Books have always been at the heart of my family. My mom loves to share a story about how, at three years of age, I would beg her to teach me to read so that I could talk about books with her and her sister. Reading refreshes my soul, and I have used it throughout my life in building relationships, dealing with stress, and learning about life and love.
As a licensed mental health counselor, books would often play an important role in building rapport with clients. Meeting with a stranger to talk about difficult life issues can be very overwhelming for anyone–especially young children. I always kept a well-stocked book shelf, and many times I would sit on the ground and read with my clients to foster the start of a strong therapeutic relationship. It was amazing to watch the transformation in even the most emotionally shut-down child.
Sharing the experience of learning about someone else’s story would often prompt the child to feel comfortable in sharing their own story. Finding common ground with the characters in the story helped bring out emotions that had been trapped and tamped down during the struggles of life. Books became my favorite tool for providing support and comfort, and I would often think of stories that I felt could help other children and therapists work through issues and begin a dialogue about difficult topics, but the same thing always stopped me from proceeding: confidence. My lack of confidence in myself kept me from pursuing the possibility of writing therapeutic books for children. Why would anyone want to read a book that I had written? I didn’t go to school to become a writer, and I felt that my own life experiences were limited. I decided to focus my energy on my clients and my work as a therapist.
A few years later, I decided to take some time off from my work as a therapist following the birth of my first child. Becoming a stay-at-home mom was a hard transition for me after years in community mental health. I was accustomed to feeling confident in my skills as a therapist, and even when I questioned a direction with a client, I knew that I had wonderful colleagues that I could rely on for advice. I yearned for a list of job duties or for a supervisor to provide feedback for my skills. My sons only method of feedback was a high-pitched wail that I avoided at all costs. Luckily I had my old stand-by to help me: books. I inhaled parenting books as fast as I could find them. During feedings, I would read novels to help keep my mind off of the ever-present worries of whether he was eating enough or if my child was growing as he should. I also found that reading stories to my child was an activity that we both enjoyed before bed each evening.
I searched our local bookstores for a book about my hometown, Pensacola, but I came up empty-handed. I began making up stories as I paced around the house trying to soothe my fussy infant, and Goodnight Pensacola began to take form. Yet once again I was held back by feelings of insecurity. My artistic abilities are limited to stick figures, some flowers, and, on a good day, a pretty pathetic looking turtle. Although I knew exactly how each page of my story would look, I lacked the skills to even begin to create the illustrations. I decided to just write down the story for my child, and that would have to suffice. I shared my ideas with family and friends, and even the encouragement and enthusiasm that they provided me was not enough to give me the courage to proceed.
As the years went by, I talked occasionally about my book ideas without any real intent to look into publishing. A chance encounter with an old classmate changed the course of my literary life. My friend had just published a book with Mascot named Juggling through the Jungle. He shared his journey with me as my two boys and his two girls listened on. He told me about how Mascot had illustrators that could provide sample sketches of illustrations as well as how Mascot could guide even a novice writer through the steps of publishing a book. I called Mascot the next day, and Goodnight Pensacola finally began to become a reality.
I was connected with an illustrator (Chiara Civati) that was able to take my photographs and poor sketches and turn them into the beautiful art that I had imagined. I had an entire team to answer questions about every step of the process of publishing, yet I was still plagued with my insecurities about my skills as a writer and my lack of experience with business and marketing. Even after looking at the final electronic version of the book, I had my doubts about whether anyone other than my family would be interested in reading a story that I had written.
When I opened up the box containing my brand-new, fresh-off-the-press book, I was more than a little apprehensive. It took me a few hours to even gather the courage to look inside the box. But when I pulled out the very first copy, I was filled with a sense of peace. Here was the book that I dreamed about for my children. When my husband and sons read the dedication that I had written to them, my heart was full. I brought a copy to my parents, and I watched their faces fill with pleasure to see the names of each of their children and grandchildren on one of the illustrations in the book. I stopped worrying about the number of copies sold or the boxes sitting downstairs in my home. I realized that books, for me, had always been about relationships and that this one was no different than any other. I focused on the new people and experiences that this book brought to my life: my relationships with the local store owners that took a chance on me by carrying my book, the amazing people of Pensacola and visitors of the city that bought the book to share with the children in their own lives, and the many children that I have met during signings and book reading that have told me about their own experiences with the landmarks featured in the book.
Today I am the author of two books about the city that I love. Goodnight Pensacola is in its third print run and has enriched my life in more ways that I can count. My new book, P is for Pelican: The ABCs of Pensacola is part of a project that will be given to children and their families at birth to help improve literacy rates and kindergarten readiness in my community. It will also be carried in the local stores that supported me in my journey with Goodnight Pensacola.
Although the books have done well, I don’t measure their success by the numbers that have been sold. For me, the true success lies is in the stories that I have been told of how the books have been used in the lives of the people around me. Goodnight Pensacola has been used to inspire a love for my hometown and to hopefully begin a lifetime love of reading. It has been used as a reminder to military families of the place that they once called home and as a wedding book for guests to sign as a token of love for the couple that they celebrate. My hope for P is for Pelican: The ABCs of Pensacola is that it will help parents to teach their children about the ABCs in a way that makes learning fun for both parent and child.
I don’t pretend to be the best writer or author. For me, writing is an act of love for my family, my community, and anyone that is in need of a way to connect with a child and teach them about Pensacola. I hope one day to write therapeutic books for children, and I will use the same approach in measuring success for future books. If one child is comforted or learns from my books, that will be enough for me.
(Anna Whibbs Theriault is the author of Goodnight Pensacola and P is for Pelican: The ABCs of Pensacola, published by Mascot Books. The latter is released on April 4, 2017. You can follow her and her books on Facebook and Twitter!)