Use Your Voice tells the story of two dogs. Huntaway Jess loves chasing sheep round the high country but the pressures of life get to her and she loses her ability to bark. No longer much use on-farm, she finds herself confined to her kennel. As her mood changes, the colour slowly drains from the illustrations. A powerful metaphor for kids.
But help is at hand in the form of sausage dog Poppy who teaches Jess to share her feelings rather than bottling them up.
The more Jess follows Poppy’s advice, the more the colour returns, until Jess is back to her old self, yapping and rounding up sheep once more.
Author Harriet Bremner says she wrote the book to normalise conversations about mental health issues and help schools pass on important self-care strategies to kids.
Teacher Kathy Mehrtens from Windwhistle school in Canterbury says the book succeeds on both counts. Harriet recently visited there with the real-life dachshund Pops.
“Our children are taught strategies to strengthen their mental wellness, just as they are taught the importance of keeping physically safe and well,” Kathy said.
“So it was loads of fun to have Harriet and Pops actually visit to help us deliver key messages about this.”
Harriet, a former primary school teacher herself, says the challenge now is to get the book into the hands of as many other rural schools as possible.
“We know storytelling is one of the best forms of learning because kids really engage in role play and put themselves in the characters’ shoes,” she said.
“Use Your Voice shows them that if you don’t talk about how you’re feeling, it’s as if you’ve lost your voice. It also teaches them what to do if one of your friends is feeling sad, or where to go if you’re feeling sad.”
“I wanted to show children what it can feel like when you’re battling with your mental health, (and) you can feel caged-in just like Jess.
“So Poppy teaches Jess some self-help strategies.
“If one of your friends is crying, don’t just tell them to ‘suck it up,’ check that they’re okay and have a conversation with them.
“I hope the kids come away understanding they need to help and support each other.”
Harriet also has an extensive farming background.
She grew up on an isolated sheep and beef farm in the Banks peninsula, moved with her parents to Kekerengu where they ran another sheep and beef farm and then lived in Kaikoura when they went dairy farming.
She turned to writing to cope with her own grief when she lost her partner to a farming accident in 2017.
This is her third children’s book in a rural setting. The first, Bob’n’Pops, introduced her dog character Poppy. The second, Be Safe, Be Seen, aimed at keeping children safe on farms.
Use Your Voice is already earning plaudits and was the winner of the Like Minds, Like Mine Creative Grant supported by the Mental Health Foundation earlier this year and was supported by nationwide rural wellbeing programme Farmstrong .
Harriet currently works for Safer Farms, an initiative set up by the Agricultural Leaders Health and Safety Action Group (ALHSAG).
The health and safety advocate says the underlying theme of Use Your Voice is the need for greater discussion and understanding of rural health and safety issues.
“I just want to highlight that everyone has a voice and needs to find the courage to use it. Because without speaking out, there is no voice and without a voice, there is little hope,” Harriet said.
“This is a story about hope and how to move through difficult times. All it takes to make a positive difference to Jess’ life is one dog/friend who believes in her and gives her strategies to work through her hardship.
“So, the message is, always be kind. You don’t know what people are dealing with, your small act of kindness could make their day.”
Copies of Use Your Voice can be ordered online here www.gurtandpops.com
Farmstrong is a rural wellbeing programme that helps farmers and farming families live well to farm well. To find out what works for you and “lock it in”, check out our farmer-to-farmer videos, stories and tips on www.farmstrong.co.nz