Picture Books that Convey Emotions in Surprising Ways

By Jen Kraar
Quality picture books create magical moments. As a reader, you enter into a world with a child and share more than a story. You turn the pages and often experience a strong array of feelings, anything from joy to a poignant sadness. Oftentimes you cannot define your emotional journey. Instead of giving emotions a name, a story may create a unique experience.
Our children are pandemic-weary and trying to understand the complex emotions of our troubling times. Schools in the U.S. are now including Social Emotional Learning (SEL) goals in their curricula. They are trying to teach students to understand their emotions, feel those emotions fully and show empathy for others. Publishers have targeted a number of their kids’ books to meet this need. While reading SEL-themed picture books, I began to understand how authors and illustrators can help children develop self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills.
Excellent translated picture books evoke such complex emotions as kindness, joy, courage, calm and compassion in ways that resonate with children from all over the world. What techniques do they use to accomplish this?  Here I talk about three titles and how their authors, translators and illustrators have collaborated to create these magical moments.

What Feelings Do When No One’s Looking

Written by Tina Oziewicz
Illustrated by Aleksandra Zając
Translated by Jennifer Croft
Translated from Polish [Poland]
Published by Elsewhere Editions
This beautifully crafted book, translated from Polish, presents illustrations of endearing floppy-
eared creatures who bring a range of emotions to life. Kids will empathize with these characters who depict feelings, both comfortable and uncomfortable. Rather than telling readers what emotion to experience, these creatures show a context for each feeling. Readers will see a sweet shaggy Compassion helping snails cross the road. Turn the page and they’ll encounter a worried-looking Anxiety juggling balls while balancing on a unicycle. My favorite is the illustration of Excitement, who is racing across the page while holding a newly-discovered book. Each imaginative page in this unique title allows the reader to experience a different emotion and invites readers into a conversation about their feelings.

Elsewhere Editions have also created a sweet, short film about the book. Meet the author, the illustrator and a young reader here.

I Am The Subway 

Written and illustrated by Ki Hyo-eun
Translated by Deborah Smith
Translated from Korean [South Korean]
Published by Scribble
Ki Hyo-eun uses a subway as a vehicle for telling a story and conveying emotions. The subway confides, “I rattle and clatter over the tracks. Same time, same route, every day.” The personal lives of the passengers who enter through the vehicle’s doors each are shared. The subway acknowledges each passenger’s emotions and sometimes responds with one of his own. When a mother and her babies arrive on board, the subway remembers this woman as a child and says, “I hold this family in my embrace.” Using a repetitive phrase, ba-dum, ba-dum, evokes the movement of the train and gives a lovely lyrical rhythm to the book. Subway asks the reader to take note of “The unique lives of strangers you might never meet again …” I applaud the way this title evokes emotional empathy for those we encounter in life but do not necessarily know.

The Story of Snowflake and Inkdrop

Written by Pierdomenico Baccalario and Alessandro Gatti
Illustrated by Simona Mulazzani
Translated by Brenda Porster
Translated from Italian [Italy]
Published by Enchanted Lion
The text, illustrations and construction of this book translated from Italian artfully convey hard-to-identify emotions. Readers meet an inkdrop “sighing inside her bottle,” longing to see the world. As the story progresses you see the world as the ink drop imagines – full of flowers and idyllic landscapes. The wind knocks the ink bottle over and inkdrop flies out the window. Here, in the middle of the book, readers will delight in folding out the pages to view a magnificent illustration. They will witness the glorious meeting of inkdrop and snowflake and read, “Their embrace lasted forever.” At this pivotal point, the reader physically turns the book to discover snowflake’s journey to meet his soulmate. Along the way, snowflake is anxious about what he will find. Instilling minuscule objects with feelings such as anxiety, yearning and happiness is powerful. The tactile and poetic experience of reading this story will stay with young readers for a long while.

All three of these titles allow the reader to translate the emotions of the characters for themselves. Each author, illustrator and collaborator does not label the feelings they evoke. Instead they trust the child to interact with the page and take away an emotion. These translated picture books create a magical experience and  a social emotional lesson that will endure.

Meet Jen Kraar

Jen Kraar grew up chasing lizards in India, making up stories about imaginary neighbors who lived in the spirit house in front of her house in Thailand and riding retired race horses in Singapore. Jen went to college in North Carolina and then enjoyed being a school librarian in Pittsburgh. Now you will find Jen selecting, shelving  and talking about books to customers at the City of Asylum Bookstore or at home writing picture books and middle grade novels. She is near completion of an MFA in Children’s and Young Adult Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.