Empathy is a common theme in children’s books, but the “right temporal parietal junction” — where empathy is believed to originate — is more at home in textbooks. The exception is The Owner’s Manual for Driving your Adolescent Brain (Little Pickle Press, 2013), in which authors Terrence Deak, associate professor of psychology, and his aunt and co-author, JoAnn Deak, use science and storytelling to explain to children ages 9 to 14 what is happening in their brains and why they should care.
Q: Who uses words like amygdala and axons in a kids’ book?
A: My aunt is a PhD in educational psychology and the author of Your Fantastic Elastic Brain [for ages 5 to 9]. The idea was to perhaps reach the same kids, now older, and provide them with deeper information in an accessible way. The combination of her educational psychology background with my neuroscience background was like that old commercial, “Your chocolate is in my peanut butter; your peanut butter is on my chocolate.”
Q: What do you want kids to understand?
A: Adolescence is not solely about puberty. Adolescence is defined by heightened impulsivity, somewhat poor judgment and reasoning, and heightened conflict within the nuclear family. These all seem to be natural functions of the adolescent period in nearly all species, so perhaps they should not be viewed quite so negatively.
I felt it was important to dip into the science pretty deeply, but pull it back with relevant examples.
Q: What kind of response have you had?
A: Parents, teachers and librarians say, “We didn’t know that much about the brain” and “this gives us some insight into how to work with adolescents a bit better.” It’s been an unexpected but positive outcome. My 9-year-old son said, “It was really interesting. I didn’t understand all of it, but I really love the pictures.”
Q: Does he make you look at adolescence differently?
A: I look at adolescence for my kids with some trepidation about what it can become, because we all know examples of adolescents who have gone a little out of control. One of the hopes [with the book] is that we can change perspectives a little about what it means to be an adolescent. We hope to get people to think of adolescence as a natural time of struggle and appreciate what those struggles mean, which, in a lot of cases, is striving for independence. Then maybe we can view the adolescent period less for its turmoil and more for its opportunity.