There are some good books out there about negative emotions for children. I like especially Mercer Mayer’s I Was So Mad and Molly Bang’s When Sophie Gets Angry. But there is no book that holds a candle to Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day (illustrated with winning ink cross-hatching by Ray Cruz). If you don’t know the book, I’m going to pause right here while you go buy a copy for your child or your classroom or even, heck, yourself. Really, trust me, just go buy a copy.
Okay, you’re back. Why is this book, which is admittedly a great big bummer, so good? Well, first of all, despite the efforts of every well-meaning parent and teacher in the world, children aren’t happy all the time. Can you believe it? No matter what we do, children will still sometimes feel sad and angry and lonely and afraid and embarrassed. They may even (gasp!) continue to feel those emotions from time to time when they grow up!
What caregivers can do is to help children understand and process their feelings. There are a lot of ways to do that (which I often help families and teachers with)—but a very simple way is to simply let children know that they aren’t alone in their feelings. Children need to see what it looks like when other people feel bad; not because it makes them feel better (it doesn’t, and shouldn’t), but because it gives them a model for how to behave when THEY feel bad. It’s terrifying for children to think, “My emotions are so big and bad they can’t be dealt with!” If negative emotions are taboo or hidden, it makes those emotions more powerful. Talking and hearing about emotions makes them manageable. (It makes me think of Mr. Rogers’ “What Do You Do with the Mad that You Feel?“)
All of that is a long-winded way of saying, books about negative feelings are important. Reading them, kids learn that their emotions aren’t out of control, and see models of how to work with emotions.
But Alexander works, I think, on an even more subtle level than that. It’s not just about a child who’s feeling bad; it’s about a child having a bad day—a perhaps important distinction. Children know what it’s like to have a bad day—when you don’t get a prize in your cereal, and you don’t get the seat you want in the carpool, and your friend doesn’t want to play with you, and it’s just downhill all the way until bedtime. When I read this book to children and ask, “Do you ever have a day like that?” they all say YES, and I say, “Me too!” and they think, “Oh my god, the world understands me.” Which is a crucial part of social and emotional development. The book doesn’t moralize or advise or comfort or anything else. The whole day is a bummer, and at the end Alexander’s mother can only say, “Some days are just like that.” And yes, children need advise or comfort, but sometimes those things don’t help, and the only message that’s meaningful is, “You are not alone.” It couldn’t be more meaningful. The book was published in 1972, and there’s not a thing in it that doesn’t feel bang up to date. It’s got stuff all children, and all people, still need to hear.
* * *
In other news, it seems I now have readers around the world. Welcome, readers from Turkey and India and Switzerland and Taiwan and Australia! If you’re new here, take a look at some of my more popular posts on the right-hand side.