The Empathetic Elephant : A heartwarming early reader rhyming book for kids (Author Interview)

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What inspired you to write "The Empathetic Elephant" and choose an elephant as your main character?

In January 2020 I attended a conference where Jen Hatmaker -was a keynote told a story about Community…and how female elephants in the wild circle around a mother elephant who is giving birth or injured and they protect her or trumpet and kick dirt to protect the new baby’s skin. It is a beautiful story that really struck a chord with me. Then Covid hit, we were all isolated, my kids were all home. I realized how important it was being together as a family, but how vulnerable and isolated everyone was. The female elephant became a big reminder for me of how I wanted to live my life - with a community of women that I could count on for support, but mostly as a reminder of the kind of woman I wanted to be - one who realized when someone was in need ready to encourage, support or cheer them on.

 

Can you share how your personal experiences have influenced the themes of empathy and understanding in your book?

I’ve always been a pretty empathetic person. I used to think others viewed that as a weakness because people presume you are vulnerable or lack objectivity - until I became a mother. As an adult, I realized that my empathetic nature had been instilled in me by my parents and my grandparents. And did not make me weak, but compassionate and resilient. My grandfather taught me that gratitude and knowledge are our most valuable resources. My grandmother taught me to always look out for others. My mom taught me that compassion can comfort the deepest wounds. My dad taught me that sometimes faith is all we have. It was important that I passed these things on to my kids. I wanted my children to know success isn’t measured by what you have, but by the lives you touch.

 

How did you approach the challenge of making complex themes like empathy and diversity accessible and engaging for young readers?

Empathy was a pretty natural progression for me because connection and compassion are very important issues for me.

I didn’t really set out to make the book about diversity, but it naturally unfolded as the story came together. Empathy is having the ability to have compassion for and understand the needs of others. For Lucy to show true empathy I knew those characters had to be truly different. It is easy to show empathy toward people who look, think and act the same, but the division in our world is proof that we need to have empathy for all people regardless of ability, religion, race, socio-economic or political affiliation.

 

In "The Empathetic Elephant," Lucy interacts with various animals in the jungle. How did you decide which animals to include and what lessons each would teach?

My other books have animals that represent those stories well. Our ties to nature and what we can learn from it are very powerful lessons when you really think about it. Those ideas stick with me when I am writing a story. Whether it be the power of the acorn and the oak and how there is a generational legacy shown there or the fact that all trees are connected by their root systems and will communicate and help each other by sending nutrients when in need (which is referred to as the “woodwibe” web. They are beautiful representations of family, community and connection.

In Grandpa & Lewy, Lewy is a squirrel that represents Lewy Body dementia which is a pretty heavy topic for kids. I wanted to work the Lewy the squirrel’s personality into the traits of Lewy Body. It seemed like a fun way to not make the topic so frightening and provide some comic relief to the story.

F.R.O.G is an acronym for Fully Rely on God so that didn’t require much thought. However, as I began to develop that story I learned that frogs are an indicator species for our planet much like I believe that faith is an indicator of our own well being. Frogs also symbolize new beginnings, transition, taking a leap of faith so it was very relevant to the story and to my own life at the time. I was deciding if I was going to go all in on my author journey. It wasn’t something I set out to do - it was honestly something I felt called to do. Writing this book helped me come to terms with that

As I developed the characters I got this book I realized they could easily represent different personality traits and social disorders so I decided to write them with those things in mind. I realized quickly that this story could be developed into a series that touches on each animal. I want a child to be able to identify with whatever that social issue is without it being a “label”. For example, the monkey has ADHD so the next book will focus on those traits, but indicate that it is ADHD.

 

The book is not just a story, but a tool for intergenerational bonding. How do you envision families using this book to foster deeper connections?

Intergenerational connection is so important. I hope that it will raise awareness of the importance of understanding, patience, and compassion. It think it encourages open communication and active listening, which are key to bridging the gap between different generations. The story also highlights the value of family. Lucy’s family is there for her. Not just her family - extended family. They don’t try to “fix the problem or solve the issue” they listen, encourage and support her. They give Lucy the confidence and space to solve her own problem, but they let her know how proud they are when she does.

I hope this story will help open a dialogue for family member's to share experiences and perspectives, fostering mutual respect and appreciation.

 

Could you talk about the role of illustrations in your book and how they complement the narrative?

I have been incredibly lucky to find and connect with 3 amazing illustrators and they’ve each played a huge role in the development of my stories. The availability of the illustrators is really what determined what book would be created. I found them each online and just knew that their particular style would be perfect for my story ideas. It been so insightful to see how different each one works and what their creative vision brings to the table.

The illustrator for my first book, “Grandpa & Lewy” (Tracey Arvidson) had to deal with me not having any idea what was involved in publishing a book. I had zero knowledge and very little budget. She was so patient and kind. It was at the height of covid so we were both dealing with a house full of older kids and trying to navigate everything that came with that. We went with very simple watercolor illustrations and found creative ways to keep budget down and make the illustrations complement the story. I have some future books that I hope to be able to use her for. Her style reminds me of Norman Rockwell paintings and it lends itself well to the nostalgic realism of some of my stories.

My second and third books were really dictated by the availability of the illustrators. I found both Jess Bircham and Lauren Sparks at the same time. They were very different styles and fit well with a few stories I had in the vault. Both illustrators were working on a 6-12 month waitlist. I put my name on the list and Jessica was ready for me about three months ahead of the 6 month mark. Her style was very soft and sweet reminded me a lot of Precious Moments figurines.

I had an idea for the F.R.O.G. Book and knew that story would lend itself well to her style. So I wrote F.R.O.G. Pretty quickly and Jess got it done at lightning speed in March. In June of the same year I heard back from Lauren. I knew her book would be my elephant story. I was also a story that I had in the vault and was motivated to finish after I saw her work. It was fun and bold and jungle animals are her specialty. The coolest thing is that she lives in South Africa and was doing my illustrations while on safari. She would send me videos of a rhino walking past her tent. Talk about field research. It was so surreal having my illustration come from such an amazing experience.

I’m always keeping my eye out for new illustrators because finding the right illustrator for a story idea really inspires me - but it would be hard to beat the relationship and connection I have with each of these women. I feel privileged to have worked with them and would work with them again on any project at anytime.

I can honestly say that I don’t sit down to write a book. The stories find me. Some come from life experiences and others are inspired by these amazingly talented artists. I’ve surrendered to not trying to figure it all out.

 

"The Empathetic Elephant" is your third children’s book. How does this book differ from your previous works like "Grandpa & Lewy" and "F.R.O.G. - Fully Rely On God"?

It is the most broad. My first two books were very niche’. I would consider Grandpa & Lewy more of a resource. I wrote that story for my kids because my dad was diagnosed with LBD in 2003 and there weren’t any resources available for families - especially for young kids. F.R.O.G. is also very niche’ bc of the religious theme.

I do feel like both books have a broad message of acceptance, compassion and connection - whether it be connection to faith, self or others. It has been a challenge because the stories are both pretty specific.

I am so excited for The Empathetic Elephant because it keeps with my theme of acceptance, compassion and connection, but will reach a broader audience.


 

What message do you hope children and their parents take away from "The Empathetic Elephant"?

“Our connection is our strength” though we are not all the same, we are all connected. It is ok if we don’t think, look or act the same, but kindness foster unity. We not only need to embrace our own differences, but we need to approach others’ differences from a place of compassion and acceptance.

 

How do you think your book contributes to conversations about emotional intelligence and understanding in children's development?

I’m my opinion there is a huge need for these conversations. I think the book introduces these concepts in a child-friendly manner, using relatable characters and engaging narratives. I think it could be a great tool for parents to help children understand their emotions, empathize with others, and manage their responses effectively, By doing so, parents could lay a strong foundation for their emotional and social development, equipping them with the skills they need to navigate relationships and challenges throughout their lives. Ideally, I can’t wait to dive even deeper and expand this series to tackle mental health issues like neurodiversity, depression, social anxiety, body dysmorphia and autoimmune disorders.

 

Are there any plans for more books in the future that follow similar themes of empathy and understanding? What can your readers look forward to next?

YES!! I have so many story ideas to bring to life. I get excited to get them out into the world. Mostly bc I love the creative process, but truly want to make a difference or bc I truly hope that they will make a difference in a child’s life, a parent’s view of the world or a family’s dynamic.

I wish I could just create and keep moving forward, but each book needs some special attention and that has been a challenge for me. So I am learning to space them out a bit so that my resources are a bit more manageable.

I have the illustrator on the books for a follow up to F.R.O.G in early 2024.

One of my young readers pointed out the need for a “boy book” 😊

This will also be a religious theme that compliments F.R.O.G., but this one is for boys.

I’m very excited that the illustrator for Empathetic Elephant (Lauren Sparks) is onboard with continuing the series of jungle adventures that address each animal from the first book and what makes each one different, but special.

 

How does "The Empathetic Elephant" reflect your passion for fostering intergenerational connections through storytelling?

Empathetic elephant is the culmination a message that has been in the making for many years. It is really a full circle moment for me. Without rehashing my whole life story. My love of writing began in 1987 with a high school English assignment to interview and write a paper about my grandfather. Ten years later I used that same paper as the foundation for a college graduation requirement. I researched and wrote about intergenerational bonding and titled it “Communication – The Vital Link”. That interview with my grandfather in 1987 had a profound impact on me. I didn’t realize the power of my writing then or the strength of the connection with my grandparents, but it proved to be a huge catalyst for what I do today.

 

Can you describe your journey as a children's book author and how it led to the creation of "The Empathetic Elephant"?

I didn’t set out to be an author and until my 3rd book, I couldn’t even bring myself to use that title. I didn’t talk much about my writing. I remember reading bedtime stories to my kids thinking how cool it would be to write children's books because I loved reading them, but it was never something I ever thought I would do. I believed ,and still do, with everything in my being that motherhood was my purpose in life. It was all I wanted. I didn’t need anything else. I know that will rub some people the wrong way, but it is my truth. Being a stay at home mom was a privilege, but it required many sacrifices for our family. I wouldn’t change a thing, but I am grateful that I’ve found something that I love to do now that my kids are grown. Being there mom is still my favorite thing ever, but creating children's books brings me a sense of joy and fulfillment now that the house is a little more quiet.

 

In what ways does "The Empathetic Elephant" aim to strengthen family bonds and cultural heritage?

Seeing Lucy’s interaction with her herd (extended family) will empower kids to discuss issues with family and hopefully encourage families to communicate in a healthy, helpful manner.

How do you believe your personal experiences as a parent in Pennsylvania have influenced the themes in your children’s books? I’ve had the privilege of raising some pretty amazing kids. I must admit they made it easy for me, but I do believe that was because faith and family mattered most. Life has not been easy, but we’ve always faced hard things and heartaches together.

 

"The Empathetic Elephant" is about understanding and inclusivity. Why are these themes important for young readers today?

Inclusivity is especially crucial for young readers today because it helps them understand and appreciate the diversity of the world around them. It fosters empathy, respect, and acceptance of others, regardless of their race, religion, gender, or abilities. Thanks to technology we are more connected than ever, but we are also more isolated. A child can go on social media and know what’s going on around the world, but they are less likely to go outside and see what’s happening in their neighborhood. This view of the world through the lens of social media agendas and narratives can be dangerous for a child and their mental health. Inclusive literature that opens the door for important conversations is more important than ever. It allows children from all backgrounds to see themselves represented, affirming their identities and experiences. This not only boosts their self-esteem and sense of belonging, but also promotes social harmony and equality

 

Lucy the elephant encounters various animals along her journey. How do these interactions convey the message of empathy and diversity?

Each animal rejects Lucy’s attempts at friendship. This rejection is not about

Lucy, but because each animal

Is dealing with their own issue. It would have been easy for Lucy to give up at the risk of creating her own issues. With the encouragement of her family, Lucy realizes that she had the power to make a difference. With a growth mindset and an attitude of compassion Lucy breaks down the barriers and meets each animal where they’re at. Teaching us that we truly are better together.

 

What do you hope families will take away from reading "The Empathetic Elephant" together?

I hope that it will raise awareness of the need for connection and conversation.

 

How do you approach the challenge of writing for a young audience while also engaging adult readers?

My desire is to write stories that make a difference. My two favorite genres are self/help and children’s books. So Im in awe of authors like Dr.Suess and Charlie Mackesy who can package a profound message in a beautiful picture book. Thats would be my ultimate dream. For now, Id like to think my stories speak to all ages because they tackle tough topics that are relevant today.

That’s my focus.

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