Behind the Book
By Karen Goff Dyser
I thought I was living a healthy lifestyle. I ate healthfully, exercised regularly, took vitamins and supplements, and had regular checkups. On July 18, 2008, my husband, Joe, and I drove to Zanesville, Ohio, for my nephew’s wedding. I had some abdominal distress and had not eaten much for a couple of days. During that weekend, the pain got worse and I could not eat anything.
The pain grew more and more severe. I went online, as we often do, to get our first diagnosis. With my symptoms, the possibilities included irritable bowel syndrome or ovarian cancer. I immediately made appointments with my gynecologist and a gastroenterologist. Each said everything appears normal but scheduled some tests. Before I was able to receive the results, though, I was in the emergency room with severe abdominal pain. After a CAT scan, I received the numbing diagnosis—Stage 3 ovarian cancer. My father died of lung cancer and my mother of breast cancer. Uncles, aunts and cousins had died of cancer. I did not personally know anyone who had survived the dreaded disease. Fear seized my being, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
During the surgery, the doctor performed a complete hysterectomy, removal of the omentum, spleen and 12 inches of colon. He removed one lymph node from the site, and it had no cancer. I was scheduled for six rounds of chemotherapy. The statistics the doctor quoted on ovarian cancer survival, however, did not offer much hope. My fears grew exponentially—fear of losing my hair, the side effects of chemotherapy, and, of course, dying. John Wayne once said, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” So, I saddled up.
The Chaos of Fear
I was immobilized by fear, and I had to figure out a way to deal with it. In my search, I began to embrace integrative therapies—massage, yoga, journaling, reflexology, acupuncture, chiropractic, macrobiotic diet, counseling, and visual imagery. Joe regularly asked me to close my eyes and see myself healthy and playing tennis. My cousin, Terri Carpenter, gave me several stones with words on them that I used them to meditated and calm my nerves. The one that resonated most with me was "courage."
I also did spiritual counseling with a doctor who asked me to go back and recall the first fear in my memory. I told her it was a recurring nightmare I used to have when I was about 4 years old. It was about a monster who tried to take away my beloved rocking chair. I used to awaken and feel as if I were unable to breathe. I would cry for my mother, who would come to my room and comfort me. She would try to divert my attention by reading a story or playing a card game. The doctor, who knew my teaching background, later challenged me to write a children’s book about fear. Since I always planned to write a children’s book, I looked at the challenge as an opportunity to fulfill a long-held dream.
As I thought about my childhood nightmare, I decided it would be the conflict in the story and the main character would be a bunny. Then the idea of the "fear monster" came to me while I was having acupuncture. I went home, sat on my patio and the story almost wrote itself. The writing process itself was very therapeutic, and it seemed to help me work through my own fear. As I strove to strengthen my body physically, the meditation and the writing were healing my soul. I was able to write myself out of the chaos of fear.
Collaboration is Synergistic
When writing a children’s picture book, the illustrations are of utmost importance. Eighty percent of young children are visual learners. Therefore, the illustrations must be visually attractive and must carry the message of the text.
I am the luckiest author in the world to have my debut book illustrated by my friend, Mary Ann Bucci. Mary Ann sent me a card while I was sick, thanking me for providing a valuable kindergarten experience for her children. When I began to think about the illustrations for my book, I immediately telephoned Mary Ann. I told her the story and explained what I had in mind about the illustrations. She emailed some sample illustrations that absolutely captured the images I had in my mind! Our collaboration was synergistic. Her paintings are powerful—providing just enough drama for the young reader, showing only the hands of the monster. The pastels create the quiet feeling of Bailey being safe, warm and loved. She so elegantly creates the shadow of the tree at the end of the story. It is subtle and requires the reader to discover the essence of the story. Many times our fears are merely shadows.
Picking a Publisher
After doing a lot of research about book publishing, I decided to take a self-publishing route. Finding an established publisher can be difficult, and I did not want to wait several months, perhaps receive a rejection and have to start the process all over again. I didn’t have time or energy to waste. So I began looking int self-publishing companies. Many companies do well with black and white pages, but I wanted color illustrations, and that takes special layout and design people, as well as printers with that capability. I definitely had the “Goldilocks Syndrome,” wanting everything to be “just right.”
One day, I picked up our local weekly paper and read a story about a person who had self-published a children’s book. I found out a second person who lived close by who used the same company. She was having a signing at a bookstore about five miles away, so I drove there, looked at the book and found it to be “just right.” I went home and made the phone call. That was in October; by Dec. 24 I had my first order of books.
Celebration of Life
I have presented the story to many children as well as adults. With adults, I share a list of symptoms of ovarian cancer. Several adults have given the book as a gift to a friend with cancer and others have given it as a gift for a baby shower. Bailey Bunny has a message for everyone.
I seem to be healthy, and I have returned to daily exercise and nutritious eating. Even as I remain aware of the statistics, I cannot let uncertainty rob me of my joy. I live each day with gratitude and an increased clarity of purpose. I have always loved life, and since my brush with death, I savor each day with an even greater passion. Whether presenting my book in a classroom, having a lovely dinner with my husband, attending a family gathering or enjoying a walk in the park with friends, I am grateful that “when life gave me lemons, I was able to make lemonade.”
Sharing my book is a part of my celebration of life. Mark Twain once said that “Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the resistance to fear; the management of fear.” My hope is that my story will help people, children and adults, to find that courage within, to manage their “fear monsters,” whatever they may be.