What started out as a 250-word creative writing assignment written by an 11-year-old, gradually evolved into a 250-page children’s book. Author Brian Abela tells Hooray for Moms how the birth of his son, Eric – who has a rare syndrome – gave him the push he needed to publish The Ponds of Wonder, which he is now sharing with children all over the world to instill in them a passion for reading.
Brian Abela grew up in Windsor Ontario. His 7th grade teacher asked the class to write a one-page story about whatever they wanted.
I remember sitting at my desk with a blank foolscap in front of me wondering what to write about. Then an idea popped into my mind – a story of adventure and magical realms.
That was the day I started the story I am still telling today in order to encourage children to read.
Once Upon a Time…
I never thought I’d be considered a writer. Funnily enough, to this day I still remember so clearly how it started. I had received the assignment and we were left to our own devices to come up with a creative story. I remember coming up with the idea of these ponds that would take the main character, Tom, to different realms. At the time I hadn’t figured out what would happen to him each time he’d step through one of them, but I knew there’d be excitement, mystery and fun with each adventure. The story was an extremely basic version of the story that it is today, but I was really happy with it, more so than with anything else I had written previously.
I still remember getting back the story after it was corrected and seeing an ‘A’ at the top of the page. It felt great. It was a story that remained at the back of my mind for all this time.
As a child being raised by Maltese parents in Canada, I always loved reading and particularly enjoyed science fiction, fantasy and comic books. Back then, we didn’t have the computer technology that exists today. This meant that there were mainly three ways to entertain ourselves as a child – playing in the street outside our home, watching television, and reading.
I was always interested in learning and education. As the years rolled past, I graduated from high school and then the University of Windsor. At this time there weren’t many openings for teachers, so I decided to emigrate to Malta at the age of 23 where I finished my training in Education and became a primary school teacher.
Instilling a Love for Reading in Students
The story about the magic ponds remained simmering at the back of my mind and didn’t disappear. But for many years it never felt that it was the right time to write it and basically I never really had the time. I suppose the thought started to re-flourish once I was in the classroom environment and started to teach children. This time I was on the other side of the desk – giving the assignment.
During my years teaching in primary school, I often gave my students the same assignment I was given in Grade 7 – to write any story they liked. And just as this had unleashed my imagination, the same happened to the students in my classroom.
There was one particular time when I placed a classroom chair on a desk in the middle of the room and told my students that it was a ‘Marvellous Magic Chair.’ Every student took a turn sitting on it and shared their own magical journey verbally to the rest of the class. I then asked them to write a short story about their adventure. The stories I received when the assignment was due were nothing short of amazing. As an end of year gift, the students had compiled all of the stories into a book, which the father of one had printed and bound altogether with the title “The Marvellous Magic Chair,” along with a wonderful cover.
A few weeks back, I was clearing some storage boxes and came across this collection of stories. Those students are all adults now and I thought it would be nice to post it on my Facebook page seeing as a good number of them were now friends on this social media platform. Many commented. They remembered the lesson and stated how much fun they had had with the activity. Thinking about it still puts a smile on my face.
I started to realize how the magic of storytelling fueled my students’ imagination, and as a result I started thinking more and more about the story of the magic ponds. One day, I sat down in front of my computer and started typing away and soon enough I had completed the first chapter, though I did redraft it about three or four times once the excitement of having written it subsided.
Throughout the writing journey, my wife, Claudine, who also happens to be a teacher, supported my desire and provided a sounding board for the ideas that I exchanged with her in order to get out a well-rounded story to my readers.
The Birth of Eric
Then, in 2006, I got the push I needed. That year Claudine gave birth to our son Eric. He was a catalyst to getting the book out there. Eric was born three months premature and weighed 1.25kg. He was so small and fragile and I remembered his first cry, which was so tiny in sound. Eric spent four-and-half months in intensive care. It was such a turbulent time. I remember heading home from work, grabbing something quick to eat, and heading to the hospital to visit with him and be with my wife who had already arrived at the hospital earlier in the day. Oftentimes, I would head back home well after 8 p.m. and then do it all over again day in, day out.
Throughout the four-and-half months Eric’s status went from positive to negative and then back again. It was like a roller coaster ride that would never end. One day we’d arrive at the hospital and were told that his saturations were not good, another time we were told that his legs had fractured due to rickets of prematurity, yet another time he had to be operated for a diaphragmatic hernia as his large intestine had punctured through and had entered his lung cavity and his chances of survival were sketchy at best. It went on and on. The worst, which happened on two occasions, was when we were asked to contact any family members who wanted to see him one last time as he would most likely not make it through the night. That was also particularly hard on our parents who would rush to the hospital just to be with him and us. Thankfully, the worst did not happen and Eric pulled through. He was a fighter and our wondrous miracle whom we took home to nurture and care for, along with all the medical responsibilities it would entail. We didn’t care, we had him home and that’s all that mattered.
Then, when Eric was five years old we were told, after undergoing a genetic test, that he had a very rare condition called Mowat Wilson Syndrome (MWS). When we researched this syndrome it was extremely scary, but at least we had a name to all that Eric had gone through and could prepare ourselves for any future challenges. Over the short span of his young life, Eric continued to undergo a number of medical interventions, painful treatments and extreme challenges in reaching milestones that every typically developing child easily obtains. A major challenge to him and us was in learning that he was severely visually impaired. One of his eyes did not develop correctly and was totally disorganized, meaning that he would need to wear a cosmetic shell over it in order to allow his face to grow symmetrically. That was a big blow to me. The idea of putting in and taking out a shell over his eye – when I couldn’t even watch an eye drop commercial on television as my eyes would water – was a huge challenge for me. I still remember the prosthetic technician coming over to our home to help me through it. To this very day it still makes me feel uneasy, but as a parent we have to put our fears aside and do what’s best for our children. So Eric’s turbulent journey continued.
The Ponds of Wonder
Throughout all of the ups and downs I needed something to help get my mind off of things, however minor, and once again the idea of the story came shining through. Eric was soldiering through and this really inspired me to keep going with the story and, in 2011, The Ponds of Wonder was finally self-published with illustrations by Danny Coleiro.
The book tells the story of Tom and his best friend Ben. The friends embark on an adventure of a lifetime when Tom receives a mysterious painting from his missing relative.
I remember that as I was writing the story, the teacher inside me had a lot to say. There are occasions in the story when it’s clearly
the teacher in me talking. Even the idea of respect shines through in the story – I’m very big on that. I often tell my students when I wish for them to settle down: “What’s Mr. Brian’s favorite word?” They’d answer: “Respect.” “Great, now you know it, it’s time to show it.”
As a father and educator I wanted to do more with my book. I wanted to use it to spread the love for reading. I started visiting schools to promote it and talk about the storytelling process. I also set up a website, which I use as a platform to hold annual reading challenges and competitions to inject more excitement into the reading experience.
In 2013, I decided to convert the book into digital format – a decision that allowed me to get the story out to children around the world. I revamped the illustrations – now by Ariana Bezzina – and slightly tweaked the story to expand on certain scenes. Going digital also allowed me to have more fun with the competitions by transforming the book into a code book and encouraging children to fill in online surveys to participate in the competitions.
I’m an avid believer in the power that reading can give. Children need a solid foundation in reading skills. I believe in giving children the opportunity to read and the opportunity to be free in their writing. Let them read whatever they like – so long as they’re sitting and reading and learning and broadening their minds and stimulating their imagination. As parents, we need to be aware that there is a lot out there that’s distracting them and we have to be the ones to instill and encourage healthy reading habits.
My book is there to get children to read and give them another story to read. For me, helping other children to read and helping my son are two important goals that go hand in hand, as everything that I make from the sale of my novel goes towards supporting my son’s developmental needs. A few months ago, it was suggested to us that we convert one of our rooms in our apartment into a therapy room in order to further support his needs. Certain areas of our apartment need to be reconfigured to allow for his mobility issues, so those modifications will also come with their own price tags, but so long as we are seeing him improve, there is no cost that my wife and I will not incur for his betterment. My aim and hope is that the story I have written can help to encourage and motivate children all across the world who I may never meet, and in doing so, through the purchase of the book, their parents in turn can help me to address and help my son accordingly. In my mind that’s a win-win situation. I hope other parents reading this will feel the same way and purchase a copy. You may never meet Eric, but he and I will be forever thankful for your help.
Eric is also inspiring elements of The Ponds of Wonder sequel, which I am currently working on. There are going to be aspects of personal challenge for Tom. He’ll be visiting another realm. One of the underlying themes is going to be acceptance and inclusion – possibly because of Eric and what is happening in the world today.
Happy Reading to everyone and thanks again for your help.
Read the first chapter of The Ponds of Wonder by clicking: http://bit.ly/MyPOWGiftToYou
We are currently holding a fundraising activity through my book to help raise funds for Eric’s therapy room. Donations can be made in one’s own currency at: http://bit.ly/pow_formyson
To learn more about the story, please visit: http://www.thepondsofwonder.com/
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- A Story of Wonder: A Father’s Story About Creativity and Hardship - November 1, 2016