Drawing on her own experiences as a parent and hospital volunteer, Kristen Barnett, who lives with her husband Phil and daughter Ryley in Colorado in the US, is the author of a new series of books aimed at helping parents, teachers, grandparents, and youth leaders talk through real life scenarios like bullying, adoption, moving house and so on with children who may be facing difficult situations...

Congratulations on the new book. I understand it came out of 10 years you spent as a volunteer in an oncology ward at the Children’s Hospital Colorado. How did you come to be working there and how challenging was it?
"I came to volunteering at Children’s Hospital Colorado through a conversation I had with our church’s marriage and family small group leader. At the time, my husband and I unfortunately had suffered a few miscarriages and our leader said perhaps my purpose in life was not having a child of my own, but helping other families who had children. He told me to pray and see where God would lead me. After our conversation, I contacted my sister-in-law who was a nurse at the hospital and she told me about the volunteer program. I had been wanting to get back into volunteering, so this was a perfect fit. The rest, of course, is history.
     "Volunteering is both challenging and rewarding at the same time. I still remember the first family while I was volunteering who lost their son when their son’s cancer returned. When it happened, I almost didn’t return to volunteering, but my husband said to me, 'You never know how much you have impacted someone’s life even if it was for a short time'. I also saw many miracles at the hospital which I would have never experienced if it wasn’t for my volunteer work. I still call many of these experiences a 'God thing'. Overall, volunteering with terminally ill children and their families makes you prioritise what is really important in life. It allows you to see humanity firsthand as sick children help other sick children, families help families, and you learn how resilient these children are as they are playing in playrooms with sick buckets right next to them."

Kristen Barnett

Kristen Barnett. PICTURE: Supplied.



A person who’s inspired me?… "There are several people who have inspired me, but the woman who I wish I could have met and who I believe made the biggest impact in her life time is Mother Teresa. Not only was Mother Teresa selfless, but she held to her purpose, she struggled at times with her faith but she never gave up, she led with force and compassion, she went against the norm, she was the definition of love, and she fought for what she believed in."

 A favorite Bible verse?… "I have two favorite Bible verses for two different reasons. First, when I consider God's plan and purpose in my life - I love Romans 8:28 - "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose". My next favorite Bible verse comes to mind when I am dealing with storms in my life or when people I know are dealing with storms in their lives is Isaiah 40: 31. I can visually picture this verse in my head - "But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint". 

One of my favorite children’s books?…"Gosh, there are so many wonderful children's books, but must  say my favorite is On the Night You Were Born - I still cry almost every time I read it."

What was it about working at the hospital and within your personal life that prompted the book?
"Both my 10 plus years of volunteer work at Children’s Hospital and the adoption of my daughter led me to write the Watts Bugging You Series. With my volunteer work, parents would ask me 'Do I tell my two, three, four, or five-year-old child they have cancer?' and, 'If yes, how do I tell them?' At the same time, I was asked by family, friends, and colleagues if we were going to tell our daughter Ryley she is adopted and if yes, how. These two scenarios led me to book stores and libraries to help families and what I found is there are plenty of books for early readers and teenagers, but not many books on these topics for young children between the ages of two to seven-years-old. This was the birth of the Watts Bugging You Series."

What’s The Bug Who Thought He Lost His Buzz - the first in the series - about?
"This first book is about helping parents and caretakers talk to their young children about being diagnosed with a terminal illness - for example, cancer. In this particular book, we follow Bugsy, the bee, who loses his buzz, goes to the hospital, finds out he has the 'Big, Bad Beast', which is cancer, and begins asking the tough questions such as 'Why Me?'"

The book also carries a message about faith?
"You’ll find several of the messages in the book are universal, but we also felt we would be doing the series an injustice if we didn’t include a faith message within each of our books. The reason is we believe families going through difficult scenarios need hope and it is our belief for families to have hope they need faith. Also, while volunteering at the hospital, I observed families with faith were better able to manage anything thrown their way, so, we felt faith was an important part of the journey and an important message within these books."

How will the story develop in the series (and how many books are you planning)?
"Each book will have a different real-life topic. We are not defining a specific number of books. What we are doing is firstly, praying, and, secondly, keeping up with the news and what is trending right now. Unfortunately, bullying is a big topic in the news along with childhood suicide rates due to bullying, so we are planning for our next book of the Watts Bugging You? series to focus on bullying. Thirdly, hearing from our readers is critical. We’ve heard from a few readers that they’d like us to write a book around losing a pet, so we are currently writing a book on this topic. And lastly, we write about what is near and dear to our hearts. For me personally, we have written a book about adoption. For our illustrator, Cindy Calzada, she is in a military family and continues to discuss 'moving' as an important topic, so we have a book we are wanting to publish around moving. We believe this series is a journey and we won’t be done until God tells us it’s time and we’ve hit on the topics most important to children and families."

Who is the target audience?
"When it comes to audience, our first objective is to appeal to young children, between two and seven-years-old, using colourful pictures, rhymes, sounds, and a 'finding Watts' activity. Our next objective is to appeal to parents and caretakers. As a mother of a third grader, I love educational books, so, not only do our books make topics that are difficult for adults to talk about interesting, but we have added educational elements such as a glossary of terms, fun facts about bugs, and reference information on our website for parents and caretakers to continue to have discussions with their young children and families."

What was the hardest thing about writing the book?
"Of course, living through the storm with plenty of families, families not always hearing the news they are hoping to hear, and remembering these memories as I was writing the book was not easy. Also, being a writer and living through the publishing journey is not an easy journey. I don’t think I could have gotten through either storm without faith and believing in a bigger purpose."

Watts Bugging You

How has your own faith been impacted?
"My faith has not been shaken, but my faith has definitely been tested at times. It’s tough to remind yourself that everything will happen in God’s timing, to not get shaken when you see families facing the storm, to believe in yourself even when others don’t, and to be completely vulnerable. Again, I believe there is a bigger purpose than me for this series which is why I continue on this journey, but being a writer and being so passionate about the series and getting the books into the right hands at the right time is tough when you don’t necessarily have a road map to get there. It’s all about believing and keeping the faith. This is why I sign 'Keeping the Faith' during book signing events."

How can we all best support families who are facing a situation like childhood cancer?
"I think we best support families facing the storm by not solely saying we care, but showing we care through acts of kindness. When a child is first diagnosed, families are in shock. After the shock, families become overwhelmed with life. Although families with terminally ill children like to hear from their loved ones, what I’ve heard is the best thing to do is volunteer your time to pick siblings up from school or after school activities, help siblings with homework, mow the family’s grass, shovel the family’s snow, water the family’s plants, make dinner, pass on vacation time to the family (if you are work colleagues and your work offers this benefit), lead a prayer circle, help provide updates to family and friends, coordinate a fund raiser, and so on. All of these things help relieve stress on the family and allow them to spend more time with their terminally ill child; which is the best gift to a family.
     "The other thing I always love to coach people on when it comes to terminally ill children is acceptance. These children are fighting the fight of their lives and just want to be kids again. So, I think another good way to support families facing the storm is acceptance and not making children feel different even if they are in a new norm. Helping to educate schools, providing fun breaks for the child, and not always talking about the terminal illness helps the child stay positive and gives them something to look forward to.

Where will the books be available? I understand a percentage of proceeds will be donated?
"The books are available on both Amazon and our website – www.wattsbuggingyou.com. We’re excited to announce two programs we’ve been kicking off in September and October since September was Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. The first campaign is a 'Donate a Book to a Child' campaign where individuals can buy and donate a book and the book will be delivered to a child at the hospital or an organisation that works with children and families who are battling cancer. On 28th September, we had our first book give-away from the 'Donate a Book' campaign to the Ronald McDonald House. It was an impactful evening as one of the children, Christian Moreno, who the book was dedicated to spoke about his story of being diagnosed with heart defects, liver cancer, and surviving two liver transplants all before he was five-years-old.  Families who attended the event said thank-you for sharing hope, telling their story, and providing them with a tool to help on their journey. I would say it felt like a 'Mastercard evening' since it was priceless. I thank everyone who donated a book because you made a difference in these family’s lives. Our next give-away is planned for Monday, 29th October at Brent’s Place.
     "The next campaign, as you mentioned, is a 'Pay It Forward' campaign where we will provide a percentage of proceeds from all books sold back in September and October to organisations who are focused on pediatric cancer research and awareness such as Children’s Hospital, St Jude’s, and so on. To donate a book, please visit our site at www.wattsbuggingyou.com."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.