November is a busy month. You know about Movember and #moreads, but do you also know it is Picture Book Month? Naturally, there’s an official blog and you can follow the hashtag #PictureBookMonth on twitter. As a Children’s and Youth Librarian, I’m especially interested in combining these reading themes. Given Movember raises awareness of male depression, I’m intrigued how picture books can contribute to conversations about depression, and offer help. So, in my opinion, the brilliant I had a black dog: his name was depression is a must-read this month. Written and illustrated by Matthew Johnstone, this book triumphantly discusses depression plainly and honestly, with a necessary gentle humour. This book is for anyone of upper primary age and above who lives with or has suffered depression, and for anyone who cares for or knows anyone with depression – i.e. everybody.
Most of the success of the book is because it is not condescending, preachy, or instructional. Based on his own life, Johnstone shares his journey with ‘the black dog’ through simple text and beautifully descriptive illustrations. The reader becomes a privileged confidant into this usually ferociously private condition. We follow the protagonist’s battle with depression as the black dog alters his mood, affects his thinking and disrupts his professional and personal life. Readers’ empathise as he experiments with coping methods (both successful and not), and struggles to keep his dog invisible, his relationship intact and his sense of self-worth positive. Finally, a successful “living arrangement” is arrived at, where the Black Dog and the protagonist respect each other, but it is a realistically hard journey with few guarantees. It is this raw authenticity displayed by the author/illustrator’s willingness to share all the elements of living with depression that encourages readers to share their feelings. As Johnstone writes:
“Black Dog had me believe that if I ever told anyone about him, I would be judged. The truth is, being emotionally genuine with close friends and family can be an absolute life saver. Letting the Dog out is far better than keeping him in.”
For the younger kids, I highly recommend My friend is sad by the wonderfully talented Mo Willems. Not only is the author/illustrator named Mo (!), but this work is all about an elephant named Gerald who is sad. Gerald’s best friend Piggy discovers him sad and alone and vows to make him happy. To cheer up his friend, Piggy pretends to be “a cool, cool robot,” “a funny, funny clown” and other things Gerald loves. However, with each surprise visitor, the joy is only ever short-lived and Piggy does not know why. Finally Piggy discovers that, like all of us, Gerald misses his friend and wants to share his sadness and his joy with him. As the adage goes: “shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.”