What do a Mount Airy orthodontist and a Baltimore-based children’s author/illustrator have in common? Plenty, it turns out.
Dr. Stuart Sheer and Nancy Patz recently teamed up to write the children’s book “The Elephant with a Knot in His Trunk” (Barton Books). Through its protagonist, Kofi, the book deals with having a disability, bullying, overcoming challenges and being brave.
Patz is an award-winning author and artist, while Sheer has treated children for decades at his practice and on dental missions throughout the world.
Both Baltimore natives, Patz and Sheer recently sat down with Jmore to talk about their new book at Patz’s studio in Pikesville.
Jmore: What was the inspiration for this book?
SS: I had written a story about a child with a cleft lip and palate who moves to another city and gets bullied. And then I was looking for an illustrator. A very close friend of mine, Aaron Young, introduced me to Nancy. Nancy’s worked with animals in all of her books, so one thing led to another and all of a sudden it was “The Elephant with a Knot in His Trunk.”
What is the book’s overall message?
NP: I would say it parallels and echoes so clearly all the difficulties Stuart found with his patients. Stuart wanted to have a book that would encourage his patients and show an empathetic story about what they go through.
For centuries, animals have been used to tell stories, like Aesop’s Fables. Stuart’s right, I’ve used animals [in her stories], because sometimes you can get so much closer to the emotional truth through animals.
SS: I’ve been doing this work for a long time, about 30 years. For example, on an Operation Smile trip, there are so many kids that are unrepaired that become very isolated. And they can’t communicate with anyone but their own families, so these kids are withdrawn from society and bullied. It’s sad to watch. One of the wonderful parts about this book is how much these things parallel each other: the elephant’s knot is like a cleft lip, but it could be like another disability. You get it repaired, you see people with clefts that are repaired. They’re not perfect [but] their speech is better. He’s better, but he has a curl in his trunk. He used to squeak; now he can trumpet.
How did you get involved with groups like Operation Smile?
SS: My first trip was with American Dental Volunteers for Israel. I went to a kibbutz with my uncle near Kiryat Shemonah, and I don’t think that I was bitten [by the charity work bug] there. I just think that I was always curious about the world, but also there’s the feeling that you get from volunteering. It’s not even a secret. It’s clear to people that do that you get more out of doing that than you give.
Nancy, how does this book fit in with your past work?
NP: A lot of my books have been fun. [For example] “Pumpernickel Tickle and Mean Green Cheese” is about going through the streets of Baltimore to get a loaf of pumpernickel bread. But some of them are also good and entertaining, but they deal with real emotional issues. “Gina Farina and the Prince of Mintz” is a story about a girl with a mind of her own and a heart that is set on adventure. “To Annabella Pelican from Thomas Hippopotamus” is a children’s story about despair and separation and loss and the importance of memory and this fits right into that.
“Sara Bear & Sweet Sidney” is a story about how people act when they love each other. It happens to be about two fat, middle-aged hamishe bears. Somebody wrote, “If a children’s book is enjoyed only by children, it’s probably not a very good book.” I don’t want to work on anything that doesn’t have some substance. It seems to me that important emotional principles, feelings really, should be presented in children’s books.
How has the initial reception been for “Elephant”?
NP: Absolutely wonderful! People have responded in so many different ways. First of all, disabilities and bullying are on everybody’s minds because it’s so present. And we didn’t have that in mind, there was more emphasis on the disability. But with the disability naturally came the bullying as we worked on the story. So people are responding to it and people just feel that it’s going to be a wonderful book for kids to read and talk about.
Alex Holt is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.