My seven-year-old son Noah slammed shut the book he was reading and looked up at me with fear in his eyes.
“Quick!” he said. “Talk to me! Make me think of something else!”
I could see that whatever he had just read had terrified him, so I immediately started talking to him about the first thing I could think of – a party he had coming up that weekend. We talked about all the fun he would have, and he seemed to calm down.
I hoped that would be it. But over the next few days I could see he was still anxious about something. He was getting distressed and teary, but he didn’t want to talk to me about it.
Eventually, he opened up. He’d read in a book, from the Superhero School series, about a custard monster. Apparently, when people eat custard, a monster grows in their stomach. Because he’d eaten custard when he was younger, he was terrified a monster would grow in his stomach.
Admittedly, it’s a pretty scary concept. But I thought that once I knew what had been disturbing him, I’d be able to help him conquer his fear.
Not that easy.
LISTEN: The perfect book to read to your kids on their first day of school.
I showed him that the book was fiction, meaning that the story had been made up. I told him that if custard monsters were real, there would be stories on the news about them, and there weren’t. I explained to him that his dad had eaten hundreds of custard tarts in his life, and he’d never come to any harm.
It was no good. He was still terrified.
In desperation, I went online and tracked down an email address for the book’s UK author, Alan MacDonald. I wrote to him, explaining the situation. I didn’t know whether the email would even get to him, but I couldn’t think of anything else to try.
The next morning, a reply was in my inbox. There were a few lines addressed to me, apologising that the story had caused my son anxiety and suggesting that the series was suited to slightly older readers. Then there was a letter written to my son:
I’m glad you’ve enjoyed reading my books. I would like to make it clear though that everything that happens in the story is just stuff that I made up. The superheroes aren’t real and there is definitely no such thing as evil custard. There are no custard monsters and you can’t grow one or see one because there’s no such thing. I can say this for certain because I wrote the books and I made it all up for a funny story.
Very best wishes
I showed it to my son. He read it. When he got home from school, he asked to read the letter again. Then he went off to play.
The distress and tears stopped. He never mentioned custard monsters again.
All he needed was to hear from the author that custard monsters weren’t real. That was enough to take away his anxiety.
MacDonald’s reply was immediate and it was perfect.
This is the kind of thing children’s authors do every day. Many of them will reply to every single letter or email they get from a child. My daughter once emailed the author of a story about cats, to ask questions about the cats in the story, and the author quickly responded, answering all her questions. Another time my daughter emailed a popular writer to say she’d been unable to find a copy of one of her early books anywhere, and the writer offered to send her a spare copy she had at home.
I don’t think children’s authors get enough recognition. They write these fantastic books that get our kids to fall in love with reading, and then, in their spare time, they sit at their desks, and patiently write back to the kids who have written to them. It’s not like it would mean any real boost to their sales. But they do it anyway.
And every once in a while, one of those replies might change a little kid’s life.