Annie Allclair, Psy.D. is a child psychologist and the creator of Dr. Annie’s Bookshelf,
a website of recommendations for mental health-related children’s books.
I was a sensitive “old soul” kid, which we all know means that I was also a bit anxious and overly aware of injustices, hurt feelings, and our family’s complicated dynamics. Books were my therapy. I learned from books about feelings, families, and friendship; about coping and resiliency; and about the universality of love and fear, crushes and rage. I have wonderful memories of going to the public library with my family and coming out with a new stack of books. Anne of Green Gables got me through 6th grade.
I am now a child psychologist. I learned a lot about psychology in graduate school, through years of practica and coursework. But I am positive that I’ve learned more about humans through fiction than through all of the research articles and textbooks that I’ve read over the years. All of the research in the world will not shed light on what it’s like to be a person. Stories illuminate person-ness.
I started working on Dr. Annie’s Bookshelf almost exactly a year ago, but the idea has been brewing for years-–since my second clinical practicum in graduate school when I worked at an elementary school and struggled to find a book on parental separation for a child with two moms (I have since found some!).
Books have always been a natural therapy tool for me. Kids (and adults!) learn through stories, and picture books in particular provide information visually and verbally, so they’re accessible to more types of learners. Books can normalize and validate experiences, put words to feelings, support empathy and understanding of differences, and teach specific skills. They’re often particularly helpful for children going through an experience that many of their peers might not be going through (e.g., a diagnosis, family loss, or major stressor). The right book at the right time can help a child feel that they’re not alone and that there’s hope.
That said, the right book can be very hard to find. Over the years between my practicum at the elementary school and when I started Dr. Annie’s Bookshelf, I purchased dozens of books, usually after reading reviews online, sometimes following recommendations from other providers, and I was often disappointed. Sometimes the books just weren’t that well-written, sometimes they weren’t helpful (or were even suggesting things that were inaccurate or contraindicated!), or sometimes they were actually really great but just not the right fit for a particular child. Google wasn’t much help either. There are many articles with titles like '10 Great Books on Mental Health for Kids,' but the very best book on separation anxiety is often totally irrelevant to a child with ADHD.
I have even found many topic-specific lists of recommendations to be inadequate, as presentations and needs vary so greatly that the right book for one child is so different from the right book for another. For example, a child with a depressive disorder who feels irritable and “blah” will not relate to a book with a character whose depression causes them to feel very sad. A book about a child with a non-speaking autistic brother may not be relatable to a kid with an autistic sibling who talks nonstop. A book about divorce that features parents sharing custody would be irrelevant and potentially harmful for a child with one parent who will have full custody. There are also, of course, children for whom these books would be perfect. The right book matters.
Which brings me to my goal for Dr. Annie’s Bookshelf. My hope is that the site will help anyone who reads books with children or who recommends books to families–parents, grandparents, teachers, therapists, pediatricians, librarians, etc.--find the right book for a specific child or family. I am systematically adding books to the site, topic by topic. For each section (e.g., temper, OCD, parental depression, autism, loss of a pet), I read every book that I can find on the topic (over 800 books so far, with many more to go!), and I choose the ones that are both well-written and useful. Most of the books are fiction; some are non-fiction. Each review hopefully contains enough information to help people decide if a particular book is right for them.
I include in each review my thoughts on the quality of the story and the illustrations (i.e., is it actually a good book), as well as the psychological principles covered by the book (evidence-based practices, etc.), the representation included (e.g., characters’ gender, race, geographic location, disabilities), and for whom I think the book would be a good fit. I’ve noted any concerns I have and how I would address these when reading the book with a child. I’ve tried to minimize jargon, but where it was unavoidable, I’ve linked to a glossary of definitions so there is a minimal amount of psychological knowledge needed to navigate the site.
I started this project last September, at the start of many kids’ first year back to school full-time, in-person since the start of the COVID pandemic. It was also, crucially, in the midst of growing awareness and alarm about the state of children’s mental health. Kids were more anxious and depressed than ever, over 100,000 children had lost their parents to COVID (now tragically over 200,000), and millions of children had missed out on countless important childhood experiences from visiting grandparents to soccer games and trick–or-treating on Halloween. To make matters worse, there was a dramatic shortage of children’s mental health care providers available. I wanted to do something, and naturally I turned to books.
I hope that Dr. Annie’s Bookshelf is able to play a role in helping children to cope with today’s many challenges. The site is completely free and available to everyone with internet access, and it is designed to follow Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (e.g., compatible with screen readers, navigable by keyboard). My goal is for the site to be accessible and relevant to as many people as possible.
I believe in books, and I believe in children. I believe that children can understand and talk about difficult things, and that we, the adults in their lives, have an obligation and an opportunity to have these conversations. Books can help. Books show us who we are, who we can become, how we fit in, how we are unique, and how we can cope with difficult situations. The right book at the right time has the potential to help us to heal and to grow. I hope this project helps you and the children in your life to find the book you’re looking for!
Annie Allclair, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist. She specializes in providing evidence-based treatment to children and teens. She received her B.A. in psychology from Pomona College in Claremont, CA and her Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) from the PGSP-Stanford Psy.D. Consortium in Palo Alto, CA. She is currently part of a group private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area.
She loves dogs, hiking, ice cream, and learning to garden through trial-and-error. She has always loved books and reading, and has read hundreds and hundreds of children’s picture books. She is very excited to accompany A Novel Mind in their shared mission to increase access to children’s literature that supports kids’ mental health!