These days, anxiety is on the rise in all age groups, and toddlers are not immune. Children’s books publishers have responded to the spike by producing more books aimed specifically at helping kids cope with all this ambient anxiety.
Of this new crop of books, I prefer those that aren’t overtly therapeutic. The best ones do deliver tips and strategies for dealing with oversize worries, but they are sly about it. After all, just reading the right book with your toddler can be a calming experience
[ This list is part of Story Times, a project from our children’s book editor to recommend the best books for young readers across all ages. ]
This brilliant board book invites a child to “help” someone else who’s upset — which works wonders to induce a calmer state of mind. Little Rabbit has fallen down and scraped his arm, leaving a red mark. Your toddler is invited to “try blowing on it.” Uh-oh: On the next page, Little Rabbit wails, “There’s blood!” A Band-Aid (with bunnies on it, of course) appears. “Can you put it on?” comes next, but tears still stream down the distressed bunny’s face. And so on, until the bunny feels better — and, chances are, your toddler does too.
‘Quiet,’ by Tomie dePaola
The esteemed creator of “Strega Nona,” who has practiced meditation for years, has made this beautifully spare picture book that teaches mindfulness to children in a non-preachy way. A grandfather, two grandchildren and a dog watch what’s around them: bees on a patch of flowers, a praying mantis climbing a lily stalk, a mother fox curled with her young in a hidden den. “My, oh my,” the grandfather says. “Everything is in such a hurry.” The family sits on a bench in order to relax, notice, see deeper and describe: a recipe for a peaceful state of mind.
‘Here and Now,’ by Julia Denos. Illustrated by E.B. Goodale
Full of soft, detailed illustrations, this is another good book to help a kid slow down and become more mindful. It starts with an inarguable statement: “Right here, right now, you are reading this book.” Then it calls attention to events occurring elsewhere: ants building, ideas forming, animals living and breathing. One breathtaking spread shows an airplane carrying people, other people sitting below in a field, and the earthworms, fossils and rocks beneath them.
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Inspired by Milne’s own daughter’s struggles with anxiety and repetitive behaviors, this charming tale features a habit-bound dachshund who is called upon to rescue a friend stuck in a pipe. His success makes him so happy, he dares to vary his routine — just a little bit, at first. Little ones controlled by worries may find a ray of light in this pup’s small victory.
‘Ping,’ by Ani Castillo
The poofy red creature in this wise book is here to demonstrate a crucial life lesson that can help small children with social anxiety: Go ahead and put yourself out there — what Castillo calls a Ping — but remember, you can’t control how other people will react — the Pong. The creature Pings by painting, singing and “expressing feelings that just need to burst out.” Then it’s time to breathe deeply, listen for Pongs and decide what to do in response. So many books these days offer kids social-emotional counsel; this one delivers down-to-earth ideas in a refreshingly direct package.
For an agitated toddler, this lovely book is like a cool drink of water on a hot day. A child named Taylor, who’s wonderfully drawn to be either a boy or a girl, builds a block tower that falls down. Everyone who comes by to help, including a chicken and an elephant, is full of well-meaning advice. Only a silent rabbit offers what Taylor — like all of us — needs: the comfort of someone who will just listen, laugh and give a hug.
‘I Am Loved,’ by Nikki Giovanni. Illustrated by Ashley Bryan2
Reading poetry, with its rhythm, repetition and incantational power, is a great way to create a mood of reassurance for an anxious child. This playful collection for children from the distinguished poet Nikki Giovanni and the distinguished illustrator Ashley Bryan focuses on the most reassuring thing of all — love — without being mushy. The short poems float by like feathers, encouraging children to tune into their own self-love as well as the embrace of their families and communities. Bryant’s colorful artwork is warm and welcoming.
‘Most People,’ by Michael Leannah. Illustrated by Jennifer E. Morris
Most people are good: That’s the simple message of this deeply reassuring book, and it couldn’t be more timely, given the conflict, stress and negativity even the littlest kids pick up from the grown-up world these days. Most people, we are reminded, also love to smile and want to help other people — in fact, there are many, many more good people than bad ones. There’s also a story unfolding here, as two characters play out the words we are reading.
Sometimes a serene and philosophical picture book is just the thing to improve a frazzled mood and set the world right. In this one a bear and a wolf, out for nighttime walks, cross paths and decide to hike together, first through snowy winter vistas, then later through green springtime fields. Nothing much happens. Their peaceful companionship and mutual appreciation of sublime natural beauty are more than enough.
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