The Smile Books Project brings out stories of cancer patients, mostly children, through personalized, illustrated storybooksBY Christina Tom Jose
Dominic was a vivacious teenager and an ardent sports fan. He was thrice diagnosed with osteosarcoma, to which he lost his left leg, and ultimately, his life. However, thanks to Sarah Rathel and Robert Kelly, Dominic’s legacy will continue to inspire both children and adults for ages to come. He is one of many children and adults whose stories have been immortalized through their Smile Books Project. The initiative creates and publishes personalized storybooks about cancer patients, mostly children, who feature as the main character in a story. Rathel and Kelly first teamed up to illustrate There’s Something Different About My Hair, Rathel’s first book based on children with cancer, special needs, and other critical illnesses. Not long after, she approached Kelly with the idea of writing individual stories about different children who fight life-threatening diseases, in which each child would play the lead. During a summer camp activity with the children at Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Cincinnati, they gathered story ideas for each child.
Blue River Printing agreed to print coloring books and cover posters, and the Smile Books Project was born. Anyone can refer a child to the Smile Books Project to get a full-fledged storybook written about them. The story combines the crucial elements that make every child’s personality, often including their likes, interests, and hobbies. “Dominic loved Kyrie Irving, watching Jimmy Fallon and playing sports. Through his book, Dominic’s Best Game, we found a way to tie the three together while conveying his strength and positive attitude,” remembers Rathel. Both Rathel and Kelly spend a lot of time talking to the children, parents, friends, and caregivers to deepen their understanding of each child. Once the ideas are ready, it takes the duo around three months to write, illustrate and print the book. It was after much effort that they were able to expedite the process to this time period. “In terms of writing style, all books are written with a rhyming scheme to make them easier to read for most ages. It keeps them fun and light-hearted when the stories are intense and hard for people at times,” explains Rathel. Kelly follows a stylized cartoon style for most books, although it varies depending on the story and the child involved. A month before the book is finished, the poster of the book cover is revealed to the child, which is when he/she sees the book for the first time. A pre-sale is conducted so that close friends and family can get their copies. Later, the book is released to the public.
The proceeds from sales, after covering the cost for printing, go back to each child. Although the initiative started with children in mind, the duo is ready to write about adults too. Rathel fondly recounts the story of a schoolteacher who asked for a book to be written about his wife, who was battling stage IV metastatic breast cancer after having their first child. A few interviews later, Lilian’s Light came into being, a story for their daughter about the unselfish love of a mother. The goal behind the initiative is to make it possible for the kids and grown-ups to share their stories, “to bring smiles to children who needed them.” Each book serves the dual purpose of making their struggles known while inspiring readers to brave their own challenges. Owing to their popularity among readers, the initiative has grown manifold over the years. Not only is this because the book is about someone they love, but also due to the fact that each person written about is a real-life hero, one who is fighting a very real battle. “Readers absolutely love our books because they know the main character. We have strangers find out about our books and buy them and also love them. Hospitals, therapy centers, schools, preschools, doctor’s offices, child life centers, and homes around the world have copies of our books and it is an honor,” affirms Rathel. The duo is keen on making their services available to other countries and languages all over the globe. “We started Smile Books Project as just two people with an idea. We wanted to make a difference, and help as many heroic children share their stories as possible. Every time we finish a book and see the impact on the child and their community, we remind ourselves to never underestimate the power of two people trying to make a difference,” says Rathel
“READERS ABSOLUTELY LOVE OUR BOOKS BECAUSE THEY KNOW THE MAIN CHARACTER. WE HAVE STRANGERS FIND OUT ABOUT OUR BOOKS AND BUY THEM AND ALSO LOVE THEM. HOSPITALS, THERAPY CENTRES, SCHOOLS, PRESCHOOLS, DOCTORS’ OFFICES, CHILD LIFE CENTRES, AND HOMES AROUND THE WORLD HAVE COPIES OF OUR BOOKS AND IT IS AN HONOUR.”Sarah Rathel, Smile Books Project
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