Author Spotlight: Janet Ruth Heller

As you may know, I’ve been working on a MG fantasy novel about bullying.  It’s always nice to find authors who share a similar interest.  I came across a wonderful author, Janet Ruth Heller, who wrote a picture book about bullying.  Her book, How the Moon Regained Her Shape, offers some great advice on overcoming bullying.  I had the honor of interviewing her.  Please visit her website for more information.

AK: What inspired you to become a writer?

JRH: I’m the oldest of five children, and my mother read me many good poems and stories while I was growing up.  I began writing stories for my younger siblings when I was about eight years old.  I was also fortunate to have a first grade teacher, Mrs. Mesias, who encouraged us students to write poems.  She liked a poem that I wrote about flying a kite with my father, so she dittoed it for the whole class.  I guess that was my first publication.  When I was 14, I read about the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in Russell Freedman’s book entitled Teenagers Who Made HistoryMillay’s biography inspired me to dream about becoming a serious writer.  High school teachers like Barbara Gensler brought literature to life and nurtured my creative writing.

AK: You mention several favorite authors on your website, one of which is Jerry Spinelli.  He broached the topic of bullying in several of his novels.  Which one of his books did you like best and why?  Do you have any other favorite children’s authors?

JRH: I have read Spinelli’s novels Crash and Wringer.  I like both books because Spinelli encourages readers to question our society’s stereotypes about how boys and men should behave.  He portrays young men who begin by accepting the stereotype that men should act tough, should confront and bully other people, should always compete with the men around them, should abuse women, and should not care about other people’s feelings.  Gradually, Spinelli’s main characters learn to get in touch with their more sensitive and caring side.  Their realization that men are much more complex than the stereotype is a very profound concept that will help readers to also challenge these stereotypes.

I also love the novels by Judy Blume.  She helps young people to understand that many youths share the same problems.  I also like A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson and the poems for children by Karla Kuskin and John Ciardi.  All three writers stimulate children’s imagination.

AK: Your picture book has a lyrical quality to it.  How has poetry influenced your writing?

JRH: I have written hundreds of poems and published two books of poetry, Traffic Stop (Finishing Line Press, 2011) and Folk Concert: Changing Times (Anaphora Literary Press, 2012).  My work as a poet has helped make my books more concise and more focused on images.  I use specific details to communicate with readers, rather than hitting readers on their heads with obvious lessons.  My book about bullying for children, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Sylvan Dell, hardback 2006; paperback 2007; e-book, audio book, and Spanish edition 2008; third paperback edition and iPad app 2012), is written in prose poetry, which combines the prose format and poetic devices like meter and repetition of sounds.

AK: In school, poetry is considered to be a critical unit of study, but yet many teachers aren’t sure the best way to approach it with their students.  Do you have any thoughts on how to make poetry accessible to young people, especially in this day and age?

JRH: It helps to point out to students that poetry is all around us.  For example, the nursery rhymes that we learned as children are all poems, and the popular songs that we hear are all poems.  I often ask students to bring in the lyrics of their favorite songs.  Also, many people do not realize that poems have different goals:  poems can tell a story, can describe a scene lyrically, can convey ideas and meditations, can portray characters talking with one another, etc.

Students often react better to modern poems than to poems from 1600 or 1740.  Contemporary poems may be easier for young people to understand because the English language has changed over time and because people living in 2012 face a different landscape than people living in 1600.  It is also important to include poems by writers who are ethnically diverse.  I often teach the work of modern writers like Marge Piercy, Maxine Kumin, Jim Daniels, Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, Alberto Ríos, John Updike, Elinor Wylie, John Frederick Nims, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Mong-Lan, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Kenneth Koch.

AK: Your picture book is all about the moon’s journey, as one being bullied.  She learns to regain confidence in herself through supportive influences, which I think is a great takeaway message about replacing negative messages with positive ones.  There is no mention of the bully, in this case the sun, at the end of the story.  After her journey, what do you think the moon would say to the sun if confronted once again?

JRH: Bullies like the sun often tell people lies or distorted views of reality.  At the beginning of my book How the Moon Regained Her Shape, the moon believes the sun’s insults that the moon is “ugly” and that “no one needs you.”  However, the moon learns that the people and animals on earth do consider her very important and very beautiful.  Also the people and animals do need the moon to help them to see their world at night and to inspire them.  One of the messages of my book is that we should not believe what bullies say or let insults affect our self-esteem.

If the moon encountered the sun again, I hope that the moon would say to the sun, “I’m not interested in hearing your insults.  I’m going to play with my friends.”   There are other methods to discourage bullies.  My friend Jori Reijonen, who is a psychologist, teaches children to respond to name-calling by calmly stating, “Thank you very much.  I didn’t know that.”  This unexpected reaction gives bullies no positive reinforcement for their abuse.

I have written a sequel to How the Moon Regained Her Shape which focuses on the sun.  I’m looking for a publisher for this picture book manuscript.

AK: You’ve given talks to school children about bullying.  What is your advice to them?  Do you offer any resources for children who have been bullied?

JRH: I have done a lot of research about bullying, and this knowledge shapes my advice to children and adults.

  • Bullying thrives in secrecy, so I advise children to tell friends, teachers, parents, neighbors, and other relevant adults about repeated bullying.  It is not tattling to tell an adult that a bully or a gang is planning to attack someone.  If one adult will not listen, children need to keep telling adults until someone assists them.
  • Also, I emphasize that no matter how big, strong, or popular someone is, he or she does not have the right to hurt our bodies or our feelings.  All kids need and deserve respect.
  • I urge children to intervene when they see bullying occur because other kids may need them to stand up against a bully.  Children may find a way to prevent bullies from hurting anyone, and a group of children may be able to stop harassment.
  • I believe that bullied children can use basic training in self-defense.  There are many classes for young people in karate, judo, and other martial arts.  Such training can give children self-confidence and teach them how to block blows and frustrate attackers.

Reading and discussing How the Moon Regained Her Shape can help families and classes to open up the topic, discuss the negative impact of bullying, and to explore ways to recover from abuse.  I have a bibliography of 100 books and videos that schools and other organizations can use to discuss bullying with children of different ages.  I also have written various essays to help families, schools, teams, and other groups to deal with bullies.  I suggest that schools establish and publicize a strong anti-bullying policy to keep kids safe.  Many schools also have a “Bully Box” to allow students to report harassment without signing their names.

I often speak at conferences of teachers and librarians, and I visit schools to advise the students, staff, and faculty about how to handle bullying.

AK: There is an obvious need to help kids overcome bullies.  Do you have any ideas of how society can help the bullies change their behavior?  How do you think society can reduce the number of bullies?

JRH: The United States has a multicultural society.  We need to teach children and adults to value diversity and differences, not to be frightened by or angry about ways that other people are not like us.  At school, teachers should encourage children from different racial and ethnic groups to work together on projects.  Also, teachers and other adults need to consistently discourage all forms of bullying.

We need to teach children and adults not to bully others by pointing out that everyone’s body is different and that we all have different strengths and weaknesses.  We can also disagree with one another without resorting to name-calling or fights.  Our society needs to discuss questions like the following.

  • Is anyone’s body perfect?
  • Do we have a right to make remarks that may hurt other people’s feelings?
  • How can we have friendly arguments?
  • What is appropriate information to e-mail or post on a website?

Many bullies need counseling to help them learn anger management and other social skills.  I would like our society to provide more money to help both bullies and their traumatized targets to get assistance from psychologists and social workers.  Without this intervention, some bullies will develop into criminals, and some targets of bullies will suffer from low self-esteem and post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of their lives.

AK: You mention having been bullied as a child.  How did you deal with it back then?  How would you deal with it now?  How did your own experiences influence the writing of this book?

JRH: I was bullied when I was a new student in afternoon kindergarten.  Recess was an especially traumatic period because the other children refused to play with me, one boy pushed me down, and one girl insulted me every day by shouting, “You’re so skinny that I can see right through you!”  After school, one boy would throw stones at me as I walked home.  Slowly, the physical bullying subsided because I defended myself.  But the name-calling continued for four years of elementary school.  I was a shy girl, and I had no idea what to do about the insults.  I did not tell anyone except my mother, and she responded, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”  Even at age five, I found this proverb useless:  I was deeply hurt on the inside, and my mother’s response showed me that adults did not care about my suffering.  The name-calling and other forms of bullying lowered my self-esteem and caused me to distrust my peers.

Fortunately, my family outgrew its small house and moved to a larger home after my brother Paul was born.  Then I was in a different school district.  The teachers at my new school intervened if they saw bullying, and they encouraged my classmates to include me in all activities.  I was much happier, and I made many new friends.

If I faced the name-calling situation now, I would tell my bully, “You say the same thing every day.  It’s very boring.  Do you have anything new to say?”  Then I would walk away from her.  If she persisted in bullying me, I would tell my friends, the teacher, my parents, and the recess supervisor.  If they did not help me, I would tell the principal.

I wrote How the Moon Regained Her Shape to help other children so that they would not have to suffer for years as I had.  My book shows children that if they tell friends and adults about their problem with bullying, these people will assist them.  How the Moon Regained Her Shape also shows children that they do not have to believe the insults of bullies.  Because the moon recovers from her traumatic experience, readers of my book learn that they can also regain their happiness and self-esteem after bullying.

AK: You have an obvious interest in Native American mythology.  What are a few of your favorite myths?

JRH: The Navajos have legends about Ever-Changing Woman, who represents the earth and nature.  According to the Navajos, Ever-Changing Woman created human beings and consistently helps them.  The sun and the moon are important in many Zuni legends.  Specific Navajo legends that I enjoy include Small Duck’s role in the creation of mountains and wily Coyote’s role in bringing fire to people.  In general, I like the simple narrative style of Native American legends and the colorful characters.  I also admire the culture’s view that the spheres of humans and animals are not separate but rather interpenetrated.

AK: Writers are often encouraged to seek emotional truth in their writing.  Would you tend to agree?  What do you think is the best way to accomplish that?

JRH: I believe that we write best when we tackle a subject that we have strong feelings about.  For example, my difficult experience with bullying left me hurt and angry, and I used these powerful emotions to create How the Moon Regained Her Shape.  The moon’s suffering mirrors my own childhood.  But the story rewrites the resolution of my own bullying episodes.

I encourage my students and other writers to keep journals.  Often, I write in my journal when I’m very happy or very upset about some aspect of my life.  Putting my ideas down on paper helps me to feel more in control and to understand my experiences better.  Later, I may rework these sentences into poems, essays, stories, or dramas.

I also struggle toward self-knowledge.  We sometimes delude ourselves that we are helping other people when, in fact, we are acting selfishly.  The more a writer can see through his or her illusions, the better he or she can convey the emotional truth of the human experience.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Anne Stockard
    Nov 21, 2012 @ 15:20:08

    Angie, I really enjoyed this interview. I was thrilled to see she likes A Child’s Garden of Verses. It was my favorite book as a child and I still have it.

    Reply

  2. Sarah
    Nov 27, 2012 @ 18:03:41

    Great interview, Angie. You asked some excellent questions and, I really enjoyed her response to how she would handle bullying.

    Reply

  3. Janet Ruth Heller
    Nov 28, 2012 @ 05:45:07

    Dear Angie,

    Thank you very much for posting this interview. I appreciate your time and effort. Best wishes for the holiday season!

    Janet Heller

    Reply

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