Deciding to be a children’s author, spending my days writing children’s books, was one of the best decisions I have made. Working with people of all ages throughout my career has taught me the importance of the messages we find in story books. As adults we often become detached from the simplicity of the key lessons from children’s books.
This post is about my journey from educator to children’s author and how I used children’s books with youth in detention centers, alternate schools, and crisis shelters.
My Journey to Children’s Author
In the early 2000’s I dedicated my teaching practice to facilitating conflict management lessons with small groups of youth in detention centers, alternate schools, and crisis shelters. With two very young daughters at home, I would pack up my lessons and head out to work with youth who did not have a healthy parent figure in their lives.
This work was heartwarming and heartbreaking and touched my soul. In short moments of connection, these children inspired me and lit a fire inside of me to advocate for self-empowerment, self-love, and the self-acceptance that is destined to bring us home.
This work exhausted me emotionally and physically. After two years of doing these sessions, I shifted my focus to parent-teen mediation and anti-bullying curriculum in schools.
I commend those of you who continue to carry the torch for these children.
Twenty years later I still feel this fire. I remember some of their faces, but not their names. The correctional system assigns numbers to children for protecting their identity and assigning the most appropriate intervention measures, including what facility they will be housed in for the duration of their time in detention.
In my first of many experiences with countless children in this situation, I found myself profoundly struck by the consequences of the path they found themselves on.
As I checked myself in at the gate, the guards removed every item from my bag. It was stuffed to the brim with pencils, pencil crayons, markers, wax crayons, handouts, and children’s books. I vividly remember standing at the security table and being scanned. One of the guards was setting aside my pencils and markers and pulling off the paperclips on my handouts.
“You can take the wax crayons and paper.” He said.
“I don’t understand.” I replied.
“They will use the pencil crayons, the plastic from the markers, and paper clips as weapons.” He stated in a matter-of-fact manner.
“Oh.” I responded, feeling a heavy sense of dread washing over me.
Sensing my unease, the other guard said, “We will have someone in the room with you.”.
“Ok, thank you,” I responded.
One guard held my children’s books and asked, “will you use these with them?”
“Yes” I replied.
The guards handed the books between them while I watched as they pulled the staples out of the children’s books. Once they were done scanning everything, they piled the wax crayons, handouts, and boundless children’s books on a small table with my bag. I packed up what was left into my bag and followed the other two guards who waited for me into the building.
“You can get the rest of your things on the way out” the guard at the gate told me.
I remember walking and thinking, “who are these children? What happened to them?”
After a long walk through many corridors, we arrived at the door in the section of the detention center designated for youth who were assessed as high risk. My understanding of high risk in these centers is that it typically means high risk for potential escape, self-harm, and violence. I don’t recall the specific language at this moment, but it is all part of the correctional systems classification process in Canada.
The two guards who escorted me introduced me to the guard at the door we would pass through. They told me one of them would stay with me in the classroom. We entered the classroom and the guard stood at the door he closed behind us. There was another guard outside of our classroom.
I walked to the front, scanned the room, and put my bag on the table. There were seven youth, dressed in orange jumpers, and leaning back in their chairs with their chins tucked into their chests.
I greeted them, introduced myself, and smiled. No response. I walked around the tables and attempted to make eye contact and get a response. Nothing. I felt the sweat beading down my back and looked desperately at the guard. He stood expressionless.
This went on for what felt like hours, but was only a minute. Wiping the sweat from my top lip, I let out a sigh and said, “You know what? Actually, it’s ok.” I was rattled.
I walked over to the guard and told him I would be okay and asked if it would be possible for him to stand outside of the door. He hesitated and I said, “if I need anything I will call for you immediately.” I assured him I am okay as I nodded, sweating profusely.
He agreed, scanned the room and opened the door.
I walked back to the front of the classroom and noticed the group was now looking at me. I introduced myself again and asked them if they were told why I was there. One youth told me they have assigned classroom hours and never know what they will be learning in the evenings.
I started the session by setting basic ground rules. I found it necessary to establish how we all speak to each other with respect, free of interruption and we each have an opportunity to share our own opinions. It was something I did in each session and even though I didn’t anticipate a bustling session of chatter with this group, it gave me an anchor to go through the motions as I did with every group. I also told them I only had wax crayons and why. A few laughed. Then I cracked a joke and a few more laughed. It was a much needed icebreaker.
I was with these kids once a week for two hours over a period of seven weeks.
To this day I am struck by how child-like they allowed themselves to become during our sessions.
At one point we were reading ‘The True Story of The Three Little Pigs’ (Smith, 1996) from the antagonist’s perspective. I remember saying, “Okay children, we are going to have storytime!” in my very best sing-song voice. They laughed, some rolled their eyes, yet they moved their bodies closer to me. I invited them to gather around in front of me because it was a picture book. With little encouragement, they pulled their chairs closer and a few took seats on the floor in front of me. I held the book high so all could see and read the story with my very best effort voice impressions. They were immersed and I felt like I had reached a tipping point in my time with them. This was session three.
Halfway through reading the book one of the boys started talking to another boy beside him. Without hesitation, a boy in front of them jumped up and yelled, “Shut the F%@* up, she’s reading a story!”. Like lightning, the boy punched the other one across the face. I jumped up and yelled, “Guard!”. The door flung open and two guards rushed in and immediately restrained both of them. They told the others to settle down and took the two boys out of the room.
I sighed, looked at the remaining kids looking at me, sat down on my chair, and continued the story.
The next week the two boys who had been previously removed were back in class. I approached them and told the one boy who started the altercation the week before, “So, thank you for wanting to remind your mate about our ground rules about not interrupting.” They both laughed. I said, “But next time, no fists okay?” They smiled and nodded. I asked them if they wanted to finish where we had left off in the previous week. They nodded so I read them the rest of the story.
Exploring Valuable Lessons in Children’s Books
The lesson I developed using the children’s books entailed the participants writing their own story from the antagonists’ perspective. Using popular fiction, they could re-write a story or fable to tell the other side. This was a hugely impactful session and I learned years later this method in my lesson is called bibliotherapy. I was doing a Keynote at a conference for educators and one of the participants, who was a teacher and librarian, explained the bibliotherapy process to me. You will find information about bibliotherapy below.
As the weeks went on we had no other outbursts between the kids. They would engage and laugh, tell stories, and when we did the lesson for expressing creative writing through art they all participated. I will reserve my explanation about this activity for another post as it is an interesting learning piece and resource for educators.
Here are three of the stories they wrote. I have express permission to use these and no names are affixed to identify who authored them. They are in original form and I have not edited them from the original versions.
I have always been known as the evil stepmother. However, I have a name. My name is Lucy Lou and I am going to tell you the real story of Cinderella.
I found a wonderful man named Joe who was widowed with a young baby girl named Cinderella. We soon married and had 2 daughters together. However, after 5 years of marriage I realised that he was having an affair with another woman. He ran off with her leaving behind myself with our 2 girls and Cinderella.
As years went on I struggled working 3 jobs to be able to provide for my girls. I always ensured my girls had what they needed – even if it meant I went without. And I always treated Cinderella as my own.
After some time it became it became apparent that Cinderella blamed me for her dad leaving. She never wanted to listen, never did her chores and eventually dropped out of school. After I tried everything I knew of I eventually sought out some help from a family friend. She suggested that I firm up the rules for Cinderella and give consequences for the negative behaviour.
They was a ball coming up that all the girls were invited to attend. I told Cinderella that she could go if she attended school regularly for 1 month.
One afternoon before the ball I was called into the school by the principal. I learned that Cinderella had been skipping class to smoke pot and hang out with her boyfriend. I don’t have a problem with her having a boyfriend but only if she keeps her grades up.
Because of this I needed to punish her. As much as I hated to do it, it hurt me more than it hurt her, I would not allow her to attend the ball. When we went to the ball she was to stay home and catch up on her homework.
You will never believe what happened next. Once again, Cinderella defied me, she convinced her friends to help her make a dress and give her a ride and she showed up at the ball. Around the corner I saw her kissing the prince. When she saw me she ran off and lost her slipper.
When the ball was over my daughters and went home to find Cinderella doing her homework and trying to cover up. She lied right to my face – trying to pretend she was home the whole time.
The next day the prince arrived. Can you believe it? Surprisingly, the slipper matched Cinderella’s foot. We thought it was a mistake and so we told him to leave. She ran out after him and we haven’t heard from her since.
Im a person with feelings
I want people to except me for who I am (very short)
I want somebody to like me and to love me for who I am
It’s not what’s on the outside but what really matters is what’s on the inside (baby)
I have feeling like everybody else
Size doesn’t matter
Everybody should be treated equally, including me
I get really annoyed when people tell me I’m small
I get butterflies when I see this very beautiful girl, her name is Fiona
She is fine; I really, really, really, want to make her mine and only mine
She’s one of a kind when I see her picture I knew she had a different mind
“I was destined to make her mine”
She looks so kind well share a different kind of bond.
She has red hair and her skin is really fair
We’ll make the perfect pair.
I never meant for anyone to get hurt. People always ask me why did I do it? I guess you could say the old green-eyed monster got to me. When I was younger, people would always say that I was the most beautiful person they had ever saw. I know it may sound vain, but it’s true. She stopped talking and took a deep breath.
“For the record, Snow White was very kind. She never did anything to hurt me. I just want to make that clear. It was never her fault.” Beauty was always something that brought me power. It gave me things that I could never have dreamed of. Thanks to that lying son of a cracked mirror. I never dreamed that a cracked mirror could lie about someone being beautiful. When I found out that the mirror had lied and Snow White was prettier than I was, I flew into a jealous rage. To be honest I literally went crazy. However, that won’t happen again thanks to these new pills the doctors have me on. Anyways, before I knew it, I had hired a hit man to kill her.
“Visiting hours are over” the guard had come in. I stood up and bowed to the Queen and thanked her. “Your quite welcome, my dear, would you like an apple before you go?” As I left I replied, “no thank you they look too juicy” and her shrieks followed me as I left.
It was at this time, and with these children, I wrote the curriculum for TACT (Teens and Conflict Together): A Facilitator’s Guide for Empowering Youth to Engage in Creative Problem Solving. TACT is a program that provides participants with opportunities to explore conflict and problem-solving in hopes of empowering them to use a conflict management process when faced with conflict. TACT includes:
Fun, educational games and exercises are designed to reinforce learning by providing a safe environment for the participants to explore conflict while meeting the following program objectives:
- To provide participants with a fun, educational learning experience about conflict and conflict in communication;
- To provide participants with the awareness of their own conflict management and communication styles;
- To promote change and to provide participants with the skills needed to enable change.
In my previous example, the literacy component is supported through a narrative approach using traditional storytelling. This concept is applied to promote participants to use their own creativity in processing what meaning conflict management has in their own lives. Classic fairy tales, from the villain’s perspective, are written to provide a familiar example from the villain’s perspective of how perception and assumptions can influence and impact conflict management and problem-solving.
When required to write their own perception stories, the participants in the program use stories such as Spiderman, Shrek, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Goldilocks, and the Three Bears, 101 Dalmatians, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, and The Lion King. Some participants have even used songs as a means to express the villain’s perspective in a conflict situation.
The exercise is not limited to them using a specific format but rather for them to think creatively about what the villain’s perspective would be if a story were to be rewritten from both sides. Another example, in addition to the ones I have already shared, is from one of the participants who chose Spiderman and the Green Goblin. He wrote about how the Green Goblin felt that he was left out of superhero stuff because he didn’t look all buff like all the other superheroes. The only way he could get noticed was to do bad things. This is an example of the potential lessons the participants can convey to one another to assist them to feel safe and connected.
Quite simply, these experiences with children in high-risk situations shaped my teaching practice. Connection, belonging, and security are key ingredients for a healthy classroom setting, regardless of the environment.
I believe everyone can become their potential. The children I shared about in this post were creators. They created impactful stories and beautiful artwork in our time together and they also created the lives they were living through the choices they continued to make. I believed in them.
In my adult brain, I fell short by believing in an outcome that was beyond their reach to make healthier choices for themselves to live the lives they wanted to live. They needed resources, intervention, practical step-by-step instruction on a case-by-case basis, moment by moment. Most of all, they needed a willingness and these children felt defeated. Their family was their peers. In most cases, adults were not to be trusted and they lived in a dog-eat-dog world.
I offer no solutions, other than what I know to be true. Be love, be kind, be light.
Until next time,