'I've always known I had a book in me': children's lit class leads alum to realize her dream
Christie Whitaker said she’d always known she wanted to write a book for children. But it was a children’s literature class at University of Houston-Clear Lake that inspired her to take an idea she had about Papilio, a tiny butterfly she liked to draw, on an adventure that started out as her final class project, then went to a publisher, and is now on the shelves in the children’s section of local public libraries.
“While I was working on my undergraduate degree in UH-Clear Lake’s College of Education, the class that really turned something on for me was my children’s literature class,” Whitaker said. “It was by far my favorite course. We went over all different authors and genres, and talked about comprehension and vocabulary.”
Her professor asked the class to create a book of any genre targeting the grade level they hoped to teach. “I loved this project more than anything I did in my education degree plan,” she said. “We were supposed to write the book, then read it to the class with enthusiasm, as though we were the teacher. It was nerve racking, but it was a great help to do this project, and it made me see this is what I wanted to do. I’ve always known I had a book in me.”
Her story, “Papilio’s Great Flight,” was inspired by her favorite children’s authors, Eric Carle and Dr. Seuss. Whitaker said she’d based the story on something she’d always loved –doodling butterflies.
“I was always drawing and doodling butterflies, and I researched the smallest butterflies and found it’s the Western Pygmy Blue butterfly. It’s very tiny and it lives in Venezuela,” she said. “So, I based my story’s setting there and made it instructional, with vocabulary terms and I also showed them what the characters really look like at the end of the book.”
The tiny butterfly, whom she named Papilio, is teased for being small and must hide from an emerald green python, who is the villain in the story. “It’s about being kind and inclusive of others, regardless of differences,” she said. “Papilio’s small size helped him hide from the snake and he saves the bigger butterflies from the snake, for which they thank him in the end. It’s about not giving up and striving no matter what the obstacles. I wanted it to be educational, but relatable.”
She made an A on the project, and was told to hold onto the story because it was worthy of publishing. “To hear a professor say my work could be published was really great,” she said.
After graduating in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science in Education with Core Subjects EC-6 and ESL Supplemental, Whitaker got a job in Calhoun County Independent School District as a kindergarten teacher. Later, her family moved to Galveston and she taught in Galveston ISD. She has taught a total of eight years.
“I said I would hold on to my book because I already had a job secured and I had to take time off to have a baby,” she said. “During that time, I contacted publishers and ended up with Dorrance Publishers. I sent them a laminated book from Home Depot and I did the illustrations myself using computer paper and colored pencil. I was worried about all that, but they liked it.”
She said she’d sent them just one page and told them about her book, but then they called her. “I told them the storyline and we had a lengthy conversation about the process. I took a leap of faith and decided to do it.”
Currently, Whitaker is at home with two small children, but has been invited to read her story in libraries and is planning another book with Papilio taking another daring adventure.
“We’ll do something different this time,” she said. “But the message will always be about being kind and inclusive to people who seem different.”