Loneliness in Words and Pictures

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Loneliness in Words and Pictures

Complex emotions for kids

Loneliness, a complex and strong human emotion, finds a home in everyone: children and adults alike.

As this is not an age-specific phenomenon, there are several picture books that give children a chance to see this feeling presented in literature. Digesting this feeling through words and art (in the form of picture books) helps children be better able to deal with the emotion as it occurs in themselves and as it is outwardly portrayed by other children. Exposure to a range of emotions increases empathy and allows children to harbor a depth of feeling they would not have otherwise.

It is a valuable thing to be able to provide children with this experience. Below are several books that handle the concept of loneliness in a unique, sometimes funny, way. However, these are not the easiest books to read due to content, so adults may want to view them first before deciding whether or not they are appropriate for younger readers.

My Father’s Arms Are a Boat by Stein Erik Lunde
A young boy wakes up in the middle of the night shortly after the loss of his mother. He is cradled like a ship on the ocean in his father’s arms as he questions what is and is not permanent and is plagued with uncertainty. The book, created with collage style images, deals with the cyclical nature of the world and what it means to find hope as well as despair.
 
Bluebird by Bob Staake
 Notable for being a wordless story, Bluebird says a lot with creative illustrations and color. Staake begins his story with a friendless student who lives in a gray world. He is lifted out of his loneliness with the help of a vibrant bluebird he encounters one day after school. Their friendship sustains him, helps him to stand out, and earns him other (human) friends.

However, an encounter with bullies leads to devastating consequences for the boy and his avian friend. At the heart of the story is what comes next and focuses on how we allow others to help us deal with grief.

Peggy: A Brave Chicken on a Big Adventure by Anna Walker
Less heavy-handed than the other titles on this list, this book by Anna Walker focuses on Peggy, a chicken who has settled into her lifestyle with a significant degree of comfort. As she has become accustomed to her daily routine, she has lost a sense of adventure. Then one day, adventure comes to her: a gust of wind lifts her far away into the hustle and bustle of the city.

Told through a series of snapshots, the illustrations depict what happens as Peggy deals with being separated from her home and flies readers alongside her as she makes her way home.
 
The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers
It is when we are most open that something can wound us the most deeply. This is what happens to the character in The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers. The young female protagonist experiences the world with openness and curiosity. At some point in her maturation, she comes upon an empty chair. When she sees the empty chair, she is perplexed and decides she will need to keep her heart safe: she puts it in a jar around her neck.

As an adult, she meets another curious young girl (similar to her past self) but she does not know how to respond to inquiries about the world, because she has shut herself off from it through the sequestration of her heart. This is a book about letting ourselves feel and grow in the world, despite it not always being safe, letting ourselves be whole. This book works well for all ages.
 
Emily’s Blue Period by Cathleen Daly
An intelligently and well-constructed narrative, Emily’s Blue Period follows budding artist Emily as she discovers the art of Picasso and starts to find ways of self-expression. The child of parents who are in the process of a divorce, Emily models her creativity after Picasso’s “blue period” and enfolds herself within the idea, using her sadness as fuel for her creativity. She uses her inner resources to unveil her work to the world and present her artistic voice.

A great book for children who are creative and/or are experiencing transitions within their home, Emily’s Blue Period is an emotive, complex, and affecting read that captures how the symbolism in art can come from inside us and still exist as its own entity, altering the world and our heart.
 
The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat
Beekle, a creature concocted by author Dan Santat, is an imaginary friend from an island of similar creatures who are dreamt of by children in the “real world.” Once they exist in the heart and mind of a child, they are dispatched to go live with that individual. Beekle’s story focuses on the fact that he has never been imagined. Though he is lonely, he takes his fate into his own hands and enters the real world, looking for the child who will recognize him as resonant with his or her own heart. About self-determination and friendship, Santat’s book points to the deep seated need we all have to be understood, seen, and named by at least one other person.  
 
A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna
The great mixed-media collage art that decorates the pages of this story alone make it worth the read. Beneath this affectation, however, is a wonderful depiction of the experience of encountering a city and losing the sense of self that you used to have.

Lion leaves his home and enters the brightly urban city of Paris, where he is summarily ignored. It is easy to be taken and amused by the mundane way Lion interacts with the residents and sites of the city while also finding it emotionally resonant that he is still trying to feel visible and truly encounter life.

Adventure is a state of mind, and by embracing it he finds himself less lonely. As much about maintaining a positive attitude when faced with difficulties as it is about anything, this book inspires the notion of adventure-taking by demonstrating its emotional rewards, including finding happiness and contentment in the space where one belongs.

Say Hello by Jack and Michael Foreman
The sparse illustrative style and use of color are well-employed by the authors to communicate the feeling of isolation. One of the few stories included on this list with a happy ending, the plot depicts first a dog, then a young boy feeling like they are the only ones who are alone.

In both instances, they are (within the frame of the page) geographically isolated. As we move forward with their stories, others who are playing together come into view. With very few words, the authors show how important it is to be inclusive. One of the great techniques employed by the authors is the utilization of multiple pages to show how cyclical and elongated time can feel when a child is having negative thoughts about being alone.

Michael Rosen's Sad Book
Written as a processing tool to help him manage sadness over his son's death, Michael Rosen's Sad Book is an intensely affecting read. Quentin Blake, who illustrated a number of Roald Dahl books, uses his talent (so well clued in to the zaniness of life) to depict Rosen's grief.

The book opens with an image of the author smiling and the pronouncement that he is actually very sad, but is smiling because he worries people will not like him if he is sad. The book meanders through the mechanisms of Rosen's inner and outer life showing how he is when alone, how he is with others, and how he is attempting to acknowledge and live with his pain.

Children and adults would benefit from this book when they feel things that seem out of their own ability to control. As much as it is an expository piece of art about grief, there is also an acknowledgment about what is hidden from the reader - which allows a reader to feel a locus of control over how much they reveal about their own feelings and iterates the truth that they are not obligated to share their sense of self. The author dips into a bit of verse and ends on an image of hope. Children and others who feel a sense of loss would relate well to this book.

The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc
The Lion and the Bird, another book about a lion themed on loneliness (perhaps because we often associate them with independence and strength), is the most quaint of all the titles on this list. Designed with a muted palette and sense of preciousness, the book displays a gentler way to approach the topic of loneliness with children.

Lion finds an injured bird and together, the two friends keep each other warm through the winter (when the bird's flock flies south.) Twee images of companionship follow for several pages before the Spring returns and the bird is well enough to rejoin the others. Once he has joined them, Lion's life continues on, but once again, he is alone. The Winter comes and there is a heartbreaking moment in the interim between seeing the flock of birds flying South and the moment Lion is once again joined with his friend for the Winter season.

Really illustrative of how important and just plain nice friendship is, this book is a mild way to begin to understand being alone.