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Dr. Emily Mazzulla: “Believe you can make an impact”

By writing this book, I was hoping that it would serve as a useful resource for supporting kids’ social-emotional well-being by building resilience in kids during this challenging time. I wrote it as a tool to talk to elementary school aged children about their thoughts and feelings related to the return to school while the […]

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By writing this book, I was hoping that it would serve as a useful resource for supporting kids’ social-emotional well-being by building resilience in kids during this challenging time. I wrote it as a tool to talk to elementary school aged children about their thoughts and feelings related to the return to school while the coronavirus is still in the community. Although the details of the safety measures implemented in each school are going to be different, the tone of the conversation between kids and caregivers is the same across the world. I can’t think of another time in history when everyone across the world was collectively managing the same crisis-it’s incredible. Kids have questions, and while we do not have all the answers, we can validate our kids’ thoughts and feelings, let them know that we are thinking deeply about their safety and that we are here to help them. Additionally, I believe that kids are incredibly resilient and if given the tools and emotional support, can thrive in the face of adversity.


As part of my series about “How to write a book that sparks a movement” I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Mazzulla, Ph.D.

Emily Mazzulla, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist, Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology at Marquette University (MU) and the MU Director of SWIM Collaboration and Innovation. Dr. Mazzulla’s clinical and research interests are in trauma and resilience. She adores spending time with her three children, James, Georgia and Theodore, and wasting time with her husband, Perry. Dr. Mazzulla lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the “backstory” about how you grew up?

I grew up in Milwaukee, WI in a large, spirited family of six. My parents had high expectations of us and modeled an impressive work ethic and unwavering level of dedication to the family. Through their example and their words, they instilled in us a sense of responsibility to ourselves and to others. My parents taught us to be grateful for the opportunities we had and to give back when we saw the opportunity to do so. They were always sharing the perspective of the underdog-which I appreciate to this day. When I decided to become a clinical psychologist, I knew that I would work with people who needed help clinically and through advocacy. My clinical and research career has focused on traumatic stress and resilience, mainly in re-settled refugees from many cultures across the world. It is heartbreaking what humans do to each other, and it is also remarkable what obstacles individuals, families and communities can overcome. I have learned an incredible amount from my work and as a result have a robust confidence in the power of the human spirit.

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?

I was recently reading about “bibliotherapy” which is the concept of examining your own life struggles through the themes explored in literature. As a psychologist, this concept fascinates me and upon reflection, I think my Dad inadvertently subscribes to this homeopathic form of psychology. When I was growing up, my Dad would periodically recommend books and (regrettably) I would not always take his recommendations. Fortunately, the titles tended to recycle themselves such that by the time I left for college, I had read all of my Dad’s life lessons. If I needed motivation, Winston Churchill’s speech “We shall fight on the beaches” about the battle of Dunkirk was left on my desk. If I was particularly down-trodden (and a speech would not suffice) perhaps The Last Lion by William Manchester chronicling the life of Winston Churchill would appear on my bedside table. If I needed a lesson in acceptance, Epictetus’ The Art of Living, would surface from the bookshelf. My Dad is an eternal optimist and believes in success through perseverance. Although I don’t remember the exact circumstances surrounding the first time The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay appeared before me, however, my Dad re-recommend it a few years back (this time from across the country and over the phone) when I was feeling stuck in my life and I was contemplating making a significant change professionally. The story is about a boy named Peekay growing up in South Africa who faces adversity at every turn. He learns through determination, grit, and heartbreakingly challenging relationships, that he is capable and powerful on his own. After re-reading The Power of One, I felt a renewed sense of confidence in my abilities to overcome my current circumstances and proceeded to make some significant changes.

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

School in the Time of the Coronavirus is about an elementary school student preparing to go back to school during the coronavirus pandemic. I have three children of my own, two of whom will be making the transition back to school themselves. When I decided to write the book, the narrative in the news and in opinion articles was, and still is, almost entirely focused on the statistics of the virus and logistical safety measures for kids and teachers. These topics are rightfully central to the discourse, however, the behavioral and emotional health of kids making the transition is noticeably not a significant part of the conversation. The truth of the matter is that almost every aspect of our children’s lives has changed since the onset of the pandemic. Children are learning from home, are not involved in extra-curricular activities, are unable to socialize with their friends, are unable to hug their grandparents, and are now preparing to return to school with myriad changes to their school environments (or back to isolated on-line learning environments). Kids are incredibly perceptive and are absorbing our uncertainty and apprehension about the transition back to school, whether it be in the fall or at a later date. They are looking to us as parents and trusted adults to help them with this transition. Children’s books are a safe, enjoyable way to engage in conversation with kids about difficult topics. I thought I could contribute to the conversation in a productive, positive way.

What impact did you hope to make when you wrote this book?

By writing this book, I was hoping that it would serve as a useful resource for supporting kids’ social-emotional well-being by building resilience in kids during this challenging time. I wrote it as a tool to talk to elementary school aged children about their thoughts and feelings related to the return to school while the coronavirus is still in the community. Although the details of the safety measures implemented in each school are going to be different, the tone of the conversation between kids and caregivers is the same across the world. I can’t think of another time in history when everyone across the world was collectively managing the same crisis-it’s incredible. Kids have questions, and while we do not have all the answers, we can validate our kids’ thoughts and feelings, let them know that we are thinking deeply about their safety and that we are here to help them. Additionally, I believe that kids are incredibly resilient and if given the tools and emotional support, can thrive in the face of adversity.

Did the actual results align with your expectations? Can you explain?

I have been very pleased with the response to the book so far! Parents and caregivers seem to be excited (or maybe relieved) to have the resource and kids seem to be enjoying reading it too! The illustrations by Antonija Marinic are exceptionally detailed, colorful and engaging.

What moment let you know that your book had started a movement? Please share a story.

As I mentioned, the response to the book has been incredible. I am very pleased that the message has a far reach and is hopefully helping many kids and families. I also think the emphasis on resilience is so important when framing this conversation. There is a lot of negativity surrounding the pandemic and it is easy to get pulled in. Kids need to know that they are safe, they can do difficult things, adults are here when they need us, and that the pandemic is not going to last forever. We can do this together!

What kinds of things did you hear right away from readers? What are the most frequent things you hear from readers about your book now? Are they the same? Different?

Given the topic of the book and the fast approaching start to school, this has been a whirlwind process from inception to publication! So far, readers have been very generous in their review of the book and have supported the message of resilience. Parents have expressed gratitude for the resource and kids seem to like the colorful illustrations! I also think the story is relatable given the shared circumstances readers have with the characters navigating the transition back to school after adjusting to working and learning from home. There are some sweet moments in the book, perhaps the “silver linings”, with which readers can identify. For example, the mom is doing her best at cutting her daughter’s hair and the daughter is clearly enjoying the increased one-on-one time she has with her mom. That’s been fun feedback to get because a lot of the story-line was drawn from my experience being at home with my kids during this time.

What is the most moving or fulfilling experience you’ve had as a result of writing this book? Can you share a story?

The uncertainty of this time has been challenging and it is easy to get bogged down in the fear of the “what ifs”. Before I wrote the book, I listened to the news or read articles and felt utterly powerless. I hate that feeling! Yes, I limited my outings, socially distanced, and wore a mask in public, however, I was not an essential worker, I was not on the front lines helping patients, and I was not working to find a vaccine. Additionally, my six-year-old son, James, asked me a lot of questions about the coronavirus and clearly picked up on the fact that adults were worried. Once I realized that a children’s book could help kids and families process this time, I immediately felt like I could actively contribute in a meaningful way and that I could be part of the solution. It was a great way to channel my nervous energy about the pandemic!

Have you experienced anything negative? Do you feel there are drawbacks to writing a book that starts such colossal conversation and change?

My experience to date with this book has been wonderful. Early on in the pandemic, I shifted to working remotely, as many parents across the world have done, and there are real challenges of working from home while raising three young children, even in a two-parent household. I am grateful that the summer months are devoid of on-line learning, but I do juggle work and family which is not always easy. Overall, however, I am very appreciative for the opportunity to share my work and reach so many kids and families through this book.

Can you articulate why you think books in particular have the power to create movements, revolutions, and true change?

In a world of screens and a culture of immediacy, books seem to take a backseat. However, the power of language and prose to evoke emotion and inspire change cannot be underestimated. As a professor, my writing career prior to School in the Time of the Coronavirus centered on peer reviewed academic research, conceptual articles, and grant submissions. I have always been energized by crafting an argument that will be convincing and encourage readers to consider a topic in a nuanced way. Similarly, as a reader, I am drawn to books that are compelling and energize me towards action. Pictures may say a 1000 words, but most books do not have a word limit! Children’s books are a lovely hybrid of visual and written mediums allowing for powerful prose and impactful images.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a bestselling writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

As I have mentioned, I am working from home and juggling the demands of work with the varied needs of my children. As a result, my most cherished (and productive!) time has become the hours between my children’s bedtime and my own. I seem to marinate the ideas I have throughout the day, and when I can finally give them attention without interruption, I can usually get into a flow. This is a definite shift for me since the onset of the pandemic, as I am generally an enthusiastic sleeper with an early bedtime.

What challenge or failure did you learn the most from in your writing career? Can you share the lesson(s) that you learned?

School in the Time of the Coronavirus has been an wonderful project to work on, and certainly a labor of love. However, it is a definite departure from the type of writing I am used to. Children’s books are like a puzzle such that every selected word has to fit together perfectly, simultaneously moving the story-line forward, developing the characters, and conveying a message. This was challenging for me! I am not known for brevity in my spoken or written word.

Many aspiring authors would love to make an impact similar to what you have done. What are the 5 things writers needs to know if they want to spark a movement with a book? (please include a story or example for each)

  1. Believe you can make an impact. Just as Peekay learned, there is power in one! Movement and change require momentum, however, someone has to make the first move. Why not you?
  2. Acknowledge the fear, doubt, worry (insert challenging emotion here) and keep going. There were lots of moments while I was writing, editing, illustrating, formatting, publishing, and marketing this book when I thought of abandoning the project. However, I chose to focus on motivating thoughts such as “I think this book could be helpful” and the satisfaction of contributing positively in this time of uncertainty.
  3. Write about a topic for which you have passion. It isn’t enough to be knowledgeable. People are moved by information but also by their emotions. If you convey your strong emotion through a solid argument, it may evoke a similar response in your readers.
  4. Ask around! Tell people about your book and gauge interest. Have conversations about the topic and challenge your own assumptions, so that you can be effective conveying your message.
  5. Ask for help. School in the Time of the Coronavirus is supported by the talents of many people including an illustrator, an editor, a layout editor, a publicist, and the marketing and communications team at Marquette University. Although there is power in one, there is also strength in numbers!

The world, of course, needs progress in many areas. What movement do you hope someone (or you!) starts next? Can you explain why that is so important?

I think there is fantastic work being done to reduce stigma surrounding talking about mental health and seeking assistance for mental health concerns. HeadsTogether in the UK is one organization that is taking a creative approach to raising awareness. My work with other cultures, especially non-Western cultures, taught me early on that a non-pathologizing approach to assessment and intervention goes a long way. We are very fortunate to live in a time when there are some amazing and effective interventions to address mental health concerns and reduce suffering. Unfortunately, in addition to reducing the stigma related to mental health, we also need to address other barriers to accessing treatment. Differential access to services and disparities in care across socio-economic and racial lines is a huge problem here in the US and in other parts of the world. My work with Marquette University and Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee (SWIM) is working to address some of these disparities locally (swimmke.org). I have lots of ideas about how to push this movement forward and would love the opportunity to be part of the broader conversation!

How can our readers follow you on social media? Instagram:

@schoolinthetimeofcoronavirus; facebook: Emily Mazzulla; website: emilymazzulla.com. The book is available for purchase at book sellers including Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Thank you so much for these insights. It was a true pleasure to do this with you.

THANK YOU FOR THE OPPORTUNITY!!

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