For the Sensitive Souls (A Post for Mental Health Awareness Month)

May 12, 2022 § 4 Comments

All the time I get asked, What’s a good book for my [insert: nervous, fearful, shy, super sensitive] kid? With everything this crazy world has been dishing out, even kids who aren’t naturally wired towards sensitivity are struggling under the weight of big, heavy, messy emotions. And, as parents, it’s hard to resist the temptation to make the discomfort go away.

My firstborn is an immensely sensitive child. My husband and I joke that he’s a raw nerve walking around on two legs, and the whiplash from highs to lows and back again is not always easy to witness.

Five years ago—I would remember it like it was yesterday, even if I hadn’t journaled about it at the time—my son looked on as garbage workers hauled away our twenty-year-old sofa. We had spent a few weeks trying to donate the sofa, but with a frayed slipcover and sunken cushions, no one seemed to want it.

The hysteria peaked as the garbage truck drove away. The garbage men didn’t treat it well! he wailed. They broke it apart! They tore off the slipcover! It went into the truck in PIECES! They treated it no differently than a container of moldy food! I know it was ripped and didn’t look very good, but it was so comfortable. It made us happy for so long. It should have gone to a good home! It still had life left to give! It could have made people happy! Now, IT’S RUINED!

For a long time, my maternal response to such spectacles was, MAKE. IT. STOP. You’re fine. Here are all the ways that what you’re losing your mind over isn’t actually that bad. Just please stop suffering because my heart cannot take it and also I feel very out of control right now.

But if my son’s extreme responses to everyday life were hard on me, they were a million times harder on him—and often brought with them feelings of shame and loneliness.

I’d like to tell you there was a single turning point for me, but I think it was probably lots of little signs along the way that pointed towards re-framing this sensitivity for both him and me. We began to regard it, not as a condition to overcome, but as a superpower of sorts. You won’t find a more empathetic kid than my son. A more grateful one, too. I could never add up the number of times he has hugged us before bed and said, “Today was the best day of my life.” (Lots more have been the “worst,” of course.)

If, in these turbulent moments, I don’t let his emotions hijack mine—easier said than done, of course—there is usually a nugget of truth telling that can inform my life, our life, for the better. “We did try and donate the sofa,” I reminded him. “Well, maybe someone was afraid to come forward, afraid for us to see their poverty,” he said. “We could have done more, Mommy.” I haven’t forgotten this exchange. Because he’s not wrong. He keeps me honest to the plight of others. He keeps me honest to the plight of himself.

Today, I’m sharing two important new picture books that I wish I’d had when my son was younger. That I wish I’d had for my daughter, too, who sits on the opposite end of the spectrum from her brother, keeping her feelings close to the breast, wary of betraying vulnerability, wary of losing control (can’t imagine who she gets that from). Embedded in their charming, gorgeously illustrated stories, Deborah Marcero’s Out of a Jar (Ages 4-8) and Colter Jackson’s The Rhino Suit (Ages 4-8) employ creative, effective metaphors to explore the temptation to bottle up big, messy emotions and shelve them out of sight. To trap them on the other side of a coat of armor. Both stories ask their young readers to consider the good that might come from leaning into, not away from, uncomfortable emotions. Leaning into sensitivity, rather than fearing or disguising it.

There’s plenty of truth telling in these books for the parents and caregivers of sensitive kids, too.

Out of a Jar
by Deborah Marcero
Ages 4-8

If the art style looks familiar, it’s because Out of a Jar is the companion book to In a Jar, which I sang the praises of here. I almost never review a follow-up title—too many books, too little time—but I make an exception when the follow up is THIS GOOD. Out of a Jar doesn’t actually overlap with the earlier title much beyond that marvelous, super-saturated art, the use of jars to hold intangible things, and the main character, an anthropomorphic bunny named Llewellyn. In other words, the new book stands alone.

Llewellyn has lots of feelings that threaten to overwhelm him. Beginning with fear. Sure, he loves scary books and jokes, but he does “not like to be scared.” And whenever he tries to “put the feeling away,” it keeps coming back. Then, one day, Llewellyn has the idea to trap fear—a wide-eyed, black, tentacled blob—in a jar and lock it away in the basement.

The trick works so well that Llewellyn tries it with sadness, after his best friend leaves him out on the playground. The big blue blob of sadness is a bit more unwieldy to shove into a jar, but Llewellyn manages, locking it away beside fear. Next comes excitement, which starts off as a good thing but then lands Llewellyn in trouble with his teacher, so he locks that up, too.

On Llewellyn goes, giving the same treatment to anger, loneliness, joy, and disappointment. A different color is given to each emotion, and young readers will enjoy speculating about what in Llewellyn’s everyday life brings on each emotion, given the almost exclusively visual cues.

“Soon, he had so many jars filled with so many emotions that Llewellyn walked around…not feeling much of anything at all.” With the colors locked away in jars, Llewellyn is surrounded by grey.

And then comes embarrassment, that gargantuan emotion we’ll do almost anything to avoid. When Llewellyn manages to shove that into a jar, it proves to be one jar too many for the closet.

The stampede of colors and feelings that explode out of the jars literally crushes Llewellyn, pinning him to the ground amidst glass shards. And it hurts.

But, this time, when Llewellyn resumes his life, the unexpected happens. He feels relief. He also realizes that most of his feelings occur, not in isolation, but in tandem with one another. Fear is rarely present without excitement, for example.

With practice, Llewellyn finds he can muster up the courage to face his feelings when they come: “to look each feeling in the eye, give it a hug, and let it go.” Feelings are powerful, but they are fluid, and inviting them in only makes our world more colorfully complex.

The Rhino Suit
by Colter Jackson
Ages 4-8

Relative to Out of the Jar, which practically pulsates with color, The Rhino Suit derives its power from austerity, combining a subtle palette, emphasis on white space, and dark grey outlines. But gah, the art is gorgeous. And unexpected. And deeply, deeply insightful.

Right from the start, we’re told that our unnamed protagonist “had a wide-open heart. But it was also very tender.” Seemingly everywhere she looks, the little girl notes pain alongside beauty. “She felt so much, sometimes the feelings overwhelmed her.”

Like my son, this girl is sensitive to physical pain, such as the kind from having tangles brushed from her hair. Like my son, this girl is sensitive to the neglect of others. “Seeing litter could ruin her day.” Like my son, this girl is empathetic; when her father tears up, so does she. And, like my son, this girl frets about things she can’t control, from animals without homes to people who have lost loved ones. She sees the danger and pain in the world, “[a]nd she didn’t know how to be okay with that.”

During a lesson on rhinos one day in school, the girl gets an idea. Rhinos have thick, tough skin. What if she could make her very own rhino skin to safeguard her from the world?

That’s exactly what she sets out to do across one long night. By morning, she has “solved all her problems.” Tough skin. Tough horns. Tough toenails.

Once inside her animatronic rhino suit (bonus STEM content), the girl finds it initially quite pleasant to be unreachable by her mother’s hairbrush. To not notice litter on the street.

But she also can’t feel the breeze on her skin, or hear the birds singing. She definitely can’t receive hugs from her mom like she used to. As in Llewellyn’s case, everything is flatter, duller, greyer.

The girl then realizes: “The thing about feeling so much…is that you feel the good stuff so much too.” She takes off the rhino suit and opens her heart once more.

But the book doesn’t end there. After all, sensitivity may be a superpower, but it’s also something that needs tending. That requires care. In the girl’s case, as she goes back to feeling all the things, she recognizes that she sometimes needs to take a “moment for herself”—a time out, if you will. What that looks like is open for interpretation, and caregivers may want to share their own ideas or practices here. But the important thing is that the book is not suggesting that sensitive children need lose themselves in their empathy for the world around them.

And there’s more. Because another way we hold onto agency in the face of fear and sadness is to channel these feelings into action, to let our empathy call us to meaningful, impactful work. In the final pages of the book, we watch as the girl picks up the trash she despises. We observe her delivering a shelter animal to a lonely man.

The sensitive souls among us are the ones paying the closest attention. If they lean into these deep feelings—if we as parents let them—they’ll have endless opportunities to make this world a place they’re proud to call home.


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Books published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons and Sounds True. All opinions are my own. My links support the beautiful indie, Old Town Books, where I am the buyer for the children’s section!

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§ 4 Responses to For the Sensitive Souls (A Post for Mental Health Awareness Month)

  • PATRICK LASALLE says:

    Beautifully worded again!!!

    Love, Dad

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  • lauren belden says:

    Melissa!

    You write so beautifully always, and this post particularly resonated with me. Our oldest (Olivia) is also HIGHLY sensitive, and in all the best and most challenging ways that you describe. Like you, I’ve definitely learned (and continue to push myself harder to learn more) how to embrace her intense feelings, empathy, highs and lows as super powers. Because like you say, as hard as they are for me to bear witness to and understand, I know they are 1000 times harder for her. And she is a gift to our whole family, constantly checking in to see how everyone is doing and finding ways to brighten our days with her love and light. I need to meet these amazing kids of yours. You are such an inspiring mama and reading these always makes me miss you and wish that we lived closer to each other!

    xoxox

    • thebookmommy says:

      Lauren! Oh my goodness, this comment means the world to me. Truly! I just have to meet Olivia one day soon. And SMILO! 🙂 We WILL get out to CA one of these years. Miss and love you!

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