How Shannon Stocker Wrote an Allegorical Picture Book that Centers Her Disabled Main Character
For my last Kidlit Creative’s Q & A, I’m delighted to chat with my dear friend about her latest book. Shannon Stocker has written an allegorical picture book, Warrior: A Patient’s Courageous Quest. Through graphic novel style illustrations, Sarah K. Turner invites readers to a fantasy world that turns real. This book was published by Sleeping Bear Press.
For Kidlit Creatives Members, you have a chance to win a signed copy of Warrior: A Patient’s Courageous Quest. To WIN this special prize, follow the directions at the end of this post.
First, I want to share illustrator Sarah K. Turner’s bold cover art!
Pitch: Only the fiercest of warriors will ring the bell at the top of the mountain and rid their kingdoms of beasts. A young girl and her best canine friend combat a series of allegorical obstacles, paralleling her battle with cancer, in this tale of strength, bravery, and friendship.
Hi, Shannon! Warrior: A Patient’s Courageous Quest uses a fantasy narrative to show a girl’s experience with cancer. It’s stunning how few picture books are published that center a character with a disability. Please share why we need more children’s books about children dealing with disabilities.
Hi Manju! Thank you so much for having me on your blog. It’s wonderful to be back!
Are you ready for a long answer? I think I could vent for an hour on this subject.
I recently did an interview with the lovely Margaret Kingsbury from SLJ, who quoted some alarming statistics from the CDC. Although 27% of adults have a disability, and one of every six children have a developmental disability, in 2019 (the most recent stats available), only 3.4% of children’s books feature a protagonist with a disability. Honestly, I think this disparity is due to a number of reasons:
1) I think that the word “disability” has traditionally been associated with physical limitations, or a loss of some physical ability (hearing, sight, loss of a limb, etc). But the Oxford dictionary’s definition of disability is, “A physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” There are behavioral disabilities, emotional disabilities, sensory impairment disabilities, and developmental disabilities that also fit this definition. As an example, most people don’t think of ADHD as a disability, but by definition, it is (it is a developmental disability). I often wonder how questionnaires (and answers) will change as this understanding grows.
2) Unfortunately, whether the statistics reflect it or not, the books still need to be written. They need to be bought and published. And they need to be made available to all children. I know that the biggest hurdle I’ve come across when trying to sell a fiction manuscript about a child with cancer is this: “I love this story, but the book is too sad.” I personally believe that kids have the capacity to handle sad or difficult topics in picture books. Beyond that, actually…I think kids are drawn to these stories. They have difficult questions, and they want answers. They want to talk about dark things, because they think about dark things (like death and illness). When I was in medical school, my fiercest, most mature patients always seemed to be kids with cancer. Now, as a cancer mom, I will double down on that statement. Not only are kids with cancer incredibly strong and capable of handling the reality of their situation, but so are their siblings. It is the people AROUND kids with cancer—friends and family members—who are often the most uncomfortable with these topics. Then, because other people are uncomfortable with these topics, they get swept under the rug. Which is exactly the opposite of what these kids need. They NEED people to have open conversations. They NEED to feel like they belong. Like they have a place in this world. What better way to show them that than to allow them to see themselves in books?
3) Related to #2 above, I think many publishers are worried that books like WARRIOR are too niche. Again, though, I think this is due to a limited or incomplete understanding of the world of disabilities, and how common they are. As an example, WARRIOR has yet to receive a single review, despite the fact that my last book won an ALA award. Why? I can’t answer that question with certainty, but we think it might be because reviewers feel the topic is too niche. Authors want to sell books, so they want to write books that sell. It’s such a competitive, complicated industry. I think there may be too few books written about disabilities because, when it comes down to it, they’re difficult to sell. I wish that would change. I wish more people would take chances on books that amplify voices within the disability community. I’m so grateful to my editors who have believed in my books, like WARRIOR and LISTEN. I feel so strongly that these kids deserve and need to be heard, too. It’s my passion, though, so I’ll keep writing them to help these kids feel and be seen.
I love how gently you wove the realities of battling cancer into your allegorical (a story within a story) picture book. How did your story evolve into an allegory?
I think it was actually my son who made some kind of a comment about Cassidy being a warrior and being brave in her battles. I wish I could remember exactly what he said, but it got my brain spinning. I know at the tail end of our “shaving day” video (where we all shaved our heads), he said, “THAT is the head of a warrior!” (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fN6KCJX0sbc&t=91s). I’d previously written one book already featuring a girl with cancer, and it went to acquisitions at—three?—houses. But each time, it was turned down because it was “too sad.” I’m still hopeful that book will be published one day because it’s probably my favorite story I’ve ever written, but when I’d heard “too sad” too many times, I decided to write something a little more upbeat, yet still true to her experience. When Tye (my son) made the comment, I realized that many of the symptoms Cassidy (my daughter) fought during chemo could be associated with other things. Nausea, for example, could be associated with motion sickness. Fatigue, with hiking. All the symbolism possibilities got my heart pumping, and that’s when WARRIOR came to life.
I believe Maria the Warrior’s quest speaks to those battling their own “ruthless beasts,” their families and friends as well as those who have not experienced the toll a disabling disease often takes. How did you balance fear and hope?
I watched my daughter. Nothing will teach you how to balance fear and hope like living through childhood cancer. My daughter, whose first name is actually Maria (she goes by her middle name), sobbed before probably the first dozen chemo infusions. The nurse, Child Life specialist, and I would hold her hand, talk to her, smooth her hair, and give her time. Eventually, she would always steel herself. She’d get this expression that absolutely gutted me—staring at the wall, stone-faced, almost emotionless. She would nod, and say, “Okay. I’m ready.” It was gut-wrenching and breathtaking, all at the same time. This tiny twelve-year-old girl, who was forced to face unthinkable hardship. She would grieve, and we would sit with her in her grief (and grieve with her), and then she’d find strength. She always hoped she wouldn’t be sick after, despite the fact that she always was. She’d always ask to bring certain snacks to eat, “just in case,” even though she couldn’t ever eat a single bite. The journey is all about trying to balance fear and hope, so the book needed to be that way, too.
In your author’s note, you share your daughter’s strength during her treatment for brain cancer. You also share the loving team that cared for your daughter. And readers learn how to treat a service dog in public. How did you decide what back matter to include?
I really, REALLY wanted this book to also be a nod not only to those with cancer, but also to the team of people who care for kids with cancer. I don’t think people understand how many different kinds of caregivers are needed to help kids on these toxic meds. Every week, we relied on nurses and doctors, of course, but the journey would have been impossible without the pharmacy team, nutritionists, social workers, front desk workers, people who cleaned the rooms, etc. And it would’ve been far more miserable without Child Life, alternative medicine practitioners (acupressure), music therapists, and pet therapy helpers. Part of me wanted all of these people to understand how much I love and appreciate them. Part of me wanted to inform other families going through this same journey, because sometimes you have to ASK to get access to these teams.
For example, the moment we’d show up for chemo, we’d put in a request for Child Life to come. Child Life workers are the kings and queens of distraction. Sometimes, they’d bring an iPad and pull up bubbles for Cassidy to “pop” before a stick. Sometimes, they’d pull up YouTube and play funny cat videos, Mr. Beast, or Moriah Elizabeth so Cassidy could just close her eyes and hear something else while her port was accessed. Sometimes, they’d bring gifts or crafts for her to do when she felt poorly. They even made a book for Tye that explained what a hospital stay was like for his sister, and walked him through her diagnosis and treatment. I just don’t think they get nearly enough credit.
As for the service dog tips, it’s amazing how few people understand how to treat service dogs in public. I really wanted to help people understand that these dogs are doing life-saving work. Distractions can have dire consequences. And I’m so, so grateful Cassidy had her pup to help her survive this traumatic journey.
Thank you so much for having me, Manju! You’re the best. I’m grateful for you and all the wonderful things you do for the kidlit community!!
Check out the terrific book trailer for Warrior: A Patient’s Courageous Quest.
Thanks very much, Shannon!
Shannon Stocker is a musician, advocate for the immunocompromised, and writer of kidlit and Chicken Soup stories. She’s authored such picture books as LISTEN: HOW EVELYN GLENNIE, A DEAF GIRL, CHANGED PERCUSSION (Dial/Random House, 2022), CAN U SAVE THE DAY (Sleeping Bear Press, 2019), and WARRIOR (Sleeping Bear Press, 2023), as well as the 21st Century Junior Library: TOGETHER WE CAN: Pandemic early reader series (Cherry Lake Press, 2021). The proud word nerd lives in Louisville, KY, with her husband, two children, and stash of hidden dark chocolate. Shannon currently serves as SCBWI social co-director for Louisville and is a 12x12 ninja. In her spare time, Shannon advocates for children with cancer (her daughter is a warrior) and, as a Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy patient and medical school graduate herself, she sits on the board for the RSD Foundation. Cool facts: Shannon survived a coma, and once performed two songs, including one original, as part of an opening act for Blake Shelton. Shannon is rep’d by Allison Remcheck of Stimola Literary Studio.
Prize offer: Shannon is giving away a signed copy of Warrior: A Patient’s Courageous Quest. For your chance to win, leave a comment on our Kidlit Creatives page (must be a member) and share this interview on your social media. Deadline to enter is Wednesday, Nov. 15th.
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