In Mama’s Year with Cancer, a little girl learns to deal with her mama’s diagnosis of cancer, by making her cards, brushing her “new” hair carefully, but also “hating the port on mama’s chest which makes it hard to cuddle.” Speaking to a counselor makes the girl feel better. The girl and Daddy work together to make each holiday through Mama’s year of cancer special until Mama finally rings the bell. Lovely illustrations capture the emotions and headaches of going through cancer. Back matter includes author Shayna Vincent's story of cancer, tips for talking about cancer to children through age 8, further resources, and other books about cancer for children ages 4-8.
Shayna Vincent is a dear friend that I met through her mother, children’s book author Johannah Luza. Shayna was struggling to find a book to explain to her young daughters what to expect when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I said to Shayna, “Let’s write the book you want to have in the world.” Shayna is an incredibly kind person who celebrates her daughters’ birthdays as Kindness Days, where they do things for others, just as we share in the book. The idea that she could help other families with our book was a powerful motivation for her. That is the hope we share, that the book will help families dealing with cancer feel seen and cared about and give others understanding and ideas of how to support those in their community with cancer.Shayna Vincent with her daughter Avivah
I asked a lot of questions. I listened. I knew that my role in the collaboration was to channel Shayna’s story and spirit and what she wanted to convey. I sent a draft to Shayna. She got back to me quickly with her writing, with notes about what I’d gotten right and what needed to be changed or revised. Drafts went back and forth until Shayna felt the truth of her voice and vision and I knew it was in a form that could help children understand, know their power to help, and the importance of expressing their feelings and receiving help.
3. How much research did you have to do for this story?
I am lucky to have two doctors in my family – my brother, Dr. Jon Churnin, and my brother-in-law, Dr. Carl Nash, as resources. My sister-in-law is a breast cancer survivor, so I was able to consult with her. I am also a longtime journalist who wrote for the Healthy Living section of The Dallas Morning News before I became their theater critic. As a health reporter, I am used to doing research and talking with doctors. I remember – just coincidence – that I had taken a class on cancer in college that I still remembered. I dedicated the book to my sister-in-law, Suzanne Updegraff, and also to my niece, Jaimee Granberry, who was diagnosed with breast cancer while the book was in progress. I am glad to report that Jaimee, who has three young daughters, is doing well, receiving excellent medical care, and loving support from her husband, Jared, and family. I hope she will continue to do well. One of the many things I learned from Shayna, though, is that cancer is never over. We hope for remission, and we stay vigilant.
4. How long did it take to write this
This took a couple of months. It was the fastest writing and turnaround I have ever experienced. I think part of the reason was that Shayna and I were so in synch with each other, and our mission and the universe felt that this needed to be in the world. Sometimes it takes time for ideas to develop and grow. But in this case, we seemed to know exactly the story we wanted to tell. It felt as if we were chasing the story, trying to keep up, rather than pushing it along.
5. This story is told in 1st person point of view, and it works beautifully. Did you originally write it in 1st person?
It never occurred to either of us to write it any other way. Remember, Shayna wanted this to be a book she could share with her daughters to help them understand what cancer is, what the treatments would be like, how their mom would be feeling, what would change and what would stay the same, what they could do, and where they could turn to find help and support. So, it made sense to tell it in the voice of one of her daughters – Mila, who was four when Shayna received her diagnosis – and have the child share her discoveries with the reader.
6. Was it hard to find a publisher for a picture book on a grim topic like cancer?
I am grateful that I have built up relationships with editors and publishers over the years. I had five books published with Albert Whitman and two more on the way when I emailed this manuscript with Sue Tarsky, the senior editor there. I remember it was in December and Sue was on vacation in London. She got back to me the next morning saying she wanted to acquire it. From the start, Sue has been passionate about this story and her care and concern about Shayna. I feel we are all on this mission together to get Shayna’s story into the world.
7. I like how this book addresses the emotions a child goes through when a family member experiences cancer. I’m sorry that Shayna and her family have had to go through this horrible experience. Did you also interview other families?
This is very much Shayna’s story – not a composite story. That said, I did draw upon medical experts, talk to people I knew who had been on the cancer journey, and do research to make sure everything is accurate. You will see a list of resources in the back matter and a bibliography of children’s books about cancer. I hope these will help people who want and need to know more.
8. I like how Shayna addressed the ringing of the bell in her author’s note, as there have been controversies as to “when” the bell should be rung. Did you also come across that issue when writing this book?
When we began the book, Shayna was very joyful about being able to ring the bell at the end of her year of chemotherapy. We capture that happiness and hope in the book. We felt that was important for a book that would be an introduction to a child’s understanding of having a parent with cancer. Shayna’s cancer journey didn’t end there, however, which you will learn in the back matter. Shayna’s cancer spread and she is now in Stage IV, undergoing new treatments. She addresses that in her author’s note: “Whether ringing that bell marks the end of treatment or the beginning of a new phase, I feel a family should look at it as only a part of their path, instead of one single event or a short period of time. Cancer doesn’t define a person, but even if a patient has been in remission for years or will forever be in active treatment, it changes a person.”
9. What advice would you give to our Grog readers about writing children’s books on hard topics?
Ignoring hard topics doesn’t make them go away. Children going through a difficult time need to feel seen, need to know they’re not alone, need to see strategies for dealing with their difficult situation, need to have their feelings of fear and anger and hope, worry and love validated. These books can be mirrors for these children and windows for children who know someone going through a difficult time. Shayna and I hope that simply by talking about cancer, explaining that it is not catching, how important it is to be a good friend, to share moments of fun, to help as you can, that it will start discussions and open hearts.
10. What are your next books coming out?
This is a busy year for me! On the same day that Mama’s Year with Cancer comes out, I have my first historical fiction picture book: Lila and the Jack-o’-Lantern, Halloween Comes to America. It’s the story of Lila, one of the many Irish immigrants who came to America during the Potato Famine of the 19th century, and how she tries to keep her beloved Halloween traditions alive in her new home where people have never heard of these things before. The book is illustrated by Anneli Bray and published by Albert Whitman. I hope it reminds kids to be thankful of the gifts that immigrants bring us. I would love for kids to share images of the jack-o’-lanterns they carve, whether they carve them out of pumpkins or something else!
On Nov. 7, I have two books coming out. Valentines for All, Esther Howland Captures America’s Heart brings me back to the world of picture book biographies with the story of Esther, who came up with the idea of creating and selling Valentine cards in the 1800s to help others express their feelings. I have created a project for this one called Valentines for All, encouraging kids to send valentines to people not expecting them – other kids, other schools, seniors, people in community programs, whoever would be lifted up by a loving note. The book is illustrated by Monika Roza Wisniewska and published by Albert Whitman.is my first board book. The 48-word rhyming text, aimed at toddlers, is about counting, Shabbat, and kindness as an elderly person prepares for the weekly celebration of Shabbat alone – and is surprised and delighted when there are five knocks on door and a family joins him bringing food and cheer. I hope this book reminds children to remember our seniors, to write notes, to visit, and to share pictures of the caring things they do on my Counting on Kindness page. The book is illustrated by Petronela Dostalova and published by Kar-Ben Publishing.