Soft Mental Health Books for Adults and Kids
A collab with Sarah from Can We Read?, a newsletter about children's books
When you read a lot of books about mental health (or, as some organizations are trying to shift the terminology, brain health), you get a front-seat view to a wide range of experiences. There are the heavy memoirs that deal with things like addiction or a mentally ill family member or spouse, but there are also mountains of light-hearted books that work to end the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Those light-hearted books are essential not just to educate adults on the scientific minutiae, but also to build empathy. Even more important are children’s books on the topic, allowing for an open space for kids to talk about their feelings.
This month, I’m collaborating with Sarah Miller from Can We Read?, a weekly newsletter about children’s books. I’m recommending the books for adults, she’s recommending the books for the kids.
Be sure to subscribe to Can We Read? for all things kids books-related. I especially love this discussion post about the kids books that stick with you—the comments are truly delightful.
On to the books.
The books (for adults)
The Crying Book by Heather Christle
The Crying Book is a gorgeous collection of vignettes, poems, and literary passages about crying. While writing the book, Heather Christle’s life was an emotional rollercoaster—a friend just died by suicide, she’s pregnant with her first child, and the United States is under a horrifying administration—and tears are the one central, unchanging thing. Christle digs into the science of tears and finds that the body produces different types of tears, with different chemical makeups and viscosities, to keep eyes lubricated, to flush out foreign objects, and to show emotion. It is a fascinating, scientific, cultural look at the first way we know to show emotion.
The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang
Esmé Weijun Wang has lived much of her life with the collected schizophrenias—because schizophrenia itself is an umbrella term—and this book is an extraordinary collection of essays on the topic. She goes deep into her own experiences with the illness, as well as the history of psychiatry and the failure to properly diagnose schizophrenic disorders. The Collected Schizophrenias is a poignant and vulnerable look at an often misunderstood disorder, told from the inside.
The Comfort Book by Matt Haig
Matt Haig’s collections of vignettes about living with mental illness are top-notch. The Comfort Book is the softest of the series, sitting alongside Reasons to Stay Alive (my fave) and Notes on a Nervous Planet (also good), and focusing on the little joys found in the world. It’s the perfect book to keep in your back pocket, in case of emergency. It also serves as a wonderful reminder to keep your own list of things that brighten your days.
The books (for kids)
Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Leonore Look, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Alvin Ho is an intensely lovable character—an Asian American second-grader who is afraid of many things—whose escapades are wonderfully human and relatable. He experiences selective mutism at school, borrows and accidentally breaks a childhood toy of his father’s, and thinks chicken pox comes from actual chickens and secretly visits the house of a stricken classmate to try to catch the chicken and its pox.
Pham’s tiny ink sketches are on at least every other page and add to the sense of fun in this book—a feature that would make it a good choice for a child just past early chapter books, as it’s just a bit more complex—but Look steals the show with her hilarious tone, which deftly captures the spirit of many kids his age.
Alvin is a gem and so is this book that introduces him to the world. I highly recommend getting to know him.
Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
Kyo Maclear is entirely underrated as an author for both children (Julia, Child) and adults (Birds Art Life). Her books are thoughtful, imaginative, even deep, and Virginia Wolf is an excellent example of each of these qualities.
Based loosely on the relationship between real-life Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, the story opens with Virginia waking up one day feeling “wolfish”—she makes wolf sounds and does strange things, like yelling in an increasingly loud voice “DO NOT BRUSH YOUR TEETH SO LOUDLY.” Vanessa tenderly coaxes Virginia into admitting there is a place that would make her feel better: a place called “Bloomsberry.” (Book nerds, this book is full of marvelous little literary nods.) While Virginia naps, Vanessa begins to create Bloomsberry on the walls of their room. When Virginia wakes up, she joins in, and together the sisters create a magical space that helps Virginia out of her ill-tempered mood.
Part art-therapy story, part ode to sisterhood, this is a whimsical yet insightful book about the “wolf” inside all of us, and how art—and understanding, compassion, and support—can soothe us until the growling passes.
Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes (2000)
Wemberly is a small mouse with big worries. She worries about everything, in the morning, at night, and throughout the day, wherever she goes. Her parents tell her she worries too much. She worries about worrying.
Now she’s worried about school starting. It’s a big list with items like “What if no one else has spots?” and “What if no one else brings a doll?” and “What if I can’t find the bathroom?” and “What if I have to cry?” When she arrives at school, Wemberly eases into a new friendship and a new concept: that she is not alone in her worries, nor is she is alone in the world.
I knew this book was magic when, the first time we ever read it and got to the page that says, “Wemberly worried about the start of school more than anything she had ever worried about before,” my eldest daughter—who is not prone to sharing her feelings—said “I worry about that a lot.” I was shocked and realized what an invitation this book is to acknowledge and explore the complications of worry.
Sarah’s picks have been edited for length; she’ll be publishing her full list alongside mine in August!
Many thanks to Sarah for this fabulous collab—I’m not normally a kids book reader, but these have me ready to march into my library to scoop them up immediately.
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