After Vanessa Bayer was diagnosed with childhood leukemia at 16, she found comfort in the laughter of her peers. Years later, the Moreland Hills native and Saturday Night Live alumna advised friends struggling with talking to sick loved ones. It was a full-circle moment that spawned How To Care For A Very Sick Bear ($16.99, Macmillan), a tenderly written children’s book that hopes to bridge the gap between patients and pals by teaching kids how to be there for sick friends. “Because I’ve been on both sides of it, as the person with an illness and also the person with an illness’ friend, I just felt like I could tell that story,” says Bayer, who collaborated with English illustrator Rosie Butcher. She returns to Northeast Ohio for a reading June 5 at the Cuyahoga County Public Library’s Parma-Snow branch. We talk to the comedian about unlikely inspirations and processing illness.
Q: Why did you approach this subject in a children’s book format?
A: There isn’t a lot out there in terms of children’s books on this subject. It’s really difficult for anyone, when a friend of theirs gets sick, to know what to do. That’s particularly true for children. A lot of kids deal with this and have friends who get sick or are going through something traumatic. I think it’s helpful in a children’s book format for kids to learn about it in a way that feels less scary for them.
Q: People familiar with your comedy might be surprised to hear you wrote a children’s book. How did your comedy experiences inform your writing?
A: When I was sick, comedy was such a powerful thing for me. My friends would come over and we would joke about me being sick. Being able to laugh together was this very bonding, almost-language we had that really helped us all get through it. I don’t think I realized when I was first going into comedy that was why I was going into that field, but honestly, being sick and being able to laugh through it is the reason.
Q: In the author’s note, you write about noticing that many don’t know how to talk to someone experiencing illness, even adults. How do you hope this book addresses that?
A: Sometimes people feel like once their friend gets sick, maybe they’re different in other ways too. Maybe their personality changes and they’re just now this “sick person.” What I try to say in the book is that just because your friend is sick, they’re still the same person who you love.