Yael Walfish is a social worker based in Passaic, New Jersey. She wrote a therapeutic coloring book for children in Israel to help them cope with fear and trauma. The book is being distributed for free, with crayons, to displaced children in Israel, with versions in Hebrew and English.
The Elephant in My Room is the story of seven-year-old Benny, whose father is called up for military service on October 7. Benny is left at home with his mother, sister, and brother. Sometimes sirens go off, and they have to run to their safe room until they get the all-clear. Once, they narrowly escape a missile explosion.
Benny develops symptoms of anxiety; he can’t sleep, and he constantly worries about his family and his father. One night, his mother finds him awake and tells him about “the elephant in his room” – the strong feelings he’s been holding inside that are weighing so heavily on him. Together, they talk about ways to cope and shrink the elephant.
The Magazine sat down with Walfish, who has already written two books for children to help them manage emotions and behavior: Menucha for Menucha, about a little girl who’s always throwing tantrums; and Lazer Becomes a Winner, which gives kids a strategy to overcome bullying. Both books were published by Menucha Publications.
How did you get the idea to write this book?
I was scrolling through some posts about the war, reading about one tragic situation after another. Living far away in New Jersey, I kept thinking about the children and families in Israel and wondering, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ I had already seen the power of reaching children through stories. I turned to my husband and children and said, ‘Maybe I can write a story for children in Israel! They must be holding in so many feelings.’
Which issues did you especially want to address?
As a therapist, I meet many children who don’t know how to express their feelings. As a result, they act out or become withdrawn. Parents may not know how to talk to their children about their feelings. I often role play with parents to help guide them. In times of crisis, both parents and children may have many unexpressed feelings. We can’t always make things better, especially during crises, but as Dr. Edith Egar has said, ‘When we feel, we heal.’ Dr. Egar is the author of The Choice, and I had the great privilege of meeting her earlier this year.
Can you tell us more about yourself?
I have been a social worker for over 25 years, and I’m also married to a social worker. About eight years ago, my husband and I were introduced to The Nurtured Heart Approach, which was developed to help children who are acting out by helping them channel their intensity and learn to thrive. My husband and I work privately with families and do trainings at schools. I am passionate about sharing simple tools that help children and families heal and thrive.
How did ‘The Elephant in My Room’ become reality?
I sent my mother, who now lives in Givat Shmuel, my story. She was excited! She already envisioned it as a coloring book that could be distributed with crayons. As I shared the story and heard strong positive responses, I decided in early November that I would get The Elephant in My Room out!
I immediately reached out to Mira Simon, who illustrated my two previous books. I wanted the process to be quick, inexpensive, and therapeutic, and decided that a coloring book would be the best way to engage children and give them an opportunity to be part of the healing process. There were many volunteers along the way; everyone wanted to do something to help.
Do you personally know anyone in Israel going through these types of situations?
I have lots of family in Israel and many in the army. I was born in Israel. My mother’s maiden name was Bar-Ilan, like the university – that’s her family. I grew up going to Israel for many summers and enjoyed my gap year there, too.
My 11-year-old nephew, Elnatan, who lives in Israel, helped me with the process, explaining the details and helping with editing. That part was a lot of fun. As I was writing the story, I posted on social media and many people gave feedback. I was in touch with Mental Health Hatzalah and asked several therapists, children, and parents in Israel to read through it.
What sort of responses have you received from parents?
One woman, whose husband is in the army, read the book to her son. It helped him open up. He began to ask her lots of questions. She was so grateful for the story. Another mother wrote, ‘My two sons are enjoying coloring the books! My older one has a hard time with emotions, but I read the whole book to him, and he was like, “Yeah, sometimes I’m also afraid…” I think it was so therapeutic, especially the tools at the end.’
Yet another said, ‘My 10-year-old really listened and internalized that it’s okay to have feelings. He is struggling with strong emotions and ways of dealing with them. And my eight-year-old daughter isn’t as sensitive, but she also really found it comforting and understood the ideas.’
How many copies are being distributed, and where?
One thousand copies with crayons were distributed free of charge over Hanukkah to displaced children from the North and the South who are being accommodated with their families in hotels. We are still figuring out how to widen our distribution. Anyone interested in assisting with this effort can donate via the PayPal campaign Nurturing Resilience and Emotional Healing in Children of Israel.
- THE ELEPHANT IN MY ROOM
- By Yael Walfish
- Bais Medrash Zichron Eliezer
- 36 pages; Donation