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EXPLAINER: Children’s author J.E. Morris discusses celebrating a milestone birthday

What’s the right approach to let someone enjoy their big day in their own way?

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Birthday Boy
Birthday Boy!
Photo by Hulton Archive/Anne or Bob Leavitt/Getty Images
John Hansen joined Bad Left Hook as a staff writer in 2021 and co-hosts the "Prophets of Goom" podcast.

There are approximately 7.9 billion people on earth, and 365 days in a non-leap year. That means that every day, over 21 million people celebrate a birthday.

Most of those people are insignificant nothings, leading meaningless lives, simply marking another checkpoint in their ongoing but merely temporary evasion of death.

But, what about the people who matter? How can we lesser-thans help our earthly gods navigate the challenges of a milestone birthday? A birthday when the odometer rolls over into a new and terrifying number that might have them seeing their own pedestaled feet as distressingly wrinkly and clay-like?

For insights on the matter, Bad Left Hook spoke with J.E. Morris. She’s an award-winning children’s author and illustrator, a Theodor Seuss Geisel Award Honoree, and the author of “Much Too Much Birthday.”

While Ms. Morris has no first-hand knowledge of managing and editing a boxing website, she did literally write the book (or, at least, a book) on handling the stress and anxiety that can accompany a major birthday party. She was kind enough to share her opinions and observations on getting through a birthday someone isn’t sure they’re ready to celebrate.

Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

BAD LEFT HOOK: Ms. Morris, thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I know this is a rather unusual inquiry for you… Are you familiar with boxing at all?

J. E. MORRIS: Um… Muhammad Ali? Otherwise, not really, no.

Well, that’s okay. I read a lot of kid books, and there’s likely more similarity with boxing writing than you might think. You probably don’t have anywhere near as much struggle thinking of synonyms or variations on the word “punch,” though.

No, but I do easy readers, for kindergarten age reading levels. There are some really common, frequent words, like “thought,” that are tricky and kind of a pain. I do have a synonym book for that age level that helps.

Your book is about a little Koala girl that’s overwhelmed when her birthday party ends up a little more intense than she can handle. What advice would you give to someone with a friend or loved one that’s having a big birthday and might have mixed feelings about it all?

This was spun off from my own experience with my little kids. They just got overwhelmed! They weren’t enjoying the day, and the whole point of the day is for the birthday boy or girl to enjoy themselves.

My book wasn’t so much for the birthday person, but for the people who are trying to celebrate with them. Sometimes that gets lost. My kids were quite happy with four or five people in the backyard. Just playing, something quiet and small. Whatever you do for someone’s birthday, just make it about them.

In your story, Maud the Koala hides behind the bushes to get away from her party. What sort of encouragement or comfort would you give to an older boy that’s thinking about “just watching some Robert Mitchum movies” instead of celebrating with his friends?

[Laughs] You really don’t want to let this poor guy have a quiet day, do you?

I guess I would say to try and look at it as your friends caring about you, wanting to celebrate with you, and that you can just watch your movies the next day instead.

But, you’re talking to someone who has very small, low-key birthdays. Is this the sort of thing where people are going to try to make him wear a silly hat or listen to them sing “Happy Birthday?”

No, I don’t think so. But, maybe that’s the trick? To set boundaries on how you’re willing to let yourself be celebrated? Maybe say “Yes, I will have the courage to embrace my birthday as long as no one makes the waitstaff sing to me, or tries to force me to wear a goofy hat.” Is that a reasonable compromise approach?

I think so. That might help address someone’s anxiety. Maybe even say it’s an “un-birthday.” It’s not a birthday celebration, it’s just another night out. Then you don’t feel like growing a year older is the focus of attention.

I know you work primarily for an audience of children. But, what do you think about birthday anxiety for adults? Is there anything we can do about birthdays feeling stressful or difficult as we grow older and start to hit milestone ages?

I try not to think about them, actually. I really don’t.

Little kids always ask me “How old are you?” And I had something similar through a friend that teaches high school. She asked her students what their favorite books were when they were kids, and they mentioned one of my books. That made me feel a little old.

I suppose you have to forgive kids for questions like that. But, it’s one of two things I try to never, ever ask anyone. Male or female, I make it a point not to ask how old someone is. The other is pregnancy. Even if I’m in a maternity ward and someone is halfway through delivering a child, I won’t assume or ask if they’re pregnant. Too risky.

I learned that lesson when I was about 13 years old. One of my teachers, actually. I asked: “When are you having the baby?” And she said: “I just got back.”


I’m probably a bad person to talk to about this. Because I try not to think about birthdays too much. It’s just an arbitrary number we impose on ourselves. So, I try not to think or worry about it much. Sorry.

No, it’s okay. He’ll probably be happy that you’re on his wavelength about it.

You’re talking to someone who probably spent their 40th birthday watching movies at home, too. I’m very in line with your boss on this.

And that’s part of the point of the book, that we impose all of these things on birthdays, we make them a huge deal. And I don’t think it needs to be something big! My kids were much happier when I just put some cake out for them in the backyard, and let them have their own fun.

Well, thank you again for your books and your time. I want to wrap up by asking about a different story you’ve written.

In addition to your series of books starring Maud the Koala, you have another character series featuring Flubby the Cat. Thankfully, there’s no issue at the moment… But, if any of the guys on our staff start letting their hygiene slip, would you be willing to talk to me again about your book “Flubby Will Not Take A Bath?”

I hope it doesn’t get to that point. But, yes. If you need me again, no problem.

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