81. Abigail Griebelbauer: Neurodiversity meets storytelling

Sue Stockdale talks to Abigail Griebelbauer, who decided to start writing and publishing children’s books. She didn’t see the representation of neurodiversity in books, particularly picture books, while growing up which sparked the idea behind the first book.

After teaching for a couple of years, Abigail decided to pursue a dream of living abroad. Though Covid changed those plans, it pushed her to start writing and publishing children’s books. The first book in the series, “D is for Darcy Not Dyslexia” is partly based on her life growing up with dyslexia and is published by The Passage Press which was co-created by Abigail and Cecilia, the illustrator of The Empower Empathy Early Series. 10% of the profits from their book sales go to the Inclusive Children’s Book Fund which provides free inclusive books to teachers. The ICB Fund includes books from other authors and publishers. Currently, the fund is in the United States, but the plan is to expand internationally at some point in the future.

Abigail graduated from the University of Evansville with a degree in Special Education and Elementary Education. She met Cecilia while studying abroad at Harlaxton College in England and six years later they started working on publishing children’s books together.

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Key Quotes

I think education is so valuable and so important, and can help a person grow, change and evolve.

I realised if I’m telling my students that they need to follow their dreams and really follow whatever aspirations they have in life, that I have to do that as well.

For us it wasn’t necessarily changing typical books, it was just adding the dyslexic character into the story.

Teachers use children’s books all the time.

Writing a book and publishing it is a completely different thing than actually marketing the book. 

Im get inspired when teachers say when they read the book, the kids in the class who have ADHD, their eyes light up

Abigail Griebelbauer Transcription

[00:00:00] Sue: Hi, I’m Sue Stockdale, your host for the Access to Inspiration podcast that has a social mission to help you be inspired by people who may be unlike. We hope their experiences and insights cause you to reflect on your own perspectives about the world and to learn something new. If you like to read the transcription for this episode, hop on over to our website, access to inspiration.org, and you’ll find it there. My guest for this episode number 81 is Abigail Griebelbauer whose experience of lockdown was the inspiration for her to begin her career as an author and publisher of children’s books. Abigail didn’t see the representation of dyslexia in books, particularly picture books while growing up, which sparked the idea behind her first book. D is for Darcy, not Dyslexia, which is partly based on her own life growing up with dyslexia. Welcome to the podcast, Abigail.

[00:01:12] Abigail: Thanks so much for having me.

[00:01:12] Sue: As I was reading about your background and your experience, Abigail education seemed to be a really common theme in all of the things that you do. What makes education of particular interest to you?

[00:01:24] Abigail: I think education is so valuable and so important, and it can help a person grow and change and evolve, and so I think that that makes a huge impact for every single individual. And I’m imagining

[00:01:38] Sue: And I’m imagining that your own experience of being educated and growing, Has shaped what you’re doing now?

[00:01:45] Abigail: Absolutely. So in second grade I was actually diagnosed with dyslexia, and so ever since then, my education journey has. I would say different than probably neurotypical individuals. So I think that that has pushed me to have patience and persevere through a lot of different hardships throughout school, and that’s kind of what led me into writing children’s books since then.

[00:02:08] Sue: And when you say you’re diagnosed with dyslexia, for our listener that may not be aware exactly what that is and how it shows up, can you help describe it to us?

[00:02:16] Abigail: Yeah, so dyslexia is a learning difference that really impacts reading and spelling. Sometimes it impacts a things like knowing you’re left and your right.

So it’s not just something that affects you in school, it really affects your entire life, but it’s definitely something that you don’t grow out of. It doesn’t change, but you can definitely accommodate for it. And kind of create things that help you move forward, like grammar, checking on Grammarly and Pro Write writing aid and things like that have a huge impact.

And things like maps for Google Maps, I’m sure a lot of other dyslexics use that all the time, regardless if they know where the location is or not.

Sue: And in what way does that help you?

Abigail: So [00:03:00] left and right, like even sometimes I get up to my exit for my off of the interstate and I don’t know which way it is left or right because I get them confused. So sometimes even going home in a thing that I’ve gone home to so many times that I would still get it confused sometimes. So I think just having those Google maps allow you to not have to stress or add another level of, well, which way am I going? You just follow the Google Maps or maps and it works.

[00:03:29] Sue: So that makes great sense. In terms of the practical nature of something like that, being able to assist you in your travels, and I know that you describe yourself in one of the many things that you do as a children’s book author. What got you interested in writing books for children?

[00:03:43] Abigail: Yeah, so my background is actually special education, elementary education.

That’s what the degree I graduated from and I ended up teaching Full time for two years inside the classroom as a fifth grade teacher, and it really was that second year that I realized if I’m telling my students that they need to follow their dreams and really follow whatever aspirations they have in life, that I have to do that as well.

And so that’s kind of what sparked the idea of living abroad. And it actually was 2019, that end of that school year. So it was 2019, 2020 school year was my first year that I wasn’t full-time teaching. And of course, that’s when Covid happened. So even after interviewing and everything, nothing was really working out and then Covid hit.

So I was really grateful that I actually wasn’t living abroad because being home with friends and family was really important during the pandemic. And that’s actually March, 2020. As soon as lockdown started, I started writing and started, you know, this is what I wanna do. I wanna publish these children’s books because I saw that gap that needed that representation for Neurodiversities. And so I was like, okay, this is something. Is gonna make an impact and that I wanna really accomplish.

[00:04:54] Sue: They often say in Britain that you’ve gotta put your money where your mouth is. And I suppose in a way that’s what you were doing there is actually applying your own ambitions to what you’re focusing on. Thinking about it in any typical non-neurodiverse children’s book, What would you have to add in to help people with dyslexia or other special needs to be able to accommodate their preferences in a book?

[00:05:19] Abigail: Yeah absolutely. It’s a great question. I think one of the biggest things that you can do for a typical book is just add an audio book file if they don’t already have one.

Listening to the audio book is really, really helpful for a dyslexic child as they’re just reading the book, having. Hearing someone actually physically read it is hugely important. And then for us, it wasn’t necessarily the changing typical books, it was just adding the dyslexic character into the story.

I’ve never read a book when I was little that had representation of someone struggling to learn or struggling to read in the book. I just never came across that. And [00:06:00] so, That’s what I really wanted to do with Darcy. My first book was include that in the story because I know there’s so many children who are struggling to read and who could potentially feel alone because that isn’t represented in a lot of other children’s books. And so that’s kind of what sparked the idea behind that first one. And since then I’ve definitely heard many, many people say that they love that part because they can connect with it.

[00:06:24] Sue: And given then that if you’re including characters that are struggling to read, how do they then learn?

[00:06:30] Abigail: Yeah, absolutely. So for Darcy specifically, one of her strengths is creativity and art. So we follow her journey along an art fair that she’s like working towards. One of the really important things with creating Darcy was we didn’t want it to be. Inauthentic in terms of she’s struggling to read and by the end of the book she’s a great reader because you’re not gonna get that in a week.

You’re not gonna get that right away. So that was a really important piece to it was to show that she can grow and she can learn, but it’s gonna take some time. So her art piece at the end is actually what I would describe as reading could be like for her. And so at the end, it’s an open book flat with like all of these beautiful things coming out of this book. So it’s showing what reading could be for her in the future. And so I think that that was a really important piece to add. But I think keeping authentically, you know, she is gonna struggle for a little while. And having a really great friend with her Clara and having a really amazing teacher, Ms. Williams, to help her along the way was another piece that was really important.

[00:07:34] Sue: So you’re highlighting what a child’s strengths can be in other ways in the book even, although they may struggle to read, they bring other talents that then are the uniqueness that they bring to the world.

[00:07:46] Abigail: Yeah, absolutely. And creativity is actually a dyslexic strength as well too. So it kind of is a twofold. Dyslexia doesn’t just bring those negative things of challenges, but they also have positives.

[00:07:58] Sue: And from your own experience, so not writing books for children, but from your own experience of navigating the world with dyslexia, what are some of the other challenges that you’ve encountered over the years, and then how have you managed to get around them?

[00:08:12] Abigail: I think grammar is definitely a huge one with writing and. Just trying to get words out on the paper, which is ironic because I am an author, but I think that Grammarly really has been a huge help in terms of that. If I don’t have somebody around. But I also ask for help too, so when there’s someone around that can help me, I really just ask them to read it really quickly because that takes two minutes and it would take me probably, 30 minutes to an hour to do that one thing.

Just to read it and reread it and reread it. And sometimes I still won’t catch the error even after reading it 20 plus times. And so I think that a huge piece for me personally has been learning how to ask for help. I think that is one of the best things that a dyslexic or any individual who’s struggling with anything can do because it helps.[00:09:00]

Get back that time that you would lose, and if you can improve and update those things too, then you’re just learning at a faster pace. So I think learning to ask for help is one of the most valuable things that anybody can do.

[00:09:14] Sue: I certainly agree with that. What made it easier for you, or what did you tell yourself when you had to find a way to be able to ask for help more easily? Cause it is a thing that’s many people struggle to do.

[00:09:25] Abigail: I think it started actually in high school when I had a resource period where I had that 45 minutes to ask for help, and it was really given to me of like, Okay, this is your time to ask for help. And I saw the value of the time saved after school because I knew that if I had not asked that question during those 45 minutes, I would’ve been spending two hours on it at home at night.

And so I think I saw just the value of that so early on that it kind of stuck with me, and it’s something that I’ve always just done and I’ve never really had. Too many people come back as like negative in terms of, Ugh, why are you asking me for help? Typically, everyone’s pretty okay with just reading through something real quickly or answering a question, and if they don’t know or they don’t have time, they let me know and that’s fine and I find someone else, or I just do it myself that time.

[00:10:18] Sue: this is just kind of a hidden benefit for the recipient of the person. It’s actually providing the help that they feel good too, very often. Exactly. That they’ve been able to help somebody else, so it can be a benefit all around. Just picking back up on the, getting into being a children’s book author Abigail, and you mentioned that one of the ways that children can learn more quickly is to have also an audio book. It strikes me a slightly ironic that you’re writing children’s books. Why not video or audio or podcasts?

[00:10:48] Abigail: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I never even considered video or podcast simply because the reason behind creating the children’s book was because I didn’t see the representation in the children’s book, and so I thought that that was the perfect way of allowing this conversation to start at a young age.

Cuz I think it’s really important for kids. Who are younger to know what dyslexia is and know what ADHD is because if they see themselves in these characters, you know, they can go home and they can ask like, what is dyslexia like and talk about it with their parents and then potentially even get a diagnosis in the future to something that they relate to in the book.

And so I think it’s something that is just a really valuable conversation and I knew. Teachers use children’s book all the time. Being in education, I use ’em as a fifth grade teacher. I love having children’s books in the classroom because they’re so versatile. I can see high school students using them for various lessons, so there’s not really a limit to when you have to stop reading children’s books, and that’s one thing I love about them.

[00:11:56] Sue: Well, maybe there’s an opportunity in the future is to expand into [00:12:00] videos and audio books or podcasts as well. Who knows? Yeah, absolutely. In terms of then, what are your longer term ambitions? Cause I know not only in being an author, you’re actually publishing the books too now, Is that right?

[00:12:11] Abigail: Yeah, so we publish them ourselves. Cecilia and I, the illustrator of the books that we have, we work together for publishing a lot of the times. And so a big ambition would be to have the Empower or Empathy early series. To just be on the shelves like any other series in terms of a teacher’s classroom, so that kids can go up and just grab a book and then be like, Oh, I wanna see another character, and then go grab another book.

I love the Magic Treehouse series. So something kind of like that where it’s like next to those and. Just something that every teacher has in their classroom that children see themselves on the shelf and they can be like, Oh, I’m dyslexic. What is this book about? And then pull that off and get to read it.

[00:12:53] Sue: As you’re talking, Abigail, you’re reminding me of that entrepreneurial characteristic that really you’re bringing to what you’re doing. You’re seeing possibilities and you’re making something happen with many creatives. There’s creating their thing, whether it’s a piece of art, a audio, a podcast, or in your case a book. How do you then distribute it? How do you get it out to your wider audience so that it can appear on the bookshelves in the schools across America or elsewhere?

[00:13:18] Abigail: That’s an amazing question because it is really, really different. Like writing the book and publishing it is a completely different thing than actually marketing the book.

There’s a online. School, I guess you could call it self-publishing school, and I’ve had a coach through there. I’ve been working with them for the past two years. And the thing I love about that is that they teach you how to self-publish it. It’s not about them publishing the book. That was something that was really important for Cecilia and I.

We really wanted to make sure that we publish it ourselves, because we felt that a lot of traditional publishers would make decisions based off of what would sell the best, and our decisions were behind being authentic. And adding that representation. And so we didn’t want something to be diluted or to not include some element of the book that was really vital to us.

But a traditional publisher would say, No, we’re not gonna put that in there, type of thing. So I think that that was a huge reason why we didn’t even. Try to go down the traditional publishing route. We just immediately went self-published and it’s been a journey and I’ve absolutely loved it because I’ve learned so much and doing it everything by yourself, with your coach, by your side, and all this training and courses and stuff. I’ve grown immensely in the past two years.

[00:14:34] Sue: It sounds like it’s been quite a journey. What have been some of the obstacles or challenges that you’ve encountered and how have you got around them?

[00:14:41] Abigail: Yeah, there’s a lot. Let’s see, what’s one of ’em? I would say press releases is kind of like a new thing that I didn’t know how to do any of that previously. So I was really fortunate in having some people in my life who are really good at checking everything specifically for press releases. [00:15:00] And so I sent that out to multiple local news outlets and things like that. And that’s something that I still am going to do with a couple of our future ones.

But I’ve been able to get in the front page of a local newspaper through that. And so that was something that was really cool of the experience to have to go and have to do a photo shoot really fast with someone. And it was, I think that was November of 2020 or somewhere around that time, So it was definitely Covid, so I had to wear my mask, which has made a huge impact.

Covid is definitely the reason why we started, because I don’t think I would’ve written the children’s books without Covid cause it’s really what made me pivot and change my dream and aspiration of what I’m gonna do. But it definitely has made a huge difference for sure.

[00:15:45] Sue: Well, preparedness to step into the unknown can take you into places that you perhaps never expected. And sounds like the front page of your local newspaper maybe was one of those. Yes. It was an opportunity that you grabbed. Now you’ve mentioned Cecilia’s name a couple of times and tell us about how you work with her and what both of your roles are.

[00:16:03] Abigail: yeah so we actually met at Harlaxton College during fall of 2014. We were both sophomores in college and we’ve been best friends ever since. And immediately when I started writing this children’s book, I was like, I knew that she was gonna be the illustrator cuz she’s an absolute phenomenal artist. And I was really, really hoping that she would say, And she did. And so ever since then we’ve kind of been on this track together. We have weekly meetings that we set up to update each other on like, Okay, here’s where I am with marketing, here’s where I am with the illustrations. Wherever we are at those weekly meetings are huge. She’s actually in Tennessee and I’m in Indiana, so doesn’t sound like we’re too far away, but. Mountains, it’s an eight hour drive.

It’s sometimes really challenging to get to each other, so we tried to do that I would say four times a year, and most recently she stayed at my house for two weeks and we got a lot done. And we probably get done more in person than we do on probably a whole month of weekly calls. We have our pieces that we both are really, really strong with, and so we elevate those and we help each other with the other pieces.

[00:17:12] Sue: Well, I think that’s what a good team is made up of is when you bring disparate strengths together to compliment one another. Absolutely. There’s also a phrase that is often used is never going to business with your friends. And I’m wondering if you’ve given any consideration to agreement and how you work together so that you’re able to keep the friendship almost separate from the work activities. So how’s it worked out for both of you in that regard?

[00:17:36] Abigail: I love that question because I’ve definitely heard that phrase before and I know that it’s not gonna work for a lot of people, but for us it works. We just, I think, have such a great balance between our friendship that we’re able to. Communicate with each other in terms of like, if I need something change for the illustration.

It’s not something that is negative in her illustration, [00:18:00] it’s just that we need to change it. And she keeps me grounded to, in the sense of like, I am probably the one to have all of these huge, big tenure, lofty goals. And she’s like, Okay, what are we doing this week? Like, what do we need to get done right now? Type of thing. So I think that balance is really important. So if. Have that balance with your friendship. I think it’s okay, but if you don’t have that balance and you’re kind of both on that looking the 10 year down the line, maybe it’s not the best partnership.

[00:18:30] Sue: Yeah. Well it, it’s how you navigate those difficult conversations between friends in a business context that can make the difference. Sounds like you’ve got some of those things covered between the two of you there. With the 10 year lofty goals that you mentioned at Abigail, what are the ambitions for the books?

[00:18:45] Abigail: Right now we sell our books through Amazon, through another printer called Ingram Sparks, and so our lofty ambition, 10 years plus, or hopefully sometime before then, we would love to print them and then sell them on our own website. That’s something that is really important to us to be able to give a little bit of a discount and sign the books to. Right now, we don’t have that ability to order in bulk. And that that’s something that we definitely wanna strive for.

I would love to get a place maybe in Florida, I don’t know where it’s kind of like a house that we can travel to and have that be our home base, so that we both can travel instead of traveling to each other’s houses. We have another location that we can just go to and probably someone working there to ship out the books.

So we would love to hire on even a couple of our friends we have in the back of our head, we know exactly their skillset and some things that they could bring to our team. And so we’re hoping to be able to add team members within the next five years and being able to grow and continue publishing more and more children’s books.

[00:19:51] Sue: I can imagine that lovely place in Florida is a nice, warm location to visit as well as to do your work. Best of luck with those ambitions. Given that this podcast is about accessing inspiration, I’m wondering who or what inspires you, Abigail?

[00:20:06] Abigail: yeah I think when I look back on publishing the first book, It was really the fact that I knew that I wanted to see this book when I was growing up. So I knew that other children felt the same way and that they wanted to see themselves in books, like if they were struggling to read, they wanted to see that in a character. And since publishing, Darcy, the first one. We have received letters from different schools and going on author visits and hearing the reactions of teachers.

I think that now having those reactions, I can use that as the inspiration because I know that it is making that impact. So before it was really, Hoping for that impact and really like, Okay, this is what I wanna strive for, This is what I wanna do with it. And then actually seeing that come to a reality is absolutely amazing and has been phenomenal. Hearing teachers say, Oh, [00:21:00] when they read about Anthony having the kids in the class who have adhd, having their eyes light. Because they see themselves in that character, I think is just something that will continue to push us forward cuz we know that it’s making the impact that we hoped it would.

[00:21:16] Sue: Feedback is so important isn’t it, when you get those messages to know that what you’re doing is making a difference. It can inspire you to do more of it. Absolutely. You also threw into the conversation then ADHD and as discrete from dyslexia. How do you write about that in your stories? What are the ways that the reader can identify with that?

[00:21:34] Abigail:

Yeah, so for ADHD we have Anthony used Fidgets, so that’s something that students in the classroom could potentially be using fidgets. So it’s something that they can see, oh, not everyone is using them. It’s only when they specifically need it. Anthony does theater for the first time, so it’s something that he’s moving and he can hyper focus on dance cuz he loves the dance aspect of it.

But then when he has music rehearsals, that’s a little bit harder for him. So I think it’s finding that balance between his focus. It was very difficult with music, but the hyper focus came into reality with dance, and so I think that wasn’t a really important element in it. One of the things that we do with our books is we don’t have the word dyslexia or ADHD or the neurodiversity in the story itself. It’s actually just on the title. So it’s really important for kids to be able to see, oh, those words, but it’s also not the whole person. It’s just the piece of that person. So I think that’s what’s something that we strive for within the books as well.

[00:22:41] Sue: You reminded me of another guest that I’ve spoken to this podcast series recently where we were talking about that very thing about almost the danger of labeling and how sometimes a word can be helpful to be a descriptor and not to judge somebody by just one label, and I think get a sense, that’s what you’re alluding to here. Is there so much more to somebody than just one label?

[00:23:00] Abigail: Yeah. I think that it’s a balance between the two, because I think before knowing that you’re dyslexic, it could be seen as like, Oh, I don’t know why I’m struggling. I don’t understand what’s going on, type of thing. So, Having that was really huge in the sense of like, Oh, it’s just part of my dyslexia. Like, okay, I don’t have to worry about struggling to read. I can really just use the audio book and the tools that are around me to help and then move forward, and I don’t have to stress about those struggles. I just know that it’s just just a part of me.

[00:23:33] Sue: It’s a part of you and not all of you. Exactly. I think is the important message. Well, it sounds like these books are gonna be fantastic for children to read and, and not adults as well, who are perhaps even reading them to their children. I really wish you well with what you and Cecilia are doing. If there was a message you would want to leave our listeners to consider around understanding and learning about learning differences, what would be your message?

[00:23:57] Abigail: Cecil and I thought a lot about what we wanted to name our [00:24:00] series, and I think that that definitely has a lot to do with your question. We labeled it as the Empower Empathy early series because we really wanted to empower that empathy. I think empathy is a huge thing that is so sometimes like. Under seen.

It’s not something that’s really visible sometimes, but if someone is asking you to read something, like a form at the doctor’s office or something, like, they’re like, Oh, what is this word? Instead of like, Wow, you don’t know how to read that word. What’s wrong with you? It would just be read the word okay and like move on and have that Empathy there. I think that that’s something that is huge to understand that not everyone learns the same way. Not everyone does everything the same way, and so being empathetic and understanding that just because someone’s doing something different doesn’t make it wrong or incorrect.

[00:24:54] Sue: Its brilliant to speak to you today, Abigail. How can people find out more about you and the books that you and Cecilia are publishing?

[00:25:00] Abigail: We have everything under our publishing name, The Passage Press, so you can find us at www.thepassagepress.com. Or you can follow any of our social medias at the Passage Press.

[00:25:11] Sue: Fantastic. But we’ll make sure we put links to those in the show notes so people can follow on and find out more about you and connect with you. Great to speak to you today, Abigail.  I wish you well as you go.

[00:25:23] Abigail: Thank you so much for having me.

[00:25:26] Sue: Well, I hope you enjoyed hearing from Abigail and maybe it’s given you some ideas on how you can help other people who are neurodiverse. If you want to connect with us on social media, we are on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Just search for access to inspiration. Next time I’ll be speaking to Sebastian Rohr, who’s a tech entrepreneur working in an information security. And we’ll be talking about why there is a high risk of burnout for people working in cybersecurity. I hope you can join me then.

Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra
Producer: Sue Stockdale