THere’s a stack of books stacked on a tiny child’s chair at Rachel Robson’s feet. A multicolored tower in bright yellow, purple and blue. With monsters and little girls and ugly emojis. And everyone is – in a way – afraid.
Over the next aisle in the Gleebooks store in Sydney’s Glebe, where Robson works as a children’s book specialist, is a shelf full of picture books. It used to be full of books about potty training and different families – now books about feelings, emotional education and “very scared” dominate.
In recent years there has been a movement within children’s publishing towards more and more books on emotional wellbeing. Books like The Worrying Worries, Hey Warrior, In My Heart: A Book of Feelings have been selling in droves, and amid reports of increasing rates of mental illness in children, the publishing world has reacted.
“There have always been books for toddlers and young children about feelings and exploring the range of feelings, positive and negative feelings,” says Angela Crocombe, Readings bookstore children’s and digital content coordinator. “But in the last two years there’s definitely been an increase in 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 it’s in parents or children — and lots of books on mindfulness. Yoga for children has just experienced a boom.
“There are so many books.”
Anna McFarlane, children’s and young adults’ publisher at Allen & Unwin, rattles off a list of upcoming titles. Last month they released Sujean Rim’s Take A Breath, about an anxious baby bird who uses mindfulness techniques to overcome his fear of flying, but there are many more such books out there. “We’ve definitely been actively looking for books that deal more directly with it,” she says.
McFarlane’s team has witnessed the mental health struggles of many young children and the “really solid sales” of books like Rachel Rooney’s The Problem with Problems. “We could see that there’s obviously a market for it,” she says. “We could see that there was a hunger.”
“It’s fascinating,” says Miriam Rosenbloom, publisher at children’s book specialist Scribble. At this year’s Bologna Book Fair, she was struck by all the books on emotional education and kindness. International publishers have told her their slates are too full of sentimental books to take on.
For Rosenbloom, part of the reason is cyclical. She remembers reading a lot of values-based books growing up in the 1980s, but since then, these types of books have “really fallen flat,” she says. “Too didactic or whatever.”
“I also think it has to do with the attitude towards parenting, which has really changed a lot,” she says. Parents are now aware of the need to support children emotionally, to teach them emotional vocabulary and to appreciate their feelings.
“I never read these books as a child”
The trend is not just limited to picture books. “In children’s literature, that is, in the 9-12 age range, we see a huge amount of anxious characters,” says Gleebooks Robson.
She leafs through the books in the stack. Nova Weetman’s Sick Bay, about an anxious kid who befriends a diabetic kid in the infirmary, “has been a big deal for us for a number of years.” Guts, a graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier – “I actually cried reading this”. Last year’s Children Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year was Aster’s Good Right Thing by Kate Gordon, which features a main character with anxiety on the autism spectrum.
At first glance, bestselling author Karen Foxlee’s latest publication, The Wrath of the Woolington Wyrm: Miss Mary-Kate Martin’s Guide to Monsters, is another book in her magical fantasy book series. But when it came time to promote the book to booksellers, the subject line read, “Helping Children With Anxiety.”
Foxlee doesn’t like to think in terms of publishing trends; it’s a quick way to get lost as a writer, she says. “I probably channeled my own ‘problem child’ inside me,” she says of focusing her book on a child with anxiety.
When young readers encounter the title character, Miss Mary-Kate Martin, there are immediate references to breathing techniques, special coping mechanisms, and the child’s counselor. But it doesn’t advance the narrative as Mary-Kate steps down the path to solve the mystery of a small-town monster.
Foxlee says she wanted to create a character who was open about her fears because those characters were absent from her reading during her childhood in the 1970s and 80s.
“I read and I read as a kid,” she says. “I loved adventure and I loved magic. Everyone was always so brave and ‘Let’s go and solve the riddle!’ And in many of these books there was never an inner struggle. Maybe those books existed, but I certainly never read them as a kid that dealt with fear.”
For Robson, these books are crucial in giving children a place to reflect on their lives; To give other children an empathetic insight into the lives and thoughts of their friends who may be experiencing anxiety or other emotional challenges. Books like this were a game changer in her own household.
Are they for children or their parents?
“One really positive thing is that it created a space to have those really easy-going conversations with kids that nobody really had with me when I was a kid,” says Scribble editor Rosenbloom. “The way my kids talk about feelings almost makes me cry. I wish I could have articulated that as a kid.
“I have very mixed feelings about this; The cynical person in me can roll my eyes, and sometimes the parent in me is grateful.”
The ambivalence is shared.
“I think sometimes the books can be a bit heavy-handed,” says Crocombe of Readings. “But that can happen when there’s a lot of publishing in a particular area; There are quality products that last a long time and there are those that fall flat on your head.”
Robson distinguishes between books that parents are drawn to and books that children are drawn to. The bestsellers during the Christmas season included heavy tomes, child welfare guides with colorful pictures and a self-help guide.
“It was the mindfulness, the post-anxiety, what-do-we-do-with-this-anxiety?” she says. “But I don’t think it’s something that kids pick up on their own. It’s something parents will buy.
“I worry that everything is sales-based and they don’t talk to the kids enough,” she says. “Kids have a lot to say and I wish we would listen to them more, I think.”
They have since returned to more familiar themes within Rosenbloom’s family. When her three-year-old chooses a book, Rosenbloom asks, “Why are you choosing? This Book?”
And the child always replies: “Because it’s funny.”