Picture Book Therapy Thursday February: Laura Gehl on Grief and "Grandpa's Window" + Giveaway
Somehow it's already February and we're slogging through the actual "winter" of Texas with lots of rain and cold temps in the 30's. I hope the month with a lot of focus on love is keeping all of you warm and cozy!
I'm absolutely honored to feature Laura Gehl on the blog this month to discuss her upcoming picture book "Grandpa's Window" (Flyaway Books, 2023), a beautiful book on grief and loss. Kirkus Reviews called the book a "touching window into a child's mourning process."
Laura Gehl is the author of more than forty popular board books, picture books, and early readers. Her books include One Big Pair of Underwear, the Peep and Egg series, I Got a Chicken for My Birthday, My Pillow Keeps Moving, Except When They Don’t, Apple and Magnolia, Donut, and the Baby Scientist series. Laura’s books have received many awards and honors, including Kirkus best picture books of the year selection, Junior Library Guild selection, Indie Next List, CCBC choices selection, ALA Notable selection, Booklist Editors’ Choice, Amazon Editors’ Choice, Charlotte Zolotow Highly Commended Title, ILA Honor Book, and the Mathical Award. Laura lives in Maryland with her husband and four children.
Laura, thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. Your children's books span from silly to heartwarming and everything in between. What inspired you to write Grandpa's Window?
I wrote Grandpa’s Window after my mom died. I was dealing with my own grief while trying to help my four kids through their first loss of a grandparent, and all of my emotions poured into my writing.
What a cathartic process that must have been for you. What was the process like from inspiration to publication?
As I mentioned above, I began writing Grandpa’s Window after my mother died. As a result, I originally envisioned the grandparent in the book as a grandmother. However, my dad died a few years after my mom, and I was revising the story while grieving my dad. Grandpa’s Window sold first to a UK Publisher (Bonnier), and my editor at Bonnier asked if I would consider changing the grandmother in the book to a grandfather. It felt very right to make that change, given that my kids had just lost their grandfather.
There are aspects of the story that very much remain tied to my mom’s illness and death. For example, when we see in the book that the grandfather can’t breathe without the help of a mask, that was something we experienced with my mom during her long illness. But there are also aspects of the book that really ring true to my kids’ experience losing my dad, their grandfather. The bond between the grandfather and granddaughter in the story, and the part that art plays in their relationship, is something very true to life. My dad kept all of my daughter’s artwork and displayed it proudly. So the finished book has pieces of my mom and my dad in it, and I hope the story resonates with anyone who is dealing with illness or loss…whether of a grandparent, another relative, a friend, or a beloved pet. Another interesting piece of the publication process was that my US publisher (Flyaway Books) asked to change the title from The Window (the UK title) to Grandpa’s Window, in order to further emphasize the grandfather/grandchild relationship.
What a beautiful tribute to your parents. I'm sure having those real life aspects woven in was also difficult to bring back up for you at times as well. Grief is a hard process for anyone, adults to children. The inclusion of the window as a source of escape but also processing was a beautiful idea. Was it important to you to keep the book hopeful?
Yes, I definitely wanted the book to feel hopeful and to include the idea that our loved ones stay with us after they die. The changing scenes we see through Grandpa’s hospital room window…which provide a way to process emotions, and to escape from reality a bit…were in my story from the beginning. So was the twist ending. Still, when I asked trusted writer friends for feedback on early drafts, they told me that the book felt too sad. As I worked on later drafts, I was able to find the right balance between love and loss, grief and hope.
How can parents, teachers, or counselors use your books to engage in deeper conversations with kids?
I’m glad you asked that! A reader’s guide to accompany Grandpa’s Window will soon be available to download for free, both on the Flyaway Books website and on mine. I also have free discussion guides, including conversation starters and activities, for many of my other books, including Apple and Magnolia, The Hiking Viking, and Who Is a Scientist? These can all be found on my website under “Educator Resources.”
I'm looking forward to that reader's guide! Do you have any advice for authors who want to write about tough topics?
I think the best books on tough topics come from authors who are writing from their own experiences…whether that means struggles with anxiety, or food insecurity, or divorce. But it can be really hard to stay objective about a story when the heart of it is your own pain. That’s where wonderful critique partners come in. Ask other writers to read your drafts and help you avoid the pitfalls that come along with writing from personal experience. One pitfall might be making the story too sad, as I did. Another pitfall can be trying to write a story that is exactly true to your own experience. While an autobiography for adults might need to be exactly accurate, most picture books about tough topics are not actually autobiographies. Instead, a picture book author can start with their own experiences and then try to craft a story with a relatable main character, a captivating narrative arc, and a satisfying ending. In other words, details may change from real life in order to make a story that is engaging and meaningful for many kids with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.
Where can we find you to keep up with your work?
My website is lauragehl.com, and you can subscribe to my newsletter (with frequent giveaways!) under the contact tab on my website. I’m on Facebook, twitter, and Instagram at @AuthorLauraGehl and would love to connect with other readers and writers there.
Laura, thank you again for taking the time to be on the blog. I had the chance to read a copy of Grandpa's Window and it was moving and beautifully illustrated. Pre-order your copy here before it's March 14th book birthday!
Laura has gracious agreed to giveaway a copy of her upcoming book Grandpa's Window for blog readers! To enter, comment on the blog by February 23rd. Winners will be announced February 24th.