There is a pile of books stacked on a tiny children’s chair at Rachel Robson’s feet. A multicoloured tower of bright yellow, purple, blue. With monsters, and little girls, and uncomfortable emojis. And all of them feature – in some way – anxiety.
In the next aisle over in the Gleebooks store in Sydney’s Glebe, where Robson works as a children’s book specialist, there is a shelf packed tight with picture books. It used to be filled with books about using the potty and different families – but now it is dominated by books about feelings, emotional literacy and “a lot of anxiety”.
Over the last few years, there has been a movement within children’s publishing towards more and more books about emotional wellbeing. Books such as The Worrying Worries, Hey Warrior, In My Heart: A Book of Feelings have sold in droves and, against a backdrop of reports of increasing rates of mental ill health in children, the publishing world has responded.
“There’s always been books for toddlers and young kids about feelings, and exploring the range of feelings, positive and what we might call negative feelings,” says Angela Crocombe, Readings bookshop kids and digital content coordinator. “But definitely in the past two years there’s been an increase in those general feelings books, and I would say in the last year there’s been a big increase in books on anxiety, books on depression – whether it’s in the parent or the child – and a lot of books on mindfulness. Yoga for children has just boomed.
“There’s so many books.”
Anna McFarlane, publisher for children and young adults at Allen & Unwin, rattles off a list of coming titles. Last month they published Take A Breath by Sujean Rim about an anxious baby bird who uses mindfulness techniques to overcome its fear of flying, but there are many more such books on the cards. “We have definitely been actively pursuing books that are addressing this more head-on,” she says.
McFarlane’s team witnessed the mental health problems concerning many young children, and the “really solid sales” of books like The Problem with Problems by Rachel Rooney. “We could see there’s obviously a market for this,” she says. “We could see there was a hunger.”
“It’s fascinating,” says Miriam Rosenbloom, publisher at children’s books specialist Scribble. At the Bologna book fair this year, she was struck with all the books on emotional literacy and kindness. International publishers have told her their slates are too full of feelings books to take on any more.
For Rosenbloom, part of the reason is cyclical. She remembers a lot of values-based books growing up in the 1980s, but since then those kinds of books became “really on the nose”, she says.“Too didactic, or whatever.”
“I also think it’s to do with attitudes around parenting, which have really changed a lot,” she says. Parents now are more aware of the need to emotionally support children, give them emotional vocabulary, honour their feelings.
‘I never read these books as a child’
The trend is not limited to picture books. “In children’s fiction, which is the nine to 12-year-old range, we’re seeing huge amounts of anxious characters,” says Gleebooks Robson.
She leafs through books in the pile. Sick Bay by Nova Weetman, about a child with anxiety who makes friends which a diabetic child in sick bay, “has been consistently huge for us for a number of years”. Guts, a graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier – “I actually cried when I read 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 who is on the autism spectrum.
On the face of it, the latest release by bestselling middle-grade fiction writer Karen Foxlee, 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 read: “Helping Kids with Anxiety.”
Foxlee does not like to think in terms of publishing trends; it’s a fast path to losing your way as a writer, she says. “I was probably channelling my own inner child ‘worrier’,” she says, of focusing her book on a child with anxiety.
When young readers meet the titular character, Miss Mary-Kate Martin, there are immediate references to breathing techniques, special coping mechanisms and the child’s counsellor. But it does not propel the narrative, as Mary-Kate navigates the path to unlocking the mystery of a small town monster.
Foxlee says she wanted to create a character who was open about her anxieties, because those characters were absent from her reading as a child in the 1970s and 80s.
“I read and I read as a child,” she says. “I loved adventure, and I loved magic. Everyone was always so brave and ‘off we go to solve the mystery!’ And there was never any internal struggle in a lot of those books. Maybe there were those books, but I certainly never read them as a child, where anxiety was dealt with.”
For Robson, these books are critical in giving children a place to see their lives reflected; to give other children an empathetic insight into the lives and minds of their friends who may be experiencing anxiety or other emotional challenges. Books like these have been a “game changer” in her own household.
Are they for children, or their parents?
“One really positive thing is that it’s carved out a space for having these really straightforward conversations with kids that no one really had with me when I was a kid,” says Scribble publisher Rosenbloom. “The way my kids can talk about feelings, it nearly makes me cry. I wish I could have articulated that when I was a child.
“I have very mixed feelings about it; the cynical person in me can be eye-rolly, and sometimes the parent in me is grateful.”
“I think sometimes the books can be a bit heavy-handed,” says Readings’ Crocombe. “But that’s what can happen when there’s a lot of publishing going on in a particular area; there are the quality ones that will last, and the ones that are kind of hitting you over the head with it.”
Robson draws a distinction between books that parents are drawn to, and ones that children gravitate towards. Over Christmas some of the bestsellers were heavy tomes, guides to child wellbeing with colourful pictures and a self-help bent.
“It was the mindfulness, the post-anxiety, what-do-we-do-with-that anxiety?” she says. “But I don’t think it’s something kids pick up themselves. It’s something parents will buy.
“I do worry that everything is sales-based, and they don’t speak to the kids enough,” she says. “Kids have a lot to say, and I wish we’d listen to them more, I guess.”
Meanwhile, in Rosenbloom’s family, they have returned to more familiar themes. When her three-year-old chooses a book, Rosenbloom will ask: “Why are you choosing this book?”
And always, the child answers: “Because it’s funny.”