“Just be yourself” is the default advice for young people struggling in social situations. But how does that actually work? Kids in four new picture books use different strategies to feel more at ease in a crowd.
The first day at a new school is ripe for anxiety and David Jumps In, by Vancouver writer Alan Woo (Maggie’s Chopsticks) and Quebec illustrator Katty Maurey, tackles the toughest part – recess – in sparse, poetic text. David wanders around the expansive playground before eventually asking some kids to play “elastic skip” (which an author’s note states has origins in ancient China and is known by other names around the world). Maurey’s digital illustrations subtly amplify David’s isolation, using vast swaths of white space to render him so insubstantial that he is hard to locate in some of the spreads. The majority of the story focuses on what other kids are playing before they agree to David’s invitation. It’s difficult to appreciate the hurdles he has to overcome without knowing more about his internal state. However, the lesson is simple, clear, and one that children who naturally stick to the sidelines need to hear: if you want to play with others, just ask.
In Simon Steps Into the Ring, communication isn’t so easy. Former teacher and pedagogical counsellor Marylène Monette uses blunt but evocative language to describe the feeling of failure after an outburst. “Everyone stares. I am the condemned one,” Simon narrates as he sits outside the principal’s office. He struggles to regulate his emotions, saying, “I’m not always the same me. That’s the problem.”
French illustrator Marion Arbona is tasked with presenting the 11 different Simons (ranging from joyous to ashamed). Some images, like one where he pulls back curtains that sit on top of his chest to reveal a boxing ring where he fights another version of himself, are powerful. In other scenes, the overpowering red and black colour palette makes it challenging to differentiate all of Simon’s emotional fluctuations. The result is still successful, filled with resonant phrases real kids can use. As Simon’s uncle says, “The little referee inside you … must judge the situation and make the right decision.”
In stark contrast to Simon’s explosive tendencies, the protagonist of author Christine Baldacchino’s Violet Shrink shuts down in crowds. Violet grinds her teeth, gets stomach aches, hides, and lets her worried brain run wild whenever she’s dragged to a party. Eventually, she has a frank conversation with her father about her challenges in social situations, while also mentioning her distaste for celery. The dad uses the vegetable issue as a starting point, suggesting Violet stick with carrots, and the girl concedes, “I don’t hate carrots.” This becomes a gentle analogy for mental health progress, where coping (and not a problem-free existence) is the goal. On the final page, we see how the father and daughter apply the strategy to her social anxiety as Violet is pictured using headphones, reading comics, and hiding under a table at a family gathering, participating in a way that works for her. Illustrator Carmen Mok’s restrained, comforting palette of muted plums, greys, and greens is particularly well chosen as some books about anxiety can actually trigger more negative emotions with stress-inducing portrayals of unpleasant situations.
In Superluminous, by Ian De Haes, main character, Nour, also prefers her own company. But there’s a twist: Nour glows. Whether or not this is an extended metaphor for Nour’s uniqueness, it’s real to her classmates, who are initially impressed until one naysayer says, “Glowing, that’s no big deal.” Nour takes this to heart, dimming her radiance until she finds a very important reason to shine.
Representing dwindling self-confidence with a dying light is not particularly original, but it is executed skilfully in the illustrations. In a style reminiscent of Marie-Louise Gay, De Haes makes masterful use of light and shadow: many pages burst with glowing yellows, peaches, and the subtlest pale greens, fulfilling the promise of the title. While not addressed in the text, Nour is biracial (her dad has dark skin and hair, her mom is blonde and white), giving this story of self-acceptance additional relevance for families celebrating more than one culture.
These books offer different paths for kids to find a social foothold: speak up, know yourself (or your many selves), cope in whatever way you can, or let your individual light shine on.