This is the first year that my daughter (almost 4) is really going to participate in Valentine’s Day and of course I’m going to have some picture book recommendations to mark the occasion. We’ve purchased some cards for her to give out at school (paw patrol, of course) and she’s genuinely excited about writing out her friend’s names and picking out the best paw patrollers for each kid. Luckily there are only 8 kids in her class so this won’t be too large of a task for us, but I do look forward to her getting to experience the act of telling someone how much you like them on this particular day of the year.

I know many people call this is a ‘hallmark holiday’ but even if that’s true, what’s the harm in telling people you love them? It doesn’t have to be a commercialized thing, especially when children are involved. We’ve forgotten how important it is to show gratitude to the people in our lives, and Valentine’s Day is a wonderful excuse to do this. Of course, books are another great way to open a dialogue with your kids about the importance of expressing our love and appreciation for one another and oneself, and I’ve got some recommendations that are perfect for this time of year.

So none of the books on this list are actually ABOUT Valentine’s Day. But, as you can see they all adopt the ‘spirit’ of the holiday, which is why I’ve chosen them. First off we have Hug Me by Simona Ciraolo, the story of a little cactus named Felipe, who is a small male cactus that wears a pink bow and just wants a hug. Unfortunately his family doesn’t believe in public displays of affection, and because he’s a cactus he has a great deal of difficulty getting hugs from other animals and plants. He decides to leave his family and accepts living on his own in isolation is the best way for him to be, but he comes across another lonely person who changes his mind-Camilla the rock, who just like Felipe, yearns for a hug. Together, they become best of friends.

Is it any wonder why I love this book? It’s showcasing a range of things; male cacti who aren’t afraid of feminine accessories, characters who don’t always fit in with their families, and the consequences of shutting oneself off from the rest of society. All of this is done in a very subtle and simple way. Even better is the drawings are bright and expressive, and what’s even cooler about this book is the fact that it doesn’t have a paper cover which is a nice touch for a kids book, because those tend to just get ripped over time anyway. My daughter and I really enjoyed reading this story together, and it’s a short enough read that she was engaged the entire time, mouth open, ready to see what happens next.

Next up we have Miss Mink, Life Lessons for a Cat Countess by Janet Hill. Now this book won’t interest everyone because it has a heavy-cat theme, so I know my daughter would love it. Miss Mink started a cruise line that accepts feline passengers, but as she developed and grew her business she realized her success came at a personal cost to her health and happiness, so she turned to her cats for some ‘life lessons’ which includes the importance of afternoon naps, spending quality time alone, getting lots of sunshine, etc.

The book begins with one page of a huge amount of text, but don’t let this scare you off. The subsequent pages are short with one sentence or ‘lesson’ on each. And the illustrations are detailed paintings with lots of cats doing silly things so this will please the animals lovers. And the book ends with an extremely detailed picture of a cruise ship and all 67 of Miss Mink’s cat enourtage, with the last page listing the names of said cats, and the names are spectacular, my favourite being “Beau Dangles”.

I could see some accusing this book of having too sophisticated a message for the suggested age of 4-8, but I think it’s never too early to drill some of these lessons into children. Taking care of oneself is something adults have to learn to do, but wouldn’t it be nice if we were raised with this mind? And the whimsical pictures add an air of lightness to the whole story, so my daughter laughed at many parts, even though I didn’t necessarily see it as a ‘humorous’ book. I also enjoyed the fact that it features an independant female business woman, with an atmosphere that dates back to the 1920s and 1930s, so its optimistic (if not a bit unrealistic). It’s fun all the same, and I love recommending books that are interesting and applicable to not just the child but the adult reading them as well.

I’ve saved The Pink Umbrella by Amelie Callot and Genevieve Godbout for last because it may not work for some kids due to its length, it’s 80 pages long and recommended for 6-9 years of age. That being said, my daughter still enjoyed it, and sat and listened to the whole thing, which took us about 15-20 minutes to get through. I suspect this may be because it prominently features the colour pink which she loves, but the story is also really lovely.

We meet Adele who runs a cafe called The Polka Dot, which acts as a meeting place for many people in the small town it’s situated in. Adele is known for her love of taking care of people and socializing, but when it rains, she can’t get out of bed, the gloomy weather bringing her down until the sun shines again. The grocer and friend Lucas notices her change in moods and surprises her with a pink umbrella, rain boots and raincoat, and she spends the majority of the book trying to guess who leaves her these gifts. At the end, Adele discovers it’s Lucas and together they walk off into the sunset (and our imagination can imagine how things progress from there!).

The best part about this book is the subtle nod towards mental health issues; it’s clear to an adult reader that Adele is suffering from a type of seasonal depression, but I think this would eventually become clear to a child as well. It sends the message that it’s ok to be sad sometimes, but friends can be there to help pick you up, and something that you once hated, like rain, can actually be a fun experience if you have the right mindset and company to enjoy it with. This book also verges on the romantic because of what goes unsaid between Adele and Lucas, but his understated way of helping Adele is a powerful example of kindness, giving kids a roadmap on how to help someone in need without being overly aggressive or preachy. Once again-children’s books are reminding kids AND adults of how to act in life’s various situations.

There’s a misconception that kids books need to have really obvious message for it to ‘get through’ to the children, but I don’t think that’s the case. Small gestures that are observed through a wide range of narratives (whether it be books, radio, television) will eventually come together to form a complete picture in that child’s mind. It’s up to us parents to expose our kids to enough of these mediums in an age appropriate way, but it’s up to the them as individuals to decide what kind of message they get out of it.