The starred Kirkus review for one of the books I write about below (The Rabbit Listened) notes how, at its core, it is a story of emotional intelligence, or the ability to identify and manage one’s emotions, as well as others’. We could certainly, in this day and age in America, use more picture books about that very thing, especially ones told, as that one is, without ham-handed morals. I’ll get to that book in a moment, but I want to start with another book that is also, for all intents and purposes, about emotional intelligence, Molly Bang’s When Sophie Thinks She Can’t ….
This is Bang’s third book about Sophie, the first being When Sophie Gets Angry — Really, Really Angry …. (a 2000 Caldecott Honor book), and the second, When Sophie’s Feelings Are Really, Really Hurt, published in 2015. In these books, which deeply respect the interior lives of children, Sophie learned how to manage her anger, as well as how to manage a wounded pride. In When Sophie Thinks She Can’t …, Sophie deals with feelings of inadequacy and low self-confidence, not at all helped by a snide passing comment from her sister: “Too bad you’re not smart.” Ouch.
Things don’t improve at school the next day. Already thinking that she “can’t do ANYTHING,” she faces a challenging math puzzle, a tangram square, and convinces herself she can’t solve it. With her classmates, she works through her frustrations and the problem itself, while her teacher, Ms. Mulry, gently guides them, reminding them that “when we exercise our brains, by thinking hard, our brains get stronger, too!” A closing note from Bang (intended more for the adult reading this book to a child) states that her good friend, teacher Ann Stern, asked her to write about “’fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindsets”:
“Very simply, a person who has a fixed mindset believes intelligence is innate:
It is fixed at birth, doesn’t change, and determines what a person is capable of
achieving. … But people with a growth mindset believe success can result from
effort and effective strategies. …”
Bang took up Stern’s challenge to write this story about a child (dear Sophie) willing to persist with a task she finds difficult and challenging. She not only persists, but in the end, she’s discovered she’s enjoyed the process.
As with the previous Sophie books, Bang puts to use vivid, stimulating colors; expressive and diverse characters in bold outlines; and abundant compassion for her protagonist. It’s a treat to see Sophie again.
Cori Doerrfeld’s The Rabbit Listened, on shelves next month, is the story of a lone toddler, named Taylor, dressed in striped PJs and building with wooden blocks. (Taylor could be a boy or a girl, but please allow me, for the sake of simplicity in this piece, to call Taylor a “she.”) When, of all things, some birds fly in and knock down what she’s built, she is devastated and huddles in a ball to cry. Various animals try to comfort the child in myriad ways, but the only one who brings any relief is the rabbit.
There’s a library science term (perhaps a bit dated now? I don’t hear it as often as I used to) called bibliotherapy. That’s when you recommend books on specific topics to help a reader who seeks healing in some way or who needs help with a problem. In a bibliotherapeutic sense, this is a book I’d hand to a child, or even an adult, who knows someone grieving, someone for whom “things came crashing down,” as the book puts it—and it could be grief over the loss of a thing or the death of a friend or family member. It’s essentially a story about loss; the stages of emotional turmoil one goes through over a loss; and the best way to provide comfort for someone experiencing a loss.
First, Taylor is visited by the chicken, who won’t stop talking about Taylor’s tragedy. Next is the bear, who wants to rage over the loss. The elephant tries really hard to fix what Taylor had built, which fails when Taylor makes it clear she doesn’t want to remember what happened. The hyena tries to crack some jokes. The ostrich thinks the two of them should hide their heads and “pretend nothing happened!” The kangaroo figures that everything is such a mess that all the blocks should be thrown out. Even a snake appears, who wants to exact revenge. None of it helps Taylor. Once again, she is left alone.
When the mute rabbit appears, it sidles up next to Taylor. They even sit in silence for a while until Taylor says, “Please stay with me.” With someone listening, instead of trying too hard to fix everything (hey, the rabbit has huge ears, after all), Taylor eventually lets it all out; she talks, shouts, rages, remembers, laughs, decides to hide, tries to clean up, and plans revenge. The rabbit stays by Taylor’s side the whole time, as she goes through a wild range of emotions, what could be described as stages of grief. The book is a reminder to those wanting to comfort a grieving friend, a reminder that all we can do is listen and that what we think are our best attempts at helping often backfire. In this way, this book is not unlike a generous helping of comfort food—your best plate of steamin’ hot macaroni and cheese, followed by some rich chocolate brownies.
All of this is pulled off in a concise and emotionally resonant way — on uncomplicated spreads with generous white space, which really lets the book breathe. Yes, it’s a so-called message book, but there’s a lot of grace here, a story paced perfectly for young readers. This is, without a doubt, a conversation-starter for young children and would be paired perfectly with Jed Henry’s Cheer Up, Mouse! (which I wrote about here almost exactly five years ago today).
Doerrfeld’s and Bang’s books respect the complex emotional lives of children, not an easy thing to do without also condescending to child readers. As for Sophie and Taylor, well … the kids are gonna be alright. Oh, and that rabbit. He ain’t too shabby either.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
Illustration from WHEN SOPHIE THINKS SHE CAN'T ... written by Molly Bang. Art © 2018 by Molly Bang. Used with permission from The Blue Sky Press / Scholastic.
THE RABBIT LISTENED. Copyright © 2018 by Cori Doerrfeld. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Dial Books for Young Readers, New York.