The Family Development Early Intervention team is always on the look-out for quality children’s books that help address some of the unique needs of military children.
The following is an interview with Susan Kerner, author of Always By My Side and Mama’s Right Here. Her own experience with loss and raising a child whose father has died inspired her to write these warm, sensitive, and touching books. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What, if any, experiences do you and/or your book’s illustrator have with the military?
I have little direct contact with the military but have a cousin whose husband has served and continues to deploy on many tours in the Middle East as a Marine (though his children are high school and college age now). I have participated as a speaker with the Army SOS (Survivor Outreach Services) and have shared my books with their national and international responders. I have also been a resource for TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Programs for Survivors) families as well as for the American Widow Project.
What made you decide to write this book? Was there some incident or experience with the military that inspired you?
I lost my husband due to illness when I was pregnant with our first and only child and quickly became aware of the dearth of resources and positive, non clinical, non religious books for children missing a parent. I didn’t want a book about death – I wanted my child to see herself in a book where one parent wasn’t present. I also wanted to provide her with ideas and ways in which she could feel close to her father who wasn’t physically present because we celebrate and feel close to him always – in varied ways, despite the fact that he cannot be physically with us. I wanted her to be aware of ways she is like him and can feel connected to him. AND I wanted to arm her with an explanation for when other kids asked where her dad was – I didn’t want her to feel taunted or self-conscious saying he was dead or not with us – I wanted her to feel strong and empowered with words such as, “My daddy is in me and everywhere, he’s just here in a different way!”. And it’s proven to be SOOO helpful for her. There were so many books about non-traditional families, adoption, same-sex parents, and books about the death of pets or grandparents but none that represented children who might only have one parent at home for whatever reason.
When I began my blog (www.thesusie.blogspot.com), I started connecting with other widowed parents. I received a lot of responses about my first book from military employees and families. I felt compelled to write a second book addressing families in which the mother was not present. In the civilian world families can suffer the death of a parent and there are many parents who are absent due to business demands. In dual military families, both parents could be deployed at the same time. My cousin has been a helpful advocate in getting the word out about my books. I have been so impressed by the supports available to military families. Sadly, in the civilian world, such a close-knit network isn’t shared.
What message(s) do you hope that children and families receive as a result of reading your book?
I hope readers feel that there are genuine, beautiful, unique and celebratory ways that children can channel a feeling of connection – when missing a parent. Absence whether due to a sleepover, divorce, deployment or loss does not have to mean disconnect, abandonment nor an “out of sight out of mind” response. We can celebrate, honor, cherish and feel linked to those we miss or have lost, and children can feel confident about still having a parent, whether or not they are around.
Have you received any feedback from military families after they read your book, and if so, what have they said?
Military families have stated that it has been very useful in comforting children who have deployed parents and miss them – and that it has been a supportive and helpful tool for children when they’ve lost a parent. Many children bring the book to school on sharing days and on special days – and it has proven to be a helpful tool for teachers and caregivers and a lovely way for kids to share their family’s story with peers and other families without the weight or ominous nature typically associated with absence or death.
Are there any other books for military children that you would suggest for young children?
I feel strongly that inclusion and shared experiences – military or civilian – is crucial in bringing together as much support as possible. So I encourage families when looking up my book on Amazon, or in libraries, to see which other books are recommended by buyers or that are placed in similar categories. One good book often leads to others.
To learn more check out this 2013 interview with Susan Kerner from The Blaze.
This post was edited by Robyn DiPietro-Wells & Michaelene Ostrosky, PhD, members of the MFLN FD Early Intervention team, which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network FD concentration on our website, on Facebook, onTwitter, and YouTube.