Author Interview: Michelle Shillings
When watching her then 2½-year-old son struggle with his parents divorce became too much, Michelle Shillings began searching for ways to help him. She was certain there were books that would help him understand visitation. What Debbie found surprised her. There are plenty of books for adults, but there weren’t any that spoke to kids at their level. That’s when she decided to write a book.
I Can’t Want To was inspired by her son’s emotional struggles. What began as a catharsis for her, suddenly became a children’s book! Michelle knows first-hand how important it is to help young kids connect with their feelings – especially for things they don’t understand. By giving kids a voice through her book, she helps parents remember that the kids are hurting too.
RT: First, thanks for stopping by the Reading Tub®, we’re happy to have you here with us today. Your book I Can’t Want To is about a young boy struggling with the emotions of his parents’ separation/divorce. Visitation can be as emotionally charged for the parents as it is for the kids. Why did you decide to write a book for children?
Michelle: I wrote this book because I saw such a great need for single parents to have a tool to help them and their children get through visitation between their parents. I remember seeing so many requests on single parent websites for something to help them deal with their child’s behavioral problems related to visitation. I needed that “thing” too, so I decided to write a children’s book.
With the divorce rate as it is, I want this book to reach every child and family who is experiencing problems adjusting to visitation between parent’s homes. My son’s dad is a good dad, he always shows up for visitation, but my son still struggled. You do not have to be in a horrible situation where ex’s are fighting to have you child experience problems adjusting to the visitation and the changes of separation. Children need to know that they are not alone, other children feel this way, and that it is okay to be angry and work through it. They need to be heard because they have a lot to say. It is hard to think of the person you are still helping go to the bathroom, or who you cut up meat for has valid feelings – but they do. Often, they act out their feelings rather than tell us, because they don’t have the tools to explain themselves. That only adds to their frustration.
I would really love to get this book in the family court and school system, as well as to social case workers, counselors, or attorneys who deal with family conflict resolution. That is what I am working on now.
The librarian at my son’s school is thrilled to have the book because she sees how much it is needed. His kindergarten class is including the book in their family studies curriculum.
RT: I’ll admit that at first, I struggled with how “I can’t want to” connected to the story itself. I kept wanting to call it “I don’t want to,” because it seemed to fit with the more literal descriptions inside. Can you tell us about how you selected that statement as the title? If you could add a subtitle to help people understand, what would it be?
Michelle: When my son was 2½ he would say, “I can’t want to do this or that,” instead of I “I don’t want To do this or that.” I thought that it was fitting for the title because he did not want to leave me or his dad. For a subtitle, I imagine it would be “dealing with your child’s visitation struggles” or something along those lines.
RT: How has your son reacted to the book? Is he happy to be the “star”?
Michelle: My son is so proud of this book. Reading this book with my son allowed us to have a conversation about how he felt. He finally understood that it was totally okay for him to have his feelings and that it was normal to feel that way. It brought us closer, and helped us move on.
He loves it when it is read out loud in his classroom. I saw him talking about visitation with another child when he was five. So, he actually helped another child with how they felt. You could see that they both felt comfort in knowing that they were not alone or the only kids on the planet who felt this way.
I also have had many “thank yous” and positive responses from other single parents. I have had several positive reviews from websites that deal with divorce and visitation.
RT: When you decided to write your story, were there books or book ideas that you found helpful? Were you surprised by the children’s books that were (or weren’t) available?
Michelle: To be honest, I was surprised that there weren’t books with stories about divorce “from the mouths of babes.” There are tons of divorce books for parents, and they remind us that our children are going through pain as well. But there was no book from a child’s perspective about how they feel.
RT: Your story is based on a selection of events in your then 2½-year-old son’s behaviors. Looking past the visitation element, many of the events seem to be examples of typical toddler tantrums. Could the story have value in helping parents not dealing with divorce, or do you think the visitation element is the driving factor for the events?
Michelle: I think that there is value in this book for parents that are dealing with “tantrums” that have nothing to do with visitation. For one thing, it helps young children put words to their feelings. Most of the time, kids have a feeling of anger, but they don’t have words for them or tools to deal with them. As the child therapist told me, “it is not rocket science. They are mad because they do not want to do something or are not getting their way.” It goes back to being frustrated. Kids can relate to the beautiful illustrations because they capture the child’s emotions They can say “I feel like that picture.” This can open a communication between parents and their children to help them understand what their feelings are, why they feel that way, and then we can give them the tools they need.
RT: What kinds of stories would you recommend for single-parent families to share with their children? Should they always stay away from books with two parents?
Michelle: It is important that single-parent families find books that deal with their situation, but they should share all books that are age appropriate. Kids should not be shielded from reality; there are families with two parents and families with one parent. Problems and emotions (anger, frustration) are a reality of life that cannot be avoided. Unless children know that pain is real, they cannot function well in our society. Parents need to let their children feel pain and fear up to a certain level (of a child’s capacity) so they can understand how it feels and learn how to cope with it.
RT: Having enjoyed success with I Can’t Want To, do you have other ideas on books (for children or adults) that you’re working on?
Michelle: Yes, I do have another book in the works, but not a picture book. My new book is also about visitation, told from the kid’s perspective, but this child is older. My son has an older sister (we don’t use the term half-sister in our family), and this book is geared toward pre-teen kids. I am in the preliminary stages of conducting interviews. You would be surprised how astute and knowledgeable kids of divorce and separation are; they also have a lot to say. This type of book is also very much needed. It helps kids break through that sense of isolation.
RT: In your career, you’re a technical editor, so the writing process is very familiar. Were there any surprises for you from the publishing side?
Michelle: Well, I was a little surprised about the publishing process. Even though I have a great marketing department with my publisher, it is surprising how much work you have to do as the author to get my book out there to connect it with the people who will benefit from it the most. I am constantly writing to family law courts, schools, family conflict resolution groups, and other organizations explaining how my book will help children with the transition of the visitation process.
RT: Do you have any reading memories from your childhood? What were your favorite books? Who were your (book character) heroes?
Michelle: My favorite books were those that dealt with fantasy and science fiction. I loved the Lord of the Rings series. I loved Dr. Seuss. I was always an active reader as a child – and I still am.
RT: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Michelle: I would like to take the time to thank my family and friends for all their support. I would also like to thank my muse, my son. He is such a joy in my life. I value the relationship that we have and that we can communicate with each other about our feelings and work through the hard times together. He reminds me every day about how important it is to encourage our kids to communicate their feelings — whether it’s with words, tears, or a tantrum. This is how your kids — and you — will move on with your lives.
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