Showing kids how to feel fear
This interview is from A Kids Book About: The Podcast, with host Matthew Winner and author of A Little Book About Fear, Jelani Memory. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
What is fear?
Yeah, fear’s... It's complicated because we all feel it so much so often that I think we forget what it is and what it looks like and what it feels like when it shows up. That can be, you know, that little sort of nervous energy before you go to an important event or have an important call or your first day of school.
It can also be that thing you feel when you see a spider in the corner and you're wondering, “Is it poisonous? Is it going to move? Is it going to come bite me? Who's going to come kill this thing?” Right?
And then I think it can also be a worry about the future. What will happen when I grow up? Or what is it like to turn 40? Or will I still have this job? Or, you know, when I go to high school, will my friends still like me? Or, do these pants look good on me? It's so many things.
And so I think fear is the feeling of being afraid and being unsure of what an outcome is and what might happen.
So you were my first guest on this show when we talked about A Kids Book About Racism and you come up, almost without fail, every single episode with all of these great authors who have connections to you. And we talked about racism and race is such a big thing, and yet somehow fear in this Little Book About feels even bigger.
So I'd love to ask you Jelani, what fear feels like to you.
Yeah. You know, fear to me—and I'll say a bunch of words that'll seem so obvious that they almost go without saying, but I think they must be said—which is, fear is really scary. Fear disables you in a way where it's hard to think. It's hard to act. It's hard to do.
Fear makes you doubt a lot, right? Can I do this? Will it work out if I do it? What happens if I don't do it? And so for me, I don't often feel afraid to be honest; but when I do, I know it immediately. Because it's such, it's so crushing. It's so defeating.
You brought up my other book, A Kids Book About Racism. I think racism has a lot to do with [fear]: both the fear of those who are sharing or expressing racist ideas. That's where that often comes from is fear, fear of the unknown fear of the thing. They don't understand fear of what might happen, but also the result often in those who are having those racist ideas or attitudes or words, expressed to them. It creates fear.
Right? What's going to happen to me? What are they going to say next? Do they really believe that about me? That’s the best way that I can describe what it feels like to feel afraid.
I think that's great. And I think that fear from my experience is not a feeling that I like, as you said, when it comes on, I know when I'm feeling afraid and I sort of do a self-check.
Why am I feeling this way? And I try to check to make sure that I'm safe and that everything around me feels safe, but it makes me ask why, why do we feel fear? Do you know Jelani? Do you have an idea of why we feel fear?
Well, I won't get all evolutionary biology on you, but fear does help in a number of ways.
It keeps us safe. When I was backpacking through the wilderness in Central Oregon and my friend and I saw a rattlesnake and it rattled its tail, we felt fear. And that was good. This is the good kind of fear. It's the kind of fear that keeps you safe. It's kind of fear that says don't walk up to the rattlesnake and pet it.
And so that's healthy. The problem comes when a friend doesn't text us back right away. And we feel afraid. We feel fear wondering, they don't like me anymore. Are they mad at me? Did I say something wrong? And we start attaching to the unknown. That void, that fearful place to things that it should and shouldn't belong to.
So I think part of growing up, part of maturing, is letting yourself be afraid when it is good. When it's healthy, and letting that be a positive experience. Not getting bit by the rattlesnake and knowing when to let fear go, when to not embrace it, when to cast it aside. And that's a tough thing, but I think it's a muscle that we can flex and get better at over time.
If we teach ourselves how to do it so that we become just a little less afraid when that text doesn't come through right away, because we tell ourselves maybe they're having a bad day. Maybe they're not available. Maybe they're asleep and it's not about me. And that's okay. Right. That self-talk that [we’re] teaching ourselves takes away the fear.
And then when the outcome happens, when we get to that future and they aren't mad at us, it's all good. The thing didn't break. Then we go, oh yeah, that's good. I didn't feel fear and it turned out okay.
I know those feelings, those reinforcing feelings. I'm okay. I got through that was their strength giving feelings.
So I wonder, as you were thinking about making this book Jelani, what it was like for you to create a book for our youngest readers.
Yeah, I think for me it was really around the idea of starting early for the most fundamental and important conversations and fears. It's something we experience from birth to death and it looks different and feels different, but yet it's still the same thing.
And for me to explore it in my book was really about getting down to, what is it? How does it work? How can it be useful? And, how could it get in the way of our happiness? How can it hijack us, if you will? And I tried to do that. Getting to illustrate the book as well through line and shape and I employ just black and white as these sort of colors, and it was fascinating to navigate it and explore it.
And I think what I'm really happy about and proud of with my book, is that—-I've watched this—-you can read it with a toddler and their eyes automatically go to the stark contrast of the shapes and the objects. And look, they don't have to pick it all up. Right? That's not the point of it necessarily, but I know the adult is there.
And since fear is so universal, no matter what the age is, they have to think about their own fears. Right? What fears are useful and which ones are not so useful, which ones get in the way of them being able to be happy, being able to be fulfilled. And, the activity of having that happen often with a parent and child is really powerful because fear is often so related with raising a child.
With helping a little life grow up, you know, I remember my son—just watching him in his crib, just watching him breathe. Then, you know, my wife had a few false starts with labor way too early.
We're talking 20 weeks, 21 weeks. And feeling fear like, am I ever going to get to have a son? Is he ever going to make it past just being born? So all that to say, I think it was an amazing experience and I hope it's useful. I hope it's useful for the kid, right?
I was zero to four or, or for that parent who's there who maybe is just starting to think about their own fears.
Do you have a favorite spread in the book, Jelani? I have a favorite spread. I'll tell you after.
So this one is really easy and it's the one I agonized over the most. And yet it seems almost the simplest.
It's the one with all the sort of squiggly lines. It says “fear is like a little voice inside you that tells you something bad might happen”. And I tried to express that idea of navigating all those voices in your head. It just looks like black crayon scribbled on the page, but I think it came off quite beautiful.
Anyway, I think he made a beautiful book, Jelani. I'm really proud of you in making this book and the way that you share what fear is and how we might confront it or be in relationship to it. And this book. Thanks for doing it. You want to share with them just a final thought?
Thanks for the kind words. It was really a treat to work on.
Um, and hey look, my first authored and illustrated book.
Yeah, it's that you don't have to feel afraid every time you feel afraid. Sometimes you get to choose—not every time—but sometimes you get to choose by looking into the future and saying instead of, what if something bad [happened]—[say] what if something good? What if something great?
What if something amazing? And talk yourself into a place where you're no longer afraid about that future, but you're maybe a little bit excited.
Each week on A Kids Book About: The Podcast, we talk about the big things going on in your world with a different author from our A Kids Book About series. Today we spoke with Jelani Memory, author of A Little Book About Fear, about when being afraid can actually be good for us.