We continue our conversation about the portrayal of emotional and behavioral disabilities in picturebooks, specifically characters who wrestle with childhood depression, anxiety, and outbursts. In weeks one and two, we looked at The Red Tree and Virginia Wolf. This week, we offer our take on Jack’s Worry by Sam Zuppardi.
DESIREE: According to psychologists, “at least ten percent of children have excessive fears and worries–phobias, separation anxiety, panic attacks, social anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorders–that can hold them back and keep them from fully enjoying childhood,” (Rapee, Wignall, Spence, Lyneham and Cobham, 2008). Jack’s Worry by Sam Zuppardi is about a boy whose “worry” threatens to overcome him. Jack initially enjoys playing his trumpet. However, on the day of his first concert, a worry presents itself. Initially, it is small and non-threatening. Zuppardi allows the worry to gradually occupy more space, using pencil and shades of blue watercolor. Each time Jack thinks about the concert, the worry grows darker and weightier. Because of the worry, Jack is unable to eat. He cannot run away from the worry. He cannot distract himself from it. Midway through the book the worry grows larger than Jack and its physical presence threatens to crush the small boy.
Church (2016) writes, “Whereas one might expect texts for older children to name the illness, for a potentially younger audience, it seems preferable to strip down any discussion of symptoms to a simple visual element–often a dark cloud. This motif is used repeatedly in relation to depression, the cloud almost physically seeming to depress the sufferer’s mood” (p.4). Zuppardi does something similar to depict Jack’s worry.
This book raises questions about when worrying is at a healthy level and when it becomes all-consuming. What are your thoughts about this story? Is the “worry” symbolic of one of the disorders outlined by Rapee et. al. (2008) or does it appear to be within the healthy range? What do you think the deeper messages are in this book related to disabilities?
SUSAN: One of the most difficult aspects of this discussion has been defining disability, so your question is critical. Physical disabilities are easier to define and categorize–you either have two good feet or you don’t–but emotions can be hidden or masked. When does worry (or any other emotion) become a disorder/disability? When the DSM-5 describes it? When it prevents people from functioning normally? And what is normal functioning? “Abnormal” emotions are not cut and dried and easy to describe. They are much more complex, which is one reason why quality picturebooks about emotional disabilities are hard to find. It is harder to describe a disability around worry in a 32-page picture book.
For that reason I appreciate Jack’s Worry. It describes a boy who starts out nervous about playing in front of others (something we can all relate to) but soon is prevented from performing because his worry paralyzes him. The beauty of the story is that we can all relate to his emotion. As a professor, I speak in front of people all the time; I generally love public speaking. But yesterday I had to speak in front of a group in a way I was not used to doing, and I was nervous. I even started my remarks by admitting how nervous I was! The difference between Jack and me is that I developed mechanisms (or cognitive behavioral strategies) to deal with my nerves and Jack is just starting on that journey. Perhaps he will always struggle with nerves–I have family and friends who are frequently anxious–but his mother’s assurance that mistakes are OK is the tool (or what Rupee and co-authors call Cognitive Behavior Therapy) that he needs to start managing his nerves. Jack’s mom does him a huge service in giving him coping mechanisms early in life before his worry can no longer be reduced in size and controlled.
DESIREE: Susan, I appreciate the distinctions you make and the examples you shre. As a group, we have explored books that portray a range of disability experiences, both visible and invisible. Part of our assessment of these books has been whether or not they increase young readers’ understanding of disabilities and how they might serve to eliminate fear, prejudice, and intolerance. Another thing we discussed recently are books that can be used as scaffolds to support deeper connections between readers and the set of books about disability. You say that the beauty of Jack’s Worry is that we can relate to his emotion. You also say that Jack may internalize his mother’s advice and no longer struggle with his anxious feelings. Given these ideas, how would you categorize this book? Does it minimize the lived experience of someone who has a disability as defined by the DMS-5? I read an article that clued me into the fact that “differently abled” is considered insulting because it minimizing the significance of having a disability–much the same way that colorblindness minimizes the significance of a person’s racial identity. If we continue to include this book in our text set, what purpose might it serve? How might we avoid crossing into the “we all suffer” territory?
SUSAN: You are good at bringing up tough questions! I do think that the emotional disability of anxiety can be easily “pooh-poohed” by the general public, perhaps because we all feel anxious at times. Most of us have developed effective coping mechanisms to deal with nerves. Sometimes we can think that a person crippled by anxiety is someone who has not developed effective coping strategies. We react in sort of a “pull up your bootstraps and get on with it” way, which discounts the severity of the anxiety. This book becomes important as a way of giving kids who worry encouragement that the worry can also be lessened, but it does not discount the worry. It projects worry as an emotion that can have serious ramifications, One of my favorite books about anxiety is Scaredy Squirrel (Watt). I have read the book to many adults, and some claim that the book changed their lives. They were so nervous about reading aloud to children in a classroom, that they were paralyzed. The story of Scaredy falling out of his safe tree and getting past his fear of the unknown gives them hope. It helps them move past their own fear of their unknown. Just like with Jack’s Worry, giving voice to emotion through a story helps readers to reflect on their own anxiety. As we have talked about these books this month I asked my family to comment on the titles. I am blessed to have four psychologists around me. My sister, Dr. Cheryl Mathews, has a website (Speakmeister.com) dedicated to helping people with speaking or performance anxiety. A section of her website has a blog that describes strategies for coping with anxiety. She comments on Jack’s Worry in one of her posts. I am pleased that she reacts positively to the book and drew out strategies that are important coping mechanisms, all the while enjoying the story and the illustrations!
Church, I. (2016). The Picture of Madness–Visual Narratives of Female Mental Illness in Contemporary Children’s Literature. Childrens Literature in Education. doi:10.1007/s10583-016-9286-2
Rapee, R. M. (2008). Helping your anxious child: a step-by- step guide for parents. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Title: Jack’s Worry
Author: Sam Zuppardi
Date Published: Apr 26, 2016
This is the third installment of July’s My Take/Your Take. The first post featured The Red Tree and the second featured Virginia Wolf. To follow the whole conversation, check the WOW Blog every Wednesday.