MARROWSTONE ISLAND — There once lived a girl who worried a lot. Unexpected things would happen at school and at home, and this girl would feel panicky.
Her name is Taylor Mermel, and while she was growing up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, people didn’t talk much about “mental health,” especially when it came to children.
Then Mermel’s parents split up. Their divorce was once of the worst things to happen in her life. Anxiety shadowed her like a big, scary insect.
Through it all, Taylor wrote stories, painted pictures — and in words and art, she found some relief. She dreamed of being an author when she grew up.
After she finished at Mount Si High School, she went to Bellevue College and then Seattle University, studying psychology and human development to earn an interdisciplinary studies degree. She then worked at an alternative elementary school, the Village Schoolhouse Academy in Issaquah, for seven years.
In January 2019, Mermel took a job as a paraeducator at Salish Coast Elementary School in Port Townsend — and that October she finished work on a children’s book: “Autom and the Classroom Anxiety Animals,” about kids, school, anxiety — and a toy with a funny name.
This fall, she followed up with “Autom and the Separation Anxiety Storm.” Both are picture books for children ages 7 to 11.
In the first book, readers meet Charlie, Grace, Kyle, Toby, Moh and Autom, a puppet with glasses and blue hair. Autom returns in the second book to help young Coco, who splits her life between her Papá’s house in the city and her Mamá’s in a small town.
The youngsters deal with a lot: math problems, hard tests, the threat of no recess if they don’t finish enough of their reading in class, and just plain anger at the unfairness of it all.
For Coco, there’s the stress of going back and forth from one house to the other, worrying about Papá being lonely and about Mamá and her bebecito being vulnerable. She’s always missing members of her family.
Each of the kids receives help from classmates and from caring adults in taking care of their emotions. Each learns ways to relax: taking big, belly breaths, asking for comfort, thinking of their happy places.
The emotional freedom technique — EFT — of gently tapping facial pressure points helps, too.
On the last page of “Autom and the Classroom Anxiety Animals,” Mermel writes in big letters: You are not alone!
Which is what makes both books right for kids, said Ellen Thomas, the counselor at Salish Coast Elementary. She recently read one with a student who was feeling separation anxiety from her mother.
“It was nice for her to know she’s not the only one,” Thomas said, adding she especially values the books’ specific strategies children can use to soothe themselves.
Mermel, now 28, left her job at Salish Coast earlier this year to focus on finishing and marketing her books — and to start work on a third one.
“Boy, do we miss her,” Thomas said. “She was very kind and patient and loving with the kids.”
The picture books, filled with Mermel’s illustrations of children handling a variety of experiences, are now her form of empathy.
“I wanted to provide a resource for kids when they’re feeling overwhelmed,” the author said. “I was a highly sensitive, anxious child … but when I was growing up, there were no resources,” at least none she and her family were aware of.
With her text and artwork, Mermel sought to show children trying out the tools they’ve learned, thus bringing themselves into more balanced states of mind. Her characters move through tough situations, ask grownups for help, and come out the other side to enjoy life again.
“Writing is very cathartic,” Mermel said.
Along with having her books added to the Salish Coast Elementary and Jefferson County libraries, she’s gotten them into local shops: Imprint Bookstore and the Abracadabra gift shop in downtown Port Townsend, and Marrowstone Vineyards, where Mermel works on weekends. She’s developed a website, Autombooks.com.
“I’m an indie author,” she said. “I do the old-fashioned cold calls and emails and following up,” while connecting with organizations such as Diverse Pages and Read 4 Unity, promoters of books about people of color.
Mermel’s next book will further explore anxiety, including the distracting thoughts that can bother children at bedtime.
She hopes to publish it next summer and, ideally, plan some author appearances.
The Autom character will pop in, she said. Neither a boy nor girl puppet, Autom is Mermel’s invention of a toy — and of a reminder that a child can autonomously care for her- or himself.
“To the children who have been my teachers,” she writes on the dedication page of her first book, “be kind and patient with your minds.
“You are full of peace and power.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected].