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Good reads that support mental and behavioral health

Good books that support mental and behavioral health

Childhood can be a trying time — for kids and parents alike. Fortunately, there are plenty of great books that can help families navigate common challenges, ranging from anxiety to depression to anger management. While self-guided reading can’t take the place of a mental health professional, the right book can offer comfort and practical tips to try at home, both before and during therapy.

“For kids, it’s helpful to know they’re not the only one going through this, and sometimes it’s easier to talk about other people’s problems,” said Margaret Altschaefl, PhD, a licensed psychologist with Children’s Wisconsin. “Books can be a conversation starter — a way to ease into social or behavioral issues that might be going on.”

To get the most out of the reading experience, read together and make it an active conversation. “You can stop and ask predictive questions, like ‘What do you think is going to happen next?’ or ‘Has this ever happened to you?’” Altschaefl said. “At the end, include verbal praise, like ‘Thank you for paying attention,’ or ‘I really like your thoughts on that,’ or ‘I really appreciate you taking the time to read that with me.’ Praising kids for engaging in these conversations makes it a more positive experience.”


So when is it time to put aside the books and make an appointment with a therapist? “Significant changes in behavior or emotions is the big warning sign,” Altschaefl said. “If your child has severe behavioral changes that are impacting school life and friendships, or any signs that they’re going to hurt themselves or others, get help right away. Even if you just notice a mild problem for a long time — six months or longer — it’s time to get some professional expertise.”

We asked local librarians — Emily Stueven and Katharina Himsel of the Milwaukee Public Library and Jane Oliver-Purton of the Delafield Public Library —  to recommend books for pre-schoolers, elementary school-aged kids, and teens struggling with common issues. Here are their picks:

Anxiety and perfectionism

“Worries Are Not Forever” by Elizabeth Verdick“Worries Are Not Forever” by Elizabeth Verdick
Ages 0-4
“This reassuring board book understands the big emotions of toddlers and knows that sometimes their worries leave them feeling vulnerable and scared. But, as the title reminds readers, worries are not forever. Empathetic grownups — who also feel anxious from time to time — can help with a kind word and a listening ear. A version of this story for older children exists in picture book format.” - Emily Stueven, youth services librarian at Milwaukee Public Library

Other titles to check out:

“The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes” by Mark Pett and Gary Rubinstein (ages 4-8)

“I Don’t Want to Go” by Addie Meyers Sanders (ages 5-6)


“When Sadness is at Your Door” by Eva Eland

“When Sadness is at Your Door” by Eva Eland
Ages 3-9
“Sadness is an inevitable part of life, and figuring out how to manage it so that it doesn’t overwhelm can be difficult, especially for children. In this quiet and gentle picture book, sadness takes physical shape as a visiting creature. Rather than turn the visitor away, a young child welcomes and accepts it as one does a guest just passing through and, in doing so, learns to live productively with this complex emotion.” - Emily Stueven, youth services librarian at Milwaukee Public Library

Other titles to check out:

“What to Do When You’re Sad And Lonely: A Guide For Kids” by James J. Crist, PhD (ages 9-13)

“My Kind of Sad: What It’s Like to Be Young and Depressed” by Kate Scowen (ages 13-18)

ADHD and attention/focus issues

“Focused” by Alyson Gerber“Focused” by Alyson Gerber
Ages 8-12
“Clea is a pretty relatable middle schooler: She loves her family and friends, enjoys some geeky hobbies and gets nervous about tests. She also has ADHD, which makes focusing in school and practicing self-regulation a challenge. Not everyone understands Clea — she doesn’t always understand herself! — and some kids at school can be cruel because she is different. But with the help of a loving and supportive family and concerned teachers, she learns that what makes her different also makes her uniquely Clea.” - Emily Stueven, youth services librarian at Milwaukee Public Library

Other titles to check out:

“This Morning Sam Went to Mars: A Book About Paying Attention” by Nancy Carlson (ages 4-8)

“Putting on the Brakes: Understanding and Taking Control of Your ADD or ADHD” by Patricia O. Quinn, MD, and Judith M. Stern, MA (ages 9-12)


“Death Is Stupid” by Anastasia Higginbotham“Death Is Stupid” by Anastasia Higginbotham
Ages 4-10
“This picture book about loss and the grieving process is kind and kid-centric, acknowledging how confusing death can be and the conflicting feelings losing a loved one engenders. It also offers some practical tips for channeling those emotions in constructive and reverent ways.” - Emily Stueven, youth services librarian at Milwaukee Public Library

“Opposite of Always” by Justin A. Reynolds
Ages 12-14
“This contemporary novel with a time travel twist explores multiple relationships and the effects of grief. When Kate unexpectedly dies, Jack is taken back in time to when he first met her. After another personal loss, he becomes more fully aware of both the consequences of loss and of his own actions.” - Katharina Himsel, youth services librarian at Milwaukee Public Library

Other titles to check out:

“Bird Lake Moon” by Kevin Henkes (ages 8-12)

“If Nathan Were Here” by Mary Bahr (ages 5-9)

Anger management

“Mad, Mad Bear!” by Kimberly Gee“Mad, Mad Bear!” by Kimberly Gee
Ages 2-5
“Bear is having a no-good, very bad day as one unfair thing after another happens to him. Soon, he’s steaming mad and about to blow his top! But instead of swallowing his frustration, he practices a little mindfulness and meditation, helping him to feel better and ready to embrace a happier tomorrow. This little story about big emotions will resonate with young readers.” - Emily Stueven, youth services librarian at Milwaukee Public Library

Other titles to check out:

“When Sophie Gets Angry — Really, Really Angry” by Molly Bang (ages 4-8)

“The Day Everything Went Wrong” by Moritz Petz (ages 4-8)

Relationships and social issues

“Real Friends” by Shannon Hale “Real Friends” by Shannon Hale
Ages 8-12
“This graphic novel, filled with the stuff of middle school — e.g., cliques and crushes — is also a truthful look at pre-adolescent anxieties, fears and loneliness. As Shannon navigates some confusing and often overwhelming things in her life, such as making new friends, dealing with class bullies, and living with a sister who’s struggling with mental health issues, she begins to develop resiliency and confidence.” -Emily Stueven, youth services librarian at Milwaukee Public Library

“Dear Heartbreak: YA Authors and Teens on the Dark Side of Love” edited by Heather Demetrios
Ages 15-18
“This collection features letters from real teens looking for advice from authors of young adult literature and the authors’ responses to topics like relationships, dating violence, break-ups and loneliness.” - Katharina Himsel, youth services librarian at Milwaukee Public Library