Bethany Walker Talks Trauma, Resilience, and Writing for Children: An Inside Look at Lena and The Dragon

I am beyond thrilled to feature my friend and critique partner Bethany Walker today! We are going to discuss her upcoming release, Lena and The Dragon, an important picture book that addresses children’s trauma and resilience.

Bethany, Thank you so much for joining us today! Can you tell us a little bit about Lena and the Dragon?

Lena & the Dragon is a picture book that focuses on trauma and resiliency. Lena is a typical, happy-go-lucky kid until one day a terrible thing happens to her. The next day when she wakes up there’s a tiny dragon asleep on her chest– and no one else can see him. The dragon follows her around, wreaking havoc and growing bigger and bigger the longer she bottles up the terrible thing and all the emotions she’s having because of it. Finally, Lena can’t take it anymore and decides to talk to people she trusts about the dragon and the terrible thing.

What inspired you to write this story?

I grew up in a household that unfortunately had its fair share of abuse. I myself was abused at a young age. I didn’t understand what happened or how to talk to anyone about it, and didn’t tell anyone about it until I was in my twenties. As I got deeper into my work with children and families as a therapist and deeper into processing my own personal trauma, I recognized the importance of being able to talk about these things as a child and getting help early on. A lot of the shame and confusion and blame that I had as a child I saw in the children I was working with. One day after a particularly difficult session with a child who had experienced something traumatic, I sat down and in kind of a cathartic unloading wrote the first draft of Lena.

Title: Lena and The Dragon
Author: Bethany Walker
Illustrator: Rodrigo Cordeiro
Publisher: Lillibook
Published: February 28, 2023
Format: Picture Book

Tackling the concept of trauma in a picture book is a big ask, but you manage it in such a kid-friendly way. Did your experience as a licensed clinical social worker impact the way you approached the topic?

Absolutely! I knew this book would be able to be a tool that counselors, teachers, and parents could use but I also wanted it to be a book that kids genuinely enjoy without being preachy.  I didn’t want to re-trigger anything for children, and I wanted children with all sorts of trauma to be able to relate to the book so I intentionally kept it very vague when approaching the “terrible thing”. 

I also was intentional in including some evidence based ways for kids to emotionally regulate and process trauma. I don’t go in depth in the book, it’s most alluded to or shown in illustrations. However, I do have an educator’s guide and therapy guide that can be used in conjunction with the book to help teach those skills to kids. Once she’s learned to tame her dragon, the book is careful to point out that he never actually goes away, and sometimes he even grows bigger again. I wanted to make sure to give a realistic portrayal of this, as we all know that the hard stuff doesn’t just magically disappear from our lives and sometimes we find ourselves having to deal with it again down the road. 

Knowing the statistics of traumatic experiences in children (that it happens to children in all demographics but is especially higher in minority groups) I also was intentional in making sure that was represented. When Lena finally decides to speak up about the terrible thing that happened to her, her mother takes her to a group full of other kids who have experienced traumatic things. Rodrigo and I knew we wanted this scene to reflect a wide variety of children so that they would hopefully see a bit of themselves in the book. 

You self-published Lena and the Dragon through your own imprint. What was that process like?

Honestly, it was a bit of beast! I definitely have new found respect for self-publishing authors.

This was the first story I wrote that I knew I wanted to pursue publication and not just for my own enjoyment. Originally I pitched my manuscript (in some of it’s earlier forms) directly to some presses that I knew published this type of book as well as some agents. After this initial too-quick-jump, I stepped back and started to do some research into the publishing world and the kidlit circle. I used Jennifer Rees through Reedsy to get an in depth editorial edit of my manuscript, joined a critique group, and took Darcy Pattinson’s Self Publishing course through Storyteller Academy.

Around this time I realized the immense cost of self-publishing a picture book, especially if you want to pay your illustrator well. I used Behance to find some illustrators I loved, and stumbled upon Rodrigo Cordeiro. His style was exactly what I envisioned for the book and I reached out in vain hopes he might work with me. Thankfully, he was his wonderful enthusiastic self and agreed to come on the project. We ran a Kickstarter to raise the initial funds to pay for his illustrative work and a first run print.

If children only walk away from Lena and The Dragon with one thing, what do you want them to learn from this book?

My daughter Lillian was my beta reader with this story from the beginning, when it was just words on paper, all the way through to when we got the first printed copy of the book. I love seeing her approach to the book and what she soaks in (she even pointed out some things we ended up tweaking!). The thing she said as we read the book for probably the 50th time was “I hope she knows it’s okay and that she can tell someone!”

I think that’s the thing I hope kids grasp. Really, I just hope they enjoy the book! But if they walk away with something I hope it’s a feeling like they’re a little less alone and it’s a little less scary to tell someone when something bad happens to them. I know for myself, reading stories as a kid or a teen where I related to an experience really helped me cope and I hope this does the same for someone else. 

What’s next for you? Are you working on anything you’d like to share?

After realizing the incredible amount of work that goes into self-publishing, I’m taking a bow on that for now. I have a few manuscripts I’m polishing up including some YA and MG manuscripts with trauma focus as well. I’ve joined the Rebecca Dykes Writers, an incredible community of women who are writing about trauma and violence against women so I’m hoping to spend a lot of 2023 pushing further into this community and these writing projects.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with Mutually Inclusive’s readers?

Thank you not just for reading this interview but for seeking out great, diverse books for your kids to read! And Devyn, thanks for all you do to help make Kidlit more inclusive, bookshelves more diverse, and for having me on the blog!

Bethany Walker is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and author. She writes in a variety of genres including flash fiction, picture books, and novels. Her debut independently published picture book “Lena & the Dragon, was awarded the 2023 SCBWI Spark Honor Award. Bethany currently resides in Longview, TX with her husband, daughter, and pets. In her free time, she binges horror movies, tries new recipes (sometimes successfully), and collects an absurd amount of books. Find out more about Bethany and her work at

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On Book Banning: An Interview with Banned Book Authors Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

In the last year, the US has seen a dramatic rise in book banning. Schools and libraries across the country are removing books about gender, race, sexual health, sexual orientation, and even the holocaust. It’s hard to discuss the rise in book bans without discussing the introduction of bills restricting schools from holding classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity. HB 1557 or the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” and others like it are being introduced in 22 different states.

These bills are said to, “reinforce the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children in a specified manner”. In other words, these bills were written to allow parents to decide when their children should learn about the existence of LGBTQ+ people.

While some may believe these laws will protect their children, I’m here to tell you that they are dangerous for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they strip access from children who need these books. For many children, these books represent them, their families, and their community. What message are adults sending these children when they say those books don’t belong in school?

The conversation around these bills also implies that adults are harming children, and that children must be protected from the influence of queer adults. We see the lie that queer people are predatory repeated more and more with every bill that’s introduced. It’s a very old rhetoric gaining steam in the mainstream again. Rhetoric that I know to be false as a queer person who writes picture books.

I can’t speak for all queer writers, but I know that I write queer books because I know the pain of feeling “different”, “wrong”, or even just “other”. Growing up in rural Alabama (the same state that just passed their own “Don’t Say Gay Bill” with Bill 322), teachers didn’t read books about bisexuality. Not because it was illegal, but because we didn’t talk about identity at all in my community. In fact, no one said the word “bisexual” to me at a young age at all. I didn’t even have the words for what I was until I was a teenager. But that silence didn’t stop me from becoming who I am today. It didn’t stop my queerness. It just made me feel alone and broken. Today I write the books that I needed in my childhood, because there are still children who need them.

So, understandably, this whole topic has been hard for me to wrap my arms around lately. I knew I wanted to talk about it here, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to approach it. To my luck and delight, one of my favorite publicity contacts who works at Simon & Schuster reached out to me with the perfect idea. He asked if I would like to interview Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, the authors of one of the American Library Association’s most frequently banned books, And Tango Makes Three.

Title: And Tango Makes Three
Authors: Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
Illustrator: Henry Cole
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Published: June 1, 2015
Format: Picture Book

This delightful picture book is based on the true story of two male chinstrap penguins who paired themselves up and tried to hatch an egg in their nest. When another penguin couple laid two eggs, a zookeeper stepped in to save the abandoned egg by giving it to the penguins. They hatched that egg and made their family grow by one. This wholesome book provides readers ages 4-8 with an approachable introduction to the concept of diverse family structures and creates “representation” for kids who might have two moms or two dads (who are obviously humans and not penguins).

Though it was originally published seventeen years ago, And Tango Makes Three continues to be included in the American Library Association’s list of most frequently challenged books.

Justin Richardson, MD, is the coauthor, with Peter Parnell, of the award-winning picture book And Tango Makes Three. Dr. Richardson is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia and Cornell and the coauthor of Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They’d Ask). Dr. Richardson and his advice have been featured in The New York Times and The Washington Post, on the Today show and NPR’s Morning Edition, and in numerous magazines. Dr. Richardson lectures to parents and teachers on parenting and the sexual development of children.

Peter Parnell is the coauthor, with Justin Richardson, of And Tango Makes Three. He is a playwright whose plays have been produced at the Public Theater and Playwrights Horizons in New York City, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and the Seattle Repertory Company, among others. His play QED was produced on Broadway. He has written extensively for television as a producer for both The West Wing and The Guardian; he has also written episodes of Maurice Sendak’s series Little Bear. He lives in New York City.

Justin, Peter, thank you both for joining me today. I’m going to start with the question I always ask. What inspired you to write And Tango Makes Three?  

Justin had a longstanding interest in parenting and in children’s sexual development. Around the writing of his book with pediatrician Mark Schuster, Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know about Sex (But Were Afraid They’d Ask), he’d spoken widely with parents across the country about their challenges in talking to children about a range of issues related to kids and sex. One of the things that impressed him was the way parents, even those who wanted to raise their children with progressive ideas about sexual orientation, were haunted by the fear of speaking them about topics or with language that wasn’t “age-appropriate.” When we read the new coverage of Tango and her two dads, it was instantly clear that telling this story would give many parents the way in they were looking for to talk about the diversity of families in the world. 

More personally, we were working on having a child of our own at the time. We so wanted to be able to share literature that depicted a family like ours with our little one.

This title has been in ALA’s annual top 10 banned book list 9 times since it was originally published back in 2005. Did you ever imagine your adorable story about gay penguins would get this much backlash when you wrote it back then?

We thought there might be some resistance to Tango from conservative parents. But we never imagined the scale it would reach, nor could we have predicted how broadly the book would be celebrated and defended around the world. At first, there was nothing. The conservative press was almost eerily quiet. Then the documentary March of the Penguins came out. It was a huge hit, and conservative writers pointed to the movie as proof that monogamy was right and abortion wrong. Others countered, pointing to our book and arguing that by the same token, penguins also proved that homosexuality was natural. Michael Medved called Tango propaganda in USA Today, Frank Rich rebutted him in the Times, and the challenges began to roll in. Did we ever imagine that it would become the single most banned book in the United States or that the government of Singapore would decide to pulp every copy in its library system? Some things you just don’t anticipate.

As both a writer and reviewer, I generally try to stay focused on the target audience of children. Because that’s really who these books are for, right? When you interact with your audience, what kinds of reactions do you get from children? Have you ever had a child get as upset about the book as the adults around them seem to be?

If Tango works as a picture book, it’s because it offers children a story they understand and enjoy returning to. Two little birds, different from the others, deeply want something they probably can’t have. They try and fail. Then a kindly grownup gives them just what they need. And their dream comes true. When we turn the page and children see Tango burst out of her shell with her silly beak and feathers, there is always such joy in the room! Most of the questions we get from children are about penguins. Some about how you make a book. Occasionally a child will make the connection to their own family structure, or a friend’s. With older children, starting in the fourth grade, we may mention that the book has been banned. The looks of incomprehension are the most powerful rebuttal to the rhetoric we’re hearing from Florida legislators and their defenders. 

What would you say you learn from your readers? Have any of the children who read the book taught you something?

One of the most moving experiences we had was receiving an award from three schools in New York City where the 5th graders spent a year reading books and together selecting a recipient for award to honor one book they felt honored the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr.. We all sat in the gym of one of the schools and listened as students from each school stood up and read aloud their essays about TANGO, of the lessons of tolerance and understanding towards members of the LGBTQ community that it gave them. They were extraordinarily sensitive essays. For us, it was a lesson in how the proper kind of teaching can engender the most sophisticated thinking from young readers.

If you could say anything to the lawmakers who are writing and passing these laws, what would you say?

Please read our book. Just sit quietly and read it. Then meet a child with two moms or two dads and read it to them. And allow yourself to reconsider the effect on this child of eliminating our book from their classroom.

I saw your article for The Washington Post mentioning other classics that should be reconsidered under the vague terminology of the Don’t Say Gay Bill and I just have to say the rule follower in me loves this idea of fighting back with malicious compliance. It’s brilliant! Do you think this could be a tactic teachers in Florida who are opposed to the bill could use in their classrooms to highlight the vague language of the bill?

Absolutely. The dead serious joke of our piece was that, since the law prohibits discussion and instruction about “sexual orientation,” countless books, including Make Way for Ducklings, which depict heterosexual animals forming and raising a family are just as impermissible as Tango. The law empowers parents to sue if these books are taught. Countless frivolous lawsuits over the reading of Ferdinand (“gender identity”) and Make Way for Ducklings seem very much in order. Have at it!

What other banned books would you recommend to parents who want to support the titles that are being challenged and banned in schools across America?

We are big fans of anything written by Robie Harris!

Is there anything else you’d like to share with Mutually Inclusive’s readers?

Thank you all for caring about literary freedom and standing up, in small ways or large, for books like ours!

Thank you so much to Justin and Peter for their thoughtful answers to all my questions. I also want to thank my friend, Alex, for making this interview possible and giving me a productive outlet for all my complicated feelings about these dangerous bills and the book banning they are encouraging.

If you would like to learn more about bills like these being passed in your state, check out to track and follow your local legislation. You can also find your local representatives at and speak out about any bills you think will be harmful to your community.

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