Jhere is a stack of books stacked on a small child’s chair at Rachel Robson’s feet. A multicolored tower of bright yellow, purple, blue. With monsters, little girls and uncomfortable emojis. And all of them exhibit – in some way – anxiety.
In the aisle next to Gleebooks in Sydney’s Glebe, where Robson works as a children’s book specialist, there is a shelf full of picture books. It used to be filled with books about potty use and different families – but now it’s dominated by books about feelings, emotional literacy and “a lot of anxiety”.
In recent years there has been a movement within children’s publishing towards more and more emotional well-being books. Books such as The Worrying Worries, Hey Warrior, In My Heart: A Book of Feelings have sold out in droves and, amid reports of rising rates of mental illness among children, the world of edition reacted.
“There have always been books for toddlers and young children about feelings and about exploring the range of feelings, positive and what we might call negative feelings,” says Angela Crocombe, Readings bookshop kids and digital content coordinator. “But over the last couple of years there’s definitely been an increase in these books about general feelings, and I would say in the last year there’s been a big increase in books about anxiety, books about depression – whether in parent or child – and many mindfulness books. Kids yoga has just had a boom.
“There are so many books.”
Anna McFarlane, children’s and young adult editor at Allen & Unwin, lists some upcoming titles. Last month they published Sujean Rim’s Take A Breath about an anxious baby bird who uses mindfulness techniques to overcome her fear of flying, but there are plenty of other such books on the cards. “We’ve definitely been actively looking for books that address this issue in a more direct way,” she says.
McFarlane’s team has witnessed mental health issues affecting many young children and “really strong sales” of books like Rachel Rooney’s The Problem with Problems. “We could see there was obviously a market for it,” she says. “We could see there was a hunger.”
“It’s fascinating,” says Miriam Rosenbloom, editor at children’s book specialist Scribble. At the Bologna Book Fair this year, she was struck by all the books about emotional literacy and kindness. International publishers told him that their slates were too full of emotional books to accept more.
For Rosenbloom, part of the reason is cyclical. She remembers a lot of the values-based books growing up in the 1980s, but since then those kinds of books have become “really on the nose,” she says. “Too didactic, or whatever.”
“I also think it has to do with attitudes towards parenthood, which have really changed a lot,” she says. Parents are now more aware of the need to support children emotionally, to give them an emotional vocabulary, to honor their feelings.
“I never read these books when I was a child”
The trend is not limited to picture books. “In children’s fiction, which is about kids ages 9 to 12, we see huge amounts of anxious characters,” says Gleebooks Robson.
She leafs through the stack of books. Nova Weetman’s Sick Bay, about an anxious child who befriends a diabetic child in the infirmary, “has always been huge for us for several years.” Guts, a graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier – “I really cried when I read that”. Last year, the Children Book Council of Australia’s book of the year was Kate Gordon’s Aster’s Good Right Thing, which features an anxious main character who is on the autism spectrum.
At first glance, bestselling mid-level fiction writer Karen Foxlee’s latest release, The Wrath of the Woolington Wyrm: Miss Mary-Kate Martin’s Guide to Monsters, is another in her line of magical fantasy books. But when it came to promoting the book to booksellers, the subject line said, “Helping children with anxiety.”
Foxlee doesn’t like to think in terms of editorial trends; it’s a fast track to losing your way as a writer, she says. “I was probably channeling my own inner ‘worried’ child,” she says, focusing her book on an anxious child.
When young readers meet the main character, Miss Mary-Kate Martin, there are immediate references to breathing techniques, special coping mechanisms, and the child’s counselor. But that doesn’t propel the narrative forward, as Mary-Kate navigates the path to unraveling the mystery of a small-town monster.
Foxlee says she wanted to create a character who was open about her anxieties, as those characters were absent from her reading as a child in the 1970s and 80s.
“I used to read and read when I was a kid,” she says. “I loved adventure and I loved magic. Everyone was always so brave and ‘we’re going to solve the mystery! And there was never an internal struggle in a lot of these books. Maybe that there were these books, but I certainly never read them as a kid, where anxiety was treated.
For Robson, these books are essential in giving children a place to see their lives reflected; to give other children empathetic insight into the lives and minds of their friends who may be experiencing anxiety or other emotional challenges. Books like these were game changers in his own home.
Are they for children or their parents?
“One really positive thing is that it created a space to have these really simple conversations with kids that nobody really had with me when I was a kid,” says Rosenbloom, editor of Scribble. “The way my kids can talk about their feelings almost makes me cry. I wish I could articulate that when I was a kid.
“I have very mixed feelings about it; the cynical person in me may roll their eyes, and sometimes the parent in me is grateful.
The ambivalence is shared.
“I think sometimes the books can be a bit heavy,” says Crocombe from Readings. “But that’s what can happen when there are a lot of publications in a particular area; there are the quality ones that will last, and the ones that kind of knock you over the head.
Robson draws a distinction between books that appeal to parents and those to which children gravitate. At Christmas, some of the bestsellers were heavy tomes, guides to child well-being with colorful pictures and a penchant for helping each other.
“It was mindfulness, post-anxiety, what-do-you-do-with-that-anxiety?” she says. “But I don’t think it’s something the kids take on their own. It’s something parents will buy into.
“I’m worried that it’s all sales-based and they’re not talking to kids enough,” she says. “Kids have a lot to say, and I wish we would listen to them more, I guess.”
Meanwhile, in Rosenbloom’s family, they returned to more familiar themes. When her three-year-old chooses a book, Rosenbloom will ask, “Why do you choose this book?”
And always, the child answers: “Because it’s funny.”