By Bianca Schulze, The Children’s Book Review
Published: February 23, 2012
Crystal Godfrey LaPoint is an accomplished composer and artist. For over three decades she has suffered from the dark legacy of depression. A survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault, Crystal is now a tireless advocate for survivors of relationship violence and for destigmatizing mental illness. She currently resides in Fitchburg, Massachusetts with her husband.
TCBR: I’m of the understanding that you are an accomplished composer and artist. Can you share a little on your background and how you became a children’s book writer?
Crystal Godfrey LaPoint: I was a musician from the age of 6 when I began my training as a classical pianist. I continued my studies through my late 20’s, earning a BMus and MMus in Piano Performance as well as an MMus in Composition and Theory from the Syracuse University School of Music. Along the way I also studied violin, voice, and organ. I have always been very active as a performer, including solo recitals, choral accompanying, and chamber music concerts. And I am a widely published, commissioned, and award-winning composer, working primarily in choral, chamber, and orchestral music. My career as a visual artist began much later in life – my early 40’s – and I am entirely self-taught as a digital artist. My work originates with my own photographic images, which I then digitally transform into a very stylistically diverse portfolio. To date, I’ve created over 100 images, many of which have been exhibited, sold, and garnered several awards.
That is clearly a circuitous path to becoming the author of a children’s book in my early 50’s! The seed for “When My Mommy Cries” was planted when I began doctoral studies in Fine Arts & Social Justice Education at SU. I was taking a class called “Teaching Against Oppression”, and became intrigued by the notion of how educational materials designed for young people could be used as resources for the purpose of achieving social justice. My specific thought was about a children’s book to help inform young people about mental illness and help destigmatize it. As the book took shape in my mind, it almost immediately defaulted to my own personal experiences as the child of parents with depression, and being a depressed, single mother of three, myself. From that point on, the dream took on a life of its own.
I’m sorry to hear that you are a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault. Your efforts of becoming an advocate for survivors of relationship violence and for destigmatizing mental illness are commendable. Your background is obviously your inspiration behind When My Mommy Cries. Was this a difficult book for you to write?
“When My Mommy Cries” was not at all difficult to write. In fact, as in all authentic creative expressions, it felt as though it wrote itself. It was a bit painful to revisit the experiences that had shaped my childhood and unfortunately, visited their oppression again upon my adult life. But the response I took – as described in the book – towards dealing with my own depression while raising my children was so very different from that which my parents took, that it actually made me proud of the choices I made, the wisdom of which are borne out daily in the lives of my three wonderful children who have grown to be compassionate, enlightened, strong, and caring young adults.
What age group did you write the book for?
“When My Mommy Cries” is an illustrated children’s book with rhyming text, so it feels most appropriate for the 6 – 12-year-old age group. However, the issues addressed are so universal and the dimension of the musical CD adds such an ageless appeal, that I have found it to be moving and meaningful to all ages, right up through adults.
You designed the book as a way to help parents to provide comfort and support to their children when trying to understand sadness and grief. What advice would you offer parents that may want to use your book as a communication tool?
The answer to that question depends to some extent upon the unique experiences of each family. If you are a parent in the trenches of dealing with depression (whether it be chronic and biochemical, or situational, such as that often brought on by grief, divorce, loss of a job, or other temporary life crisis) then you are already facing challenges in communicating with your kids because of your condition. You may feel sad, hopeless, helpless, and even worthless as a parent, because you just can’t break out of the darkness that is engulfing you. You may find yourself without the energy to engage in the same sorts of playful, or even mundane activities you used to with your child. Try as you might, you cannot hide your depression from your children. They watch us like hawks and can take our emotional temperature from 50 paces, because we are their lifelines and their source of security. Remaining silent about your situation only fuels their own sadness, confusion, and fear. So the best way to approach the situation with the book is to invite your child to sit down and read the story with you, lingering over the illustrations, and answering any questions they have with unvarnished honesty. That honesty needs to be coupled with unflagging reassurances of your constancy in their lives no matter how sad you may feel, your accessibility to always respond to their needs, and your unwavering unconditional love. For some parents, just reading the book aloud may provoke profound emotion and make it difficult to do without getting choked up, which is just one of the reasons the CD is so helpful. You can sit with your child and listen to the CD, following along with the illustrations and having the story sung to you. I believe that taking the experience outside of a direct conversation trying to explain Mommy or Daddy’s depression to a child, transforming the scenario instead into a beautiful book and song with characters that are just removed enough to create a comfort zone, can be an enormously useful tool to help families navigate these rough waters.
It is my cherished hope that even families who are NOT facing depression will make this a part of their library because it is a tremendous educational resource to help kids understand a condition that afflicts a staggering number of parents in this country. If your child has 20 classmates in their class at school, there is no doubt that they know someone personally whose parent either is, has, or will experience depression at some point in their lives. Understanding something about the issue and knowing that mental illness is a common experience, is the first step to teaching our children not to judge, tease about, or in any way stigmatize the reality that at least 1 out of every 6 adults in this country suffers from a diagnosable mental illness – and that only takes into account those individuals who are willing to seek treatment and give their condition a name! Parenting is full of teachable moments – why not seek one out, if it will help your child grow to be a more empathetic, enlightened, compassionate citizen, and a better support system to their friends who may be in need of some special understanding?
The music CD incorporates your musical background and allows readers to also experience your message through song. What is it about the music that you feel enhances When My Mommy Cries?
As I said above, using the CD as the means to tell the story, rather than reading the book aloud, relieves what may be a particularly distraught parent of the challenge of reading the book and being overcome by emotion. More importantly, I think we all have experienced the powerful emotional impact of music. The song I’ve written for “When My Mommy Cries” is carefully composed to reflect all the subtle nuances of mood that comprise the narrative of the book. Music can enhance and amplify our experience of a story and I think this song achieves that admirably. In addition, we all tend to remember words we have associated with a tune, so, for children who listen to the song repeatedly, the reassuring, loving, hopeful message of the book will be etched in their minds and memories in a very special way.
Did you always intend on including music with the book?
Absolutely – as I was writing the text of the book, I intentionally employed a meter and rhyme scheme that would lend itself to a poignant tune.
What would you say is the most important thing readers will take away from your book?
That being a “good parent” doesn’t always mean playing catch, baking cookies, and bandaging skinned knees. It also doesn’t mean putting on a brave face and pretending nothing is wrong when clearly something is. Being a good parent sometimes means being courageous enough to be honest with your children about the reality of your shared lives. Remember, they can read you like a book anyway, so if you’ve been depressed, they’ve known something was wrong – probably long before you began to consider if you really needed to address it in a conversation with them. Your silence leaves them alone, sad, confused, and afraid – maybe even feeling responsible in some way. Once you break that fearful silence, only good things can come of it. No matter what challenges you must face as an adult, your children will fare batter if you show them the respect of honesty, reassurance, realistic expectations, hope, and love. As long as they know that no matter what you’re feeling, you are always there for them, it is never their fault, and you will always love them, together you will find a way through the dark days. In an uncertain, sometimes unkind world, they always have you to count on.
Will When My Mommy Cries be a stand-alone book or should we expect to see more stories from you on similar topics?
I believe there are a number of life challenges that parents face that can complicate their ability to parent, and can be confusing and troubling to kids. In particular, I’ve considered writing books about parents battling addiction, and families torn apart by domestic violence.
Which books from your own childhood have most influenced your life?
The single most influential book from my childhood was “Little Women.” At various times in my life I have identified so strongly with each and every one of the March sisters – even Marmee. And I delight in the fact that in my new home near Concord, MA I am able to visit the very house where the real Jo, Beth, Meg, and Amy grew up and lived the many adventures that make “Little Women” such an enduring classic.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Depression, no matter what its cause, is an astonishingly common reality in our culture, and yet we speak of it in hushed whispers, ascribe shame and guilt to it, and in so doing, only further isolate and disempower those struggling with it. My mission for “When My Mommy Cries” is to help the countless families who need this book’s gentle message of hope and love to build bonds of trust and mutual support that will help them get through the dark days, and cherish even more the bright and happy ones. When you share your vulnerabilities with your children, you are not abdicating the role of ‘good parent’ – you are not asking them to become your caretaker. You are simply modeling honesty, courage, trust, and love. What greater gift can a parent give their child!
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