It seems like every time I turn around as a parent, I’m hearing advice in one form or fashion on how to help one’s child overcome shyness. Sure, it’s good to be armed with some tips, but sometimes I feel like the best thing a parent, teacher or librarian can give children who struggle with shyness is just a really, really good story.
In February, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers released Eileen Spinelli’s When No One Is Watching, illustrated by David A. Johnson. This picture book really nails the introverted personality and is a lively tribute to the shy child—the type that blooms when alone, yet wilts in public.
“When no one is watching, I dance.” On the very first spread, we see an exuberant young girl, jumping and playing and putting her vibrant imagination to work. However, on the next spread, her family has gathered, inadvertently putting a stop to her antics and creative play. “When everyone’s watching, I hide. I hide like the cat alongside the big chair. I scrunch myself down and pretend I’m not there.”
It turns out that she’s also more adventurous when there aren’t eyes on her, but she stands to the side when groups of children appear. She cheers herself on when she’s alone, playing basketball, yet just repeatedly passes the ball in groups. She also feels free to express her anger when alone, but in one spread, surrounded by loud, pushy people at the veterinarian’s office, she hums. “I hum to myself and I drum on my knee. I wish I could buzz off like some bumblebee.”
Suddenly, the story shifts, and we meet the girl’s friend: “My best friend Loretta’s shy too,” the girl states. They play exuberantly together, and they even sit back to back and read: “Together we don’t care who’s watching at all.”
To be sure, there’s a difference between shyness and being introverted, but this girl seems to be both. For timid and introverted child readers to meet her in this story would be affirming for them, indeed. Spinelli seems to be saying that it’s perfectly okay to want to spend time alone and to be the type of child more concerned with the inner world of the mind, as clearly this girl and her friend are. They find great comfort in one another’s company, too; the girl feels free to open up and showcase a more outgoing side with her one trusted friend.
Spinelli is gifted at telling stories in rhyme, and she includes pleasing elements of repetition here. Johnson makes clever use of color and value to indicate the girl’s level of timidity: During her bouncier, more sparkling moments, she’s rendered in bright hues; yet, when she is feeling shy, she very nearly fades. All in all, it’d be a good book to pair with last year’s Oliver by Birgitta Sif.
Maybe not as introverted as Spinelli’s protagonist, but definitely shy, is Heather Hartt-Sussman’s Noni, who first appeared in Noni Says No (2011). Noni’s will be back this July when Tundra Books releases Noni Is Nervous.
This time, Noni’s feeling very apprehensive about the first day of school. She bites her nails, twirls her hair, and talks nonstop—all in an effort to calm her nerves. She faces so many fears, and it’s here that illustrator Geneviève Côté incorporates a lot of humor into her sunny illustrations, such as the monster hiding under Noni’s bed, kicking back with a book, and the mean teacher Noni imagines, who looks like a cross between a devil and a salamander.
Much like Spinelli’s protagonist, Noni makes a friend on the bus, and soon many of her anxieties are alleviated. Her new friend “is what Mama calls outgoing,” Noni says, and she makes everything a little bit easier.
Gettin’ by with the help of your friend. Oh, and a good book. That’s the way to do it, I say.
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.