By Brandy Browne
Tattle Tongue, My Mouth is a Volcano, Ricky Sticky Fingers…sound familiar? These are just a few of international children’s author Julia Cook’s 121 titles available to children, parents, and educators. Julia Cook takes the issues that plague parents and teachers today and spins them into relatable stories for young children to help them become problem solvers that will grow through these issues. I sat down with her to pick her brain, and here are the thoughts she shared with us…
Brandy: Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Julia: Both of my publishers that I work with in the U.S. are educational publishers, so a lot of parents and teachers will say, “You know, we need a book on this topic” or “Have you ever written a book on this topic?” So, then what I will do is I will start research…I just did one on recess. I got on Facebook, and I said, “What are your problems at recess? Tell me…if I write a book on recess, when a kid gets done reading it, what do they take away?” Then, I’ll start with the takeaways. Then, I also do research…first level, second level, third level. You do a Google search, and you read that article. Then, you search the references. Then, you do that research and search those references as well. Finally, I put all of that info together and try to weave it into a fun story that, you know, every child can see themselves in the book. That’s the goal.
Brandy: Going back to the recess project, I noticed on your facebook page that there is a book about recess coming out soon! The early childhood educator in me loves that because recess can be a really challenging time for some kiddos. What can you tell us about that project?
Julia: First of all, they (teachers and parents) sent a list of all the things they want in the book or that work in the book. One of the things that came out of that was the Buddy Bench. So, you have a Buddy Bench, and that’s a place you go if maybe you are kind of afraid to talk to people. Maybe someone else is too, so you can just go there and talk to people. Or, a Calm Down Tree. If you feel like you are all stressed out, go run and touch the Calm Down Tree. And, recess is a time where we don’t want it to be so structured. This is the place we let our kids practice the social skills that they have and find out which ones don’t work and why. Conflicts are going to arise. That’s a great teaching place for that to happen. We want our kids to be safe, but also want them to practice..(pause)..recess is practice for life. The book is Herman Jiggle, It’s Recess, Not Re-stress.
Brandy: I love that! Over the weekend, with my daughter, Grace, I read Herman Jiggle, Say Hello because she suffers from some pretty crippling social anxiety. I love that you have books that address topics like that. In the beginning, she was like, “Oh Mom, this is a little kid book!” But, as we started reading it, she could see herself in there.
Julia: Thank you. That’s the beauty of it. We have certain social skills we want to teach kids, and in order to teach them, we have to get into their worldview. The books are really a vehicle to take those skills into their head. The beauty of it is, you know, kids don’t come with instructions, so we can do the research and model what the parent should say and do, what the teacher should say and do, and what the kid should do. They all have a kind of a recipe. You have the problem, a couple solutions, then you try the solution, and tell if you are successful. They want us to wave our problem solving wands and solve their problems for them (waving a fun pink and purple wand here…color me impressed, she literally had a magic wand on stand by), but if we do that, they will live with us when they are thirty. (Emphatically) In our basements. We don’t want that to happen. We want to get the wand and have them learn to wave it themselves. Although that book is written for six, seven, and eight year olds, your ten year old has been six, seven, and eight. She has the same eyes. The concept is that they are people books. If you write a really good book, it doesn’t matter what age the reader is.
Brandy: You tackle some really big issues in your books- anxiety, depression, bullying, etc. What advice would you give parents that might be struggling in these areas with their children?
Julia: Right now, everything is even more magnified due to the pandemic. They sense our anxieties. Just like when your child was a baby, if you were holding them and you were anxious, it affected them. So, try not to air your anxiety feathers in front of your kids. I think anxiety has to do with predictability. I like to have kids write down everything that is stressing them out on a piece of paper. Then, draw a circle on another piece of paper. They look at their list…if they have control over the thing they are stressing out about, it goes inside the circle. If they can’t control it, it has to stay outside the circle. They focus their energy on the things that they have control over. Another thing that has worked for kids is anxiety recipe cards. So, they have a worry..What if Mom doesn’t pick me up on time? What happens? Well, you wait for a while. Then, you call. They talk through that process and write it on the card. Then, the card goes inside their recipe box that they keep in their backpack. So, they don’t have to have that worry up here (motions towards head). And, you know, it’s really easy for us to play it down, and say, “Oh, don’t make that big a deal of it.” Lots of times we think that if we act like it’s a big deal, it will make it worse. I’m on the fence with that because I think it’s really important to look at your kid and say, “I can only imagine how worried you must be.” Don’t say you know how they feel because you don’t. You say I know how worried you must be. And just by validating that- (I interject: That’s huge.) Yes, huge! Also, a lot of anxiety has to do with increased sleep deprivation. So, if your kid is not getting good enough sleep, anxiety and depression are going to go through the roof. You want to make sure they don’t have any electronics in their room, or anything that will wake them up. Sometimes, it works to have a little worry doll. You tell your worries to the doll, and put it under your pillow. Then, you can just relax. And, if it is severe anxiety to the point where all the other things don’t work, then that’s the time you sit down with your pediatrician and say, “You know, how do we help my child?”
Brandy: I love how you incorporate notes for parents at the end of your books. Do you have any thoughts of writing any books for parent and teachers in the future?
Julia: (Pauses) Um, that’s not my favorite thing to do. I thought about maybe kind of doing a, My Child is Struggling with _______, and they fill in the blank. Like a recipe book, and have the tips in it. That might be something I might graduate to doing someday.
Brandy: I know that I am a better teacher and writer and person in general when I am around people that lift me up and that I can glean those ideas and positive influences from. I am a huge proponent of finding your tribe. Who makes up your tribe? Who are the first people you run ideas by?
Julia: (Smiles) Kids! I’ll write a story, and then when I’m at a school, I’ll say, “Hey, I have a brand new one…can I try it on you?” And then, I’ll read it to them with just the words. I’ll watch their eyes. If their eyes light up, then I know I’m on. If their eyes don’t light up, then I have a lot of work to do. (Laughing) The little neighbor kids are so tired of me because they are the only kids I can find right now! My grandkids don’t live by me, so yeah (shrugs). I have teachers and four or five people on my speed dial I’ll call. This time, I put on Facebook, I sure would like to read this to five people, and I think I got something like 250 people say, “I’d love to hear that!” I didn’t get time to answer everyones, but it was very nice to be able to do that. It doesn’t do you any good to read a book that you can’t use.
Brandy: We live in such a digital society. It’s so easy for the keyboard warriors, and people are often unaware of how much power that their words have. How do you handle negative comments, and what advice would you give your young audience, or even their families in this area?
Julia: First of all, I listen to the negative comments. I would read Amazon reviews and get ten great ones and one terrible one. I’ve learned to weed them out. I can read a comment, and if it’s their stuff that’s causing them to you know…(pauses)…like this one lady got the booger book, and said, “This is the grossest book ever. How could I possibly read this to my kids?” Well, I mean, its on boogers. So that, to me, is more her stuff. But if I got one that said, “This book is not kind to children of color…” The original Making Friends is an Art had a blue color. I started off talking about, well, the whole brain in my brain was when you mix all the colors you get brown. I was going on about how all the colors have different things, and when you put them all together, you get brown. And brown has all these things. He’s a great friend. So, I made brown the hero at the end. BUT, I started off the book saying, “I’m brown. I don’t have any friends. Nobody likes me.” And, you know, a child would read that and say, “Well, I’m brown too.” Skin color never entered into my thought process bubble. The illustrator is African American. But when I heard that, I was like, well, we need to change it. So, we messed around with it and we changed it, but it still just did not work with kids. It was almost offensive to some kids. I was in Bulgaria, and I had this lady reach out to me. She said, “I’ve been asked to get behind the Ban Making Friends is an Art book because it’s racist, and I wanted to know why you’re racist. Then, I went to your website, and you’re anything but racist. Why would you put this in print?” And I actually called her, and I said, “Because I’m an ignorant white woman who didn’t even realize my words were harmful or hurtful. We have to take it off the market…the premise of the story is a good story. What do I need to do to fix it?” She looked at the art, and the pencil that was brown actually had white arms. I never noticed that. And instead of talking about all the things brown doesn’t have in the beginning, it now starts out, “I’m brown. I’m the luckiest pencil in the box. Let me tell you why.” It empowers children of color. It empowers white children too. It empowers everyone who reads it…I have this thing that if I write a book and it doesn’t work for all kids, it won’t work for any kids. And if I screw up, it is never intentional. Everybody makes mistakes. I use it to teach kids that it’s what we do with those mistakes that matter. You know, it would have been easy to say, “Well there’s already 50,000 in print, and it’s doing well” versus oh my gosh, let’s fix this book. So, you’ll see in the beginning, Katie Smith wrote me a letter and I wrote her back, thanking her for having enough courage to say this book isn’t working. The whole point of these books is to enter the worldview of a child and teach them to be better and to make your job easier. We totally revamped the book and made it the second edition. Now, it’s a book I’m really proud of. The point is you have to listen to the content and the feedback. Feedback is information that helps you grow, and who doesn’t want to grow? It’s criticism, but sometimes that’s how people give you feedback, and you have to understand, looking at it now from their perspective, they have every right to say and do those things. I’m really proud of this book now, and I use that to teach kids about making mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes, and it’s what you do after that mistake that matters. Mistakes help you grow.
Brandy: You have so many great stories, the lessons are so relatable to children. Do you have a favorite? Is that even possible? (Laughing)
Julia: Um, Judgmental Flower talks about how to be a friend and how to make a friend. (Holding up Making Friends is an Art) This, now, I’m proud of this one. A Flicker of Hope is on suicide prevention, but it doesn’t say suicide. We have a new one coming out called Will You be the I in Kind? That’s going to be way up here (motions up with her hand). That one will come out in August. In June, we’ll have the book called Great Things Come to Those Who Wait, which is on patience. August will be Will You be the I in Kind, and the recess book will come out October 1st. And then, there’s activity books as well. I have my own TPT store, Julia Cook EnCore (https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Julia-Cook-Encore) . Those are by me, and those are different ideas than are in the activity books.
Brandy: That was another question of mine. What are some big upcoming projects of yours? What goals are you working on?
Julia: I just finished a 24 book series 0-2 and 3-5 on social emotional learning and a little bit of math in there too. It will be published to Random Penguin China, but I believe it should be available in the United States soon. They are centered around the zodiac animals of the Chinese New Year. They rhyme, and they have mathematics, and they have social skills, and they have a parent piece in the back.
Brandy: How long does it take you to publish a book? You usually release in bundles, and you have put out so many books! What is that process like? Julia: The writing process takes a couple months with the research. Once I have the research, I can write them sometimes in a day, sometimes in a half an hour, because the words just kind of come out. The illustration phase takes about ninety days. Then, the printing phase takes ten weeks. If you put them out too fast, people are like, “Oh man, another one…” (laughing) I don’t want to ever feel like that. They all look different because I don’t want to be a cookie cutter author. Kids keep having issues, and with two publishers who work side by side, that’s very rare. Most of the time, you have one publisher, and then if you don’t like them, you go to another. They are very competitive like that. In China, however, the more publishers you have, the more successful you are. That’s a different market. For the United States, I am fortunate to have two educational publishers that are nonprofit, so when the books make money, it goes back to help underprivileged kids, teachers, and parents. They aren’t a commercial make a lot of money type of publisher, and I love that. I don’t want to do too many, but I think I have 121, so that’s a lot. We’ll keep doing them as long as it works. It’s fun…I love it.
I had my own takeaways from my interview with Julia Cook. First, I was so impressed with her commitment to taking issues that children are facing and weaving stories from a child’s worldview to give them strategies to problem solve. Also, from someone who occasionally struggles with accepting criticism, what a way to take something that could have turned so ugly (it being implied that a book had racist undertones) and turn it into an opportunity for growth, then using that growth opportunity to drive conversations to make positive changes in the world. Finally, I am so excited for the world to get to see what Julia is working on for the fall! Undoubtedly, more great material that will facilitate problem solving skills in our children…for more information on Julia and her current work and upcoming projects, visit https://www.juliacookonline.com/ . Parents and teachers can log on and request school visits, parent workshops, or even send her a message. I sent her a message, asking for an interview, not even sure if she would receive it because of the volume of messages she must receive, and I had a response within a couple hours. Her website is a great resource!