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Picture Books for Troubled Toddlers: Separation Anxiety, School, and Divorce

When my daughter was small, I amassed quite a library of books for anxious toddlers. A few of them are great, but most of them were less than unhelpful. Some of the better-known books (like the Invisible String, for example) are aimed at older kids. Overall, it’s pretty slim pickins out there, lemme tell ya. 

I debated whether or not to review each book in its own post – I think each book deserves a few words to explain the rating. It seems, though, like it would be too hard for people to wade through individual posts. 

The star ratings aren’t so much about the quality of the book, but more about its appropriateness for this age group (1.5 -2.5 years).


1. When Mama Comes Home Tonight,by Eileen Spinelli & Jane Dyer.

Topic: Separation Anxiety. 5/5 stars. Ages 2+ (note, also in a version for dads)

This book is fantastic. The book starts with, “When Mama comes home tonight, dear child, when mama comes home tonight, she’ll cover you with kisses. She’ll hug you sweet and tight.” The book talks about all of the wonderful things Mama will do when she gets home from work. I love that it reinforces the idea of a routine and helps a child know what to expect. In fact, I love every single thing about it – a must for working moms! Side note: the inscription from the illustrator makes me cry.

2. The Kissing Hand,by Audrey Penn.

Topic: Separation Anxiety/School. 2/5 stars. Ages 3.5+

While the idea behind this book is great (Mama gives her baby a kiss on his hand, which stays with him all day), it’s just too complicated for little kids. There are too many words, and the concept of a nocturnal animal is something for older kids. I had to paraphrase a LOT with this book so that C could understand it, which made it hard for me to read. I don’t think C found the story very helpful.

3. Llama Llama Misses Mama, by Anna Dewdney.

Topic: Separation Anxiety/School. 4/5 stars. Ages 2+

I love the Llama Llama books – they’re so fun to read! C understood this book – which is about starting school and missing Mama - a little before age 2. It helped her process her BIG feelings about going to school. I first realized how the book made her feel when she started ripping it apart (this one and “Owl Babies” both got torn up), which made it good for talking about “big feelings.” Though there are a lot of words (the only reason I’m not giving it 5 stars), I think the pictures help illustrate what’s going on. Poor little Llama looks really sad.

4. The Invisible String, by Patrice Karst.

Topic: Separation Anxiety/Divorce/Death/ Fear of Being Alone. 2/5 stars. Ages 3-4+

This book is very well known and is often recommended for kids experiencing divorce. The book is about twins who wake up in the middle of the night because of thunder. They want to be with their mom, who explains, “even though we’re apart, our hearts are always connected by an invisible string.” It’s a great concept. Like the Kissing Hand, though, it’s too advanced for little kids. C didn’t know what “invisible” meant when she was 2, and even the concept of twins is a bit much. There are too many words for toddlers.

5. Little Monkey’s One Safe Place, by Richard Edwards. 

Topic: Trust in parental figure. 3/5 stars. Ages 2+

Little Monkey is asleep by himself when a storm wakes him up and scares him. He finds his Mom, who tells him that he always has “one safe place.” He spends the book trying to find his “one safe place,” and at the end the reader discovers his one safe place is in Mommy’s arms. The concept itself is good, but I’m not sure how I feel about Little Monkey having only one safe place. Parts of the book were a little scary too (the places he looks are scary, with a crocodile in one place and scary eyes in another). C understood this book, but I don’t know if it made her feel any better. I will say, though, that it helped her talk about how scared she felt all the time.

6. Hug, by Jez Alborough.

Topic: Separation Anxiety. 4/5 stars. Ages 18 months+

This book has only three words: Hug, Mama and Bobo. The entire story is told with pictures, which makes it ideal for younger kids. The book follows Bobo the monkey as he looks through the jungle trying to find his mom. He sees all the other animals giving hugs to their babies, and he really wants his mommy. This book was really hard for me, because it covers a topic that I had a lot of fear about as a child and I know C does too: not being able to find your mother. As the story goes on, Bobo gets more and more panicky and sad, and is so relieved when he finds his mom. The book brings up feelings, so it’s good to talk about them (“Sometimes little kids are scared when they don’t know where their mommies are, but Mommy is always there. Mommies always come back”). I admit to being a little uncomfortable with how long it takes Bobo to find his mommy, and there’s no real explanation for why she was so hard to find, which seems kind of scary (this is why I knocked off a star).

Sara Olsher

Sara Olsher

Sara Olsher is the Founder + CEO of Mighty + Bright. She's a young cancer survivor, mom, and former single mom.

4 Responses



July 02, 2020

First, thank you for these posts. They’re so well put together and thoughtfully considered.

Second, we LOVE Llama Llama Misses Mama, and found that Llama Llama Red Pajama also helped with separation anxiety, because the freaking out little llama does while his mom is out of the room is similar to separation anxiety. “Mama Llama’s always near, even when she’s not right here.”

 Erica H

Erica H

July 02, 2020

Please oh please revisit The Kissing Hand when C gets older! You’re right in that it’s a little much for a toddler, but I read it to my 2nd graders and even the tough stinker boys get a little mushy over it 🙂

 Kate Zellers

Kate Zellers

July 02, 2020

Wonderful and helpful reviews, thank you! Have you read the “When I’m Feeling…” books by Trace Maroney? They cover some of the “big feelings” you mention. We like “When I’m feeling sad” and When I’m feeling happy” the best. I do paraphrase a few lines for my 2.5 year old, but the books have given us the chance to talk about some big words like anger and jealousy.

 Kathleen Mikulis

Kathleen Mikulis

July 02, 2020

It’s funny you should write this since I’m almost done writing my own on books for ages 2-4. Several on my list happen to be about separation including Llama Llama (LOVE that one) and Owl Babies. I also have a post planned about books depicting people of color.

Another good separation book is this one. It happened to be at our local library.

Everything by this author has been great so I suspect this one is good too:

I just added some of your suggestions to a piece of paper I take with me to the library for my next visit.

I’m kind of surprised you haven’t made your own book yet. I’m not kidding.

A year and some months ago Julia was traumatized after some A/C workers kept working right above her room VERY loudly at nap time. Afterwards she didn’t want to sleep in her crib or without anyone there.

A few people suggested to me to make a book about it. It really does help them process it. I photocopied some (not main) characters out of a Sesame Street book. There was a girl who was perfect who was sad, happy, etc. You could illustrate the whole thing and make it specific to your situation.

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