Joanna Rowland has a way of writing the exact kinds of books that children need. Her latest, BIG BEAR WAS NOT THE SAME is especially poignant amid this year’s fire season:
This picture book follows Little Bear and his best friend Big Bear, and what happened after a traumatic fire in the woods.
In our last interview, you said, “My heart is drawn to writing about the harder topics children face such as grief, divorce, and heartbreak.” What has been the most rewarding part of writing these kinds of stories for children?
I think knowing my books have helped kids and people during one of their most difficult times in their life, has been the most rewarding. Even though we wish we could shelter our children from the hard and heartbreaking times in life, many children still go through them. Books are a safe way to see someone else going through a hard situation that they themselves might be going through. I know they say don’t read reviews, but I have read reviews from the Memory Box: A Book About Grief on Amazon and reading how the book has helped others, even adults, has been rewarding. To know The Memory Box has been translated in 5 languages…there are no words to describe the feeling that my books might help someone around the world. I also wrote this book in memory of Marisa Higgins, who I coached on our synchronized swimming team. I remember not having the words to tell her mom all that I wished I could when she died. I can’t imagine anything harder than having your child pass away. I wanted her to know how much her daughter was loved and missed so I wrote The Memory Box.
What a beautiful way to show people that they’re not alone. Similarly, the bears in BIG BEAR WAS NOT THE SAME deal with a traumatic fire in the woods. What surprised you most while writing this story?
The story happened by accident. I was writing a human name origin story that lightly touched on trauma and PTSD on how my father ended up with his unique birth name. An agent recommended I split the story – Write a name origin story that doesn’t focus on that and write a separate story that focuses on trauma/PTSD. I hadn’t really considered writing a story with a focus on trauma.
That’s what good feedback can do. It can open your eyes to new possibilities you hadn’t considered before. Thank you, John Cusick, for that. Still, I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off or if I could write on such a heavy topic for kids. I had just been to the SCBWI Summer International Conference in July where I heard Anna Shinoda, author of Learning Not to Drown and senior advisor to the Campaign to Change Direction, Books Change Direction Initiative, speak on the importance if you are going to write about mental health, you need to do so responsibly. After that workshop, I knew I needed to have someone with more experience in working with children who had experienced trauma, be part of this process. Fast forward a few months later to December, I tried to tweak the first version that had people in the story and I took it to the Andrea Brown Literary Agency Conference in Big Sur in December of 2019, and I still felt I didn’t get it right. After that, I knew if I was going to write a story focused on PTSD/trauma, that it needed to be with animals. The next month, one day during Story Storm (hosted by Tara Lazar) in January of 2020 the title Big Bear Was Not the Same came to me and I wrote it down. I took the next few months exploring why wasn’t Big Bear the Same? I had Debbie McJimsey, who wrote the backmatter on trauma in the story, read every version to make sure I was doing so responsibly, and her feedback made this story so much stronger. Then I got two editors that liked the pitch for Big Bear Was Not the Same. In April I received an offer and it sold to Naomi Krueger of Beaming Books.
It sounds like this book went through a lot of iterations! What, for you, is the most challenging part of the writing process and why?
I think learning when to let go of a story and write a whole new one always takes some time. Sometimes I get topics or a title first before I’ve written a word. Trying to find the best way to tell the story can take months or years. What POV? What structure? It’s a puzzle and it can take a bit to figure it out. But once the puzzle is complete, all the sweat is worth it.
Definitely! What kinds of picture books do you wish you’d had growing up and why?
I wished I had read for pleasure during high school. At some point in junior high, the love of going to the library and finding a book stopped. I wished I had known more on how to find books that interested me. I think they would have helped me tremendously during the hard years of junior high and high school. Most of my readings after that were assigned reading for work and school. After junior high, it took me until I was the 30 to find how a book could save me during a hard time. That’s the power of what a book can do for you, and I hope my books can do that for others.
BIG BEAR WAS NOT THE SAME
WHEN THINGS ARE HARD, REMEMBER
STAY THROUGH THE STORM
THE MEMORY BOX
ALWAYS MOM, FOREVER DAD