Expert Series

Marie Unanue

Children's Book Author

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Ever thought about writing a children’s book? Meet Marie Unanue, the new author of the children’s book series, “The Adventures of Phatty & Payaso.” Marie has always been an avid reader and an activist for children who are bullied. As a kindness advocate, she hopes to inspire children across the world to remember to always treat each other with kindness and compassion. Marie gives us the insight on her writing process and challenges. As a non-mom she was worried she wouldn’t know what kids wanted to read but with perseverance and doing her research she took it on successfully. Marie will be featured on Good Morning America on October 20th so keep an eye out! Check out our interview with Marie- a must read for writers and creators of all kinds!  

What inspired you to write a kid’s book?

I’ve always enjoyed writing. It was something, unlike math or chemistry, that came easy to me. The excitement that comes along with creating characters and settings always captivated me. When I sat down to draft up this story about my cat and my neighbor’s cat, it just felt so invigorating. In fact, once I made the choice to write this story, the process took on a pair of legs and just started running. I felt inspired by this story I had going on in my head but also by my audience. I imagined what kids would think of this adventure and how they would react as they experienced Central Park through Phatty & Payaso’s eyes. I also wanted to show kids examples of kindness that would be fun for them to read about, so I included adventure, laughs & true friendship. Never did I imagine I would partake in the surreal experience of hearing the kids’ feedback, hearing them quote my characters or laugh at something I wrote. Most of all, I did not expect to hear from parents that their kids could not put the book down. It felt so amazing that I’m not sure if the best writer in the world could put this feeling into words, even if they were paid a million dollars.

What is your writing process like when putting together a kid’s book?

The writing process here was one of my biggest hurdles. Not having any kids of my own had me in a panic. I was so worried that I wouldn’t know what kids wanted to read! Would I go too mature or too childish? Was I using vocabulary that was too mature or was I simplifying things too much?  Was the villain too harsh and scary or not scary enough? This was the seesaw I rode as I wrote and rewrote the book. The first draft felt too childish and sticky sweet, the second too slapstick. By the third draft, the villain was in and then it felt too scary. I was at my wits end and to be honest, ready to throw in the towel on the entire process.

Then my husband had a great idea. He suggested that I have a few kids read the manuscript and give me some feedback. Before I knew it, I had drafted up book questionnaires and put together care packages with the manuscripts to make the kids feel special and to thank them for their time. I sent the packages with the manuscripts out to 60 kids. The questionnaire asked them about their age, their gender, their favorite book and how often they liked to read. Then the questionnaire went into great detail about the manuscript. I asked them what their favorite part was and who their favorite character was. But I also wanted to know if the story was funny and if there were characters they could relate to. I asked them to tell me how it compared to their favorite story, so I could see what kids looked for in a good story. They loved being engaged in this way. When I asked them for feedback I hoped they could see that they matter, that the process of reading and writing is always a two-way street. It’s about communication, recognizing the audience as well as telling a story. Receiving their feedback was the most moving experience I had within the writing process. I finally realized that while I still had work to do, my characters had made meaningful impressions on my audience. I felt like I had achieved everything I set out to do and I was over-the-moon happy.

Where does your passion for combatting bullying and promoting kindness come from?

When I was a child, I remember not fitting in with other kids and being bullied at times. When I think of bullying, I think of an age-old problem that has only gotten worse with the rise of social media. It seems as though the negative experiences I once knew are now being amplified through social networks, and I want to try to not only help heal kids who’ve been wronged, but facilitate real change as well.  

My story is a way to teach kids about how to handle bullies, how to see them as people who also have strengths and weaknesses. It’s also my hope that after reading my book, kids will see the real hurt behind bullying and that this will inspire them to make nicer choices in their interactions with others who are different or difficult to connect with instead of lashing out against them.

I’m also working on a kindness challenge alongside my book. I’m trying to encourage the use of social media for positive change with hashtags such as #KindnessAdvoCATe and #LetsAllBeKindChallenge. To participate, kids can post a photo of themselves or someone they know who has done something kind for the sake of kindness alone, and use the hashtag to connect with others who are doing good around the country and the world. 

If you have a story or message to share where would you begin?

My message is that kindness wins. I don’t care what the situation is, kindness will always come out on top. If your moral compass is always facing north, you can’t go wrong. Doing the right thing and being kind isn’t always the easiest road to take, but it will always be the most rewarding. The old saying “kill them with kindness” rings true. It’s hard to fight with someone who responds with kindness in every situation. My mom always said to me growing up “you must treat other people the way you want to be treated.” So even when I was being bullied or being excluded from something, she would tell me not to lash out or “get back” at those who were hurting me. I would try to get her to understand why this time it’s different, why I can’t take the high road this time. I would say “but mom they…” and always, she would stick to the golden rule. I remember it was hard because it felt utterly unfair. But in the end, she was right.

When a child is kind all the time, even in the face of bullies, that child leads by example. They represent the standard of how kids should treat each other and that is something they can feel proud of. But it’s not all about being kind to your enemies. It’s about being kind to those who are disadvantaged, scared, and alone as well. If a child sees someone else being bullied, excluded, or left out, I hope that they can they imagine what it would feel like to be in their shoes. Because if they do, chances are they will step forward and befriend that child. Imagine if every kid tried to live this way. The world, especially our playgrounds, would be a better place to live.

What was the biggest challenge you experienced while creating this book and how did you deal with it?

While writing for children was exciting, there are moments when I started to doubt myself.  I started to worry about how I could I write for kids if I didn’t have any of my own. Self-doubt would creep in and I would stop writing for a few days while I was working through it. How could I understand kids, understand the ins and outs of the school playground, or understand what they wanted to read if I didn’t raise any kids myself.  It was about two years into my process when I really felt like I was going to quit and write about something else. The question, “how can you be a children’s book author if you’re not a parent?” made me doubt myself and what I’m capable of. It wasn’t until a dear friend of mine said, ‘You were a kid once, weren’t you?’  that I began to believe in myself. When I heard those words, everything changed. It’s not like I was writing a story about walking on Mars, I was a kid once. I can write from my own experiences. That same friend went on to say, ‘not only were you a kid, and while you might not have any kids of your own you, you know kindness. There are plenty of parents out there that don’t know kindness and that’s why we have bullies. You are one of the kindest people I know and if one kid treats another kid better because they read this story, then you have succeeded. So just remember that the next time someone tries to rain on your parade. Then and there, I stopped worrying about needing to prove myself as a children’s author, and while this was one of my biggest challenges, I feel better about the entire process having overcome this insecurity.  

What is Character Lab and how did it influence your writing? 

Character Lab is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in 2013 by one scientist and two educators: Angela Duckworth, author of “Grit,” Dave Levin, co-founder of the KIPP public charter schools, and Dominic Randolph, head of Riverdale Country School. We know through their research that there are several character skills that today’s children have difficulty developing. They have discovered that character strengths are malleable, and surprisingly little is known about how they can be intentionally cultivated.

 

My book focuses on several of these traits, with the intention to help children develop them through reading. The traits are 

 

Curiosity: Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering.

 

Gratitude: Being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen; taking time to express thanks.

 

Grit: Finishing what one starts; persisting in a course of action in spite of obstacles.

 

Self-control: Regulating what one feels and does in the service of goals and standards; being disciplined; controlling one’s emotions.

 

Social Intelligence: Being aware of the motives and feelings of other people and oneself

 

Zest: Approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things halfway or half heartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated.

 

After I studied these traits, I decided to give each character one or two of these skills as a strength while also noting the areas where they could improve. Together, the characters all possess these traits and throughout the story they teach each other, through actions and by example, how to grow and develop the skills they lacked initially.

What was your favorite part about creating this book?

Developing stories and situations that will engage and challenge children was really rewarding but coming up with situations to make kids laugh was easily my favorite part. Opening up and writing a story for kids where I could be as corny as I wanted in order to get a chuckle from the reader felt amazing. I love to try and make people laugh. And in real life, while I try to be funny, more often than not I crash and burn. So on the rare occasion that someone laughs at my jokes, I feel like a million dollars. As I was writing this book about kindness and character, I also knew I had to be engaging and that meant making kids laugh.

Books to me aren’t only sources of wisdom, they are also one of the best forms of entertainment. If a child has a bad day and they pick up my book and it brings a smile to their face, or they can relate to my characters and view them as friends, then I have accomplished everything I set out to. Knowing that my book can produce smiles made me feel like I was leaving my mark on this world, it made my hard work worth it in a way I never dreamed possible.