After surviving an assault in 2017, Mishel Williams took to creative outlets like drawing and writing to cope.
“It was just a way of therapy for myself, honestly,” said Williams, 2009 elementary education alumna and assistant adjunct professor. “During that time, which was not a great time, I kind of needed to get back to finding myself, getting myself out of that hole.”
Roughly a year after she began drawing her thoughts and emotions on paper, Williams turned her creations into a children’s book about mental health — “Little Z and Firefly: A Journey to Finding Light and Love” — which she self-published on Dec. 9, 2021. On Feb. 9, she released an interactive mental health workbook for kids to accompany the book, which includes seven wellness tools like organization, self-care practices and mirror work, which encourages children to write affirmations.
“Little Z and Firefly” is 62-pages, and can be purchased at stores like Walmart, Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It follows the main character, “Little Z,” through their experience with depression.
Williams thinks helping children learn about self-care practices and coping mechanisms early on will help their mental health in the long-run. She wanted to create a workbook to help kids apply self-care practices, methods and experiences in their daily lives, not just read about them.
Williams began crafting “Little Z and Firefly” in 2019, and drew all of her ideas for the story within two days, she said.
“I’m pretty sure most people write the words first, but that’s just not how my brain works,” Williams said. “It took really about 48 hours to get it all out, and then I would go back over the coming days, weeks of writing, putting the actual language and dialogue to the story.”
At the time, Williams was a special education teacher in the Allentown School District. Soon after she began crafting the book, she grew close with one of her students, Zoe DeBoer, who is the “original Lil’ Z.”
Williams taught DeBoer during her freshman year and, while DeBoer describes herself as more closed-off towards others, she felt her connection to Williams was strong from the start because of their similar past experiences.
Midway through her freshman year, DeBoer was placed in a group home, and about four days later she was informed she would be going to a foster home. To DeBoer’s surprise, the foster home she went to was Williams’.
“She was just really supportive throughout the months that I was with her,” said DeBoer, now a senior at Building 21, a high school in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
DeBoer recalls walking around Williams’ house as she was creating the book and seeing large poster boards with designs, ideas and page numbers on them. After seeing all the time and effort Williams put into the book, DeBoer was excited to read the final product.
Williams eventually dedicated the book to DeBoer because she admires how far she’s come in life at such a young age. DeBoer is grateful for Williams and, although they no longer live together, the two still have a close relationship.
“She’s more like a mom to me,” DeBoer said. “Since I don’t really have a dad or mom figure, she’s the closest person I had to me, she helps me in any way that she can help me. She’s just there to support me for my long run.”
Williams grew motivated to self-publish the book once the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“It rocked everyone’s world and then all you’re seeing in the news is children’s mental health is declining,” Williams said. “I was just like, ‘Okay, no, I need to make this happen. I need to start.’”
Although Williams drew her story before writing, she hired Kaitlyn Taylor to illustrate the story and workbook, and design her website.
Taylor, an illustrator, was recommended to Williams by Taylor’s cousin, who went to college with Williams. Taylor was eager to work on the story with Williams because she thinks mental health and wellness is often glossed over for younger children.
Taylor based her illustrations on the ones Williams created, which made the process easier.
“She actually is super cool and knows exactly what she wants, so that made it really easy to nail down all the images for her,” Taylor said. “Her energy, her motivation, like having it feel like a team, like we are in this together.”
While the book is intended for children, Williams feels anyone at any age can benefit from reading it. She hopes it will teach readers about respect and kindness not only for oneself, but for others.
Williams hopes to transform her workbook into a curriculum and, eventually, create a children’s mental health app that kids can use daily.