Books to Improve Mental Health

By: Dr. Citlaly Gonzalez, Clinical Psychologist

Winter weather and a week off of school, what better time to cozy up with a nice pile of books? There is something magical about the world that is waiting inside a book and the places and times you can travel to, the feelings they evoke, and the things we can learn.  

As a psychologist, the opportunity to blend my appreciation for each person’s story and my love of reading has been an incredible thing.  In my work in our Autism Diagnostic Clinic, my job is to include a recommendation to support each child’s development. I find that including a list of book recommendations with each report has been a fun way for parents to support their child’s needs.  

When presented with the opportunity to write a blog about books I would recommend from a mental health lens, I jumped at the chance, but where to start? Books about feelings? Books on tough topics? My favorite children’s books? One blog post can’t cover them all (but maybe a part II or part III can try), so we’ll focus on the magic of reading with your child and what it can do to support connection, increase understanding of feelings and tough situations, and support the child’s sense of self.  

Books on Feelings 

There are so many books about feelings out there! It’s a beautiful thing. It’s best to start with feelings books at your child’s level. This could include introducing basic feelings concepts or stories with more complex social situations. Here are some of my go-to books!  

  • For the youngest readers and those whose attention is best supported by simple books try the Feelings Book and Glad Monster, Sad Monster, both of which introduce feelings paired with bright illustrations. Lots of Feelings on the other hand uses photographs for children who might benefit from more realistic representations.  
  • In the Boy with Big, Big Feelings, a little boy wonders why he has a “big, giant heart in a world that’s so heavy and kind, where all of the feelings under the sun feel as if they were made to be mine.” He learns that it’s okay to have big feelings and that it can even help us understand and connect with others!   
  • A Whole Bunch of Feelings has been a favorite in our house. Each page has a brief introduction to a different feeling paired with an activity or question for discussion. We read a page at breakfast and made it part of our normal routine showing that any time is a good time to talk about our feelings.
  • We usually followed up with one page from Breathe like a Bear for a quiet moment of meditation before we get our day started. See the theme, little moments, scheduled regularly, make for some big impact!  
  • Think of who and what your child responds to, like their favorite characters. If you have a dinosaur lover, the “How do Dinosaurs” series might be a great place to start. Superhero lovers might be most interested in a book with their favorite characters, Super Heroes Have Feelings Too (DC Super Heroes).

Books on Tough Topics 

Our therapy team is often asked for book recommendations to talk about tough topics. We welcome opportunities to connect families with books that can help them navigate hard discussions. If you are going through a challenging moment, feel free to reach out to your therapist or our mental health team for book recommendations. Your local library may also provide a wealth of resources!  

Photo: Topics to Talk About display at the Berwyn Public Library 

  • Books on Making mistakes: For the kids who can’t stand to make a mistake try The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes. Pair it with a conversation about the times you’ve made a mistake and how you recovered. Social-emotional learning happens when children are provided opportunities and models. 
  • A Garbage Can Day–  talks about the feelings and choices that come with a rough day. Written by a local therapist and a teacher, this book is paired with a board game for reading and play.  
  • When Sadness is at your Door personifies the feeling of sadness, making it easier for younger children to talk about what it feels like for them. It doesn’t look to resolve the problem or make the feeling go away, but to provide language to discuss it, ideas to cope, and reassurance that it is okay to feel deeply.  
  • We are often asked for books on grief, change, and loss:  A Memory Box looks at grief from a child’s perspective and suggests an activity to do to keep the person present. The Invisible String uses a more subtle approach and looks at separation, both temporary and permanent, providing language to use when children really miss someone and wished they could be closer. The Fall of Freddie the Leaf is a more abstract book that discusses change through the framework of fear moving toward acceptance. It’s a classic book and good for all ages.  
  • It’s not just “therapy books” that can be useful! Sometimes just regular books can open the door to conversation. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day was a favorite in my home growing up. When one of us was having a bad day, my mom would ask if we were feeling a bit like Alexander. It allowed us to externalize the feeling and provided a touch of humor.   

Books to celebrate your child  

There are tough moments and there are beautiful moments and all of them deserve space and attention. At Easterseals we are dedicated to celebrating each child and their many skills, talents, and unique way of being. The following are some of my favorite books to celebrate children from a strengths-based frame.  (Bonus: These are some of my favorite gifts for my children’s classrooms as a gentle reminder that there are so many ways kids share their gifts!) 

  • All the Ways to Be Smart: this beautiful book celebrates the many ways children share their gifts. It’s an important reminder that every child has strengths, and it is our job and joy to find and honor them.  
  • All Kids are Good Kids: this simple board book was inspired by a child I saw in our clinic. Her frequent and unexpected behavior led to her belief that she was “bad.” Children (and adults!) don’t always make the best choice, but no child is ever bad, this book reminds us that all kids are good kids. Try these books from the same series too: All Kinds of Kindness, Love Makes a Family 
  • I Know a Lot: Another great book to remind kids (and the grown-ups around them) that there are so many important things our kids know, things that matter, things they learn by playing and exploring the world around them. (These books are from the same series too: I am So Brave).  

Books to Support Connection 

  • The Rabbit Listened: This is one of my very favorite books for parents to read to their children. Read more about why in this powerful blog written by Natalie Donald, an Easterseals social worker. At its core, the Rabbit Listened gently reminds us that in order to help, we need to first listen. I like to invite parents to identify which animal they think they’re being (Unsurprisingly, I am a chicken. I want to talk talk talk about it all).  Read it with your child and try to see which one you are, and lean in to listen to which one your child best responds to, knowing it can change across situations, moods, and needs.  
  • Mama do you love me: This simple board book tells the story of a little girl with a big imagination who wonders what would happen if she did all the things she knew she wasn’t supposed to do. Each time, her mama assures her that some things might make her angry, surprised, or scared, but that no matter what she would still love her, because of who she is.  

The Book You Write Together 

The most important book you read might be the one you write together. How you write it, is up to you and your child.  

  • Not all of us can keep up with baby books but we can all keep up with a quick note. I’d like to introduce you to the “My Child Can” journal. Whether it’s in a beautiful notebook, the margins of your planner, or the not-quite-a-book notes app on your phone, the “My Child Can” is a running list of all the milestones and little moments that make you smile. It might be “my child told me they have a best friend” or “My child learned to spell his name.” In this work, we spend a lot of time asking about the things children can’t do (yet), but this journal can be an important reminder of all the things your child can do. You may also choose to work with your child to teach them to do the same and focus on all the beautiful things they can do using an affirmation book
  • Shared art journal (Draw with Mom): For kids who have started writing and drawing, I love a shared art journal (Draw with Dad). Keep the pressure low and the journal accessible and watch the communication blossom. Some days may be just a scribble or a funny picture while other days might include a more meaningful note, all of it helps support an open line of communication  

Reading is Wellness

Simply reading with your child is the best, no matter what book your reading, the connection between parent/guardian and child, language exposure, and of course the introduction to new themes all have the potential for so many benefits for wellness.

Our Mental Health team often receives requests for books on various themes which we happily oblige. We have recommendations for books on learning about feelings, grief, potty training, divorce, sharing a diagnosis, and more. We have another blog post with recommendations on best children books on disability. We have those recommendations and lots more! But here is my biggest tip, read these books before you think you need them. Have them accessible. Read about all abilities, cultures, and a wide range of challenges and situations. Normalize talking to your child about life challenges, feelings, and tough topics. This way, when a situation of their own comes up, they know it’s okay to talk about it. They will be less resistant to reading about it. They will be more prepared to handle it.  

An added reminder for the parents of children who haven’t yet discovered the magic of books –kids don’t always start out loving books. There was a long stretch of time with my own children when it looked like I was reading to myself or the dog, but I knew that even while running around the room, they were listening. Hearing the stories, exposing them to language, and even the rhythmic reading of toddler books are way to support both connection and reading.

As a bonus recommendation for the kids who are still learning to appreciate books, I love to recommend the Indestructible series and any book with interactive components or buttons. Kids are always taking in pieces from the world around them, whether it’s the words you are reading or the fact that you are sitting, present with them.  

So, if you are looking for a final gift to complete “the something you want, something you need, something you wear and something you read” I hope this list helps you find a new book to add under the tree, a book to quietly add to your library for “just in case” or even a simple surprise for an any day moment to have with your child. 

About Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley

For additional information on services for children with disabilities, visit: https://www.easterseals.com/dfv/programs-and-services/. The Easterseals’ Mental Health & Family Support team strives to provide children and families with the mental health support they need to help thrive and empower one another. Our work helps caregivers and children experience more joyful interactions through attunement and connection. For more information on our services, contact us at socialservices@eastersealsdfvr.org.

Author: eastersealsdfvr

At Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley, our mission is to ensure that children with disabilities and their families are empowered. We offer pediatric therapy services throughout West Suburban Chicagoland to help children and their families build skills and access resources they need to live, learn, work and play in their communities. We serve more than 1,000 infants, children and adults with developmental delays and disabilities each week. Our core services include physical, occupational, and speech therapies. We also offer assistive technology therapy, medical nutrition services, behavior therapy, developmental evaluations, audiology, social services, a child care center, specialty clinics, and a continuing education program.

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