Prader-Willi Syndrome Awareness Month

Meet Sage "Sagums" Steiner, the 13-Year-Old Illustrator of Emma Goes to School

Writing Emma Goes to School wasn't a difficult process. I'm not trying to brag or anything, it was just that I had really great inspiration. It doesn't hurt that my target demo of 3-5-year-olds isn't too critical yet either.

With a compelling story and the promise to pay them (eventually), I was approached by more than a handful of talented artists when I started looking for an illustrator. When I was contacted by someone who said their 12-year-old niece, Sage, was an artist, I was intrigued but also pretty hesitant. Until I saw her work.

Illustrated by  Sage "Sagums" Steiner , illustrator of  Emma Goes to School .

Illustrated by Sage "Sagums" Steiner, illustrator of Emma Goes to School.

I fell in love with her characters, and her subtle nod to gamer/anime culture within her art style really appealed to me on a personal level.

I honestly felt like her portfolio was the most impressive and in-style with what we were looking to do. And, although hiring someone less experienced than myself in the book publishing realm would mean more work in the long run, I really felt like it was worth it if I could give her a platform to really let her work shine.

Illustrated by  Sage "Sagums" Steiner , illustrator of  Emma Goes to School

Illustrated by Sage "Sagums" Steiner, illustrator of Emma Goes to School

In a recent interview, someone asked me what it has been like working with a (now) 13-year-old in this project.  Honestly? It's been pretty great. 

You can see all of Sage's work at sagesteiner.com, or follow her on Instagram @Sagums

First ever sketch of Emma, Illustrated by  Sage "Sagums" Steiner , illustrator of  Emma Goes to School .

First ever sketch of Emma, Illustrated by Sage "Sagums" Steiner, illustrator of Emma Goes to School.

Why I Wrote Emma Goes to School

I honestly never set out to be an advocate for children with special needs, or even a children's book author for that matter.  But, I think like most people who find themselves passionate about a cause, it started with just one person.

In the spring of 2014, I was finishing up my Master's degree in Sociology. My nights were spent neck deep in research on teen parents and reruns of "16 and Pregnant", and my days were spent working with kids in real life as a nanny.  I was working for amazing people, who treated me like a part of their family, definitely one of the perks of the job for a small town Michigan girl with no family in the city. 

The Nelson's (Kim and Justin) had an almost 2-year-old son and a daughter on the way. In the biz, we call this 'job security'.  Everything was going pretty smoothly until one weekend about a month before their due date.  Kim's water broke unexpectedly, and Emma was delivered via emergency c-section.  After an uneventful pregnancy, we were all surprised to find that  Emma had some difficulties following delivery.  

At first, it was the physical things, doctor after doctor examining this poor little newborn. Terms like, 'truncated', 'trisomy', and 'decreased life expectancy' started coming up.  The Nelsons were originally told with 90% certainty that their daughter had Trisomy 18, a chromosomal disorder in which only about 10 percent of children reach their first birthday.  

Emma Nelson, 2014

Emma Nelson, 2014

After what seemed like an eternity of waiting for test results (but was really about a week), Trisomy 18 and a host of other disorders were all ruled out.  We began to accumulate a list of diagnoses and disorders Emma didn't have rather than figuring out what she did.

Eventually, Emma came home, and without a diagnosis to help explain what was going on with Emma, we did what we had to.  Which was accept the unknown and move on in finding a treatment plan that focused on Emma, rather than a diagnosis.

If I'm being honest, I felt pretty hesitant about becoming a caregiver for a child with special needs.  After all, I didn't know the first thing about feeding tubes or the variety of therapies Emma would need.  But, as I assume most parents and caregivers of children with special needs discover, the basic requirements aren't that different. Emma didn't need me to be an expert on physical and occupational therapy, she just needed love, patience, and guidance, just like any other kid.

Emma Nelson, 2017

Emma Nelson, 2017

Even after learning to join Emma where she is (instead of dwelling on what is or isn't to come), I still found myself spending nights thinking about Emma's future.  This time, from a social level.  I knew Emma would have all the love and guidance she needed from her amazing immediate and extended family, but how would other children react to Emma?  What would her first day of school be like?  How do you explain to children that young that sometimes people just look and act different, for no reason other than that's just who they are?

So this is why I wrote Emma Goes to School.  Inspired by all my concerns for Emma's future, I decided to imagine a fictional world in which children's anxieties about being different were put to rest, and each and every character learns to love and own their differences and those of others.  I wrote Emma Goes to School to inspire Emma Nelson, to show her that her differences are beautiful, and make her special and different, but never less.  

If this book could communicate that message to even one other child struggling with anxiety over their differences, then it will the second greatest thing I have accomplished in my life (after becoming a mother).

Emma of Monstoria, inspired by Emma Nelson

Emma of Monstoria, inspired by Emma Nelson