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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Becoming a Children’s Author, Part 2: The Process Begins

Katie cover“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.

Introducing Speech/Language Differences With Children’s Books

This has been a topic of some discussion on the SOS.com message boards recently.  Books are a wonderful vehicle for all kinds of skill development.  On the Speaking of Speech CDs, volume 1 & 2, I have extension activities for over 50 children’s books that I have used for basic concepts, auditory memory, vocabulary, story retelling, artic, fluency, and social skills.  My school librarian recently referred me to the Book Adventure site, where adults and students can easily search for books by grade level and topic of interest.  My Resource Links page lists lots of sites where one can find lesson plans, etc., related to children’s literature, and there are a number of book-related lesson plans on my site’s Lesson Plans/Data Forms page and under the Literacy heading on the Materials Exchange.

I’ve recently come up with a new use of children’s books — to help students who have s/l issues fit into the regular education classroom.  Recently, a few unfortunate instances of teasing have surfaced in the younger grades and the teachers approached me about how to handle this. As a result, I have been accumulating a collection of storybooks that the teachers can read to their class as a way to introduce the topic of s/l differences and begin a discussion of tolerance.  Some of the books I’ve gathered thus far:

MY MOUTH IS A VOLCANO! about blurting out and interrupting (teacher’s activity guide also available)

IT’S HARD TO BE A VERB! about ADHD

BEN HAS SOMETHING TO SAY about stuttering

REDHEADED ROBBIE’S CHRISTMAS STORY about speaking in public

HOOWAY FOR WODNEY WAT about articulation

LISTEN BUDDY about paying attention and following directions

HOWARD B. WIGGLEBOTTOM LEARNS TO LISTEN about listening

IAN’S WALK about autism

SPEECH CLASS RULES an introduction to speech therapy

MISS LANEY IS ZANY a chapter book about a fun-loving speech therapist (aren’t we all?)

I would love to know of other books that I should add to my collection.  Please email me at pat@speakingofspeech.com, leave a comment on this post, or post them on the “Phonemic Awareness, Children’s Books, and Literacy” message board under “This Works for Me.”  Thanks!

UPDATE 11/18/12:  A very important addition to this list, especially for anyone who knows or works with a student who uses AAC, is my new children’s book HOW KATIE GOT A VOICE (AND A COOL NEW NICKNAME).  See my blog post from August 3 to learn more about this book.

UPDATE 3/31/15:  I’ve published two new books about speech therapy:  “The Mouth With a Mind of Its Own” about a boy with a severe artic disorder, and “There Was a Speech Teacher Who Swallowed Some Dice,” that introduces the materials we use in therapy.  You can order autographed copies of these  and “How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool new nickname)” from Speaking of Speech.com.

What Difference Can One Person Make?

I had the opportunity last November to travel about 30 miles north of my home to the beautiful Bucks County stone farmhouse and barn that is now the Pearl S. Buck Foundation museum and international headquarters.  Pearl Buck, as you may remember, was a prolific author and the first woman to be awarded both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes for literature.  While a full accounting of her accomplishments would fill a book, here is a short summary of what I learned on that tour that I hope you will find inspiring:

•Pearl had one birth daughter, Carol, who was born with severe disabilities.  Pearl pushed for research to determine the cause, which was determined to be PKU.  As a result of her efforts, all babies born in this country are tested for PKU.  How many hundreds, even thousands, of children have been spared in the decades since, all because of Pearl’s determination?
•At a time when a child with disabilities was often hidden from public view, Pearl wrote a series of articles in popular women’s magazines about her daughter and, later, in a book called “The Child Who Never Grew.”  It was highly unusual that a famous person would speak so publicly about this topic, but her candor helped to raise disability awareness and reduce the “shame” associated with having a child with handicaps.
•When living at home was determined to be not the best option for her daughter, Pearl sought a progressive institution that pioneered “cottage” living in “family units” (group homes), functional therapies, and meaningful work, then lent her financial support and celebrity to further this caring treatment.
•Pearl, having been raised in China as the child of American missionaries, had an acute awareness of the plight of mixed race children, and worked tirelessly to promote mixed race and foreign adoptions.  Through her adoption foundation, “Welcome House,” over 2 million children have been adopted, and countless others have been adopted through other agencies, the way having been paved by Pearl.
•Pearl was also active in the Women’s Rights and Civil Rights movements.

Being there around Thanksgiving, I was reminded that we all have so much to be thankful for — much of which is easily evident: faith, family, friends, community, career, health, and other tangibles.  But, as my visit to Pearl Buck’s home reminded me, we also owe a debt of gratitude to those people in our past whose work is largely forgotten because their efforts have created changes in the world that we now take for granted:  health screenings for newborns, increased awareness and acceptance of disabilities, international adoptions, just to name a few.  What difference can one person make?  Pearl Buck made a difference to millions.  But I am willing to bet that, every day, every year, YOU make a difference to your students, their parents, their teachers. The impact of an SLP may not be on the grand scale of Pearl Buck but, as the story goes of a boy tossing one beached starfish into the ocean after another, “I may not be able to save them all, but I can make a difference to that one.”  Thank you for all that you do to make a difference in our world!

How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool new nickname)

Katie coverBig news from Speaking of Speech.com!  After 4 years in the making, my children’s book is finally published!

“How Katie Got a Voice (and a Cool New Nickname)” is a story that celebrates that which makes us all unique, but also highlights how sometimes a little help is needed to show us how much we are alike. The story is told by a fourth grade classmate of Katie, the new girl in school. Everyone in the school, even the principal and custodian, have nicknames related to their individual interests and personalities. When Katie comes into the class, the students are eager to involve her in their activities and to learn what is special about her. This proves to be quite a challenge. Katie has significant physical disabilities which make her dependent on a Personal Care Assistant for everything, even communicating. How can Katie fit in with her classmates when she can’t even talk? When Katie is introduced to assistive technology, she is finally able to communicate with her new friends. As a result, the students are delighted to see her as a person with many interests and abilities, just like them. Katie knows she is a valued member of the school when she is given her own special nickname.

Read this book in the classroom, in the therapy room, or at home to spark a discussion about acceptance and inclusion, the importance of communication, overcoming challenges through assistive technology, and disability etiquette.  This book was written by Patricia Mervine, a speech/language pathologist and assistive technology consultant with 20 years’ experience in working with students who have significant communication disorders.

40 pages, softcover  — $16
Autographed copies are available from www.speakingofspeech.com.