By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD – Mix together a global pandemic and idle family members at home. What do you have? Plenty of free time.
Families facing such a dilemma — and that’s most of us these days — have put a lot of effort into coming up with creative ways to fill their time together. Local author Jennifer DiMarco took that challenge to a whole new level by enlisting the skills of her two adult children to do illustrations for her three latest children’s books.
“In this unprecedented year, like many families, we had a lot more time where nothing was happening,” DiMarco said.
“So having something that would really engage [my kids] Maxwell and Faith and keep their minds occupied was at the forefront of my own mind. I thought this would be the right time to have them try to illustrate something on a professional level — and it worked. They loved it.”
DiMarco, who has written more than two dozen novels, primarily in the science fiction genre for adults and six other children’s books, resides in the Banner Forest area of South Kitsap with her son Maxwell, 21, and daughter Faith, 18. The threesome combined their talents to put out three children’s books:
“When Longneck Learned to Love” is about a self-doubting dinosaur who, when he sees himself through his parents’ eyes, learns to develop his lagging self-confidence.
“Take Flight!” is a sing-song book about a flock of cute fruit bats that goes on a mini-adventure one night.
“My Patchwork Heart” features a woman who learns that love can be everlasting through the eyes of a magical dog.
“I have always taken inspiration for my children’s stories from my children. I think about what they want to hear and what engages them,” the author said.
“I started writing children’s books for them. I felt this was especially important because my son, Maxwell, is autistic, and helping him find a way to connect with the world was a priority for me.”
The children were introduced to drawing by watching YouTube videos of the legendary artist Bob Ross at work in front of his painter’s canvas, known for painting landscapes on his PBS program. DiMarco also purchased some instructional art videos about how to draw lines, shapes and shading.
It seemed only natural to have her kids have a go at illustrating the children’s books.
DiMarco’s writing career spans 31 years. Her first breakthrough book, which kicked off her career, was published when she was 19 — “Escape to the Wind,” a science-fiction novel that climbed to the top of the Seattle Times bestsellers list. Notably, a short story about a global pandemic that she penned a year before the novel coronavirus hit, has been made into a movie called “Social Box.” The independent film will air on Amazon Prime Video in December. While DiMarco’s career is impressive, so are her two children.
“Pretty early on, we realized something was not right,” she said of her son Maxwell. “He was struggling. He was completely non-verbal and didn’t meet anyone’s eyes. He seemed to be in his own world.”
At 14 months old, he was diagnosed with autism.
“I was told by a physician at the time that he would never speak or communicate in a meaningful way,” she said. “He said I should look into group homes because I am small and the doctor was afraid Maxwell would grow up and be too much for me to handle. But, I was not going to give up on him.”
DiMarco sought out a second opinion and spoke to several experts. Two factors ended up having a significant impact on her son. A doctor at Children’s Hospital diagnosed Maxwell with Hyper-IgE Syndrome. He was highly allergic to several food items such as wheat, nuts and dairy. Exposure to these common food items sent his immune system into overdrive. She subsequently eliminated those foods and made changes to his diet, which helped tremendously.
The other factor that improved Maxwell’s functioning skills was getting a baby sister when he was 3.
“After two years of interacting with his baby sister, he started to develop verbal cues – making sounds to communicate,” DiMarco said. “For example, saying ‘oh’ for yes and ‘uh’ for no. Eventually, the sounds turned into actual language. He connected to his sister first, then to me.”
Remarkable cognitive advantages continued.
“He turned 21 this month and not only does he speak beautifully, but he has graduated from high school, written a novel, is an accomplished film editor and has won acting awards.
“The statement he hears more often than not is, “Oh, I had no idea that autism could look this way,” DiMarco remarked with pride.
Maxwell does a weekly internet show for kids call “Seriously Cereal.” In each episode, he and a guest do a light-hearted review of a breakfast cereal, commenting on things like whether the product gets soggy in milk, how tasty it is and how interesting the stuff is on the back of the cereal box. The show, which started two years ago and is still going strong, has quite a following on YouTube.
Faith had challenges of her own. At birth, she had opposing blood types from her mother that caused her to be allergic to mother’s milk. Unable to take nutrition, she lost weight and had to be rehospitalized for a month within days of coming home. Fortunately, Faith’s setback was short-lived. She had a healthy comeback and suffered no lasting effects.
Growing up, Faith and her brother, both of whom were home-schooled, loved to do skits. One day the pair came to their mom and asked her to write them a TV show. This prompted DiMarco to take a screenwriting class.
“Faith said the show would be about a little kid named Faith who is a ghost hunter and her sidekick is her brother with autism,” DiMarco said.
The result of Faith’s idea was “Ghost Sniffers, Inc.”
“The show was about a brother and sister who both had superpowers because they were both born with medical conditions or disabilities. Together they used their superpowers with other kiddos to help solve silly and whacky mysteries, kind of like Scooby-Doo, ” DiMarco said.
“The show was very popular. A lot of families wrote in and talked about how it impacted their lives. We had children come in from all over the country to guest star on the show. Any child with a disability or medical condition could go on an adventure with Faith and Maxwell’s characters.”
The show ran for 14 episodes between 2009-2013 on public access television and YouTube.
The family’s three children’s books are the latest accomplishments of the DiMarco family. It would be no surprise — pandemic or not — if this gifted trio continues to come up with other entertaining contributions.
The books were published by the local nonprofit Blue Forge Press of Port Orchard. Blue Forge also has a record, gaming and film division. The film group produced many of the family’s TV shows.
Two of the most recent children’s books are available at the Book’ Em bookstore in Port Orchard. All are available at blueforgepress.com and on Amazon.