“Write about what you know.” I took this age-old advice to heart when I first thought about writing a children’s book. My previous post detailed the personal and professional experiences that led to the theme in “How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool new nickname),” but that was just the beginning. Characters, plot, point of view, purpose….these elements rolled around in my head for a good year. I can’t speak for other writers, but my style is to “write” the story in my head at the oddest times–in the shower, driving, making dinner, folding laundry–but it doesn’t actually make it onto paper until it’s nearly fully formed.
Characters: Central to the story, of course, is Katie. To be emblematic of children who use augmentative communication and other assistive technology, Katie needed to have significant physical impairments. I put her in the fourth grade, because I felt her classmates needed to have a degree of maturity to tackle the challenge of having Katie in their class. This is not to say that much younger children can be equally accepting and empathetic, but 4th grade just seemed right for this story.
Katie’s classmates were chosen very carefully through a backwards-writing process. (If there is a writer’s term for this, I don’t know it; I only know that this approach was essential for the development of the story). First, I made a mental list of all of the things that Katie would be able to do once she had access to assistive technology. Then, I developed classmates who could each do one of those activities. This initially created a stark contrast between Katie and her classmates, but eventually led to very personal connections by the end of the book.
The list of Disability Etiquette rules at the end of the book includes one on how to talk to a person who is nonverbal and who has a companion. It was witnessing people who didn’t speak to my uncle that propelled me into a career in speech/language pathology and assistive technology. Hence, Katie needed to have a Personal Care Assistant, and Miss Hanscomb was born.
Mrs. O’Boyle is based on a real teacher I know who exudes good humor, enthusiasm, and encouragement. Students who use AAC need educators with those qualities, teachers who will do what it takes to include every child and maximize their involvement in any way possible.
Shamelessly, the SLP is the behind-the-scenes hero of the story. What can I say?
Point of View: I did not want to tell the story from Katie’s perspective for two reasons: I didn’t want it to be a “woe is me” story with Katie feeling left out and alone, as I don’t see Katie as the victim here; indeed, she becomes empowered as the story progresses. I wanted to make it clear that the main problem in the story is the classmates’ lack the experience in dealing with someone who is significantly different from them; obviously, this directly relates to what I witnessed and even felt when my uncle could no longer speak or gesture. Having her classmate, Miguel, tell the story provided me with the opportunity to show how limited he and other students in the class felt when trying to involve Katie; in that sense, they were the ones who were handicapped. Katie has significant limitations in the beginning of the story, but the introduction of assistive technology enables her to overcome those limitations and show everyone around her that she is more like them than different, which is the second lesson in the story.
Setting: The story takes place at Cherry Street Elementary School. I am the SLP of a wonderful, small town elementary school that is located on Cherry Street, although the school has a different name. When I read this book to the students in my school on Guest Author Day, the students were delighted to put two and two together, as they recognized that this story was named after their school’s location.
Plot: Well, obviously, I wanted the story to show Katie’s development through assistive technology, and how that led to a significant change in the way she was viewed by her classmates. The idea of nicknames came about because it (1) reflected the importance of differences in each of the characters, and (2) it created a real dilemma when Katie asked for a nickname.
Purpose: I didn’t want the story to be preachy, although clearly there are lessons and issues embedded in the story that make for good discussion; a Discussion Guide/Writers Prompts can be downloaded from www.patmervine.com. I included a list of “do’s and don’ts” regarding disability etiquette after the end of the story so that the reader could learn about appropriate interactions with people who have different conditions from Katie’s. These lessons are illustrated in a Power Point, available at myTeachersPayTeachers page.
So, that’s a summary of my thought process as I developed the story. In my next post, I will talk about the learning curve from writing to publishing my book.