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Validating & Helping Kids With Anxiety
For kids struggling with anxiety, worries, and fear
Quick Things You Need To Know:
- This list is a rough-draft collection of books in progress as I research this topic for patreon-only access. Pardon my dust, typos, and so on.
- We’re focusing on validating books in this list – stories that help kids see that they aren’t alone, although there are a couple rare normalizing books in there. A couple books in here can be used to help explain a parent’s anxiety to children.
- Anxiety is all tangled up with mental health, courage, growth milestones, and the unreasonable amount of performance and scheduling pressure on this generation of littles. So we’re going to try to narrow it down.
- To keep this manageable, I’m not covering related topics such as phobias, mindfulness & centering, perfectionism, resilience, mental health, depression, spoon theory, courage, therapy, the effects of transmisia and other forms of discrimination, the dark/things that go bump in the night, or first-day-of-school jitters in this list. If those would be helpful, add it as a request in the Collaborator Laboratory.
- I’ve got a few specific lists for ways that anxiety presents below (selective mutism, OCD, OCPD) but not all of them, and am still looking for books on panic disorder, self-harm, trichitillomania, dermatillomania, etc.
- Books to Calm Separation Anxiety – This is mostly targeted toward the toddler & preschool crowd, but I’m adding more books as my kids get older.
- Social Anxiety: Making Friends is Hard – Tailored for kids with social disabilities and misfits, although these will be helpful for all kids at some point as they struggle to fit in and find friends.
- Talking About Death With Young Kids – I started a series of Death which I will continue…someday. For anxiety about death, start with this, and if you’d like to see more of the death positive books that helped us with death anxiety, vote up that topic in the Collaborator Laboratory.
Quick & Messy Book List:
Generalized Anxiety – Stories
- Me And My Fear (sanna) oh this is just the most perfect. embodies fear the way Sam’s Pet Temper embodied temper, giving kids space to separate themselves from it and look at it with less self-judgement. nothing could be better about this. how it causes her to overeat, stay inside, how it dominates her life and gets bigger the more she tries to placate it. “And at dinner, Fear eats all the food she can. At night, in my new room, Fear dreams so loudly that I can’t sleep.” Helpful to show the Earthquakes at 4 & 6 why I don’t leave the house and why it’s so scary to start new things and meet new people IRL, and how me not communicating like other people exacerbates that fear (protagonist learns English as a second language, but this works for communicative disabilities) “But since we came to this new country, Fear isn’t so little anymore.” As the Fear fluctuates in size, kids can see how small fear is a good thing – keeps us safe. “A tiny friend called Fear.” is something we want to keep around. But how too large becomes a hindrance. How fear turns to rage so easily (great scaffolding for talks about police brutality): “When the teacher says my name wrong, she grows angry… even though I know it was just an accident.” we see her cajoling and encouraging her fear to go outside and play, how she DOES have control over it, how other kids have fear too. illustrations are gorgeous, clean, beautiful and adorable. validating AND destigmatizing AND universal. I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH. new kid at school (foreign/immigrant/ESL). emotional eating
- Mrs. Meyer the bird (Erlbruch)- Quiet and reflective and lovely. Mrs. Meyer worries about everything, her husband goes along with it, this is my life. She finds a bird and finally has something REAL to worry about, which forces her to prioritize and the other stuff falls away. charging herself with caring for this bird, she takes a leap. surprise twist is that she can fly, and the boys found this delightful and surreal. As someone who worries about every possible terrible thing that can happen, something about this felt freeing and, plus the ending felt magic. caring for lost birds, kindness, courage, bravery in service to others.
- Sophie’s Fish – Worst-case scenarios with mind running away with terrible what-ifs. It’s rare for me to have no recollection of reading a book I have notes on, but that’s the case here. When this happens it’s usually because the book was unremarkable and bland.
- Thunder Cake – See full post here. While this story isn’t general anxiety, but anxiety over a thunderstorm, the action of distracting themselves with a plan and keeping busy is one I use to manage my generalized anxiety. Grandma has a PROCEDURE for fears and worries. When grandma sees stormy weather approaching, she tells the protagonist to come out from under the bed, soothes her with cuddles, and gets her excited about thunder cake day. they get so focused on making thunder cake the girl has an easier time managing her fear. there’s a recipe at the end. Elders.
- Both Come With Me & After The Fall are made for post-traumatic events rather than general anxiety, but they incorporate elements CBT, creating feedback loops of small actions & positive psychology that kids might find useful. I’d be careful to reassure kids that their anxiety is just as valid as anxiety caused by a single traumatic event while reading this though, otherwise we fall into the trap of minimizing generalized anxiety that can’t be traced back to a single cause.
- Ruby Finds a Worry (Percival) Riding on the modern wave of visualizing emotions as anthropomorphic blobs, (we are really enjoying these), Ruby’s worry gives kids a visually tangible THING to look at so we can understand this nebulous feeling as a real thing and talk it out.
- Me and my fear – #OwnVoices validating story as an immigrant recovering from recent trauma (but I don’t think this quite fits into our immigrant rights collection). Work well for anxiety and stress responses (but not quite PTSD). For whatever reason, Q was reluctant to read this more than once at age 7 – might be feeling too old for it. R2 enjoyed at age 5. Some critics mentioned this might *create* fears, and there is one page where she’s afraid of things under the bed, so be wary of that for younger, more sensitive kids. All kids have small fears about something, and I’m happy to teach my 4+ kids that other kids have underlying anxiety and trauma that we might not be aware of so we can foster trauma-responsive relationships and offer patience and support to these friends.
Generalized Anxiety – Workbooks & Didactic
- What to do when you worry too much (huebner) – not in love with the ‘too much’ in the title because it doesn’t FEEL like ‘too much’ from the inside. looong, didactic workbook. equates worries with tending a tomato plant. only for older kids (8+ who have active anxiety, not for younger kids, ad scan it first.) helps them examine physicality of anxiety, includes spaces to draw, then how to use logic to help you manage worries and preemptively prepare for the things you’re worried about, how to set aside undivided attention time with your parents (cishet mom/dad language) to listen, setting aside a specific time of day to do worrying, doing things to change the way your body feels and exploring other activities like mindfulness and meditation. how to reset and reframe views. good for using as a workbook. not something we can use for age 6. CBT, mindfulness, art therapy, workbooks
a feel better book for little worriers – brochmann – cute illustrations. could have done with a better title, but whatever. no story, but rhyming cheery text and cute illustrations shows common worries, validates them and points out it’s normal – swimming, homework, stage fright, “You should listen to them, those feelings inside. Are they helping or no? You’ll have to decide.” offers suggestions like exercise, stretching, breathing, mediation, in very short terms that toddlers can understand. Ages 2.5-6. good for a ’starter’ book introducing the idea that anxiety is real, worry is normal, and gives kids an idea of possibilities so they can explore it on their own further, but not comprehensive.
- When my worries get too big – Workbook includes space to draw, which makes it inappropriate to use as a library book, so families will need a copy for each child. As usual for an art therapy workbook, the illustrations are terrible. I suspect this is intentional, as it gives the reader permission to suck at drawing, too. Unfortunately the illustrations are SO bad htey are actively confusing – we couldn’t get into the meat of the book because both 2 & 4yo kept stopping me every 30 seconds to ask questions like ‘what is that on his cheeks? what is this illustration of?’ became time consuming and distractedly derailing.
- Originally published as ‘When my autism gets to big‘ which is ableist AF. Anxiety a result of ableism, not autism. I’m glad they re-titled it but would have appreciated a foreword of apology and how common this misunderstanding is in the later editions. The idea of ‘autism’ getting to big both draws negative connotations on autism, separates our neurology from the person, and pathologizes neurodiversity. I DO like that the original publication starts out “I have autism and that can be a good thing. Some kids with autism are really good at their favorite things.” but it doesn’t give us much more than that to play off our strengths (other than thinking of favorite thing as a tool to calm down). Which begs the question about why MOST therapies for autistic kids don’t incorporate our special interests. Labeling our autism by intensity is gross: “My autism is at a 1 or 2….” Anxiety does not equate with autism. Problematic & ableism – do NOT get the original run.
Anxiety About Growing Up, Transitions, Coming Out, Moving Forward
The line blurs on this between anxiety and just jitters about doing something new, but I’ll throw these in here since you might find them helpful.
- Little Tree – See full post on how we use this book here. SUCH an amazing, gorgeous story of letting go and growth. Q still loves reading it at 5, afraid of growing up. I LOVE this book for 3+ and Q has been riveted every time we read it.
- Peep And Egg – I’m Not Hatching -it’s like little tree, cute, but not as good. both boys laugh and laugh at the egg saying “I’m not hatching” over and over, but it’s a chore to read for adults. Ages 2.5-5
- Begin at the Beginning (Schwartz, 1984) – Artist who is too overwhelmed to start a project and procrastinates. Bonus points for normalizing a fat protagonist who eats without shame. fear of starting. This has since been republished (2005) with a thin character, because nothing good can last.
- Perfectly Norman – percival – norman sprouts wings, is thrilled at first, then worried what people will think. wears a bulky cumbersome coat to hide it that makes him miserable, then realizes he’s more miserable hiding than being made fun of. lets out his wings and other kids wearing coats follow him and let out their own wings. ages 3.5+. courage, LGBTQ+, coming out of the closet
- jabari jumps – validates fear of trying something new and scary. shows him letting people go in front, talking with his dad. this was an okay book, but it gets old and isn’t particularly exciting to re-read. Normalizing smart & gentle brown boys, fathers as primary caretakers (mom is pictured), courage
- The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes (Pett) – We see how invested she is in her reputation as the kid who does everything perfectly – and how she feels pressured not to trying new things for fear of failure. There is one scene where she’s juggling a hamster, which is a little iffy on animal rights, but R22 was old enough at 4 to get that juggling with a hamster isn’t okay. She doesn’t have stage fright, but this would work well as a book for kids with it. R2 loved to read this over and over at age 4 because he found it hilarious, and Q was able to sit through it at age 3, even though it’s targeted for elementary-aged kids. Ages 4+, Perfectionism, labeling, reputations.
- How Big are your worries, little bear? (sanders) – I didn’t screen this with my kids since they don’t present with anxiety over a specific thing. Perfect for kid with anxiety or nervous about big school/playing sports, new THING they have to tackle – mostly focused on performance anxiety. We see how people telling him to stop worrying doesn’t work, but mom listening and not telling him how to feel about it helps. Takes a similar empathetic tone and values holding space, similar to ‘The Rabbit Listened. “When we share our worries with someone who makes us feel safe,” said Mama Bear, “They often become smaller.” then he draws them and goes on to do the things he’s worried about. He still messes up, but because he feels prepared, it’s fine. single mothers (normalizing), mistakes, perfection.
- Zombelina: School Days (crow & idle) – LE found it funny how her body comes apart as she attends school. Show & tell, talent show, kind of messes up her dance, but reassures a new kid who is having stage fright, then cheers him on when other kids laugh at him. Being kind to the new kid, dancing, stage fright, zombies, halloween, accomplices, Halloween, silly books.
- stacey coolidge’s fancy smancy cursive handwriting – Maybe? But not for us. Validating, but didactic frustration over letter writing/fine motor control in second grade. Presents cursive as challenging (okay) but something to finish so you can get on to more fun things (uhh…this seems like a bad way to present this to kids?) how frustrating it can be to do fine motor thing, when other kids get it so easy. “I’m really glad that Mrs. Thompson and I had a talk about cursive handwriting. I will always try my best, but i’m not going to feel bad about what my handwriting looks like. My ideas and imagination are the more important things that will make my writing great.” Lesson is don’t focus on the details and get hung up on them with perfectionism. She was erasing her paper over and over and trying to be perfect, and I guess that is bad? My guess is Esham is a white lady and not a Tiger mother, otherwise this kind of behavior is expected since the rest of us need to be twice as good to get half as far. I’d avoid reading this to Asian kid since it reinforces stereotypes about how lazy non-Asians are. Ages 5+
- Captain starfish (Colpoys) – Lovely! kid is excited to go to dress-up party. Surprise twist is that he doesn’t participate because he was too anxious. Parents accept him and his choice without shaming him. Doesn’t know how to name anxiety – it’s a feeling he’s familiar with, and it’s not a nice feeling. Mom takes him to aquarium, sees a clownfish dart out, just for a second, and realizes he can emulate the clownfish – come out just for a second, as a very first step. Entire story focuses on letting him set his own pace, accepting his experience as normal and valid. “Sometimes clown fish need to hide away,” said Mom. “It’s juts what they do.” “People too, “ said Alfie, thinking of the dress-up parade, which didn’t seem quite so scary now. Mom nodded, “Yes, people too.” SO LOVELY! Shyness, disability acceptance neurodiversity library & social disabilities collection
- A tiger called Tomás / A Tiger called Thomas (zolotow) – New kid in town, afraid to say hello and start making friends, worried people won’t like him. Halloween gives him courage to go out if he’s in tiger costume, removes risk that people will know it’s him and reject him (I FEEL SEEN.) Turns out everyone knows it’s him and likes him, invites him to come out more. Might not work for kids over 7 since it’s a little simple, but this would be perfect for illustrating how importance the scripts and opportunities of Halloween are for autistic kids in a neurodiversity library. Normalizes single mothers (no dad mentioned). There are two versions of this book, the second includes notes about Zolotow’s experience moving neighborhoods as a kid, having to carry baggage of being wary as a Jewish girl about preconceptions that might make new neighbors hostile toward her. Original printing (Thomas) features a Black-presenting boy, intentionally leaving space for people to recognize that being a boy with brown skin comes with the fear that people will judge you before they meet you. Second version changes the character to Latinx boy who speaks a mix of English & Spanish with his mother, touching issues of modern anti-latinx & immigrant sentiments. SPECTACULAR. Both are fantastic, the mothers take very different roles of involvement in each story. normalizing kind and gentle brown boys, shy kids, social disabilities, autistic scripts, moving to a new home.
- Also see: Making Friends is Hard – Tailored for kids with social disabilities and misfits, although these will be helpful for all kids at some point as they struggle to fit in and find friends.
Ways Anxiety Presents
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (not to be confused with OCPD, below)
- Real Friends (shannon hale, #Ownvoices author has OCD ) – Chapter book, ages 8+. Best for third grade through junior high. Character shows traits mild of OCD (counting tiles) and it comes into play once or twice but doesn’t define the character, solidly in the normalizing without erasure category. Content warning for a scene where a boy forcibly kisses a girl, and sibling abuse. (Hale has been a leader in the #metoo kidlit scene, calling for transparency and accountability for abusive authors). Primary theme of the book is navigating complicated, unspoken social pressures, going high above mean girls, and fitting in.
- Mr. Worry – holly niner – could be a scent validating book, but there’s no story other than him just doing compulsive behaviors and getting diagnosed, so it might work as a validating book but doesn’t hold much help as a book for outsiders to learn about OCD. Solution is oversimplified – he takes some medication, and it works perfectly, immediately. He and starts picturing his compulsions as a bureaucratic fairy called “Mr. Worry” and just practices ignoring and hanging up on him. Meh.
Perfectionism & Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (not to be confused with OCD, above)
I have OCPD. (Note the first-person language of ‘have’ for OCPD, rather than the identity-first language I use with autism. This is because OCPD is acquired, and while it’s often helpful, it’s also a stressful hindrance.) OCPD is a personality disorder that tends to present in adulthood, but there are definitely personality traits (like perfectionism) that many kids present with when they get anxious. Autistic kids are more likely to develop OCPD as a coping mechanism, along with other anxiety issues that come with trying to fit into a hostile environment. OCPD typically includes compulsions to keep life routines and personal space as orderly and predictable as possible, to cope with the experience of the outside world as unpredictable, frightening, and painful.
Frog And Toad Together (lobel) -I think this is #3 in the chapter book series. For this list, we’re talking about Ch 1 – toad’s obsession with lists and how frog helps him through losing his list and his routine. Frog is accepting and kind with his friend’s executive functioning disabilities, a perfect model for how to be a great accomplice for a friend with OCPD/disabilities. (Not relevant to this list, but just so I can keep this all together: In Ch 2, Toad misunderstands frog when he says that says plants will grow ‘soon’ (Toad codes as autistic and literal-minded). In ch 3, they bake cookies and can’t stop eating them, which is funny and endearing, in ch 4 they go on an adventure to prove tehy are not afraid and end up running away from scary creatures. In ch 5, Toad has a dream that his boasting and showing off minimizes (literally) his friend, and drives him into nothingness, and regrets it, wakes up grateful for his friend.), Healthy friendships
- Tidy – (Gravett) a persnickety badger cleans the entire forest, only to end up living on a paved parking lot, completely miserable. reminds me of the Shel Silverstein poem about the lady who washes everything before throwing it out. This makes me feel a little judged, but I get the point.
- So Few Of Me – Saying yes when you should say no, taking on too many things and spreading yourself thin. Ages 5+, although this seems more like a grown-up problem. For kids who are actively choosing to take on too many activities and projects, it could work.
- Wallace’s Lists (Landstrom) – Wallace makes lists of everything, and can do anything so long as he’s prepared for it with a list and sticks to his routine. Meets Albert, who is spontaneous and disorganized. breaks from his list to save Albert and ends up on an adventure, which includes all of the things he hates, and looks like a terrible sequence of unfun things. Wallace leaves his comfort zone and exactly what he fears will happen, happens. SEE?! But for some reason he is happy about it (it’s clear this is written by someone more like Albert than Wallace). I know the takeaway isn’t supposed to be that adventures suck, that it’s better stay home and eat soup, but that’s what I got out of it. It gives us something to discuss. It doesn’t explain how Wallace’s perception differs from Albert’s, which might leave kids with OCPD feeling gaslit. Executive functioning disabilities, courage
- The Lizts (Maclear)- Living in this house with this family would be my dream life. Odd, macabre book reminiscent of the Addams family.. Can’t tell if there is more subtext I’m missing or the story is just shallow plot with detailed illustrations (Maclear has a reputation for well-executed symbolism, so I suspect it’s the former). I think the theme is to leave room for spontaneity and the unexpected? Ages 5+ but really it feels like it’s written for the adult gaze.
Selective Mutism & Stutter
Not all verbal disabilities are tied to anxiety, but these often are, so I’ll include them here
Steggie’s Stutter (jack hughes) – Feminine dinosaur, so that’s a plus. cute illustrations. She finds it hard to speak and she’s very smart. we see her friends interrupting her when she talks, and ignoring her when she tries to point out they are doing something dangerous. she goes on to rescue her friends and they get out of various jams once they shut up for a moment and listen to her. Worth noting that there is a negative Amazon review from Lissa Parker, an ableist asswipe & professional anti-disability-rights advocate I hate with the passion of a thousand suns- so BONUS POINTS FOR THIS BOOK. (Seriously every time I see one of her reviews I hyperventilate with rage). Ages 4+, destigmatizing verbal disabilities, dinosaurs
- A Boy & A Jaguar – Stutter, #OwnVoices, true story autobiography. This particular stutter is not directly tied to anxiety, but figured I’d note it here anyway. Love the notes about disability and passing/masking. Animal rights & environmentalism. See full deets in this post.
Alvin Ho: Allergic to girls, school, and other scary things, Book 1 (Look) – A LOT to unpack and the author leaves adults holding the bag in terms of dissecting Alvin’s toxic beliefs. That title tells you basically what you need to know about the plot. Look feeds into dominant narrative that it’s normal for boys to be disgusted by and feel superior to girls, validates biases against girls, disabled folks, and the elderly. While subtleties in the plot show how Alvin’s biases are mistaken, it’s not spelled out clearly enough to make up for the bigotry he actively spells out, and I suspect the contrast is going to go over most kids’ heads until they get a little more self-aware. This age range needs less subtlety and more of a slap in the face about how Alvin’s toxic behavior isn’t okay. AAPI woman author.
Sexism – There’s a big chunk in the beginning of the story where Alvin harps on how much he doesn’t want to sit next to girls (and nothing in the story explaining how problematic this is or his flawed logic). It felt like Look was trying to show off how much she ‘gets’ boys, and I was uncomfortable reading this with Q. I can’t imagine how it would feel to be a little girl reading how gross she is in the eyes of boys like Alvin.
Disability: On the plus side, this story validates and normalizes selective mutism – Alvin can’t talk in school, but is fine everywhere else. Alvin doesn’t appreciate his friend (who wears an eye patch and has one shorter ‘peg’ leg) but who is awesome. I love that she’s portrayed with agency and kick-assness, her disabilities and discrimination against aren’t erased, but she’s more than just her disabilities. HOWEVER – the way Alvin realizes he was wrong this is just too subtle, and there aren’t many repercussions for his negative treatment toward her. Alvin tries to fit in with the cool kids and realizes they aren’t fun, goes back to his friend who is cool and appreciates him. She just waits for him and accepts it. Feels validated on making mistakes and trying to make sense of a world with unspoken norms. Learning what is and is not okay, being sent to therapy without anyone explaining to him what therapy is for.
Normalizing East Asian boys – As an Asian boy, Q is starving for reflections of himself in stories (asian boys are SO FREAKING RARE in kidlit), so I tried the first in this series even though at 6 he was a little too young for a chapter book like this (it’s for kids 8+). As a validating story for Cantonese-speaking Chinese boys, Q loved that he has a yeye (unfortunately only mentioned once, and he’s dead), but gung gung plays a big part in the story. However if this is the best we can do – it’s shit. If the only way to validate Asian boys in kidlit is to fit them into the mold of white male toxic masculinity, no thanks.
Nonbinary character – Alvin has one friend who he can’t tell whether Jules is a boy or girl, and seems to like and accept them the way they are. “I do not know if Jules is a girl or a boy. Sometimes Jules plays with the boys, and other times Jules plays with the girls. It is hard to tell.” He goes on to help Jules scratch some chicken pox.
Ageism – Afraid of his piano teacher because she’s old and his friend told him she was a witch. He’s unkind to this teacher. The story does counter stereotypes against his grandfather as an athlete.
- I Am Maya Angelou – Families of Monterey County did a review on this, which you can find here. Because this is one of the only books for very young kids about Angelou, I do recommend it for particular discussions despite (and taking care to note) the problematic issues. It can be a helpful way to introduce the concept of selective mutism and validate that kids who experience mutism can still be intelligent, powerful, and have agency.
PENDING & PROBLEMATIC
- Grandmother Thorn (Howes) – illustrations are gorgeous but something felt off to me. Rice paddy hats are usually a red flag of orientalism. Both makers present as white and are US-born. Despite pulling from Japanese aesthetics, there’s no mention of the importance of wabi sabi, which feels erasive. The story focuses on a perfectionist old lady with a stick up her ass (feeds into ageism about elders), and an old man who is ‘less than perfect’ because he has a disability (NOPE NOPE NOPE). She loosens up after getting sick and coming back to her garden to see it’s been overrun with invasive raspberries and flowers. Then they fall in love because of course you can’t have a platonic hetero relationship (/sarcasm). The story takes place in “shizuka village” which may or may not be a real place. Also the old woman has green eyes and he man has blue. Not in a ‘hey look real Japanese people can be multiracial and/or look different’ but in a ‘what is a good way to make Japanese people more attractive…how about we make them whiter? PROBLEMATIC, whitewashing, orientalism, ageism.
- Wemberly worried – ABSOLUTELY NOT. she’s terrified of everything and while the illustrations are cute, it’s the basic ‘school is scary’ trope
- Small Things – tregonning – creepy and cramped wordless graphic novel. supposed to be about anxiety but the surreal things with stuff coming off of him doesn’t translate for me. kid feels left out, feels like crap at school – could be validating for older kids 10+, but for younger kids I think it’d just be too creepy, with his body breaking apart and stuff.
- Danny And the blue cloud – foley – supposed t help kids cope with childhood depression (but codes more as anxiety), but oversimplifies it. he doesn’t want to go outside to play since he has no practice and knows he’s bad at it. uncle wally the bunny comes by and is like “Danny boy, you need to be DEFUNKIFIED!” “Ummm… Barnaby what does defunkified mean?” “YOU NEED TO FEEL BETTER.” Oh, well if you say I need to feel better, then OKAY SURE LET’S GET TO IT. ugh. It would just make people feel worse about being depressed/anxious, not motivated. The premise is to introduce CBT, but the execution is shit. Feels like it’s missing a page when uncle barnaby tells him to list things wally is goed at, and then he…. starts hopping? like, what happened there? basically the book tells you to get up and move, and your body will follow, but not how to take that first step. Even though it says he dances even when his cloud feels heavy, they show him having a raucous good time, and hat disregards the actual challenge and the fact that you just need to keep going even while you feel like shit.
- Don’t be afraid to drop – julia cook – thought this would be about school shootings or fire or something, but is actually a shitty version of ‘little tree.’ NOPE. Oh, Julia, what are we going to do with you?