Tag Archive for Post-concussion syndrome

Art Therapy and Post-Concussion Syndrome in My Upcoming Novel, SHAKEN: An Excerpt

My next middle-grade book, Shaken, comes out in early September. Today’s excerpt includes two passages from Kristy’s first art therapy session. I was provided with generous help from two art therapists, Tracy Gilbert and Maria Lupo, who guided my thinking, suggested research materials, and reviewed the manuscript, offering thoughts and insights. For example, the book referenced below, by Susan Farber Straus, came directly from Tracy’s own practice. 

But first, a little background on the book:

For 7th-grader Kristy Barrett, soccer is life. It has always been at the center of Kristy’s world. Her friendships and self-worth, her dreams and daily activities, all revolve around the sport. Until she suffers from a serious concussion and has to set soccer aside for an uncertain amount of time. Kristy begins to struggle in school, experience stress, anxiety, and panic attacks which ultimately bring her to some questionable decisions . . . and the care of a therapist as she suffers from post-concussion syndrome. It’s a story about identity, therapy, new friendships, making mistakes and, finally, coming true to one’s ever-evolving self. 



Nelly Grey was a large Black woman in a flowy orange dress with a scoop neckline. She wore a big, bold gem- stone necklace and enormous hoop earrings. On both wrists she had at least twenty jangly, rattling bracelets of all types: leather, silver, gemstone, whatever. And yet somehow, despite her powerful presence, Nelly had a way of making space for everyone in the room (and right now that included Kristy and her mother, unfortunately). It was a neat trick and Kristy wasn’t quite sure how Nelly pulled it off. The woman, in her sixties probably—there were gray strands in her black hair—had a natural warmth and charisma. Kristy liked her immediately and immensely. How do people do that, she wondered.

They settled into leather chairs at one end of the office, which contained bookshelves and art and framed diplomas displayed on the wall. The room was lit by various standing lamps. On the other end of the space, to Kristy’s left, there was a large worktable with bins of art supplies on shelves along the wall. Like Nelly herself, the space looked inviting, welcoming. Kristy caught Nelly observing her. “We’ll get to mak- ing art soon, Kristy, but first I wanted to have a short sit-down with your mom included. Is that all right?”

She smiled at Kristy’s mother, who looked nervous and jittery.

“I have certain things I like to do with every new client and family. I’m sure you might have questions about art therapy.” Nelly indicated the diplomas on the wall. “Let me give you the definition. An art therapist is a licensed mental health counselor who uses images, and creativity, to help clients work on issues, feelings, and unconscious thoughts—rather than just traditional talk therapy. I am a board-certified art psycho- therapist with a doctorate in medical and health humanities.” Nelly dramatically wiped her brow, whew. “A lot of schooling and, I’m glad to say, my student loans are finally paid off.

“I’m also an artist. I’ve made things all my life. Jewelry, paintings, pottery, you name it. It’s as natural to me as breathing—and possibly just as important. I get a joy and satisfaction out of art that relaxes and soothes me. If nothing else,” Nelly said to Kristy, “I hope that we can experience some of that feeling together.”

Kristy nodded. She was eager to get started—once her mother left the room. It felt awkward with her mom hanging around, oppressive, the way the first day of summer camp never really began until the parents drove away.

Nelly reached down for a book by the side of her chair. “Over the years, I’ve found that I like to start out by sharing one of my favorite books to explain a little bit about how this works.” Nelly looked from Kristy to her mother. She held up a picture book titled Healing Days, by Susan Farber Straus. The subtitle read: A Guide for Kids Who Have Experienced Trauma. “I know this is just a picture book, but it’s absolutely wonderful. It gets right down to it. Besides, adults tend to talk too much—we’d be here until next Tuesday if I tried to share one of my college textbooks.”


<< snip: after some conversation, and conflict, mother leaves the room >>


“Let’s go over to the art table,” Nelly suggested. “This is where I keep all my best supplies. Let’s see if we can be quiet for a bit and draw something.”

Nelly brought out paper and all sorts of supplies. She asked if Kristy could try to draw what a panic attack feels like. And without thinking, Kristy reached for a black colored pencil and got to work.

Nelly sorted beads in a bin. She sketched in a note- book while Kristy drew. They sat across the same table in a communion of silence and creativity. Nelly offered Kristy some Goldfish.

“Flavor Blasted?” Kristy asked, thinking of Binny and the chickens. Wonderful, kind, hilarious Binny.

“That’s the only kind I buy,” Nelly said, handing Kristy a bowl.

And later, toward the end of the session, Nelly touched Kristy’s hand. “We don’t know each other well yet—that will come, in time—but I’d like you to start paying attention to your inner narrative. The words you use to describe yourself. What we call our self-talk.

“The stories you tell yourself about yourself. Sometimes, when we feel this kind of pain, we are cruelest to ourselves. Words are very important, Kristy. One goal that I have for us is to shift from shame, and blame, to gratitude. Instead of saying to your mom, ‘I’m sorry for being a pain,’ or ‘I’m sorry I’ve disappointed you,’ I’d love to see you try flipping that to a more positive story:

“Thank you for being supportive, thank you for giving me a safe space to vent, thank you for understanding.

“But she doesn’t understand,” Kristy said.

Nelly nodded. “And that must be very frustrating for you. But it seems to me that she tries. Don’t you think? I mean, here we are, right? Look around. You’ve seen doctors and concussion specialists and my dear colleague Marilyn Bienvenue. It looks like you might be pretty lucky to me, to have that support.”

Kristy sniffled, picked up a red pencil, and focused intently on her picture.

After five minutes or so, Kristy asked in a soft voice, “Do you really think it’s trauma? What happened to me?”

Nelly leaned back, folded her hands together. “I do,” she said, shaking her head. “I really do.”

Kristy’s lips tightened. She leaned closer to the page, hunched over it, coloring in a tiny detail. Her lips moved and a sound escaped: “Me too,” she agreed.

SUPER SHORT EXCERPT from SHAKEN, a middle-grade novel coming on September 10th

Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing some excerpts and background info on my upcoming novel, Shaken

Very briefly, a 7th-grade soccer player suffers a severe concussion that effects her life in profound ways. She gets behind in school, feels stress and anxiety, suffers from panic attacks, and ultimately goes to therapy sessions (including art therapy!) which are depicted in the book. The story is about how Kristy responds to these setbacks, the new friends she makes, the mistakes and the good decisions, too. 

Light breaks through the curtains, bringing with it a sharp pain to her forehead. Kristy imagines a jagged crack running from eyebrow to hairline. She can’t bear to call out her mother’s name. So she waits, eyes squeezed shut, pillow over her face, like an aphid on the underside of a leaf. A black dot of silence. She’ll be better soon. As good as new. Running the field and scoring goals. This is the worst of it. Yes, she tells Megan Rapinoe, who is staring back at Kristy from a soccer poster on the wall, this is the very worst.

Something like the poster I imagine hanging on Kristy’s wall.


New Book, SHAKEN, Is Coming Along (Fall, 2024)

I’ve been slowly, methodically going through the final edits for SHAKEN, my upcoming middle-grade novel (Macmillan, Fall 2024). The book involves a soccer-obsessed 7th grader, Kristy, who suffers from post-concussion syndrome. It’s a story about identity, anxiety, panic attacks, art therapy, new friendships, making mistakes and, finally, coming true to one’s ever-evolving self. Anyway, it’s a great relief to read through all these words once again, months later, and still feel like, yeah, I like this — I’m proud of it — this is what I hoped to say.

I’m grateful to my editor Liz Szabla and, always, Jean Feiwel, for the opportunity and the steadfast support. True story: I published my first book 38 years ago . . . and Jean was there for that one, too. She’ll never learn. Grades 5-8. 

COMING SOON: Two Birds and a Moose!

SNEAK PEEK: It’s nice to have something coming out for the youngest readers that promotes violence. Ha-ha. I mean, a Looney Tunes-inspired brand of violence. And not much of that, actually. But, yes, here comes a new book.
Thirty years ago I wrote two very successful easy-to-read titles, Wake Me In Spring and Hiccups for Elephant. I still meet people who remember those books fondly. Both sold about 1.5 million copies. Long out of print. Try as I might, I couldn’t get a third one published and eventually gave up, moved in a different direction.
So, yeah, it’s time.
I’m very much looking forward to the arrival this fall of Two Birds and a Moose (Simon & Schuster). It’s part of S & S’s “Ready-to-Read” line, level 1. 
Rough sketch by the talented Abigail Burch.
By the way, I also have a new middle-grade novel coming out at around the same time, Shaken (Macmillan, Fall, 2024). It centers around a 7th-grade girl, Kristy Barrett, who is a soccer player with Division 1 dreams. Early in the book, Kristy suffers a severe concussion with lasting effects. Forced to give up the game she loves, Kristy experiences stress, anxiety, self-doubt, panic attacks  — and eventually goes on to spend time in the care of a therapist. Two therapists, actually. And a couple of new friends. The book is about how Kristy navigates this challenging time in her life. More on that, another day. 
Thanks for stopping by.