Cerebral palsy prevents Jennifer Kuhns from full use of her hands and feet. But the handicaps experienced by the 33-year-old Hughson writer have enhanced her abilities to tell powerful stories to children.
Kuhns' children's book, "Were You Born In That Chair?" was published in 2010 from a personal experience on her first day as a mainstreamed student in a "regular" kindergarten class. A boy, who had never seen a disabled person in an electric wheelchair until she came into the room, asked her the question in the book title. The question stayed in the back of Kuhns’ mind for over 20 years.
"I have laughed, made fun of the situation, the child who asked the question, the question, but I still always had a prodding need, a rattling in my brain and poking in my gut, an idea that I needed to do something with this experience, get this story, this message out," said Kuhns, who moved to Hughson 12 years ago from Hollister with her parents, Doug and Mitzy Kuhns.
Up until she entered that mainstream class, Kuhns had attended a special education preschool for three years where disabilities were commonplace.
"Disabilities were a part of life," she said. "I was exposed to both physically and mentally disabled children, some of whom were deaf, blind, autistic, epileptic, missing or had deformed limbs, Down's Syndrome, and those with cerebral palsy as myself. Many years later I grew to understand that my exposure to the variety of disabilities during this time gave me an inclusive view of people, a view many children do not have an opportunity to explore."
The writing of "Were You Born In That Chair?" served as her thesis for her master's English degree in 2008 from California State University, Stanislaus. It also gives children an unbiased look at what a disability is, and to aid in changing the view of disabilities. She said that many people assume that she is mentally handicapped, deaf or blind -- all falsehoods that frustrate her.
"My first book was to show kids that people with physical disabilities are just the same as they are,” she said. “We just may need a little more help than the average ‘normal' kid. My biggest goal was to give them the most correct and accurate information because a lot of kids are taught by their parents and the parents are not always correct.
"Everyone has some kind of disability. Some are seen and some are not. Some are as large as wheelchairs and some as small as having to wear glasses. I hope I have succeeded."
Kuhns wrote two other books, "A Box Full of Letters," published in 2012, and "Hailey's Dream," published this year. Both books are targeted for fourth and fifth grade level readers and have similar themes of accepting disabled persons.
"A Box Full of Letters" is a companion book in which the main character, Hailey, and friends move from inside the classroom where they learned about and accepted each other's differences to discovering and learning the secrets hidden in the basement of Hailey's old family home where they not only build strong friendships and a clubhouse, but build a bridge to history and ancestors. While hunting through long forgotten trunks and boxes they find letters dating back to 1942 stuffed in a shoebox.. In reading the letters the children unearth family history, while learning that prejudice and discrimination has a very long history.
The book uses the contents of actual letters written by Kuhns’ grandfather to his parents after he joined the Army.
While promoting her first two books, Kuhns was repeatedly asked by teachers of kindergartners and first-graders to write a book highlighting disabilities for a younger audience. That's when she struck upon the idea for Hailey's Dream, a read-aloud and young listener book.
"My problem was that I didn't have a vehicle, a surrounding message or moral to carry a story until the idea of mermaids came up in a conversation," said Kuhns. "From that off-the-cuff conversation, I immediately had a story, the vehicle. As my imagination went to work, I not only had a story, but I had a story with a moral and it isn't just a story with a moral for the very young. It is a story with a moral for anyone, any age, disabled or not."
Kuhns said in theory she could work in a mainstream setting but it's impractical since she needs help with virtually every physical action. She also has difficulty speaking.
Because of her disabilities, Kuhns relies on her mother to type the words into the computer, as well as work on illustrations since Kuhns stopped working with Patty Burgi Sneed, the Ceres artist who illustrated her earlier works. The pair is working on Jennifer's next book, "Paisley or Plaid: Being Your Very Best You," a collection of seven short stories and five poems. The stories convey concepts of dealing with bullies, believing in one's self, using good manners and health practices and accepting others the way they are.
Kuhns has written the copy for the book and now her mother is playing catch-up with the illustrations, learning how to by an artist along the way. Kuhns teases her mother about being slow with the drawings but has given her until 2015 to finish the work.
"I am her hands," said Mitzy Kuhns, who said the collaborative writing effort takes place several times a week over coffee and Wifi at the Starbucks at Hatch and Mitchell in Ceres. "We have the Netbook and we sit in Starbucks most of the time. She tells me what to type and I type and drink coffee and we spend three to four hours several times a week there. And I type what I think she says and she reads it and goes, ‘That's not what I said.' So it's kind of a long drawn-out process."
Kuhns has sold about 700 copies of her three books through Shalako Press of Oakdale. She often attends public events such as arts and crafts fairs promoting her book as well as a cotton doll of her mermaid character. Kuhns has also made appearances at local schools talking about her disability and books.