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Writing A Book For Kids With Autism Helped A Leawood Author See A 'Quiet Hero' In Her Son

MH Cameron Barrett
Leawood children's book author Jenn Bailey just released a book called 'A Friend for Henry.'

Children's book author Jenn Bailey wonders whether her middle son would have had an easier childhood if his classmates had a better understanding of autism spectrum disorder.

"He was frequently labeled by his peers as, well, 'He's the weird kid,' 'He's the shy kid,'" she remembers.

Bailey, who lives in Leawood, recently released a picture book called "A Friend for Henry," about a young boy who faced challenges similar to her son's. The character wants a friend, but that person must not be too loud and or get too close to him, among other things.

Nowhere in the book does Bailey mention that Henry is on the autism spectrum.

"It wasn't because I wanted to preclude it, but I wanted to increase the children that might see themselves there: the shy child, the introverted child. This really is for any child who finds it difficult to step up and try to find that friend," Bailey explains.

That approach resulted in the creation of what she calls a "quiet hero," that is, not the boisterous, scene-stealing story-mover who drives most narratives.

Her son, who is now 22, wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome until third grade when the family moved from Washington, D.C., to the Blue Valley School District. Before that, the teachers who'd known him for years reported that he was just quirky and not to worry about him.

The stress of moving halfway across the country exacerbated her son's condition, Bailey says, which might have led to self-harm or harming others; he would have been labeled a child with a behavioral problem rather than one who needed assistance.

"We feel like moving to Kansas was a blessing. It's one of the few states that really has a great program for this," Bailey says.

As she and her family learned about autism, they found many books for parents, but few for children.

Credit Jenn Bailey
Mika Song illustrated 'A Friend for Henry.'

Bailey wanted to write what she describes as a "mirror and window" book, meaning that children who are similar to Henry will see themselves in the character, and children who are not will learn to empathize with someone they perceive as similar to the character.

Friends and a literary agent suggested that Bailey write the book from another child's point of view, which wasn't what she wanted at all.

"That's what we're all looking at when we look at a child on the spectrum: we're looking at them," she says. "I wanted to be able to look through their eyes."

So, in the story about Henry trying to make a friend, she shows his thought processes about and perception of the situation. The character tries to relate to a girl who wears bright colors and loves rainbows by painting on her shoes. He thought she'd indicated that would be OK, but she became upset.

Eventually, he and another girl, who smells like strawberry milk, bond over the classroom fish bowl in parallel play, a type of socializing that focuses more on a common object or activity than on direct interaction between people.

Bailey says she hopes this book with be a conversation-starter between those who share it. She sees the act of reading to someone as similar to parallel play.

Being alongside another person in an activity like reading, she says, means to share a journey.

"Not to dictate, not to say, 'This is how we're going to go about this,' but to truly share an experience and to say, 'This is what I see. What do you see?'"

Jenn Bailey spoke to KCUR on a recent episode of Central Standard.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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