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Why the Hero of My Children's Book Has a Disability

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The day the writing appeared on the wall was the day Romeo Riley was born. A few months ago we celebrated Romeo’s 7th birthday — the day he was delivered to me by my publisher. (I told her she was also now an obstetrician!) But the idea for him and the beginning of the book actually happened at school one day.

I’d been writing silly stories about some of my students, many of whom have cerebral palsy. The kids loved hearing the stories I made up about them. We’d also been reading a popular funny book in our class. The students enjoyed the humor, but I wondered how much they could identify with characters whose lives were so much different from theirs.

I began looking for funny books with characters who had disabilities, but I didn’t find many. So I wondered if I could create one. I didn’t want it to be a teaching tool; I just wanted it to be fun. I wanted my kids to have a hero, even if he’s a comical one. And I wanted the world to see that kids with disabilities are still kids who have fun and live fulfilling lives.

The character of Romeo is a mixture of students I’ve known over the years. Fellow staff members have also shown up in the books. But in a way, Romeo represents all of us. People identify with Romeo because he makes goofy mistakes. And like most of us, he really tries to do the right thing.

I’m just starting my 20th year of teaching this school year. The majority of those years, I’ve worked in the exceptional student environment, and particularly high medical risk. Most of the kids I’ve known and loved use wheelchairs for mobility and eye gaze or signs and/or communication devices to express themselves. Fortunately, I’ve been able to keep some of the same students for several years, which is valuable because sometimes it takes a while to know someone. It takes time for students to open up and time to develop relationships with families.

I think trust is the biggest issue. I may not always do the right thing for you or for your child, but I’d like to be an encouragement. I’m often impressed by the courage of parents and grandparents who give so much of themselves in the care and well-being of their children. And I can only guess at how hard it must be to walk away and leave those precious kids in the hands of someone else to care for them each school day.

If you have a disability, I’m hoping the story of “Romeo” is a positive for you. I’d like for the books to shine a light and help bring acceptance to our communities. At first, I worried “Romeo” might offend someone, as I didn’t want to make light of someone having a disability. Instead, what I really wanted to do was to express this “joy” in living — something so many of our kids possess. I wanted to share that “thing” that keeps us all laughing and keeps us coming back for more. I know my kids understand more than they can tell me. And when they laugh at the punchlines, that’s when the sun breaks through!

I have a new book coming out this spring, a picture book representing all abilities. It doesn’t have a hero with a disability this time; it’s just a fun picture book with animal characters. But if people keep enjoying the “Romeo” series, I plan to do a new one in the future. I hope Romeo will continue to have birthdays and keep making people smile. If Romeo can bring a smile or a bit of adventure into this world for a moment, he has done what he set out to do. After all, he’s Private Eye Romeo Riley, isn’t he? And I think there will always be mysteries for him to solve, and loved ones he’ll want to protect.

Originally published: April 25, 2018
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