“It can come as a surprise,” opens Anastasia Higginbotham’s Divorce Is the Worst, which provides a candid look at a gender-unspecified child’s reaction to learning of his or her parents’ impending divorce. This debut volume in the Ordinary Terrible Things series from The Feminist Press at the City University of New York pubs on April 14. Illustrated with collage art, the picture book aims to validate children’s emotions as they process the words and actions of divorcing parents, as well as the implications of the end of a marriage.
Higginbotham’s own childhood experience – her parents separated when she was 14 – inspired her series’ launch title. “For years, I have been carrying around this story, and it ended up becoming this book bearing witness to a child’s perspective on divorce,” she said. “Around the same time as my parents’ divorce, I went to two funerals – one of my grandmothers and my grandfather – and I saw my parents grieving at the death of a parent.” Those milestones in her life spawned what will be the next book in the series, Death Is Stupid, due (along with Tell Me About Sex, Grandma) in spring 2016.
The author’s goal with the Ordinary Terrible Things books is to help both kids and adults through common, potentially upsetting, childhood experiences by putting them in a rational perspective. “I think adults have to do a better job at being attuned to, and not minimize, what kids are going through in troubling times,” she said. “Grownups should be mindful that children in transition are dealing with pain and loss, and help them to see what is happening as a rite of passage rather than a devastating moment.”
Though Divorce Is the Worst is her first published book, Higginbotham, who has two young sons, has written and illustrated numerous books for herself, her family, and friends. She has created art in various media, but realized that collage was the best way to graphically tell this story.
“I saw a connection between divorce and collage,” she explained. “I worked with ripped paper and skies cut in two because that's how my parents’ separation felt to me. I wanted these collages to claim that experience for myself and other kids. That divorce was mine just as much as it was my parents’. This book is about tending to and mending broken places so that real healing can happen. In that sense, the book is also meant to ease the minds of parents who are worried about what the divorce will do to their kids.”
Finding a Welcoming Home
Higginbotham showed Divorce Is the Worst to Jennifer Baumgardner, publisher and director of the Feminist Press, whom she met at Ms. in 1994, when the author worked as an intern at the magazine and Baumgardner was her intern coordinator. “I shared the book and the series idea with Jennifer as a friend,” said Higginbotham. But the editor, a filmmaker, activist, and writer on feminist issues as well as on such topics as abortion, rape, and bisexuality, was moved to acquire Ordinary Terrible Things for the press.
“As a writer over the years, I became totally obsessed and emotionally involved in an issue or a story I felt needed telling,” said Baumgardner. “When I saw Anastasia’s story and collages, I immediately felt this click of understanding. I left my son’s dad before he was born. He’s now 10 and they are in touch, but this split has had major repercussions for him. Divorce Is the Worst made me realize that my experience with that divorce was so different from his. Also, I’ve seen firsthand how healing it can be for someone to talk about their experience and feelings without having someone talk them out of them. I felt that Anastasia was giving me a gift with this book.”
Higginbotham, in turn, hopes that her series will similarly touch and validate the emotions of young readers dealing with childhood transitions that, though ordinary, can indeed seem terrible and overwhelming. “The series is an invitation to kids to see what’s broken in their lives, who is missing, what’s lost or mangled or new or frightening, and to know that their awareness of that matters now and will continue to matter, all the way along,” she said. “I want readers to feel powerful in their observations, feelings, and honest appraisal of the situation, and to be confident of what is true for them.”
Ordinary Terrible Things: Divorce Is the Worst by Anastasia Higginbotham. The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, $16.95 Apr. ISBN 978-1-55861-880-0