Kate Narita interviews Jessie Oliveros about the inspiration for THE REMEMBER BALLOONS.
Q: How did you get the inspiration for The Remember Balloons?
My grandpa was the inspiration behind my picture book. A couple summers ago I went home to see my family in Kansas. My grandpa had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and I had a chance to visit with him and my grandma. My kids accompanied me during most of these visits, and I would explain to them how Grandpa might repeat questions he'd forgotten he'd already asked. I can still see my grandpa—sitting in his chair with his always-toothpick in his mouth—the moment the question came to me: What does Alzheimer's look like to a child?
Q: What role do balloons play in your book? Where did that inspiration come from?
In THE REMEMBER BALLOONS' world, memories are kept in balloons. The story didn't begin this way. I began by writing a straight-forward story about a boy's experience with a grandfather suffering from Alzheimer's. I wish I could remember the exact moment I transitioned to a metaphorical story. (And I wish I could say I saw a bunch of balloons floating away in the park and everything clicked, but I don't have a story nearly as amazing as that!)
I remember sitting in my living room with my kids writing my story, and at some point I realized that a story about balloons would be more accessible to children verses a straight-forward story about memory loss. And that was the answer to my question, the one I had while my grandpa sat chewing on his toothpick: to kids, Alzheimer's looks like balloons.
After that, everything fell together. I remember reading it to my then five-year-old daughter. The first feedback I received on my manuscript was, "Mom! That's sad! The grandpa lost all his balloons." (Spoiler: The ending is hopeful, not sad.)
Q: How do your own memories and loved ones' memories influence the book?
That same summer, I started taking voice recordings of my grandparents' personal histories. I was especially driven to record those of my grandfather's, not sure how much longer he'd be able to share them. Some of my grandpa's memories inspired some of the memories THE REMEMBER BALLOONS' grandpa shares with his grandson. In addition, I have special memories of fishing with my grandpa just as the boy in my book does!
(Plus, literally carrying these memories in my purse (in the form of the voice recorder) may have helped my brain turn the concept of memories into something more solid and tangible.)
Q: How is your grandpa doing?!
He's thriving! His Alzheimer's has been slowed by medicine and the good care of those around him, especially my grandma. And one thing Alzheimer's hasn't beat is his sense of humor!
Q: What do your grandparents think about the book?
My grandma is filled with grandmotherly pride and is very excited about my book. I've told my grandpa about my book on more than one occasion, but unfortunately, he doesn't retain the news longer than a few minutes. But still--I make sure to tell him that he and the memories he's shared helped inspire my book!
Thanks so much for reading and listening.
THE REMEMBER BALLOONS by Jessie Oliveros Illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte
Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, fall 2018