Take Note: Author Brian Wray Talks About Children's Mental and Emotional Health

Jan 24, 2020

Brian Wray talks about his books that focus on issues related to children's mental and emotional health.
Credit Min Xian / WPSU

Brian Wray is an award-winning children’s book author for his book “Unraveling Rose” about a toy bunny rabbit with OCD. His latest book, “Max’s Box,” talks about what happens when negative emotions are suppressed. Both of his picture books focus on children’s mental and emotional health.

TRANSCRIPT:

Kirsten Tekavec: Welcome to Take Note on WPSU, I'm Kirsten Tekavec.

Brian Wray is a children's book author and the 2017 Gold Winner of the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award for his book "Unraveling Rose." His latest book, Max's Box," talks about what happens when negative emotions are suppressed. Both of his picture books focus on children's mental and emotional health. He is a Penn State graduate and currently lives in Brooklyn.

Brian Wray, thank you for joining us.

Brian Wray: Thank you for having me.

Tekavec: Before we begin discussing your work, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into writing children's books?

Wray: I have been writing stories for as long as I've known how to write. I was that second grade kid who was writing little stories and illustrating them and loved it and that never changed. Over the years, the way I wanted to tell stories changed. I came to Penn State and majored in film and video. After I graduated here, I went to New York and I focused on screenwriting, or trying to become a screenwriter. And I thought that's how I would tell stories. In 2003, I was fortunate enough to be awarded, along with my screenwriting partner, the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, which is awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Oscar people. And that led to several wonderful opportunities, including writing for Walt Disney Studios.

Tekavec: So after you won the award, can you talk about the type of work you did after receiving it?

Wray: Disney was the first place that we worked after we were honored the award. They approached us pretty early and invited us to come out and it was a wonderful experience. After that, we had a couple of scripts optioned, which was a good experience, but screenwriting work began to evaporate. But the experience at Disney really awoke this passion in writing for children. I loved the experience. And as my screenwriting began to go away, I shifted my focus to writing picture books.

Tekavec: At Walt Disney Studios, what were some of the projects you worked on?

Wray: It was one project in particular, my screenwriting partner and I were hired to write a sequel to one of Disney's classic films. We were hired for a development period, where we just sort of went in and helped develop ideas, which was a great experience. I mean, we were sort of pinching ourselves because it's the kind of thing that a writer does for free, and we thought, "Oh, geez, they're paying us to do something we love." I mean, it doesn't get any better than that. And then after that development period, we were hired to write a first and then paid to write a second draft of the film. Unfortunately, they never produced the project, but just the experience itself was wonderful.

Tekavec: Moving on to your work. Your picture books focus on children's mental and emotional health. What prompted you to begin talking about these issues?

Wray: The first few children's books that I wrote felt flat to me. I wasn't inspired by them. They felt forced. They weren't working the way that I hoped they would. And a good friend of mine suggested that I just try and settle down and write something that I knew about. And that's when I came up with the idea for "Unraveling Rose," which ended up being the first published children's book.

Tekavec: Can you describe what "Unraveling Rose" is about?

Wray: "Unraveling Rose" is about a little stuffed bunny named Rose, who likes things just so. She likes her life just the way it is. And one day she discovers just under her left arm, a tiny loose thread that's dangling free and she thinks, "Well, that shouldn't be there." She tries to ignore it, but she can't, so she pulls at it. And as she pulls it, we all know what happens with a thread when you pull on it, it doesn't come right out, it just gets longer. But she still can't stay away from it. Eventually, she unravels her arm. And she's so focused on that loose thread. And because of her unraveling arm, she can't do the things that she used to do. And so she comes to the decision that she needs to make a big change, and she stitches herself back together. And when she's done, that little loose thread is still dangling there. But she realizes it's not so important compared to all the other things in her life that she would like to focus on. On the surface, it's a story about a little bunny who learns things don't have to always be perfect. But what lies underneath that is if you are a parent of a child with obsessive thoughts, it can be the beginning of a discussion with your child about what it's like to have obsessive thoughts.

Tekavec: So what specifically inspired you to write this story?

Wray: Well, I was a lot like Rose as a child. I had a real fear of doing the wrong things. I liked things and needed things to be a certain way or I became very anxious. When I was younger, I grew up in a different time, I'm 48. So again, I was, you know, subjected to the gender stigma and stereotypes that a lot of young men were exposed to and are exposed to. So yeah, I definitely can remember feeling like Max, you know, needing to let some emotion out and not feeling like I could. So it's something that I could easily identify with. And that's what inspired the story. I was truly writing what I knew.

Tekavec: Okay, so Rose is symbolic of you as a child. What does the string represent?

Wray: The string represents something that I think anyone can relate to, something that comes up in your life that's unexpected. And it becomes your focus and maybe it becomes an unhealthy focus, and distracts you from things that are really more important in life. So, I think that's what the string is for Rose. It becomes that object of obsession, that thought, that impulsive thought that she can't ignore.

Tekavec: And the little boy in the story, he doesn't have any lines or anything, but what would you say that the little boy represents?

Wray: That's a great question. I think the little boy represents what Rose does like best about life. He tosses her in the air and he catches her. They read stories together, it's her job to turn the pages and Rose loves that. He's all the positive things that Rose has, and the string is obviously that obsessive thought that won't leave her alone.

Tekavec: Has writing about Rose helped you in any way?

Wray: It was definitely cathartic to write about Rose. It was cathartic in that to get my experience down onto paper, and to sort of see it in front of me and read through it, it felt good. It felt as a way of letting part of it go from within me as well.

Tekavec: What about "Max's Box," your most recent book, can you briefly describe what that story is about?

Wray: Sure. It's about a little boy named Max who is given a very special box, a box that will grow to hold anything. When he puts his ball in the box, the box gets bigger. When he puts this truck in the box, the box gets bigger. But he learns soon that it doesn't just hold on to things, it holds on to his emotions as well. So when Max has a big feeling that he doesn't know what to do with, he puts it in the box, and the box gets bigger. And before long, Max is trying to manage this gigantic box that he now is, you know, sort of stuck to.

Tekavec: What inspired you to write "Max's Box?"

Wray: Two things. As you know, I'm not a doctor. I am not a mental health professional. But I do a lot of research when I begin writing these books. And in researching Rose, I was also reading a lot of stories about emotions, and how people are expected to handle emotions, and how people don't know how to handle emotions. So, those stories, you know, the newspaper articles journal articles that I was reading stuck with me. And then one day, I was at the playground with my youngest daughter and I saw a little boy fall and he hurt himself. And the adult who was with him said to him, "Big boys don't cry." And I thought, "Oh, wow, maybe it's time to write a book that addresses emotions and that it's okay to express them."

Tekavec: Yeah, I noticed that the main character is a boy. Was this a deliberate choice?

Wray: Absolutely. I think, you know, people have come a long way in understanding emotional and mental health issues, but there are definitely still stigmas and gender stereotypes that exist about how we expect boys to deal with emotions.

Tekavec: How would you describe some of those stigmas and stereotypes?

Wray: I think some stereotypes, you know, or some expectations that still exist for boys are the "suck it up," you know, "stiff upper lip," "big boys don't cry," when in fact, you know, studies have shown that boys are just as likely to express emotions as girls, especially when they're younger. Now, the question becomes: why do they stop expressing them at a certain age? I doubt that it's genetic. I suspect it's because there is this social expectation that they are not allowed to based on information they're given verbally and non-verbally. So, those are the some of the stigmas and stereotypes that I mean.

Tekavec: What does the box represent?

Wray: For Max in particular, the box is him. He's holding things inside of himself. And those things become unmanageable, as they would for any person who holds in too many negative emotions. At a certain point, he is not able to manage this huge box; it prevents him from climbing trees with his friends, prevents him from riding his bike, from going swimming...You know, he watches other kids without these giant boxes to hold them back and is envious, I suppose, that they're riding their bikes and having a good time and here he is stuck with all this stuff that he's holding on to unnecessarily, he learns in the end.

Tekavec: Speaking of the end of the story, it depicts Max, along with his friends and family, transforming the box into a collage of balloons, which Max eventually lets go and watch us float away. What is this symbolic of?

Wray: I think part of a child being able to express themselves is feeling safe and having a feeling that it's okay to express themselves to their parents, to the community at large. And so those people that come together at the end for Max is meant to give Max comfort.

Tekavec: If you're just joining us, we're talking to Brian Wray, an award winning children's book author for his book "Unraveling Rose" about a toy bunny rabbit with OCD. His latest book, "Max's Box," talks about what happens when negative emotions are suppressed. Both of his picture books focus on children's mental and emotional health. 

So, there's a rising mental health crisis among the younger generations. How has this informed your writing?

Wray: Like you said, recent statistics show that one in five children in the U.S. have a diagnosable mental health disorder. That's around 17 million children. That's a lot of people. I think that as we come to terms with that and accepted it, I think there's going to be a growing acceptance of children's literature, picture books, young adult, middle grade stories that respond to that, that are trying to reach those children, and I'm very excited about that. It's obviously necessary.

Tekavec: What kind of feedback have you received from "Unraveling Rose" and "Max's Box?"

Wray: Holding a book that you wrote in your hands is a wonderful, sort of magical experience. But the truth is, it doesn't compare it to the response I get from kids when I'm in a school doing a reading, or a library, or a bookstore. It's been wonderful to have children come up to me that have identified with the stories. I've gotten letters and notes from parents saying, "I wish this book had existed when I was a kid," "I've been dealing with OCD my whole life," that sort of thing. It feels good to know that you've been some very small part of reaching someone.

Tekavec: What is your method in crafting these stories that center around difficult subjects?

Wray: I don't really sit around thinking, "What topic should I approach?" There's always sort of ideas bouncing around in my head and then just, there's a moment-- with Rose, I just pictured a bunny with a loose string who couldn't help pulling at it. I knew I wanted to do something about anxiety and obsessive thoughts, but until I had that image in my head of the bunny with a loose thread, it didn't come together. And Max, again, like I said, I was seeing these articles about managing emotions and helping children manage emotions. And I thought, well, that would be an interesting book. But until I saw the boy fall on the playground and hurt himself and get the advice, "big boys don't cry," it didn't really come together for me. So, I have lots of ideas in my head, and the method really is sort of willy nilly, it can be something that I picture in my mind, or it can be something that I see happen in real life. And then from there, I start to just write sentences. I had "the little boy falls on the playground" and "big boys don't cry," so Max put his hurt in the box-- and I just start building outward from there.

Tekavec: Can you describe the market opportunity in terms of publishers who are looking to publish books of this genre?

Wray: I think that there's definitely a growing market for these types of stories, even since Rose came out. You know, obviously, I'm paying more attention now because it's sort of the world that I'm inhabiting. But I've seen more and more stories coming out that focus on mental health issues, and I think that's a wonderful thing. So I think there's definitely a growing market. Yes.

Tekavec: Both of your books end with a postscript of advice intended for adults. What are some of the key takeaways you hope the adults reading these stories to their children remember as they move forward?

Wray: That mental health and emotional health issues are not strictly the domain of adulthood, that children are vulnerable, that they are experiencing a lot of things for the very first time, and that they have fears and anxieties and emotions just like adults. What they don't have is a roadmap on how to deal with those things. They don't have the language to express those things. They don't know that those fears and those emotions will pass. So what I hope adults will take away is the idea that they can give children, theirs or others, a safe place to express themselves. I have a child. I've been that child in the store. I've been the parent of that child in the store who is having an emotional outburst because they're not ready to leave and I'm saying it's time to leave or because I've said no to a toy. I know it's difficult, but the goal is focus on what's causing the emotional outburst rather than the emotional outburst itself. Because then I think what you begin to do is you give children a language that they can use to express themselves and it feels more natural. And the more opportunity you give them to do that, the more comfortable they're going to feel doing it. And the more they will do it as they grow up so they're not like Max, so they're not continuing to stuff things into a box.

Parenting with OCD, you know, for parents, because it's confusing, right? You don't know what's going on. Again, there's a lot of misinformation about OCD in general, misunderstanding of what it is. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is when you have an obsessive or impulsive thought that is unwanted but keeps recurring. And the compulsion is the person trying to deal with that obsessive thought. And it's not rational. So an obsessive thought might be: when I'm away from mom something bad is going to happen to her, when I'm away from mom something bad is going to happen. And that thought can just be playing and playing and playing in the child's head. And the compulsion can be: but if I flip the light switch on and off three times, that will make it better. It's not rational. So I think there's just a lot of misunderstanding. So parenting a child with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can be tricky because it doesn't necessarily make sense. Of course, "Mommy is going to be fine. You're worrying for nothing," you might say, but that's rational thinking and an obsessive thought is not necessarily rational. And it's not a phase that your child is going through, it's not a phase. It's something that's going on internally in the child, again, getting back to "Max's Box," and I was talking about the importance of teaching and giving children the language to express their emotions, focusing on the emotion that's causing the emotional outburst rather than the outburst itself. But sometimes parents don't have the language to teach their children because we're just beginning to feel okay expressing ourselves emotionally. So maybe a lot of adults themselves don't have the language to teach their children. So, what, again, what I'm hoping is, first and foremost, that the story is enjoyable, but then at the back of the book, there is a section for adults that might offer some insight on how to deal with these issues.

Tekavec: What do you hope the children themselves takeaway from these stories?

Wray: First and foremost, I just hope they like the stories. That's what I am before anything else, I'm a storyteller. I hope at the end of reading a book, they want to hear the story again. That's what I hope, first and foremost. If they can identify with a character in the story, if they can see something of themselves and it enables a conversation that they can have with a grown up to express something that will help them feel better, that's wonderful. I hope that can happen too. But first and foremost, I just hope they like to hear it at bedtime.

Tekavec: What are some of the stereotypes or misconceptions about children and their mental health that you're trying to dismantle through these stories?

Wray: In general, there's still a lot of confusion about OCD in particular. Again, not just the domain of adulthood. I think the CDC estimates one in 100 children deal with OCD and that's millions of children worldwide, so it's not such a niche crowd; there are a fair amount of children out there dealing with obsessive thoughts. Yet, there is still some confusion about OCD. People use the word "obsessed" a lot, "I'm obsessed with that TV show." Well, you can be obsessed with the TV show and still get up and go to school and go to work in the morning. Being obsessed with the TV show doesn't stop you from being able to leave your home without performing some compulsive behavior. You can like the shirts in your closet organized by color. That doesn't mean that you're OCD. So what I'm hoping by providing these sections in the backs of these books for adults, I'm hoping it educates adults to a greater extent of the issues that are under the surface of the stories themselves.

Tekavec: Can you talk more about how your own children have inspired your work?

Wray: Well, they inspire me to stay young. They keep me in that frame of mind. I get to watch them experience things for the first time-- fears, joys, happiness, all kinds of things. And getting to be part of that is a blessed experience. And it's inspiring, as well.

Tekavec: So having kids of your own coupled with your experience in screenwriting and working for Disney, which is considered a big five film studio, do you see yourself creating any movies or shows for children centered around the issues we have discussed here today?

Wray: I would love to see, whether it was with the stories I'm writing or someone else's stories, I would be thrilled to see someone tackle doing a children's television program that addresses, you know, mental health, emotional health issues. Absolutely. I think that would be a very healthy thing. And we're seeing it somewhat with Sesame Street and the new character they've introduced that is on the Autism spectrum. So I think people's willingness to address and accept these issues is definitely opening up.

Tekavec: Are there any additional resources for adults or children you would like to mention?

Wray: Sure. If you're the parent of a child dealing with obsessive thoughts, there are some great resources out there for parents to help understand it a little better, one of which being "Talking Back to OCD," which is a good book. There's also a wonderful film called "Unstuck," an OCD kids movie, which is a short documentary that allows children to talk about their experiences with OCD, so it gives you a child's insight into obsessive thoughts. Those are two resources in particular that I think are really worth checking out.

Tekavec: Do you have a website or any social media accounts so people can follow you?

Wray: Yes, I do have a website. It is www.authorbrianwray.com, or you can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

Tekavec: Brian Wray, thank you so much for joining us here on Take Note.

Brian Wray: Thank you for having me.

Tekavec: We've been talking with Brian Wray, an award winning children's book author for his book "Unraveling Rose" about a toy bunny rabbit with OCD. His latest book, "Max's Box," talks about what happens when negative emotions are suppressed. Both of his picture books focus on children's mental and emotional health. 

To hear this and other episodes of Take Note, visit wpsu.org/takenote

For WPSU, I'm Kirsten Tekavec.