Mix a bit of imagination, the power of words and good will and you get Iris the Dragon, a story book series designed to introduce mental health to children. Written by Gayle Grass, the collection features a book written especially for military children: Project: Kids, Let’s Talk.
Project: Kids, Let’s Talk uses Grass’ uniquely designed characters to help children understand the challenges attached to life in the military. The book follows the story of Luc, who belongs to a military family and is experiencing loneliness, worry and anger as a result of constant uprooting. Luc must also shoulder greater responsibilities after his father is deployed. He consequently, meets Iris the Dragon to help him navigate through his situation.
Formulated with the help of Military Family Resources Centres (MFRC) and Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF) psychologists the book is designed specifically for military children to help them understand the challenges they often face.
“It’s communicated in this genre that appeals to children because we know that fairy tales, or essentially story books, are very influential in communicating key ideas and values to our society,” said Jessica Grass, director of education for Iris the Dragon and book project manager.
Through her specially crafted formula, Grass communicates messages of resiliency to military children. All the books in the series centre around Iris the Dragon, who lives in a cave under a bridge.
“In the beginning of each book the child is either walking or riding over the bridge and that child stops to reflect on his or her problem and Iris happens to be underneath with her friend and they hear about that child and they go and ask him or her if they need help, and that begins the conversation,” said Gayle Grass.
Gayle combines both fantasy and reality to relate to children reading her books.
“You’re trying to portray the child first as a child, not with a problem. And, so, they have their dreams and needs, as any child does and that’s what we try to convey and then if we can help overcome the problem with tools then their lives can be more complete,” added Gayle.
Since Project: Kids, Let’s Talk was published in 2012, it’s been distributed in MFRCs across the country and has been downloaded hundreds of times online, even garnering the attention of military families outside of Canada.
It was during a mental health conference that the for a book about military children was born. She was first introduced to retired Gen. Walter Natynczyk and later retired LGen. Walter Semianiw.
“They realized too that there was a bit of gap in supporting families and youth with navigating mental health concerns, whether it was the youth being affected or whether they observed their parents navigate that concern and that’s really what the book focused on, was helping a child understand perhaps what their parent might be going through as a result of their life as a military person,” said Jessica.
Gayle was always drawn to the power of storybooks and received a Masters in the history of children’s bookmaking while her and her husband lived in London, England. Soon after their return to Canada, Gayle’s son was diagnosed with a mental health disease. As she looked for ways to support her son she realized that removing the stigma around the disease was a major barrier to mental health, and so, she decided to put pen to paper.
“I thought perhaps a story book format might just be a way to introduce the topic in a friendly, non-threatening manner and go from there, and you can see that it proved that it’s a very accurate vehicle,” explained Gayle.
She then established Iris the Dragon, a registered charity and producer of books to educate audiences on mental health and wellbeing and driven by their personal connection, the mother-daughter duo set out to educate children about mental health.
In total, the series has six books on various mental health topics including ADHD, depression and Aspergers. The organization has also published a teacher’s unit of study, complimentary to the books.
“It’s just a teacher’s lesson plans on how to deconstruct the book and talk about mental health in the classroom while aligning with curriculum expectations,” Jessica.
The Iris the Dragon series is available for free e-downloads in both French and English. To download a copy of any of the books visit their website