AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
Will it be OK? a child asks her mother. But what if a big dog comes? If it is friendly, you run your fingers through its thick brown and white fur. If it is not friendly, you stand perfectly still and unafraid, and it stops barking and sits quietly beside you. Today for our series Picture This, we're taking a look at the children's book "Will It Be Okay?" Crescent Dragonwagon wrote the first version of it in 1977 when she was in her mid-twenties.
CRESCENT DRAGONWAGON: The little girl has some worries which range from, but what if a bee stings me? What if there's thunder and lightning? - to what if I'm mad at everyone? What if I forget my lines in the school play? And her mother answers them in a way that is not condescending. It's funny. Sometimes, it has some wisdom in it.
RASCOE: "Will It Be Okay?" went out of print in 1991. When the pandemic started, Dragonwagon looked for calming activities, so she started reading children's books out loud every night.
DRAGONWAGON: The first book that I chose to read was "Will It Be Okay?" because it's my most reassuring book. And when I finished that, I thought to myself, hmm. You know, this book is pretty timely. I bet that it could have a new life.
RASCOE: So Crescent Dragonwagon, now 70, decided it was time to bring it back but with some changes - a few new, different fears for the little girl but also a big change, completely new illustrations.
DRAGONWAGON: The original illustrations were by an illustrator named Ben Shecter, who has a very soft tenderness that's appealing but - you know, he got the fear of the child, but you didn't get much strength, resilience, feistiness. The colors were muted, and in a sense, the emotions were a little muted.
RASCOE: Which brings us to Jessica Love, the critically acclaimed author and illustrator of "Julian Is A Mermaid." She read three lines of "Will It Be Okay?" and knew she had to be the one to draw it.
JESSICA LOVE: I kind of wanted this book to have the feeling of a print, kind of punchy and graphic. So they look more or less like drawings of real people. And they both have very, very, very curly black hair. All of the drawings are done in ink, and the colors I have used are actually limited just to three. I used a really thick, black sumi ink and two watercolor inks, a red, a kind of orangey red, and a yellow. And I mixed the variety of, like, pinks and peaches out of those two. But for me, the peaches and the pinks have a kind of tender, maybe somewhat raw or exposed feeling to them.
DRAGONWAGON: When I saw Jessica's pictures, I just thought, wow. I love the fact that they both have long, goofy eyelashes. I love the theater scene when the child says, but what if I forget my lines in the school play? She got the child's horror when she forgets her lines and the child's arms raised at the triumph when she gets them. It's just so delightful, goofy and powerful. And you know, I love particularly Jessica's pictures of her when she's mad, when she's pouting. You know, her face puffs up. It reddens a little bit. She exactly gets the emotions across.
LOVE: I'm so delighted that it is what you were picturing because to be in the company of somebody whose philosophy of talking to children as people with the respect that every people deserves is a real pleasure. I mean, the voice that the mother speaks in - it's the quintessence of the way I longed to be spoken to as a child. You can feel it when you're talking to a little kid, and they sense that they're being taken seriously.
DRAGONWAGON: (Reading) But what if someone doesn't like me? You feel lonely and sad. You walk and walk until you come to a small pond. You kneel in the grass by the edge of this pond, and you see something move. You put out your hand, and a tiny frog, no bigger than your thumbnail, hops into it. Very carefully, you lift your hand up to your ear and the frog whispers, other people like you. Other people love you. Maybe that person will like you again. Maybe not. In any case, you're likable and lovable. And it is all right. Because a frog tells you this, you believe it.
LOVE: It gives you a scaffolding, a framework to harness the galloping horse that is your frightened child brain and heart when you're scared of something, first of all, with practical, often physical advice. Take a walk. Look at a tree. Rub an onion back and forth on your bee sting. It's things that get your body up and moving again, which is actually such an important part of processing those big, scary feelings.
DRAGONWAGON: At this moment, we have a wave going through our country where we feel like we have to take away books that might deal with upsetting topics for children. But I feel like that's simply more upsetting for children because the reality is that life has upsetting things. And the better skill is to show that realistically and yet also give something that helps the child or, for that matter, the adult get through it. And at the end, when the child asks, but what if you die? - the mother says, my loving doesn't die. It stays with you. I don't know how I knew that then. But now I've been widowed twice. My mother has died. My father has died. My beloved aunt has died. But truly, their loving doesn't die. So it will be OK? Yes, my love. It will.
RASCOE: That was Crescent Dragonwagon and Jessica Love talking about their children's book, "Will It Be Okay?" Our series Picture This is produced by Samantha Balaban.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.