This month on Book Time, I interview Canadian author Lana Button about her latest children’s book What if Bunny’s Not a Bully, about a group of kids who leave Bunny out because she is a bully. Thankfully there is a voice of reason within the group. Kitty wonders out loud if things aren’t as they seem and if Bunny really isn’t a bully, but misunderstood. It’s a great book with some wonderful lessons about forgiving your friends and listening to your instincts.
Congratulations on your latest picture book.
Q. There is a great lesson in this book about a group of animal friends who exclude bunny because she was mean to them once, making them, in fact, bullies. Do you think children will see for themselves what Elephant is doing is bullying? Why or why not?
A. I really think we need to be very careful with the word bullying when it comes to young children. There is a lot of messaging and catch phrases out there to ‘stand up to the bully’ without giving a lot of guidance to young children as to what exactly we are standing up to, and who exactly we are walking away from.
This can get confusing for young children. Children are learning to get along with each other and there are going to be mistakes made along the way. So, for me, what is happening in What if Bunny’s Not a Bully? is that kind of social conflict that often happens as young children are learning to get along.
I think Bunny has made mistakes in past behavior. And I think Elephant and her friends have made the mistake of labelling Bunny, deciding that she is a ‘bully’ and must be stood up to and walked away from, instead of seeing her as a peer who might be sorry and might need a chance to try again.
I don’t think Bunny is bad and I don’t think Elephant is bad, I think they have a social conflict and they’ve attached the word ‘bullying’ to this conflict.
Q. Why did you decide to write about bullying in this way?
A. I worry for the young child who has been labelled a bully. And I have seen how the word ‘bully’ can be misused to describe scenarios that are actually social conflict. It can be terrifying if someone throws the word ‘bully’ at you. I have seen scenarios where children as young as kindergarten are labelled by both children and adults as a bully that must be avoided.
And then I worry that some children become the labels that are given. And I believe that given the right guidance, young children can gain and improve social tools to understand each other better, to express themselves better, and to get along better. And that happens when children are given the space to understand they have made a mistake and given the space to say sorry and try again.
Q. I like the reasoning voice of cat, who questions why they are being mean to bunny. Why was it important to include this voice of reason?
A. Kitty is a sensitive character who has an innate ability to empathize with others. I think of her as the voice of empathy for her friends. My hope is that when she questions how a ‘kid like you and me’ could become what is known as a bully, and when she describes how it would make her feel to be the person everyone avoids, it will allow children to see the perspective of someone who they had assumed was ‘bad’.
Q. I loved the lesson at the end that people make mistakes and it’s important to forgive your friends. It’s a hard lesson to learn at any age. How can parents help children understand the difference between making a mistake and being mean?
A. I think that we need to acknowledge that sometimes we make mistakes and are mean. And to be perfectly fair and honest; some of us do it more than others. We slip up, say things we shouldn’t have, behave in a way we wish we hadn’t.
It is a mistake. But when you have the space to say that we are sorry, and we have an opportunity to try again, that is how we learn to be a better friend. I think it is valuable for children to see each other beyond the label of ‘she is good’ and ‘he is bad’.
Some of us are naturally more likely to react in an angry way, or a sarcastic, or a hurtful way. It’s not OK. But when we acknowledge the behaviour – what we don’t like and what we want to happen going forward, we leave room for growth.
And pause for a second if you acknowledge that we might be talking about someone who is eight years old, or even five years old. We gain empathy when we are able to acknowledge that all people, at times, make mistakes.
A child who is often mean needs a lot of guidance. They may need extra coaching in socially acceptable behaviour. Their peers may need extra coaching in how to talk with this child in terms of saying specifically what they don’t like, what they want the child to stop doing, and why they don’t like it. But when we do this coaching we can help this child gain skills that can help them succeed socially and ultimately be a better friend.
I think how we help our children deal with social conflict is in the way we guide them to express themselves, and listen to each other. The first rule is that we don’t call names (You are a bully). We tell the friend what we don’t like, and how it made us feel. For example “You said this mean thing and that made me sad.”
And then we help children be accountable for their own behaviour. if they know they have space to say sorry, and try again, it will feel a lot safer for a child to learn to say, “I’m sorry I said that. I’m sorry I threw that. I’m sorry I knocked that down.” Etc.
And we can model for children when we make our own slip-ups. It is very powerful for children to hear an adult say something like, “I’m sorry I wasn’t patient, just now. I’m going to take a deep breath and try again.”
Q. What if Bunny’s Not a Bully is the second book that features these animal friends, with My Teacher’s Not Here! being the first. You also have a series of picture books about a little girl named Willow. When you wrote your first book, did you plan to write more in the series? Why or why not? Can you please explain.
A. When I wrote Willow’s Whispers I didn’t think of it as a series. But after the story came out, I felt that there was more to say about Willow and the children in her class. I was very happy to have the opportunity to write Willow Finds a Way and Willow’s Smile.
I often write stories from the perspective of the child in the class who might go unnoticed. It gives me the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the quiet kid who doesn’t typically get the attention, so that we can see their perspective on things.
Q. Will we see more from Elephant, Bunny and their friends? Any more about Willow?
A. As of yet, we don’t have another story for Willow, but I am working on a new story for Kitty and her friends. It is called Tayra’s NOT Talking. A new friend has joined Kitty’s classroom and she’s not talking. So how can the rest of the class communicate with her?
Q. What do you like about writing picture books?
I think that picture books are magical and I am so honoured to have books out there that are read out loud to children. They are such a magical way of sharing ideas and emotions in an intimate way. I think picture books are also a safe avenue for talking about things that we are trying to understand. And they help us to see the perspectives of others.
Q. What do you like about writing for this age group?
A. I am an early childhood educator so the picture book age group is my ‘sweet spot’. I love children, and have loved working with pre-school to primary grade children the best. It is a magical age where anything is possible, where there’s so much to learn, and where imagination has no end.
Q. What are the challenges of writing picture books?
A. For me, the challenge is getting the story right. Just as it is a challenge to get your point across when trying to explain a concept to a young child who may have a limited attention span, it is a challenge to grab and keep a young child’s attention when trying to write them a story. They are the most honest audience. When you’ve lost them, you’ve lost them (they wander away or start poking the child beside them). But when you’ve grabbed them and held their attention and even inspired them, that is the best feeling out there!
Q. You have had two different illustrators bringing your books to life. Christine Battuz created work for Bunny and Teacher’s Not Here! and Tania Howells illustrated the Willow series. What was it like to work with these illustrators? How did you like how they brought your words to life?
A. I have been so blessed to have these two amazing illustrators, Christine Battuz and Tania Howells bring these stories to life. I have so much respect and am so indebted to these talented women who bring life to words on a page to tell the rest of our story.
I am also indebted to my amazing editors, Jennifer Stokes and Yvette Ghione at Kids Can Press whose job, among many, it is to match the words with the pictures. I know that my story is in great hands when my editors chose the illustrators. And I am more than happy to take a back seat at that point, to allow the illustrator to take over and complete the story.
Q. As a writer, do you have a choice in who illustrates your books? How does that process work?
A. I complete the words with my editor. Once we get to the stage of where each word lands on the page, the editor chooses the illustrator. I am consulted on this, but am happy to let the experts do their thing. Editors are pros at matching writing and illustrating styles. I think they were bang on with matching my Willow story with Tania and my Teacher story with Christine.
It’s not always easy when you have a preconceived notion as to how the story should look, to step back and let the illustrator have their space, but it’s crucial to the process. The illustrator always adds more than I could ever have imagined to the story and brings an element to it that I never could have done. And for that I am so grateful.
Q. How do you come up with ideas for your picture books?
A. I do find ideas everywhere, from my own experiences, from the experiences I have seen through my three daughters’ eyes, and the experiences I see through the eyes of the children I teach in my kindergarten class. The challenge for me is getting it down into picture book form.
Q. With the COVID-19 currently changing our world, how do you hope to promote this book?
A. The world is a scary place right now. Children need the comfort of a story time now more than ever. It is definitely a challenge to spread the word when typical book launches, presentations and literary festivals are cancelled, and bookstores are closed. Creators are finding ways to share stories and chat online.
Live chats on Instagram and Facebook allow us to do some readings and children are really enjoying that. I am participating in creating some videos for The Frye Literary Festival that was scheduled to take place in New Brunswick in April, which will do a virtual festival this year. At this point thought, I think it’s about spreading comfort and support. We need stories and we have to just hope that our stories will find their audience.
Q. If you were to write a picture book about the virus, what would you write to help children understand what is going on?
A. Children need to be comforted and assured. I would strive to write a story that inspires children to take care of each other, and assure them that they will be safe. I would concentrate the story on a particular situation that had a happy ending. We have to be careful not to burden young children with details and scenarios they have no control over. Now would not be the time to lecture children or scare them. I think stories about the heroes who are helping others, like doctors, researchers, grocery store clerks, would be really nice to see right now.
Q. What are you doing to stay safe? What advice would you give to children?
A. Everyone in my family is working from home. My oldest daughter, who is a behavior analyst, is providing therapy over Skype visits. My middle daughter is teaching dance classes through Zoom to her students.
I am doing a virtual daily story time through my Youtube channel to children in my class and anyone else who would like to listen. Helping others, staying busy doing what we are good at, is helpful to yourself. So we are keeping our distance, but staying busy. I am thankful for my dog, as I’ve gotten out for much-needed fresh air and walks.
My advice would be for parents to give children a space to use their imagination. If they have open-ended materials to create things, they may surprise you with what they come up with and how long they can entertain themselves.
Understand that there may be behaviors that come out that you don’t typically see. The stress we are all feeling also affects our children. We all need to have extra understanding at this time.
I think children will benefit from some structure in their day, with a scheduled story or reading time, opportunities to draw and write out their feelings, to count on paper and during board games, and opportunities to explore things and figure things out.
And I think children need lots of reassurance that things are going to be OK.
Q. Are you working on any other books at the moment?
A. I have a number of stories I am working on. I have a couple that are in the illustration process of being a new book, I have a few that I am hoping will find a publishing home, and I have new baby stories that I am trying to find the right words for. It is the life of a writer that is both frustrating and invigorating.
Q. Currently you write fiction picture books, do you see yourself writing any other type of picture book or book for any other age group? Why or why not?
A. I love picture books. And I love this age group. I do love the idea of writing a book that children can read themselves, so I have been working on early chapter book ideas. I have so much admiration for non-fiction writers and there are so many wonderful concept picture books out there. One day I may try my hand at these. But for now, I feel like my strongest voice is in telling a fictional story to a young child in the hopes of inspiring them and allowing them to see the perspectives of others.
A copy of this book was provided by Kids Can Press for an honest review.
The opinions are my own.