In most cases today, normal childhood fears are handled differently than when I was a kid. The generation that proceeded us; our parents and their parents, grew up in a very different world. World War One, the Great Depression, World War Two put all of them in a survival mode. In turn, they wanted to pass on that toughness to their children.
Resiliency, self-preservation, and basic survival instincts abound. One took care of him or herself. You faced challenges head on. And if you could; so, should your kids. When the youngsters showed fear, you had a ready answer for their fears:
‘There’s nothing to be afraid of.’ ‘It’s all in your head.’ ‘Be a man.’ ‘Grow up.’ ‘Get over it.’
Of course, that belligerent, boisterous, manly response did little to nothing to alleviate the normal fears facing the child. It just taught them to ‘shut up’ and ‘don’t bring it up again.’ That truism never left me and now I can face it one more time…with the help of a little hippopotamus.
There are very few genres I haven’t at least tip-toed around in my writing explorations. I’ve helped find love for two older single gay men. I’ve been an interested observer for a woman in a polyamorous relationship. I’ve scanned the Western horizon for signs of Indian troubles and slashed my way through the thick jungles of Vietnam. My girlfriend and I’ve even run in terror from shift-changers through the ruins of Angkor Watt.
But to cozy up to an insecure, skinny hippo in the Pangani River under the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro was an entirely new experience for me. Undaunted by the challenge of talking to ‘little people’ verses my more mature crowd of readers, I stumbled ahead.
My first children’s book: ‘Waleed, the Skinny Hippo was the story of a skinny hippo who learns from a very wise fish that’s okay to be different. In fact, being different is something to embrace and welcome he is told. Feedback on this first version of ‘Waleed, the Skinny Hippo’ was fantastic. People loved the bright colored pages, the cute and cuddly Waleed, and the moral tale of accepting oneself as you are.
As proud as I am of this first version, I wanted to expand its reach as much as I could. So, Vida and I decided to create two new versions of the first Waleed. So now I’m happy to report that besides being translated into Swahili, Waleed is now also available in both Spanish and Hmong.
Despite the slow steps taken in marketing Waleed, it was time to think about a second book in the ‘Waleed’ children’s book series. I decided that this next book would discuss the ‘concept of facing one’s fears.’
As mentioned before, the idea of being afraid came from clichés thrown at me and other kids growing up. Unfortunately, it was from a generation that thought tough love meant little affection and manning up to one’s fears. I’ve always thought that denying one’s fears or trying to ignore them was the wrong approach.
Based on that wrong approach and trying to correct it, I wanted to write a moral tale about facing one’s fears but not necessarily conquering them. I honestly don’t know if that is possible, especially for a little kid. The story, as it’s been roughed out thus far, is pretty straight-forward.
Waleed is told about a magical river on the other side of the jungle. He is encouraged to go there and play with other hippos. But to get there Waleed must pass through this deep, dark and perceived dangerous jungle. All of his friends leave him and enter the jungle. Waleed is all alone. He doesn’t know what to do. Finally, he gathers up his courage and he too enters the dark jungle.
There are all kinds of scary sights and sounds in the jungle. Just about the time that Waleed decides to turn around and run away, he meets a wise elephant who talks to him about facing his fears and dealing with them.
I felt it was important to steer away from the clichés and pat-phrases I had been bombarded with as a child. While that older generation might have felt they were only trying to help, I think a lot of that advice fell far short of being helpful. The older generational ideas of masculinity and bravado proved to be obstacles to truly dealing with one’s fears.
Waleed learns that fear can be managed and might not go away entirely. He learns from a wise old elephant that it is perfectly okay to be fearful of sights and sounds and things that might not bother other hippos. Like dealing with his weight, Waleed learns that he is unique as a little skinny hippo and he must handle his fear as he feels best suits him.
That’s where the book stands now just before publication. I think Waleed and I are both very satisfied with its message. For humans and hippos alike, it’s pretty good advice.