Josh Langley on exploring mental health in children’s books
In recognition of Mental Health Week (8 October to 14 October), we chat to Josh Langley, an Australian author/illustrator who has written two picture books that can open up discussions with young kids about taking care of their mental health.
It’s OK to Feel the Way You Do is designed to get kids talking about their feelings. What inspired you to write this book?
It was my partner’s idea. I initially thought the topic of feelings and emotions was too big for me to tackle as I’m not a psychologist or child behavioural expert, but after gentle encouragement from him and a few other people I decided to take it on. The book is based on my own learned experience and a common sense approach on how to cope with emotions. I also collaborated with teachers, parents and grandparents to get their real world view on the topic. In the end, It’s OK to Feel the Way You Do is the kind of book I would have given my 7-year-old self to help him make friends with the myriad of feelings he was grappling with.
Talking about feelings is often cited as being more difficult for young boys than girls. Do you agree with statement? Why/why not?
Yes, I think it is harder for boys. Our society in general is still geared towards men being less likely to be in touch with their emotions and there’s little encouragement to do so. Having said that a lot of younger men are more emotionally intelligent than a generation ago, but a lot of work still needs to be done. I’m hoping my book will change that and encourage boys to talk openly about what’s going on in the minds and hearts.
Can creativity play a role in managing mental health?
I think it’s essential. It’s so important for our mental health to express ourselves creatively, to get feelings and emotions out in a safe, creative and cathartic way. I know from personal experience that if I’ve been sitting in my head for too long, I feel heavy and disconnected from life, but as soon as I start to write, draw or paint I feel lighter and life seems less serious and intense. All people are born with a need to express themselves.
You’ve had an unusual path to becoming an author, overcoming some early challenges. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got here?
Both parents suffered from various mental health issues, including depression, severe anxiety, panic attacks and extreme bouts of anger. So I retreated into my imagination and thankfully it’s been my saving grace. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I wasn’t very academically minded and didn’t get to pass high school, and spent a few years being unemployed, then working menial jobs to pay the rent. In my early twenties I stumbled across an ad for a radio course and instantly quit my job, spent the next 3 months studying and soon after I got a position as a breakfast radio announcer in a small town. That launched a twenty year career in radio, which then enabled me to explore many of my other creative interests, such as writing and illustrating picture books.
What is your favourite part about being an author of children’s books?
Getting emails and messages from parents saying how much the books have made a difference to their kid’s lives. Nothing beats that. I even have parents saying they’ve cried while reading them.
Who are some authors and illustrators who inspire you?
Maurice Sendak is a big influence. I adore his gentleness and imaginative style. His life story is also really interesting and at times heartbreaking. I challenge you to not cry while reading about his life, especially his later years.
Also Michael Leunig is a favourite. I love how his mind doesn’t play gatekeeper to his heart. He’s not afraid to upset some people by just saying what his heart feels. He speaks a deep truth through his disarming use of whimsical characters.
Browse our suggestions for children’s and YA books that tackle mental health below.