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Interview with a Highly Sensitive 8-year-old reader

My eight-year-old daughter is a voracious reader, devouring mysteries, dramas, action/adventure, and fantasy books at, frankly, an alarming pace. It’s not surprising that three of her friends gave her books for her birthday and that she immediately dove in to read them. What was surprising was when, halfway through one of the books — A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold — she looked up and proclaimed: “This book is PERFECT for me!”

From birth it has been obvious that my daughter falls into the ten to fifteen percent of people identified by psychologist Elaine Aron as Highly Sensitive. Often mislabeled as shy, over-anxious, or introverted, Highly Sensitive Children (HSCs or sensies) have sensory systems that, to quote Spinal Tap, go to eleven.

The struggles for HSCs is they are often uncomfortable with change and overwhelmed by sensory irritants (scratchy clothes, too much noise, chaotic environments, strange smells). Her (and my own) sensitivities mean that we avoid things like festivals, gory movies, uncomfortable shoes, and books that leave us distressed by proxy for the characters. The benefits of heightened sensitivity, however, are many, including heightened perceptivity and empathy. We deeply appreciate spending individual time with friends, listening to music, feeling soft fabrics, and reveling in the joys and descriptions of a well-written book.

In A Boy Called Bat, Bixby Alexander Tam (nicknamed Bat) falls in love with the stray baby skunk his veterinarian mom brings home to care for until she can deliver it to a wild-animal shelter. To better understand what made it so special, I sat down with my daughter (whom I’ll call Rosie) to discuss what she loved, and what helped her with her own sensitivities.

CLH: What did you think about A Boy Called Bat?

Rosie: It’s really good. One of my favorite books that I’ve ever read.

CLH: How did it stand out from other books?

Rosie: Other books usually have a problem that gets bigger and bigger until there is a resolution, but in this book there are only two problems: he misses the baby skunk, and he wants to have it forever instead of having it for four weeks and sending it to the rescue center. In most other books, for example the Goosebumps books, there’s a problem and then another problem and then another problem until at the end someone finally believes the person and it all is resolved. My first Goosebumps book that I read myself was the most terrible book I’ve ever read. It wasn’t for me at all.

CLH: What made the Goosebumps book so terrible for you?

Rosie: There was a problem that was scary and the people in the book didn’t do anything about it. In Night of the Living Dummy, a girl who loves ventriloquism gets a new dummy that comes to life and graffitis her sister’s room with the girl’s name. Everyone thinks it’s her fault, and it’s very emotional and there’s a lot of conflict. I hate movies, books, and TV shows that have a child with parents or older people that do NOT listen to the children or do NOT believe the children. The Goosebumps book was exactly that. But at the end it all works out — the parents set a trap, and it was a happy ending. But you can see how the problem got bigger and bigger because the parents don’t believe her.

CLH: Was it because you feel the frustration of the characters?

Rosie: Yes. After I read a book where someone doesn’t listen to someone I get so angry because I feel their feelings, and I get very frustrated.

CLH: What are some of the things you liked about A Boy Called Bat?

Rosie: I loved how the author describes the baby skunk. Bat has very strong emotions, and his mom helps because she believes him. Yes, he has a sister who is sometimes mean to him, but he doesn’t just sit with his emotions — he tries to solve the problem by talking about it. Sometimes teachers are mean, like in the Goosebumps books, but Bat’s teacher is awesome. There was a cage with a bunny in the back of the room, and Mr. Grayson, the teacher, says, “Anyone who needs a cuddle or anyone who needs a hug or to pet something soft can go to the back of the room and pet the bunny.” Bat really misses the skunk and is just staring at his math worksheet, and his teacher asks him, “Do you need a break?” Bat says “Sure” and goes to the back of the room to pat the rabbit. That helps him relax and clear his mind from his worry about the baby skunk.

Bat’s parents are divorced, and he has a sister named Janey. Bat wants the skunk to like her, so he takes part of her favorite pajamas and puts it in the baby skunk’s cage so it could get to know the sister’s scent. His sister gets mad, but the mom says, “It’s okay; I know you were trying to do something very nice.” His mom comforts him, and that’s what I like about his mom.

CLH: What else do you like about the book?

Rosie: I love the descriptions. The writing is very low-key, and there’s nothing really tragic about it. I love how they describe the baby skunk; it’s so cute. Bat saw the baby skunk’s “little tiny tongue arch out of its mouth.” Also there are illustrations [by Charles Santoso] that I love. They’re amazing because they’re black and white, and they do a very good job of describing Bat in the pictures.

CLH: How is this book helpful for sensie kids in particular?

Rosie: The book is so relaxing. I recommend that you read it when you’re going to sleep. It’s really calming, and it kind of helps you forget about all your worries and anxieties at that moment. One time I went to bed very sad and angry and anxious; I started reading it and I felt very relaxed because it’s so descriptive and detailed and comforting. Everything around me was overstimulating, but I felt relaxed reading it.

Bat is always calm; he has a lot of emotions, but he teaches himself that it’s okay to have emotions, and it’s nice to take a break. He’s just a really nice boy. He’s really kind to his friends. He has what’s called his special earmuffs when he gets home. He gets really overstimulated, which a lot of sensies do. His mom created a system to keep his room clean, and it keeps him calm in his room and he doesn’t get overwhelmed there.

CLH: Are there any other books you would recommend for sensie kids in particular?

Rosie: Raina Telgemeier is an amazing artist and illustrator. I’d recommend Sisters, even though it has a lot of anger in it, because it’s about sisters not getting along, but at the end, the sisters realize they don’t need to be mean to each other. The sisters have understanding parents, and it’s very funny, and the pictures are very detailed and colorful.

I would recommend Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary to kids who like funny books, but it’s a little on the emotional side.

I would recommend the Humphrey the hamster books because he learns about kids and makes new friends. He’s very perceptive and describes things well. He gets to learn about people about how they have different ways of doing things. It helps people notice that there are lots of different people in the world, and they have lots of different ways of doing things and lots of reasons why they would do them. You don’t know their inside story, just their outside story.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones has lots of good description. I like how Sophie finds out that she’s powerful.

Rosie’s recommended books

A Boy Called Bat written by Elana K. Arnold, illus. by Charles Santoso (Walden Pond Press, 2017)

Sisters written and illus. by Raina Telgemeier (GRAPHIX, 2014)

Ramona Quimby, Age 8, written by Beverly Cleary, new illus. by Jaqueline Rogers (HarperCollins, 2016)

The World According to Humphrey (and others in the series) by Betty G. Birney (Putnam, 2004)

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (Greenwillow, 1986)

Curious about whether your child is an HSC? Check out the questionnaire here.

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Carie Little Hersh About Carie Little Hersh

Carie Little Hersh is a Teaching Professor in Anthropology at Northeastern University. Between writing for her public anthropology blog, www.relevANTH.com, and piloting a podcast, Anthropologist on the Street, she reads relentlessly, especially to her two kids. She's also very, very tired.

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