Bad days. We all have them. Sometimes it’s really hard to keep your cool when EVERYTHING seems to be going WRONG, even when you’re adult. And adults have had LOTS of practice with bad days, believe me. So imagine how hard it is for kids!
I often have customers come in the store looking for picture books that deal with anger, bad days and emotions in healthy, productive ways. They want books that not only offer suggestions for how their children can deal with their own emotions, but also to validate that it’s okay to feel mad sometimes. It’s okay to be angry. What’s important is knowing how to deal with those emotions so that you don’t let it ruin your day.
The first book I always think of is Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, illustrated by Ray Cruz (Simon & Schuster, 1972).
From the minute he wakes up to gum in his hair, Alexander’s day is on a downward spiral. With humor and uber-specific detail, Viorst depicts a very bad day, in terms kids will understand perfectly. “At school Mrs. Dickens liked Paul’s picture of the sailboat better than my picture of the invisible castle.” Alexander reacts to his bad day in fairly typical ways. He sulks, he shouts at his friends, he fights with his brothers, he cries and he threatens to move to Australia.
What I love about this book is that it’s not overhanded or preachy. Viorst isn’t saying, Look how naughty Alexander is. Don’t act like this, boys and girls. Instead, she validates his emotions by acknowledging that “some days are like that. Even in Australia.” Readers come away knowing that bad days happen everywhere to everyone, but tomorrow you get to start over fresh. The pacing, the illustrations and the repetition in the text all add to the humor, making it such a fun book to read aloud.
Mrs. Biddlebox: Her Bad Day…and What She Did About It! by Linda Smith, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Harcourt, 2002)
Mrs. Biddlebox woke up on the wrong side of the bed and starts her morning in a foul mood. But instead of dwelling on her bad day, she decides to do something about it. “I will cook this rotten morning! I will turn it into cake! I will fire up my oven! I will set the day to bake!”
She starts literally gathering up the day, starting with the lawn and dirt, right up to the sun and the sky, shoving it all into her cooking pot. Illustrator Marla Frazee adds to the delightful rhyming text as she plays with darkness and white space on the page. The book begins with dark full-bleed double-page spreads and with each page turn, the darkness recedes as Mrs. Biddlebox collects the bad day, until she stands alone on a white page. In a delightful release of pent-up bad energy, Mrs. Biddlebox whisks and beaks the dough and stomps it into a cake pan. She then proceeds to dance and sing around the stove as the bad-day-cake cooks. And when it’s done, the bad day has become something sweet, and well…delicious. This book gives a great example of positive thinking to turn something nasty into something nice, as well as acknowledging that the process won’t always be easy. You might need to stomp around and shout first, but pretty soon you might find yourself singing, dancing and laughing. A great book for storytime to encourage kids to get up and do the motions themselves. An extra bonus for readers: finding the adorable pet duck on every page.
Sometimes the answer to getting rid of a bad mood is right inside your imagination. Max in Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (HaperCollins, 1963) is making a lot of mischief, terrorizing the pet dog, nailing holes into the wall, and shouting at his mother. As punishment, Max is sent to bed without dinner. Max is angry at being locked up and takes delight in proving that he can escape to a place where he can do whatever he wants, make any kind of mischief and never get punished.
He escapes to where the Wild Things are, a place of monsters and wild rumpuses where he is the king and takes orders from no one. It isn’t until he gets lonely and wants “to be where someone loved him best of all,” that he decides to head back to his room. When he gets there he finds that his mother has brought him dinner after all, and that even though days and years seemed to have passed, “it was still hot.” This book, now a beloved classic, gives child readers the security that even if they act badly sometimes (and we know that we all do) that their parents won’t stop loving them. This Caldecott-winning book reminds us that we all get angry, and sometimes the best way to deal with our anger is to take a break and go somewhere in our imagination that only we can go, until we don’t feel so angry anymore and are ready to come back to reality. Our friends and loved ones will be waiting.
When Sophie Gets Angry — Really, Really Angry… by Molly Bang (Blue Sky Press, 1999)
Molly Bang’s Caldecott Honor book also shows a child using escape as a way to deal with anger. When Sophie’s sister steals her toy and their mother sides with her sister, Sophie gets angry. Really, really angry. She kicks and screams and and starts to throw a tantrum. But like, Mrs. Biddlebox and Max, she decides to take action. She goes outside to cool off, running into the backyard and woods behind her house to help get rid of her overpowering angry energy. Then she is able to release it by crying. Being in nature helps Sophie. The trees, the birds and the wind all remind her that she’s small part of a much bigger world and her problems don’t seem quite so large and daunting anymore. When she finally feels better, she heads home where she is welcomed by a loving family. I’ve heard this book criticized for promoting running away from home and for being dangerous as it shows Sophie alone in the woods, climbing trees without supervision. I think it’s important to remember that, like Where the Wild Things Are, Sophie’s journey is more symbolic. She needs to separate herself from the situation that caused her to get so angry, to get outside and be in nature to remind herself that things will be okay. And that is something that she needs to figure out how to do alone.
This book is a masterpiece of design. Molly Bang strategically uses color and proportion to show Sophie’s emotional journey. Happy characters are outlined in green, but when Sophie gets angry, her outline is red. Her red shadow grows to be a giant when “she wants to smash the world to smithereens.” Everything then becomes outlined in red, even the furniture in the house and the trees outside, as we see through Sophie’s angry eyes. From red, to purple to a calming blue, the outlines change as Sophie gradually calms herself down. Proportion on the page again changes as she becomes literally smaller as the “wide world comforts her.” Even the endpapers have changed from fire engine red to a bold blue at the end.
The Quarreling Book by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Arnold Lobel (HarperCollins, 1963)
Are bad moods contagious? They sure feel like that sometimes. On a rainy day, Mr. James forgets to kiss Mrs. James good-bye on his way to work. This one small action starts a chain reaction of bad moods for a whole slew of characters. Mrs. James snaps at her son, who in turn is mean to his sister, who then insults her friend, and so on.
It takes a good-natured dog (who doesn’t seem to understand the concept of “bad mood”) to get everyone one-by-one out of their funk. A little bit of play and laughter puts everything in perspective and Zolotow shows that even if you say something mean, things are always fixable with a heartfelt apology.
Mean Soup by Betsy Everitt (Harcourt, 1992)
Horace has had a bad day. He forgot the answer in school, was embarrassed by a friend, and had to get a ride home with crazy Miss Pearl instead of his mother picking him up after school. “Horace felt so mean he stepped on a flower.” He hisses and growls at his mother when he gets home. His mother knows that it’s time to make Mean Soup. They put a pot on the stove to boil. As the water heats up, they scream into the pot. They growl and make mean faces. They bang on the pot with a spoon. Horace even breathes “his best dragon breath” into the water until he realizes he’s feeling better.
This is an odd and silly book, with many hilarious details awaiting in the illustrations. I love that Everitt casually tosses in mentions of a “show-and-tell cow” and the fact that Miss Pearl nearly misses not one, not two, but three poodles on the drive home. This is a quirky and fun-loving kind of mom who seems to know exactly how to cheer everyone up. In the background of the illustrations, you can catch her making faces, doing headstands and even wearing the pot on her head. Best of all, she shows Horace how to get rid of his anger and frustration by letting it all out. Like Mrs. Biddlebox, they are able to turn their bad day into something physical that they can then stir and stir away.
Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow Books, 1996)
When Lilly goes shopping with her Grammy, she gets a new pair of movie star sunglasses, three shiny quarters and a purple plastic purse that plays music when it opens. She’s so excited to show it to her classmates that she can’t seem to focus on school at all, which irritates her teacher, Mr. Slinger. Finally after Lilly’s outburst in class, Mr. Slinger confiscates her purse and glasses until after school. Lilly at first feels sad, but then she gets ANGRY. She decides to write a mean note to Mr. Slinger and slips it into his bag.
When Mr. Slinger returns her things at the end of the day, he includes a special understanding note and some snacks. “Today was a difficult day. Tomorrow will be better.” Lilly immediately feels remorse for the note she wrote Mr. Slinger while she was angry. She even punishes herself by sitting in the uncooperative chair when she gets home. She writes Mr. Slinger an apology letter and asks her parents for help. Her mother writes Mr. Slinger a letter as well and Lilly’s father bakes Mr. Slinger some snacks. The next day, after her apology, all is forgiven. We’ve probably all done something we regretted because we were angry and rash at the time. Through great comic pacing, Henkes shows that everyone has flaws. It’s just important to find ways to fix mistakes made in the heat of anger and to learn from those mistakes.
Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild by Mem Fox, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Harcourt, 2000)
I love this book because it shows both sides of a bad day, a parent’s and a child’s, equally. Adults can relate to the mother getting increasingly more frustrated with Harriet as she constantly makes messes, while children will know what it’s like to be constantly reprimanded for things you aren’t doing on purpose.
Her mother didn’t like to yell, so instead she said,
“Harriet, my darling child. Harriet, you’ll drive me wild.
Harriet, sweetheart, what are we to do?
Harriet, Harris, I’m talking to you.”
“I’m sorry,” said Harriet, and she was.
Finally, after Harriet makes the biggest mess yet while Mom is trying to work, Mom loses her cool. She yells and yells and yells. And Harriet is sorry and she cries and cries and cries. Her mother takes a deep breath and then hugs Harriet tight and apologizes. “I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t have yelled, and I wish I hadn’t. But sometimes it happens, just like that.” I like picture books that acknowledge and embrace flaws because that’s what makes us human. Kids will sometimes make a mess and moms will sometimes get mad and yell. Fox and Frazee show it’s how we handle these flaws, by hugging, apologizing and talking it out, that’s important.
We all have bad days, kids and adults alike, but it’s up to us to figure out how to get through them. Do you have any go-to books that help you talk about anger with kids? What do you do to get rid of a bad day?
Tags: ages 2-4, ages 4-6, Alexander and the Terrible, anger, Arnold Lobel, Betsy Everitt, Charlotte Zolotow, emotions, Harriet, Horrible, Judith Viorst, Kevin Henkes, Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, Linda Smith, marla frazee, Maurice Sendak, Mean Soup, Mem Fox, molly bang, Mrs. Biddlebox, No Good, picture books, Ray Cruz, Really Angry, The Quarreling Book, Very Bad Day, When Sophie Gets Angry -- Really, Where the Wild Things Are, You'll Drive Me Wild