Junior Ava Van Straten recently published a children’s book for the GRACE elementary teachers to use in their classrooms. This is for her Girl Scout Gold Award, the equivalent to the Eagle Scout. The book challenges readers to choose kindness as a way of life. Our Tritonian veteran reporter, Lauren Van Gheem, asked her questions about her project and how it all became a reality.
Q. What is the book called and why did you decide on that name?
A. Mary’s Heart is a children’s book targeted for children ages 6 to 11 (1st through 4th grade), although the message is appropriate for both younger and older audiences. (As for the name choice, see below.)
Q. What inspired you to write the book?
A. The story is inspired by my elementary school principal, Jeff Kaftan, who inspired us all to choose kindness each day, especially since actions meant more than words as a form of prayer to help him battle his cancer. Sadly, he lost his battle in 2016.
The basis for Mary’s Heart was from an essay I wrote in the 5th grade. It was published in the Green Bay Press-Gazette, and a retired member of Notre Dame Academy’s staff, Joan Jadin, read it, looked me up in the phone book, called, and said it would make a great children’s book .I decided to tackle the project in 10th grade. I kept Joan Jadin’s phone number all of these years and just talked to her this week when I received the final books from the printer.
As for the book’s name, it is what I chose for my character in my essay in 5th grade (not sure who or what influenced me at the time and maybe even Mary did).
Q. What is the main idea of the book?
A.The book has a message of kindness. Often the outward actions of a bully are focused on, and there needs to be a reflection on the internal impacts on bullies from their choices. Mary’s Heart also has an associated curriculum plan of four skill levels of spelling lists, discussion questions and projects including art, science and media.
Q. Did you encounter any challenges when writing the story?
A. There were many hurdles to overcome. First was having the book’s language be level-set to the appropriate targeted reading levels. A reading specialist in the GRACE system helped. Next was finding an illustrator who (a) I could afford with donations, (b) who was available, and (c) who shared my vision for Mary. Finally, I spent a lot of time to locate a reasonably-priced printer as I wanted them to be hardcover with a “perfect bound” binding (which means the pages are sewn together inside).
Q. How did you decide who was going to illustrate?
A. Lieutenant Colonel David Jones, the Chair of Character and Ethics from Westpoint, came and spoke at my school right after I wrote the essay, and knew I had received a suggestion to turn it into a children’s book. He was doodling with my siblings and I later that day, and that is when I learned he was a good artist. Fast forward seven years when I needed an illustrator; we just pulled it all together in our minds and called and asked him, especially because he values kindness and character. It was a surprise to me when he said “yes.” It was his first book, and it looks like he has been illustrating forever. We spent time together looking at other illustrators’ styles in children’s books and looked at fonts and color palettes together as well. When he sent me the first sample of Mary, I knew we were a match. LTC Jones far exceeded my expectations for bringing Mary and her classmates to life.
Q. How did you decide that a book was right for your project?
A. The fundraising, writing, development, publishing and distribution of Mary’s Heart is part of my Girl Scout Gold Award. I fundraised and received over $5,000 in donations, including monetary and in-kind services for the book. In-kind services include publishing, graphic design and illustration. Fundraising also allows over 1,000 copies of Mary’s Heart and the curriculum to be distributed for free across the state to schools, scouting troops, libraries, not-for-profit clubs supporting kids, and any other organization. There will be a limited supply of books available for purchase as well to cover the remaining costs.
I had long wanted to write this book, and I felt I could really do a lot with its message. It also felt like a way I could continue to honor Mr. Kaftan and his message of constant kindness.
Q. Where do you see yourself in ten years?
A. Spreading kindness. If doing that and God is one’s focus, everything else will fall into place, and life will unfold exactly as it should for me.
Q. Anything else readers should know about you or your book?
A. The book is published by Ephraim Publishing and printed by Worzalla. Worzalla is an amazing business in Wisconsin that prints books for all over the world. My book came off the printer after Joanna Gaines’ latest “Magnolia” book, and the printer has other clients like Reese Witherspoon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Gordon Ramsay and the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series.
Q. What are your next steps?
A. I would like to write another children’s book, potentially focused on empathy. Experts believe communicating via technology is reducing the amount of empathy-building in youth, and online experience can actually decrease empathy. It is an important topic that needs to be talked about to ensure we have the ability to put ourselves in each other’s shoes, relate and express emotion, cooperate, build solid relationships and stand up for what is right.