‘Magical Messages’ from Acushnet women who write and illustrate children’s books
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‘Magical Messages’ from Acushnet women who write and illustrate children’s books

People often bond over books they are passionate about. But for two Acushnet women, their bonding, along with their passion, comes from the books they create together.

With the “Magical Messages” series, the words of Joanne Elaine and the illustrations of Cindy Young are coming together in books aimed at developing compassion and empathy in the hearts and minds of the children they are written for.

Using themes from nature, the stories are created to impart lessons in self worth and the acceptance of others. As a wordsmith, Elaine draws on her experiences as a mother of two adopted children and three biological children, as well as what she has experienced in the classroom after 33 years as a special education teacher. As an artist, Young has had a lifetime of interest in creativity, skills she traces back to her family and her upbringing.

The first two “Magical Messages” books have been self-published, as will the next two. This past April, the duo released “Purple Sea Glass,” a tale of a child with Down syndrome based on Young’s 37-year-old son, Brian. In January they released the first book, “Color of the Sunrise,” about a child with red hair, based on one of Elaine’s grandchildren. Elaine and Young are currently working on a third book, “Treasure in the Wind,” which is based on the experiences of a girl with Autism, anticipated to be released early this summer. The fourth book in the series will be about a child in a wheelchair, “The Fire Within.” While each story narrates the experiences of a child with a disability or challenging characteristic, Elaine based each book on one of the four signs of nature — air, fire, water and earth. In each book, the main character learns an important lesson from their natural surroundings.

Together, Elaine and Young are also learning about the challenges that occur after a book is written, but they will soon have time and energy to devote to the business side of books. Young is retired after 37 years with a local foster care program and Elaine is set to retire from New Bedford High School at the end of this school year. Once the parents of young athletes, the two have known each other for more than two decades, but only began pairing talents in the last year when Elaine discovered that Young is a gifted artist.

While the “Magical Messages” series features Young’s first creations to be published, this is the second set of books that Elaine has written and self-published. In 2022, she released the “Floppy Bunny” series, a collection of four children’s books. Using animals and nature to tell the stories, the series is a metaphor for the experiences of a foster child who is in search of a “forever home.” The first book in the series was written more than 20 years ago, but didn’t get introduced to a mass audience until it was published two years ago. 

Elaine and Young spoke with The Light about learning lessons about the publishing world, being the mother of a child with Down syndrome, foster children, and how these books can benefit a wide range of audiences —  both young and old, challenged or otherwise.

New Bedford Light: How did you get started?

Joanne Elaine: When I first started I thought I had to have a publisher, and that always turned me off because it’s so hard to get a publisher. How am I going to convince somebody to publish my book?

Before high-tech you needed to have a publisher. I sent my story out to a few different publishing companies about three years ago and I didn’t hear from anybody. Or they said they weren’t taking stories without an agent representing you. It’s very discouraging, so when you get a letter from someone saying: “We’re interested in publishing your book,” you get sucked right in. “Send us $700 or $800 and we’ll publish your story.”

I eventually joined some groups on Facebook and learned about self-publishing. I read a lot of questions and answers and I learned a lot from it. They said “Don’t go near a vanity press, don’t give anybody money to publish your book. If people are asking you for money they’re not real publishers.”

So I learned a lot just going on self-publishing groups online. It was really very helpful. 

NBL: Where did the ideas come from for “Magical Messages?”

JE: The ideas just pop into my head. The first one, “Color of the Sunrise,” came about because of my grandson. People were always referring to him as “the redhead” — “the cute redhead.” And I became concerned that he was going to resent his hair, that that was his only identity. He’s much more than the color of his hair. So, that was my inspiration for the first book.

The rest of them, I’m a special needs teacher. I spent my whole adult life working with both adults and children with disabilities and I’ve just been concerned about their self esteem, how they view themselves, and also how other people view them.

What I hope to get out of these, I hope teachers and students are reading these books so they can build their self esteem. They’ll have a book that they can relate to, and also to build empathy in other people, in other children. Children don’t always understand the difficulties that some of their friends may be going through. To hopefully build some empathy at a young age that will carry throughout their lives.

The ideas for the boy with Down syndrome and the little girl with autism are based on children and adults I’ve worked with in the past 35 years. Just being accepted and understood by other people, that’s what inspires me to write these stories.

Cindy Young, left, and Joanne Elaine discuss ideas for their upcoming book. Credit: Sean McCarthy / The New Bedford Light

NBL: Where did the idea for the “Floppy Bunny” series come from?

JE: I’ve been a lifelong reader of multiple genres, but I never thought that I would be an author someday. When I was young I would write poems when I was inspired. But I kept them in my drawer and never did anything with them. Growing up my whole life, I was a special needs teacher and a mother who took care of kids and adopted kids. You’re so involved in your family you don’t really think about anything else. The story for “Floppy Bunny” was sitting in my drawer for 20 years and I wasn’t really thinking about it. One day I said, “I’m 60-something. I should publish my own book.”

Because “Floppy Bunny” is for children, I wanted it to be fun and light-hearted. I thought that using animals would be easier for kids to relate to. Children love animals. They want to take them home (laughs). What child doesn’t love a little bunny or a little bird or ducks or turtles?

Cindy Young: It’s easier for kids to understand when they’re reading about animals, so a bunny’s never going to be in a family of ducks or birds. Different families have different animals. A child may not realize why they couldn’t make it in this home, but he could make it in that home. For a young child, it’s kind of obvious that a bunny needs to find a bunny home. As adults, we understand that there are diversities with families but a little child wouldn’t get that.

JE: These are lessons without them realizing they’re lessons. It’s just a fun story.

CY: A child can read it and get something from it. It doesn’t come right out and say they’re fostering. We’re addressing the topic without saying it specifically. It’s just a bunny looking for a home.

JE: I wrote the story because I want children to hear this story, that you’re important, it’s not your fault, there are people out there that are going to love you. And it’s not going to reach people if it’s in my filing cabinet. It motivated me that I wanted the message to get out to foster children. I do lessons every year in my classroom — every month there’s a theme — National Foster Care Awareness, Adoption Awareness, Autism Awareness, Mental Health Awareness … every month we have a theme. Every year I’m trying to reach my students with these lessons.

But it was bothering me that I had this story just sitting in my drawer. I was like, “I need to figure this out, I need to get off my butt and figure this out.”

NBL: Why did you decide to self publish?

JE: I took this route because of my bad experiences with the other route. Twenty years ago when I wrote this, the norm was to get a publishing company, you had to have someone sponsor you. So that was all I knew. And then when I found out that wasn’t a good route — I lost money, they weren’t publishing my book the way I wanted it done — I had no say. I’d wait for months and not hear from anyone. I felt like I had no control over what my book was going to look like in the end. So I said, “That’s not going to work. What are my other options?” I went researching online — “How do you get a children’s book published?” I found these groups on Facebook, a self-publishing group. I learned a lot from them. There were people, much more knowledgeable … and they told you what to look out for. Don’t fall into this trap, don’t fall into that trap. They told me about Fiverr (an online marketplace for freelance services) after I said, “I need an illustrator” and someone told me that you can use Fiverr and find illustrators. It was all a learning process.

Now I have people contacting me, saying: “You published a book. How did you do that? I want to write a book.” I like helping other people, so I don’t want them to fall into the same traps I did.

Joanne Elaine holds a copy of Purple Sea Glass. Credit: Sean McCarthy / The New Bedford Light

NBL: How is the “Magical Messages” series different from the “Floppy Bunny” series?

JE: “Floppy Bunny” is geared toward kids who are 3 to 5 and “Magical Messages” is for children in foster care being adopted, but the message is the same with both of them. Children often think that someone else has it better, but ultimately the end message is that he’s happy being who he is and the family that he has. It’s fun to try new things, it’s great to be brave, but be happy with who you are. The four books are a continuation of the same story, while the “Magical Messages” books are stand-alone stories with different characters in both.

NBL: What other lessons are people getting from these books?

JE: With the “Floppy Bunny” books it’s about being brave. In each one he has to try something like swimming, pretending he’s a turtle, or flying, trying to fit in. In the end he realizes that it’s fun to try other things but I really like being a bunny and being with a bunny family, being who I am. Working with foster children, they always think there’s something wrong with them and that nobody wants them.

CY: A lot of times the home’s not the right choice, and you move them and they think they’ve done something wrong.

NBL: How can “Purple Sea Glass” benefit people with children with Down syndrome?

CY: It has a positive message. I was depressed for years because there was nothing positive. Anything that I heard was, “Time will tell what he can and cannot do.” He didn’t walk until he was 5, he didn’t toilet until he was 9, and you need to have some support. So by seeing this book that says “It’s OK to be different,” and today versus 37 years ago, you see kids with Down syndrome in commercials and advertisements like any other kid. Now there’s more awareness, they’re in the public, and everybody doesn’t look and go, “What is that?” because they hadn’t seen it. When I went to school there was a special needs class that no one saw. They got on the bus and off the bus before we saw them. They didn’t have lunch with us, so we never were able to become friends. I think now times have changed and I’m glad that they have.

NBL: Where does the idea of “Purple Sea Glass” come from?

CY: Purple sea glass is a very rare form of sea glass, you don’t find it very often. It’s very rare and unique, like Brian.

The same with the boy with red hair. He’s rare and unique, and there’s nothing wrong with being different. So that’s the message in all the stories. There’s something different and it doesn’t need to be a disability, it could be a tall person or a little person.

NBL: How did this creative collaboration come about?

JE: When I saw everything that Cindy had posted on Facebook, I had already done the first series of “Floppy Bunny” books. I had the idea for the second series, but I knew I didn’t want to use the same route. I didn’t want to use an illustrator from another country. I want someone I can sit with, work with and talk to. And I started seeing Cindy’s paintings and drawings, so I contacted her and said: “I need you to do these books!”

CY: I went to Joanne’s house one day because she was selling her “Floppy Bunny” books, and I wanted an autographed copy. And when I looked at the book I thought, “I can do that.” I told Joanne that I can draw and when she showed me what had been sent to her, I said: “Oh my God, I’ll do it.”

NBL: What’s the creative process like? What’s it like to work with Cindy?

JE: With the “Floppy Bunny” books I worked with an illustrator online, I didn’t even know who it was … I had to give them all the specifics. 

With the “Magical Messages” series, when Cindy’s done with the pictures she gives them to me. I scan them all into my computer and then I upload them to my formatter. And my formatter is the one that decides what words and what pictures are going to go on which page. 

CY: If we don’t like something, we can change it.

NBL: What are your goals and ambitions for these books?

JE: We want to get them in the hands of our intended audience, the parents of kids with Down syndrome and red-headed kids. Our next book, that Cindy is illustrating right now, is about a little girl on the autism spectrum. And the one after that is going to be about a girl who’s in a wheelchair. The hard thing is trying to get them in the right hands.

CY: I convinced Joanne to send them to the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress, the National Down Syndrome Society, and they have a Down syndrome program in Boston, and she reached out to them. They have newsletters they send to me all the time, so why can’t they put in an ad for the book? How many books do you see with a kid with Down syndrome? I would buy it, sight unseen. I don’t care. I’d want that book. My dog groomer, her little boy has bright red hair and so does her husband, and she saw it and said “Oh, I need that book.” It resonates with you.

We hope these books get read to children. It says why it’s OK to have whatever’s going on because they’re unique, they’re special. Each story has a boost in self esteem. So for any child, they don’t have to have a disability, they may be heavy, they may wear glasses, but they can relate because they see something about themselves that they don’t like.

JE: I’d like to see them in bookstores. When I retire I’ll have time to go to bookstores. I can also advertise them on Ingram Spark. I found something online for redheads so I sent them a message saying “Hey, I have this great book!” and they said “We’d love to see it!” So I mailed them a book. I mailed the Down syndrome book to Mass General Hospital.

CY: Just as a parent with a special needs child, there isn’t that much out there. So my goal is just that more parents know something is available. It’s resonating because there isn’t a lot out there and it’s an ‘UP’ story, it’s not sad. Sometimes the stories can be depressing, so I think that this would be nice.

Cindy Young displays a sea glass chime that she created. Credit: Sean McCarthy / The New Bedford Light

JE: With all of my stories I aim for them to be uplifting to help their self esteem.

CY: So another student in a class will know that this boy has Down syndrome and then he reads this story. All of my life with my son Brian, little kids have asked me, “What’s wrong with him?” Little kids are honest, so I just told them, and they were fine. They didn’t treat him any different.

NBL: How does it feel to illustrate this book when it’s based on your son and his experiences?

CY: Joanne writes so well, it’s easy to follow the story. But I like this one … I’m honored that she asked me to draw the pictures for the books, and it’s funny because we think alike. We’ve done a boy with Down syndrome, we’ve done a boy with red hair, so we need a girl and a person of color. So I made a girl with dimples. I don’t want them to look the same. 

NBL: You’ve done art all of your life. What’s it like to see your creations in print?

CY: I think it’s great that my name’s out there. I don’t expect to be famous but it’s kind of a goal that an artist or writer has — at some point in their life, to have something out there. Hopefully, long after I’m gone somebody may pick up a book, it may be in a thrift store, and my name’s on it. I’m happy with that. If we ever become famous that’s great too, but at 65 I’m not keeping my fingers crossed.

NBL: Based on your experiences, what advice do you have for other people who are writers and are looking to get their book published?

JE: Connect with other people. It depends on what kind of book you’re publishing. I’ve had someone, also in Acushnet, who is in the process of writing a book. But her book is very different. It’s a memoir for adults. So she would need to find editors, readers and things that I don’t have to do with a children’s book.

I would definitely tell people to find groups online and find groups of like-minded authors, a group of children’s picture book authors, or a group of novelists, and that way they can recommend people to use or things to watch out for. The biggest thing is to connect with other people who have more experience than you writing in the same genre.

Billed as “Special books for special children,” the “Magical Messages” books are available online at Elaine’s website, or Etsy and Ingram Spark. The “Floppy Bunny” series can be found on Amazon and Ingram Spark. Elaine’s website and Facebook page feature trailers for the “Floppy Bunny” and “Magical Messages’ stories, while her YouTube channel contains read-alouds for the “Floppy Bunny” books. Hard copies of the series are available at local libraries via the SAILS Network. The books are printed in paperback and hardcover.

Sean McCarthy is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The New Bedford Light.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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