Author of book series featuring special needs characters
Romeo Riley Teacher, author and guest blogger, April M Whitt, takes us on her journey with ‘Romeo Riley’ and his wheelchair. There are no limits to the trouble this private eye encounters! The day the writing appeared on the wall was the day…Romeo was born! On August 31st we celebrated Romeo’s birthday! That was the day he was delivered to me by my publisher. (I told her she was also now an obstetrician!) But the idea for him, and the beginning of the book actually happened at school one day. I’d been writing silly stories about some of my students (many of whom have CP.) The kids loved hearing the stories I made up about them. Also, we’d been reading a popular funny book in our class. The students enjoyed the humor—but I wondered how much they could identify with a character whose life was so much different from theirs.
I began looking for funny books that had characters who were like my students–but I didn’t find many. So I wondered if I could create one. I didn’t want it to be a teaching tool; I just wanted it to be fun. I wanted my kids to have a hero (even if he’s a comical one.) And I wanted the world to see that kids with disabilities are still kids who have fun and live fulfilling lives. The character of Romeo is sort of a mixture of students I’ve known over the years. Fellow staff members have also shown up in the books. But in a way, I think Romeo represents all of us. People identify with him because he makes goofy mistakes. And like most of us, he really tries to do the right thing.
I’m just starting my 20th year of teaching this school year. The majority of those years, I’ve worked in the exceptional student environment, and particularly high medical risk. Most of the kids I’ve known and loved use wheelchairs for mobility and eye gaze or simple signs and/or communication devices to express themselves. Fortunately, I’ve been able to keep some of the same students for several years, which is valuable because sometimes it takes a while to know someone. It takes time for students to open up and time to develop relationships with families. I think trust is the biggest issue. I may not always do the right thing for you or for your child, but I hope I can be an encouragement. I’m so impressed by the courage of parents and grandparents who give so much of themselves in the care and well-being of their children. And I can only guess at how hard it must be to walk away and leave those precious kids in the hands of someone else to care for them each school day. Or, if you, yourself have a disability, I hope something like the “Romeo” series can bea positive and bring more acceptance to our communities. When “Romeo” first came along I was worried I might offend someone. I didn’t want to make light of someone having a disability. What I really wanted to express was this “joy” in living—a thing so many of our kids possess in spite of their problems. I wanted to express that “thing” that keeps us laughing and keeps us coming back for more.
I know my kids understand a lot more than they can tell me. And when they laugh at the punchlines, that’s when the sun breaks through! Over this past summer I worked on a project I hope will become a new series. It doesn’t have a special needs hero this time; instead, it has animal characters. This series will be for all abilities (just like The Romeo Riley Series.) But if people keep enjoying the series, I plan to do a new “Romeo” book in the future. It is my hope that Romeo will continue to have birthdays and keep making people smile. And if Romeo can bring a bit of adventure-or invite a distant world to into his for a moment—then Romeo has done what he set out to do. After all, he’s Private Eye, Romeo Riley isn’t he? And there will always be mysteries for him to solve, and loved ones he’ll want to protect.