From colorful images to fine detail in text, Penn State alumnus Brian Wray said he aims to eliminate the stigma of children’s mental health through storytelling.
Wray said he strives to create a “comfortable environment” for children to understand their feelings in his stories and the importance of talking with their parents.
“Story time can be a great way to start conversations with kids that might otherwise be hard to have,” Wray said.
Noticing this connection between storybooks and discussion, Wray said he wanted to foster the connection between children’s feelings and parental support.
“Becoming a father myself, I discovered early on that one of the things I wasn’t necessarily equipped to do was how to talk to my kids about the emotions and the things they were going through,” Wray said. . “I thought, well definitely if I’m a parent going through this, maybe there are other parents who might not be comfortable talking about these things.”
Inspired by his experiences growing up and now raising his own children, Wray has developed a series of storybook characters who “can be a great catalyst for bigger conversations,” he said.
Wray’s first book, “Unraveling Rose”, features a fun stuffed bunny named Rose.
However, Rose has many “worrying thoughts that keep her from actually enjoying the things she loved to do,” Wray said.
Through Rose, Wray addresses obsessive-compulsive disorder, the struggles that come with it, and how to overcome them.
“I was kind of like Rose when I was a kid. I had a lot of worried thoughts and I didn’t always know what to do with them,” Wray said. child.”
Looking back on her childhood and comparing it to the experiences of her own children, Wray said she noticed the lack of mental health treatment in children’s stories.
“There are definitely more writers coming to the subject matter now, which is wonderful because there are so many negative side effects to holding feelings back,” Wray said.
Another of Wray’s stories, “Max’s Box,” shows the consequences of when feelings are bottled up.
The main character, Max, is given a magic box that will grow to hold whatever he puts inside, including his baseball bat and his stuffed dog, but he discovers that it will also contain his feelings .
“Whether [Max] has a feeling and doesn’t know what to do with it, he puts it in the box, and the box gets bigger and bigger until it somehow prevents him from doing all the things he was capable of to do before,” says Wray. “He has to find a way to let go of this giant box of feelings.”
Simplifying big emotions, illustrator Shiloh Penfield works alongside Wray to capture these topics in creative images that are easy for kids to digest.
“I think it’s such a collaborative process to work with the writer,” Penfield said. “Sometimes I just do like the first thing that comes to mind, but then I send it to Brian, and he’ll be like, ‘Oh, well, I like that, and I like that about this character. .’ You start combining ideas, and it really energizes you to work with a writer because sometimes it’s such immediate feedback.
Working alongside Wray to communicate these intimidating subjects to children, Penfield has taken to his own interpretations of the images and characters that children respond to and connect with best.
Penfield said she specifically noticed a tendency in children to react to animals. Whether it’s a bunny or a puppy, little nods to animals can be found in several of Wray’s books.
“An animal can be almost anyone, so it doesn’t have to look like you,” Penfield said. “It’s almost like [children] can put that aside and just feel what the character is feeling.
Schiffer Kids Imprint Lead at Schiffer Publishing Ltd. Tracee Groff, works on Wray’s books. She also said that she captures all the detail and precision needed to tell a story not only to children, but also to their parents.
“When you only have 32 pages and 500 words, words really matter. Every word you use has an impact,” Groff said. “You have to make the story interesting not only for the child, who is starting to read independently or being read to for a story hour, but you also have to make it fun for the parents too.”
With all of these moving parts, Wray, Penfield and Groff work side by side to tick all the boxes in children’s social and emotional learning stories.
“It’s amazing to me how poignant children’s books can be,” Groff said. “So even if you are a mentally ill adult [issues]picking up a 32-page book can change the way you think about things.
With the recent release of “Fen’s Drop of Grey” and “Traveling Rose,” which is a sequel to “Unraveling Rose,” Wray said he’s hopeful in his goals of de-stigmatizing children’s mental health.
Wray said he has big ambitions to expand the universe of his characters and continue to appeal to parents and children.
In fact, Wray said he hopes to apply his love for screenwriting and his Penn State degree in filmmaking to pursue “an animated series for Rose.”
“I think it would be great if some kids shows also tackled these topics in a more direct way,” Wray said, “and I think Rose would be a great character to do that.”
For years, Wray slowly built up his collection of stories and said he only hoped to continue creating a safe space for children and their parents.
“If we can foster that ability to be able to talk about feelings and emotions in a healthy, comfortable way so kids don’t have to feel stigmatized, I think that’s key,” Groff said. “It’s our job to shape the children to come.”
Wray’s stories have received notable awards, including “Unraveling Rose”, which received a Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards, in the “Picture Books, Early Reader” category.
“I hope the books will give parents and children a way to talk about things that might otherwise be uncomfortable to discuss,” Wray said. “These conversations can not only ease the stress of the current situation, but provide children with tools they can use throughout their lives.”
On Wednesday, Penn State alumnus Julia Cipparulo traveled to Center County to attend a program…