East Stroudsburg author Jannesy DeLeon will celebrate the launch of her inspiring new children’s book “Tag! You’re It! A Story on Inclusion with Gabby & Nicky” at the Pocono Family YMCA this Friday.
The story, which is DeLeon’s first of a planned series, is inspired by the lives of her two children, Gabriella and Nicholas, who grew up with several disabilities that were often difficult for others to understand or accept. Through the tale of Gabby, who uses a wheelchair and relies on a tracheostomy, and her de ella brother de ella Nicky, who helps his sister with mobility and speech, DeLeon hopes to instill a sense of inclusion and acceptance for all children, regardless of their abilities from her.
DeLeon said that early on, she noted that many people tended not to acknowledge her children and others like them due to a lack of understanding or a misplaced sense of fear, largely orienting from limited exposure to people with disabilities.
“So it was just that little seed of an idea that I had in my head, ‘Wow, we really need to start this early, getting kids early to understand that you don’t have to be afraid… They’re just like you even though they might not speak, they still feel just like everybody else,” DeLeon said.
After taking an online course for writing children’s literature, DeLeon pitched the story to BiblioKid Publishing, which took her up on the offer.
“It’s for children, average age five years old, six, seven, to try to get them early to understand that it’s OK to include anybody that you know that’s different, and how to modify games, because towards the end of the book, I have different ways to modify games to include everybody,” DeLeon said.
The resounding message of acceptance can be applied to all people, DeLeon said, helping children to understand all sorts of differences in order to create a better, more welcoming community.
“I want kids just to connect either way, because despite the fact that Gabby is disabled, the message is still the same: children still feel excluded, for one reason or another. It doesn’t have to be solely because of a disability, DeLeon said.
DeLeon hopes that this first entry in the proposed series will resonate well with children and parents, emphasizing acceptance and friendship, and understanding that a person is more than a physical, mental or emotional disability.
“My goal here is to make Gabby a mainstream character despite her disability,” DeLeon said. “There’s no mainstream disabled character out there in children’s books, and I want it to be where kids want that series, not because Gabby’s trached or on a vent, it’s just because it’ll be a cute series.”
According to United States Census data obtained through the American Community Survey, more than three million children, or about 4.3% of those under the age of 18, in the country had a disability in 2019, an increase of 0.4 percentage points since 2008.
Baylor University notes that educating young children about disabilities helps to foster “an environment where all children feel included and valued, benefiting not only those who have disabilities, but their fellow students as well.”
By teaching children that a disability is not a solely defining element of another person, it can help protect against bullying, diminish the negative effects of implicit bias, build empathy and emotional intelligence, and help children to understand differences in a positive manner, Baylor’s online master’s in social work program states.
Through the virtual events she has conducted so far, DeLeon said she was inspired by how well children responded to Gabby and Nicky’s adventures, brainstorming new ways to include children like the protagonists of the tale in their activities.
“They’re so empathetic, I felt so good about the compassion and empathy I found in these kids,” DeLeon said. “They were so good with coming up with ideas.”
DeLeon will host a reading of the book during the YMCA’s Family Fun Night, which runs from 6 to 8 pm on April 1. Copies of “Tag! You’re It! A Story on Inclusion with Gabby & Nicky” will be available for sale ahead of its official launch date — April 5, Gabby’s birthday — with a portion of all proceeds donated to the YMCA.