Jordan Gershowitz, an American writer and producer, and illustrator Sandhya Prabhat talk about their children’s picture book Ignore the Trolls, which uses a medieval allegory to teach kids about the dangers of online bullying and how to deal with it. The story revolves around a shy boy, Tim the Timid, who wants to be cool and join the jousting team at his elementary school.
What inspired the book? Any specific incident?
Jordan: There are a few moments that inspired Ignore the Trolls. Growing up, I was one of the only Jewish kids in my class and often different. There were some specific times where I dealt with anti-Semitism and that definitely played a large part when I wrote this book. More recently, I worked for a digital media company where I saw firsthand how nasty internet commenters can be. As an avid social media user, it can be pretty astonishing to see the type of hatred that is out there in the world and the ability to be anonymous only heightens that toxic environment.
What age is it aimed at? What are the advantages of a picture book format for kids?
Jordan: While the intended target audience is children four to eight, I think this book is something that readers of all ages can enjoy. The message of Ignore the Trolls is one that’s really universal. No matter what age you are, if you’re engaging on social media, there is the possibility that you’re dealing with internet trolls.
Sandhya: A 32-page picture book has enough room to cover anything from short stories that are a few lines, told slowly, to legends and epics compressed into shorter formats. A picture book has less words and more images, where the images and words work hand-in-hand to have the story delivered to the reader. Without one or the other, the story is incomplete. This often means that a thoughtfully created picture book has the potential to be accessible to younger and older children.
Tell us a little about yourselves and the work you’ve done before this.
Jordan: This is my debut picture book, which I’m extremely excited and proud to have written. As a writer, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a lot of great projects for the stage, page, and screen. I write mainly for television and film, where I’ve worked with great companies such as Nickelodeon, Disney, DreamWorks, Warner Brothers, and more. I’ve had the opportunity to write for really iconic characters like Tom & Jerry, Danger Mouse, and Sesame Street. In addition, I write comic books for characters such as Laurel & Hardy (which is one of my favourite American comedy duos).
Sandhya: I am an independent animator/illustrator from Chennai, India currently residing and working out of California. I’ve worked on over 10 children’s picture books. I animate for TV, movie and short commercial purposes. I also design for social media like Google, Facebook and Snapchat.
Why is this an important subject to discuss with kids?
Jordan: I believe this is such an important issue that we need to speak to kids about. When I was in school, kids who were unfortunately bullied might have had the opportunity to find reprieve when classes were done for the done for the day, on the weekend, or during holiday breaks. But now with social media, kids can face bullying 24/7/365. It never stops, which can really wear down a child (or anyone for that matter). And bullying comes in a variety of forms. Not all bullies are found in school as people can now anonymously spread hate and vitriol through online platforms. It’s important for children to understand how to protect themselves from these types of attacks. I’m so appreciative to my editor, Jordan Nielsen, for allowing me to tell this story with POW! Kids, and to my illustrator Sandhya Prabhat. Sandhya’s beautiful images really elevates the book and will hopefully make kids eager to read the book even more so.
The book uses a medieval allegory; could you elaborate?
Jordan: The book really started with word play. As a comedy writer, I’m a big fan of language; especially idioms, phrases, and homonyms. So when I first heard the phrase “ignore the trolls,” my mind immediately thought of the mythical creatures who live under bridges. I then thought of these creatures writing mean internet comments in their caves and thought the image was quite striking. I then decided to flesh that out and see what a story would like if these medieval trolls acted like the internet trolls we knew today, which ultimately resulted in this book.
I choose the fantasy/medieval allegory approach, mainly because that’s the genre I most associate trolls with. I’m a fan of epics like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones where knights and mythical creatures can live side-by-side so it made sense to set the story there. Fairy tales are also one of the most well-known types of stories. I thought if I could modernise the fairy tale to include current world issues, I would have something special that kids could really relate to.
Sandhya: The editor was kind to give me a brief on how the illustration style should be. She gave me many medieval references. We first did a sample cover based on my understanding of the book. Following this, I created detail character designs, making hairstyles, clothing styles, fabric prints and selecting colours carefully based on medieval painting styles. We made sure the trolls neither look too intimidating, nor too silly. Too intimidating would be too scary for a tiny reader. Too silly might make them rather trivial. Once we had all the character designs in place, I designed pages using medieval style layouts, borders, detailed patterns and assets. The author Jordan’s incredibly fun side characters were a blast to draw!
What are the “trolls” that kids face today?
Jordan: The trolls that this book specifically highlights are online bullies. While they are often nameless/faceless avatars, trolls can also be classmates, co-workers, people in the community. It’s really anyone who is trying to make you feel bad just because. Ignoring these trolls (at any age) can be really hard to do, but studies have shown so many kids around the world face bullying on a daily basis that this book will hopefully help shed some light on the issue so kids and parents can work together to overcome it.
Any key tips that you would like children to take away from this book?
Jordan: They should ignore the trolls! What that really means is not to let people’s mean words bring you down. Everyone is really strong and special in their own way. Be yourself, be an individual, and do things that make you happy. If you keep practicing and don’t let the negativity in, you’re able to accomplish anything you set your mind to.
Any message for parents on issues of screen time, etc?
Jordan: I don’t have any kids of my own just yet so I’m not sure I can parent the parents on how to raise their children. I think it all comes from a personal preference. The internet has so many positives, but there are clearly some negatives as well. I think it’s up to the parent to judge for themselves what works best for their child and I hope I can learn from them when I start having a family of my own. I hope this book can be a great resource for parents, but if their kids are dealing with an issue of cyberbullying, parents should also seek out additional information from organisations such as Unicef and resources from their local schools and communities.
Any other children’s books on similar themes you would recommend? And your top picture books for kids?
Jordan: One of the kids’ books that had the biggest impact on my life was Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust. Whether you’re Jewish or not, I think it has a powerful message about speaking out about what is right. In a weird way, I wrote Ignore the Trolls as a spiritual cousin to that book. On one hand, you have to know when to speak truth to power and then there are other times in your life where people will try to bring you down just because and you can’t allow yourself to sink to their level.
When it comes to picture books in general, I think I’m contractually obligated to say you should be getting every book from POW! Kids (just kidding). But in all seriousness, they are putting out some amazing books like Bodega Cat, I Hate Everyone, and The Climbing Tree. A few of my current favourite picture book authors are Ame Dyckman and Jason Gallaher. They are always writing great stories. As for the classics, Where the Wild Things Are is my all-time favourite picture book and anything by Tomie de Paola.