Though Utah author Jean Reagan started writing children's books in 2003, her first book was published in 2009. It centered on her son who died at the age of 19 from a drug overdose. He left behind a sister, his only sibling, and Reagan wanted to acknowledge her daughter's loss that often got ignored for the sake of her parents, she said in an interview with Ted Capener on KUED.
So she wrote "Always My Brother," told from the perspective of a little girl whose brother dies and about how she deals with her grief. Knowing that children die in many different ways, Reagan said she didn't specify the way the brother dies in the book and she made the children younger than her children were at the time.
But when it's appropriate for the age of the audience, Reagan said she often talks about what happened to her son when she goes on tour for her New York Times best-selling "How To " books, the most recent of which is "How to Raise a Mom" (Knopf, $17.99, ages 4-8), scheduled for release Tuesday, March 28.
"We're not ashamed at all about how and why (our son) died," Reagan said in an interview with the Deseret News. "I think suicide and drug overdose can have shame around them, so I always make a point when I mention that book to tell the story."
She often has people come up to her afterward who have similar stories of loss, which is always bittersweet, she said, because while it's touching that they can connect and lessen each other's grief, it means someone else had to suffer a similar tragedy.
Reagan said she also shares her family's story because she wants people to know that she's made sure to include a little bit of her son in every one of her books since.
Since publishing "Always My Brother" with a small press, Reagan has gone on to publish five "How To " books, starting with "How to Babysit a Grandpa" (2012). Reagan describes these books as "fun and silly," but she hasn't strayed completely away from her son.
"I don't want people to think you have a tragedy, you write a book, you get over it and then you write these fun, silly books," Reagan said. "Because in my fun, silly books, I also always make sure I have a little bit of my son in there because that's my life. That is who our family is."
Reagan describes her son as tender-hearted, and she included a line about feeding "shy ducks" in "How to Babysit a Grandma" (2014) because it was something her son always made sure to do when they went to the duck pond. In "How to Catch Santa" (2015), she included a scene where the brother is reassuring Santa that his sister tries really hard to be good "even if it doesn't look like it." Reagan said that is an example of her son because he and his sister always got along really well and were "a real team."
Reagan's family is also very enthusiastic about the outdoors. Reagan and her husband, Peter, have spent every summer since 2000 as backcountry volunteers in Grand Teton National Park, living in a tiny cabin with no electricity or running water. Part of what they have loved about living in Utah for the past 30-plus years is the proximity to the mountains for hiking.
Both of her kids were also athletic outdoor-enthusiasts, who she would often describe as having "good eyes for nature," a phrase she included in her book "How to Surprise a Dad" (2015). Reagan said she makes a point to always include outdoor scenes in every book. In "How to Raise a Mom," one of the suggestions for helping mom relax is to "Lie in the grass and look for wiggly worms, slimy snails and roly-poly bugs."
The particular phrase "lie in the grass" is one that Reagan first read over 20 years ago in an article in a newspaper quoting a prominent local woman about raising children. The gist of what Reagan remembers from this woman's quote is that kids today are over-scheduled, and it's important that they be given the chance to just lie in the grass. Reagan said that idea of allowing children to spend time outside doing nothing in particular resonated with her and what her family already did, and she made sure to put that idea into her book all these years later.
Three more "How to " books are under contract. "How to Get Your Teacher Ready" is scheduled for release on July 4, "How to Catch a Ghost" is due out in 2018 for Halloween and then one more untitled book is planned to follow.
Reagan said part of her motivation for writing books for children is to help families spend more time reading together.
"Especially in this digital age where everyone is plugged into everything, I can offer that human connection in a gentle, slow, calm way," she said. "I think that is a really important contribution you can make, so that means a lot to me."
If you go
What: Jean Reagan book signing
When: Saturday, April 1, 11 a.m.
Where: The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East
Note: The signing line is for those who buy a copy of the featured book from The King's English.