Talking about mental health issues is daunting. Often just starting the conversation is the hardest part. With his latest book, “Max’s Box,” Brian Wray offers children and grown-ups a way to begin these important discussions. Through simple story-telling and cartoonish illustrations, Wray gives his readers a glimpse into what can happen when emotions are suppressed. He also demonstrates how with the help of people who care, we can learn to express, and then let go of the things that hold us back.
The story begins with Max’s parents giving him a very special gift: a tiny, magical box that will hold everything. After putting in his lucky red truck, favorite pirate ship, and beloved stuffed dog, Max discovers the box will also hold his feelings, particularly his negative feelings. For example, when Max is angry, the anger goes straight into the box. When he is sad or lonely, the sadness and loneliness also go into the box. Each negative emotion he feels makes its way into the box, which grows larger and heavier, making it more and more difficult for Max to carry around. Ultimately, the box becomes such a burden that it keeps Max from doing the things he loves, like riding his bike and climbing trees, and all he can do is sit in its shadow and be envious of the other children without boxes.
Eventually, Max learns feelings are a normal part of life. “It’s okay to have all kinds of feelings,” Max’s father tells him, “But once you feel them, their job is done.” As Max learns these valuable lessons and moves out from his box’s shadow, the book’s illustrations become more colorful and more vibrant. In the end, Max is able to turn his box into something beautiful and let it go. This simple, yet compelling story teaches children that emotions are a normal part of life. It discourages children from suppressing their feelings, and instead offers healthy ways to express them.
It can be very challenging to discuss emotional health issues with children, particularly in a language they can understand. But picture books like “Max's Box” help children see themselves in a story, which shows them they are not alone in their experiences. Wray concludes his book with a section titled, “A Word about Emotions,” which is meant to help adults help children navigate what they are feeling. It’s a well-thought-out postscript that addresses the adult impulse to fix the source of upset in a child’s life, and explains how doing so may not always be in the child’s best interest. Wray follows this up by offering adults five communication strategies to help their child process and deal with their emotions. All in all, this book would be beneficial for any parent who wants to start a conversation with their child about mental health. It could also help children develop the vocabulary to explain what they are experiencing.
Kirsten Tekavec is a graduate assistant at WPSU.