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A new picture book helps kids cope with grief

MILES PARKS, HOST:

A new children's book transforms a sad, scared and anxious little boy into a superhero. The book is called "Cape," in honor of the bright-red cape the little boy wears and finds comfort in following the death of his father. "Cape" is Kevin Johnson's debut picture book, and it's vividly illustrated by artist Kitt Thomas. And they both join me now. Hi, guys.

KITT THOMAS: Hi. It's so nice to meet you.

KEVIN JOHNSON: Hey, thanks for having me.

PARKS: This whole book is unique because it is about grief, right? And I can't remember another book that is so specifically about this. Is that why you wanted to write this book?

JOHNSON: You know, I wrote this in the middle of the pandemic, actually, right after my father passed away. And while his death wasn't unexpected, I still was really struggling to come to terms with it. And so at that same time, I started to read about all these children who had lost their caregivers as a result of COVID. And that's where "Cape" really - the genesis of where it came from.

PARKS: I want to focus in on this one spread that I think, to me, is the most striking moment of the book, which is the boy is at the funeral reception, and the adults are kind of sharing memories and clearly processing the loss that they're going through. But then you turn the page, and the little boy just says, I don't want to. Kitt, can you describe what this page looks like for listeners who don't have the book in front of them?

THOMAS: So this page has the boy curled up and a blank space with the words I don't want to just very bold, caps font. I wanted to show us a glimpse of the void that he feels and the loneliness in this moment.

JOHNSON: You know, he's hollow. He's empty and has no way of really coming to terms with the emotions he's facing. And I think that's what a lot of us can relate to when we're dealing with grief. It's, you know, not really knowing what to turn to to come out of that.

PARKS: I think I come away from this book based on the illustrations and your dedication at the end that this is about a father figure in this boy's life. But you never name the relationship or the character who this boy has lost. Why not?

JOHNSON: I felt like it was important for this to be a universal story, accessible to everybody who's lost someone. I didn't want to limit it and make it so specific. Yes, the dedication of my dad is there. But I thought about, like I said, all these children who lost, you know, aunties and uncles and grandparents. And, you know, or maybe it's just a cousin. You never know what it is. But hopefully, then when they're reading the story and they're sort of following along this grief journey, they can plug themselves in and find a sense of hope themselves.

PARKS: Kitt, can you talk about, how did you work on getting the cape to be this - its own kind of being?

THOMAS: Yeah. So I sort of wanted the cape almost to sort of go through a journey with our main character. Personally, I was also a really big fan of comics, and I know that's something that kids can relate to. And when you're a kid, sometimes, you can escape into, like, so many different worlds. When you're having these moments of grief, sometimes, when you're not taught how to process things, you know, the media that you can consume almost becomes like a teacher for you, if not almost like a person who can also comfort you.

PARKS: Kevin, where do you see this story going from here? How does this kind of grief journey for this little boy continue after the book?

JOHNSON: We go from the outer reaches of space to the depths of the ocean, and then we find our hero, you know, soaring at the very end with a new vision on how to remember their loved one. And so the grief journey, I don't think it really ever does end for a lot of people, but I think it changes. It changes from maybe reluctance to think about things to then embracing thinking about those same things.

PARKS: That's author Kevin Johnson and illustrator Kitt Thomas. Their new children's book is called "Cape," and it's out now. Thank you guys both so much for joining me.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

THOMAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.
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