Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 5 June 2020

Coronavirus: Abu Dhabi teacher pens book to put spotlight on children's mental health

Ben Smith published his first illustrated story, A Zebra Named Zion, to get young people to talk about their anxieties

Ben Smith's book, A Zebra Named Zion, puts a spotlight on children’s mental health. Courtesy: Ben Smith
Ben Smith's book, A Zebra Named Zion, puts a spotlight on children’s mental health. Courtesy: Ben Smith

When Ben Smith was in his teens, he struggled with his mental health and found it hard to express his feelings out loud. Instead, he stayed quiet.

Now a teacher, he wants his pupils to know that talking about their anxieties and stresses is normal and they’re not alone.

While most have been binge watching Netflix or flexing their culinary arm during lockdown, the 29-year-old Abu Dhabi resident, who has taught for six years, brought one of his long-term goals to life.

This week, he published his first illustrated story, A Zebra Named Zion, to put a spotlight on children’s mental health.

It is heart wrenching when you see pupils in your class that are withdrawn and have lost that spring in their step

Ben Smith

Mr Smith, from Ireland, said the book aims to “provoke a discussion” and confronts feelings of “depression and anxiety” in a simple and relatable way.

A story to be read in one sitting and suitable for kids aged five to 12, he said the main character, Zion, takes its young readers on a journey of enlightenment.

“I chose a zebra because I wanted the black and white stripes to be used as an analogy,” the grade 3 teacher at Taaleem’s Al Watan School in Abu Dhabi, told The National.

“The black stripes represent dark times but they are always followed by white stripes, which represent happier times.

“It’s a simple story which follows Zion through times of happiness and sadness, but his mother, Minerva, reassures him that sadness is part of the journey of our lives.”

“I want my readers to know that feelings of sadness are only temporary and they can overcome these emotions by talking to friends and family.”

Primary school teacher, Ben Smith, with his newly published book, A Zebra Named Zion. Victor Besa / The National
Primary school teacher, Ben Smith, with his newly published book, A Zebra Named Zion. Victor Besa / The National

Having taught in two countries in the Middle East as well as Australia and Ireland, Mr Smith said no matter where they are from, children are the same.

“Many of them experience the same anxieties that I did growing up,” he said.

“I struggled with mental health in my late teens and early twenties but I was lucky enough to have people around me who assured me my feelings were only momentary.

“That definitely helped and influenced my interest in mental health.

“I’m glad to say I’m in a great place now and want to help any others as best I can.

“It is heart wrenching when you see pupils in your class that are withdrawn and have lost that spring in their step.”

From concept to reality, it took Mr Smith and his UK-based illustrator, James Moffitt, just seven weeks to complete the project.

The self-published electronic-book is now available in the UAE via Amazon and the paperback version is available for online purchase in other countries.

With the current e-learning transition a “confusing time” for many during the pandemic, he said he hopes his book can help youngsters better grapple with their internal feelings.

“I believe well-being is a huge part of primary school life and should be encouraged,” he said.

“I want our classrooms to be open and friendly places were children are not afraid to express themselves or share how they are feeling.”

Mr Smith has also posted some free resources for teachers and parents online at www.bensmithbooks.com, that encourages children to confront questions related to mental health.

Updated: May 21, 2020 05:21 PM

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