'We're all the same on the inside': Fairfield educators, student create children's book about inclusion

FAIRFIELD — At first blush, a bear, toucan, warthog, panda and kangaroo have very little in common.

It’s a mixture of big and small, fur, hair, feathers and tusks. Even the brown bear and panda are very different, though both technically bears. Yet, despite their physical differences, they are also alike.

Celebrating these differences and capitalizing on those similarities to create a stronger and better group is the message of “Grin and Bear It,” a new children’s book about inclusion from two Fairfield educators and a student.

“That’s really what the book speaks to,” said Kristofer Kelso, the dean of students at Fairfield Woods Middle School and co-author.

Cathleen Hamill, a health educator at Fairfield Woods, is the other author. The book is illustrated by Layla Aziz, who is a 10th grader, but started working on the drawings when she was in eighth grade.

“Grin and Bear It” follows a young bear’s adventures through the Forest of Inclusion as he encounters other animals who, though different than him, also have things in common.

“The Forest of Inclusion is a place where you can feel safe and loved,” Hamill said. “You appreciate that the characters have differences, but you laugh and have fun with each other.”

The trio said the message of inclusion is so important for everyone to learn, not just small children.

“We want people to see that we look different, but we’re all the same on the inside,” Aziz said. “If we see we’re all the same on the inside, then nothing else matters.”

She added it teaches children that they can talk to and approach others who don’t look like them and have fun together.

It’s something Hamill said her students are already familiar with and can be seen in any Fairfield classroom where students of different genders, races and religions all work together.

She said being able to relate a topic like inclusion to children at a young age is a valuable learning experience. Kelso agreed, adding he hopes the book ends up in the hands of as many people as possible, not just in Connecticut.

The book is available online through Author House, though there are plans to eventually also sell it in book stores. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Fairfield Foundation for Education, which awards grants to teachers to enhance their work in the classroom.

Work on the book began about three years ago. Hamill and Kelso, who was a teacher at the time, had classrooms across the hall from each other and quickly found they had a similar sense of humor. Hamill mentioned she had always wanted to write a children’s book. Inclusion is a part of the health curriculum and the idea to create this book just took off from there.

“It’s been a labor of love,” Hamill said, though she and Kelso are quick to add there have also been a lot of laughs along the way.

Kelso enlisted Aziz’s help after seeing her draw pictures of the rapper Eminem during lunch. He asked her to draw him a picture, which he brought to Hamill the next day. The pair was so impressed, it decided to see if Aziz would be the book’s illustrator.

“I was flabbergasted,” Kelso said.

Aziz’s parents agreed to let her join the team and she quickly set to work, bringing the characters to life and capturing their essence from the story Kelso and Hamill had written.

She’s spent countless hours drawing and redrawing the images to fill the book’s 30 or so pages. Not only has the project strengthened the inclusive lesson she learned as a student, but it’s introduced her to a potential career path and fan club, especially among the town’s younger residents who frequently ask her to draw characters.

“I enjoyed this a lot,” Aziz said. “As an illustrator at 15, I feel like I could be a role model.”

She hopes her work inspires others to not give up on their dreams and passions. Her own art had been dismissed prior to the book by others.

“If you have a goal, stick to it,” she said. “Continue doing what you’re good at and don’t let other people tear you down.”

Kelso said his favorite part of the project has been seeing Aziz take what she’s learned in the classroom and apply it to the real world, flourishing in her role as illustrator.

Aziz said she’s enjoyed designing how the characters will look.

“It’s given me a lot of freedom,” she said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

The group has already started working on the next book set in the Forest of Inclusion and hope to create even more, building on children’s natural intellectual curiosity.

“The whole thing is very exciting,” Hamill said.

kkoerting@newstimes.com