An interview with Finding Feelings author Jennifer Gafford
Little can replace a good story read slowly aloud to a child when it comes to instilling virtues and values that will become rooted deep within and ultimately ripple outwards in a life given over to service and compassion. Heroic characters big and small in beloved books show us how to be, how to live and, perhaps most importantly, what to do with what we feel. Illustrations help draw parallels between these book worlds and our own, or help us escape to places we haven’t yet been. Words can paint pictures in our mind’s eye that help us move towards what is meaningful.
Today, on National Read Across America Day which falls on the birthday of Dr. Seuss, we’re chatting with children’s book author and mother of three Jennifer Gafford who shares about emotional intelligence in kids, her new book, Finding Feelings (think “Where’s Waldo,” but for emotions), and how we can curate a compassionate children’s library. We’ve also included a pretty great book list to get you started…
What was the impetus behind writing Finding Feelings?
When he was young, my son got a new haircut, and when a neighbor commented on it, he crawled underneath our van and wouldn’t resurface. Embarrassment is the worst! I needed a way to show him that others get embarrassed too. I wanted him to realize he’s normal, and it’s ok to have such strong feelings.
I wrote Finding Feelings, a “Where’s Waldo,” but for emotions. It asks children to find characters who are experiencing specific emotions and provides a safe place for kids to name and process their feelings.
Our emotions are a beautiful thing, and while some of the more powerful ones can make us feel alone, the truth is the opposite. Our emotions are a common thread, weaving us together.
Let’s talk about emotional intelligence — what is it and how can we help to cultivate it in the minds of our kids?
As a teacher, I took courses on emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” I recently read Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ by Daniel Goleman, and was blown away by this book. Although published in 1995 (I was in elementary school!), the book continues to be groundbreaking. It discusses why teaching our children emotional intelligence is arguably more important than their IQ. Emotional intelligence has been researched and part of our educational system for over a decade, but we are still learning its importance for both our personal and professional lives.
The more I read about naming our emotions, practicing self control, developing grit and emotional endurance, the more I wanted to help kids learn these important skills. They are all foundational to becoming a compassionate person, and in this world, there is no greater gift.
Finding Feelings lays out a simple path for us to mirror in our lives. It asks a child to read body language and situational clues, to identify emotions, and finally, prompts higher levels of processing and self-reflection. “What could you do to help someone who is nervous?” or “When do you feel peaceful?” It’s basic, but these are the questions we need to keep asking each other now more than ever.
What about “emotional vocabulary?”
I think that some children are more gifted than others when it comes to their emotional vocabulary and situational awareness. We all know kids who eerily read our thoughts and feelings, and others who are blessedly clueless. But the good news is that emotional intelligence can be taught! Kids can quickly develop the building blocks to becoming more emotionally intelligent, and a main piece of this foundation is having the vocabulary to identify emotions.
If a child can say, “I’m angry! I’m frustrated!” she can begin to process how to respond, and ask for help. She can also begin to identify feelings in others, a key step towards developing empathy.
What books are in your kids’ library at home that are helping you help your kids become the kind, empathetic humans they were created to be?
I truly believe in the power of fiction. We were taught from an early age to “walk in her shoes;” and fiction provides a path. Whether it’s Harry Potter, Charlotte the spider, or Gerald the Elephant, a good fiction book takes you out of your life and places you in someone else’s, fantastical or relatable. Brain development and an increased sense of empathy come from reading a good fiction book.
I also want to mention, fiction should be fun; if you’re currently reading a book that is not fun, you need to find something new! A good fiction book doesn’t require obedience; if you’re putting off reading, then you just need a different book. If you want to be a better reader, then find books that are fun. Boring reading is not sustainable.
So the same applies to our children! Books we offer should be fun, enjoyable, something they choose again and again. We have a list of kid books that we love; both fun and powerfully empathetic.
How do you begin the process of curating a meaningful children’s library at home?
It is rare that I will buy a book without reading it first. I’m a big believer in the marriage of the library and the bookstore. I go to the library once or twice a week, picking up books I’ve researched and put on hold. Through the library, I vet almost all the books that I end up buying. Most books on our bookshelves have been carefully chosen and purposely purchased, knowing the books will be read again and again.
The process of curating a library at home can be so much more than buying books; it is (surprisingly) very relational. Model good “book behavior” by asking your own friends and other kids in your life what they are reading. Do book swaps with friends. Buy books as rewards! Go to used book stores and give your children cash, telling them to get whatever they want with their $10. Get to know your librarians, and ask them for help choosing a new book. I recently overheard my son ask our librarian, “do you have any books on hatchets and knives?” Needless to say, our librarians know us well at this point.
What are some of your favorite resources for parents who want to help their children get comfortable with their emotions?
We still love Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Compared to today’s shows, it is slow (but in my opinion thoughtful, careful, profound.) I find his shows to still be so relevant and powerful today.
Between books, shows, podcasts, Instagram and Pinterest, we have so many resources at our fingertips to help us cultivate a healthy social emotional environment in our homes. But of course, it begins with us. We as parents have to be comfortable talking about our emotions and “speaking” the language of emotions. It takes practice and can feel uncomfortable at first, but asking “how does that make you feel?” “how would you react if that happened to you?” is the best way to make strong emotions normal.
What is your hope for Finding Feelings as it makes its way into the world and into the hands of parents, kids and teachers?
I hope kids think Finding Feelings is fun. Obviously, I wrote this book to teach, but my ultimate goal is to entertain.
Our schools have been embracing social emotional learning for a while now. Counselors and teachers are working to teach children about relating to others, emotion naming, and stress management, to name a few. For parents and educators who want to use Finding Feelings to dive deeper, I provided a list of follow-up questions in the back of the book to help guide conversation with their kids about emotions. I hope my book can slide into their bookshelves as another helpful and fun resource.
Curating your own compassionate children’s library? Here are some ideas to get you started…
Books to cultivate emotional intelligence & empathy:
- Finding Feelings by Jennifer Gafford
- The Word Collector by Peter H. Reynolds
- Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Steward
- A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Erin Stead and Philip Stead
- The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas and Erin Stead
- My Friend is Sad by Mo Willems (A Gerald and Piggie Book)
- Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury
Books to promote diversity & broaden their perspective:
- ColorFull, GraceFull & ThoughtFull all by Ms. Dorena Williamson
- The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
- Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty
- Sofia Valde, Future Prez by Andrea Beaty
- The Airport Book by Lisa Brown
- Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall
- This is How We Do It by Matt Lamothe
- Anno’s Spain by Mitsumasa Anno
- Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhhà Lai (YA)
Books to encourage kindness & compassion:
- God’s Dream by Archbishop Desmond Tutu
- Last Stop on Market Street
- Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
- Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller
- I Walk With Vanessa: A Story About a Simple Act of Kindness by Kerascoët
Books to foster hope and self-confidence:
- Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman
- The Wonderful Things You Will Be by Emily Winfield Martin
- The Crown on Your Head by Nancy Tillman
- When God Made You by Matthew Paul Turner
- I Like Myself! by Karen Beaumont
- The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
- Journey, Quest and Return all by Aaron Becker
- The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen
Books that celebrate the good and beautiful in our world:
- The World is Awake by Linsey Davis
- All Around Me: A First Book of Childhood by Shirley Hughes
- Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey
- Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
- A Wrinkle In Time by Madeline L’Engle
- Imagine a City by Elise Hurst
- Because of an Acorn by Adam Schaefer and Lola M. Schaefer
- Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner
Books for grown-ups:
- Parenting from the Inside Out, No Drama Discipline and The Whole Brained Child all by Dr. Dan Siegel
- Elevating Childcare and No Bad Kids both by Janet Lansbury
- The Read-Aloud Family by Sarah Mackenzie
- The Artist’s Way for Parents by Julia Cameron
- The 6 Needs of Every Child by Amy Elizabeth Olrick and Jeffrey Olrick