The best picture books tap honestly and unpatronizingly into children's emotions. These two books remind children that being human means appreciating the complex emotions we all experience.
Sometimes I Grumblesquinch
“I'm a really nice kid,” declares protagonist Katie Honors on the first page of author Rachel Vail and illustrator Hyewon Yum’s Sometimes I Grumblesquinch, a tale about the pitfalls of trying to tame emotions. Katie tries to be on her best behavior at all times. She's “a good sport” when she loses a soccer match: “‘Good game,’ I say. . . . I hardly frown.” Katie’s mom declares that her daughter is “such a pleasure,” and Katie takes pride in knowing that her parents are proud of her. But readers, privy to Katie's inner thoughts, know that she contains multitudes.
Katie's little brother, Chuck, annoys her, and she routinely bottles up how he makes her feel. “Sometimes I grumblesquinch,” Katie confesses. When this happens, her “insides tighten” and she has “mean thoughts,” such as wishing that she had “a trampoline or a tree house or a giraffe instead of a brother.” Vail captures Katie's feelings with an unequivocal, refreshing candor that's deeply respectful toward Katie's complicated interior life: “I wish I could pop [Chuck] like a balloon. . . . I wish he would disappear.” When Katie finally snaps, Yum's soft color palette and smooth linework are transformed: Intense colors and ragged, angular lines embody Katie's acute fear that her parents “won't think I am such a pleasure anymore.”
But Katie's mother gently validates Katie's feelings, telling her daughter that she understands how a person can hold both frustration and love for someone. A shocked Katie nods and tells readers, “This nod is true.” These four words convey so much about how children—especially girls—are encouraged to suppress their feelings and minimize their emotions. When Katie acknowledges that her nod is “true,” she's also suggesting that some of her smiles have been insincere, even forced.
It's moving to watch Katie begin to understand that attempting to ignore healthy but negative emotions, all in the name of being likable, still causes harm. Even after failing to grumblesquinch all her feelings, Katie still receives a loving hug from her mom, who has space for “the whole me” in her arms.
What Feelings Do When No One's Looking
Polish author Tina Oziewicz offers readers a whole host of emotions in What Feelings Do When No One's Looking, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft. (Kudos to Oziewicz’s American publisher, Elsewhere Editions, for placing the translator's name prominently on the cover.)
Because the book's title tells readers precisely what to expect, the first spread dives right in, introducing Curiosity, a creature with large ears who sits atop a tall chimney, eager to see what's beyond the horizon. Curiosity is followed by Joy, Gratitude, Calm, Envy, Insecurities, Shame, Courage, Bliss and more, each depicted on its own spread.
Illustrator Aleksandra Zając (making her picture book debut) introduces an endearing cast of characters, conveying these emotions as furry, amicable creatures who move about on clean, uncluttered backgrounds. Her crisp, fine lines and gray-tone palette (with subtle touches of coral, sky blue and sage) ensure that even the more volatile emotions, such as Anger, won't frighten the youngest readers.
This is a picture book filled with surprises. There are unexpected personifications (“Jitters sit in a rusty can in a dark corner under a wardrobe.” “Nostalgia sniffs a scarf.”), but Oziewicz also has a startlingly succinct and evocative way of capturing these feelings. “Anxiety juggles,” for one. These two words float amid ample white space next to an unhappy-looking creature atop a unicycle trying to keep five balls in the air, its mouth a thin, wavy line. A full-bleed illustration shows a wide-eyed creature attempting to blend in with patterned floral wallpaper: “Fear pretends it isn't there.” And what else would Hope do but pack “a sandwich for the road”?
Oziewicz and Zając link two spreads in an especially meaningful way: Readers learn that Hate “chews through links and cables. Can't connect! Can't connect!” But in the book's final spread, Love, who is an electrician, holds an oversize lightbulb aglow with amber hues. The bulb seems to run from the same rose-colored cable Hate tried so vehemently to destroy.
What Feelings Do When No One's Looking will prompt thoughtful conversations about the wide range of feelings a person can experience. It's exactly the sort of book that Katie Honors—and all children—need.