A portrait of grief … Mum’s Jumper by Jayde Perkin.
Photograph: Jayde Perkin
In Jayde Perkin’s exquisitely moving Mum’s Jumper, a little girl leaves her mother behind in hospital when visiting hours are over. The next day, the hospital phones her father to say: “She’s gone.” “Gone where?” the girl asks. She is sad, and angry, and lonely, but her father explains that one day she will grow into her grief, just as she will grow into the jumper her mother has left behind.
For Dr Clare Etherington, a GP in Harrow, the picture book could be the perfect prescription for a grieving child. “I am often asked [for advice] by, say, grandparents if they know a child is going to undergo a family bereavement,” she says. “Mum’s Jumper might be one to try … I’m nearly 60 and it meant something to me, let alone for a seven-year-old.”
Bibliotherapy – the prescription of books as a remedy to ills – has been officially operating in the UK since 2013, when the Reading Agency charity launched the Reading Well Books on Prescription programme, supported by professional health bodies including NHS England and the Royal College of GPs. A list of titles chosen by experts and available in libraries was put together for GPs and mental health professionals to prescribe to patients, tackling topics from depression to dementia to chronic pain. Since then, 1.2 million readers have borrowed more than 2.3m of the scheme’s books from libraries.
Now the Reading Agency is extending the programme to children for the first time. Mum’s Jumper is one of 33 books chosen by health professionals, literary experts and children to support mental health and wellbeing. Aimed at children between seven and 11, the Reading Well for Children list of nonfiction and fiction titles explores topics from anxiety to bullying and staying safe online, as well as looking at conditions including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and physical disabilities. It is free to access from public libraries, and is intended, says the Reading Agency, to “encourage conversation between children and their parents, or carers, about feelings, and to offer support outside of a clinical setting or whilst waiting for treatment”.
“I don’t think books replace formal counselling and help, but they can empower and help family conversations,” says Etherington. “A GP gets 10 minutes with a patient if you’re lucky, and you can’t do everything. It’s useful to have resources so that, if you run out of time, you can say: ‘Go and check this out.’”
She is often asked by a parent how to explain a depressed mum or dad to a child, and says that Up and Down Mum, one of the titles selected for the new list, would be useful for joint reading. “Children with unwell parents often feel very sad and guilty and worry the problem is because they themselves have done something wrong. I think books can be starting points for things that are difficult to discuss. I often pick books with pictures as well as words because I think they accommodate different ways of understanding.”
Etherington has already prescribed adults the Reading Well list. “In the past I have lent people Living With a Black Dog. The scenario tends to be people who get low moods but cannot see any really obvious visible reason in their life,” she says. “I also refer people who are thinking about cognitive behavioural therapy [CBT] or mindfulness to ask for the Reading Well books at the library.”
For Michael Rosen, whose Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake, is included on the list, the initiative is “harnessing the power of reading to help tackle the crisis facing children’s mental health”. The Reading Agency points to a 2018 report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health which found that schools were on average making 183 Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services referrals every school day, with 56% of those referrals coming from primary schools. According to the charity, one in eight (12.8%) children and young people aged five to 19 in England had at least one mental health condition when assessed in 2017.
Rosen’s book depicts his grief at the death of his son Eddie from meningitis at the age of 18. “These books will start conversations with children about how they’re feeling and show them that others have felt the same way,” he says. “Public libraries have long been places where people have sought answers and comfort; this scheme combines the safe space of the library with inspiring children and families to read for pleasure and wellbeing.”
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book
Michael Rosen, illustrated by Quentin Blake An eloquent and affecting portrait of sadness, this book packs wisdom into very few words. Rosen’s son Eddie died as a teenager, but the sadness here is about something more than grief. Although it is a picture book, there is enough emotional content and thoughtfulness to stimulate older children too. It makes the experience of sitting with sorrow – the author’s, one’s own – a solace in itself.
Jayde Perkin The unnamed narrator of Perkin’s picture book comes to terms with the death of her mother, whose old jumper helps to keep her close. Artfully told and uplifting, the story leads the reader forward through the stages of grief. For a similarly tender, thoughtful approach to family bereavement, try If All the World Were … by Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys.
Alan Durant Dak’s dad has died, and Dak is convinced he has turned into a clownfish at the aquarium they used to visit together. His certainty helps him to cope with the loss – until the day when he has to face the truth. Filled with warmth and humour, this short novel would suit children aged nine and over.
All Birds Have Anxiety
Kathy Hoopmann This book joyfully pairs photographs of birds of all kinds with simple text that gets inside the experience of anxiety, and something rather wonderful emerges from these unlikely juxtapositions. It’s filled with good humour and warmth, likely to amuse as much as it comforts – a good choice for children who prefer to come at their worries sideways. Ruby’s Worry is another great option in this category, an updated and simplified take on Virginia Ironside’s classic, The Huge Bag of Worries.
Outsmarting Worry: An Older Kid’s Guide to Managing Anxiety
Dawn Huebner, illustrated by Kara McHale A practical handbook for children aged nine and over who suffer from anxiety. Huebner makes the science behind panic and worry relatable and provides coaching in techniques derived from CBT and acceptance and commitment therapy. It is accessible, but best worked through with a parent or carer, as there’s a lot to take in and the techniques require practice.
#Goldilocks – A Hashtag Cautionary Tale
Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Tony Ross (below) A sophisticated fable about the perils of social media, in the guise of a conventional picture book. Since its protagonist owns a mobile phone and worries about the number of likes her posts attract, the readership for this is well above the age of a picture book. But somehow the misalliance works: the rhymes are sophisticated and subtle, and the subversion of a familiar fairytale will appeal to knowing pre-teens.
M Is for Autism
The students of Limpsfield Grange School and Vicky Martin A moving and empowering story of one teenage girl’s experience of autism. Written by students who attend a school for girls with communication and interaction difficulties, it brings alive the experience of anxiety, of moving through the world as a person with autism, and the freedom that comes from being fully appreciated and understood.
The Boy Who Built a Wall Around Himself
Ali Redford, illustrated by Kara Simpson Aimed at children aged four to nine, a book that offers a graphic depiction of self-isolation when deployed as a coping strategy. With the quality of a fable, it gently tracks Boy’s relationship to his wall, and how that relationship changes when Someone Kind comes along.
Feeling like an outsider
Stewart Foster This chapter book explores the experiences of Felix, who often ends up in the Staring at the Wall Club, AKA the isolation room, owing to behaviours stemming from his ADHD. Life seems out of Felix’s hands, until he connects with his grandfather and develops an unlikely passion for chess. An inspiring story that will appeal to children in key stage 2 and the early years of key stage 3.
Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet
Zanib Mian, illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik When his family moves home, Omar starts a new school. A graphic chapter book in the style of the Tom Gates or Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Planet Omar takes in all sorts of issues, from dealing with school bullies and prejudice, especially against Omar’s Muslim family, to forming new friendships and adjusting to change. Humorous, with a light touch.
• Paula Cocozza is a trustee of The Reading Agency. For a full list of titles go to readingagency.org.uk.
A scheme for GPs to recommend books for mental health and wellbeing is extending its reach to younger readers.
Mum’s Jumper is one of 33 books chosen by health professionals,
Aimed at children between seven and 11
I don’t think books replace formal counselling and help, but they can empower and help family conversations,”
that Up and Down Mum, one of the titles selected for the new list, would be useful for joint reading. “Children with unwell parents often feel very sad and guilty and worry the problem is because they themselves have done something wrong. I think books can be starting points for things that are difficult to discuss
For Michael Rosen, whose Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake, is included on the list, the initiative is “harnessing the power of reading to help tackle the crisis facing children’s mental health
A practical handbook for children aged nine and over who suffer from anxiety. Huebner makes the science behind panic and worry relatable and provides coaching in techniques derived from CBT and acceptance and commitment therapy