Picture Book Therapy Thursday

Tough topics & Deeper conversations for kids


This week on Picture Book Therapy Thursday we have something everyone can relate with-- the Struggle Bus. We've all been on it a time or two and Julie Koon does a wonderful job using this imagery to address perseverance and working through adversity with kids.

Julie grew up as a red-haired, freckle-faced girl with glasses bigger than her head allowed for and dreams bigger than her head allowed for too. Now she works as an elementary school counselor, where she help kids learn how to navigate their feelings and the big wide world.

She is a mom of three kids and two guinea pigs. She writes and reads every chance she gets. She paints digitally and with watercolors. Julie is represented by Regina Bernard-Careeno at Martin Literary Management.

The Struggle Bus is Julie's debut picture book, published by Kind World Publishing. Sometimes things are really tough. It’s just too hard, you’ve had enough. Grumble, rumble, bump, and roar, The Struggle Bus is at your door. Strap in and hold on tight! Through all the ups and downs, you have what it takes to do hard things. Rolling, rollicking rhymes take readers on a journey of perseverance, where challenges are faced and mountains are climbed.

Thank you for joining us Julie! first off, what inspired you to write The Struggle Bus?

I wrote The Struggle Bus at the beginning of the pandemic, when it seemed like the whole world was facing enormous challenges. I knew that I wanted to write a book of hope, to cheer others on in difficult times. I overheard someone saying that they were riding the struggle bus, and I thought, that's it! What a fun, kid-friendly way to talk about challenges.

I love seeing you taking that imagery and bringing it to life. What was the process like, seeing the book go from inspiration, to illustration, to published? I love writing in rhyme, so I wrote as many stanzas as I could with problems that a bus might encounter. Then I picked my favorites, and formed them into a story arc that I felt good about. I hadn't even finished the dummy when the #PBPitch twitter event came up, and I decided to pitch it. I was surprised to find that the idea resonated with so many, and I got an agent through that event. Soon after, it was acquired by Kind World Publishing, who are the most fantastic people to work with. I edited and drew my heart out, and now it's in the hands of readers! It was such a fun and exciting process.

Do you have a scene in the finished book that is your favorite? My favorite scene in the book comes after the lowest low moment, where the bus breaks down. The boy's friends come to help him, and there is a page turn where the bus soars into the sky with a beautiful sun in the background. I love that scene because it speaks to the power of people coming alongside you when you are going through a challenge.

It's definitely a beautiful scene. Why do you think this book is important for kids to have on the shelves? My hope is that it will help kids feel less alone in the challenges they face. All of us go through challenges and hard times. I also hope that it will encourage kids to believe that they can do hard things and come out stronger on the other side. You’re also a school counselor! How do you think parents, teachers, or counselors could use The Struggle Bus to engage in deeper conversations with kids? I think parents, teachers, and counselors can use this book to talk with their kids about what to do when they have big feelings or are facing difficult challenges, and even share about their own challenges. One of my favorite parts of the book is the backmatter, which has questions about these topics, and also gives a list of coping skills that kids can try to help them feel better when they are upset.

Do you have any advice for authors who want to write about tough topics for kids? My biggest advice would be to think back to your own experiences of childhood. The small details, the way things made you feel, and putting yourself back in those tinier shoes can help you see tough things the way that kids see them. Difficult and sad things are a big part of childhood, and I think that just trusting your kid readers, that they can hold those feelings in a book, resonate with them, and won't be put off is important too. Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to share? No new publishing news for me yet! I have a picture book out on submission, and I am chugging along on an early chapter book series. Thanks again for sharing the journey of "The Struggle Bus" with us Julie! Where can we find you online to keep up with your work? You can check out my website at www.juliepkoon.com, and follow me on twitter, @juliepkoon.

You can order your own copy of "The Struggle Bus" by Julie Koon here!

Things are warming up here in Texas (and by that I mean 90 degree days already!), so Summer is heavy on our minds. And with summer comes swimming! This week our tough topic book discusses facing your fears, incorporates yoga techniques, and features swimming as the main activity. Stephanie Wildman is here to discuss her picture book "Brave in the Water".

Stephanie Wildman, author of Brave in the Water (2021) (illustrated by Jenni Feidler-Aguilar; translated into Spanish as Valiente en el Agua by Cecilia Populus-Eudave), became a Professor Emerita after serving as the John A. and Elizabeth H. Sutro Chair at Santa Clara Law. She directed the school’s Center for Social Justice and Public Service. Lawley Publishing will release her second children’s book Treasure Hunt (illustrated by Estefania Razo) in November 2022. Her other books include Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America (with contributions by Armstrong, Davis, & Grillo) (2021); Race and Races: Cases and Resources for a Diverse America 3d (with Delgado, Harris, Perea, and Stefancic) (2015); Social Justice: Professionals Communities and Law (with Mahoney and Calmore) (2013); and Women and the Law Stories (with Schneider) (2011). Stephanie is a grandmother, mother, spouse, friend, good listener, and she can sit “criss-cross apple sauce” thanks to her yoga practice.

Brave in the Water (2021) (illustrated by Jenni Feidler-Aguilar and translated into Spanish as Valiente en el Agua by Cecilia Populus-Eudave) addresses a common swimming fear in a new and powerful way, incorporating mindfulness and yoga techniques. With the help of his loving grandmother, Dante learns how to face his hear.

What inspired you to write Brave in the Water?

Swimming has been an important part of my family’s life. I didn’t learn to swim until I was twenty-six, and I didn’t want my own children to grow up afraid of water like I had been. I took them to swim lessons at an early age, and both of my kids became competitive swimmers. One founded and coached an award-winning swim program for vulnerable youth, and the other swam for Team USA in the 2008 Olympics. I hope this book encourages children, and everyone, to learn to swim.

I love that personal connection! And what incredible ways your family has found meaning in swimming.

What was the process like, seeing the book go from inspiration, to illustration, to published?

The process can be embodied by the word “lucky.” I was so lucky to have a wonderful teacher in Maxine Rose Schur. She believed in this story from the beginning and urged me to write it as a picture book. I was also lucky to have the book accepted by Lawley Publishing. In our first book meeting, the publishers asked me how I envisioned the book, and I had the opportunity to describe my ideas that couldn’t be represented on submission by art notes. The feathered peacock yoga pose plays a key role in the story, and I wanted to have a peacock hidden on pages throughout the book. The third stroke of luck was having art teacher Jenni Feidler-Aguilar agree to illustrate. Jenni loves peacocks and swimming, so she was a natural to bring this story to life. I love the cover portraying Diante being brave in the water.

Do you have a scene in the finished book that is your favorite?

I love the peacock on the cover page (and note: teachers and parents can find two peacock sketches to download for a coloring project on the resources page for the book here). But my favorite scene might be the image of Diante and the peacock staring into the pool together, while he is thinking about whether he is really ready to try putting his face in the water.

Why do you think this book is important for kids to have on the shelves?

I got one lovely photo of a child holding Brave in the Water with a heart shaped book-mark she had made for it – it being her new favorite book. Her parent had said the child hadn’t been reading but loved this book and read it over and over. So, on a basic level, Brave in the Water is a great book for beginning readers.

The breathing exercise portrayed in the book does have a calming effect; it’s something children and caretakers can do together – not just to face fear, but to relax.

You incorporate a lot of mindfulness and yoga techniques in the book, which are great for kids dealing with anxiety and fear! How do you think parents, teachers, or counselors could use Brave in the Water to engage in deeper conversations with kids?

I start virtual school visits by asking the class to raise their hand if they have ever felt afraid to do something. Everyone raises their hand. I ask if anyone wants to share what they have been afraid of – everyone knows the feeling of being afraid – often fear of trying something new. I also share my own fear of water. I think it helps for children to understand they aren’t the only ones with these feelings.

Of course, the particular fear is personal to each child. Giving them the breathing technique can empower them. Parents have told me they use pranayama – special breathing as the book names it -- when a child is upset or worried with great calming effect. I hope a deeper conversation can result from children understanding it is possible to move past fear to constructive action.

Having those tools to empower kids to de-escalate and problem solve on their own is so powerful.

Do you have any advice for authors who want to write about tough topics for kids?

Yes! Please do write about tough topics for kids, even though it feels hard. Kids are facing hard issues all the time and a story where the main character works through feelings about a tough situation can help a child work through their own. The challenge is in showing the child work it through.

Thank you for sharing your work with us Stephanie! Brave in the Water is such a wonderful book. Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to share?

I’m excited to report that Lawley Publishing will release my second picture book, Treasure Hunt (illustrated by Estefania Razo) on November 1, 2022. Twins Roberto and Flor follow clues planted by their elder brother Luis to search for hidden objects and to figure out what they can be used for.

We will be on the lookout for it! Where can we find you online to keep up with your work?

Website: stephaniewildman.com

Twitter: @SWildmanSF

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Happy Thursday friends!

I'm so excited to have fellow Texan Ellen Leventhal on the blog today, discussing her book "A Flood of Kindness".

Ellen Leventhal is an educator and writer in Houston, TX. Aside from A Flood of Kindness, she is the author of Lola Can’t Leap and the upcoming Debbie’s Song: The Story of Debbie Friedman. Ellen is also the co-author of Don’t Eat the Bluebonnets. Her work has appeared in various poetry and short story anthologies. Ellen’s best days are when she can interact directly with students and spread her love of literacy, compassion, and kindness.

Perfect for all children experiencing loss or grief, A Flood of Kindness gracefully confronts difficult feelings and celebrates the healing power of kindness.

Written in spare prose and told from an intimate first-person point of view, the story follows Charlotte, a young girl who watches floodwaters rise in her home and is forced to evacuate to a shelter with her parents. Kind people she doesn't know give her food, socks and shoes to keep her feet warm, and a place to sleep. As Charlotte adjusts to the shelter--a strange, crowded place that is not home--she grapples with feelings of anger and sadness. But as the days go by, Charlotte starts to realize how grateful she is for the things that she does have--her parents, a cot to sleep on, food to eat--and starts looking for ways to help others in the shelter. All children deal with sadness and loss in some way, whether it stems from a natural disaster, the death of a pet, or moving to a new place. A Flood of Kindness acknowledges those difficult feelings and helps readers process them in a healthy way. Children will be encouraged to be kind to those who need a friend and to help others in whatever way they can, no matter how small.

I first read A Flood of Kindness a few months ago and it really stuck with me. As a child, I remember seeing an influx of children come to my area of Texas after Katrina, so a lot of this story resonated with the experiences of those children I knew. Even in a big event like that, so much of how we process it comes down to our own personal experiences, and our interactions with others.

Ellen, thank you so much for joining me this week. What inspired you to write A Flood of Kindness?

In May, 2015 my house flooded, and I thought of Mr. Rogers’s call to “Look for the helpers.” I didn’t need to look far. We were surrounded by kindness. I wrote a lot during that time, but I wasn’t ready to write a children’s book for some reason. We then flooded again in 2016, and then Hurricane Harvey decimated the city in 2017. There was no fixing up and moving back for us that time. As a teacher, I knew a lot of children who went through these floods, and I wanted to find a way to help them without being too didactic. I knew I had to do something they could relate to, so the brainstorming began.

I can't even imagine going through a floor two times around. And seeing it happen with so many of your students, being able to relate to that really emotional time for them.

There's a lot of personal experiences in this book for you then. What was the process like, seeing the book go from inspiration, to illustration, to published?

Wow! I think seeing any idea go from inspiration to publication is amazing. After more revisions that I can count, I got my nerve up and entered it into Mindy Alyse Weiss’s PB Party. Shockingly, I was in the finals, and even more surprising was that agent, Mary Cummings wanted to rep it. After that, there were more revisions, and it actually didn’t take very long for Peggy Schaefer of WorthyKids (Hachette Book Group) to pick it up. Then, of course, more revisions. Although illustrator, Blythe Russo and I didn’t communicate until the book was done, I was sent rough sketches and fell in love with them. I especially love where the beginning is dark and the sun comes out in the end. When I got the book in my hands, I was thrilled. Because this book is so personal, I literally got goose bumps.

Do you have a scene in A Flood of Kindness that was your favorite to write?

One of my favorite scenes to write was where my main character stamped her feet and wanted her things back. This got to the crux of the problem for children. Children aren’t worried about insurance, rebuilding, and money. They just want their things and their old life back. It’s a scene where I try to let children know that their feelings are valid... But I also loved writing the end because I wanted to leave readers with hope.

I love the way you really got down on a child's level to process something so big, giving those details about their lost things.

Why do you think this book is important for kids to have on the shelves?

I think that kids need to know that feeling whatever way they feel is ok. But I also want them to understand the power that small acts of kindness can have. On top of that, I think it’s important for children to understand that even at a young age, they are each capable of helping their friends, family, and community in small or large ways. Small things make a huge difference, and they shouldn’t be discounted.

How do you think parents, teachers, or counselors could use A Flood of Kindness to engage in deeper conversations with kids?

I think that reading and discussing this book can spark deep conversations about not just kindness, but about the opposite. In my experience, I noticed that after we read the book, some kids wanted to talk about kindness while others discussed feelings of hurt because of bullying, being ignored, or feeling othered. I think letting the child take the conversation where they need go is helpful. But more than all that, I’d love to see this book being used to highlight the healing power of kindness and empower children and let them know they are not helpless. I often start my discussions with “Have you ever felt out of control, like there is nothing you can do?”

Do you have any advice for authors who want to write about tough topics for kids?

I’d say that they shouldn’t be scared to tackle tough topics. But they also need to be aware of the audience and remember that while you’re writing, you need to always be thinking about how kids will relate. It’s important to take your adult hat off and figuratively get down on a child’s level. Perhaps thinking about yourself as a child and your reactions in difficult situations is the best way to relate to kids as you write.

Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to share?

I do have a picture book biography coming out next year. I’m pretty excited about it, and more details will be coming soon.

Ellen, thank you so much again for joining us on the blog! To find out more about Ellen’s books and writing projects, please go to www.Ellenleventhal.com

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