Explaining Differences to Children: Educators Turned Authors

All my life, I have loved to read.  I was always fascinated by the way words could inform, enlighten, challenge, and transport the reader to new places, ideas, and emotions.  In high school, I decided I wanted to be a journalist, and was hired by the local newspaper as a writer for their “teen page” and also as a stringer reporter, doing human interest stories and covering such exciting (ha!) events as local municipal board meetings.  Given that I was only 17 and had zero life experience, I had no depth of understanding of any of the people or events I was sent to cover, and would shudder, I’m sure, to read those stories today.

My career plans changed, and speech/language pathology won out over journalism, but I never gave up my love of writing.  As an SLP, I wrote a series of articles for “Exceptional Parent” magazine and “Closing the Gap” newspaper, then went on to publish more than a dozen books and CDs of materials and instructional strategies through Mayer-Johnson Company and my own web site, Speaking of Speech.com.  As personally satisfying as this writing as been, nothing can top the experience of publishing my children’s book, “How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool new nickname).”  The process took about 4 years, from first draft to first printed copy, and the journey along the way has been quite a learning experience.  And, unlike my stringer reporter days, this time I am writing from what I know!

After some research, I decided to go the self-publishing route for three reasons:  (1) although there are a lot of SLPs out there, we are considered to be a very small, niche market, and traditional publishers aren’t interested in projects that aren’t mass-marketable;   (2)  I have a web site that has nearly 5 million hits worldwide, so that seemed to be the best place to market the book;  and (3)  I wanted to work with my own illustrator.  Traditional publishers will assign an illustrator to a project and, while there is communication between author and illustrator, the two rarely meet.  Given the nature of the story I had to tell, it was very important to me that the illustrator be tuned into the nuances of the Katie, her disability, and her assistive technology.  Fortunately, a good friend who lives nearby is an amazingly talented professional artist and he was very open to lots of collaboration.  In fact, he insisted on it, and I couldn’t have been more delighted with the process and the final product.  Ian Acker’s illustrations are simply adorable, and totally capture the mood and message of the book.  You can learn more about the book, and find a free “reader’s theater” version, games, my disability etiquette video, and other resources at www.patmervine.com.

Because the book is self-published, marketing is 100% on me, and – wow! – is there a lot to learn there!  I don’t even want to count the number of hours I’ve spent exploring web sites and podcasts to figure out what I needed to do.  I also don’t want to add up the amount of $$ I have spent to bring this book from idea to reality.  Quite honestly, it may be years (if ever) that I recoup my investment.  Good illustrators, even ones who are good friends, are not cheap, nor should they be.  I certainly feel that every penny of mine was well spent on the work that Ian did, as the illustrations are critical to bringing the characters to life and helping the reader grasp the idea of assistive technology and augmentative communication.  But, I didn’t go into education or writing to get rich.  At the risk of using a well-worn cliche, writing “Katie” really was a labor of love.  I’m sure that other SLPs and educators who have authored children’s books would agree.

In a post dated 4/18/12, I introduced you to Angie Neal’s book, “The Pirate Who Couldn’t Say ARRR!”  Today, I’d like to introduce you to two more delightful children’s books, also published by special educators.  The first is “Left Out Lucie,” by SLP Marybeth Harrison, published by Tate Publishing and available at www.tatepublishing.com.  This sweet 20-page, illustrated book tells the story in rhyme about a llama who dreaded recess because she was always picked last to play kickball, a game she didn’t like to play.  Being left out by the other animals made her very sad.  Then, one day she came upon a group of classmates who were jumping rope, something Lucie loved to do.  She brought into school her own sparkly jump ropes and impressed everyone — even the kickball players — with her skills.  Now Lucie had new friends and lots of fun at recess.  Marybeth Harrison uses her story to encourage students to discover what they like to do and to seek friends who share that common interest.  “Left Out Lucie” is also available as an e-book, and has been recognized by Mom’s Choice Awards.  You can learn more about the book and its author atwww.marybethharrison.blogspot.com.

The second book, “Exceptionally Good Friends: Building Relationships with Autism,” by special education teacher Melissa K. Burkhardt, is really two books in one.  Approximately 40 pages in length, the book tells the same story from the perspective of Ruthie, a neurotypical child, and Clay, a boy who has autism.  Ruthie notices a lot about the new boy in class:  his rocking, flapping, covering his ears, using pictures for his schedule and making choices, his reluctance to try new things, and his insistance on lining up his toy train exactly the same way every day. Rather than criticize him for these differences, she relates some of Clay’s reactions to her own experiences and rationalizes the reason for his behaviors.  Ruthie intuitively uses modeling to encourage Clay to participate in new experiences and gains his trust.  After reading Ruthie’s story, flip the book over to read Clay’s account.  He explains how loud music hurts his ears, but bouncing and counting calms him.  He explains how he thinks in pictures, and how he is reassured when pictures are used to make his daily schedule and choices visual. He describes situations that he finds aversive and tells how he reacts by falling down, kicking, and screaming. Clay’s teacher uses a “Safe Center” with headphones and a weighted blanket, social stories, a timer, and other interventions to Clay’s benefit. At the conclusion of Clay’s story are 8 pages of definitions, story-related explanations, and resources parents and teachers. Just as in “How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool new nickname)” and “Left Out Lucie,” Melissa Burkhardt’s illustrated book seeks to increase awareness and acceptance of differences, to promote inclusion of all students, and to reduce bullying which often stems from a lack of understanding and empathy.  “Exceptionally Good Friends: Building Relationships with Autism” is published by Executive Publishing Company, and is available from www.exceptionallygoodfriends.com.

In my 2/13/12 post entitled “Introducing S/L Differences with Children’s Books,” I listed a number of my favorite books for this purpose.  Every one of those books is on my bookshelf at school, often used in therapy, frequently loaned out to the guidance counselor and teachers for use in their classrooms.  I would strongly urge all special educators, SLPs in the schools, and parents of children who have special needs to start their own library of these books, including the three mentioned in this post.  I feel I can say with confidence that every one of these books was written, not for fame or fortune, but to help children with the hardest but most important task of all — broadening their social circle to include everyone.

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