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I am honored and excited to have Emily Joof with us on the blog this week, discussing one of her many picture books "Ballet with Heart".

Emily is an African-diaspora mum with a great love for storytelling. She was born in Lagos, Nigeria to a Gambian Father and Malian-French mother and has lived in Nigeria, Belgium, France, Gambia, the UK and Sweden.

Emily is deeply inspired by her childhood as a third culture kid and her own children. She writes stories that reflect the world that she and millions of children across the globe grow up in, where difference is the norm. She blogs and is very active in the discussion around representation in children's literature in Sweden.

Emily works for community organizations, NGOs and International Organizations as an Education Technical Advisor. A role that centres on inclusion and contributes in advancing and improving children’s’ rights in countries across Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. She has managed and delivered programmes targeting children, at-risk youth and marginalised communities for more than 15 years.

Emily is also currently a Postgraduate researcher (PhD candidate) at Lancaster university in the UK. The focus of her research being on the potential that Children’s Literature can have on fostering inclusions in preschools.

Emily, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us here on the Picture Book Therapy Thursday blogs. You've published six picture books so far and all of them are so beautifully done. Today we are going to chat about "Ballet with Heart."

What inspired you to write "Ballet With Heart'?

When I turned 30 I had a daughter,

A beautiful remarkable daughter,

She was so much like me and yet nothing like me.

She was quiet, observant, and cautious

I am loud, extrovert, spontaneous.

She loved structure; and would arrange her foods in patterns.

She sorted her toys by colours.

She loved building and creating.

Every time my husband lifted an IKEA box to fix she would be right by his side with her screw driver and other tools.

When I met my husband I used my stiletto heels to hammer in nails, just to explain how much I wasn’t interested in such things.

But once I had this wonderful being in my lap,

I decided I would learn everything she was interested in learning.

I nurtured her love for the colour blue

I sat with Lego blocks for hours without being able to create anything while she meticulously built towers.

She received a bunch of dolls and make believe toys but that was never her thing.

She is 7 now and she has still never sat by herself engrossed in make believe play.

And that’s perfectly ok.

My daughter was cheered on by friends, teachers , everyone for breaking gender stereotypes, for doing things that ‘girls didn’t normally do’

My son was born and he was another surprise.

He loved to dance, to twirl, to smile.

He was gentle and soft spoken.

He stayed by my side, holding my hand most of the time.

He never jumped on the sofa or wrote on the walls,

He plays with the Barbies and Marvel action heroes, the Paw Patrols and creates scenarios of his own.

He loves to cook me fancy meals in his play kitchen and just yesterday helped me make a fancy salad.

Unlike my daughter he is not celebrated for doing things ‘boys don’t normally do’. Instead, I see the concern in people’s eyes.

I field away ignorant commentary at the rainbows on his clothes or his favourite colour being yellow and red. I have to defend my son from the world for loving to twirl, for dancing on his toes, for wearing all colours of the rainbow. It is even more evident as his sister is often right by his side doing the same activity without a single eye brow raised.

I allow him to be himself, without the outside worlds judgement.

The gender bias between the two kids became even more evident when both started dancing ballet. It is one of the few activities they both LOVE.

To have a brown daughter doing ballet – what a feat!

To have a brown son- silence… raised eyebrows…crooked smiles.

While the comments haven’t affected him, he has noticed that there are so few boys in dance in the books we read. When he was three he asked me, pointing at the pages of a picture book, “but mama, where is me?”

Being a storyteller I decided to address that, and Ballet with Heart was born.

I am well aware of the gender stereotypes that exist and the prejudice that reproduce them. But in my house each child of mine is a little human with their own interests, personality and temperament. That and only that is what determines how I parent them.

Emily, that was so beautifully written it brought tears to my eyes. What an empathetic and loving mother you are and what a poignant reason for writing this book.

What was the process like from inspiration to publication?

This book is heavily inspired from my children, the real Ella and Louis and their incredible ballet class at the International School in Stockholm. I watched them dance for a few years before the idea of the book was born. But once I had that story in my head, things moved pretty fast. I self-published this book so I had full control on the story, the images, the photos and interviews. It was really fun to put together an a-typical book, to include everything I felt a child would love to see rather than remain bound to what a standard picture book needed to look like.

I really wanted children to ‘meet’ real ballet dancers and was luck enough to have Adji Cissokho, Gina Tse and Clyde Emmanuel Archer all agree to write a little something that we included in the book to inspire young dancers.

Adji Cissoko is Principal Ballerina from LINES Ballet.

Gina Tse from the Royal Swedish Ballet & Stockholm International Ballet School.

Clyde Emmanuel Archer from Behar ́s L-E-V Dance Company.

I love that you were able to include real life inspiration and dancers! Do you have a scene in the book that was your favorite to write or see illustrated?

I don’t have a favourite scene, but there a few moments in the story where Ella (the big sister) is filled with doubt and questions herself. Her little brother is always right there to prop her back up offer reassurance. I love the bond between siblings, and younger sibling are too often represented as needing to be supported. So, it brought me great joy to write those scenes of quiet confidence from Louis side and also Ella’s journey --not to perfection but to enjoying and persevering in ballet class.

Age doesn’t determine certain character traits; I believe each and every child is unique and has so much to offer the world.

Why is this book important for kids to have on their shelves?

Ballet with Heart opens up the world of ballet to all little readers. One where they will see children of all body types, ability, different ethnicities, and gender, enjoying dance.

The sibling who are the main characters in the books have different approaches to their new dance class, one is thrilled and eager while the other is cautious and shy. They both face their challenges and finally enjoy performing at the Christmas show with their class and I feel it is important to offer both experiences. There is beauty in taking your time to feel comfortable in whatever you do. And there is also something wonderful about finding your passion and knowing that is what you love.

It is important for children to be inspired, to have mirrors that reflect them in books and that is what Ballet with Heart offers.

How can parents, teachers, or counselors use your books to engage in deeper conversations with kids?

The characters and contexts in my books offer a safe space and relatable situations for children and carers to have conversations which explore the child’s understanding. Each of my books has inclusion as a core theme, this can be a simple starting point. I encourage carers to read aloud and then ask basic questions to the child about how the character might have felt / what would the child have done in a similar situation/ how would they have liked their friends to react etc etc. At times thoughts are developed through discussion which offers the perfect space for learning .

I also write a blog piece about each of my books to further explore the themes that are covered, like in Ballet with Heart we can discuss the arts, gender stereotypes, ableism and much more.

I love that phrase "offer a safe space and relatable situations" for having conversations. That's so important in our children's literature.

Do you have any advice for authors who want to write about tough topics?

I would suggest finding a child’s voice and perspective. Every topic no matter how challenging can be brought to a level where the child can find meaning and comfort.

Emily, thank you again for joining us. Your thoughtful construction of this book and beautifully written responses to my questions have been such a joy to share! I can only imagine the precedent you are setting for your children and the bonds you share.

Where can we find you to keep up with your work?

You can find my writing on my website

And thse are my social media handles: Instagram , Twitter, Facebook at Mbife Books.

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I'm so excited to have Sarah Bagley Steele on the blog today with her debut picture book!

Sarah Bagley Steele is a children’s author who loves stories that help you see the world differently than when you began. Before turning her attention to her own writing, Sarah worked in the theater industry, developing new plays and musicals off Broadway. She founded a summer theater company in Pennsylvania and produced ten seasons of free Shakespeare in the Park. Sarah lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, two children and rascal puppy. When not writing, she loves reading, cooking, and crafting of all sorts.

Sarah, thank you so much for sharing your time with us! To start off, what inspired you to write The Happiest Kid?

First off, thank you so much, Bethany, for having me on Picture Book Therapy. It’s an honor to be here, and I’m grateful for all you share.

The Happiest Kid is the story of a happy kid who wakes up one morning not feeling happy. Where she normally sees a bright sun, there is now a cloud. She doesn’t know why it’s there, but she doesn’t want anyone to see it—not her parents, not her teacher, and not her friends—so she hides it away. But as the day goes on, the cloud grows too big and heavy for her to carry, and she must find the courage to let it out.

I got the idea when I was feeling sad about something and bumped into a friend on the street. She asked how I was doing, and I immediately said, “Great! Wonderful!”, almost like a reflex. It made me think about the ways we hide feelings and wonder if my very cheerful daughter ever does the same. The inspiration for the cloud came from a line I wrote in a college essay about “stuffing my pain in my pocket.” The image stuck with me over the years, and I thought of it when struggling to activate my character Sally’s story. What if sadness were an object, she literally stuffs in her pocket?

What was the process like from inspiration to publication?

The Happiest Kid is my debut picture book and I sold it directly to the publisher, Yeehoo Press.

I began querying earlier versions of the manuscript in the spring of 2019 and there were two major revisions along the way. The first was for a revise and resubmit request I received from an agent, in which I rewrote the ending. Something was still not clicking, though, and she ultimately passed on the book.

Then, in February 2020, I submitted it to Yeehoo Press after reading they had an interest in children’s books about emotions. A few months later I received a lovely, lengthy email from my future editor, Zhiqiao Wang. He engaged with the main character and asked new, insightful questions that led me to an “aha” moment with the story. I dove headfirst into a second rewrite, sent it off, and received an offer three weeks later. There were tweaks and cuts after that, but the bulk of the text remained the same. The Happiest Kid came in March 2022 with gorgeous illustrations by Elsa Pui Si Lo and Clarice Yunyi Cai.

First, congratulations on getting your book picked up for publication! The process of a book coming to life always looks so different for everyone, but a common theme always seems to be that the story itself changes so much over time. The end result for The Happiest Kid is beautiful.

Do you have a scene or sentence in the finished book that is your favorite?

My favorite part is when Sally holds the cloud in her hands and takes a moment to really look at it for the first time.

Why do you think this book is important for kids to have on the shelves?

I think the social-emotional themes in the story are important topics to everyone and hope this book will encourage conversations both in the classroom and at home. Everyone needs the space to have a bad day. When Sally hides the cloud, it grows bigger. I hope Sally’s story helps young readers normalize big emotions. Adults too. Everyone gets sad sometimes, and it’s okay.

Yes! It's important for not only kids but adults to know how to handle these emotions. How do you think parents, teachers, or counselors could use The Happiest Kid to engage in deeper conversations with kids?

After a recent school visit, I received a thank you note from the class and one student wrote, “Your book reminds me of myself.” That meant the world to me. Sally is a mirror for kids who hide challenging feelings, and I hope her story gives them courage and helps them know they are not alone. For a different class, I teamed up with the art teacher; I read the book and she led the students in an art project using weather imagery to express different feelings. Many students combined a sun and cloud together, which was a lovely way to acknowledge feelings are complex. I’ve heard from parents who see the book as a reminder themselves not to put labels on their children, and to give them space to feel a range of emotions.

Those little moments where you can see your work resonating with kids and parents alike are so beautiful. Do you have any advice for authors who want to write about tough topics for kids?

It can be hard to write about difficult topics without being too instructive. In The Happiest Kid, I tried to use the cloud not only thematically, but as a lively plot line readers would want to track. Can Sally zip the cloud in her backpack? Will it stay put it she shoves it behind her back? What if she sits on it? My hope was that an active, visually interesting journey would help kids invest in and relate to the story without it feeling overly didactic.

I also think it’s important to give your protagonist agency. They might receive help or guidance in the story from parents, teachers, or peers, but how do their individual choices and actions shape the narrative? Most of all, be honest. Kids are so smart, and they know if they are being talked down to. Don’t underestimate them!

Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to share?

I am working on a few new projects but nothing to announce just yet. I do continually share book recommendations, activity ideas and popsicle recipes on my Instagram, though, and am always thrilled to connect with others online.

Sarah, thank you again for taking the time to visit with us! As part of her blog post, Sarah is generously donating a SIGNED copy of The Happiest Kid! All you have to do to enter is comment here on the blog, or on the Facebook or Instagram post for this blog.

Contest closes August 31st and winners will be announced September 1st.

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This week for Picture Book Therapy Thursday the lovely Christina Furnival joins us to discuss her children's books "The Not so Friendly Friend" and "Fear Not", two books in her series Capable Kiddos. Christina was generous enough to gift a copy of both of her books for a GIVEAWAY to one lucky reader! Keep reading to enter.

Christina Furnival is a licensed psychotherapist, children's book author, and mom. Through therapy and her social-emotional children’s book series Capable Kiddos, she is passionate about helping children and their parents understand themselves better, navigate challenges confidently, and live the life they want! Christina and her Scottish husband are raising their kids in Christina's hometown of San Diego where they love to hike trails, play at the beach, and have wild, disco-lit dance parties in the living room. Visit her at and on Instagram at @CapableKiddosBooksand @ThisIsRealLifeMama.

Christina, what inspired you to write "The Not So Friendly Friend" and "Fear Not"?

The Capable Kiddos series began with the book "The Not-So-Friendly Friend", which I wrote for my daughter who was dealing with a prickly friendship at school. I wanted to help my daughter, and having provided therapy to kids and families for over a decade, I knew a book would be the perfect tool. But I could not find a book that spoke about setting boundaries! So I wrote an uplifting rhyming story that synthesized quite a complex topic along with information based on current research on friendships, bullying, boundary-setting, and self-worth. It wasn't until about a year later that I pitched it to publishers and signed a deal with PESI Publishing. With PESI Publishing, I could see that "The Not-So-Friendly Friend" needed to be part of a social-emotional series, and so I began working on my second book, "Fear Not". The rates of youth experiencing anxiety problems and disorders are staggering, and with the pandemic the issue has become even more dire. "Fear Not" was written to support kids to learn that the best way to handle their fears and anxieties isn't by running from them but rather turning towards them and learning ways to cope. We best fight anxiety by actually not fighting it at all, but instead by recognizing that it is meant to be helpful, that we can tolerate the discomfort, and that we don't have to take anxiety's message at face value as fact.

Boundary setting is such an important topic with our kiddos, and I love that your own experiences as a parent gave you that inspiration. What was the process like from inspiration to publication for your books?

The process of my first book from inspiration to publication involved a huge leap of faith and a lot of good fortune. I wrote The Not-So-Friendly Friend for my daughter and was satisfied with how it had helped her grow and find her voice. It wasn't until almost a year later that I rediscovered the story in my phone's note-taking app and saw its value for supporting other children far and wide. I researched publishers who would accept unagented and unsolicited manuscripts who were publishing picture books for children with mental health and wellbeing focuses. I submitted one day, heard from PESI Publishing the next, and signed a book deal within a month! We are working on the Capable Kiddos series now, so the process is more assured with them going forward.

Do you have a scene in either or both books that was your favorite?

In both The Not-So-Friendly Friend and Fear Not, I love when the main character is demonstrating bravery by standing up to the unkind friend or facing their fears head-on. Katie Dwyer's artwork so brilliantly captured the emotions of the characters and painted the pictures for children readers to feel that they are capable of finding their bravery as well.

What made you want to write books about tough topics?

I write books on uncommon, tough topics, because I feel I am perfectly equipped to. With my professional background and personal experience, I can take my expertise and translate it into relatable and helpful texts that are still entertaining and beautiful. Helping people has always been a high priority for me, and doing so through the vehicle of storytelling has been such a gift. I support children and families in my therapy practice, and now through the Capable Kiddos books, I can reach a broader audience at once!

As a fellow therapist turned author, I love seeing how many of us are using our therapy knowledge to help bring these issues to life in the literary realm. How can parents, teachers, or counselors use your books to engage in deeper conversations with kids?

At the back of each book I provide conversation starters and discussion questions that are super helpful. They provide verbiage for explaining the topics and learnings easily to children and they encourage deeper conversations with your kids. They are written in a way to provide value to parents, teachers, counselors, and any professional working with kids. On my website I also have some free age-specific worksheets that reference learnings from the books!

Do you have any advice for authors who want to write about tough topics?

Do it. You are the only person who can write what you want to say in the way you want to say it. Go for it knowing that you are setting out to do good, and good will find its way back to you!

Where can we find you to keep up with your work or order your books?

Please connect with me! You can find me on my website, on social media on Instagram at @ThisIsRealLifeMama and @CapableKiddosBooks, and on Facebook at Christina Furnival Real Life Mama. The Capable Kiddos books can be purchased on my website (you can request an author-signed copy!) or on,, and

For help discussing health boundaries and anxiety with your children, be sure to pick up a copy of Christina's first two Capable Kiddos books Fear Not and The Not So Friendly Friend.

Christina, thank you so much for sharing with us about your wonderful books. For our readers, if you would like to enter to win a set of Christina's books, click here to enter the Rafflecopter giveaway! The giveaway ends Thursday, August 4th at 8am.

P.S. If you don't follow me, check my Instagram or Facebook @bethanywalkerlcsw on Tuesday for my review of Christina's books!

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