Q&A: ‘Whispa and the Waves’ Author Ffion Jones

Whispa and the Waves’ is a children’s picture book about anxiety, and how we can create our own ways of overcoming it. Written by author, illustrator and children’s mental health advocate Dr. Ffion Jones, ‘Whispa and the Waves’ is both a beautiful story — with incredible illustrations by Elena Mascolo — and a practical guide to understanding anxiety, how it manifests, and how to triumph over it.

Ahead of the release of ‘Whispa and the Waves’, we spoke to Ffion about the influence of her own family on the book, the introduction of mindfulness into school curriculums, and how parents can help children struggling with their mental health.

‘Whispa and the Waves’ is a picture book about anxiety. How did your personal experiences with your daughter’s anxiety influence the story?

Initially, I wrote the story to help my youngest daughter’s struggle with anxiety, particularly emetophobia. She was struggling with panic attacks at the time, which felt like a tsunami to her, so I used the concept of waves that build up and ebb away again to help her visualise her anxious feelings. It helped her to know that these feelings would always pass, just like a tidal wave breaks and then subsides. We didn’t receive much professional support due to long NHS mental health waiting lists but, like lots of other families, we couldn’t wait – my daughter was frightened and was asking for help so we needed to find ways to help her ride her waves of anxiety. 

Before my daughter struggled with anxiety, I didn’t fully appreciate what anxiety can do to a child. It was really important to me that I didn’t shy away from the storm imagery in the story, as this is what it can feel like for a child struggling with anxiety. My daughter was very often in a fight or flight response, which can feel very scary. Understandably, children may try to avoid these unpleasant feelings by avoiding any triggers, which of course usually makes things worse in the long term. I wanted the book to offer hope so that children like my daughter can explore other ways of responding to these feelings. My daughter has learnt from the story that by recognising and understanding her feelings and then learning to manage her responses, she can try a new approach rather than fuelling the unhelpful cycle of panic. 

Louise May Alcott’s words in Little Women really resonate – “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” With time, compassion and empathy, my daughter has now become less afraid of the storms as she knows how she can ride the waves. I’m hoping that the book can help other children to do the same. 

Can you tell us more about Whispa as a character and how she came to be? What inspired you to make her a young mermaid?

We live right by the sea in Swansea so using the concept of waves to help my daughter visualise her anxious feelings seemed quite natural. I wanted the character I created to cause the storm but also feel empowered to calm it so a mermaid was the obvious choice.

Depending on the myth, mermaids can be portrayed as omens foreseeing stormy seas but I wanted Whispa to be a young mermaid learning to navigate the storms. As well as controlling the weather, the myth of the mermaid foreseeing aspects of the future was also useful as anxiety lives in thoughts about the future – existing in the “what if” stories that we imagine may happen. I envisioned Whispa as a quiet (like a whisper) mermaid, unsure of her own unique voice and strengths, who becomes attuned to her kinder, stronger inner voice as her journey progresses. 

As a mental health advocate, were there any additional experiences that motivated you to write ‘Whispa and the Waves’?

As well as being a writer and illustrator, I also work in schools delivering early intervention wellbeing and mental health projects and I often work with children who are struggling with anxiety for a variety of reasons. These children also motivated me to write the book as I wanted them to know that their feelings are normal and that they can develop their own techniques to ride the waves. 

Children love understanding why things are the way they are. Picture books are a window into the “why’s” behind behaviour – why is this character acting in a certain way? Are they trying to communicate some difficult thoughts and feelings?  So, when I was writing the book my aim was for children who are feeling anxious to feel less alone, but also to encourage understanding and empathy. I knew from my daughter’s experiences and the experiences of children in my school sessions that there was a lack of understanding about both internal triggers and physical symptoms, so these are highlighted in the book.  

Whispa’s trigger in the book is a simple thought about not being good enough and I do a lot of work with children in schools on how they can start reframing these automatic negative thoughts and core beliefs, which we all have. 

“I hope that children enjoy reading the story whilst also learning ways to navigate their own big emotions or understand what this feels like for other children who may be struggling.

How do you hope children will relate to Whispa’s journey and what message would you like children (and their parents) to take away from the book?

My hope is that ‘Whispa and the Waves’ helps children who are struggling with anxiety to feel less alone and to explore different ways of responding to anxious feelings. Picture books are an amazing resource to help build empathy so I hope the book will help to foster a deeper understanding of what it feels like for a child who is struggling with anxiety. 

I want children and parents to know that anxiety is something we all experience but that it is manageable and we can all learn to ride those waves. I think it is also important that children and parents know it is not a one-size-fits-all – sometimes reframing or accepting thoughts may help, sometimes breathing techniques may help, sometimes it may be anchoring and grounding techniques or physical activity, and sometimes we will need all of them. Whispa makes it back to shore by using a combination of all of these things and children can practise alongside her as they read her story. 

Friendship is also a theme in the book as Whispa’s friends are supportive and still try to include her when she is struggling – I think this is a really important message that will hopefully encourage children to do the same if they see their friends having a hard time. This kind of support and inclusion comes with having a greater understanding of anxiety, which is one of the aims of the book.  

I hope that children enjoy reading the story whilst also learning ways to navigate their own big emotions or understand what this feels like for other children who may be struggling.

How did you approach the balance between storytelling and teaching mindfulness in the book?

Mindfulness is interwoven into Whispa’s journey so children don’t realise that they are learning mindfulness techniques when they are reading her story. Whispa uses these techniques to get her safely back to shore so mindfulness is very much a part of the storytelling. Mindfulness also means that Whispa engages all her senses to feel grounded again which brings readers more deeply into her world. Achieving this balance was really important when writing the book so the reader is engaged and cares about Whispa’s story.

The book is illustrated by Elena Mascolo. What was your reaction to first seeing her work and how did her illustrations help bring ‘Whispa and the Waves’ to life?

I was blown away when I first saw the illustrations. They perfectly capture the feelings I describe in the book. Each illustration is a piece of artwork! I actually cried when I saw the cover as it perfectly captures the emotions I am describing.  

The transition from darker illustrations at the start to the more comforting rich colours as the book progresses perfectly captures the message of the book as well as elaborating on meaning and helping children to read between the lines. Whispa’s story and the sea-side world she inhabits is shown beautifully through Elena’s illustrations – I couldn’t have hoped for a better illustrator for Whispa.

Have you received any early feedback from parents or children who have read the book?

I’ve been blown away by the early response to the book. Parents have commented on how it helps children to really understand anxiety and to feel empowered in their responses and children have loved reading it and acting it out! Adults have commented on how it talks directly to them too! In pre-publication visits to schools, teachers have commented on how they can use it as a resource to explore anxiety and mindfulness. Children can act out mindfulness practises as they read along, which makes it very accessible.

Are there any specific scenes or moments in the book that are particularly meaningful to you?

At the start of the book, I introduce an Internal trigger where Whispa says “You can’t sing like the ocean, you’re not like them; they all sing better than you.” 

It was really important to me that internal triggers, like thoughts or bodily sensations, were included in the story as there was a lack of understanding of these in my daughter’s case – we were lucky that she had an amazing teacher in primary school who understood anxiety and really helped her but we also experienced the opposite. Children need to know about the different types of triggers so they can recognise what theirs are and start to manage their automatic responses. 

The scenes which describe the storm and physical symptoms are also particularly meaningful. The spiralling storm would feel very real for my daughter leading to stomach aches, nausea, and dizziness, and, like Whispa, she would tighten into a ball of panic. Elena’s illustration of this scene is very powerful, depicting how anxiety can feel for the child. 

There is also another moment in the book where a safe anchoring memory helps Whispa to remember a kinder inner voice that tells her “The storm might be strong, but you’re even stronger. Whispa, you know what to do.” The memory which Elena has drawn is of Whispa’s mother giving her the pink conch shell which is also meaningful as in the early days of my daughter’s severe anxiety she would feel less panicky when I’d tell her “You know what to do.”

This kinder, internalised voice has been key for my daughter. When we are triggered, our logical brain switches off temporarily so practising these positive affirmations when we are calm is really helpful. When she was really struggling with anxiety, my daughter had a stone in her bag which said “You are safe, you know what to do” which helped when she was starting to feel overwhelmed – it reminded her that she had managed this before using her amazing strengths and that she was ok at the end of it.   

“Listening to what the child is saying is so important and helps them to feel less alone. 

What advice would you give to parents who are trying to help their children manage anxiety?

Listening to what the child is saying is so important and helps them to feel less alone.  Sometimes anxiety is not logical but as parents we want to fix things so we try to apply logic (e.g. “don’t worry about it”). This is hard for the child to take on board initially because in that moment they feel like they are in the midst of a storm and their body responses einforce that message. This is why I think it’s helpful for parents to explore with children what their triggers are. 

An external trigger is a situation/ person and an example of an internal trigger is a thought or bodily sensation like a tummy ache. These can lead to anxious responses which for the adult may seem illogical as the child may be in a safe relaxed space (my daughter has had panic attacks while sitting next to me on a sofa watching television). From the child’s point of view, however, the trigger feels threatening so it’s really important we listen to them and try to understand their perspective.

Once children start to recognise their own triggers, they can practise calming their body responses through whatever works for them such as breathing techniques or moving the body, which will then allow them to think more clearly. Working with this principle of “body first” is often helpful – doing things to calm down the body first, which send signals to the brain to tell it that we are safe and that it’s a false alarm. Only then can the child listen to logic. 

It’s really difficult to see your child struggling. I felt heartbroken when my daughter would say “I don’t want to feel like this anymore”. But there are things that we can do to help so that children can learn how to turn down the volume on their anxiety when it gets too loud.

Mindfulness in schools is a huge topic at the moment. How do you see ‘Whispa and the Waves’ fitting into a child’s or a classroom’s mindfulness toolkit?

Books are a really useful resource, which I always use in my sessions, to gently open doors to conversations about mental health. 

We think in stories, remember in stories, and turn our experiences into stories. For children, in particular, stories are a safe space to explore big emotions. Stories are a great way to approach mindfulness too, teaching children in an accessible way to pay attention to their thoughts, feelings and surroundings, which in turn empowers them to manage their reactions. In Whispa, things get worse and the waves get bigger when she tries to ignore and then fight these feelings. The storm only starts to calm when she faces it head-on and starts riding the waves instead. 

Approaching mindfulness and anxiety through storytelling is really useful as it’s easier for children to understand, remember and relate to. Children can read the story and act out mindfulness practises, which are then easier to remember and incorporate into their lives. Anxiety sometimes feels like such a huge topic but looking at it through the lens of a story makes it feel less overwhelming for both children and adults. 

My hope is that Whispa will encourage children and adults too to use mindfulness in their daily lives so that they can learn to ride the anxiety waves.

Finally, how do you practice mindfulness in your own life, and has that influenced your writing?

I practise mindfulness daily. I often practise mindfulness in school sessions and in author talks I always warm up with a mindful activity. When you watch young children play, they are already mindful but if they practise mindfulness regularly it’s much easier for them to build up the habit of taking a breath and focusing on the present before reacting to triggers. Mindfulness helps them to recognise the feelings in their body, and respond to them differently.

This has definitely influenced my writing for children as I think it’s important to introduce it to them at a young age so it becomes a habit rather than having to firefight in a reactive way further down the line. Books that include mindfulness are a lovely starting point to help children notice how thoughts and emotions make our bodies feel and how we can learn to respond healthily. I’ve seen how mindfulness has helped my daughter and the children I work with in schools, so incorporating mindful techniques that the child reader can easily practise was really important when writing Whispa. 

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