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Janine. Courtesy photo




Meet Janine Leffler and Maryann Cocca-Leffler

Amherst Town Library: 14 Main St., Amherst, 673-2288, Wednesday, March 25, 7-8:30 p.m.
Toadstool Bookshop: 614 Nashua St., Lorden Plaza, Milford, 673-1734, Saturday, March 28, at 2 p.m.
Attend Janine’s Party: janinesparty.blogspot.com
Contact: maryanncoccaleffler.com




Disclosing disabilities
Amherst mother writes, illustrates book about her daughter

03/12/15
By Kelly Sennott ksennott@hippopress.com



When Janine Leffler was a little girl, there weren’t a lot of children’s books about kids with disabilities. It infuriated her mother, author and illustrator Maryann Cocca-Leffler.

“There was nothing out there. I mean, maybe there was a Helen Keller book, but that was it,” Cocca-Leffler said during an interview at her Amherst home. 
It was upsetting because her daughter had disabilities, including nonverbal learning disorder, mild cerebral palsy and cortical vision impairment. When she was born, doctors didn’t know if she’d be able to walk or talk. 
She did both. Despite these hurdles, Leffler thrived. She loved to read, and her go-to books were mini novels from the Baby-Sitter’s Little Sister series and the dictionary. She also had an amazing vocabulary (from reading the dictionary so much), and she could remember random facts and dates easily.
“She would remember every single person’s birthday in the school, including the teachers’,” Cocca-Leffler said. “She went beyond expectations. She was the type of kid that surprised everybody.”
But this void in the children’s book industry still bothered Cocca-Leffler, even after her daughter was too old to read them. An author herself, she could be the one to break the mold — she had the material — but she also knew it wasn’t her story to tell.
“All these years, I’ve wanted to write about a character who has disabilities. But I didn’t want to do it without Janine’s permission because it wasn’t my story to tell. She had to disclose her disabilities to the world,” Cocca-Leffler said. “But I also had hesitation. … Was it a good idea? … We could have said Janine grew up with challenges. I worried [disclosing her disabilities] would impact her life, as she applies for jobs.”
Leffler, now almost 30 years old, gave her mother the go-ahead a couple years ago. She wasn’t afraid; she felt that to not tell the whole truth would water down the book’s message.
Janine. was released March 1 and has already seen positive reviews. Its protagonist is a free-spirited little girl named Janine who wears round red glasses, whimsical, barrette-heavy hairstyles and socks that don’t match. Just like the real-life Leffler, this one has an uncanny memory for birthdays and a taste for big words. She also likes to sing on the bus and hang out with her imaginary friend. 
Her free spirit is tested, however, when party invitations go out and she’s not on the list. The plot mirrors a bullying event that really happened to Leffler. Even though it was so long ago, both mother and daughter tear up when they tell the story. But they’ve been telling it, and they’re going to keep telling it to schools, bookstores and libraries across the country. 
“I think it’s very important, the whole concept of being able to stand up for yourself and advocate for your differences,” Leffler said. “That’s what’s so important about this book. I grew up with a lot of disabilities and I was picked on a lot because of that.”
Cocca-Leffler had little trouble bringing school-aged Janine Leffler to life. As evident in the story’s initial drafts — she pulled some out from her desk during the interview — very little changed from the tiny dummy of sketches to the final colorful illustrations created with colored pencil and gouache paint.
The pair also created a website, janinesparty.blogspot.com (which hints at what happens at the end of the book), which contains book/author information and lists of good picture, middle grade and young adult books about kids with disabilities. (Because, good news, there are more out there today than 25 years ago.) Leffler’s also working to collect poetry submissions by kids with disabilities through the site.
Already, they can see people are connecting. All the kids want to know how Janine’s doing (very well — she earned a communications degree at New England College and currently works during the day), and they’re touched by the book and the real-life story behind it.
“I went to a school visit yesterday, and of course I cried at it,” Cocca-Leffler said. “The kids, I have to tell you, when I tell that story — and I’ve done it three times since the book came out this week — there isn’t a time when someone’s not crying. The kids get emotional. … Mothers come up to me afterward and tell me, ‘Oh my God, my kid had a similar experience.’ I think it’s hitting people, and I’m hoping they will have further discussions after I leave their classrooms.” 
 
As seen in the March 12, 2015 issue of the Hippo.





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