Becoming a Children’s Author, Part 1: Deep Roots and Inspiration

I have always been a writer at heart.  I won a prize for a poem I wrote about a kangaroo in first grade.  I loved diagramming sentences (a lost art today, alas!).  I read everything I could get my hands on.  And I attacked every writing assignment in English with passion.  My junior year Advanced English thesis was on the relationship between the libretto and musical motifs in Handel’s “The Messiah,” complete with footnotes and graphic examples;  oh, what I could’ve done with this theme on Prezi!  My teacher didn’t know a thing about music, but he gave me an A+ and wrote that I should be given a B.S. in English.  I’m not sure he meant Bachelor’s of Science.

In high school, I worked as a stringer reporter and contributor to the Teen Beat section of our local newspaper, received the school’s journalism award as a senior, and flirted with the idea of journalism as a major in college.  Instead, I went into a different area of communication — speech/language pathology — but my love of writing never waned.  As an SLP, I published more than a dozen books and software programs with Mayer-Johnson Company, contributed a series of articles to “Exceptional Parent Magazine” and “Closing the Gap,” and self-published materials for SLPs on my web site, Speaking of Speech.com.  This blog is another extension of my passion for writing.

About 5 years ago, a kernel of a children’s story worked its way into my imagination.  The inspiration came from the work I do as an SLP and assistive technology specialist.  In those roles, I support students who have little or no verbal skills, and who rely on alternative and augmentative communication (AAC), from no-tech systems, such as pointing to pictures, through high-tech, multi-thousand dollar devices that generate speech output. I have worked with countless students, teachers, aides, and parents to provide a means of effective communication and a reason to use it.  I’ve taught undergrad and graduate courses in AAC, and have devoted hours of lecture time on the barriers to using AAC.  I won’t get into them here but, suffice it to say, there are many….and all too many are related to reluctance, resistance, or flat-out refusal of adults to use AAC with children who would benefit from it.  Implementing AAC and other assistive technology (AT) takes lots of time and effort, sometimes enormous amounts of both, and that can be a barrier right there.  Sometimes, people just don’t realize how life-changing AAC/AT can be for children and adults who have significant disabilities.  Demonstrating the benefits, then, was one goal of the story I wanted to write.

Another source of inspiration, and the reason I wrote the book from the perspective of classmates who don’t know how to be friends with with a girl who has multiple disabilities, came from the reason I went into speech/language pathology and specialized in AAC/AT in the first place.  My dear uncle was stricken with a progressive neurological disease; the first function to go was his ability to speak, followed by a loss of writing skills, and then a loss of facial expression.  As communication skills diminished, so did his humanity.  Family members, friends, even medical professionals (who should know better!) were unprepared to communicate with someone who couldn’t communicate back.  After a brief greeting to him, he seemed to cease to exist, as people talked around him, over him, and even about him, but not TO him.  And, sadly, this is frequently the case in other families, and in classrooms, too.  As a society, we all too often just don’t know how to communicate with people who can’t talk.  There is also the tendency to view people with disabilities as “less than,” as we focus on what they CAN’T do, rather than what they CAN do.

So, demonstrating the value of AAC/AT and telling the story from the perspective of those who feel unable to relate to people with disabilities became the story line for How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool new nickname).  I will talk more about the process of writing the book in future posts, and would be happy to answer any questions you have about my book and the process of becoming a children’s book author.  Please post your questions in the Comments section!  Check out my author site, www.patmervine.com, for more info, videos, and freebies.

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