These books for kids and teens sensitively deal with tough topics and big emotions. Perfect for SEL units, these stories normalize mental health issues, promote the importance of self-care, and provide more resources for young readers who are struggling to process big emotions like anger, sadness, anxiety, and loss. Share these stories with young readers to let them know they are not alone.
Click the tabs below to view book recommendations for readers of all ages.
Wild Feelings by David Milgrim
Do you ever feel as stubborn as a mule? Or as chicken as a chicken? Of course you do. Everyone does.
In this lighthearted look at feelings, David Milgrim tenderly and humorously sketches the emotional range—from awkward to unnoticed, to really, rrrreally mad. Ultimately reassuring, this is a loving look at the normal, natural feelings we all have.
“Milgrim’s lighthearted illustrations and empathetic understanding of child behavior make this a first purchase and a good choice both for one-on-one discussions and for storytime.”—School Library Journal
Fergal and the Bad Temper by Robert Starling
A young dragon must learn to control his anger in this relatable picture book for fiery kids everywhere. Fergal the dragon does not like being told what to do. It’s not fair! And when things aren’t fair, Fergal loses his temper and snorts angry fire. He feels sorry afterward, but Fergal just can’t control his outbursts! After one really fiery day, his family and friends offer him some advice to calm down. Can this dragon learn to cool it before a temper tantrum hits?
“A useful, relatable lesson, enchantingly told.” —Booklist
“Succinctly and not so subtly conveys a message about tantrums that should settle comfortably on the ears and minds of young readers/listeners. The included strategies may prove helpful to children and harried adults struggling to calm angry youngsters during frustrated outbursts. Tempers will cool once kids meet Fergal.” —Kirkus Reviews
Already A Butterfly by Julia Alvarez; illustrations by Raúl Colón
On Sale June 16, 2020
A gentle picture book tale about self-soothing practices and self-confidence beliefs.
With so much to do in so little time, Mari is constantly on the move, flitting from flower to flower, practicing her camouflage poses, and planning for migration. She’s the busiest butterfly around. But does being productive mean she is happy? Mari couldn’t say. The only way she feels like a butterfly is by acting like one. Little does Mari know, the secret to feeling like herself is simply to focus her breath, find her quiet place, and follow her instincts. With the guidance of a thoughtful flower bud, Mari soon learns to meditate and appreciate that she was a butterfly all along.
Acclaimed author Julia Alvarez extolls the importance of mindfulness, reflection, and self-care for young children in this gratifying picture book, stunningly illustrated by award-winning artist Raúl Colón.
“Soft, textured illustrations full of floral elements match the gentle quality of the tale. In a world that can’t seem to slow down, this story reminds readers to trust their instincts and breathe.” —Kirkus Reviews
Do Not Go In There! by Ariel Horn, illustrated by Izzy Burton
On Sale July 14, 2020
An encouraging picture book that highlights the power of imagination while touching on themes of anxiety, curiosity, and bravery. Monsters Morton and Bogart are best friends. But they don’t always see eye to eye.
So when they encounter a closed door, anxious Bogart wants to keep it closed, because there must be something really bad on the other side. But Morton thinks it’ll be something amazing! Which is it?
Through bright, expressive illustrations, readers learn that, while not knowing can be frightening, being brave can lead to new discoveries. And even though your imagination can make it easy to worry, it can also make life better, less scary, and more fun.
A Little Space for Me by Jennifer Gray Olson
On Sale July 28, 2020
A MacKids Staff Pick! Associate Manager Melissa Croce says, “Have you ever felt that the world is just too much? Not merely what’s happening in the world, but the world itself: its scents, its sounds, its smells–the chaotic energy and the constant activity.
The little bespectacled protagonist of this deeply relatable picture book just wants to get a little distance, a little space, away from a world that can be both wonderful yet overwhelming. She creates space–to be interpreted as either alone time, or a general inner peace she feels from this alone time–and bottles it up, carrying it around with her whenever she needs it.
Gently exploring the healthiness of boundaries and alone time through adorable and awe-inspiring art, this book is perfect for larger storytimes and reading one-on-one, snug in your own space.”–Melissa Croce
A Unicorn Came to Dinner by Lauren DeStefano; illustrated by Gaia Cornwall
Available August 11, 2020
A sweet and charming picture book about fear, anxiety, and unicorns. The unicorn smells nice, but she is very rude. She never waits for an invitation to come over—she walks right in and tracks heart-shaped hoof-prints across the carpet. She sits in Elizabeth’s chair and makes a complete mess of the house. She even sleeps in Elizabeth’s bed. But the unicorn is no ordinary unicorn…
In The Unicorn Came to Dinner, author Lauren DeStefano and illustrator Gaia Cornwall invite parents and their kids to talk about feelings—especially worries and anxiety—and ultimately about how to be yourself.
“Creatively integrating amusing, upbeat, and sympathetic elements, animated prose, and charming, expressive illustrations, this portrays how unfamiliar or new situations can impact children’s feelings and behaviors. Entertaining and ultimately reassuring, this will likely resonate with and be appreciated by kids and their adults alike.”—Booklist
What’s the Matter Marlo? by Andrew Arnold
On Sale January 2021
A picture book about best friends that highlights empathy, as well as anger and sadness, and reminds us that these aren’t feelings to run away from, but instead to help each other through.
Marlo and Coco are best friends. They do everything together—they read together, laugh together, and play games together. After all, they’re best friends. And that’s what best friends do. But one day, when Coco asks Marlo to play, he doesn’t answer. Instead, Marlo turns away ignoring Coco, until he’s lost in his anger. Coco is worried about her friend, but then she remembers she can always find Marlo. In this charming, thoughtful picture book, author-illustrator Andrew Arnold explores empathy and sadness, and how friends can help each other navigate big emotions. Because that’s what best friends do.
Good Enough by Jen Petro-Roy
A young girl with an eating disorder must find the strength to recover in this moving middle-grade novel from Jen Petro-Roy, an eating disorder survivor and activist. Good Enough is a realistic depiction of inpatient eating disorder treatment, and a moving story about a girl who has to fight herself to survive
“[A] supportive, honest, and empowering novel about mental health.” —Booklist
“Every library needs Good Enough on its shelves. Lyrical, funny, honest and brave, this is a book that will save lives.” —Katherine Applegate, New York Times-bestselling author of Wishtree and Crenshaw
You Are Enough by Jen Petro-Roy
This nonfiction self-help book for young readers with disordered eating and body image problems delivers real talk about eating disorders and body image, tools and information for recovery, and suggestions for dealing with the media messages that contribute so much to disordered eating.
Many eating disorder books are written in a way that leaves many people out of the eating disorder conversation, and this book is written with a special eye to inclusivity, so that people of any gender, socioeconomic group, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, or chronic illness can benefit.
“Resources on eating disorders for the middle-grade set are few and far between, but Petro-Roy writes for this age group with knowledge, compassion, empathy, and inclusivity.”—Booklist
“This compassionate work offers insight and options for eating disorder recovery…An excellent choice for libraries needing new eating disorder resources, especially those serving middle schoolers.”—School Library Journal
The Fall by James Preller
An unflinching book about bullying and teen suicide from acclaimed author James Preller.
“A compelling look at the aftermath of bullying, from the bully’s perspective…Readers will relate to the teen, who’s less a bully than an average guy who gives in to peer pressure and inaction. This fast-paced story will spark discussion on cyberbullying, depression, and how to deal with tragic events.” —School Library Journal
Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz
A girl deals with friendship, family, and OCD in this classic-feeling, debut middle-grade novel by Elly Swartz.
“With middle school friendships and family relationships at its heart, this novel offers an empathetic guide to coping with a mental health issue.” —School Library Journal
Give and Take by Elly Swartz
A MacKids Staff Pick! Marketing Manager Kristen Luby says, “Seventh grader Maggie is dealing with a lot of change: her family is fostering a newborn who is going to her forever home soon, Maggie’s grandmother recently passed away, and her friend is leaving their trapshooting squad. To cope with these changes, Maggie begins to save mementos in a box beneath her bed–but soon her collection grows beyond her control. With the guidance of her new therapist, Maggie learns that loss and change are part of life–and you can rely on family and friends to help navigate those changes. This is a sweet and sensitive book about childhood anxiety that will help young readers process big emotions.”
How to Make Friends with the Sea by Tanya Guerrero
A middle grade debut novel set in the Philippines about a young boy’s challenges with anxiety while his mother fosters an orphaned child with a facial anomaly.
★ “Guerrero touches on many topics—anxiety, fostering, friendship, family, selective mutism, and more—seamlessly weaving them all together to create a strong, moving narrative. […] A heartbreaking, heartwarming, powerful debut novel.” — Kirkus Reviews, starred review
Your Brain Needs A Hug by Rae Earl
Imbued with a sense of humor, understanding, and hope, Your Brain Needs a Hug is a judgment-free guide for living well with your mind.
Author Rae Earl offers her personalized advice on the A to Zs of mental health, social media, family and friendship. When she was a teenager, Rae dealt with OCD, anxiety, and an eating disorder, but she survived, and she thrived. Your Brain Needs a Hug is filled with her friendly advice, coping strategies and laugh-out-loud moments to get you through the difficult days.
Check our Kirkus’s list of “Teen Books for Anxious Times” here.
★ “A validating, hopeful, and practical guide to mental health… heartfelt and honest…Teens struggling with mental illness will find comfort and valuable information in this superlative guide.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
A Breath Too Late by Rocky Callen
For fans of Girl in Pieces, All the Bright Places, and Girl, Interrupted comes a haunting and breathtaking YA contemporary debut novel that packs a powerful message: hope can be found in the darkness. Seventeen-year-old Ellie had no hope left. Yet the day after she dies by suicide, she finds herself in the midst of an out-of-body experience. She is a spectator, swaying between past and present, retracing the events that unfolded prior to her death.
Told in epistolary-like style, Rocky Callen’s deeply moving A Breath Too Late sensitively examines the beautiful and terrible moments that make up a life and the possibilities that live in even the darkest of places. Perfect for fans of the critically-acclaimed Speak, I’ll Give You the Sun, and If I Stay.
“Bittersweet and haunting… The most important point made in the heartbreaking story is that there is nothing romantic about suicide. Ellie realizes that with her last breath, regretting her decision. Callen includes resources for suicide prevention and domestic abuse at the end.”—Booklist
“An amazing and wrenching story. I loved so much: the heart-rending anguish and tragedy of realizing you love life when it’s too late, the poetic, lyrical prose, the transcendent, adorable love story, and the emotional roller-coaster of it all. It’s terrific, a gut punch.”—Jandy Nelson, Printz Award winner
“A memorable, hopeful story of regret.” — Kirkus Reviews
Miss You Hate You Love You Bye by Abby Sher
A darkly comic and heartbreakingly honest YA novel about finding the courage to help a friend who can’t stop hurting herself.
When Zoe’s parents unexpectedly divorce, Zoe’s perfect facade starts cracking little by little. Sinking under the weight of her broken family, Zoe develops an eating disorder. Now she must rely on her friend Hank for help. Hank struggles to help Zoe; after all, she is used to agreeing, not leading. How can she help her best friend get better before it’s too late?
★ “Here’s how to speak up even if it hurts.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
American Road Trip by Patrick Flores-Scott
A heartwrenching YA coming of age story about three siblings on a road trip in search of healing.
“American Road Trip holds true to classic road-trip themes like the emotional power of singalongs and unexpected detours, but it also wades into the darker waters of mental illness with both realism and sensitivity.”—The New York Times
★ “A road trip that brings to life the Avilas’ Latino heritage and Manny’s disorder…it celebrates many things: family love, realized dreams, and the taste of a green chile cheeseburger. ” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
★ Booklist starred review
★ School Library Journal starred review
Sad Perfect by Stephanie Elliot
Perfect is only on the surface in this gripping novel about a teen girl who looks normal but struggles with a little known eating disorder.
“Elliot’s novel helps to fill a gap within teen narratives about disordered eating.” —Kirkus Review
“A well-written page-turner whose sensitive topic is covered with finesse and grace. This novel would be a worthy addition to a high school library collection.” —School Library Journal
After the Death of Anna Gonzalez by Terri Fields
A powerful look at the effects of one girl’s suicide on her high school. Brutally honest and authentic in tone, this young adult novel-in-verse centers on the suicide of high school freshman Anna Gonzales. Each piece, read alone, portrays a classmate’s or teacher’s personal reaction to the loss, taken hard by some, by others barely noticed. Read together, the poems create a richly textured and moving testimony to the rippling effects of one girl’s devastating choice. Terri Fields has written a thought-provoking, important work that resonates with both pain and hope. This is a book of poetry that will stay with readers long after they put it down.
“Readers will gain some important insight into the serious issue of teen suicide through this treatment of the topic.” —School Library Journal
“The poems are natural and direct, and portray a high-school setting well, showing a diversity of experiences… A resource for dealing with teen suicide, this will be useful in most YA library collections.” —Kirkus Reviews
The Half Orphan’s Handbook by Joan F. Smith
Available April 2021
For fans of John Green and Emily X.R. Pan, The Half-Orphan’s Handbook is a coming-of-age story and an empathetic, authentic exploration of grief with a sharp sense of humor and a big heart.
It’s been three months since Lila lost her father to suicide. Since then, she’s learned to protect herself from pain by following two unbreakable rules:
1. The only people who can truly hurt you are the ones you love. Therefore, love no one.
2. Stay away from liars. Liars are the worst.
But when Lila’s mother sends her to a summer-long grief camp, it’s suddenly harder for Lila to follow these rules. Potential new friends and an unexpected crush threaten to drag her back into life for the first time since her dad’s death. On top of everything, there’s more about what happened that Lila doesn’t know, and facing the truth about her family will be the hardest part of learning how a broken heart can love again.
PTSD by Guillaume Singelin
Singelin’s PTSD is an adult fiction graphic novel that grapples with the reality of being a war veteran about a traumatized war vet who must fend for herself against all odds.
After returning home from an unpopular war, Jun becomes an outsider in an indifferent world. Alone, desperate, and suffering from wounds both mental and physical, she seeks relief in the illicit drugs she manages to purchase or steal. Jun’s tough exterior served her well in combat, but she’ll need to nurture her vulnerability and humanity to survive at home. With the support of her fellow vets, the kindness of a stranger who refuses to turn away, and the companionship of a dog named Red, Jun learns to navigate the psychological trauma that she experienced in the war.
★ “Unlike in macho tales of grit and glory, Singelin infuses his story and characters with deep, simmering warmth…This is a gorgeous meditation on the lingering horrors of war.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“French-Laotian creator Singelin creates a gritty and suffocatingly detailed atmosphere, with candy-coated coloring that ebbs into a grimy color wash…Teens interested in cutting-edge comics will appreciate this eerie tale.” —School Library Journal
“How are we meant to feel about the violence that has undone so many? Its moral, however, is unassailable: to reconnect with the world, you must lend a helping hand to others but—equally important—accept one when it’s offered to you. Having a scrappy dog at your side can’t hurt, either.” —Booklist
Shame is an Ocean I Swim Across: Poems by Mary Lambert by Mary Lambert
Beautiful and brutally honest, Mary Lambert’s poetry is a beacon to anyone who’s ever been knocked down—and picked themselves up again. In verse that deals with sexual assault, mental illness, and body acceptance, Ms. Lambert’s Shame Is an Ocean I Swim Across emerges as an important new voice in poetry, providing strength and resilience even in the darkest of times.
Mary Lambert is a multifaceted artist—a singer, songwriter, musician, and poet. Along with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, she is the talent behind the incredible Grammy-nominated single “Same Love.” A mental health advocate and LGBTQ activist, Mary lives in Seattle, Washington.