Using picture books to improve your mental health

© by Tim Warnes 2018

© by Tim Warnes 2018

The little boy looked up from his work. The sound of a handbell being rung. Faint at first, getting louder as the proud holder came nearer along the corridor.

The dreaded sound of the bell’s clapper striking metal upon metal was not a welcome one.


Outside the playground was a mess of noise and activity as kids went berserk around him. Sometimes they’d hurtle right past - or into him. It felt too unpredictable. Too dangerous. His senses were being bombarded. His buckled sandals, once buffed and gleaming as a pair of conkers, had lost their shine. The leather felt too stiff. His trousers scratchy.

The little boy tucked himself out of harm’s way as best he could. On the cold surface of the playground, he sat - alone - his back to the wall. (Well, not entirely alone. He had Teddy.) He liked that wall - soft, red Victorian bricks. If it was sunny, they felt warm. They reminded him of home. Of the security of mum and dad. But that made him feel more vulnerable. The little boy wiped away a tear, but he couldn’t extinguish the ache in his heart. Pulling his hood up, he tried to block out the sights and sounds that were so overwhelming.

Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a sketchbook. His father had made it for him from scraps, from paper cut-offs. It was small and square, with a stiff blue cover. Dangling from it, on a piece of thin, waxed twine, was a yellow pencil stub - the end thoroughly chewed (like the boy’s nails). The string got in the way, which was mildly annoying. But it kept his pencil from getting lost.

That pencil was the boy’s lifeline. It took him out of himself long enough to forget the fear and anxiety, to a different place altogether. 

The little boy pulled his knees up to his chest. Leaning against the makeshift surface, he began to draw. Today it was a pig. For no particular reason. The next drawing would likely be some kind of bird. Maybe a dragon. Or a clown. He liked clowns.

He did not like going to school.

© by Tim Warnes 2015

© by Tim Warnes 2015

With the wisdom of hindsight, I can see that I’ve suffered from poor mental health throughout my life.

Not consistently - periodically; times which have come and gone. In recent years, healing prayer, medication, and talking therapy have all played their part to restore me to a positive mindset. But it’s a road I still walk.

I wonder how much of my attachment to books and story arises out of those experiences. Like drawing (and to a lesser extent writing) they provided a means of escape when things got too much. A place to shelter. I certainly have positive, sentimental attachments to particular childhood books which have been read aloud to me, especially by my father.

There is plenty of anecdotal - and scientific - evidence that children benefit mentally from having stories read to them. For example, an innovative reading program in Jordan, where volunteers are trained to read aloud to refugee children, is helping to heal some of their emotional wounds. ‘Their findings reveal that the program appeared to improve the children’s mental health and cognitive development’, helping them to recover from trauma.

‘[W]ith one in four children [in the UK] who are referred to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) turned away, a wave of illustrated fiction is attempting to help children as young as three manage their feelings of worry and stress.

And I’m delighted to be part of that creative wave, ‘attempting to help children as young as three manage their feelings of worry and stress’ through the books I make.

Next year sees the publication of A Little Bit Worried by Ciara Gavin (Little Tiger Press). Titled, Weasel is Worried in the US, it deals very gently with anxiety and fear, showing that there may be more than one way to look at a situation.

Weasel told Mole about the wind and the rain, the damp and the chill, the snow and the ice. All the things that frightened him most.

“The storm is scary,” sighed Weasel. “And much, much bigger than me.”

A Little Bit Worried by Ciara Gavin (Little Tiger Press)

© by Tim Warnes 2020 | From  A Little Bit Worried  by Ciara Gavin and Tim Warnes (Little Tiger Press 2020)

© by Tim Warnes 2020 | From A Little Bit Worried by Ciara Gavin and Tim Warnes (Little Tiger Press 2020)

Mole is our guide. He has ‘such a different way of seeing things.’ He finds the positive in the things Weasel worries about. When Weasel asks how he copes when the wind knocks him off his feet, Mole replies, “Oh, I love when that happens!... The wind lifts my fur and it feels all ticklish.” 

He is a mindful Mole. And learning to be aware of (and appreciate) our surroundings, emotions and sensations is essential to maintaining good mental health. So I’m excited to have contributed to the cause of promoting it as a life skill.

Sharing books helps you - and your kids - create and maintain good mental health.

Here’s how!

  • These early years are precious - spend quality, intimate time to create positive, lasting memories.

  • Reap the benefits of being snuggled up with your kid over a book - skin-to-skin contact and human touch can comfort and heal you both.

  • Find some funny books and laugh together. Proverbs 17:22 says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Laughter produces dopamine, giving you (among other benefits) that feel-good factor!

  • Use picture books to open up discussion. Talk about things that are bothering your child.

  • There are a gazillion picture books out there about unconditional love. Use them to reinforce your love for your child - especially if you find it hard to express naturally.

  • Many picture books celebrate quirky individuals. Use them to reinforce the idea that we are all unique, and that it’s okay to be different.

  • Finally - the books you share may spark positive messages that YOU need to hear! Listen to what your children tell you and believe the positive things they say about you (even if they are hard to receive)!