Listen: Katrina Roe chats about her new book in an interview with Emma Mullings. Above: Katrina, and her new star character Gemma.
Growing up on a farm on the Hay Plains – one of the flattest spots in Australia – doesn’t really prepare you for tall buildings or dizzying mountain heights.
For Katrina Roe, it meant that when she was first exposed to being ‘up high’, she was petrified. It first happened on a Year Five school excursion to the Blue Mountains Scenic Skyway, an experience she found terrifying. Then, as a teenager, she got stuck at the top of a high rope wall crying fearful tears. It’s a memory that’s never left her.
Fast forward to 2017, and Katrina, now a radio presenter and children’s author, has used the experiences to inspire her latest children’s book, Gemma Gets the Jitters. It’s a picture book that tells the story of Gemma, a giraffe who has a fear of heights.
“One boy told me he used to be scared of fluff, another one was scared of toys that made noises or that moved by themselves.”
“Gemma’s fear of heights is a problem for her because she has a passion for photography,” Katrina explains. “So she keeps missing out on all the best views when she goes places, and she can’t get the photos she wants. The message is about overcoming anxiety, but also about not letting your fears stand in the way of your dreams.”
In researching the book and speaking to groups of children, Katrina discovered children have many different kinds of fears—some quite unusual.
“Their fears are all so different,” she said. “A very common one is fear of the dark, which many children have when they’re young. Another common one is needles, doctors and hospitals. But they can also have very random things just from their experiences—one boy told me he used to be scared of fluff, another one was scared of toys that made noises or that moved by themselves.
“My children have all had difficulties with things around heights like escalators or glass lifts, which in our urban environments we face everywhere.”
Teaching Kids to Kids Overcome Their Fears
A touching theme in the new book is one of friendship, as Gemma’s friends – including characters from Katrina’s previous books – help her to face and overcome her fears. They take her to small and achievable heights before she faces the daunting Sydney Harbour Bridget. They don’t know it, but they’re using what professionals call ‘graded exposure therapy’: facing fears gradually.
Katrina has herself experienced the power of friendship to help with overcoming fear; as a teenager stuck at the top of a high ropes course, it was a friend coming alongside her, who helped her to get through it.
Gemma Gets the Jitters is the third in a series teaching children to work through their childhood challenges, such as food allergies (Marty’s Nut-Free Party), and asthma (Emily Eases her Wheezes). It’s a timely book, given that childhood anxiety is skyrocketing in Australia. While estimates say that between two and nine percent of kids and teens in Australia have anxiety disorders, early intervention and the right support can make a big difference.
At the back of the book is some professional advice for parents, by psychologist Collett Smart, on how to help your anxious child.