Mothers write children’s book about special needs
“Not so long ago, not so far away…”
It sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale, and it is. But this tale, in the form of a children’s book titled “Extra,” is based on the lives of real-life Abilenians. The book was the creation of a trio of Abilene women–Angie Martin (writer), Katelyn Mills (illustrator), and Cheryl Etter (producer). Another Abilenian, Debbie Heep, designed it.
Angie and Cheryl are the mothers of children with Down syndrome, and Katelyn has cystic fibrosis. The title “Extra” refers to the extra chromosome that people with Down syndrome have, but it could easily stand for “extraordinary” as a descriptor for the book itself and the people featured in it. All of them have lived through life-changing circumstances with extraordinary grace.
Tendrils of A Tale
“All the events are based on real occurrences,” Angie said of the scenes depicted in the book.
She described the writing, illustrating, and production of the book as a “pregnancy,” and it truly was a labor of love. People kept telling Angie and Cheryl that they ought to write a book about their experiences as mothers of children with Down syndrome and eventually they listened, although the idea already had been percolating.
“There were daydreams before that,” Angie said, but the encouraging words from friends prompted them to commit to putting an outline on paper.
From there, Angie actually wrote the book in one all-night setting in 2019. It would take another three years of editing, illustrating, and figuring out the next steps before the book was published in July 2022 by bookbaby.com.
The cover of “Extra” describes the book as “a tale of magic, destiny, and exceptional friendship.” It tells the story of Angie and her adopted daughter, Hope, and Cheryl and her biological son, Ethan. Angie adopted Hope in Corpus Christi when Hope was 16 days old. Today, Hope is 24 and Ethan is 23.
An uplifting refrain runs throughout, describing people with Down syndrome as people who:
“See things others don’t see
Build things others don’t build
Speak things others don’t speak
And do things others don’t do.”
Vines also play a role in the book, figuratively tying all the characters together. The vines are watered by tears from the characters, and each time they are watered another refrain appears:
“The vines rustled and perked up, green tendrils opening their tiny mouths into yawns and stretching outward.”
The three creators of the book hope that it is the first in a series of three. “Extra” tells the story of the early childhood phase of a special needs child. Book two would describe early school years and the final book would focus on middle school and high school years.
The goal is to get the books, beginning with “Extra,” into the hands of educators, parents of children with Down syndrome, and the children themselves. “Extra” was intentionally written and designed as a children’s book so that it would be accessible to everyone. It has been featured by local media, on the Down Syndrome Network website, and on The Pampered Parent website, which is an online community for parents of special needs children. The site promotes subscription boxes of self-care and informational products that are mailed monthly to subscribers. In July, Cheryl will give a presentation about “Extra” at the 51st Convention of the National Down Syndrome Congress in Orlando, Florida. The book is even in Thailand, courtesy of Angie’s sister, who is a missionary there.
When the idea for “Extra” was still being formulated, only Angie lived in Abilene. Cheryl was living in Florida, and Katelyn was in Fort Worth, where she had moved in 2019 in order to be closer to specialists after her health declined. All three women had Abilene roots and all are graduates of Abilene Christian University. Katelyn and Cheryl had at one time attended the same church and Katelyn was a sitter for Ethan when he was a baby.
“It’s really come full circle,” Katelyn said.
Her artistic instincts were noticed by her teachers when she was growing up, but she had other interests at the time. Later, when Katelyn’s health began declining her therapist asked her what she liked to do. Doodling came to mind, and the therapist encouraged her to do that. It turned out to be a blessing. Katelyn couldn’t drive or even leave her house for a while, and her artwork kept her mind off her illness.
“It really helped me fill my days,” Katelyn said.
She began posting her drawings on Facebook in the spring of 2020, and Angie and Cheryl took notice. They contacted her and she was thrilled to be a part of the book project. Katelyn knew Cheryl but had never met Angie. She was emailed a copy of the narrative and assumed that Angie was Hope’s birth mother. Since Hope was Hispanic, Katelyn naturally thought Angie was, too. Her first illustrations reflected that assumption–and then she met Angie in person.
“She’s got blue eyes and blonde hair,” Katelyn said, still able to chuckle at the early misconception.
Katelyn graduated from ACU in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and added a master’s in the same field in 2014. She worked as an analyst for Hendrick Medical Center until her illness forced her to give it up.
Cheryl and her family moved to Florida in 2005 and were living there when the book first started taking form. In November 2017, she and her husband, Eric, bought a house across the street from Angie. They moved into it in 2020. The location of the house was intentional. Cheryl wanted the support of her friend.
“She has a little bit more wisdom than I do,” Cheryl said.
Angie labeled Cheryl the producer of the book, and she could add the title of promoter. Cheryl’s footprints are all over the place–wherever she can find to promote the book. In early March, Cheryl and a friend were in Dubai. You can bet the book was promoted there. In addition to the traditional tourist activities like riding a camel, Cheryl visited a school for special needs children, which turned out to be her favorite experience on the trip.
“That’s where my heart is,” she said.
Cheryl earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education and health at ACU in 1983. She worked in the insurance field for a while but had to give that up when the family lived in Florida and her three children attended three different schools in three different towns, with three different starting times. She was traveling a lot in those days, making sure the kids got to school on time. Her career got shoved aside.
“I’m a great volunteer, though,” she said.
The Words and the Legacy
Angie was the natural writer for the book. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from ACU in 1992 and a master’s in literature from the University of North Texas in 1995. She added a master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy from ACU in 2021 and today is therapist in that field with Two Sparrows Therapy & Counselors.
She works part time at Two Sparrows office on Hickory Street and part time at home. Two of her daughters, ages 19 and 14, are in and out of the house, so that Hope is never alone for very long.
Hope and Ethan are good friends, and that friendship is reflected in the book. They spend much of the time together during the day. Each also goes to speech therapy and each has an ACU student who serves as a companion several times a week. Angie and Cheryl’s dream for them is to someday find gainful employment, which is difficult because of behavioral and emotional problems that can arise.
“Extra” was produced for families with special needs children and for the people who work with them. But it also carries a broader message about friendship and differences. In the book, Angie is named Anna and Cheryl is named Summer. Hope and Ethan have their real names. Hope’s birth mother is named Mirabel to honor Hope’s culture.
In the story, Anna lives on the Texas coast, where Angie lived when she adopted Hope. Summer lives in West Texas. When Anna and Hope move to West Texas (Abilene), they meet Summer and Ethan at a pond where they played. As the women realized their children had become friends, it dawned on them that they had, too. That realization is both heart warming and eye opening for everyone, with or without a disability.
“They waded into the rippling water, vines knitting their hearts together, pulling them closer and closer. They stared at one another as it slowly dawned: We are more alike than different! We will be better together! We…are…Friends!”
WHERE TO BUY “EXTRA”
• Texas Star Trading Company, 174 Cypress St. texasstartrading.com
• Seven and One, 1138 N. Second St. sevenandonebooks.com
• Book Therapy, 1017 Butternut St. booktherapyabilene.com
A Facebook page called Upside Down Club offers support and listings of events for families with special needs children.
By Loretta Fulton
Photos By Shayli Anne Photography