What they need to grow: An interview with children's illustrator Julie Freel

Here is another interview with Children's Wheel of the Year illustrator, Julie Freel. This time I want to let you in on her other life, which is as an expert on the emotional development of children. Her input has also been very helpful on the writing side of the books, ensuring that the stories and dialogue are helpful to children, even as they entertain.

Welcome back to the blog, Julie.

How is the illustrating for this project going?

It's getting easier and more fun.

You work with children for your day job, right?

I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. I've provided services to children and families for 25 years.

Painting Shanna books Sommer Solstice 3.jpg

We always say plants need soil, water and sunlight to grow. Can you sum up what children need to grow and flourish?

Kids need safety and security to survive. To thrive, children need a reliable someone paying attention, providing care and nurture. To flourish, kids need motivational opportunities such as new experiences and ideas as well as opportunities to develop skills and talents.

What role does self-confidence play?

At a certain age, kids need challenges. Shanna and the Goddess is a story about how challenges help to build confidence. Giving children an opportunity to meet challenges helps them develop a healthy sense of self, challenges that are genuinely meaningful within the context of their lives.

The opportunity to be needed and the feeling that your contribution is valuable can develop a sense of self, if it's not above your developmental level. A five-year-old without an available parent who has to figure out how to get food for his three-year-old sister isn't being provided with a helpful challenge because it’s beyond their developmental level, causing later emotional problems. But if it is a challenge that causes you to stretch and prove your abilities, where you get the opportunity to test your real limits, it builds confidence.

Self-confidence is what underlies motivation and the ability and willingness to try things, make mistakes, learn and grow. Many people have abilities and exceptional talents but are unable to find the motivation to express them. Some people say it's laziness but I would say it has more to do with lack of self-confidence. Self-confidence makes life more fun.

What is self-regulation and why is it important to children's development?

Self-regulation is the ability to manage our emotions and behavior within the context of the expectations in our situation. It includes emotional regulation; or the ability to manage emotions, to calm oneself when upset and to adjust to changes. These skills allow us to direct our behavior towards goals despite the unpredictability of the world and flux of our own feelings. Without adequate emotional regulation, children are less capable of succeeding socially and academically. Our abilities to self regulate are largely developed before the age of three, including prenatal development. With a safe environment and responsive caregivers, children develop the capacity to calm themselves under stress. Without a safe environment, our brains develop patterns of hormonal responses that last a lifetime and take a great deal of effort to manage, impacting our abilities to be fully present to our life experiences.

Julie painting imbolc cover of beltane.JPG

Do you think self-regulation is particularly important because of the emphasis of today's society on academic success in a sedentary structure?

Self regulation is important in any society. There is a difference between being able to regulate ones’ emotions and the ability to sustain attention. A societal emphasis on academic success within a sedentary structure is not conducive to sustained attention for many children. But being able to regulate emotions is essential to social connectedness and success with any endeavor that requires sustained effort. Our abilities to self regulate directly relate essential relationship skills: to our ability to be present to our own emotional experience and that of another person.

What are some ways to help kids who struggle with self-regulation in school?

It depends on the need. It is helpful to have a calm-down place where kids can self regulate. Children benefit from learning mindfulness skills such as body awareness and yoga. Emotional intelligence skills can be taught; for example, learning to identify and name your feelings and expressing them to others calmly. These skills can be integrated into social relationship skill building. Children need to be taught how to express themselves in ways that are sensitive to others and help in problem solving their daily challenges.

Help kids talk about important issues--such as bullying, social exclusion, difficulties keeping up
academically--with each other. Normalize the need for calming down and the need to help each other calm down. Teach children how to be there for each other when someone is having a hard time.

In addition, doing projects--just getting out and doing things--is a huge predictor of future success for children. That's one reason why too much time sitting in front of video games is such a problem for children. They aren't having opportunities for building the many skills that are necessary steps toward self regulation, confidence and competence.

The book Shanna and the Goddess has a lot about children gardening. Do kids gain more from gardening than just technical skills like other chores?

Gardening helps children connect to nature and the earth, offering a source of calm and connectedness to the environment as well as to one’s family. Nature is one of the greatest sources of internal peace and satisfaction.

With so many demands today--academics, sports, foreign languages, creative enrichment opportunities for kids and then those chores--do you have any advice for parents hoping to include some sort of spirituality in their children's lives?

If it is a part of your life, spirituality will naturally be a part of your children's lives. If you want spiritually based celebrations, you have to make that choice and put it into practice for yourself and your family. Living your spirituality has to be integrated into your daily life as well as your celebrations, in order to be meaningful.

Thank you so much for your perspective on this. And happy painting!

Summer is coming and the fourth Shanna book is here

The turning point of the new moon is just hours away. And that makes this a perfect moment to announce a new beginning.

The fourth book in the Children's Wheel of the Year has finally arrived. This is, of course, the long-awaited Summer Solstice story, the previous three having focused on Imbolc, the Spring Equinox and Beltane. 

The Summer Solstice is one of the nature-based holidays that gets the least attention and there are remarkably few books out there for kids on the subject. Of those that are available, most either teach about the traditions of various cultures in the past, such as The Longest Day, or mention the Summer Solstice with a host of other holidays such as Rupert's Tales or An Ordinary Girl - A Magical Child.

For many people who don't follow a major religion in our modern society, it is hard to feel connected to holidays that have lost much of their tradition and essential magic to commercialism. One alternative many people are now embracing is the celebration of naturally occurring transitions, such as the solstices and equinoxes. Some spiritual paths also hold these as holy days, but even for atheists and agnostics, these moments can fulfill the human need for bright gems of interest amid the routine of daily life. 

The summer solstice has been celebrated in cultures all over the world--from the equator to the poles--for thousands of years. It is the time of flourishing life in each hemisphere, a moment of fullness and a turning point in which seasons begin to swing back.

The summer solstice is the top of the pendulum, the height of a swing. And like a child's swing it gives us all that giddy feeling children get at the moment of weightlessness as the chains of the swing stop propelling them forward and hesitate before pulling them back. That is also the moment where the swing set is no longer visible and you feel most as if you were flying. The summer solstice is the cosmic equivalent of that giddy instant. Our faces are in the sun and for a moment it feels like everything is possible and we are far more capable than we knew.

The title of the fourth book in the Children's Wheel of the Year series is Shanna and the Goddess, and it is a story about the accelerated growth, confidence and courage that can result when we are challenged by adversity and we are capable and ready to meet that challenge.

In this book, eleven-year-old Shanna and her eight-year-old brother Rye take on grown-up responsibilities when their mother breaks her ankle at the beginning of the summer. Shanna is determined to save the newly planted garden from drought and neglect. Rye takes on cooking with some interesting and tasty results. Both gain confidence and skills, but their courage is tested when a massive hail storm threatens to flatten the garden. 

Instead of being primarily a teaching tool, like many other books about natural holidays, the Children's Wheel of the Year series offers adventure stories linked to the themes of earth-centered holidays that are fun to read and listen to. The Shanna books are not focused on teaching kids how the holidays were or are supposed to be celebrated. There are examples of traditions in the books because the family in the story celebrates the holidays. But the focus is on a kid-friendly story. 

Shanna and the Goddess is available in paperback and kindle formats here

Young activists, millions strong

One day in seventh grade is etched into my memory. I was sitting in the second row in a dimly lit science classroom, bored as usual. Our teacher was uninspiring. He was droning on again, something about a military program to train dolphins to attach bombs to the bottom of enemy ships.

I wasn't sure what the science point of the lecture was. Animal behavior maybe? The chemistry of explosions? You never knew with this guy. 

Illustration by Julie Freel from  Shanna and the Water Fairy

Illustration by Julie Freel from Shanna and the Water Fairy

But then this sentence got my attention: "So then these morons from Greenpeace came along and started blockading, so that they had to stop the program and put the lives of our troops at risk." 

I raised my hand. Most of the class was half asleep anyway. I wasn't even sure what I was going to say until he called on me. I tried to find words for the wrongness I felt in the lecture. I think I said something along the lines of, "So you think dolphins should have to do the humans' dirty work?" 

There were a few snickers around the class. The teacher leveled his gaze at me and paced a few steps closer. At least to me as a seventh grader, his voice was low and intimidating. "And you think a dolphin's life is more important than a human life?" 

More snickers and a few derogatory comments were flung my way by some of my classmates. I wasn't one of the popular kids who would get support for mouthing off to a teacher. And apparently mine wasn't a popular sentiment. 

Illustration by Julie Freel from  Shanna and the Water Fairy

Illustration by Julie Freel from Shanna and the Water Fairy

I had all kinds of arguments, all lined up. But I also knew this wasn't one of those times where reasoned argument would work. You don't argue with teachers in front of the whole class, not if you want to avoid trouble. How many times had I been told that? I knew that if I got one more sentence in I'd be lucky. 

And for once I had it. "If they are so concerned about human life, what are they doing blowing up ships in the first place?" 

The snickers stopped. Everyone was watching the teacher and waiting for his reaction. He stumbled a bit over his words, told me I was out of line and went on a rant about "patriotism." But I didn't care anymore. I knew when to quit. 

It was lonely being a wannabe activist in 1988 in rural Eastern Oregon. Today it may still not be the mainstream, especially environmental activism. but at least there are places to turn. If I was thirteen now, I could get on the internet and find like-minded others. In the last few weeks, I could see and join the amazing youth movement for gun regulations. 

We scarcely had books about nature and PBS documentaries. If you were interested in activism for social or environmental causes, it was a long, lonely and mostly silent road. Today there is more media and more connection across distance, especially for teenagers.

For younger kids, there are books like Shanna and the Water Fairy. I wrote this story with kids and parents on the activist road in mind. It's a gateway for kids ages six to twelve, for those who might feel like lonely voices against wrongness in hopes that they may add their voices to the rising tide of young activists for a better future.

This is the third book illustrated with emotive oil pastels by Julie Freel. It tells the story of a sister and brother, Shanna and Rye, who discover a hidden spring on dry waste land behind their school. The spring is a magical pocket of vibrant life in a drought-stricken land, a sanctuary for wildflowers, butterflies and a being they call a fairy. When the children discover that the spring is slated to be bulldozed to make way for another shopping mall, they look for ways to call attention to what would be lost and inspire local activism of their own. 

Shanna and the Water Fairy is the kind of book I longed for as a kid. It is a story that reaches out to every kid who has wanted to be heard and taken seriously for concerns many adults think kids aren't bothered with.

You aren't alone and your voice does matter. This is the time of the rise of young activists, millions strong.