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Mini-Review: Anxiety + Speechlessness in "small things"

By Katie Engen, M.Ed.

This review is part of a series that examines different types of anxiety portrayed in nine picture books, offering readers an opportunity for social-emotional learning.

small things by Mel Tregonning (Pajama Press (March 1, 2018)

This wordless graphic picture book describes a concept known as ERKLÄRUNGSNOT [air- KLARE-oongs-noat] – a tricky-to-say German word roughly translating to ‘explanation poverty.’

Basically it means being speechless in the face of a difficult situation, where personal stakes are high. Phrases like tongue-tied, struck mute, heart in my throat, and ‘freaking out’ convey the more tumultuous yet invisible aspects of ERKLÄRUNGSNOT.

In small things, a young boy can’t connect with school peers. His isolation impacts performance, self-confidence, and sleep. The art shows him literally being shredded by strange, invasive shapes (some see these as pieces of himself flaking away). It’s intense and hard to understand – pretty much like anxiety, itself.

Upon finally reaching out to family for help, things improve. In the end, he’s able to see others experience the same shredding/flaking in various ways. He even tries reaching out to help a schoolmate who seems particularly tattered.

This story portrays the monstrous side of anxiety with great impact. It’s perhaps best for mature tween readers (and up), or younger readers, guided by a calming caregiver. Any reader will relate in some way to the painful nips, scrapes, and gouges that daily life gives the main character.


Those with anxiety could balance reading (or follow it with) actively brainstorming those things available in daily life (or beyond) that restore, soothe, build, and heal.

Younger readers with anxiety can follow Mr. Rogers’ lead: Every few scenes, adults sharing this book can ask, ‘Who might be the helpers?’ Which character could help stop the problem, offer care, or find a solution? Preteen to adult can think about adding hope-infused, solution-centered dialog, or try adding their own panels to describe what happens after the final page.


Katie O’Brien Engen, M.Ed, currently works in private practice to mentor students with executive functioning and language processing challenges. She also writes stories and cross-curricular lessons to engage young minds with big ideas, does writing work for hire, and reviews books for various kidlit outlets. Katie is fueled by faith and laughter, and rarely is she too busy for family, sports, or ice cream. She lives in Maryland where one of her favorite runs is the ~10 miles to the Washington Monument in D.C. Learn more about Katie here.


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