New Picture Book Addresses Calming Fear Through Art

Barbara DiLorenzo never planned to create a book about the fear a child might feel during a school lockdown drill, but she herself experienced one of those drills. As a result, she wrote and illustrated A Thursday afternoon (Flyaway, September), in which a girl deals with her anxiety after a school lockdown exercise by spending quiet time outdoors doing nature art with her grandfather.

In March 2018, DiLorenzo was shopping at his neighborhood bookstore in Princeton, NJ, with his baby boy, about to meet a friend for lunch at the local Panera. Both women were late, which was fortunate, as DiLorenzo later learned that a gunman had entered the restaurant and been killed. “My friend got caught up in the stream of people coming out of one side of the building, and I was on the other side, oblivious to what was going on,” DiLorenzo recalled. “The police came into the bookstore and yelled at us to evacuate and I ran out with my baby in my arms, terrified.” Although deeply upset by the incident, she also felt it was “a unique and strange thing and that Princeton is generally quite safe”.

Several months later, DiLorenzo was invited on an author’s tour of a local school. “I did two big gatherings, sharing my previous books,” she says, recalling a few alarms going off between her interviews. “They told me they were testing the alarms, so I didn’t really think about that.” After everything was done and she was about to leave, a librarian asked her if she could show her all the artwork the kids had made in response to her books at the library. When another alarm bell sounded, DiLorenzo was unconcerned. “But then the librarian ran over and turned off the lights, pulled down the blinds, and told us where to go behind the desk,” she says. “When I asked, ‘Is this another exercise?’ she said, ‘No, it’s not. It’s an active shooter code. ”

While they waited, DiLorenzo and the librarian were talking quietly about what might be going on. “I was thinking about what these restless little kids who could barely sit still during a lecture were going through and what the teachers were going through,” she says. “How can a teacher in this urgent moment keep an entire class calm and safe?”

After about half an hour, the librarian received a message that there was no active shooter in the building – this was a threat called into area schools – and everyone been released. “It really shook me up,” DiLorenzo says. “I couldn’t help but think about how it’s kind of the elephant in the room, in terms of how we talk about a lot of other things for kids like the first day of school, having a brother or a sister, all these different aspects of life that we try to help children through, but we haven’t talked about it.

Another factor in DiLorenzo’s decision to go ahead with her book idea was her realization that she hadn’t paid close attention to what her own children had experienced in similar exercises. “I didn’t want to write it down,” she said. “And then I kept coming back to it thinking, I have to do this.” In his mind, “the initial vision that came to me was of the outdoors, away from school somewhere, not connected at all so that the conversation could take place in a very safe space”. She also imagined a grandparent-grandchild relationship and imagined an autumn setting, because that’s when students usually learn different types of exercises.

“I didn’t put it down on paper until I went to a conference and an editor there suggested I write it,” she notes. She then sent it to her agent, Rachel Orr of the Prospect Agency, who began sending it as soon as the pandemic hit. “Everyone was so traumatized by Covid,” DiLorenzo recalls, “that the initial response was, ‘This is too much. We can’t handle a pandemic and this.’ ”

The manuscript sat for a year, and after a few more tweaks, it came out. “Funny thing,” says DiLorenzo, “some of the bigger publishers responded by saying, ‘That’s a nice submission, though, we’re not committing to that. We often see this topic come to our desks, but we just don’t know how to deal with it. It was really interesting to have these feedbacks. »

Shortly after that second round of rejections, Jeannette Larson, editor at Flyway Books, contacted Orr looking for a book that would help children cope with fear, and DiLorenzo’s project found a home. . “I think it’s a timely topic to talk about,” says DiLorenzo, “but Jeannette’s main focus was on how to help kids deal with fear and anxiety. I think she did a great job fleshing out the list of coping options that appears in the author’s note, and she made sure that not all the answers were in the book. It’s really an icebreaker meant to start the conversation with children and carers, not to say there’s an answer, because I don’t know what the answer is other than to really listen to the children.

In terms of design, DiLorenzo points out, “One thing about this book that was really important to me is making sure that any pre-readers who pick up the book don’t see any imagery of violence, that it’s just nature and grandfather and granddaughter, and there’s nothing a pre-reader can mind.

Another thing DiLorenzo insists on is that the book shouldn’t have a traditional release. She is “tremendously sad” that her new job is linked to the tragedy, particularly because it comes shortly after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. “There’s no way I’m sitting in a bookstore and signing books,” she says. . “It’s disgusting, and I don’t do that.”

Instead, she decided to do a series of free art events in the park with children and caregivers near her home in New Jersey. “I will have art materials,” she says, “and when people come, we can talk about different skills, like observing nature and drawing. I’ll have the book in the background if people are interested and want to watch it, but even if they don’t notice the book, it’s still worth it to me.

DiLorenzo says she knows from her experience teaching at the Princeton Arts Council and working with many different populations that “the art space becomes a haven, where whatever happens in the rest of your life is a space to let go a bit.When everyone in a group has paper and paint and they’re doing their thing, the conversations that happen can be really entertaining and funny. , but also poignant. So if it helps teachers, that’s great. The editor just asked me to create a guide with step-by-step notes on how to draw different things like natural objects, and I want to try nature journaling. Channeling some of that energy in this way might help.

A version of this article originally appeared in the 08/08/2022 issue of Weekly editors under the title: Calming fear through art


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