In this age of self-care and social media breaks, it's easy to think of stress as the domain of the adult. But children and young adults are not only familiar with the experience, they're bearing up under more stress than ever. Luckily, Tanya Lloyd Kyi Under Pressure: The Science of Stress (Kids Can Press, illustrated by Marie-Ève Tremblay) has created a book not only about the stress young people are facing, but aimed at them as they navigate a rapidly changing world.
From how stress affects the brain and body to surprising new treatments, Kyi's middle grade-friendly book is smart and deeply timely, empowering kids to understand and process the pressures they face. Packed with fascinating and digestible science facts, it's not only a helpful read, it's an incredibly interesting one. Marie-Ève Tremblay's cheeky illustrations bring humour and fun to the reading, making a valuable package for kids, parents, and educators.
We're excited to welcome Tanya to Open Book today to talk about working on Under Pressure as part of our Kids Club: Writing for Young Readers interview.
She tells us about how a desire to learn tennis surprisingly led to the idea for the book, how focusing on being "nerve-cited" can help in tough situations, and the free technique to combat stress we should all take advantage of (hint: you'll need your jacket).
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
Tanya Lloyd Kyi:
Under Pressure is all about the science of stress. It explores the chemical changes happening in our bodies and brains when we’re in crisis mode, when we’re coping with chronic stress, or when we experience trauma.
How the book came to be? Well, I wish I could say I wanted to help ease the stress in young people’s lives. Maybe we could pretend I set out to make the world a better place? In reality, I was trying to learn to play tennis. But I’m (a) a bit competitive and (b) completely uncoordinated. So frustrating! When I started looking into ways to stay calm and focused, I discovered all sorts of fascinating stress research. I had to write a book!
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
A Harvard researcher named Alison Wood Brooks asked groups of people to do stressful things, like write math exams or sing in front of strangers.
She told some of her study participants to repeat, "I’m calm."
She told other people to repeat, "I’m excited!"
The singers who thought of themselves as excited hit the right notes more often and felt more confident. The test-takers scored better on their math exams.
Her conclusion: it’s not easy to soothe away our own biological responses, but it is possible to change the way we think about stress.
When my own kids are preparing for a test or a tournament, they’ll often say they’re "nerve-cited". I think that’s a good way to look at things. Because while we’re all susceptible to stress, researchers like Brooks have shown that it helps (scientifically!) to focus on excitement rather than pressure.
Did the book look the same in the end as your originally envisioned it when you started working, or did it change through the writing process?
I’ve never met Marie-Ève Tremblay, who did the illustrations for Under Pressure, but now I feel like I know her. She has such a quirky sense of humour, and such a wonderful way of putting strong emotions into simple pictures. She gave the book a whole new level of fun.
My favourite is her illustration of a roller coaster, because I’m the girl in the middle seat who looks certain she’s about to die!
What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the writing process for you?
As I was researching Under Pressure, I was amazed by all the studies linking time in nature to lower anxiety levels. I started dragging my family out for walks in the woods. And maybe I did this a few too many times...
At breakfast one Saturday morning, I said: "what do you want to do today?"
My son yelled: "WE DO NOT WANT TO WALK IN THE WOODS!"
(But really, we should all go outside more. It’s been scientifically proven, by people even smarter than my son.)
Do you feel like there are any misconceptions about writing for young people? What do you wish people knew about what you do?
Information books have changed dramatically over the last few decades. When I was a kid, "non-fiction" meant the reference books you had to use to research school reports. Now, information books are fun. They’re packed with strange facts and unexpected stories. Many kids read them for pleasure, and I think adults would, too... if they knew they existed.
What are you working on now?
I write both fiction and non-fiction for young people. Next spring, I have a middle-grade novel coming out with Penguin Random House called Me and Banksy. It’s about a girl who leads a graffiti-based rebellion against cameras in her classrooms. Then, a year from now, I have another information book coming out with Kids Can Press... this one about the science of stereotypes.
That’s the best thing about writing for kids. There’s always a new topic to explore.
Tanya Lloyd Kyi is the author of more than 25 books for children and young adults. She writes both fiction and nonfiction, often choosing topics related to science, pop culture, and history - or a combination of the three. Along with Under Pressure, Tanya is the author of Mya's Strategy to Save the World, a middle-grade novel, as well as Eyes and Spies, a book for teens about surveillance and privacy.
Tanya's favourite meal is breakfast, her favourite color is blue and her favourite children's book is A Wrinkle in Time. Her personal remedies for stress include pancakes, long walks in the woods, and time alone with a notebook and pen.
Tanya lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, with her husband, Min. They have a 15-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son (who, no matter how stressed, refuses to walk in the woods).