Barbara DiLorenzo never planned to create a book about the fear a child might feel during a lockdown drill at school, but then she experienced one of those drills herself. As a result, she wrote and illustrated One Thursday Afternoon (Flyaway, Sept.), in which a girl processes her anxiety following a school lockdown drill by spending quiet time outdoors making nature art with her grandfather.
Back in March 2018, DiLorenzo was shopping in her neighborhood bookstore in Princeton, NJ, with her baby, about to meet a friend for lunch at the local Panera. Both women were running late—which was fortunate, as DiLorenzo later learned a gunman had been inside the restaurant and was killed. “My friend got caught up in the flow of people coming out on one side of the building, and I was on the other side, unaware of what was happening,” DiLorenzo recalls. “The police came into the bookstore and yelled for us to evacuate and I ran out of there, my baby in my arms, terrified.” Though deeply upset by the incident, she also felt it was “a weird one-time thing and that Princeton is generally quite safe.”
Several months later, DiLorenzo was invited to do an author visit at a local school. “I did two big assemblies, sharing about my previous books,” she says, remembering that a couple of alarms had gone off in between her talks. “They told me they were testing the alarms, so I didn’t really think anything of it.” After everything was done and she was about to leave, a librarian asked if she could show her all the artwork the kids did in response to her books in the library. When another alarm rang, DiLorenzo wasn’t concerned. “But then the librarian ran and turned off the lights, put the blinds down, and told us where to go behind the desk,” she says. “When I asked, ‘Is this another drill?’ she said, ‘No, it’s not. It’s an active shooter code.’ ”
As they waited, DiLorenzo and the librarian talked quietly about what might be happening. “I was thinking about what these little wiggly kids who could barely sit still during a talk were going through and what the teachers were going through,” she says. “How does a teacher in that urgent moment keep a whole classroom quiet and safe?”
After roughly half an hour, the librarian received a message that there was no active shooter in the building—it had been a threat called into area schools—and everyone was let go. “This really shook me,” DiLorenzo says. “I couldn’t stop thinking about how it is sort of the elephant in the room, in terms of how we talk about a lot of other things for kids like the first day of school, getting a sibling, all these different aspects of life that we try to help children through, but this big thing wasn’t talked about.”
Another factor in DiLorenzo’s decision to move forward with her book idea was her realization that she had not paid close attention to what her own children had experienced during similar drills. “I kept not wanting to write it,” she says. “And then I kept coming back to it thinking, I have to do this.” In her mind’s eye, “the initial vision that came to me was of the outdoors, away from the school somewhere, not at all connected so the conversation could be in a very safe space.” She also imagined a grandparent-grandchild relationship and pictured an autumn backdrop, because that’s when students typically learn different kinds of drills.
“I didn’t put it down on paper until I went to a conference and an editor there suggested I write it down,” she notes. She then sent it to her agent, Rachel Orr at the Prospect Agency, who started to send it out right as the pandemic hit. “Everyone was so traumatized by Covid,” DiLorenzo recalls, “that the initial response was, ‘This is too much. We can’t handle a pandemic and this.’ ”
The manuscript sat for a year, and after some more tweaking it went out again. “The funny thing was,” DiLorenzo says, “some of the bigger publishing houses responded by saying, ‘It’s a nice submission, however, we don’t engage with this topic. We see this topic come across our desk a lot, but we just don’t know how to deal with it.’ It was really interesting to get that feedback.”
Soon after that second round of rejections, Jeannette Larson, consulting editor at Flyway Books, reached out to Orr in search of a book that would help children deal with fear, and DiLorenzo’s project found a home. “I think this is a timely thing to talk about,” DiLorenzo says, “but Jeannette’s main thrust was how to help kids handle fear and anxiety. I think she did a great job fleshing out the list of ways to cope that appears in the author’s note, and she made sure that it ended up that not all the answers are in the book. It’s really an icebreaker meant to start the conversation with kids and caregivers, not to say that there’s an answer, because I don’t know what the answer is other than to really listen to kids.”
In terms of design, DiLorenzo points out, “One thing about this book that was really important to me is to make sure that any pre-readers who pick up the book do not see any images of violence, that it’s only nature and the grandfather and the granddaughter, and there’s nothing that a pre-reader is going to be upset by.”
Another thing DiLorenzo is insistent about is that the book should not have a traditional release. She is “immensely sad” that her new work will be tied to tragedy, especially because it is arriving not long after the school shooting in Uvalde, Tex. “There’s no way I’m sitting in a bookstore and signing books,” she says. “That’s gross, and I’m not doing that.”
She has decided instead to do a series of free art-in-the-park events with children and caregivers, close to her New Jersey home. “I’ll have art materials,” she says, “and when people come, we can talk about different skills, like observing nature and drawing. I’ll have the book in the background if people are interested and want to look at it, but even if they don’t notice the book, it’s still worth it to me.”
DiLorenzo says she knows from her experience teaching with the Arts Council in Princeton and working with many different populations that “the art space becomes a refuge, where whatever is going on in the rest of your life, this is a space to kind of let go the little bit. When everyone in a group has paper and paints and they’re doing their thing, the conversations that happen can be really entertaining and funny, but also poignant. So if that helps teachers, that’s great. The publisher just asked me to put together a guide with some step-by-step notes on how to draw different things like natural objects, and I want to try nature journaling. Channeling some of that energy that way might help.”
A version of this article appeared in the 08/08/2022 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Calming Fear Through Art