Her Daughter Stopped Going To School Because of Anxiety. Now Lauri Hornik Helps Other Kids — Through Books (Exclusive)

Longtime editor and publisher Lauri Hornik says her daughter inspired her to start a new imprint focused on mental health books for kids: 'I know the power of books'

<p><a href="">Elinor Carucci</a></p> Lauri Hornik and her daughter Ruby photographed for PEOPLE at home in New Jersey in October 2023.

Elinor Carucci

Lauri Hornik and her daughter Ruby photographed for PEOPLE at home in New Jersey in October 2023.

For years, book editor and publisher Lauri Hornik saw her daughter Ruby wrestling with depression and anxiety that was so paralyzing, she stopped going to school. Finding solutions, Hornik discovered, was "a maze" of confusion and judgment. She vowed to find a way to help other kids and parents navigate mental illness. Inspired by her daughter, earlier this year Hornik launched Rocky Pond Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing, with titles focused on mental health and social-emotional learning for children and teens. Lauri and Ruby share their story exclusively in this week's issue of PEOPLE.

Lauri Hornik’s daughter Ruby was in seventh grade when she asked her mother to buy her The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s classic autobiographical novel chronicling depression.

At the time Ruby was so crippled by anxiety and depression herself that she was refusing to go to school. When she got the book, she read it over and over and even asked for a T-shirt bearing an illustration of the cover. “There were so few things I could relate to that I clung to any representation of mental illness,” says Ruby, now 19.

Her mother was uneasy. After all, Plath, who died by suicide at age 30 just a month after the novel’s first publication in 1963, details her main character’s suicide attempts in the throes of depression. “Ruby wanted to see her experience in a book and know she wasn’t alone,” Lauri says. The Bell Jar did that, but it did not provide Ruby with the kind of comfort she needed. Instead the novel, in which the main character is institutionalized, left her feeling “hopeless,” says Ruby. “It was telling me, ‘This is the grim future awaiting you.’ ”

What Ruby needed, Lauri thought, were books offering hope. So Lauri, who has been an editor and publisher of children’s literature for more than 30 years, decided to create them.

Earlier this year Lauri unveiled her own new Penguin Publishing imprint, Rocky Pond Books, which features titles aimed at young children through teenagers that focus on mental health and social-emotional learning. “I wanted books that kids could see themselves in and that include the mental illness experience in a way that [meets] their understanding — books I wish we had when Ruby was in middle school,” says Lauri, 57. Those years were “a really awful time,” she adds. “Ruby was suffering so much. It was all-encompassing.”

Ruby’s symptoms began in sixth grade when she started a new school in their hometown of Montclair, N.J., where she didn’t know anyone. The unfamiliarity of the environment and a “brutal” math teacher (“She was afraid she’d say something wrong — he terrified her,” says Lauri) brought on panic attacks. By the end of the year, she was miserable at school. “It was a place that was so uncomfortable, and she was worried she would cry in front of her peers,” says Lauri, who had Ruby as a single mom via a sperm donor before marrying her husband, Peter Kaplan, in 2021. (She also has three stepsons from her marriage.)

<p>Courtesy Lauri Hornik</p> Ruby Hornik (far right) with her mother Lauri, her stepfather and stepbrothers.

Courtesy Lauri Hornik

Ruby Hornik (far right) with her mother Lauri, her stepfather and stepbrothers.

By the time Ruby was in seventh grade, it was "an insurmountable problem,” says Lauri. No matter what she tried, Lauri couldn’t persuade her daughter to go to school. “I tried to drag her into the car. There were times when she got in the car, but once we got to school, she wouldn’t get out,” Lauri recalls. “I tried strong-arming. I tried being strict, and that didn’t work.” Instead, she says, “it became worse.”

Ruby, who could no longer bring herself to do things she once loved — like going to Broadway shows (“The crowds could trigger panic attacks,” she says) — struggled to make sense of her own feelings. “I felt as though I was surrounded by a vast ocean with no land in sight. It took all my energy to just keep from sinking,” she recalls. “I wanted very badly to be able to rescue myself.”

<p><a href="" data-component="link" data-source="inlineLink" data-type="externalLink" data-ordinal="1">Elinor Carucci</a></p> Lauri Hornik and daughter Ruby at home in New Jersey in October 2023.

Elinor Carucci

Lauri Hornik and daughter Ruby at home in New Jersey in October 2023.

It took time for Lauri to realize that Ruby’s illness was preventing her from doing that. “Ruby wasn’t being lazy or stubborn. She wanted desperately to be able to go to school,” Lauri says. “Her body and brain just were not able to do it.”

Lauri finally realized what was going on that day when Ruby asked for a copy of the Plath book. Lauri read it herself." It was eye-opening. I realized something very painful was going on for Ruby.” Lauri began listening more closely to Ruby instead of “pushing for things that weren’t possible. Stopping that struggle took away a hardship for her when she was already struggling with her own brain. I finally heard her. That was a turning point.”

Related: Parents Who Lost Son to Suicide Ask Strangers to Scatter His Ashes Around the World: 'This Has Changed Lives'

Finding help, however, felt nearly impossible. “To this day I am appalled by how hard it is to get answers,” Lauri says. “There’s no clear place to go for information. People were giving me conflicting advice, all judgmental. It was a big maze.”

Lauri eventually found an educational consultant to help guide Ruby through the school system, and a therapist along with medication, but the struggle lasted into high school — until the pandemic gave Ruby an unexpected respite: “It meant she could do her schoolwork at the right time for her and see only people she felt support from.”

Related: Jeezy Had Depression for 8 Years but Didn't Realize It: 'I Thought Something Was Wrong with Me'

Today Ruby is a freshman studying environmental biology at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in upstate New York, where she continues therapy — and finds comfort in her support bunny Munchkin, who lives in her dorm room. “Having something to take care of helps me take care of myself,” she says.

So far, Rocky Pond Books has published 20 titles, including a guide to mental health resources (Where to Start: A Survival Guide to Anxiety, Depression and Other Mental Health Challenges) a
and The Night Fox, a new young adult novel with characters coping with anxiety and grief. The imprint has 30 more books on the horizon into 2024.

One of the first titles published by Hornik's imprint, Rocky Pond Books, is a mental health guide for parents and kids.
One of the first titles published by Hornik's imprint, Rocky Pond Books, is a mental health guide for parents and kids.

Ruby says she’s touched by her mom’s new venture. “It’s the sweetest thing ever. She saw the things I was desperately grasping onto and was like, ‘Why isn’t there stuff that’s actually helpful?’ So she did it herself. She’s Super Mom,” Ruby says. “I hope the books will reach kids who aren’t sure yet how to overcome mental illness. I hope they will reach kids like me.”

If you or someone you know needs mental health help, text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.

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