by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
What do the Baseballs, Lil Duval (featuring T.I.), Pentatonix, Cooltime Kids, Mart’nália, Kermit Ruffins, the Busters, Scary Pockets, Joseph Vincent, Zee Avi, Sirgun Kaur, and Holly Dolly have in common?
They—and so many more musical artists—have recorded their own renditions of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” This Grammy Award–winning song was first written and performed in 1988 by Bobby McFerrin, a jazz musician known for his groundbreaking versatility as a musician and performer.
In addition to composing and performing his global anthem for positivity, Bobby (who is the son of Robert McFerrin Sr., the first Black man to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City) has had an incredible, wide-ranging musical career—collaborating with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Chick Corea; participating in NBC’s The Sing Off; conducting the Vienna Philharmonic; appearing on Sesame Street; becoming a viral internet sensation for his pentatonic scale demonstration at the World Science Festival; and so much more.
Bobby has been called an “improv vocal virtuoso” by the Guardian and described as having the ability to “make practically every vocal and instrumental sound known to pop” by the New York Times, and that’s barely scratching the surface. Needless to say, you have probably heard Bobby’s music—or at least one of the many covers of his songs by other artists.
When I started writing this post about our Book of the Week, Ruby Finds a Worry by Tom Percival, I didn’t expect to be spending hours learning about “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and its brilliant, versatile creator. And it was fascinating to listen to the many versions of one song—it reminded me of how teachers discuss points of view with their students.
Bobby McFerrin’s inspiring happiness megahit is an anchor song in a musical subgenre devoted to pushing your worries aside, which includes other mood-lifting crowd-pleasers such as “Happy” by Pharrell Williams and “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves.
We didn’t have “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” or happy-song-finding apps like Spotify when I was a kid. But daily life in my childhood was filled with other worry-shedding advice from…
Mad magazine mascot and cover boy Alfred E. Neuman (no relation) with his mantra: “What, me worry?”
Pollyanna, who first appeared in Eleanor H. Porter’s eponymous novel in 1913 (and then continued in 11 subsequent “Glad Books”). Pollyanna, who was the star of my favorite Wonderful World of Disney movie, played the “glad game” when she was faced with life’s difficulties.
Broadway musicals (and their film versions), which are filled with rousing, glee-inspiring choruses of numbers such as “Singin’ in the Rain, ” “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” and “Put on a Happy Face.”
But I grew up in a family of more reality-based mental health professionals (who took care of other people’s worries). I know from my dad (a psychiatrist) and my mom (a social worker)—and from interacting with lots of teachers and students and families every day, and from being a human being living through this past tough year myself—that it’s not so simple to just sing your cares away.
As we head into the second half of the 2020–2021 school year, which has been filled with all kinds of new things to worry about, we want to make sure Scholastic Book Clubs offers books that can help teachers, kids, and families talk about, share, and—hopefully—dissipate their very real, very understandable worries.
Obviously, serious problems call for serious mental health professional intervention, which no book can take the place of. But for many kids—and grown-ups too—adding an anxiety-managing story such as Ruby Finds a Worry into their reading lives can be effective and reassuring.
Our first Scholastic Book Clubs Book of the Week—Ruby Finds a Worry by Tom Percival—is a picture book for all ages that I hope every child (and grown-up) will choose to own and read. Ruby Finds a Worry is a simple story of a small, happy girl named Ruby, who loves being Ruby. But one day, seemingly out of nowhere, Ruby discovers…a Worry!
Like they often do, Ruby’s Worry starts small, then it grows and grows and crowds out Ruby’s happiness and threatens to overwhelm everything else she tries to do—eat her breakfast, ride the school bus, go to the movies, and grow happily and lead her life.
Her family and teacher and friends can’t see this Worry and Ruby can’t put her finger on the problem, but it’s there…and each day it gets bigger and more unwieldy.
Only when Ruby meets a little boy in the park and sees that he too has a Worry hanging over his head—and they begin to talk about their anxieties—do their Worries start to shrink.
This is the perfect book to read with all children (and adults): It is relatable and nonthreatening, but it is profound in its message that it’s important for kids to open up, talk about, and share their worries.
A lot of kids have more than usual things to worry about right now. You don’t need me to tell you that there’s a lot of worry-generating stuff going on in the world. As we continue to struggle with the ongoing effects of the pandemic, the uncertainty of school schedules, and the disruption to so many lives, we at Scholastic Book Clubs want to make sure that kids still have access to great books. All children need to be empowered to choose books in which they can see themselves, make sense of the world around them, and escape with their imaginations.
Taking a page from Ruby Finds a Worry, David Vozar says goodbye to a “Big Worry” and hello to Positivity and Hope in 2021. David is also a true music lover and connoisseur, so as soon as I am done writing this, I am going to ask him which version of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is his favorite.
Reach Out and Read, the national nonprofit organization that is dedicated to delivering literacy training and books to underserved families during pediatric wellness visits, selected Ruby Finds a Worry to receive the Judy Newman Book Award, “to be awarded annually to one book that resonates with families and encourages them to read together.”
Chat About It
Before you read, talk about what a worry is: Perhaps it’s something that you think about, that makes your tummy feel funny and your heart a little sad. Or something that might be a little scary, or even make you sweat! Worry is also a feeling word—it’s what we call the emotion that our worries give us. Ask your child if they have ever had a feeling like that…and about what?
Spot the Worry
Let your child know that in this book, Ruby’s worry is shown as a little yellow squiggle. Explain that, really, you can’t see worries in the air this way, but that the illustrator included it so that you can imagine what Ruby’s worry feels like to her.
Make a Worry Safe Place
After you read the book, reassure your child that if they ever need a safe place to talk about worries, you will find them one. You can create a safe, cozy spot in your home for your child to share their worries without fear, such as a room corner or a seat made special by bringing out a certain pillow or other objects just during worry-sharing time. You might show your child that you’re open and understanding by offering to share some of your own (small, child-safe) worries from childhood or the present.
“A valuable asset to the library of a child who experiences anxiety and a great book to get children talking about their feelings.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
In addition to the tips, we put together some helpful ways for you to share Ruby Finds a Worry with the worried and not-so-worried young people you know:
• Join the Book Boys as they reveal the secret to making your worries shrink!
• Watch an exclusive Behind the Scenes interview with Tom Percival as he talks about his journey to becoming a picture-book maker—and what Ruby Finds a Worry reminds him to do!
• Discover how first grade teacher Kathy Sahagian uses Ruby Finds a Worry to help students express their feelings in Book Talks.
• Download a free draw-and-color activity and lesson plan full of discussion guide questions in Cooked Up from a Book.
I am excited and, of course, more than a little worried, about starting the second half of this truly unpredictable and disruptive school year.
But if we keep on working together, using the very best books to read and be entertained by and escape and learn new things and make sense of the world—and help us share our worries—we will get through this together. At Scholastic Book Clubs, we are always available to help in any way we can. Please reach out anytime—DM me on Instagram @judynewmanatscholastic or email email@example.com.
Happy New Year and Happy Reading!