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“Mommy, why are you crying?”

I was crying because he had just written his name, my big boy, for the first time. They were happy tears- tears of joy for this boy of mine who was healthy and growing and smart. Tears because I was so proud, and because my heart was full to bursting with love. But he was only four, and just barely. He wasn’t at an age where he was capable of understanding that crying was not always synonymous with sadness, that sometimes love can be so powerful and so overwhelming that its only release is through your eyes- through a glance that shines like sunbeams and tears that fall feather light down your cheeks.

I took it upon myself, at that moment in time, to start trying to explain these big emotions to my son. I didn’t want him to fear my tears. Perhaps more importantly, I didn’t want him to get scared of those big things he felt- for not knowing when it was acceptable to cry, or if it was ever acceptable to cry, for not understanding love or fear or anxiety. I hoped to raise a child who was not just in touch with the emotions he was feeling, but to honor them as well- even those tough ones I could tell he hated and wished would just go away. So, I turned to books, of course, and I have never stopped using them to help my children try to navigate those big, big emotions of theirs. In honor of exploring love and other big emotions this Valentines Day, here are some of our favorites.

Love, by Matt de la Pena and illustrated by Loren Long
Emotion explored: LOVE
This stunningly illustrated book is a testament to the many ways in which love permeates our lives – from the lull of parents’ voices as they look over their sleeping child to something as simple as burned toast. It is a poetic, lyrical mediation on love, replete with beautiful metaphors that will help little ones recognize how love appears in our everyday lives, shaping who we are and where we come from. I dare you to read this without crying.

This is Not a Valentine, by Carter Higgins and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins
Emotion Explored: LOVE
How do children grasp the meaning of love, beyond the typical Valentine’s day shows of affection? This heartfelt book is so accessible to young kids, illustrating that love is found in the littlest things, the tiny ways in which we make those we care about feel special. This is such a sweet exploration of the childlike ways kids may show how much they care for another – starting with recognizing those little things that make the ones we love the happiest.

In My Heart: A Book of Feelings, by Jo Witek and illustrated by Christine Roussey
Emotions Explored: VARIOUS
We just adore this sweet book for the way it tackles big emotions – including happiness, sadness, anger and bravery. In a pure, childlike way, this story utilizes direct language and simple images to help kids understand what they are physically feeling as they tackle their own evolving emotional development. This is a perfect overview of a book that helps little ones begin to articulate what is going on inside their heads and hearts.

Life Without Nico, by Andrea Maturana and ilustrated by Francisco Javier Olea

Emotions Explored: LOSS AND RECOVERY

When Maia’s best friend suddenly moves away, Maia is crippled by sadness. How on earth will she get through her days without her closest confidante by her side? Ever so slowly, Maia’s pain eases as she breaks out of her comfort zone and takes chances on new experiences, including new friends and even hobbies. This is a tender exploration of loss and recovery, and it so beautifully tackles the notion that embracing new people or passions in your life in no way means you have to let go of the old.

The Snurtch, by Sean Ferrell and illustrated by Charles Santoso

Emotion Explored: ANGER

Anger is an emotion that can seriously overwhelm a child, as it is one of those big feelings kids aren’t quite sure how to control. Impulsive behaviors are common, and even more common are the questions and regrets that overwhelm little ones after their anger takes hold of them and causes them to act in problematic ways. In The Snurtch, Ruthie’s challenges with controlling her behavior will help kids realize we all have our own snurtches to battle with, but these snurtches do not control us. This is a wonderful story to help us help kids understand that we can all find ways to tame our inner beasts.

Jack’s Worry, by Sam Zuppardi

Emotion Explored: ANXIETY

This is a simple story about Jack, a young boy who loves to play the trumpet and can’t wait to play for his mom in his first ever concert. But when he wakes up on the big day, he discovers, much to his dismay, that he has a Worry. I love the way in which this sweet story personifies worry as a nagging creature that just won’t leave Jack alone, giving little ones a tangible image with which to begin making sense of their own anxieties. Even better is the way Jack eventually explodes — but is then able to communicate his worry to his mom. Her response is perfect, and this little story is a great example of how talking about our fears is not only safe, but healing.

Little Tree, by Loren Long

Emotion Explored: FEAR

My heart explodes a little every time I read this book. Little Tree tackles a topic that so many of us parents and educators see in their little ones: fear of change and transition. The story focuses on a little tree who clings tightly to his leaves, too scared to shed them and transition into the new season. It doesn’t matter that all the trees around him are happy to grow and flourish as each new season arrives. Little Tree simply thinks life is perfect just the way it is and sees no reason to change his ways. One fateful day though, Little Tree realizes he has been left behind by all the trees who have grown tall around him, and he knows he a critical decision is on the horizon. This is a masterpiece – a perfect tale to help children recognize that fear of change is natural and daunting, but the reward is ultimately in the journey that helps us find our way.

Spoon, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Scott Magoon

Emotion Explored: INSECURITY

Children are constantly comparing themselves to those around them, and naturally, when such comparisons are made, insecurity and even jealousy arrive. It is hard for kids to recognize their own incredible attributes when they are so focused on the unique qualities of others. This special story perfectly helps little ones learn to celebrate differences instead of being jealous of them — and to be grateful for everything that makes us special as individuals. A forever favorite.

Virginia Wolf, by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Emotion Explored: SADNESS

This magnificent, exquisitely illustrated book, loosely based on the relationship between Virginia Woolf and her sister, masterfully describes a child struggling with depression and the manner in which art helps to bring about her transformation from wolf back to girl. It depicts the ways in which one dealing with depression may behave, as well as the ways in which loved ones can try to help. Tender, honest, and oh so poignant, this is a treasure to have in your home and to read to any little one struggling with darkness — or any child who is coping with a loved one similarly struggling. This book takes my breath away every single time and, quite simply, is remarkable.

Orion and the Dark, by Emma Yarlett

Emotion Explored: FEAR

Darkness personified- it’s a brilliant concept, and a perfect way to help children overcome fear — especially fear of the dark. Yarlett shows our little ones that the dark can wrap you up and squeeze you in the most perfect hug, and that the unknown and scary expanse of the night isn’t so frightening after all once you explore it with a friend. My favorite aspect of this book is the manner in which Yarlett explains away the scary noises one might hear when trying to fall asleep. It is a perfect text to help parents and teachers alike help children break down their concerns and explain how fears, in reality, aren’t nearly as scary as they seem once you begin to communicate them to a trusted person.

What are our favorite children’s books that are good for exploring emotions?

Lauren Bercuson Davis lives in Miami with her family. After twelve years as an attorney, Lauren gave up the law to pursue her passion for children’s literature. She is now an elementary library media specialist, and after her two boys are tucked away in bed, she is an aspiring writer, avid reader, and blogger. Lauren has a not-so-secret obsession with books of all kind, and her greatest joy is watching her kids fall in love with wondrous stories. She shares children’s literature reviews and other bookish fun on Instagram @happily.ever.elephants, her blog Happily Ever Elephants,

Twitter @KidLitLauren, and Facebook.


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