On the first day of Tiffany Papageorge’s ninth grade English class, her teacher announced that their theme for the semester would be “death.” Tiffany was terrified — not only of the subject but also of the teacher, who was stern and strict.
Tiffany was 14 and had already experienced a lot of loss in her life. She witnessed her parents’ bitter divorce and numerous deaths in her large Greek family. At the time there were no grief counselors to help her cope with her loss.
For the class final project, Tiffany chose to write a children’s book explaining death. On November 16, 1983 she turned in her handwritten book that she’d illustrated with simple drawings in a soft journal. Her teacher said: “Please see me after class!” Fearing a bad grade, she tentatively approached her teacher who embraced her and said: “I love your book and will do anything to help you publish it!”
Although her teacher tried, she was unsuccessful in getting it published. Tiffany went on to a career in acting, then married and had three children.
My Yellow Balloon is set in the 1930s and uses a big helium balloon as a metaphor to help children cope with their feelings of loss no matter how big or small. The rich, luminous illustrations by Erwin Madrid capture the era and make the concepts accessible to even young readers.
Tiffany believes children are able to cope with loss if they have simple language to talk about it. Her book gives them the tools to understand that loss is a process and it’s okay to have big feelings like anger, confusion and sadness.
Young readers will relate to Joey and his feelings of loss for his precious yellow balloon. They can see his grieving process through the exquisite illustrations and watch him slowly emerge from his sadness. Joey finally understands that wherever he goes, he will always carry that love for his balloon inside of him.
Tiffany has been on a personal mission to provide parents, teachers and counselors with a simple yet powerful story that can start a conversation about loss. In her presentations to educators, grief counselors and parents, she has witnessed first-hand the incredible release of emotions people have when they read her book. She explains that loss happens in incremental steps and as we go through the recovery process, we build the “muscles” to deal with bigger losses.
Tiffany was so grateful to her ninth grade teacher, Ms. Cannon, for inspiring her to write and publish My Yellow Balloon that she recently reconnected with her. The two of them returned to the school she attended and Tiffany brought the original book she wrote in 1983. Tiffany asked Ms. Cannon why she chose to study the subject of death in her classroom. She explained that nobody ever talks about it and we need to understand loss because it’s such a big part of life.