ILLUSTRATION FEATURE Responding to the Crisis in Children's Mental Health

In her first illustration feature for Words & Pictures, Alison Padley-Woods looks at how children’s picture books and illustrated novels are responding to the crisis in children’s mental health.

With recent statistics showing that one in eight children and young people suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition, it’s not surprising that more and more children’s books address the many emotional, behavioural and learning challenges that children face.

Of course, illustrated books have traditionally explored children’s fears and anxieties. Some of Sir John Tenniel’s most memorable illustrations in Alice in Wonderland show her shrinking and growing, reminding us that adolescence – becoming something new – is scary. Other classics, such as Winnie the Pooh, The Velveteen Rabbit and Peter Pan, deal with worries about growing up and change too.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,
written by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by John Tenniel

The Velveteen Rabbit,
 written by Margery Williams,
 illustrated by William Nicholson

But in today’s digital world, much is made about the possible effects of screen time and social media. New guidance, published by the Information Commissioner’s Office is being pushed through Parliament to keep children safe online, and perhaps picture books and illustrated novels are more important than ever. They can offer young readers a safe place, a non-threatening world to understand, express and manage their emotions.

So how does it work? Psychotherapist Lorraine Phillips explains:
Books can help children explore feelings and experiences they are struggling to cope with. Sometimes young people can relate to the characters through the story and illustration and it helps them to share what’s happening for them and helps them feel less alone. One book I’ve used is Virginia Ironside’s The Huge Bag of Worries. The story follows Jenny who has started to carry her worries around in a huge bag. The illustrations are vital to the story, because as Jenny begins to share her feelings, her bag gets visibly smaller.

The Huge Bag of Worries,
written by Virginia Ironside,
 illustrated by Frank Rodgers

The powerful combination of words and pictures is never more evident than in the award-winning Cry, Heart, But Never Break, written by Glenn Ringtved and illustrated by Charlotte Pardi. Pardi’s painterly illustrations of the four siblings trying to stop Death arriving at their grandmother’s bed are so expressive they make the book more poignant, particularly because Death himself looks so crestfallen throughout, as he helps the children realise the value of loss to life and the importance of saying goodbye.

Cry, Heart, But Never Break,
written by Glenn Ringtved,
 illustrated by Charlotte Pardi

A stream of illustrated books aimed at children’s mental health continues to grow. Published this month, Charlie Morphs into a Mammoth, the third in a series written by Sam Copeland and illustrated by Sarah Horne, deals with stress and anxiety through humour. Other recent books explore different emotions. Can you See Me? by Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott, looks at a girl’s struggle with autism, and in Matt Haig’s The Truth Pixie Goes to School, young readers can learn about friendship and struggling to fit in.

Charlie Morphs into a Mammoth,
 written by Sam Copeland,
illustrated by Sarah Horne

Through illustration, children can see how fictional characters handle the emotional problems they identify with. Following characters through to the end of the book, to a positive resolution, can offer children solutions and coping strategies. Reading together can spark conversation too. In doing this, stories – very often shared at bedtime – can allay fears and worries so often magnified by the onset of night and darkness. Quite literally, they can help children feel brave.

'Find your Brave' was the theme for this year’s Children’s Mental Health Week (3-9 February) and it’s a familiar theme to any children’s writer, or illustrator. Bravery is the attribute of so many heroes and heroines. But it’s important to show that bravery comes in different guises and that it isn’t about coping alone. It’s about sharing worries and asking for help. With mental health services overstretched, it’s critical to find alternative ways for parents and carers to build the strong emotional foundations young people need, especially when recent figures show that more than half of all referrals to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) now come from primary schools.

In response to this and to tie in with Children’s Mental Health Week, a scheme for GPs to recommend books for mental health was extended to young readers for the first time this February. The UK charity, The Readers Agency and Libraries Connected have run the Reading Well scheme since 2013. Now, it will include 33 books aimed at Key Stage 2. The books explore topics such as grief, anxiety, bullying and staying safe online and aim to offer support outside of a clinical setting.

Heading up the list are Michael Rosen’s The Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake, and Tom Percival’s Ruby’s Worry.

The Sad Book,
written by Michael Rosen,
illustrated by Quentin Blake

Ruby’s Worry,
written and illustrated by
Tom Percival

“The Reading Well campaign is such a fantastic initiative,” says Tom.
Reading in general offers us all so many things, but to read specifically about children who may have mental health challenges will enable children who share those particular issues to feel less isolated and will enable other children to empathise more. Basically, it’s a win/win—you either find out more about yourself, or other people, but usually both!

Clearly, the mental health of young children is a complex issue. Books don’t provide all the answers, but as Lorraine concludes,
Sharing stories together can be a non-direct way of talking about a problem. Each young person experiences things differently and you have to take this into account developmentally in terms of how much they understand their worries and anxieties. Some children may not be able to articulate their feelings, so books can be a way of helping. Sitting down with a child and sharing a story is about not having pre-conceived ideas, it’s about exploring what’s going on for them, building a rapport and connecting with young people. And because children learn through play, stories and pictures that visualise real issues are a way of accessing this. A book is a starting point. But if I took a tool kit into a school, books would be an important part of it. We all process things differently. Books offer a combination of different things that can help build children’s self-esteem, help them feel good about themselves, teach them skills, work through ways of coping for them and build resilience.



Resources for school and families

Charlie Waller Memorial Trust

The Reading Agency

Alison Padley-Woods joins the Words & Pictures team this month as our new Deputy Illustration Features Editor. Alison used to work for Condé Nast’s Brides magazine. She now writes middle grade fiction and picture books and has been shortlisted and longlisted for several prizes including The Times/Chicken House Competition, Bath Children’s Novel Award and Writing Magazine’s Picture Book Prize.

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