Using children’s books to unlock emotional intelligence

10th October 2019

Words by Shelley John, Founder of Ivy’s Library

Having experienced problems with my own mental health in my thirties I am very aware of how difficult it can be to find the right words to express how you feel. As a result, it’s important to me as a parent that my daughter knows how to verbalise her emotions from a young age and feels comfortable expressing them.

Fortunately, picture books about emotional intelligence for the under-fives are currently on the rise and we have found some fantastic examples which strike the right balance between engaging and educational.

1) The Colour Monster by Anna Llenas

‘The Colour Monster’ is always the first book I recommend when parents are looking for something to help their toddler verbalise their emotions. It is super simple but very effective as it equates feelings to colours.

The eponymous monster wakes up feeling very out of sorts and his appearance is a little crazy because he is a mass of squiggly colours. Together with a friend, he sorts through the colours to make sense of his emotions. Yellow represents happiness, red is anger, blue reflects sadness, green is calm and black is fear. As they pop each colour into a different jar, they talk about how each emotion feels inside.

Most small children won’t have the words to explain how they feel so this story gives them an alternative way of communicating which is easy for everyone to understand.

Recommended age range – 2 to 5 years

2) Allie All Along by Sarah Lynne Reul

‘Allie All Along’ also uses the concept of colour and is perfect for those currently experiencing the tantrums and tears of toddlerdom.

A broken crayon causes a little girl called Allie to fly into a rage and we see her appearance change in a very radical way. She becomes an angry red creature who does not want to be consoled. Fortunately, her brother knows exactly what to do and, using a series of exercises, he slowly calms her down. We see her shed her red fluffy skin and become amber, then green and then blue before becoming herself again. At each colour stage, we see how her ability to reason and communicate changes and what we can do to help her.

I find this book a great visual way of helping children to understand that big emotions are totally normal and that those feelings of anger are short-lived. The exercises which the brother uses (which include providing a soft toy for vigorous squeezing and blowing out imaginary candles) are also very helpful for us parents!

Recommended age range – 3 to 6 years

3) In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek & Christine Roussey

‘In My Heart’ was recommended to us by a child psychologist who uses it frequently in her therapy sessions. It’s a big and beautiful hardback which covers a wide range of human emotions.

Each double-page takes a specific feeling, explains what it might feel like in your heart and then gives it a name. This helps your child understand their emotions and teaches them the language they need to articulate them. Sadness, happiness, courage, hope, fear, calm, heartbreak, shyness and silliness are all covered, and the underlying message is that it’s good to talk about your feelings and to ask others how they are feeling too.

This is a great primer for emotional development, and it is visually stunning. The illustrations perfectly capture the mood of the text and there is a wonderful cut out of a heart which runs right through the centre of the book and helps underline the feelings which are being described.

Recommended age range – 3 to 6 years

4) When Sadness Comes to Call by Eva Eland

As parents, we do all we can to protect our children but there are times in life when they will experience sadness and this book can be a great help.

When the little girl in the story finds Sadness on her doorstep carrying a suitcase, it’s obvious that he has come to stay for a little while. She lets him in, but he takes up too much space and soon she is consumed by his presence. Trying to hide him away doesn’t work so she tries a different approach. She gives him a name and asks him why he’s here. She listens to what he needs, and they learn to work together. They sit in comfortable silence, they draw, they cuddle, they go for walks and they accept each other.  Soon Sadness becomes a manageable part of the little girl’s day to day life and then just as suddenly as he arrived, he disappears.

This poignant and beautifully illustrated book does a wonderful job of showing children the transient nature of big emotions like sadness and why it is always best to address your feelings.

Recommended age range – 4 to 6 years

5) Freya’s Funny Feeling by Samia Quddus & Rahima Begum

Nerves are a normal part of everyday life but to a small child, that funny feeling in your tummy can be a little scary. This book, which was written by a therapist and primary school teacher, is perfect for helping little ones understand feelings of anxiety, excitement or mixed emotions.

Freya is a bouncy and confident little girl until one day she starts to experience an odd wibbly sensation in her tummy. It makes her a little bit anxious and she doesn’t know how to make it go away. Eventually, she tells her parents and they explain that she has butterflies which flutter around when she is nervous or worried. Freya learns that everyone gets butterflies and her parents suggest she keep them in check by imagining them doing funny things, like swinging on spider webs or bouncing on bubbles. These images make her laugh and chase the butterflies away!

We have found this book really useful to read before new experiences, like starting school or moving house. The visual of the butterflies is easy for a small child to comprehend and the idea of imagining the creatures doing crazy things gives a real sense of control over their own emotions.

Recommended age range – 4 to 7 years

6) Happy by Nicola Edwards & Katie Hickey

Practising mindfulness is a great way of encouraging children to become more in tune with their mind, body and emotions and this is the best book we have found on the topic so far.

Each page focuses on a sense or emotional state – listening, feeling, relaxing, tasting, touching, discovering, smelling, loving, appreciating and breathing. There is a simple rhyme for each one which encourages your child to stop and anchor themselves in their surroundings or the way they are feeling. Many of the pages also feature a question or instruction which will provoke additional conversation.

The illustrations are both calming and intensely detailed so there are lots of interesting things for your child to take in. I find reading this one to be a great bonding experience and would highly recommend it.

Recommended age range – 3 to 6 years

This is just a small selection of our favourite books around the topic of children’s mental health. For more books, and full reviews of all of the above titles, visit or follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Pinterest @ivyslbrary.

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