Thursday, December 23, 2010

Acceptance = book's message

Arlene has plans, Big, Big Plans. She's going to be the youngest ever student government officer in Greenwood Elementary history. She'll be the biggest thing to hit little Rhode Island since the invention of coffee milk. Sure, she wears purple leg braces and has a weird-sounding disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth, but that won't stop her. Onward she marches, bending rules and blasting stereotypes in an effort to win no matter what.

So reads the back cover of Arlene on the Scene, a new chapter book for children aged six to 12 written by Carol Liu, a social worker and attorney, with her friend Marybeth Caldarone, a speech therapist. Marybeth and her 9-year-old daughter Grace have the same nerve disorder as the main character. Proceeds from the book will be donated to support people living with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. I interviewed Marybeth about the book and its message.

BLOOM: How did Arlene on the Scene come to be?

Marybeth Caldarone: The author Carol grew up in Rhode Island and I grew up in New York. I came to Rhode Island for college and Carol was one of my roommates. We hit it off and became really close. Carol was a great listener and loved to look at things from different perspectives. We used to talk about how people didn’t understand what it’s like to live with a disability and how we should write a book one day. Over the years we kept in touch and Carol would keep track of things I said. After she had her kids and was at home, Carol began to write and sent the first couple of chapters to me. I couldn’t believe it. This was a book I would pick up in the store and not think twice. We’d go back and forth where I would critique what she’d written: “Do you think this is really how Arlene felt?” or “Would she say that or do that?”

BLOOM: What is the book about?

Marybeth Caldarone: For younger kids, the characters are so likable and funny things happen. It’s just an enjoyable story about school and the different antics the kids get up to. Older kids can really get into the theme of the book, which is about acceptance. Arlene is a person with a disability. She starts out wondering “Are people going to accept me?” Over time she realizes that she herself is not accepting everyone as much as she’d like to be accepted. The main character – Arlene – is loosely based on my daughter Grace and the mom is loosely based on me.

BLOOM: What do you hope to achieve through the book?

Marybeth Caldarone: Initially we wanted to raise as much money as we could for Charcot-Marie-Tooth research. We'd like to raise awareness of CMT so we don't get a blank stare when we mention it. But as it progressed, Carol began to see the book as a tool for helping people see that it’s not all about finding a cure. It’s also about accepting people for who they are, whether they have a disability or not.

BLOOM: Why is it important that children’s books have characters with disabilities?

Marybeth Caldarone: Disability is a natural thing. It’s all around us and it’s something everybody should be exposed to. Some of the kids in the school I work at are reading the book and they’ll come to me to ask whether things that happened in the book have happened to my daughter. It’s opened up a lot of discussion.

BLOOM: What does your daughter Grace think about the book?

Marybeth Caldarone: At first I think she didn’t know what to make of it. Now she sees how positively the book is being received. A lot of the kids in her school have read it and it makes her feel special and important because she knows about the whole purpose of the book. While the book was being written it was a great tool for her to explore how she feels about things. She would read excerpts that Carol had written and say: “No, that would never happen” or “I would never do that.” It gave me a lot of insight into how she feels about what’s going on. Grace reads parts of the book now and laughs because she can relate to it.

Read more about Arlene on the Scene at the authors' website. Carol and Marybeth are already working on a second book in the series called Arlene Goes Green.