NEW YORK – As the U.S. prepares for a possible war with Iraq, a self-professed "Army brat" is publishing a timely storybook for children who are waving goodbye to parents in the military.
Currently available online at Booksforbrats.net, the book comes in two versions depending on which parent is leaving – Daddy, You're My Hero and Mommy, You're My Hero. The hardcover will be available by the end of the month.
"There are very few, if any, books that target this community," said author/illustrator Michelle Ferguson-Cohen, of New York. "It's important to reach out to those children."
The story, told from a military child's perspective, portrays the experience of watching a parent leave and then trying to stay connected to that parent through activities like writing letters, painting pictures and planning a welcome-home party.
"I'm making her drawings everyday. Some Dad is sending, some I'm putting away," reads one page in Mommy, You're My Hero. "And when she gets back I'll give her the rest. Those are the presents Mom loves the best!"
Ferguson-Cohen, whose father served two tours in Vietnam when she was 3 to 5 years old, said her intent in creating the book (appropriate for preschoolers and early-elementary kids) was to facilitate communication about being in a military family.
"This gives them a comforting way of addressing it without being too dramatic and frightening," Ferguson-Cohen said. "It helps children deal with separation. It gives them the language to say what they're thinking and feeling."
The absence of a parent can be incredibly traumatic for kids, said Army veteran and war correspondent Col. David "Hack" Hackworth.
"It emotionally scars children," he said. "You can't have a separation without affecting the child."
According to the Military Family Resource Center, 46 percent of military personnel have children; 1.2 million kids have at least one parent in the service.
With the large number of troops being deployed for a possible war, Hackworth predicted: "It's going to very seriously affect a big generation of Americans who didn't have their mommy, or who went through anxiety over not having their dad."
Child-parent relationship expert Frances Stott of the Erikson Institute in Chicago said the impact on children depends on how the parent at home "carries the show."
"If the parent left behind feels good about it, is proud and supportive, then the child stands a better chance of adjusting to the situation," said Stott, dean of academic programs at Erikson, a child-development graduate school.
That's exactly the approach Ferguson-Cohen said her mother took when her father served in the Vietnam War.
"My mom did a really great job of making everything appear very normal in our house," she said. "I think it would be very frightening to wonder every day if your husband is dead or alive and assure your children that things are OK."
Stott agrees that bringing optimism to the situation is crucial, but says the negative emotions children experience need to be acknowledged, too.
"If they aim to be too positive, sometimes books like this miss the mark," she said. "What parents and children need to understand is that there are multiple feelings that are very appropriate – anger, sadness, worry. They're all OK."
Anger isn't something Ferguson-Cohen addresses in the book, but Stott thinks it might have been a good idea.
"That's an emotion too and just ignoring it doesn't make it go away," she said. "Everybody gets angry, including the spouse left behind."
Still, she believes a book like Ferguson-Cohen's is a good way of encouraging discussion about and pride in the military parent's service. And that's what the author/illustrator set out to do.
"It gives the children permission to be proud of their parents," said Ferguson-Cohen. "We shouldn't deny children the opportunity to be proud and feel safe."
The Mommy, Daddy, You're My Hero books, by Little Red Haired Girl Publishing, will cost $7.99 in hardcover.