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Blog Post | February 28, 2023

Lee Varon Interview: Children’s Authors and Illustrators Week 2023

Children’s Authors and Illustrators Week 2023 continues throughout the entire month of February here at SAFE Project! Our fourth interview is with Lee Varon, author of My Brother Is Not a Monster: A Story of Addiction and Recovery:

Lee was kind enough to sit down with SAFE Project to discuss Sophia’s story within the book, as well as share advice for parents on how to broach the subjects of overdose and addiction with young children.


Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m a clinical social worker, and I have worked with families who have substance use disorder.

My book, My Brother Is Not a Monster: A Story of Addiction and Recovery, really came from my own personal experience about two decades ago. I was living a very similar life to the one portrayed in the story. I was a single parent with two sons. In the story, it’s an older teenage boy named Joey and a younger girl named Sophia who is roughly around 7 or 8. But that was basically my life. My older son was struggling with substance use disorder. He’d been in and out of treatment, and as any parent knows, it can be a nightmare.

Fast forward many, many years later, and I was talking to my younger son about what it was like for him growing up, and I got to thinking more about what I could have done differently. I had a social work background, and thus the idea of the book came about. It’s my firm belief that when you’re in that crisis mode as a caregiver or parent, it’s hard to know where to focus your attention. You usually go to the immediate: “I want to save my child that’s having problems with substance use,” and everything else can kind of go by the wayside. I think in some ways my younger child went a little bit by the wayside. I was thinking, well, okay, my younger son isn’t making any waves. Things are going okay, grades are okay, so let’s just let it keep going.

But as we all know here, kids have feelings. Kids have a lot of misunderstandings if they don’t get clear information. I wish at the time I had focused a little bit more on explaining what was going on to my younger son.

Sophia’s Story

What is Sophia’s experience living with Joey and how does that story change over time?

I used a Halloween theme. The older sibling, Joey – who’s maybe 16 or 17 — and the younger sibling, Sophia, have been very close in the past. They did lots of fun things together. They had a positive sibling relationship, but what slowly happens, and I know that anybody who’s lived in a family with substance use disorder can relate to this, is that behaviors start to change. Joey starts to come in later, and he starts to argue more with mom. He is just surly and his personality is changing. It culminates when Sophia finds out that he’s stolen money from her. They’re still thinking, “we’ll go out trick or treating together,” and she blurts out to her mom, “Joey doesn’t even need a costume. He’s just one big old monster anyhow.” That’s the title of the book, but it’s also a metaphor for what a lot of people, myself included, feel when you have a child who you know one way, and then they start using substances and their behaviors can totally radically change and they can often be very monstrous. As the story continues, Sophia really works her way through a whole wide range of feelings.

What is unique about a child’s experience with a loved one’s substance use disorder?

It depends on the child, on how much information the child is given, and what kind of understanding they have.

This book is a story, but it’s also a workbook. One of the first things I show in the workbook is this plethora of feelings. Kids can have all sorts of feelings: they can have embarrassment, anger, fear, and sadness.

With Sophia, she understandably is confused because her brother has changed so much. She’s angry because suddenly he’s doing these monstrous things and acting so differently. In the course of the book, without giving the story away, she is very worried when Joey overdoses, and she says to her mom, “I’m sorry I called him a monster.” She comes to understand a little bit what it is to have substance use disorder and that it is a disease.

In the story, we actually see an EMT spray something up Joey’s nose. As you turn the page, it goes on to explain it: this was naloxone, and this is what this does. Why is it so important to describe this in plain words for children?

That was a big decision for me because somebody said, back when I was writing the book, that no parent is going to buy this book where you’re showing a young person being “Narcan-ed.”

This is the reality that many families are living with, and even if they’re not living with it, they’ve heard about it. It was very important for me to show the reality of substance use disorder, but also to show that there is hope and there is treatment. It’s not like Joey overdosed and, well, something happened, he went off somewhere, and so on. We show that, yes, Joey overdosed. Mom and Sophia are standing there very worried. It is very important that kids have some basic understanding of the fact that there are things that can reverse an overdose. There are things that can help the situation. That’s also why I have tips and resources at the back of the book.

I was thinking back to my own life. Did I have a plan? In other words, what if I went out and my younger child was left alone? Do they know who to call? Do they know what to do? I thought it was really important to at least think about these things.

As you go through Sophia’s journey here, the book almost outlines what that plan is. It is kind of like a map that you can follow from a child’s perspective.

One of the big things I wanted to do with the workbook is at least have parents and caregivers – because obviously they’re the ones that are going to be buying this and reading it – start to think about, “oh, yeah, do I have a plan? Or what should my plan be?” Maybe this will kind of spark that kind of thinking a little bit.

As part of the workbook section, there are writing prompts for children, a glossary of terms, etc. Can you kind of walk us through this second half of the book?

I think it’s so important for kids to know they’re not alone. There are millions of other families going through this all over the country. Just because you’re not acknowledging or talking about a feeling doesn’t mean it’s going to go away. So I give kids some thoughts to consider. Then I talk about tips for parents, provide a glossary of simple terms for kids, and resources.

Illustration as Impact

What can you share about the illustrator, Alicia Mona?

Book Bridge Press helped me with the book. They were great in terms of the layout and everything. They suggested two people, and they sent me their information and photographs of their work. I knew immediately she was the person. I just totally connected with the visual imagery, and I think she did a great job.

There are a lot of really striking images in the book. What was the discussion around showing what could possibly be scary images for kids?

It’s always a balance when you’re showing something for young children. I find that children often know more than we think they know. Sometimes when they don’t know, and when we don’t explain things or give them some sort of factual basis for things, they might imagine worse, actually more horrific things.

Sophia knew that her brother was going out and hanging out with kids that her mom didn’t like, and she knew that her brother was smoking because her mom had been arguing about that. So I thought, okay, I’ll just show that because everybody’s seen people smoking.

It was a harder decision to show Joey being “Narcan-ed,” because I thought, “will anybody buy this book?”

As this epidemic continues, I hope that more people will get it and understand that there are things that can reverse an overdose, they should be on hand, they should be in your house, and you should know how to use them.

Where can people get a copy of the book?

The best place for the paperback, which is usually what people buy, is Amazon. The best place for the hardcover, although you can get it through Amazon as well, is Barnes and Noble. You can also ask your library to carry it.