This past week I was introduced to an amazing woman – children’s author and disability advocate – Jewel Kats. I went right to her website and discovered Prince Preemie: A Tale of a Tiny Puppy Who Arrives Early; Jenny and Her Dog Both Fight Cancer: A Tale of Chemotherapy and Caring; Miss Popular Steals the Show: Girls in Wheelchairs Rule! And many other compelling titles.
You see, Jewel was in a car accident when she was nine-years old that left her wheelchair bound. Unable to find characters in stories who also had a disability motivated her to write children’s books and depict differently abled characters as powerful and capable. She came to my awareness when I received the following email from Reader Views:
“I have some more news! We just received confirmation that Once Upon a Time a Sparrow is the winner of one of our sponsored awards: Jewel Kats Special Needs Award Going to a debut author whose first book is a picture book or chapter book about a child overcoming a mental or physical disability. Award: $200 cash prize, Sponsored by: Loving Healing Press. Congratulations!”
After I received this email, I began mentally composing a letter to Jewel. I then learned from Victor R. Volkman, President of Loving Healing Press, Inc. that, “Alas, the Jewel Kats Special Needs Award is a memorial to Jewel who lived a short but brilliant life until the age of 37. This award is our tribute to keep her memory alive as well as her special mission to help children feel better about themselves and confident to take on the world with all its problems no matter what their mental or physical conditions.”
Having only viewed her website, I hadn’t realized she had passed away. Here’s the letter I had hoped to send to Jewel.
Thank you for bringing dignity and increased visibility to those of us who are differently abled. Clearly you understand how being physically and/or mentally challenged has a huge impact, but equally debilitating is the internalized sense of feeling less than. My first challenge was severe dyslexia. The second was feeling that I was an inadequate student and simply not smart. Thank you, Jewel Kats, for recognizing and equalizing this latter aspect. I did eventually learn to read, still very slow and laborious, but it took therapy to debunk the notion that I lacked intelligence and could never be a writer. The “rule” that one could not be a writer if she was not a reader was crippling – despite earning a PhD in educational psychology.
I love fiction because when it is done well it expands reader’s empathy. My impetus for writing fiction was all about imagination. Once Upon a Time a Sparrow is a fictionalized story of my life struggle with dyslexia. Much comes from lived experiences. Using metaphor and fiction, I more powerfully created situations evoking empathy, understanding, and inspiring hope.
I needed to write my story with adults in mind. I wanted teachers and others who interact with children to have the experience of being in the mind of a child with dyslexia, to expand their understanding of how difficult a school day could be. Teachers’ response to struggling readers can and does have lasting impact into adulthood.
Jewel, I love your mission to empower children through seeing themselves as hero, heroine, prince, and princess. I absolutely plan to write a version of Once Upon a Time a Sparrow for children.
Nine-year old Maddie falls in love with the fairy in a story her teacher reads, “The Fairy Angel’s Gift.” She steals the book and does her best to read a few words in it. She reads enough words to construct her own version of the story that helps her make sense of her own predicament. She is facing failure as a third grader, unable to read beyond a beginning first grade level. The child’s version of my story will be called, “The Fairy Angel’s Gift.”
Finally, I want you to know that I hid my disability for many years. I now am completely “out” about my limitations. And, having won first place in the category of General Fiction Novels for Reader Views and awarded the Jewel Kats Award, I will be a stronger advocate for other aspiring writers who may have had similar reading and writing challenges like mine. I will remind them that if someone like me, who needed remedial help to finally pass English 101, can go on to write a successful novel, they can be just as successful if they’re willing to persist.
Thank you, Jewel for being an inspiration to so many. Your stories will live on and continue to provide children with the role models they deserve to have.