Home during quarantine, University of Mary Washington sophomore Helen Dhue found herself rifling through childhood belongings. Among old papers and artwork, she discovered a book she wrote as a kindergartner.
As she turned the pages, inspiration struck. Influenced by classes she’d taken at Mary Washington as part of her history major, Dhue put pen to paper. She’ll soon release her self-published children’s book, The Cats Who Like Bats, based on the story she dictated to her mother all those years ago. Dhue, who is also enrolled in UMW’s education program and aspires to teach high school history, hopes the tale will help parents and educators broach with young children complex topics like racism, discrimination, diversity and inclusion.
Set on an island, the rhyming prose begin with the peaceful premise of a group of cats living together, drinking milkshakes and playing games:
“However, the cats didn’t always play nicely; in fact, there was one animal, they hated precisely. The cats disliked bats. How this started we don’t know; but the disdain for bats started a long time ago.”
One night, a tiny bat falls from the sky, upending the cats’ worldview and laying the groundwork for a lesson in acceptance. Repulsed at first, they begin to learn about this new creature and come to appreciate bats and all their attributes.
“These cats have ideas about bats they’ve created before they even got to know them,” said Dhue, whose story reflects children’s tendency to repeat stereotypes without understanding them or their impact on others. As she wrote, she thought of a friend who was mocked by classmates for her Chinese heritage.
“Being white, I had the privilege of being able to forget these jokes, but even though my friend would laugh, they still bothered her,” said Dhue. The author also had in mind the increased anti-immigrant rhetoric over the past few years, as well as the surge in hate crimes toward Asian Americans during the pandemic.
At UMW, she developed a deeper understanding of these subjects, especially through immigration and Latin American history courses she took with professors Krystyn Moon and Allyson Poska. These classes provided background for writing her book, as did an add-on Race and Racism course that Mary Washington offered last semester.
Discussing the American melting pot in Moon’s class was an eye-opening experience, Dhue said. “Even though the concept may seem well-intentioned, it doesn’t leave room for individual cultures,” she added. That was the impetus for switching the book’s message from downplaying our differences to celebrating them.
“Helen has told a beautiful story that is very relatable,” Moon said, “but more importantly she has created an opportunity for parents and educators to talk about differences with young children in ways that can promote empathetic communication and understanding.”
Dhue sent the completed text to high school friend Julia Lopresti, a design major at North Carolina State University. She included some rough sketches, saying she trusted her friend’s artistic vision. Lopresti’s playful illustrations “exceeded expectations,” Dhue said.
Still looking for a self-publishing site, Dhue expects it will be a few months before The Cats Who Like Bats hits bookshelves. In the meantime, she is compiling resources for educators so they can begin having conversations with their students once they have the book in hand.
“I want teachers to be able to create a welcoming space where no one has to feel excluded,” she said. “My hope is that this book can help children maintain some of the values they already have and affirm that love and acceptance are among those important attributes.”