How many of us have faced that difficult position of being “different”? Conversely, how often do we face the opportunity to learn from someone perceived in that same way? Have certain life events forced you to “start over” in a new setting—unsure where love, support, or connection may come from?
Caroline H. Sheppard, MSW and author of the Brave Bart series, understands the reactions and behaviors that can be associated with those strange feelings. Much of that understanding comes from the experiences of working with children, both in schools and clinical settings. However, she also draws experience from a most unusual source; one that sparked the inspiration for her book Coco and Kitty.
Coco and Kitty is a story that was written when Coco was forced from his farm after a bad storm. Upon relocation on the farm of Sheppard’s sister-in-law, Coco acted in ways that anyone could recognize (albeit with some prior knowledge about the personality of a horse!) as frightened, lonesome, and needing a friend. He found that friend in the most peculiar of places. It was with Kitty, a curious barn cat who, until meeting Coco, shared those same reclusive tendencies that the “new kid” often displays.
These two formed a bond that, when seen by Sheppard, was instantly recognized as that critical universal need of belonging. “Because of my work in schools and clinically,” Sheppard recalled, “I had dealt with issues relating to belonging all the time. When I saw the interaction between these animals, I probably had a different take on it than most.” From there, she knew this barnyard story could be a useful tool for children.
At its heart, Coco and Kitty is about socialization, and demonstrating that’s it’s okay to have feelings, but that there are ways to help us feel more accepting or comfortable of new situations and relationships. The book is about showing both sides of differences—being different and feelings about someone who is new or they themselves feel different in a new situation.
The story’s use of animals helps to talk about differences in a non-threatening way. The unique approach celebrates learning how to understand and accept differences, and working side-by-side with someone who is different than you. “It’s a topic that we [as humans] have been addressing more and more, but the work must continue further,” says Sheppard. For educators, this often takes the form of the new student, integrating into a new environment, and trying to make friends. Coco and Kitty is a tool that can take a subtle approach to addressing our differences and embracing a new schoolmate without shining a potentially uncomfortable spotlight on them. In addition, this book is a great way to reach children in need for support by way of establishing rapport and discussion about the story.
“The use of black and white is very intentional. Kids are so bombarded with colorful stimuli today,” explains Sheppard. “I want them to imagine what Coco and Kitty look like in their mind’s eye. The coloring pages and discussion questions included in the book can help give insight into their imagination, and may prompt conversation or writing their own end to the story—a big step in improving their communication skills. Much like Brave Bart, it opens the door to many creative ways to teach.”