No parent looks forward to talking divorce, death, sex, and white privilege with their kids. And where do you even begin? Enter Anastasia Higginbotham. She takes on this challenge through storytelling with her book series: Ordinary Terrible Things. In these 4 books, here’s how Anastasia takes a complex topic and makes it accessible for children and their parents.
Anastasia is a delicate storyteller of the secrets adults don’t tell children. As she advocates lifting the curtain to reveal these truths, she provides tools and language for emotional health in the difficult times that shape our lives.
With books ranging from topics of divorce, death, and sex, her latest book Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness (2018), extends the reach and delves into the intricacies and emotional turmoil that results from being on the White side of racial injustice. In all her books, but especially this latest one, Higginbotham demonstrates that the understanding of one’s self and emotions are vital to the becoming of change-makers.
Higginbotham highlights principles of emotional health throughout her work and lets readers experience her own transformation as she seeks to understand her own place in the stories that unravel beyond the brown paper and recycled textiles, in the real world. We see children struggle to understand the complexity of their emotional reactions, let themselves be guided by those emotions in judging their surroundings and their need for self-care, and then, finally, take up an agency over those emotions.
The beautiful result of her experiences are not simple children’s stories, nor just guides to emotional health–they are spreads of stitched-together artwork that can be experienced as deep meditations on how to navigate the events of human life for “children from 9 to 99” (williams, 2018). We witness a mirroring of the advice in the words on the page to her process as an artist, writer and storyteller.
How to Talk to a Grieving Child
Death is Stupid (2020) is a depiction of the various ways grief can manifest and the cautionary advice to what will be helpful and what won’t be during that time. In an interview with Mutha Magazine (2018), Higginbotham was asked what she would say to a grieving child and she answered “If I was going to say anything, it would be, ‘I don’t want to tell you how to feel, but I am interested in how you feel if you want to tell me’”. Throughout the books we see Higginbotham advocate for curiosity over assumption, both with oneself and with others.
Not My Idea is an emotionally packed visualization of the distress of a young girl that grapples to understand her own whiteness and her place in dismantling systemic racism. In an interview with Mattew C. Winner for The Children’s Book Podcast (2020), Higginbotham describes how this book came to fruition from conversations with teachers of her childrens’ school that informed her of the need for this book to be written.
We see the fruitfulness of these consultations as they come to life in the book through the vividness of her character’s confusion about what is happening. The little girl responds by spending time in a library, searching to learn about the context of the situation and spending time reflecting by herself.
As a testament to the learning and listening that Higginbotham did for the book, she quotes Toni Morrison and acknowledges Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Anyanwu Uwa and Noleca Anderson Redway. “Noleca made me see white power in action and in myself; Rev. Angel dared me to connect with my deepest conditioning into whiteness and grow from a place of heartbreak; Anyanwu insisted I view myself as worthy,” she told PediaPlay (2016). While Higginbotham experiences these transformations within herself, we see her understanding of the importance of being in conversation with oneself and with trusted teachers to inform a sense of empathetic justice-seeking.
Emotions can be Complicated
“You may feel confused,” Higginbotham warns readers in her book, Divorce is the Worst (2019), advising the young reader to acknowledge their feelings about difficult situations. In the midst of these words we see her depict feelings of betrayal, heartbreak, anger and guilt. What we see in her choice of misshapen, furrowed eyebrows, streaming tears cut from magazine photos of water, lightning stricken eyes or puckered lips, we also see her own interpretations of these emotions. Higginbotham gives readers access to the language of complicated emotions in plain and clear text, accessible and understandable to all.
Before Not My Idea, Higginbotham describes how she regarded her own Whiteness: “I did have a lot of self-hatred. I did think that racism was a personal failing rather than a structural conditioning.” In representation, we see the young child in her book agonize over racial injustice; we even see her heart, made from a deep purple paper, rip down the middle in heartbreak.
Zen priest, Rev. angel Kyodo williams was one that guided Higginbotham through the process. “Her teaching and being informed my own personal ability to…even tolerate myself at first and then love myself and then love myself within a context of white supremacy, being a person in a white body,” Higginbotham said, “She made so much possible for me so that I could carry it out into the world,” The Children’s Book Podcast (2020).
You are Responsible for Your own Feelings
Throughout her stories, her characters (beginning with confusion about what they feel, or what they should feel) come to the realization that they are responsible for their feelings. This realization acts as a gateway to understanding and processing difficult experiences.
Higginbotham describes a similar experience as she sought to understand her own agency in racial injustice. “White people have a very, very serious problem,” Higginbotham quotes of the 1993 Toni Morrison interview with Charlie Rose, “and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.”
Upon hearing the words of Toni Morrison, Higginbotham says, “that was joyful … for me to hear that and be given the responsibility to take care of this” (The Children’s Book Podcast, 2020).
Throughout the series of her books, Higginbotham advocates for the agency of personhood, even, and perhaps especially, for children. While she moved through her understanding of Whiteness, she describes, “in the process of learning to see whiteness and learning to relate to my own power and what it means to be responsible about who I am and where I am located and what kind of impact I have in any room…it was my whole being ignited”.
Higginbotham’s work serves to demonstrate the ability for personal understanding to transcend the work of social change. She leads by example and is bringing up the next generation of citizens to be conscious of their contributions to the world through a deep understanding of themselves.
Higginbotham’s books ring true well beyond childhood. Threading the fundamental place of emotional intelligence and in the context of social change, the books reveal secrets crucial to adults learning to understand the times we live in. The books lend themselves as works of art that, through vivid storytelling, depicted in both words and pasted colors and textures, let the reader witness the experience of her own transformation.
In a moment of intense change, wide-ranging heightened emotion and broad uncertainty, Anastasia Higginbotham chose to make Not My Idea available as a free download through Dottir Press. You can see all of her books at anastasiahigginbotham.com