About two years ago, Alicia Coleman-Clark’s frustration with children’s literature reached its peak. Her 10-year-old daughter, Ava, who has autism spectrum disorder, loved having stories read to her, but the stacks of available texts had an unmistakable inclusivity problem.
“Whenever we were going to go do something, I would check out every single book at the Contra Costa Library on that one topic,” Coleman-Clark said. “What I realized is that the books were dated, and they didn’t include children with disabilities or children of color.”
She wasn't the only one to notice the disparity. Researchers at Brigham Young University found that bestselling children's books from 1975 to 2009 featured a disproportionately smaller percentage of children with disabilities and ethnic diversity than actual classroom numbers. For Coleman-Clark, this posed a significant problem. Picture books that describe routine situations helped Ava feel comfortable in new environments, but their power was always muted when the stories rarely featured characters with whom she could identify.
“I just thought, why shouldn’t she have someone in a book that looks like her?” Coleman-Clark shrugged. “It just seemed so wrong.”
So, the mother-of-three decided to make a change for Ava. She set out to create her own book with her daughter, thus beginning a two-year journey that would end with "Ava Goes" becomming a series of books available nationwide — an outcome Coleman-Clark never anticipated.
The project's beginnings were, to put it mildly, humble. After one of Ava’s dentist appointments, Coleman-Clark went home and printed out dozens of photos taken that day. She stapled the pages together and created her daughter's first short story: "Ava Goes To The Dentist." The 47-year-old never imagined that anyone outside her family would want to read it. At the project's inception, it was just something for Ava, a pet project that would help the young girl's narrative techniques develop and give her the opportunity to read about characters like her.
“The social stories turned out to really help her, and every time she had a dentist appointment, I would pull the pages out and read the story to her,” Coleman-Clark explained, a broad smile stretching across her face.
Fast forward several months, and a chance encounter at a supermarket with someone familiar with the self-publishing process jumpstarted Coleman-Clark's idea for a series. She had recently read a study claiming that close to 80 percent of adults with autism are unemployed, and the dizzying statistic pushed her to look for projects that would continue to give Ava a creative and professional outlet into adulthood.
“I thought, that’s my daughter. What’s going to happen to her?” Coleman-Clark said of the statistic. “...But then, with the series, she can continue to publish when she gets older and talk about her experiences as an adult living with autism.”
Coleman-Clark reached out to local artists to help her illustrate. Soon, the stack of papers that made up "Ava Goes to the Dentist" morphed into a glossy book for sale for $15 on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble. A sequel titled “Ava Goes to the Beach” also hit the online marketplace.
Future installments documenting Ava’s vacation in Seattle and her first day in Kindergarten are already in the planning stages, with a percentage of the proceeds going toward special needs programs at local schools. The Anova Center for Education in Concord, where Ava is a student, will be a primary recipient.
Coleman-Clark, who has long been a fixture in autism advocacy circles, said the feedback from within the community has been inspiring. She recounted buddying up with other parents to attend school functions and commiserating over their shared experiences raising children with developmental disabilities. She hopes the series will be a source of comfort for parents in similar situations.
“It can be so isolating for parents who have a child with autism,” she said. “You already feel like you’re doing something wrong...So with this, I hope parents know that they’re not the only ones.”
Though the stories are envisioned for children with special needs, all parents and kids can glean something from reading the short books, Coleman-Clark said. She designed them so that readers will hopefully come away with a better understanding of the difficulties faced by children with autism and children of color, both minority groups that have historically been squeezed into the margins of mainstream children's literature and entertainment.
“Above all, I wanted to share our story, because living with autism is not a death sentence,” Coleman-Clark said. “It’s just a different path, and that’s okay. If we can do it, anyone can do it.”
Alicia Coleman-Clark and Ava Coleman-Clark will be at Barnes and Nobles in Antioch at 2p.m. Saturday signing copies of the “Ava Goes” book series as part of a fundraiser for Anova Center for Education.