‘We had to do something’: How illustrated books are helping young cancer patients share their stories

An author and an illustrator have produced another book about a child with a serious illness.

Sarah Curry Rathel, an author and founder of Smile Books Project, and illustrator Bob Kelly worked with a Carlisle Chamberlain Middle School sixth-grader to produce “My Cancer Life.”

The latest book chronicles Matthew Harrison's treatment for leukemia. Rathel, of Cincinnati, and Kelly, from Indiana, have written about 25 books, including several with Butler County children: Madison Smallwood ("Madison's Message"), Dominic Watkins ("Dominic's Best Game") and Kyler Bradley ("Forever KylerStrong").

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Rathel, Kelly and Matthew, 11, recently led a school assembly at Chamberlain, where Rathel told students each of the books takes about three months to produce and they’re constantly working on projects.

The books sell for $12 and cost $2.76 to produce, said Rathel, who has spent her career working with nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping seriously ill children and their families. The proceeds from each book, $9.24, are then donated back to the child, she said.

Matthew’s goal was to sell 1,000 books, the most in the company’s history. Rathel said that goal will be reached once Matthew sells the books in his possession. During the assembly, she presented Matthew with a check for $6,684 and said $2,500 more will be raised after the rest of the books are sold.

Matthew’s mother, Betsy, wrote a letter to Rathel and Kelly and told them Matthew had mentioned he wanted to write a book. He wanted to help other kids in the hospital, his mother wrote.

A few days later, Harrison said she read about Smile Books Project on Facebook.

“My Cancer Life” mixes excerpts from the book Matthew began writing with the story he shared during his interview with Rathel. Kelly’s illustrations are sprinkled throughout the book.

In the book, Matthew offers tips and advice to help make the journey for others either going through cancer or who know someone going through cancer easier to navigate.

Rathel said the goal of the books is to help children “tell their stories. I can’t change what they’re going through. Seeing each child and knowing they have amazing stories to tell, we had to do something. There was a need, and we wanted to make a difference.”

Matthew was diagnosed with cancer on June 10, 2017, and his final treatment is scheduled for September 2020, according to his mother.

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