Kentwood teacher writes children’s book about inspiring young man

Inspiration comes in different shapes and sizes, and sometimes it’s a person with no arms.

In 2014, Luciano Mariano, born and raised in an area just outside of Rio de Janeiro, came to America to fight in the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation World Championships in Long Beach, California. What makes his story even more amazing is that Mariano has no hands.

He lost his hands when he was 3 months old, when his drunken grandfather was watching after him and knocked a candle over and then fled the home, leaving Mariano inside.

He came to America because of Elena Stowell, a science teacher at Kentwood High School. She started the Carly Stowell Foundation, in honor of the death of her daughter, Carly. The foundation was made with the goal of providing affordable opportunities in sports and music for youth.

Stowell secured a $1,500 grant from the Challenged Athlete Foundation so Mariano could come to the United States to compete in Jiu-Jitsu.

To capture Mariano’s story and his upbeat personality, Stowell decided to create a children’s book, “Frango and Chicken.”

“The whole how I got into writing is kind of a weird story. I thought what a cool topic to write about, you know the world just needs more positive stuff going, we need more positive stories and here’s this person who has these challenges and has a smile on his face and he volunteers and helps kids — he lives in a lot of poverty in Brazil — but is always giving of himself, I don’t know, I just thought the story needed to be told,” Stowell said.

She said last year she and a friend attended a workshop on writing children’s books and the person leading the workshop shared an inspiring story about an individual and Stowell said she thought to herself, “Wow, I could write a book like that.”

She started the illustrations last summer. When her idea got picked up by publishers she said she needed to finish by the end of the summer because once school started in the fall, her “creative brain isn’t as active.” So she was able to finish in August 2017.

Interestingly enough, Stowell had no interest in illustrating her book at first.

“So I wrote the story and originally had no intension of illustrating it, but was encouraged to stretch myself by the same friend that dragged me to this workshop, so I was like ‘OK, whatever, I like art, keeps my mind busy,’ ” she said. “So I gravitated towards collage because I sort of have anxiety about painting and drawing and all this because I’ve never studied art, so all the art work is done in collage and it just ended up working.”

To create art in the form of a collage, Stowell explained she had to cut out tiny pieces of paper and then glue them onto more paper with a glue stick and a toothpick. “I had to start wearing reading glasses,” she said.

During her experience with making a collage for each of the 48 pages of her book, she came to the realization that she was a “control freak” with her artwork, but ended up really enjoying it.

“I just did what I felt was right. I literally would have a picture in my head or sometimes I would sketch, then I would grab paper with certain colors and sort of just make it work,” Stowell said. “Honestly, I don’t know what you call it, I could see it in my head and then I would just try to replicate what was in my head by cutting out paper and gluing it down. Part of that process is really interesting because — and maybe it’s because I have a science background — in order to do collage you have to think in layers.”

As an example of her thinking with layering, Stowell explained how she made the cover of the book. She said she had to figure out what color she wanted the background to be, she had to make the mountains and the favelas (a Brazilian shack) and then she would add all of the smaller details including the main characters of the book — Mariano and a chicken.

“So Luciano’s nickname is ‘Frango’ and Frango means chicken in Portuguese, so in my own sort of giggle-to-myself way I thought ‘Oh well he should have a sidekick that’s a chicken in the story.’ So that’s why it’s Frango and Chicken,” she said.

She explained that the chicken is like his alter ego.

The grant that helped Stowell bring Mariano to the U.S. had asked her what his motto is.

She said his motto is “Difficult does not mean impossible.” Which is the theme of the children’s book.

“In all the scenes, the chicken is like ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be so hard,’ and here’s this kids who has no hands. The chicken thinks everything is hard and he (Frango) says ‘We can do it. Everything is possible. Help me and we’ll figure it out,’” Stowell said.

She added her biggest challenge was overcoming her own insecurities and understanding the categorization of children’s books.

She said there are a lot of rules when it comes to writing children’s books because there are so many different categories, for example in a picture book you can only have so many pages and so many words.

Stowell’s goal behind the proceeds from her books being sold is to bring Mariano back to the United States to compete in Jiu-Jitsu again.

She is going to go visit him in August and hopes she can bring him back home with her, but she is afraid she won’t have enough money by then.

When visiting, Stowell is going to bring some of her books to Brazil that were translated into Portuguese for the kids in the area.

To buy Stowell’s book, go to her website at elenastowell.com/#!/books. Each book is $19.99.

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