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UMN med student co-authors children’s book about neurodiversity

Hugh Burke’s time at the Neurodiversity and Medicine Club on campus elicited the creation of “The Way We Play.”
Hugh Burke wrote the book along with former teacher Kylie Donohue. The pair is currently working on a second book. Photos courtesy of Burke and Donohue.

Monday will be the start of National Children’s Book Week, a time when many people recognize the role reading has in children’s educational experiences, social learning and future.

University of Minnesota second-year medical student Hugh Burke and former teacher Kylie Donohue co-published the children’s book “The Way We Play” in October to celebrate neurodiversity. All of the book’s profits will be going to the charity Open Hearts Big Dreams, which helps provide reading education and materials to children in Ethiopia.

The term “neurodivergent” in the book broadly refers to people that interact with the world differently, whether they have a diagnosis, Burke said. He said after graduation he hopes to work with neurodivergent kids in the medical field.

The book’s themes and messages stemmed from Burke’s experience at the University’s Neurodiversity and Medicine Club. Burke said the main message is that everyone brings something unique to the table and has abilities that can elicit change.

How it all started: co-authors aligned

Burke and Donohue met during their undergraduate careers at the University of Notre Dame, but the idea of making a book together did not arise until after college, Donahue said. She said after Burke’s first Neurodiversity Medicine Club meeting, he reached out to her with the possibility.

“I actually worked with fourth graders during my service here, and I was their teacher for social and emotional learning,” Donohue said. “Every day we would do a different lesson on social well-being and mental health to get students ready for the day.”

Donohue said when Burke brought the idea to her, she believed both of their minds, backgrounds and current scholastic projects built off each other would create both an educational and medical perspective.

Using animals to engage young readers

In the book, there is a wide variety of animals represented, ranging from a hippo, monkey, giraffe and bird. The book follows the animals playing games, with each animal succeeding and failing as they participate, Burke said.

At the end of the book, the teacher, who goes by “Miss Owl,” gives a speech that encapsulates their key message, Burke said. One of her lines reads, “No matter how tall or how fast or how slow, when we play with each other, we find ways to grow.”

Regarding illustrations, Burke said he received a grant from the University’s Medical School in May 2022 to fund the artistic process. He said this allowed him to start reaching out to various illustrators, and he was happy with the way Blueberry Illustrations brought their ideas to life.

“I’ve made this recurring joke that stick figures weren’t part of the art plan,” Burke said. “So, therefore, Kylie and I were not going to be illustrating the book.”

Publishing for a cause and a second book

Any profits from the book that would have gone directly to Burke and Donohue will instead go to the charity Open Hearts Big Dreams.

“We have raised a good amount of money for them and that’s what makes it all worth it,” Burke said. “We love their message and the act of meeting with people from that charity.”

The charity aims to help children in Ethiopia reimagine their future by increasing literacy, innovation, leadership and inclusion, according to Open Hearts Big Dreams’ website.

Burke said the book has raised nearly $4,000 since being published and is available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Burke said a second book is currently “in the works” and will follow the same premise as “The Way We Play,” but with illustrations of wildlife that live in Ethiopia and a setting that depicts the region.

“We have a whole team of people helping us with this because it’s harder,” Burke said.

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