Q&A with Waking Ben Doldrums author Heather Smith

Q&A with Waking Ben Doldrums author Heather Smith

“The hopeful tone and compassion the diverse group of neighbors show for one another will resonate with young readers…A highly recommended title.”
– School Library Connection

Neighbors come together to support a university student experiencing depression in this illustrated picture book about the power of community and kindness.

Frida Bellows lives in a big house made up of four apartments. Every morning, she gets on her father’s shoulders and taps on the ceiling with a broomstick. This wakes her neighbor, a student named Ben Doldrums who knocks on the wall to wake the Mercredis, who in turn knock on the floor to wake the Reynolds. Frida likes this morning tradition. It makes her feel like she’s part of something big. Things change, however, when Ben stops getting out of bed to wake the Mercredis, which throws off the whole routine. Frida notices that Ben Doldrums is not himself and she wants to help. But how?

In this article, author Heather Smith answers some questions about her new picture book Waking Ben Doldrums.

What inspired you to write this story?

The idea for Waking Ben Doldrums came when I was watching a British show called The Great Interior Design Challenge. In one episode they were in Walthamstow, England, talking about the history of the Warner Estate. The historian described how the homes were split into four flats and the walls were so thin the occupants created a morning alarm system by knocking on the walls. I thought it would be cool to write this unique waking-up system into a picture book and explore the occupants’ sense of community.

This story is told from the perspective of the precocious Frida Bellows. Why did you decide to tell the story from her point of view instead of the titular Ben Doldrums?

I wrote Frida as the main character because her point of view is one that I share. Like Frida, I have been unsure how to deal with the mental health issues of someone close to me. I know firsthand the desperation to make things better only to realize there’s no easy fix. It’s hard to see someone you love sad, despondent, and shrinking away from the world. All you can do is support them the best way you can. And even though it can feel as though nothing seems to help, sometimes it’s the small gestures of support that can truly make a difference and help ease the pain.

Can you explain why you named your character Ben Doldrums?

I am a crossword lover and am always interested in the definition and etymology of unusual or interesting words. “The doldrums” is a nautical term that refers to an area of sea near the equator where ships sometimes get stuck because of the unusually calm winds. By extension, the expression “in the doldrums” means feeling stuck, listless, and/or despondent. Given Ben’s situation, this name seemed to be a good fit.

Waking Ben Doldrums really highlights the importance of mental health and community. Can you explain why you wanted to explore these themes in a picture book?

I believe that picture books are great places for children to explore the world and “meet” the different people who live in it. In Waking Ben Doldrums, a child reader will meet Ben, a young person who is struggling with his mental health.  For some children this might be a situation they are already familiar with, for others it will be something they’ve yet to experience. This is the beauty of picture books. They give some children the opportunity to feel understood and others the opportunity to make connections so that they might someday understand somebody else. It’s my hope that young readers will remember Ben and Frida if they—or someone they love—find themselves struggling.

There is such a colorful collection of characters in this book, did you have a favorite to create?

Funnily enough, although I originally created this character, it was Byron’s interpretation of him that made him a clear favourite. I knew I wanted Billy Mercredi to be a go-cart builder (and crasher!), but I never thought that he’d be so attached to the sport he’d wear his helmet in every single scene! This one little detail really brought out Billy’s personality and the whole thing gave me Wes Anderson vibes—which for me is a good thing!

This book features stunning and detailed illustrations by Byron Eggenschwiler. Do you have a favorite spread from the book? Why?

Unfortunately, I can’t pick just one, because Byron’s depiction of the housemates attempting to cheer Ben up is my favourite “moment” and it occurs over four spreads. In each scene Ben becomes progressively more withdrawn until all we see is a glimpse of him walking off the page. These four spreads are brilliantly done and really capture Ben’s despondency as he shrinks away from his well-meaning neighbours.

What do you hope readers take away from the book?

I hope readers take away that although we can’t fix other people’s problems, our small acts of kindness can go a long way.

What was the most rewarding part of writing this book? The most challenging?

The most rewarding part was seeing it come to life under Orca’s art direction and Byron Eggenschwiler’s gorgeous illustrations. The finished product was everything I wanted it to be and more. I love the illustrated characters so much I wish I could climb in the book and be their best friend!

The most challenging part was showing an authentic portrayal of a young person with depression while still creating a hopeful book. Although the ending may seem unresolved, I hope readers will see just how much Frida’s compassion has helped Ben. By giving him space and providing gentle support Ben is now sometimes able to participate in their morning routine—and for Frida, Ben, and the other housemates, that’s a win to be celebrated.

Heather Smith is the author of several picture books, including the award-winning The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden. Her middle-grade novel Ebb and Flow was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award, and her YA novel The Agony of Bun O’Keefe won the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award, the OLA Forest of Reading White Pine Award and was shortlisted for the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award and the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People. Originally from Newfoundland, Heather now lives in Waterloo, Ontario, with her family.

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