For my project I’ve chose to write a children’s book.
The origins of this story:
When I was expecting my second child, the inspiration to name her Willa came to me by chance. I thought I overheard a co-worker say the name. The first association that came to mind was the nineteenth century American author Willa Cather. I’m sorry to say though I am well read, I’ve never read her! I immediately researched the name further and discovered another famous Willa, a pioneer in aviation, Willa Beatrice Brown (1906-1992). She was the first African American female pilot licensed to fly in the United States. (Her mentor, Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman to accomplish this goal, was forced due to racism in American society, to travel to France to earn her pilot’s license.) I instantly knew this would be the name of our second daughter. My husband is a pilot, I am deeply interested in women’s history and gender studies; the name was perfect. In my quest to learn more, I wondered why so little was written about this amazing woman who accomplished so much. I considered attempting to write a book for children about this inspiring role model who had overcome race and gender discrimination to achieve her dreams, and made such incredible lasting contributions to American society.
I set out to learn more about her. As Willa’s health challenges emerged, her name seemed even more fitting! She had a strong will and was named after a powerful woman! Later, when it came time to write something down, a new idea came to me. The story told in “Lucy and Willa: Heart Heroes” is a recounting of our family’s journey. When our Willa was born, she struggled with health issues. At three months, she was diagnosed with a severe congenital heart defect. We were devastated. After struggling together, we adjusted to the new normal. And then one day Lucy, our oldest daughter who is in first grade, came home with a fundraising form for the American Heart Association. I was so excited to finally have a school related activity that didn’t involve what so many families engage in, taking turns buying popcorn and tupperware we don’t really want! The outpouring of support and the tremendous fundraising success we enjoyed was totally empowering. I tried to engage Lucy in the project, but as a six year old, she was mostly focused on the prizes. Writing this story has been a cathartic and empowering experience. I’ve attempted to share it with Lucy and hope Willa will enjoy it someday. It also serves to help educate our family and friends about what it has been like to cope with this challenge.
The story itself came to me in a rush. I quickly jotted down the storyline . As a former library assistant in a children’s department at the local library, and as the mother of a small child, I had read a lot of children’s books, and listened to a lot of story times. The structure of the story fell into place in my mind quickly. I knew exactly how it would begin and end.
The next step involved formatting the project and attempts at illustratration. I am in no way gifted artistically. When planning the previous project, I explored my options. I reached out to an old friend who is a graphic designer. He had no interest in working for free. Another friend who had written a children’s book about her family’s struggle with sensory issues and their healthy food solution had employed her oldest son’s talents. I was impressed, and he would have been happy to help, but it seemed impractical to work with a teenager who had a lot of other work of his own to do. I then experimented with apps that turn photos into sketches. This process led me to other apps that turn photos into paintings of all kinds, and cartoons. By playing around and experimenting with these free internet tools I overcame my worries about this important element of the book. I moved from using old family photos, to staging super hero dress up iPhone photoshoots, which was not as fun as it looked!
As I played with the different effects available on the picmonkey.com website, and be funky.com, and funny.pho.to, I realized I could turn photographs into comic images. As someone who has always been intimidated by photoshop, this was tremendously exciting! And fun! As this element of the story evolved, the story changed shape. At first, I seem to be creating a feminine scrapbook about sisterly love. Then, the comic illustrations I began to create impacted the story development. This changed the story and became a bridge to exploring themes of heroism, female heroes, empowerment, the medical aspects of congenital heart defects in a child friendly way, and other components I had outlined mentally to incorporate in the story, such as avoiding objectifying Willa as an object of charity, making her in any way passive or pitiful. Lucy’s love of superhero stories, and my own enjoyment of such series as Jessica Jones and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, translated well to this first attempt at comic story telling the foregrounded female agency and placed Lucy and Willa at the center of the informative tale. My husband observed that the first and second half of the books looked and seemed like two stories. This inspired me to explore the story from Lucy’s point of view and utilize a dream scene in which Willa, though a baby, could participate in the conversation with her sister, and they could playfully dialogue about the situation.
Investigation steps: Research
My next step involved exploring the terrain of children’s literature from an objective perspective, while also keeping my final product in focus. I encountered important issues in children’s literature. A further in depth discussion of these issues would enhance this piece of the project, but within the scope of this assignment, at this time, must be set aside.
Where does my book fit?
Researching books about children with siblings who cope or struggle with disability led to a host of books designed to inform and support children with health issues or family members with illness or disability, and also to topics and issues in children’s literature such as authenticity, multiculturalism, difference/acceptance ,a history white supremacy /racism in children’s lit, inclusivity/diversity, absence of people of color historically, and gender bias and underepresentation of girls and women. I found inspiration from books that are positive and both treat children’s intelligence with respect, as well as speak to them in a child friendly way. Books like these help families work together to understand their lives.
Several websites informed my approach dramatically. Disabilityinkidlit was an invaluable resource. It enabled me to survey the terrain of what is being written and also find information about problematic or positive depictions of children with disabilities or health issues. Disability in Kidlit, ” is dedicated to discussing the portrayal of disability in middle grade and young adult literature. We publish articles, reviews, interviews, and discussions examining this topic from various angles—and always from the disabled perspective.” An article entitled,
“Sister Act” by Kayla Whaley, discusses the “disabled sibling trope” from the point of view of a young woman with a disability. I took her advice seriously while constructing the narrative. I consciously avoided making Willa a “prop” to her “normal sister” or a burden. I strove to give Willa voice in the story and to center her and Lucy as sisters first and foremost. I worked to take a positive position while not sugarcoating the scary issues or problems associated with congenital heart defects.
Another important piece of my research employed the resources on “We Need More Diverse Books”. This site offers links and tips for writers wishing to explore sensitive topics in an intelligent and mindful way.
One final note, the Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award guidelines also helped me to reflect on what I had written and how I presented the story. This award promotes “high quality literature for children and youth that authentically characterizes individuals with developmental disabilities.” Though developmental disabilities are not a part of this particular story, this award site informed my approach and attempts to treat the subject honestly and positively.
Finally, these academic resources informed my approach to joining the ranks of children’s book authors:
Bishop, R. S. (2003). Reframing the debate about cultural authenticity. Stories matter: The complexity of cultural authenticity in children’s literature, 25-37.
Fox, D. L., & Short, K. G. (2003). Stories Matter: The Complexity of Cultural Authenticity in Children’s Literature.
Hamilton, M. C., Anderson, D., Broaddus, M., & Young, K. (2006). Gender stereotyping and under-representation of female characters in 200 popular children’s picture books: A twenty-first century update. Sex Roles, 55(11-12), 757-765.
Hughes‐Hassell, S., & Cox, E. J. (2010). Inside board books: Representations of people of color. The Library, 80(3).
Larrick, N. (1965). The all-white world of children’s books. Saturday Review, 48(11), 63-65.
Goals of the book:
- Foreground positive, active female characters to address underrepresentation and biased depictions of girls and women.
- Attempt in some small way to write agains the “all white world” of children’s literature and include people of color in the story.
- Draw upon my personal experiences to deliver a story that is authentic.
- Educate others about congenital heart defects.
- Empower siblings of children who are dealing with health challenges.
- Avoid the pitfalls of writing about disability that can include making the character with a disability somehow a burden to the “normal” kid.
- Avoid making Willa a passive recipient of charity.
- Include Willa, despite her being a toddler, in the conversation and give her agency that matches that of her sister.
- Create a sibling centered dialogue that is playful and supportive.
- Engage of the meaning of being a hero and the positive impact of advocacy.
- Try to avoid being corny. (Failed!)
As I wrote the story, it occurred to me that use the logo and use of graphics from the American Heart Association could constitute copyright infringement. My first step with this issue involved exploring the AHA website. I learned that use of their logo and anything associated with their fundraising is governed strictly by policies that required I apply for use and clear anything the might be published with their legal department. I called their information line and spoke with a very informative and helpful woman who attempted to connect me with a representative from their legal department. Unable to do so at that time, she was able to log my request and give me verbal permission to refer to the fundraising event by name since it was in reference to a children’s fundraiser. With this in mind, I avoided using any logo or images even of the girls with prizes that included the name of the organization.
I was also careful to source graphics, such as the heart backgrounds, image of a medical illustration heart, and other stock photos from copyright free sites. I found many other images that would have been amazing, such as these on Etsy, and other stock images for a fee, but I did not have the time or budget. I feel my own attempts at artistic expression shaped the story, so this was ultimately beneficial to the final product.
Finally, I went thorough the process of publishing the book in an earlier version on Amazon. I downloaded the kindle direct publishing software, converted my files to pdf and uploaded the content. I created the cover and all the graphics myself, so I did not utilize their cover generator or illustration tools. I was anxious to ensure it went through, so I uploaded a version with errors. I awaited the approval of the content. I was successful! I did not intend to list it for sale, but it seemed to be my only choice, so I set the price at $2.99. I am now a published e-book author!
My experience echoes the research of Leanne Olson, author of “Self-Publishing in a Male-Dominated Publishing World” who writes, “self-publishing… gives complete creative control: women can choose the title, the cover, and the marketing plan”(261). As e-books are the “fastest-growing segment” of the publishing industry and works like Fifty Shades of Grey find astounding success, self-publishing is an opportunity especially for women marginalized by the publishing industry(Olsen,261.)
Please enjoy my book in the slide show below, or click on the download!