In the summer of 2014, I attended a writers’ workshop at The Mazza Institute at The University of Findlay, in Ohio. My mother, a retired school librarian, has gone to these children’s literature conferences for roughly 25 years.
She has encouraged me to go several times, and finally, I made the time. She has been my biggest fan, always referring to me as “a writer.” This was something I never called myself, since I didn’t consider entries in my high school diary or penpal notes to my grandmothers valid forms of writing. But I’ve always loved it, and decided I should expand my experience.
I signed up for The Writers’ Strand and we were to come with a completed manuscript or an idea of what we wanted to write and go from there. I’d been working on a children’s story that I’d tentatively titled “Abner Walks.”
As the mom of a child with cerebral palsy, I knew I wanted to do a story about Asher’s struggles and accomplishments. I wanted to create a story that was empowering for him, inclusive to kids with special needs, and that created a sense of empathy and education for neurotypical kids.
For days, at the workshop, I wrestled with this story.
I’d decided that Abner was a small red fox living in the forest, and he walked differently due to an injury to one of his legs at birth. This is essentially Asher’s story, but instead of his leg being damaged, it was his brain that lost oxygen during labor, affecting his balance, coordination and speech.
But this story felt forced. It felt disingenuous. I was feeling defeated.
One day at the conference, after walking back from lunch with my mom, we decided to call Asher and say hello. We were 10 hours away and I was missing him a lot. He was 2 at the time, and this was my first trip away from him, ever.
I was as nervous as he was about the departure, but I knew it would be a good, and much needed, experience for both of us. He would be staying the week with his daddy and my mother-in-law in our home. I knew he was in the best care, so I didn’t worry about that. But I did wonder how he would conceptualize my absence, and if he’d understand when I’d be returning.
During the phone call, I tried to explain to him that I’d be back soon, just a few more nights away. When I realized this concept wasn’t clicking with him, my mom said, “Tell him you’ll be back in 3 Sleeps.”
This was the perfect explanation for a 2-year-old to understand, and, it was the title to my book! Thank you, Mama!
I put “Abner Walks” to the side, and started with “3 Sleeps.” It poured out of me as though it had been there all along, just waiting to be put into ink. But it wasn’t until I asked one of my best friends to illustrate it, that I realized it was going to highlight some aspects of Asher’s special needs, which I hadn’t anticipated.
Instead of the focus being on Asher’s differences, it concentrates on the common threads of childhood: the sadness of being away from Mommy, the excitement of eating pizza and ice cream with Grammy, the thrill of being thrown in the air by Daddy. Of course not all kids have these experiences, special needs or not, but many do, and Asher certainly does.
Shannon, the artist, asked me to take a few pictures of Asher so that she could use him as a model in her paintings for the book’s illustrations.
She asked, “Now, do you want to include his AFOs or not?” AFOs stand for ankle and foot orthotics; they’re essentially leg braces. I didn’t hesitate. “Yes!”
I wanted these images to be present throughout the book, but not a focus of the character. I want children and parents to see the AFOs, the blind man using a seeing eye dog, or the person in the wheelchair, and have an opportunity for a teachable moment.
I imagine kids asking: “What is that?” “What’s it used for?” “Why does someone need that?”
I believe it’s important to be able to talk about what makes us different. This is the only way to foster growth, understanding, and empathy between human beings to create an inclusive classroom, community, and world of love and acceptance.
These images are a normal part of our lives and by sharing this piece of our normal, it can now become part of someone else’s world, too.
“3 Sleeps” is a rhyming book, or some may refer to it as a “quiet book,” something you might read your child before bed. It is short, but succinct in its message to children: Grown-ups come back to their kids. Time away can still be fun and enjoyable. And even parents are sad to leave their kiddos, but a trusted adult will keep the child safe.
Shannon and I are excited to share this project with the world and hope that it brings some joy into your reading time with your child, and hopefully some dialogue about the beautiful differences in human functionality and ability.
To purchase a copy for you or a loved one, click below!