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I’ve always been a worrier. In elementary school, I was afraid of speaking in class, and dreaded being called upon, even if I knew the answers. Well-meaning grownups would often say, “Don’t worry. There’s nothing to be afraid of. You just need to think positive.” I appreciated their reassurances, but you can’t get rid of anxiety with breezy bromides.
You can help ease fears by opening the door to a conversation, and here are some books that I wish I had growing up—both for myself and for the adults in my life. The following authentic and non-didactic picture books, middle grade, and teen fiction titles show realistic, nuanced characters who work on navigating their fears. These are books in which kids can feel seen and understood, and realize that they aren’t alone. Educators can make a profoundly positive difference in the life of a child, and these engaging stories also offer prescient insight into mental wellness supports.
Healing power of art
On the night before the first day of school, Molly Akita can’t sleep because it feels like there’s a pack of rabble-rousing dogs running wild in her head, “begging to be let out.” In When Molly Drew Dogs written by Deborah Kerbel and illustrated by Lis Xu, the little girl discovers she can tame these intrusive thoughts by drawing pictures of them. However, when her dogs keep showing up on her classroom assignments, her teacher initially thinks she isn’t paying attention. With poetic images and subtle, symbolic plot turns, this picture book brilliantly shows that Molly isn’t obstinately misbehaving. It is hard to maintain control with anxiety nipping at your heels. Molly’s teacher, realizing the importance of art to the child’s well-being, gives her the acknowledgement and acceptance she needs to thrive. As an art extension idea, students can create paintings that express an emotion using colour, line, textures and shapes.
What’s in your Emergency Kit?
Everyone has to venture into the unknown sometimes in their life. Melanie Watt’s beloved Scaredy Squirrel takes an inimitably individual deep dive into this challenge. Even though there are advantages to staying snugly within the safety of his nut tree (“great view”, “plenty of nuts”), there are also many risks in never exploring the world (“same old view”, “same old nuts”). When a situation arises that lands Scaredy smack dab in the midst of one of his biggest fears, he is pushed out of his comfort zone and he discovers something new about himself. In a nutshell, this classic series shows that worrying over potential hazards, be it “tarantulas,” “poison ivy,” or even “green Martians,” is normal. Students can describe some things that they are afraid of, along with what items they would like in their own personal emergency kits.
Feeling secure and supported is crucial to everyone’s well-being. You Hold Me Up by Monique Gray Smith is a lovely meditation on compassion and respect. The declarative statements underline important tenets: “You hold me up when you comfort me”; “when you laugh with me”; “when you listen to me.” A strong sense of community runs through the poetic text and is warmly depicted in Danielle Daniel’s stunning watercolour paintings of children enjoying the company of their peers and elders. For kids living with anxiety, it can sometimes feel like a lonely, uphill climb, and a little kindness can go a long way. The final phrase, “We hold each other up” can spark discussions on how to build a classroom of community support so everyone can reach their potential.
Staying in the moment
When you are preoccupied with What Ifs, it is very hard to enjoy the Here and Now. This mindful message is explored in the picture book I’m Worried by Michael Ian Black, and hilariously illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi. Potato and Flamingo are plagued with nebulous fears of “the future.” Anxiety isn’t always rational, but it can seem very convincing. Their little girl pal reminds them that when bad things did happen in their past, like getting a beak stuck in a peanut butter jar, things turned out okay in the end. The author’s dedication serves as a helpful classroom breathing exercise: “For the worriers: Take a breath. Right now, in this moment, you are fine. And this moment is all that matters.”
Finding your own voice
In Willow’s Whispers, written by Lana Button and illustrated by Tania Howells, a little girl struggles with speaking in front of people. Anxiety has a sneaky way of shutting down voices, and Willow’s words come out so softly, she is either ignored or spoken down to. Acting on her own volition, she comes up with a way to project her thoughts in a way that works for her. Used as an empathy-builder for a classroom, this book affords students a realistic glimpse into what their more reticent peers may be going through. With a bit of creative support, and non-threatening opportunities to practice, Willow is able to build confidence and find her own, distinct voice. Students may be inspired to make their own cardboard “Magic Microphone” and the whole class could practice projecting their different voices together by chorally saying words or singing a song, both loudly and quietly.
Understanding and acceptance
It can be difficult being an introvert in an extroverted world. Violet Shrink written by Christine Baldacchino and illustrated by Carmen Mok is a thoughtful introduction to a young girl who simply prefers solitary pursuits like reading comics and listening to music through her purple headphones, rather than going to parties. Everyone is excited about the big Shrink family reunion coming up, but large social gatherings are physically exhausting for Violet, making her palms sweat, ears burn and stomach ache. It’s not that she is shy or that she doesn’t like chocolate cake, or playing games or accordion music, she just doesn’t like them “all at the same time!” When she openly and honestly states her feelings, her father “keeps his listening-for-real face on the whole time,” and together they come up with a compromise that respects and values Violet’s individuality. Creating a designated quiet space in the classroom where any student can sit and work uninterrupted if they become overwhelmed would offer a welcome reprieve.
In the award-winning middle grade novel Ebb and Flow by Heather Smith, an 11-year-old-boy is sent to stay with his grandmother, after having a “rotten bad year.” Jett’s personal story unfolds through free verse flashbacks that relay the stresses of his life. When Jett feels overwhelmed, his fight-or-flight response is triggered and he lashes out at people. With Grandma Jo’s quiet wisdom and steadfast guidance, Jett begins to deal with his complicated emotions that are dialed up to high volume, accepts responsibility for his actions and works towards making amends. Empathy, resilience, and courage are just some of the discussion themes to explore in this outstanding book.
Windows and mirrors
Teens will find a relatable and inspiring protagonist in The Reckoner trilogy by David Alexander Robertson. The first book in this supernatural mystery series is Strangers, and it introduces the multi-dimensional Cole Harper: a crime fighting Indigenous youth who has exceptional strength and speed, is a star basketball player, and lives with anxiety. Cole uses coping strategies, and through his journeys he comes to learn that anxiety is just one aspect of who he is, and does not make him any less a superhero. David Alexander Robertson has said, “The Reckoner Trilogy has always been about one thing: representation. Accurate portrayals of Indigenous People and those living with mental health problems. It is empowering to see yourself reflected in literature. It is vitally important that others are exposed to stories of truth, through lived experiences.” Robertson’s writing will spark meaningful conversations and reflections about the power of books and the importance of making sure that all kids can see themselves in the books they read.
Linda Ludke is a Collections Management Librarian at London Public Library. In her 29 years at LPL, her focus has been on Children's Services. She reviews children’s books for Quill & Quire, CM: Canadian Review of Materials, and the National Reading Campaign.