“The Gluten Free Kid” is a delightful children’s picture book by Hayley O’Connor, with illustrations by Anthony Corrigan. This charming tale follows Sid – the story’s young protagonist – after he discovers that he has celiac disease.
O’Connor’s drew inspiration for the book from her daughters, who are 1 and 4. With her and her husband both having celiac disease, she says the chances of one of her daughters developing celiac is high. She says she wanted to write a book that both kids and parents would enjoy.
“Having celiac disease shouldn’t make you feel different and excluded from the world,” she says. “My hope is that my book will help every child understand the condition.”
O’Connor spoke with Gluten-Free Living about the book, what it’s like growing up with celiac disease and how parents can make their kids feel included in a gluten-filled world.
The Gluten Free Kid is available for purchase here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. We haven’t seen many kids’ books that explain celiac disease. What’s the inspiration for “The Gluten-Free Kid”?
A. I created the book to remove fear around the condition but explain it in realistic terms. Children are very accepting and if you can explain a condition in a non-patronizing way they will just accept it. When trying to explain the condition to a child, I feel you just spend a lot of time saying “I can’t eat that” or “make sure your food doesn’t come close to my food” and I just felt like I was almost creating fear around it and without any “real” explanation. This was not what I wanted so I decided to do something about it.
I wanted my eldest daughter to really understand what it meant. Our daughters (Alannah, 4, and Madison, 1) have a very high chance of developing the condition with both their parents being celiac. If we can educate them from a young age this will prevent fear and create an understanding of how to stay healthy. Even if my daughters never develop the condition, it’s hereditary – if they go on to have children of their own it’s possible that their children could develop it. Awareness and understanding are key but unfortunately, we need others to understand the condition too. This book is for every child, not just celiacs.
One of my American customers told me of how his niece has to sit on her own every day at lunch because she is a celiac. If the school chose to educate her peers and how to keep their lunch in their own space and no sharing of food, they would know that exclusion isn’t necessary. I’m sure this is not the case in every school, but this broke my heart to hear. Having celiac disease shouldn’t make you feel different and excluded from the world. My hope is that my book will help every child understand the condition.
Q. How long have you been writing for and how did you get started?
A. The Gluten Free Kid is my first published book, but I’ve been writing for years. I’ve always had an active imagination. I’m an only child. My parents divorced when I was four and I grew up with a parent who suffers from depression. I think my imagination allowed me to escape from my reality and a difficult home. It was during my teenage years that I decided to explore the world of writing, but I still kept it a secret for many years and only revealed it to my husband Eoin last year.
After my husband’s encouragement, I decided to take my writing more seriously. I knew straight away children’s books was exactly the genre I wanted to focus on – creating books about “difficult” or “out of the ordinary” topics was my focus. The other children’s books I have written have varied topics – type 1 diabetes, divorce, ADHD, explaining a parent’s depression and being unique.
I suppose I created these books so no other child can or will experience the loneliness I felt as a child. If you can see yourself in a book and relate to that character, you know you’re not alone in the world. I never found this when I was young and if I can just help one child then I’ve done my job. I hope to have the rest of these titles out in the next few years.
Q. Tell us about the positive responses you’ve received about the book. It seems like people are enjoying having a kid-friendly way to explain celiac.
A. Yes! It’s been incredible and even overwhelming at times. I never thought that I could help so many families. At a recent event, I had parents come over to thank me for my book! They love my simplistic approach to explaining the condition. I think my use of rhyme creates fun and softness to the book while still being educational.
I’ve also had children tell me how they love bringing my book to school! They feel the book is all about them as they might be the only gluten-free kid in their class. It’s an amazing feeling knowing that the book is helping to make them feel special rather than different from their peers.
Q. We love the illustrations! What’s the story with the illustrator?
A. Anthony Corrigan was my illustrator. An Irish man from County Louth. He was absolutely incredible to work with. I’ve never worked with Anthony before, but he came highly recommended by the publisher. I spoke to many other illustrators but the reason I chose to go with Anthony was his classic style. He has a natural rawness to his art. A lot of books these days I feel are loud and with a very computerized look and it was actually very hard to find somebody who could offer me the style I wanted – so I was delighted to get in contact with Anthony.
The book has a serious topic and I felt having the classic softness would complement the seriousness and give it that beautiful balance. Anthony listened to everything that I wanted and helped bring “Sid”, The Gluten Free Kid, to life.
Q. Can you speak to the book’s central message, that celiac is serious and definitely not part of a fad diet?
A. This is something I feel very strongly about – it is far from a fad diet! It’s an autoimmune disease.
Unfortunately, I feel being “gluten-free” has almost been glamorized in recent years and is seen as a wonderful diet. Plenty of times I had people say. “you must be so healthy eating gluten-free foods.” It’s hard to explain that our alternative foods are not necessarily “more healthy”. These foods are probably more heavily processed and I’ve noticed generally have a higher sugar content, and as a celiac, we have a slightly increased chance of developing type 1 diabetes, so this is not ideal. A gluten-free diet is not optional to a celiac, it’s necessary.
I suppose the positive to this “glamourizing” is that gluten-free food has become more readily available and a wider variety are on the shelves, but it definitely makes eating out scarier. Yes, gluten-free options will be on most menus but what sort of cross-contamination policy will they have in place? Something may be gluten-free but not necessarily celiac friendly and explaining this, is still where the battle lies. I don’t think people realize that as little as one crumb can cause internal damage. So far, we have no medication to treat it, but following a strict diet will stop the body from attacking itself. If you’re not a celiac, gluten isn’t harmful – there is no need to remove it from your diet. It wouldn’t have any health benefit, and this is something I wish people would realize.