By Lauren H. Dowdle
Photos by Kathryn Bell & Contributed
Children’s eyes often sparkle even brighter than the colorful lights strung on trees and houses during the Christmas season. But for many, the holidays felt a little less magical last year thanks to the pandemic and the difficult emotions it brought.
To help her sons and other children better manage those feelings, Martha Underwood turned to something she’s enjoyed since she was young: books.
“I’ve always loved literature,” says Martha, a senior technology executive who lives in Helena. “In addition to going to a computer magnet school to learn how to program, I always took creative writing courses up through college. I always loved storytelling.”
But, it wasn’t until she saw her sons in quarantine last year that she knew what topic she was meant to write her first book about. Her youngest son, Kole, was worried about if they would be able to enjoy the holidays due to COVID, so Martha set out to find a way to create a book that would tie in a lesson to help them get through that time.
To do so, the family began drawing and writing stories about Christmas, looking for ways to weave life lessons into both their bonding time and the book. “That’s one of the things my dad taught me,” Martha says. “If you’re going to tell a story, help them through it by teaching them a lesson.”
In the end, she had a children’s book about managing emotions and feelings, all with Christmas as a background theme to make it fun and engaging. Her hope for the book was that it would help her sons and other children explore diversity, self-esteem and emotions.
“I wanted them to know it’s okay to feel your emotions, especially for boys,” Martha says. “Boys are taught to suppress them, so it’s important to show illustrations that boys can get sad, depressed and scared too. Those are normal emotions to explore and talk about.”
The story portrays not only a child’s excitement about Christmas, but also the fear that not managing their emotions may ruin the holidays. Secretly guided by magical elves, the child journeys through a series of events to show their parents the lessons they’ve learned and that they can communicate their feelings.
When it came to inspiration for the elves in the book, Martha had searched online to see what the elf might look like for the book and found the elves of color were portrayed as evil or dark, whereas the white elves looked happy with rosy cheeks.
“If my son had done that search, what would that say to him?” Martha says. “That would show him that, subconsciously, brown or black are bad and white elves are good.”
Seeing those images fueled her even more to create a book that showed a friendly elf of color that her children and others could relate to. “Black and brown kids don’t normally get to see themselves, which is why I wanted to create diverse books,” she says. “They relate better to seeing someone who looks like them. Having a brown elf who had rosy cheeks and a big bright smile was welcoming. If we want to see change, we need to be the change.”
Martha also wanted to show a two-parent family unit through the book to convey another important message, considering society often thinks brown or black children come from broken homes. “That’s not necessarily true,” Martha says. “There are lots of two-parent homes leading healthy, happy lives.”
Put all of that together, and Martha had a book called Parker’s Elf, which is her youngest son’s middle name. While her son liked it, he didn’t feel like they were done.
“Don’t you think girls would want this too?” he asked his mom.
So, for a different version of the book she changed the main character and other parts of the book to better reflect a girl’s emotions, naming that one Paiyton’s Elf. But even then, her son wasn’t finished making the books as inclusive as possible.
Kole’s best friend is white, so he asked his mother if she could also create a book where his friend could see himself too. That brought Ethan’s and Emma’s Elf to life, with a white boy and girl as the main characters. All of the books have minor differences, and each introduce unique characters in the same story.
“Sometimes, people need to be able to see themselves in the story,” Martha says. “Incorporating all of the kids seeing themselves in the same story is even more powerful, and it shows how we are the same. We’re all challenged with how to manage emotions and looking for the same things: happiness, stability and to enjoy the holidays.”
Since the Elf Series hit shelves in September 2020, Martha has received encouraging feedback and praise from both the community and professionals, including local counselor Alexis Shivers Sapp, owner and operator of ACA Counseling in Hoover, who shared the books with her colleagues and says they were phenomenal.
One reason why Sapp uses the books in her office is because of how the stories identify the different ways boys and girls express and experience their feelings. The books also normalize that little boys get angry and sad, which was something that especially stood out to her.
“I tell all (my clients) that God gave us all of our emotions,” she says. “It is okay to experience all feelings—it’s normal. The challenge is learning how to respond to our emotions appropriately.”
The Elf Series isn’t just for children either. It also emboldens parents to speak to their children about their emotions. “I really want them to encourage their children—especially during COVID—to talk about how they’re feeling,” Martha says. “The suicide rate in elementary and middle school kids has risen because kids feel isolated. We can use Christmas time, when people think about family and feeling love and joy, to talk about how they’re feeling.”
Even beyond the current pandemic, children constantly transition to new stages of life, whether it’s starting school, meeting new people, experiencing loss or any number of events. Martha hopes this book can help start the conversation about how they’re doing through all of those things.
“Ask how they feel, like if they’re anxious, sad or scared. Let them know you’re going to work through it together,” she says. “If you don’t know about it, you can’t help them through it. Communication is key.”
Martha’s writing certainly didn’t end in 2020 either. She plans to pen more books that include characters Parker, Paiyton, Emma and Ethan as best friends—“to show we’re more alike than we’re different,” she says.
Her newest title, Black Boy Ballad, is dedicated to her oldest son, KJ, and aims to inspire children to shed their self-doubt and find affirmation in their God-given gifts.
“I wrote it to let him know you’re wonderfully made by God, brilliant, brave and smart,” Martha says. “I wanted him to know you’re more than just your skin color and to remember that always.”
The Elf Series is available at Once Upon a Time in Homewood and Mountain Brook, the Hoover Public Library, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and BN.com, Target.com and Walmart.com.
Each year, Martha Underwood’s family reads The Elf on the Shelf, pulling out their elf doll who is sure to get into some mischief throughout the month. Her oldest son, KJ, named the doll B when he was 2 years old. Now, her youngest, Kole, continues the tradition, waiting to see where the elf will show up each morning starting Dec. 1.
“He just loves it. His eyes light up,” Martha says of Kole. “As a parent, that makes you feel good. You can see them have that imagination and belief in something higher. That’s one of the things we love to keep alive in our household.”
The family members also open up one stocking each on Christmas Eve, and around the holidays, they also share what they’re thankful for, along with their successes and failures from the year.