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For Libby
A new book by a five-year-old author, and a chat with AustinMama, Annette Simon

Named for her parents' maternal grandmothers, Elizabeth Margaret Simon was born on Mother's Day 1991; her brother Jack called her Libby.  Libby was born with a rare metabolic disorder, and although doctors expected her to live less than six months, she lived to be three-and-a-half.
When Libby died, five-year-old Jack desperately struggled to understand. That year his mom, Austinite Annette Simon, began a diary, lovingly recording Jack's experience, voice, thoughts and fears. What resulted from her effort is an unusual new book entitled: This Book Is For All Kids, But Especially My Sister Libby. Libby Died.
Scripted from a child's perspective of loss, Jack and Annette's book is, at first glance, strikingly simple -- with bold illustrations embracing one of Jack's thoughts or questions per every two pages. Yet, it's exactly this simplicity that provides enough stretching room for the complex human imagination, encouraging a wandering, domino-effect exchange about life and loss between adults and children who read the book.
Thankfully free of saccharine sentimentality, heavy narratives and overt sorrow, Jack and Annette's book fills a woefully empty niche with uncluttered insight, humor, raw honesty and subtle reverence (the addition of a caterpillar on the first page and a butterfly on the last is a particularly beautiful tie-in to death as not only a natural process, but a transformational one for all involved).
We recently talked to Annette Simon about the book, co-authoring with a five-year-old and kids dealing with grief. Here's what she had to say:

AustinMama: This book is a bittersweet tribute not only to your daughter, Libby, but to respecting and validating a child's complex grieving process as well. Can you describe the book's journey from idea to realization?

Annette Simon: When Libby died, Jack was five, and struggling to understand. We found few resources for grieving kids, even fewer from a child's perspective. In fact, we found only one book -- a fictional story about rabbits. For a year, I wrote down Jack's concerns. He thought no one in the world could possibly know how he felt. Turns out, his questions were universal. Which is why grief and hospice experts urged us to get his words 'out there.' With Jack's permission, I set out to get the journal published, and with his input, illustrated his questions. (I work as an art director, but Jack was one of my toughest clients.)
We got heartwarming rejection letters. Publishers loved the book, saying, "we've seen nothing like this." Unfortunately, it was also the same reason they passed on it, unwilling to take a risk. I showed it to a few people at Austin's GSD&M ad agency, including Roy Spence (GSD&M President). They so believed in the book, they donated a small amount of cash and a huge amount of time to create a special publishing arm of the ad agency (Idea University Press). We printed 5000 copies. Just over a year later, nearly 3000 copies had been sold or donated. We've recently received a contract for the book from a national publisher. So we're thrilled; the book will get distribution we couldn't possibly give it.

AM: Can you share some of the feedback you've received?

AS: The book seems to be striking a chord. It's prompted personal notes from Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush (who also lost a sister when he was a boy), and a phone call from Paul Glaser of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. BookPeople made it a staff pick. Women I admire, like Jan Karon, Holly Hobbie, Marion Winik, and Sara Hickman recommend it. But more importantly, the book is finding its way to grieving families, who find solace in the words of a five-year-old kid.

The M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Oklahoma City's The Kids' Place, and the American Hospice Foundation in Washington, D.C. use the book in both their children and adult groups. Southwest Airlines donated copies nationally to the Ronald McDonald Houses. The New York City Elementary School System received copies, at their request. Hundreds more have been given to those aching from last September's tragedies. Last fall, Jack got a thank you note from Bill Clinton, for allowing him to share the book with families who were hurting. It was designed to be a book for children, but it's becoming a source of comfort for readers of all ages and faiths. I like that. ;)

AM: What elements do you think are lacking in our culture's way of dealing with loss, and how we include (or don't) our children in the process?

AS: Well, we know communication is especially important at a time of loss. However, it's also when no one quite knows what to say. Not even grown-ups. I don't think there's a right way or a wrong way to help kids deal with grief; we kind of flew by the seat of our pants. Jack didn't go to Libby's funeral. He didn't want to, we didn't force him. But a thoughtful friend taped it so he could 'be there' if/when he chooses. (Jack's 12 now; he still hasn't watched the tape.)
Kids are very literal creatures. When we try to soften things, by using expressions like "lost" or "went to sleep" or "passed away," they don't understand. They can become afraid to sleep, or fear getting separated from their parents; literally, of getting lost. Using the word "died" is a biggie. Often, kids are afraid of making their parents even more sad, so they keep things to themselves. We found how important it was to listen between the lines. Jack didn't talk about Libby all the time. He wasn't sad every minute. But he was hurting. About six months after Libby died, Jack asked to meet other kids who had a loved one who'd died; he wanted to meet others who'd felt the same. He wanted to know he was 'normal.'

AM: What's been Jack's reaction to being a young published author?

AS: "Cool." Honestly, he doesn't think all that much about it. His friends are more impressed that a book by a kid their age is available over the Internet.

Thanks, Annette! Congratulations on the book's success.
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This Book Is For All Kids, But Especially My Sister Libby. Libby Died
 

Click on the images below to enlarge pages from the book:



 

 

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