This year, I have enjoyed reading more representations of mental illness in adult and YA books. I love when these narratives contribute to breaking down stigmas, and validating real experiences. As a children’s book lover, I was curious to research what picture books are available for young readers struggling to understand a family member’s depression.
#1 Michael Rosen’s Sad Book
AUTHOR: Michael Rosen
ILLUSTRATOR: Quentin Blake
RELEASE DATE: January 1, 2004
Sometimes sad is very big. It’s everywhere. All over me. Sometimes I’m sad and I don’t know why. It’s just a cloud that comes along and covers me up … It’s just because – Michael Rosen’s Sad Book
Michael Rosen’s son, Eddie, is his whole world. So when Eddie passes away at age 18, the light of Michael’s life goes out. This book describes how Michael survives everyday life while battling grief. While it doesn’t explain or educate about depression, its raw and minimalistic illustrations capture how severe depression feels. Personally, the most unique aspect of Michael Rosen’s Sad Book is how it acknowledges that sadness may be a lifelong battle for Michael.
Suitable for: Parents to discuss with children to help them understand a family member’s experience of grief or severe depression.
#2 The Colour Thief: A Family’s Story of Depression
AUTHOR: Andrew Fusek Peters & Polly Peters
ILLUSTRATOR: Karin Littlewood
RELEASE DATE: 2014
But one day, Dad was full up with sadness, all the way to the top. He said his sky had turned grey. I thought I had done something wrong, but he told me I hadn’t. I felt lonely. There was a heavy stone feeling inside me and I missed my dad – The Colour Thief
When a little boy’s father is consumed by depression, all the beautiful colours of his world fade to grey. The visual contrast between the boy’s world and the father’s world communicates depression simply and accessibly. I like how this makes The Colour Thief useful for parents to share with young children, who would struggle to grasp a more detailed explanation of mental illness. The Colour Thief also addresses the self-blame and loneliness children may feel when a parent is struggling with depression. The descriptions are very visual to be more relevant to its young audience.
Suitable for: Parents to share with young children to help them understand a family member’s depression.
#3 The Red Tree
AUTHOR & ILLUSTRATOR: Shaun Tan
PUBLISHER: Simply Read Books
RELEASE DATE: 2000
Sometimes you just don’t know what you are supposed to do, or who you are meant to be, or where you are, and the day seems to end the way it began – The Red Tree
Australian writer and illustrator, Shaun Tan, is famous for capturing complex experiences through surreal art. In The Red Tree, a girl journeys through eerie landscapes that symbolise her loneliness and sadness. Although she never refers to mental illness, the illustrations capture the isolation and lack of self worth connected to depression. The red tree in the final pages symbolises hope of life getting better.
I would argue that The Red Tree may be better suited to older children or adult readers, who will appreciate how the ambiguous story and symbolic illustrations relate to their own experiences.
Suitable for: Older children.
#4 Can I Catch it Like a Cold? Coping with a Parent’s Depression
PRESENTED BY: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
ILLUSTRATOR: Joe Weissmann
PUBLISHER: Tundra Books
RELEASE DATE: April 28, 2009
Can I Catch it Like a Cold? is a longer picture book that answers older children’s and pre-teens’ questions about depression within a simple story. Alex is sad and confused when his dad stops coming to his soccer matches. When he reaches out to trusted adults for support, he learns about depression’s causes and the recovery process. I think this book is important and powerful because it offers support and advice to older readers who may be too afraid or ashamed to talk to adults. It also demystifies the treatment process, and shows how important it is to reach out for professional help. It also includes parent resources.
Suitable for: Older children and pre-teens, followed by discussion with a trusted adult.
#5 Mr Huff
AUTHOR & ILLUSTRATOR: Anna Walker
PUBLISHER: Penguin Australia
RELEASE DATE: June 24, 2015
Bill didn’t want to talk about the thing that was following him. For some reason it made him feel sad. When he did try, no words came out. He waited for it to go away. But it didn’t – Mr Huff
While Mr Huff does not explicitly depict depression, it accurately represents many of the feelings involved in a way that is accessible to young children. When Bill’s day gets off to a bad start, Mr Huff starts following him, making him feel sad. I love that Mr Huff addresses the struggle many people face when trying to express difficult feelings. As it is not explicitly about depression, this story is applicable to many childhood experiences, providing parents with the vocabulary to discuss these experiences with their children.
Suitable for: Young children.
Discuss & Share
- Have you read any of the picture books above? Did you agree with the way they represented depression?
- Do you have a story of sharing a picture book with a child to breach a difficult topic?
- Can you recommend me any other representations of depression in fiction, whether it be for junior, YA, or adult readers?