The idea seemed to come out of nowhere: one second I was peering across the street to a park, buzzing with Saturday morning farmer's market goers and the next second I was asking myself the question: "I wonder if I can make a bird out of a comma…"
I made my way to my make-shift "studio" area of my 600 square foot condo and opened my laptop. Comma. Exclamation marks. Period. Oh… and something for the beak: a less-than symbol, but tweaked a bit. Within 5 minutes, a red bird made entirely from typographical marks, sat in from of me. I sat back in my chair and gazed at him, robustly red against the white screen. "You're going to change my life," I whispered.
That avian-expression of character design and merging symbols took place five years ago. I named him Red Fred Bodoni because, well, he looked like his name should be Red Fred. And "red" is in "fred". The last name? Every gentleman needs one so I pulled it from the typeface he was created from.
So I made more—more birds made from commas from different typefaces. I call them The Jolly Troop and for the last five years, I have been telling stories with them, in the form of a blog (www.thejollytroop.com). And they love children and adults alike. For five years, I have been working at the craft of short-stories and learning how to convey something worthwhile and important in fewer-than-normal words. It's worked. People enjoy it. People learn. People laugh. People cry. And I get to talk about things that really matter… through birds.
One winter night, in December of 2012, my younger sister phoned me from Seattle and relayed a recently-discovered situation: a friend of ours from childhood had a son with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Our friend's son was dying. We cried and asked each other the same question we all seem to ask when we hear about something like this: "What can we do? What can we possibly do for them? For him?" As we ended our conversation and before I hung up the phone, she whispered to me with fervent belief lined in hope, "I'm not sure what it is, but I think you might be able to do something for him."
As I sat in silence that night thinking about this situation, about the certain uncertainties and about the slippery understanding this life seems to produce time and time again, a star-thought landed in me and it felt distinctly like Red Fred lighting on my shoulder and whispering in my ear: "We want to to make a book with him."
I quickly emailed the family, begging forgiveness if my invitation was encroaching on anything that would seem strange or unethical and at the same time, I stated the truth: children love my birds and my birds love children. When they replied to my email, their kindness poured through their words and they graciously accepted the invitation.
Three months later, after multiple exchanges and herculean attempts of them trying to meet with me, I received a message that sweet Mitchell was in the final few days and that the family was pulling together to be with him. Days later, thousands witnessed his star's departure into the sky, as the family had been keeping the loving support updated through social media. Thousands grieved and mourned. And so did my birds.
The desire to create stories, however, burned brighter than ever. That day I determined what exactly I wanted to do: create original, one-of-a-kind stories with children with critical illnesses, self-publish their books and then put it into their hands and say, "Way to go! You did it. You made a book!" Additionally, the proceeds of each printed book would go to the child's/family's medical expenses.
So that's what I'm doing. I have a goal to create 50 books with 50 children across the 50 states. All these children will have critical illnesses; some of them won't live too much longer; others, hopefully live as full and rich a life as possible, given their physical conditions.
We have our first book completed. My co-creator in this was Nathan Glad, a bright, beaming six year old boy whose body has broken over 250 times due to being born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (brittle bones disease). He wrote about facing fear and we entitled his book, Climbing with Tigers. And guess what? Nathan shares two life lessons at the end of his book about what he's learned about life.
If you are a believer in that star-dust material that so easily becomes a child's imagination; if you are sympathetic to the silvery space a family tries to navigate as they move through the challenge of their little one's health complication; if you believe a book really can tell a story for years, then please join me in helping get this project where it needs to be: in the hands of child.
I was asked to as a guest contributor to the blog "Your Mark on the World" curated by Devon D. Thorpe. It's always an honor to be considered to share something you feel is important. Thanks to Devon for seeking us out. The other nice thing being asked to write does is make you condense your words and ideas. It's under 1,000—somewhere in the 800 word count. I hope it gives you a little better understanding of what this thing is all about.