

Published on: 30 April 2024

At BookTrust, we know how a book can be a lifeline for a child to process and understand what they're going through.

Here, we celebrate the impact of The Illustrated Mum, and how relatable stories can bring real change to children's lives.

An illustration from the front cover of The Illustrated Mum, featuring a woman with tattoos next to two children; the woman and one of the children look worried, while the other child looks angry

Illustration: Nick Sharratt

In 1999, when Jacqueline Wilson wrote The Illustrated Mum, compassionate, well-informed conversations around mental health weren't the norm. Despite this, Wilson shared a sensitive yet unflinching portrayal of a single mum struggling with bipolar disorder. She humanised a challenging topic, and explored it from the 10-year-old daughter's point of view.

25 years later, teenage readers are still finding solidarity in the ups and downs, the worries and threats, and the complex relationships that unfold in The Illustrated Mum. They're able to relate to a character whose parent doesn't fit the mould, who doesn't do "mumsy things", and who often needs her children to look after her. Meanwhile, the fictional format allows them to explore, compare and unpack their own experience from a safe distance.

Using books to support children's understanding of mental health

Our work at BookTrust work is underpinned by harnessing books and stories in all kinds of ways to change children's lives.

Deputy headteacher Ruth ordered BookTrust's Letterbox Club packs to support her school's most vulnerable students with reading.

"When difficult things happen, you have to give children vehicles to understand them," she says. "The easiest way to do that - and the safest way - is through wonderful books.

"I've had staff come to me asking for books that support students' mental health. They might be looking for non-fiction books that explore calming techniques. But what they're often asking for are stories featuring children who are witnessing a family member struggle with mental health."

She adds: "It's so special that BookTrust creates recommended booklists, authors or illustrators whose work teachers should explore, picking up on the key things that we try so hard to represent in schools. If you have books with characters that are experiencing things a child may be experiencing, you can share these books with them as a vehicle for challenging conversations."

Rachel Boden, BookTrust's Lead for Children's Book Promotion and Content Editor, says: "At BookTrust we're constantly reading and reviewing new high-quality children's books, including those representing some of life's most challenging situations.

"We compile themed lists so that adults working with children can find a diversity of books that will help them. Our website is a treasure trove of recommendations and curated booklists. If we can support those working with children by creating a new list about a particular topic, we're always happy to do so."

BookTrust's work: showing families how books can benefit them

Dad Louie sharing a story with his son

On the 25th anniversary of The Illustrated Mum, there are now many more children's books to represent the lived experiences of families affected by mental health. Over time, this has played a part in tackling stigma and misunderstanding (though challenges remain). It also contributes to an overall culture of being more open and proactive with children when talking about difficult feelings and situations – using books as a tool to do so gently.

The act of reading together itself is also beneficial for supporting families' mental health. During a child's early years, shared reading can help reduce parental stress, increase the bond they feel with their child, and enhance their emotional wellbeing – as well as the child's.

Louie, a parent who received books and resources from BookTrust, says: "I was reading a child's book and I just started crying. For some reason the words resonated differently. My son asked: 'Why are you sad?' I said: 'I don't know, I'm just having to cry. It's OK to cry, if you get sad.'

"Reading helps you learn a lot about yourself. A lot of the time, you'll resonate with the book's characters or what's going on."

There are very real and important consequences to supporting families to develop regular reading habits and nurture children to become readers. It can even lead them to a book like The Illustrated Mum, and the realisation that, if the heroine can ask for help, maybe they can, too.

Reading Together

Reading Together, Changing Children's Lives is based on decades of experience of working with millions of families and thousands of local partners, including health visitors, nurseries, schools, libraries and food banks.

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