Kathy Smart wasn’t planning to write a children’s book concerned with issues of bullying and those facing physical challenges. Instead, Culver Summer Admissions Coordinator Smart simply channeled her feelings after watching an adult caregiver mock a physically disabled child. The result was the story of Melvin, released in May by Prairie Publications, Inc., South Bend.
The book was illustrated by another familiar Culver face, Janet Lynn Johnson, perhaps best known to those on the Culver campus through her work at the Fitness Center. The book also includes a foreword by Culver Director of Wellness Dana Neer.
Melvin’s Culver connections are fitting, with the story’s strong emphasis on the values of character and servant leadership.
Smart, who began working in the Culver development department in 2004, actually wrote the book seven years ago immediately after witnessing the mocking incident during a shopping trip. As much as bullying has become a concern in the educational community nationwide in recent years, it wasn’t the case when Melvin was first written.
Since its debut, however, Smart says the book has resonated with educators for its relevance in addressing not only bullying but treatment of peers with physical disabilities, particularly within a lower elementary aged setting.
“In the beginning people were buying (the book) because it looked cute, plus people want to buy from people they know,” Smart said. “(Since then) I’ve had a handful of elementary teachers buying it and people donating copies to elementary schools. The conversation turned to what the book was about, rather than just the local angle with the cute cover. I think it’s being used more as a tool now.”
Melvin centers on a sandpiper who becomes entangled in a fishing net. He escapes but is left with full use of only one leg. He compensates by developing stronger swimming and diving skills. One peer in particular bullies the bird over his condition, but ends up needing Melvin’s assistance before the story ends.
Perhaps most poignant, Melvin befriends a wheelchair-bound boy in whom he finds a kindred spirit.
Author Smart is particularly gratified to hear from readers, such as the woman who wrote that she’d purchased Melvin unaware of its contents and read it to her own grandson, who uses a wheelchair.
“‘You can’t imagine how I felt,'” Smart recalls the woman writing, “when I read this book to my grandson…it nearly brought tears to my eyes.'”
Smart doesn’t know if the release of Disney-Pixar’s short film Piper which hit theaters with Finding Dory earlier this past summer, will have any impact on the success of Melvin, but she’s pleased if the animated short has sandpipers on the minds of readers.
Smart had shopped the book to a few publishers before a chance meeting between her husband, Jim, and Michael Snyder of Prairie Publications. Snyder, an editor for 25 years in the Washington, D.C. area, had moved to South Bend in hopes of being able to publish works like Melvin, she said.
Melvin is available via Amazon and the book’s Facebook page
Smart, whose son Matt ’09 is also a Woodcraft and Upper Camp grad, and whose daughter Haley was a summer camper for four years, says her second book, Henry Goes Fishing, is due out next year. A Spanish language version of Melvin is also due to print later this year.