Journaling has been part of my daily routine for many years, a way of giving myself space to reflect on the page. I fully embraced how it bolstered my creativity and nourished my writer brain. Then in 2020 I found myself coping with stress on multiple fronts: global pandemic, navigating the virtual world, and becoming a full-time caregiver for an elderly family member. Suddenly, just journaling wasn’t enough.
That summer, I discovered meditation and the transformation that starting my day with a few minutes of mindfulness could bring. Guided meditations from the University California San Diego’s Center for Mindfulness are my favorites. Hands down the best self-care ritual ever. And owning the concept that I can calm myself is truly empowering. Yet when I’ve tried to explain this to friends and family, I’ve struggled. So I was thrilled to see Nelly Buchet‘s new picture book, How to Train Your Pet Brain, illustrated by Amy Jindra (Beaming Books, 2022) and jumped at the chance to chat with her about mindfulness and social emotional learning in picture books.
What inspired the idea of using a pet as a metaphor for the brain?
Mindfulness is notoriously difficult to write about for any age group, let alone children. Even the word is controversial, as “mindfulness” emphasizes our minds when much of being mindful, in the sense of present, is about respecting the nature of our bodies. For example, deep breaths ground us back in our embodied cognition, anchoring us in the “now,” which helps put in perspective our worries about tomorrow or yesterday.
I thought the best way to write about a topic that is challenging to express in words–historically known as the mind/body “problem,” when neuroscience shows us that it is in fact a solution and recognizing the connection empowers us at any age–was to capture it in an activity that brings us back to our bodies and is 100% positive, namely laughter.
I wanted an image that would make sense to a child and would be funny—something that a child could’ve come up with themselves. The image of a little brain on a leash with a wagging tail made me laugh, so I went with that.
What are the challenges of writing for this age group?
At the book’s launch, a young reader asked me: “What can I do when my pet brain doesn’t listen?” which was such a fantastic question because it was completely relatable to everyone, big and small, and it also made evident that this child totally understood the book! And that’s been the feedback, so far.
Children understand what I’m talking about. They relate to what the characters training their brains are going through. To me, that’s the challenge with writing for young minds: how can we relate to our audience (children) when they have a different understanding of reality? My favorite thing is hearing from the readers themselves.
It was immensely gratifying to receive Bank Street’s Irma Black Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature for my first book, Cat Dog Dog: The Story of a Blended Family, illustrated by Andrea Zuill (Schwartz & Wade, 2020) because the judges are thousands of first and second graders around the world. Cat Dog Dog is also an ALA Notable Book and on other wonderful lists, so adults recognize its value, too. That’s an added challenge: how to relate to both children and adults, since we adults are the gatekeepers. We’re the ones buying the books!
Your board book series, Can’t Do, also addresses social-emotional learning (SEL).
Yes, my board book series is about overcoming challenges, like learning how to ride a scooter (Can’t Do It! illustrated by Paulina Morgan, (Studio Press/Bonnier UK, 2021)), resistance at bedtime (Can’t Sleep!), trepidation about going to a party (Can’t Go!) and not finding your glasses (Can’t Find Them!). I always try to remember what it was like to be little when I write. And a big part of it, at least for me, was frustration.
Of course, frustration pushes us to overcome and learn and grow, so it’s not intrinsically bad. But children need to know that they are not alone in this frustration. Like the characters in How to Train Your Pet Brain, we all have pet brains and we all can feel alone with our big feelings.
What advice do you have for other writers hoping to include SEL in their stories?
I’m not sure that children enjoy overtly message-driven books more than stories, no matter how worthy the topic. They are just like us, and what they care about are relationships. In How to Train Your Pet Brain, it’s the relationship between yourself and…yourself, so there’s a lot of wiggle room in defining a relationship in a story. But ultimately, I believe that every line of the book needs to relate to the relationship, rather than the “lesson” we try to impart.
What appeals to you about writing picture books?
Picture books are tough to write, yet so rewarding.
I chose to write my first book, Cat Dog Dog, with as few words as possible (I think it’s five). To move the story forward, I used repetition, rhythm, and of course, the interplay with illustration notes brought to life by the inimitable Andrea Zuill. Now that it’s out, I get to see very young children learn to read and finish a whole book by themselves, proudly explaining the story to their caregivers.
How to Train Your Pet Brain I also wrote with accessibility in mind, from the perspective of a child–peer-to-peer. Empowering readers through inclusive, accessible writing is what I love about creating picture books.
What are you working on next?
I have four picture books coming out next year: Rocks Don’t Talk (Union Square Kids, with art by Andrea Zuill, 2023), Abuelito (Kind World Publishing, with David Corredor Benavides, and art by Anna Sanfelippo, 2023), Big Sister, Long Coat (NorthSouth Books/ NordSüd Verlag, with art by Rachel Kastaller, 2023), and The Weather Keeper (Enchanted Lion Books, 2023).
I’m also very happy because I just sold two new picture books that will be published in 2024, and one of them is an SEL title that, like Cat Dog Dog and How to Train Your Pet Brain, leans on humor in a big way that I think kids will really enjoy.
Born and raised in Paris, Nelly Buchet holds a degree in philosophy from McGill University in Montreal, where she created a nonprofit project that brings books to refugee children in orphanages and community centers. For her work she was awarded a Dalai Lama Fellowship and Quebec’s most generous grant recognizing youth entrepreneurship and social justice.
She has taught nonviolent conflict resolution in schools and has spoken at the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, Italy, the Ethical Leadership Assembly in the Bay Area, and Forces AVENIR in Quebec City, Canada.
Nelly is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Screen Actors’ Guild. She is represented by Hen&ink Literary Studio for books, and the Booking Biz for speaking engagements. She splits her time between Berlin, Germany, and the U.S.
Gayleen Rabakukk teaches creative writing classes for the Austin Public Library Foundation, is an active member of the children’s literature community and Austin SCBWI. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Follow Gayleen on Twitter and Instagram.