By Kathleen McCarthy
Be Inkandescent magazine
My husband says there are only two kinds of people in the world — those who take the last cookie on the plate, and those who don’t. We both agree we want our daughters to be in the latter cohort.
But what do you do if your child is a cookie-grabber? Or worse, a child who not only doesn’t notice what his or her fair share is, but who delights in taunting, humiliating, or bullying others?
Physician-turned-author Dr. Staci J. Schwartz takes the “bully” goat by the horns in, “Billy the Baaadly Behaving Bully Goat,” which is written in rhyming verse for children in Kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Most books about bullying portray the challenges faced by the children being bullied and the parents of the bullied children. Schwartz’ book portrays the bully, and the efforts his parents make to try to motivate him to change his behavior.
Schwartz believes that on a very basic level, “young children need to be taught how to interact—to be inclusive, to tolerate differences among their friends, to say when they are uncomfortable or hurt, to accept constructive criticism instead of seeing it as rejection, and to know to whom they can go for help and guidance.”
Scroll down for our Q&A.
Be Inkandescent: First, tell us about your medical career. What kind of physician are you, and do you still practice medicine?
Dr. Staci Schwartz: After I completed a one-year internship in Internal Medicine, I spent three years in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and then a one-year fellowship in Geriatric Rehabilitation. I mostly took care of patients over the age of 75 who had had strokes, total joint replacements, and cardiopulmonary diseases. I stopped practicing medicine soon after my daughter was born prematurely about 16 years ago. I became completely addicted to motherhood, fascinated by watching her grow and develop into the amazing human being she has become.
Be Inkandescent: How did you get into writing children’s books?
Dr. Staci Schwartz: I began writing alternate endings to well-known fairy tales when I was in junior high. In high school, I wrote and illustrated my first original story for an art project. I shared these wacky fairy tales and original stories with my family and friends throughout college and medical school. Even though I didn’t have time to write many new stories, I always kept a small notebook handy so I could jot down ideas for future stories.
When my husband and I decided that I would stay home to raise our daughter, the floodgates opened, and that list of story ideas in my little notebook grew exponentially as I thought of all of the things I wanted to teach our daughter in a fun, creative, and non-preachy manner. I wrote about washing her ticklish feet, about what our house could look like if we didn’t clean up after eating and playing, and about silly misunderstandings of words that occurred as she was learning to speak.
On a more serious note, I wanted to teach her about friendship, tolerance, and not judging others impulsively—and about kindness and respect, and standing up for herself and for what she believes is important. Children’s books provide a wonderful way to impart these “life lessons” to young children as part of early childhood character education. Engaging characters in books can serve as wonderful models of behavior!
Be Inkandescent: Tell us about your daughter. How old is she now, and did she give you input for either book?
Dr. Staci Schwartz: My daughter is now 16, and she has inspired all seven of the stories I have written (the first two have been published so far). Not only is she my muse, she has also always offered amazing feedback about my characters and story lines. She has also provided valuable input into the vocabulary that I choose to use to stimulate a child to look up, or ask his or her parent to explain, certain words in the story. She loves to accompany me when I perform my interactive readings at schools whenever she can.
Be Inkandescent: Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the topic of your current book, “Billy and the Baaadly Behaving Bully Goat.” Why did you choose bullying and tolerance (“The New Bear on the Block”) as the topics of your first books for kids?
Dr. Staci Schwartz: When I became a parent, kindness, acceptance, and respect are traits I wanted to be ingrained in my child’s character from a very young age. I don’t think these traits are necessarily innate—like other behaviors and perspectives, I think they need to be taught.
Also, I think teachers used to spend more time teaching character education and social graces in the classroom, so even if kids were not exposed to that kind of information at home, they learned about it in school. City and state academic requirements, and the overall pace of most curricula today, have left little time for primary grade teachers to spend on character education. I truly believe that this trend is partly to blame for the increased incidence of bullying and intolerance that we are seeing in today’s society—at all ages.
Character education should be part of every primary grade curriculum if we want to raise kind, respectful, inclusive, tolerant children. These lessons can be introduced through stories and picture books about these topics that are part of the regular reading curriculum. Reading “The New Bear on the Block” and “Billy the Baaadly Behaving Bully Goat” to children is a great way to stimulate discussions about these important topics.
For each book, I have also worked with educators to create accompanying Teacher & Student Activity Guides that are filled with fun activities, discussion topics, and puzzles that can be completed before, during, and after reading these books in both the classroom and and at home.
Be Inkandescent: How does your writing process work?
Dr. Staci Schwartz: I start with defining the topic of my story—whether it is an important moral or “life lesson” I wish to share with kids, or whether it is a funny circumstance about which I think children might enjoy reading. Some ideas are from the notebook I mentioned previously, and some are prompted by daily adventures. I then frame the events of the story in prose.
Converting the prose to rhyming verse takes the most time because I am very careful to respect cadence and rhythm. I also try to choose words that truly rhyme—as opposed to words that approximately rhyme. I write mostly late at night and in the early morning hours. I revise extensively—even months later.
Finally, after the text is finished, I draw the pictures that I think best reflect the action I am trying to convey. It’s a laborious process because I draw each illustration five times–first in pencil, then in watercolor pencil, then with a paintbrush to convert the pencil to watercolor, then in colored markers, and then I outline everything in black marker. I often try to include subtle humorous elements in my illustrations that I hope will make parents smile when they read to their children.
Be Inkandescent: Your book is actually as much about empathy as it is about bullying. The book shows it’s important for the bully to realize how bad other kids feel when he’s mean to them, and it’s important for the bully to feel how good it feels to be kind to others.
Dr. Staci Schwartz: My goal was to write a book about bullying where the solution to the issue did not involve “bullying the bully.” Although this revenge concept may be appealing to victims, in reality, I think it sends the wrong message to kids and only escalates bullying behavior.
Throughout my training in Rehabilitation Medicine, I learned a great deal about the psychology of disability and what people go through when they feel different or left out. So, in my book, I wanted the character who was acting like a bully to feel the effects of his own words and actions. Conversely, I wanted that bullying character to experience what it feels like to be treated nicely. If we want to really make a positive impact on bullying behavior, we must focus on the victim, the bystander, and the bully.
Ideally, students, parents, teachers, principals, and counselors should all be involved in decreasing bullying behavior and teaching children to be inclusive, to tolerate and respect differences among their friends, to speak up when they are uncomfortable or hurt, to accept constructive criticism instead of seeing it as rejection, and to seek out trusted adults when they need help. Sometimes, it is also necessary to involve psychologists or psychiatrist outside of the school to help both children who act like bullies and children who are frequently victimized, which is why the Wise Old Goat is such an important character in my story. This character serves to remind students and parents that mental health care professionals are also part of the spectrum of available help.
Finally, although I chose to use “magic dust” as a vehicle to allow Billy to see the effects of his bullying, it was very important to me not to make magic dust the ultimate cure for the problem. The positive changes in Billy’s behavior were the result of his own informed choices. I believe that if we teach children to be kind, empathetic, and respectful, and to stand up for one another from very young ages, and we educate them about the potential consequences of negative or exclusive behavior, most children will choose to behave nicely toward others.
Be Inkandescent: Bullying is a popular theme for programs in elementary and middle school. What makes this such a hard issue for kids and families to resolve on their own?
Dr. Staci Schwartz: Yes, bullying is a common issue for people of all ages today (from the pre-K classroom to the Fortune 500 Company Board room!). Bullying affects people in all socioeconomic, cultural, racial, and intellectual groups.
I think it’s a difficult issue for kids to deal with because they may be afraid to report that they are being bullied; they may be embarrassed, they may fear the bullying will become more severe if incidents are reported, they may not know whom to go to for help, they may be afraid to be labeled as a tattletale or snitch, or they may believe adults will minimize their fears or not respond appropriately. They may also feel isolated and unpopular, or they may have been told by a parent or trusted grown-up that, “Bullying is part of being a kid—you just need to tough it out.”
Also, with all of our technological advancements, targeted kids can be bullied 24/7! Kids used to worry about being bullied on the way to school, on the playground, or at the bus stop, but now they must worry that they will be bullied on the Internet, on Facebook, and on other forms of social media. Some studies have shown that in our country, on any given day, as many as 160,000 children stay out of school because they are afraid of being bullied.
Bullying is difficult for parents to deal with because they are often unaware that their children behave as victims, bullies, or bystanders in school. Likewise, parents with limited knowledge of social media may not be aware of cyberbullying. When children do tell their parents that they are being bullied, parents may minimize the problem, suggest ineffective solutions, or have no idea what to do to help.
Education is key. The best outcomes occur in schools that take the time to develop anti-bullying policies that are shared with all students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Bullying behavior should be defined clearly, and positive disciplinary measures instituted to discourage the behavior. If possible, reasonable consequences for bullying behavior should be consistent at home and at school.
Interestingly, anti-bullying efforts are most successful when the students develop their own classroom anti-bullying policies and are taught to stand up for each other and speak out, as a group, against bullying behaviors they witness. This type of teamwork and self-regulation can be very empowering. Children should be taught to be “upstanders” instead of bystanders and to avoid labeling children as bullies (teach them to say that someone was acting like a bully as opposed to calling another child a bully).
Be Inkandescent: What advice do you have for parents who are worried that their child is too aggressive or takes advantage of other kids?
Dr. Staci Schwartz: Here are three things parents who are concerned that their child is too aggressive can do.
- Take the time to gather information. Talk to your child and ask him or her about their interactions with other children. Observe your child in social situations. Talk to your child’s teachers and ask for candid information about your child’s social behavior in the classroom.
When appropriate, speak with school guidance counselors, pediatricians, or mental health professionals about what you can do to understand and lessen their child’s aggressive behavior. Pay attention to how your children deal with others. Do they have money, and you don’t know where they got it? Are they aggressive with their brothers and sisters? Do they blame others for their own bad behavior?
- *Read about bullying and see if they recognize some of the described behaviors in their child. There are many fabulous authors and resources out there. I can recommend Allan L. Beane, PhD, and Lawrence E. Shapiro, PhD, and there are certainly many wonderful books about assessing and teaching social skills to children.
- Remember that kids are capable of change with positive and consistent direction. Sometimes aggressive behavior can be channeled into leadership capabilities. Children are sponges and absorb knowledge and social skills from those around them. Make sure that your child’s environments are positive and supportive.
Be Inkandescent: Now for the big question that many wannbe children’s book authors have—How did you find a publisher, and how hard has it been to break into the children’s book business?
Dr. Staci Schwartz: It has been incredibly difficult to break into the publishing business. It seems impossible to find a well-known publisher without an agent, but impossible to find an agent unless one has already been published. Because I wanted to integrate my stories into primary grade reading curricula, as well as the usual book market, I shared “The New Bear on the Block” and “Billy the Baaadly Behaving Bully Goat” (and one other story that is not yet published) with Director of the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education Dr. Paul Winkler.
Dr. Winkler was specifically looking for books to use in pre-K through 4th grade classrooms that would highlight the foundations of tolerance education before education on the Holocaust and other genocides begins in the 5th grade. Because my books weren’t yet published, he referred me to Rob Huberman, a small publisher in Margate, NJ, who publishes memoirs of Holocaust survivors.
My books were two of the first children’s books that Rob had ever published, so he and I collaborated closely on layout and design. We have a relationship that is somewhere between the self-publishing and traditional standard, because he is also involved with some of my marketing, and he is an approved vendor for the NJ public schools and other institutions who want to purchase my books in large quantities.
Be Inkandescent: What book projects are you working on now?
Dr. Staci Schwartz: Currently, I am working on illustrating my third book, “Webster the Spider,” a tale of a little spider (Webster) who, after initial attempts at concealment, is forced to reveal his amicable feelings toward flies, rather than considering them as a mere source of nourishment. His fellow spiders do not take the news well. Meanwhile, the flies are hurt when they learn that Webster is ashamed to be their friend. Now, poor Webster must make a choice. Will he succumb to the menacing tactics of spider peer pressure? Or will he preserve his right to have a difference of opinion, celebrate true friendship, and stand up for his beliefs?
Additionally, I am constantly searching for new ways to get my books into the primary grade reading curricula of school districts across the country. I continue to perform interactive readings and anti-bullying workshops in local schools, religious institutions, and libraries. I have also been invited to speak to children in martial arts programs and to children in mentored reading programs in Philadelphia.
I am also working closely with one of the museums in Philadelphia that features exhibits about tolerance and friendship to add the story of “Billy the Baaadly Behaving Bully Goat” to their programming for students in Kindergarten through 4th grade. Additionally, I am finalizing an accompanying Teacher & Student Activity Guide that can be used by parents or teachers to provide fun and exciting activities and discussion topics to enhance lessons about tolerance at home and in the classroom. Finally, I am working with other professional consultants to develop a series of educator workshops for teaching tolerance and anti-bullying strategies in the classroom. It’s a lot of fun!
Dr. Staci Schwartz, is a retired physician who spent years practicing general and Geriatric Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. She specialized in caring for patients with strokes, joint replacements and fractures, as well as cardiopulmonary diseases. She stopped practicing medicine to write and illustrate children’s books.
She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter, and regularly performs interactive readings and anti-bullying workshops throughout the tri-state area at schools, religious institutions, libraries, and book fairs.