Immigrant Stories: Writing books to help children heal
Intro: Nancy Bo Flood is the great-granddaughter of Czech and Italian immigrants, a child therapist and the author of 20 books, many of them for children and young adults.
Bo Flood: I was born in Braidwood, Illinois, in a town that was divided because the Czech and the Italians didn’t get along. So my parents’ story was a little bit of Romeo and Juliet. The Catholic Italians are not supposed to mingle with the Protestant Czech. Well, they did, and I’m glad of it.
My dad was a coach, a teacher. He loved basketball and teaching math. Eventually we moved closer to Chicago. That’s where I met my husband, Bill. I was in graduate school, and he was in medical school. We had this dream to travel around the world. So we saved our pennies, and we did just that.
It’s funny to think about how young we were, but we really did fall in love. He continued on to the University of Illinois and was one of their gymnastic competitors. I eventually went on to Beloit College, but all this time, we stayed in correspondence.
Gallacher: Why did you go to Beloit?
Bo Flood: Because it was a place my parents could help me afford, and I got a really good scholarship. I became very interested in the study of the brain.
Gallacher: Did you go there with that intent?
Bo Flood: I wanted to be in science, but I was studying animal behavior because I also am very interested in animals. Animal behavior is so informative in terms of human behavior.
I was also studying about autistic children and looking at the problems with memory and emotion, the control of emotion, and motivation to learn.
Gallacher: So did you know where you were headed with this study?
Bo Flood: Oh, no. I didn’t put that together to start with, nor did I foresee eventually writing books for children even though reading and writing was a passion of mine.
From the very beginning, I loved reading. I have five brothers and a sister, and my older brother got to go to kindergarten first, but when he came home, he would teach me to read because I wanted to read just like he did. So he taught me to read. I loved books.
I started writing letters to my grandmother. She never left the state of Illinois, except once. What I loved doing was describing and telling her about a place so she could be there, too. It was probably one of the best trainings for me, in terms of being a writer. I would ask myself, “What would grandma notice?” I wanted her to be able to see it, hear it, smell it and taste it.
Then as I did research with children, I became more and more interested in intervention. “OK. How can we make this better for kids?” I found that probably one of the most powerful ways is through story. One thing that children do, if they have a traumatic event or an exciting event, they tell and tell and tell. Until you just want to cover your ears because they’re still talking about it.
Gallacher: And they play it out.
Bo Flood: Yes, they act it, whether it’s with their dolls or with their stuffed animals. They keep playing it out until there’s some kind of mastery or some sense of understanding, which is what story is all about.
So, I thought, “The power of story informs us and also heals us.” And I realized, “This is what I want to do.”
Gallacher: Where were you when you had that realization?
Bo Flood: I was here in Glenwood Springs. I was part of a child and family counseling center. As I was working with kids, especially children who had been abused at a young age. I watched them doing exactly what you said, replay and replay, and eventually change the story.
It takes a lot of retelling before a child gets to that point, to that sense of empowerment. I realized that using good stories can really help children see and experience. It gives them another alternative, maybe scream or yell or run out or go to somebody who can help them, someone they can trust.
Gallacher: So you wanted to tell stories that would help kids, like the little girl that you were, sit down with a book that guides you or helps you feel like you’re not alone.
Bo Flood: Yes. In fact, one of my stories, that took me a long time to talk about, was when I was only 7 and my younger sister was 5. She was killed crossing a street.
Gallacher: Oh, I’m so sorry.
Bo Flood: I was, as all children are, profoundly affected when there’s a death in the family. As a child, I realized that you also lose your parents for a while. My parents were lost in grief.
I think it was my grandmother who was able to reassure me that, in time, my parents would be back. They never left physically, but they were not reachable for me.
I also felt profoundly responsible for my sister’s death because I had gotten angry with her the night before, and I thought that I caused her death. I felt that it was my fault that this terrible thing had happened, so I never told anyone.
Years later, I was talking to my youngest brother who was only 3 at the time of the accident. He was with my sister when the accident happened. For the first time we were talking about that experience, and he said, “It was my fault.”
I said, “Oh, Tom, all these years we have both carried that.” If there had been a story to help us, to help us even open that conversation, to talk about how we really felt, and to maybe share and retell the story.
Gallacher: It’s not restricted to children, is it? It’s the survivor guilt that people have when someone dies, and they feel like it should have been them in some way.
Bo Flood: You’re exactly right. It should have been me. My sister was the cute one. My sister was charming, and little, and wonderful. I wasn’t wonderful. Why didn’t I die? You’re absolutely right.
Gallacher: How did you get through it?
Bo Flood: Well, I think I didn’t really get through it until I was older and started writing about it.
Gallacher: So all this led to the storyteller in you.
Bo Flood: I have always loved stories. I can remember sitting on my grandmother’s lap when I was upset, and she would sing to me or tell me a story. There was nothing more soothing than my grandma’s lap.
Gallacher: Well, it is the essence of us, isn’t it? We are all storytellers.
Bo Flood: I feel that way. The book I’m working on right now is called “Many Ways We Tell Our Stories,” because every group of people I’ve ever been with wants to tell their stories. The Navajo people are great storytellers.
Gallacher: You and Bill have lived and worked in the Navajo Nation for 20 years. What has kept you there?
Bo Flood: Good question, because we thought we were going to go for two or maybe three years. One part of it was the land, and the other was the Navajo people. They taught us so much. I think we both felt so welcomed. We learned so much about life from them.
One of the people I learned from was Rose Tahe. Rose was someone close to my age. She was a substitute teacher when I met her. I was teaching for Dine College and also for Northern Arizona University. She was working her special certification in reading. She already had her master’s. She was a remarkable woman.
She was fluent in Navajo and English, written and spoken. She wanted to create stories for children because she felt books were so important to healing. I had started a writing group, and Rose was part of it. She and I began working on a very special story about the Navajo tradition that celebrates a baby’s first laughter.
Laughter is sacred to the Navajo. They believe it makes us fully human. It’s a way of healing. So whoever gets a baby to laugh first becomes a special person, like a godparent to that child.
After the child’s first laugh there is a special ceremony. Everyone gathers and the parents prepare a special basket that has the salt that has been collected from the earth.
During the ceremony, each of the guests is given a little piece of salt on their tongue. The salt reminds them that we always share whatever we have, and we take care of each other.
Gallacher: That’s beautiful. So the laugh is sacred?
Bo Flood: Yes, a very sacred thing. So the book that Rose and I wrote is “First Laugh, Welcome Baby.” It’s illustrated by Jonathan Nelson, a young Navajo artist.
Gallacher: What are you working on now?
Bo Flood: It’s “I Will Dance,” a book about a young girl who barely lived as a premature baby and is unable to walk. But from the time she was 3, she wanted to dance. People kept telling her to imagine herself dancing and she would say, “No. I don’t want to imagine. I want to dance.”
This story is based on a little girl that I interviewed. It reaches some place deep inside me that I haven’t completely figured out. But I do know this: It reminds me of my little sister. She and I were always dancing together. We loved dancing. When she died, I asked my mother, “Mom, can Peggy dance up in heaven?”
My mom said, “I’m sure she’s dancing up in heaven.” So, somehow, this story is connected. Somehow, it’s all connected.
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