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by Donna Cangelosi

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,
my mother would say to me “Look for helpers.
You will always find people who are helping.

–Fred Rogers

We all need helpers, those who inspire, comfort, lift our spirits, and help us soar. Kids especially need helpers! For many years, I’ve listened to children share their stories in my psychology practice—separations, abandonment, learning difficulties, peer pressure, bullying, and the list goes on. This is the reason I love writing picture book biographies—to introduce kids to people who faced challenges and turned their struggles into something positive. Individuals who made the world a better place despite obstacles and often, because of them.

When thinking of picture book ideas, I ask myself, Who do I want to write about? Who should kids know about?

Sometimes I think about helpers who have inspired me in my own childhood. Other times, I find them in museums, and art galleries. Many times, a name or memory pops into my head when I’m walking or doing a totally unrelated task. Helpers are everywhere! Look for them next time you’re running errands, stuck in traffic, reading the news, or watching a movie. They’re opening doors at the store, slowing down to let ducks cross the street, and picking up neighbors’ trash cans. Also, think back to a time when someone helped you or someone you know. Now imagine that person as a picture book character or perhaps, the experience as a theme.

Back in 2016, I was on a quest to write a picture book biography about someone who helped kids, so I started a list and had an aha moment! I’ll write a story about Mister Rogers! It was before the documentary and the movie starring Tom Hanks, before his picture appeared on multitudes of Twitter posts, and before a string of beautiful picture books about him were published. The idea was fresh! I was thrilled! My research began.

First stop: primary sources. I needed to answer a few questions I always ask before I start writing.

  • Did the person face a challenge that children can relate to?
  • Did they grow as a result of the hardship?
  • What was the person’s long-term contribution and how will kids be inspired by it?
  • Has something similar been published before?

Then, the most crucial question:

  • Do I want to spend months and possibly years learning and writing about this person?

Mister Rogers checked all boxes and then some! Fred Rogers was sick, lonely, and bullied as a child. He used music to heal himself and then used it to help children. He trained with the child psychologists I had studied and admired for years. I immediately empathized with Fred’s childhood struggles. I related to his passion for music and helping kids express feelings. And when I read that his favorite quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s, THE LITTLE PRINCE was the same as my own—”It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye”—I felt as though the stars had aligned. I was meant to write a picture book about Mister Rogers. And after years of research, writing, and revising, I signed my first picture book contract!

There have been many twists and turns on the road to publication. The original version of my book was cancelled, and I rewrote the story. I also worked with a new editor and illustrator. But my original hope for the book has never altered—to introduce kids to a person who faced challenges and turned them into something positive. My debut book, MISTER ROGERS’ GIFT OF MUSIC, illustrated by the amazing Amanda Moeckel-Calatzis, will be published by Page Street Kids on August 23, 2022!

Looking for helpers isn’t only a great way to come up with story ideas. It also lifts our spirits! So be on the lookout. You may find the perfect idea for a picture book to comfort, inspire, and help kids soar.

Donna Cangelosi fell in love with picture books when seeing the joy they gave her daughters years ago. Since then, she rarely misses a day of reading, writing, revising, or thinking about new stories. Donna considers herself lucky to have the opportunity to work with kids in her psychology practice and to write books to inspire them. Like Mister Rogers, she often helps kids deal with feelings that are hard to express with words using music, art, play, and of course picture books! Visit her at donnacangelosi.com, and follow her on Twitter @DonnaCangelosi2 and Instagram @dmcange.

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My Books

Coming soon:


TIME FLIES
"7 ATE 9/PRIVATE I" BOOK #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
April 26, 2022

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