The monsters in Mies van Hout’s charming picture book Friends have much to teach us about emotional intelligence. Developing the ability to make a friend is a milestone that every parent wishes for their children. The greater challenge is developing the ability to keep a friend when conflicts arise. The expressive faces and poses of van Hout’s colorful monsters in Friends demonstrate the emotions, from delight to anger and back again, that children and adults will recognize from our ordinary and human experiences with friendship and conflict.

This picture book provides a wonderful opportunity for parents and teachers to extend children’s understanding of the complex social interactions that can take place between even the fondest of friends. The text is minimal – at most, a single word on each page, such as “play,” “tease,” and “fight.” Yet Friends makes a cozy read-aloud story with a small group of children or perhaps just one child cuddled on the adult’s lap. Open-ended questions such as “What do you see on this page?” invite children to enter the story and use their own imaginations to make the illustrations come alive. The children will draw their own conclusions about how the monsters resolved their fight and restored their friendship. They may even surprise us with the depth of their responses.

Reading Friends at home or at preschool may spark other activities that can extend learning and conversations around healthy friendships and conflict resolution. Young children may enjoy drawing their own van Hout-inspired monsters using colored chalk or pastel crayons on black construction paper. They may also enjoy acting out the story with puppets or dolls. The structure of the drama is very simple – the characters begin happy and playful, then they tease and fight, and finally they make up and find a way to be friends again. Don’t be surprised when children relish the opportunity to recreate the violence of the fight and the bitter tears of frustration. The intensity of these emotions will resonate for most children and they will benefit from visiting these negative experiences in the safety of play.

Another way to extend the pleasure and learning of Friends is to explore similar books. Mies van Hout has written and illustrated a number of other wonderful picture books such as Happy and Surprise. Other children’s authors who have explored the joys and challenges of friendships include Mo Willems in his amusing Elephant and Piggie books, such as My Friend Is Sad. And let us not forget the perennial favorite among children’s books about friendships — Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, including the iconic Frog and Toad Are Friends.

This post was written for the newsletter of Bookends & Beginnings, an independent bookstore in Evanston, Illinois.

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