Brian Wray: “My primary aim is to be a storyteller”

My primary aim is to be a storyteller. The stories I write portray characters that are dealing with emotional or mental health issues. If I tell those stories successfully, then they have some hope of reaching the millions of children who may be feeling alone in their experience. When a story reaches a child and […]

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My primary aim is to be a storyteller. The stories I write portray characters that are dealing with emotional or mental health issues. If I tell those stories successfully, then they have some hope of reaching the millions of children who may be feeling alone in their experience. When a story reaches a child and lets them know they’re not alone, it can offer solace. It also creates a sense of community. That sense of community offers hope, and hope is empowering. I aim to tell the kind of stories that can provide that experience.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Wray.

Brian is an award-winning author of children’s books that focus on children’s mental and emotional health. In 2003, he was awarded the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. During an opportunity to write for Walt Disney Studios, Brian discovered his passion for telling stories for children. His first books, “Unraveling Rose” and “Max’s Box”, were named the 2017 and 2019 Foreword INDIES Gold Winners for Picture Books, Early Reader.

Brian’s latest book, “Maia and the Very Tall Wall”, is a story of how one’s voice can change things for the better. The School Library Journal says, “Maia’s story shines through and presents a positive message of holding on to one’s curiosity and passion.” Brian writes from Brooklyn, NY, where he lives with his family and their endless inspiration.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Thank you for speaking with me! I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. My childhood was fairly quiet and uneventful. This I can tell you — as far back as I can remember, I have loved stories and storytelling. It didn’t matter if it was listening to family members tell stories at dinner, or being read to, or movies — I loved a good story. As soon as I learned how to string words together, I started trying to write my own.

I was also what would’ve been described at the time as a “sensitive” child. I felt things intensely, and I was often unsure of what to do with those feelings. I think it’s safe to say that my parents were also unsure. Looking back, I must have picked up on that confusion and took it to mean that something was wrong with me. That certainly leads to a feeling of isolation. I suppose that has a large part in why I explore the stories that I do.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

I grew up very close to my grandparents and whenever we visited them, which was often, my grandma would read to me. I remember her reading many books, but there was one that really intrigued me called “A Fish Out of Water” (written by Helen Palmer, illustrated by P.D. Eastman). It’s the story of a little boy who buys a pet goldfish. The boy ignores the pet shop owner’s advice not to overfeed the fish, and the fish begins to grow uncontrollably. It outgrows the fishbowl, the soup pot, the bathtub, and eventually the community swimming pool. The whole time, the boy is struggling to get the situation under control, with no success. Finally, the pet shop owner arrives, returns the fish to its original size, and reminds the boy not to overfeed the fish.

Looking at the book now (I bought a copy to share with my children), I can see that it’s a cautionary tale about responsibility and not heeding the advice of grownups. But that’s not what I loved about the book as a child. I identified with that little boy; the panic he experienced at feeling out of control of his situation. Things were happening, and he was struggling to deal with them. I knew what that felt like, and it was comforting to hear the story of someone who was having the same experience. That is what I attempt to do with my work, today; to write stories that have a magical quality on their surface, but are driven by characters experiencing what a lot of children are managing in their lives.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I wouldn’t call it a mistake exactly, but very early in my writing career, I had what could have been a really embarrassing situation. Shortly after my screenwriting partner and I were awarded the Nicholl Fellowship, we were contacted by Disney, saying that they’d like to meet with us. We were thrilled!! This was a huge honor. Unfortunately, a few days before the meeting I began to feel a tickle in my throat. By the night before, I had completely lost my voice. I wasn’t running a fever. Didn’t feel sick in any other way. It was just that, after days of meeting and talking with people, my voice had simply given out. I didn’t know what to do. This was an opportunity that I didn’t want to miss. We contemplated the options and decided to go forward.

We explained the situation when we arrived, but I can’t imagine that the people we met with have ever had a meeting like that before. It was like a comedy routine, with me playing the part of Harpo. All I needed was the horn under the jacket. My partner spoke, I mimed, and we got the job! I’d like to think it was entirely because of our work, but part of me suspects it’s also because of the impression we made. I came away from that experience learning two things. First, it really helps to have a solid partner to lean on. The second is that life is inevitably going to throw you curveballs. Leaning into those unanticipated moments can pay off in life-changing ways.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

My primary aim is to be a storyteller. The stories I write portray characters that are dealing with emotional or mental health issues. If I tell those stories successfully, then they have some hope of reaching the millions of children who may be feeling alone in their experience. When a story reaches a child and lets them know they’re not alone, it can offer solace. It also creates a sense of community. That sense of community offers hope, and hope is empowering. I aim to tell the kind of stories that can provide that experience.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

“Maia and the Very Tall Wall” is my latest book, and it’s the story of a young girl discovering the power of using her voice, the possibilities that come with speaking up, and how one’s voice can change things for the better. Adults forget sometimes because we’ve been doing it for so long, that using your voice is a skill that requires encouragement and practice. I remember being terribly shy and hesitant to speak up, despite my curiosity and many questions. A teacher I had in the fourth grade encouraged me to speak up, and it had a huge impact on my life. I hope that children who may be feeling like Maia, will read her story and feel encouraged to practice using their own voices.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

It was definitely less of an “aha moment” and more a series of events that led me to what I do. After the project for Disney, I realized that I really enjoy writing for children. It also happened that I had a young child at the time. Not only did we read a lot of books together, but I was often asked to improvise stories on long car trips. Some of them were utterly forgettable, but some I took the time to write down. It was very different from screenwriting, but I kept working on it. I felt I was getting better with the general craft of it, but the content still felt incomplete. The stories weren’t resonating with me. They didn’t feel honest. I started thinking about books from my childhood that appealed to me (including “A Fish Out of Water”), and why they meant something to me. It seemed to me that if my stories had any chance of connecting, they had to be based on truth, and so I started exploring my own feelings and experiences as a child.

Through writing those stories, I learned that I was far from alone. Recent research suggests that 1 in 5 children a year, in the United States alone, are dealing with an emotional or mental health disorder. That comes to around 17 million children, who may be feeling isolated by their experience.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Since the books have been released, I have been overwhelmed by the messages I’ve received, or that have been posted by families relating how the books have made an impact. Shortly after the release of Unraveling Rose, I read this note from a family that had read the book. “My son is eleven, but we just read Unraveling Rose… L*** really related to Rose, and we had some good back and forth conversation about his own OCD. He then told me, ‘Mama. I want to take this book to Dr. K***. She can have it for other kids like me.’ Oh, my heart.”

It is difficult to accurately express what it feels like to know something that you’ve created, alone at your desk, has found its way into the world and connected with someone in that way.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

1. Encourage parents and caregivers to create environments where children feel empowered to share their feelings, which would help end stigmas about discussing such topics.

2. Make learning about emotions part of the public school curriculum. Children’s ability to cope with emotions has a direct impact on their ability to learn.

3. More funding for mental health programs. Even before Covid, it was estimated that 20% of children and adolescents experienced mental health disorders. Research shows widespread shortages of child mental health specialists across the United States.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I think a good leader is someone who makes other people feel comfortable and puts them in a position where they can do their best. It also means creating an environment where people feel open to sharing ideas and expressing their views.

In my personal life, that leader was my grandma. She was not only supportive in the general sense of the word but helped create in me the feeling of wanting to do the best work I could do.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. That when you’re just getting started, you’re going to make a number of mistakes. That’s pretty self-explanatory, but in the middle of a struggle, it’s easy to forget.

2. There is no shortcut to creating something worthwhile. As I mentioned earlier, getting to the place where I was writing stories that I felt were vibrant, and worthwhile, took time and patience.

3. Telling a story you want to tell, in your voice, is what will help your stories stand apart. There is, I think, a natural tendency to compare your work to the work of others. While it is important and certainly helpful to read the work of others — I read often for inspiration — trying to duplicate someone else’s voice will likely not resonate with people in the same way.

4. You are going to have to be your own advocate. I remember many times feeling like I had made a mistake in pursuing the work I was doing. Friends and family were supportive, but it was essentially up to me to dust myself off after a rejection letter and get the story back out there with the same belief in the story that I had when I wrote it.

5. That if you’re writing stories that some may consider lacking a broad appeal, finding a publisher is may take longer. That was certainly true in my case, and I’m so glad that I didn’t give up. Those rejection letters were worth it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorite writers is E.B. White, and I particularly like this quote of his — “The world is full of people who have never, since childhood, met an open doorway with an open mind.” It’s a reminder to me of how important it is to nourish that part of myself that stays open to possibilities. Not just new experiences or new ways of approaching a certain subject, but also remaining open to understanding other people’s experiences. The world becomes much, much larger through those open doors.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

It would definitely be Kate DiCamillo. I am so inspired by her work. Her stories understand a really important truth about childhood, which is that life isn’t always easy. She doesn’t shy from exploring sadness. And she has respect for her readers and a faith that they can handle those subjects. There is immeasurable value in her stories because she’s letting every reader know that they’re not alone. Such a gift!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I have a website, which is Or, you can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. I’m still building the courage to brave TikTok. If anyone out there could find it in themselves to explain TikTok to me, I would be so grateful.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thank you so much for taking to time to talk with me!

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