“The Memory Book: A Grief Journal for Children and Families” is a book by kindergarten teacher Joanna Rowland and illustrated by Thea Baker that has helped thousands of children and families work through the complex emotions that arise after the loss of a loved one. The book has been used and recommended by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Every Step Grief & Loss Services’ Amanda the Panda program, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, counselors, and more.
The book is a beautiful grief journal to help readers put healing methods into practice by remembering their lost loved one and creating their own memory album full of photos and keepsakes of the person they lost. With gentle prompts and ideas for journaling, drawing, and talking through grief, this journal will bring comfort in the midst of loss and be a keepsake for families for years to come.
Author and teacher Joanna Rowland grew up in Sacramento, California, where she still lives today with her husband and three children. She teaches kindergarten by day and writes picture books at night. In the summer, you’ll find her at the pool coaching synchronized swimming or cozying up with a book.
She recently discussed her experiences writing this series and more.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for writing and why do you gravitate towards children’s books?
Joanna Rowland (JR): Back in 2008 my school district brought Writing Workshop as Professional Development for teachers. I fell in love with the way they modeled using picture books to use as mentor texts to teach students about writing. I kept thinking I would probably have loved and understood writing more as a small kid if this method was used. Around that time the years of teacher layoffs began and writing became such a therapeutic outlet for me during that time. It was during this year that the dream to write books for children sprouted. I think it was natural for me to want to write for children because I teach young children and we read picture books every day. I love how books have the power to help children through tough times.
MM: What inspired you to write this series about coping with loss and are any events in the story based on real life?
JR: I didn’t know I was going to write about grief until a family member who inspired my first book about divorce Always Mom, Forever Dad, had her father pass away unexpectedly a month before its publication. I knew she wouldn’t need my divorce book anymore. She needed another type of book. I researched books on grief to see if there was a good one to send her, but nothing seemed to be the right fit so that’s when I decided to write about grief in 2014. Around that same time one of the girls I used to coach for Synchronized Swimming was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away 6 months later. That loss was devasting. She swam with my niece and older daughters. After she passed away, I knew the grief book I had been working on needed to be able to connect to all types of loss. I thought about people that left us to soon like my family member’s father, my childhood friend, and the swimmer Marisa I had coached. The illustrator Thea Baker included some illustrations that meant something to each of those families and she included the synchronized swimming float as the sport for me. My words couldn’t be too specific to allow this grief book to relate to all, so her special touches filling in those gaps touched my heart.
MM: What’s your favorite segment of the story book?
JR: This is a tough question. The art throughout the book is beautiful. I like the spread “Today I’m asking everyone about their favorite memories of you. Silly. Sweet. Some, just so you. I’m listening to every word, imagining you laughing with us.” I like this spread because I think it’s important to be able to share our memories with others. Our loved ones will not be forgotten. In terms of illustrations I love them all but I especially love how when the child begins to make new memories, the colors become brighter. The golden leaves around the Eifel Tower are stunning.
MM: When you were writing the journal, how did you decide what questions and content to include as prompts?
JR: To make the journal a nice companion for the book I first started with lines from the books to lead some prompts like “I want to go everywhere we’ve been, everywhere you’ve been, everywhere we wanted to go.” Some of the lines from the book led into prompts very nicely to talk about places you or your loved one have been too. The book also discusses feelings, so it was important to have a section on that in the journal. But the journal gave me more freedom. Picture books are limited normally to 32 pages so you can’t cover everything. The journal could be longer so, I was able to explore more things that my book wasn’t long enough to cover like senses, seasons, celebrations, and traditions we shared with our loved one no longer with us just to name a few. Thinking about memories of those no longer here helped me figure out which prompts to add.
MM: How did you find the publisher and how have they been pitching this book?
JR: I found this publisher by chance. I had been submitting this book and earlier versions of it since 2014 to every agent and publisher that accepted unsolicited manuscript. And nothing had worked out. I feel like it was divine intervention. After two years of trying, I didn’t think there was anywhere to submit to. Then one day a friend posted about this publisher I had never heard of on twitter. I submitted to them and then I got an offer on The Memory Box book in 2016. It was a dream come true and Beaming Books has been a dream to work with.
They have done a nice job pitching this book. It’s found a home in the hospital market, counselor market, and with families. I think they say it best on their website so I’ll copy that here:
I will always remember you . . .
Joanna Rowland’s best-selling “The Memory Box: A Book about Grief” has helped thousands of children and families work through the complex emotions that arise after the loss of a loved one. Now, with “The Memory Book,” Rowland has created a beautiful grief journal to help readers put her methods into practice.
The Memory Book helps grieving families process their emotions together by remembering their lost loved one and creating their own memory album full of photos and keepsakes of the person they lost. With gentle prompts and ideas for journaling, drawing, and talking through grief, this journal will bring comfort in the midst of loss and be a keepsake for families for years to come.
MM: How did you find the illustrator and whose idea was it to include so many adorable animals?
JR: The nice part about signing a book contract is that the publisher signed it with the text only. Then my editor found the perfect illustrator. What’s truly special about Thea Baker, the illustrator, was that her dissertation was on the subject of grief in children’s books. It’s like she was meant to always illustrate this book. Thea Baker gets all the credit here for those adorable animals! She did put in a specific animal a yellow-billed magpie in memory of my friend Scott which his family was so touched by.
MM: What were the challenges of finding a way to discuss death, loss, and grief with kids in a way that wasn’t depressing or scary?
JR: Good question. We all will experience loss in our lifetime. It’s part of the natural life cycle and I think it’s important to be able to talk about it. For me I think it came down to finding a loss most children could relate to like losing a balloon and being sad about it as my way to open up the conversation of loss. Then I tried to show the character be honest about her feelings of sadness over an unnamed loved one that had passed away. I think it also helped to think about what fears a child might have when someone dies. One fear kids have is that they might forget their loved one. Thinking about that fear helped me find that using a memory box in the story was a way to show you will remember them. And when I write about tough subjects for children, I always aim to do it in a hopeful way.
MM: How do you think parents can help children cope with serious issues like illness or loss?
JR: I think there are lots of great resources out there such as support groups and counseling and if you are religious even looking toward what your faith says can be helpful. I think conversations with your child can help. Letting them know that you also are sad and that it’s okay to feel that way can be helpful. And maybe doing a special activity such as making a memory box with your child or journaling about your feelings can be helpful.
MM: What do you hope readers take away from the books?
JR: I hope for readers it helps bring up special memories they shared with their loved and maybe can even be a starting point to have a conversation about their loved one no longer there with their child.
MM: What other topics and themes might you like to address in future books?
JR: I just received a book offer for a picture book that focuses on trauma and PTSD. My grandfather suffered from what was called Shell Shock at the time after World War 2. And learning that about my family history caused me to explore more about PTSD with a professional. I chose to use animals in this story as a softer way to approach this difficult subject. Hopefully, you’ll hear more soon on this book.
MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else you would like to mention?
JR: In September of 2020, my next heart book called “When Things Are Hard, Remember” comes out. This is probably my most lyrical writing so far. It explores what happens to a child and a seed when it’s time to move away. It’s about hope that things will get better even during your hardest time!
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