Making a Difference in Kids' Lives: One Book at A Time Adventures with Author Trudy Ludwig
Adventures in Learning Podcast Season 1, Episode 8
Special Guest: Trudy Ludwig, Host: Dr. Diane Jackson Schnoor
For this episode of the Adventures in Learning podcast, I had the incredible privilege of talking with beloved children's book author Trudy Ludwig, who truly lives up to the motto on her website: “Making a difference in kids’ lives, one book at a time.” Educators, parents, families, and children will probably recognize such beloved titles as The Invisible Boy; Quiet Please, Owen McPhee; The Power of One: Every Act of Kindness Counts; Just Kidding, and Sorry. This year has been a big year for Trudy, as she has two books coming out: Brave Every Day, which was released this summer, and Calling the Wind, which is coming out in October. Trudy is a sought after public speaker and it is a great honor and privilege to welcome her to this space.
*Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.
I first met Trudy Ludwig at the Shenandoah University Children's Literature Conference this summer. And she was so much like her character, Justin, that day. If you don't know the reference, Justin is the character who befriends The Invisible Boy and helps him to feel seen and included. I walked into this room filled with people I didn't know, and Trudy smiled and invited me to sit next to her. It was such an amazing and welcoming gesture. We had so much fun talking that day, I knew I needed to bring her onto the Adventures in Learning podcast. What follows are excerpts from that conversation with links to resources and interesting studies. The full transcript is available on the podcast. Enjoy!
Trudy's newest book, Calling the Wind with illustrator and co-author Kathryn Otoshi (One, Zero, Two, Draw the Line, etc.) will be released Oct. 4, 2022. Trudy starts the conversation by sharing more information about this book. I got a sneak peek this summer, and it is absolutely breathtaking.
[02:23] Trudy: That book is such a labor of love for me and also for the co-author, illustrator Kathryn Otoshi. She and I have been friends for years and we always cross paths and we really enjoy each other's company and we've co-presented at conferences, educational conferences around the country, and we really wanted to do a book together, we just didn't know what. And one day she was flying into Oregon and she was staying with me for a couple of nights, and I was on my way to pick her up when I was listening to This American Life, a podcast about the wind phone in Japan. And I was so intrigued by it. I made her, as soon as we came to my house, I made her listen to the podcast with me. And we said, this is it. This is the book we need to do together.
It's based on a true situation that happened in Japan. There is a landscape architect named Itaru Sasaki in Otsuchi, Japan. And in 2010, he built a European style telephone booth. And he placed inside the booth an old fashioned rotary black phone. It wasn't connected to anything, and he used the phone to communicate with his deceased beloved cousin. He needed to find a safe space where he can voice his grief, and it made him feel like he was still connected. Well, one year later, in 2011, the tsunami and earthquake hit Japan, devastating that country, and words soon got out about the wind phone in Ōtsuchi. And there were pilgrimages made to this phone booth on this windy hill in his backyard — a phone booth overlooking the Pacific Ocean. And people start coming to it. And then word got out with media about this phone booth, how people are using it to voice their grief, and it was helping them with the grieving process.
And Kathryn and I just fell in love with it because I have been going through cumulative losses. I've lost eight people in seven years and close family members, my mother, four siblings. I just recently lost a sister in law this July, so it's been ongoing. And this book was my way of finding meaning. Kathryn was also going through some losses herself, and so we decided this is the book. And right then I said, you know what the title needs to be Calling the Wind.
"And we wanted the wind to actually be a character in the story representing grief, personified by the intensity of the wind. It ebbs and flows, comes and goes, and it's always there with you. And I felt that kids really needed to have a story to help them understand grief and the grieving process, because in our Western culture, we really don't do a good job addressing grief. And I thought this would be a beautiful vehicle, not only to talk about grief, I didn't want to be a complete downer on it, but also to show the power of human connection and the process of healing in our grief." -- Trudy Ludwig on Calling the Wind
[05:57] Dr Diane: And I felt like when I looked at the book, I lost my own mom about five years ago, and so when I read it, I definitely felt a sense of hope as well, that through the images and the text, you really go through all those parts of grief, that it does ebb and flow, and they don't tell you that at the time, that it doesn't completely go away, but it takes different forms. And I think that you did a really lovely job of showing that in a way that was understandable to me and I think would be very understandable to a kid as well.
[06:30] Trudy: Thank you so much. Because it was hard. Picture books, as someone had wisely said, they're big ideas in small packages. People may think it's easy to write a picture book, but you really are parsimonious with your words and with the emotions those words depict. And for this book especially, we wanted it to have fewer words and we also wanted to be respectful of the Japanese culture. Kathryn is Japanese American and we wanted the story to take place in Japan because this wind phone was created by Sasaki. And actually, people have been recreating this phone booth, this wind phone around the world, because people need a place to voice their grief.
And I think it's also really important for kids and young readers to see that even adults may not know exactly what we're doing when we grieve. Because grief is messy. And it's not as, when I was researching about it with Elisabeth Kubler Ross' five stages of grief with David Kessler's 6th stage of finding meaning, there have been contentious opinions about are there really five stages of grief? Is that natural? Is something wrong with you if you don't go through those stages? So those are actually looked more as descriptive rather than prescriptive. So we wanted to show each character personifying or displaying a certain emotion. That doesn't mean they all have the same emotions. But I wanted the kids to see that even adults are having difficulty and the best way to work through grief is not to avoid it. You need to go through it. And it's a journey and we can come through it and bring those loved ones with us. It's so important for me to share that even when a life ends, your love still lives on. And they're still carried on with you. And I think it's really important for kids to understand that the door isn't shut, they're going to be walking alongside you and inside you.
Trudy's website features this graphic with Brian, the Invisible Boy, and it says, "Making a difference in kids’ lives: one book at a time." In this next section, we explore how that motto shapes her writing and the way she approaches writing for kids -- and for the adults in their lives.
[09:31] Trudy: It's really important for me to help kids with their social and emotional learning skill assets. I really believe in that. I believe that books are really powerful supplemental tools to help kids address and navigate their social world on a daily basis. And I think it's very difficult nowadays for kids to be kids and to deal with relationships, especially with 24/7 access to the Internet and social media. They're bombarded by adult information. And we can't control as much as the adults would like. We can't control in our own homes. We can try to control what the kids are exposed to, but they have a world outside of our home, right? And we can't control what they're being exposed to outside in that world. So I think what it's really important for me is to write stories that really reflect that kids can actually see themselves in the stories and also to learn what it's like to be in someone else's shoes, so to speak. There is a wonderful saying called windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, which
[10:56] Dr Diane: I love her.
[10:57] Trudy: I love her, too. She is just an amazing role model. And she wrote that famous article about diversity and literature, and I think she hit the nail on the head because that's the power of really good literature. And there are windows because you can go through, you can see how other people live that may not be living the same way you live. There are mirrors. They reflect who we are, and there are sliding glass doors because they allow us to enter into the world of others. And that's what empathy is about. And there's a lot of neuroscientific research to back the fact that reading well written literature can actually boost empathy in readers. And empathy, the more empathy you have, the more successful the happier you'll be, the more emotionally resilient you'll be, the more connected you'll be with your community and others. I think that empathy is just a win win situation. So I believe we should be shoving empathy down our sweet kids’ little throats every chance we get.
[12:02] Dr Diane: 100%. I think empathy is so transformative, and it's one of those things that will absolutely change the world.
[12:09] Trudy: Oh, I agree. I was working with the artistic director at Children's Charlotte Theater or the Charlotte Children's Theater. I think that's how it's pronounced. And Adam Burke is artistic director and I love how he defined kindness as empathy in action. Kindness. So empathy, it's not only what you feel like to be in someone else's shoes, it's feeling compassion for another person's pain and suffering. Right? Because you may know what it's like to fill my shoes, and you may be hurtful to me because you know how to get to me. But the people that are being hurtful or intentionally hurtful, what they're lacking is compassion for that person's pain and suffering. And then kindness, Adam Burke says, should be thought of as a verb. So it's acts of kindness. And then what I like to think of is these collective acts of kindness can lead to community action and social justice.
[13:11] Dr Diane: Oh, that's wonderful. I was reading a study today. It was a 2021 study by University of Ottawa researchers Tracy Vaillancourt and Ann H. Farrell, and they were looking at trajectories of indirect aggression in kids from the ages of ten to 22. And what they found was that it was a small percentage. This was in Canada. There were 9% of the kids who qualified as mean as children and through indirect aggression turned into mean adults as well. And so I was thinking about just the vast number of books that you've written that feel like they're there to counterbalance that and to try to build that empathy in those kids that maybe we're not reaching.
[13:54] Trudy: Well, that's how I started my career as a children's author. My first book was My Secret Bully and I wrote it years ago when my daughter was in a group, had friends that were nice one day, mean the next, and it's this frenemy relationship. And I realized that I brought back memories of my childhood and also as a young adult. And at the time that was a new concept. But it's actually been around, relational aggression, since kids have been around. It was actually coined by Dr. Nicki Crick and she did longitudinal studies on relational aggression. And a lot of times, media focuses on this as a mean girl syndrome. But what the research shows is boys are just as relationally aggressive as girls. However, they tend not to be as traumatized as girls are. And when girls target girls, they usually target girls inside their friendship circles. When boys target others, it's usually outside their social circles, which is why it can be much more insidious with girls. And also it's much more insidious with the LGBTQ community because they tend to be targeted more with relational aggression as well. So it's something that I think really needs to be addressed. And I think that by raising awareness of this I'm trying to help kids understand what makes a friend a healthy friend. I believe if we can help them understand what makes a friend a healthy friend, when they're older I really hope that helps them not to gravitate towards abusive romantic partners later in life. Because as you had pointed out with that study in Ottawa, what they're finding is that if left unchecked, those kids who are hurtful relationally will become relationally aggressive adults. And they could be your boss, they could be a leader of a country. Hint, hint. They could be out there. And I think it's really important for kids to understand that they have choices they can make. It's a choice. We can choose to be kind or we can choose to be cruel. And it reflects more on their character than the people that are on the receiving end.
[16:27] Dr Diane: Absolutely. And I know, having been familiar with your books for a while and just loving them, you address this in The Power of One and The Invisible Boy, Just Kidding, and Sorry. I mean, in so many of these picture books you're providing avenues for kids to stand up for themselves and to realize that they're not alone.
[16:47] Trudy: And I'm also being a little bit sneaky here, Diane, because I know that there are a lot of adults who are reading the books out loud. That's why in most of my books, I have a forward or an afterword by an expert in that area so that I can educate the adults to help them understand. Because often I give presentations to parents and to educators, and I'm trying to help them understand that we adults are really good at giving advice to kids. What we're not good at is checking in with those kids to find out if our advice is actually working for them.
And a lot of times when I was talking to the adults, they said, one of the top pieces of advice that kids get from adults is just ignore them or hit them back. Then they won't bother you. And the Youth Voice Project, that was spearheaded by Stan Davis, who was one of the founding members of the International Bullying Prevention Association, and Dr. Charisse Nixon, who's the relational aggression expert. They did this Youth Voice Project study, and what they were asking, they surveyed kids in upper elementary through high school, “What is the worst piece of advice you get?” And they said, “Oh, hit them back, then they won't bother you,” they said because it makes the problem worse. And I said, “So I'm just letting you know, adults, it’s not a good one because you're making your kids’ problems worse.”
"So that's the thing. We have to really listen to the kids. And as I tell the kids when I present in schools around the country, I try to be very honest with them, and I say, you know what? Much as we grown ups would love to get rid of all the hurt in your world, we're not going to. We're just not going to. But you know what caring grownups and supportive peers can do? They can help you get through the hurt. And this is where we can connect. This is why it's so important for us to connect, because we are as human beings, very social beings, and we have a need to connect. And I'm trying to show them when you connect in positive ways, oh, it's magical. It's just magical." -- Trudy Ludwig
In this next section, we discuss ways -- in addition to the resources and questions Trudy provides in her end pages of ideas of how to use the books to spark conversations -- that her books have been used in classroom settings to build empathy, understanding, and kindness as an action verb.
[22:02] Trudy: I can give you one specific example with The Invisible Boy. I actually post those lessons on my Resources Page for activities and lessons, and I really got a kick out of this one. It was actually a little science project with The Invisible Boy. So the teacher put a paper plate and added water on the plate and sprinkled pepper and had the kids come around to look at the plate. And she said, These are pepper people in the community. It could be a classroom, community, school, community, neighborhood. And look at the pepper people. They're all interspersed all around. Well, a new person comes to that community, and it's Mr. Soap. And it was a chunk of hard soap, and she put the soap in, and then all the pepper people scurried away. They just scurried away. And the teacher/ counselor said, so what do you think happened? Why did the pepper people run away? And some kids said, well, the pepper people were bullying that new person. Others said, well, that new person is bullying the pepper people. And then she added sugar on top of the salt in the water, and all the pepper people gravitated back to the soap. So she said, if you add a little sweetness and kindness, look what happens in the community.
[23:33] Dr Diane: Oh, that's sweet.
[23:34] Trudy: And I thought, what a sweet little lesson plan for young lower elementary kids. Another thing that I have been very impressed with, The Power of One was used in Massachusetts by three high school students for their capstone project. Their senior year, they decided to do a StoryWalk. Have you heard about StoryWalk?
[24:04] Trudy: So they created a StoryWalk for their capstone. And there were three, I think it was two or three, elementary schools close to one another, and there was a pathway forest that was in between those areas. And they made a story walk in that path, and they had a QR code, so they put it on there so people could use their phones and get more information for the StoryWalk. And they made these posts that they had put in tubs filled with cement sand, and they laminated it. And they created this amazing StoryWalk for the kids at the school. And other ones have done a StoryWalk where at the end they'll have a table where kids can sign up to do something for the community, maybe a food drive or clothing drive. And that book was the perfect one because that's the one where I was showing what empathy is. Acts of kindness as a verb and then collective acts as a community action, creating a space where they can grow food to feed the community. And so that was a really good segue for the schools to use it. So that's been a popular one book, one school book.
In this next section, we discuss the ways Brave Every Day addresses anxiety and the reception the book has received so far.
Brave Every Day, co-created with illustrator Patrice Barton (The Invisible Boy; Quiet Please, Owen McPhee) was released earlier this spring.
[27:06] Trudy: The book is about addressing anxiety. When I've traveled around the country over the years, and this is before the pandemic, I had many school administrators, counselors, and teachers sharing with me that they've noticed a tremendous increase in anxiety in students as young as preschool, and it's been skyrocketing.
And they really have a need for books that really would instill critical thinking with those kids. On that topic, there are other children's books about anxiety, and by no means am I looking at my book as a clinical book, but what I'm trying to do is generate a conversation and incorporate growth mindset with what I'm doing here to let kids know that anxiety is not something that goes away. I know because I'm an anxious person myself. It's about managing your anxiety.
"And I didn't want to pathologize having anxiety in the story. I wanted to show that when you have anxiety, can I say this, you're really a badass. Yes, you really are, because you're brave, because you have to literally go beyond your comfort zone every single day to do what needs to be done. And it made me think that really, only when we are afraid, can we learn to be brave." -- Trudy Ludwig on Brave Every Day
[28:51] Trudy: And so I wanted to reframe. My mother would always say, reframe that. And I really wanted to reframe anxiety in a way that was better for kids who go through it so they don't feel worse about themselves. So I had this story with a little girl who — most kids like playing hide and seek — she just likes to hide. Hiding is what Camilla does best when she worries, and she worries a lot.
And I was thinking about, well, what kind of worries do I go through? And I broke it down into three categories: What if? And there are a lot of books that have what if, even the title what if? I can't. And I'm scared. And that's how I decided, oh, those are going to be my anchors to this child's anxiety. And then I was thinking, what would motivate her to be brave in her anxiety? And when you're anxious, you're very self focused. We internalize that anchor for that anxiety. And I thought, oh, it's got to be she's going to see that somebody else is going through it. And so she has empathy for that kid, and that's when she learns that her heart is bigger than her fears. She's still going to have it all the time. She's still going to have it, but she's going to make efforts in big and little ways to still show up. And just showing up is brave.
Dr Diane: Absolutely.
Trudy: And that's what I wanted to let kids know. And honestly, Diane, I have been surprised and overwhelmed by how well received that is right out of the gate. And I think it's helping kids understand that this is an issue, especially now with the pandemic. Because the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the divisiveness in our country, the economic downturn that's constantly shifting, all these things and more have turbo boosted our anxiety levels. And even as adults, and I think as adults, we're having trouble with the world, trying to manage it, imagine what it's like for kids.
[31:17] Trudy: And the 24 hours, seven days a week access to social media, comparing yourself to others, seeing what other people are doing, the fear of missing out, wanting to miss out. I mean, there's all these feelings that come along with it, and then we have all this bad news bias that happens, too. So I wanted a way to focus on how we can help others and pay attention to other people who have anxiety and not make fun of them, but just to be more compassionate.
[31:49] Dr Diane: I love Camilla, and I love the bravery that she discovers. I was describing this book to my now almost 23 year old today. She's getting ready to go into her first classroom, and she was that kid. She always came across as being very confident, but she's always struggled with anxiety. And I was telling her, you are brave every day because you go out and you do the thing you're afraid of. She ordered the book immediately after hearing that.
[32:15] Trudy: I'm glad to hear that. I think that's the thing, really. It's the adults who buy the books, right. Not the kids. So I think that I tap into what we've all experienced in our inner child right. What we wish we had when we were kids.
In this next section, we talk about growing up and the books that brought comfort during childhood. Read on to learn how certain books continue to root and take hold, even in adulthood.
[34:11] Trudy: One of my favorite books, and really, it's hard to say just one book because it's like when people say, who's your favorite child? I would have to say the most memorable one, for me, it came at a time in my life where I really needed it, was Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And I'll tell you why. My family moved from New Bedford, Massachusetts, to Baltimore, Maryland. And I was a New Englander in the South with a very funny accent. I was an introvert. I am a late bloomer. So I was in first grade, didn't really know anyone. A very serious child. I'm the 6th child. I'm very serious. And I just didn't feel connected. And other people were catching things pretty quickly. And I'll never forget my teacher, Mrs. Winters. She looked like Mary Tyler Moore. She had the beret, the hair. She was so beautiful. You can picture her, right?
[35:16] Dr Diane: Absolutely.
[35:16] Trudy: Scarf around her neck, very like a flight attendant. And she read out loud, chapter by chapter, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And I was transported. And I love that book. It's when I fell in love with stories and my teacher at the same time. And also it gave me some commonality with other kids because I saw the other kids that were really engaged with that story and I thought, we have something in common. So that was a pivotal moment, reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
[35:52] Dr Diane: That makes sense. It's funny, when I was rereading Invisible Boy today, I actually saw a little bit of Charlie in Brian. I don't know if you intended that or not, but there was just something about him that reminded me of the Charlie that I remembered from my childhood.
[36:07] Trudy: Oh, wow. Well, you know, it's really interesting, that was the first book I collaborated on with Patrice Barton, who is a phenomenal illustrator that I've been lucky to work with since then. But when I saw her illustrations and then the cover for The Invisible Boy, which I see in the background, you know what it reminded me of? Harold and The Purple Crayon.
[36:32] Dr Diane: I can absolutely see that as well.
[36:34] Trudy: And I just felt like, oh, my gosh, that's a classic. Maybe other people will associate that with being a classic.
[36:40] Dr Diane: Well, I just love the way, particularly for that one, that the colors change as his experience changes.
[36:47] Trudy: Right. That's what I love about picture books because there's a saying — show, don't tell — for authors of picture books, where you've got to remember the author is going to put their footprint on it as well. And so I'm telling a story with words, they're telling a story with pictures. And then you have this meta third level of the stories and the words and the pictures coming together. And the perfect example of that would be The Power of One.
In the final section of the interview, we discuss the things that bring hope.
[37:27] Trudy: The youth out there make me hopeful. I think kids see who are the good role models and who are the bad role models. And I really feel that there's change. What made me feel good, for example, is when, you know, there's been a lot of banning books talk going around. An Illustrator informed me that our book, The Power of One, was one of the banned books — which shocked me — in Pennsylvania, in a small town in Pennsylvania. And when we contacted PEN America because they're working with dealing with banned books, they sent me an article and it was showing the youth rebelling against that. And they’re trying to get the books back. And all I can say is you go. I’m just happy about that.
"I'm seeing kids trying to reach out and be kind. And really, there are more kind kids than there are unkind kids. I'm not saying they're 100% kind, but what the research is showing and the surveys are showing is that there are more kids that choose to be kind. They think it's cool to be kind. And I think people are tired of being around hurt. The reality is good will always coexist with bad. I just want to see more good in the world than bad. And if there's bad, I want to see people rise up to support and comfort one another." --Trudy Ludwig on the power of kindness
Please visit www.drdianeadventures.com to learn more about how I help early childhood and elementary educators and librarians build connections between STEAM and multicultural picture books for engaged learning. Now booking keynotes, conference presentations, and professional development workshops for the 2022-23 school year.
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