In Don't Forget, God Bless Our Troops, second lady Jill Biden tells a very personal story, narrating in the voice of her granddaughter Natalie the events of the year that her daddy, Beau Biden, was deployed overseas.
Sensitively, Biden chronicles Natalie and her little brother Hunter's fears for their father as well the ways their lives went on. Biden has teamed with Michelle Obama in the Joining Forces initiative, to educate Americans about the sacrifices military families endure, and in keeping with this effort, she provides a wealth of resources to help readers help military families.
Find more picture books featuring military children.
Biden took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to us about her book, out June 5.
You have been a teacher of English and writing for years. How did it feel to put on the authorial hat for a change?
Well, you know, I'm really proud of the book. It’s something that I wrote from the heart. It’s my family’s story, so every time I reread the book with my grandchildren, it all comes flooding back. It makes us remember that year and how hard it was.
It's such a personal story, but it should resonate pretty broadly. How did you decide what details to include to ground it and which to leave out because they were too specific?
I gave it a lot of thought, and I tried to pick universal examples. For instance, every parent can relate to putting their children to bed, and what it's like to say prayers. And I think kids, especially now, are on [sports] teams, like Natalie on her swim team. And…we all know how exciting it is to lose your first tooth! So I tried to pick experiences every child could relate to.
I just went through the year that [my son] was away, and I thought of…what that was like. These are things that really happened.
What was the publishing process like for you?
Actually, it was kind of exciting. I went up and pitched the book to Simon & Schuster, and they immediately loved it. It was really uplifting that they wanted to go tell the story, because really my message is that we just have 1 percent of Americans who are serving in these wars. A lot of other Americans don't know anybody in the military or have any sort of reference, so that's what I'm hoping this book achieves—that other Americans will know what military families are going through. So when they see somebody in the military, they do say thank you, [and] so that they can commit to an act of kindness for a military family. It just means so much.
Do you think you have any more books in you?
I hope so, because I enjoyed doing it. Actually, I was thinking how neat it would be if…other kids from all across the country would write in about their stories and their experiences, and then I could [collect them and edit them]. I think that's a really neat idea, not just to see my kids' stories but to see other families' stories. In this job, as second lady, I have so many opportunities to meet people from all walks of life, and it really has opened my eyes. I just feel like I want to share it all. I hope I have more books in me, yes.
I'm an English teacher, so you have to know that I love books. I mean, as a young child I would walk to the library and carry home literally, like 10 books. My mother was a big reader, and she didn't care if I read till one in the morning. You know that funny thing about reading under the covers? I never had to do that—she fostered that love of reading. I guess that's how I turned out to be an English teacher.
How did you feel when you saw Raúl Colón's illustrations?
He is amazing. I have to tell you, when we were picking out the artist, Simon & Schuster gave us several examples, and Raúl was my choice. Joe was looking at them, and he had some other ideas. I said, "You know what, Joe? Let's send these to Natalie. It's her story. Let her pick out the artist that she feels would really show her story." So we scanned the pictures, and we sent them to Natalie. She picked out Raúl as well, and I was so ecstatic.
We felt one of the book's greatest strengths is that the adults aren't making false promises to Natalie. Readers feel her anxiety throughout the year. Was it hard for you as a writer and as a grandmother to honor that anxiety and not try to smooth it out?
You know, there was that sense of anxiety. All our family members were so close during that time, and that's what I hear universally from military families. I see that in the children. At Christmas time, we had a bunch of kids come over from the school. There was one child whose dad was deployed, and as a surprise to him, we had his dad read a book [via Skype] to the whole class. I had his mother come, because I didn't know how he would react. He was just so excited to see his dad…You can see the kids are just so connected, and they really do understand what's going on. Thank God for Skype.
Natalie helps yourself through the year with a refrain, "Be brave, Natalie." Did that come to you right away when you started the book, or did it come as you revised?
As I revised, and I went through [the story], it just seemed like a natural thing. That's what she was. Both she and Hunter were brave little children.
And it's not just my grandchildren. I see it on children's for faces when I go to deployment ceremonies. These kids are really resilient. That's one of the universal things about military children.
We love all the resources that you offer at the end.
That was really important to me. In the Joining Forces initiative that Michelle Obama and I formed together, that's what we try to say to all Americans: Think about who you know who is in the military and reach out. A lot of people say, "I don't know what to do, can you give me some hints," so that's why I tried to give them that information.
When I see the wounded warriors and I see children of fallen angels, [I know] there will be problems, like PTSD, [for years to come]. This isn't all going to go away when we leave Afghanistan. I think that the more that people have resources, hopefully [that understanding] will be naturally integrated into our society.
Vicky Smith is the children's and teen editor at Kirkus.