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3 Picture Books to Read in Times of Emotional Distress

I love children’s literature. Picture books are beautiful and succinct, and I believe the short, artistic narratives can be helpful for both children and adults. Illustration is the crux of picture books. The art conveys messages outside of language, which is often what we need when dealing with emotions.

Below are three picture books that can reassure readers (kids and adults alike) in times of emotional distress.

1. “The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm” by LeVar Burton

Framed as a story within a story, “The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm” thoughtfully tackles trauma, its effects and how healing can begin. The book begins with a storm. Mica the mouse, whose home had been destroyed the year before by a hurricane, is afraid of the storm outside. Mica’s papa suggests they read a story to comfort themselves.The story they read is about a young rhinoceros who has also experienced a great tragedy beyond his control. Witnessing the trauma a storm brings to his habitat, little Rhino stands up on a cliff and swallows the storm. As a result, it lives inside him and affects him for days to come.

“The storm crashed through his world and tore it apart, and took away everything dear to his heart.”

“Rhino was stunned by the terrible scene, death and destruction all through the ravine. Enraged by the pain of such a great loss, Rhino acted without a thought to the cost. Rhino looked at his world, all tattered and torn, stood out on the ledge and… swallowed the storm.”

“Inside his belly, he felt the storm growing. Inside his head, he heard howling and blowing. Like a tornado he spun as the storm raged inside, growing bigger and bigger and wider than wide. When he finally stopped, when he regained control, he was at the very bottom of a very deep hole.”

Having internalized the storm, Rhino ends up at the bottom of a deep, dark hole, feeling emotionally isolated. Some friends help him climb out of the hole, but Rhino doesn’t feel much better. He doesn’t truly begin to heal until he encounters a tortoise who tells him, “It doesn’t matter if you’re fast of you’re slow if you want to move forward, just trust and let go.” So Rhino begins processing his emotions in whatever way he can: He stomps in the mud, he shakes, he cries out a river and journeys down to the sea. Rhino returns home to find all the animals in his habitat, surrounding a campfire, full of love and acceptance. Even though they had all been rocked by tragedy, the love and support they shared with each other helped keep them afloat. Rhino no longer feels as isolated, even though he knows bad feelings will come and go. The love around him and the ability to express himself freely will help him recover. When the mice finish reading, Mica feels comforted by the story of little Rhino, who had so many friends to help him through his hard time. She identifies with him and knows that even though she no longer has her old home, she has found a new home and can rely on her family for support. LeVar Burton of “Reading Rainbow” fame delivers, in rhyme, two messages:

1. Sharing stories — through reading, talking to one another and seeking community — is a step we can take to help ourselves overcome emotional suffering.

2. Experiencing our emotions in a free, physical way can liberate us and help us move forward.

2. “Wemberly Worried” by Kevin Henkes

wemberly worried
“Wemberly worried about everything.” Kevin Henkes’ adorable, young mouse embodies anxiety; she is in a constant state of distress. “Big things” worry her — like whether her parents are still in their bedroom at night. “Little things,” like spilling milk, worry her. Henkes plays with paneled illustrations and text formatting to embody the disjointedness and growing magnitude of Wemberly’s anxious thoughts. Similar to what people with generalized anxiety disorder experience in their interpersonal relationships, Wemberly is told by her family not to worry.

“You worry too much,” said her mother.
“When you worry, I worry,” said her father.
“Worry, worry, worry,” said her grandmother. “Too much worry.”

Wemberly’s family members speak from a place of love, but their statements don’t help her. She still worries. In the end, Wemberly learns it’s OK to worry and be herself when she connects with another girl who worries like she does. Empathy (from both Wemberly and her new friend) helps Wemberly open up, feel accepted and get excited about the school year to come.

3. “The Fox and the Star” by Coraline Bickford-Smith

Beautifully illustrated, “The Fox and the Star” is about loss. Fox, who looks up at the sky every night and sees Star, who guides him through the darkness. Star illuminates the maze of the forest, lights the thickets of thorns and even shines through the rain to comfort Fox.

“All of Fox’s happiness was bound to the flickering light of Star. And so it had always been.”

One night, Fox wakes up and Star is gone. Fox has no idea where Star went, and retreats into his burrow, distraught. Fox stays underground until the primal need to eat stirs him. After taking a small step and eating, he feels a little better. He embarks on a journey through the forest to find Star. He asks the Beetles, the Rabbits, and the Trees, but none of them can help him. Only when Fox finds himself in the rain, outside his forest, does he settle into the silence and realize he may not be able to find his star. He receives a message from the Leaves when the rain clears, and looks up to see the sky “blazing” with stars.

“Fox could not believe there were so many stars! His heart was full of happiness. He knew that somewhere out there was a star that once was his.”

Whether you read The Fox and the Star as an example of depression and the loss of all happiness, or as grief and the loss of a friend, this story is a helpful reminder that things don’t last forever — the good and the bad. We may lose what we hold dear, feel hopeless and never want to leave our homes again; but there will always be a reason to look up. And we can find a way to feel happiness again if we can accept our feelings and find a way to move forward, one step at a time.

Follow this journey here.

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