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Tiffany Chidester remembers what her 10-year-old son, Tristan, said after learning he would lose part of his leg to cancer: "I just want to play football again."
In that moment, the Utah boy went into hero mode. Almost four years later, he has battled his way back into the world of sports and onto the pages of "True Heroes," a collection of modern-day fairy tales written by a number of bestselling local authors released last month as part of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
What makes this book so special is that each original story features real children who are battling cancer.
Tristan, for example, is the hero of Frank Cole's "Tristan's Touchdowns," while the fearless heroine of "Sada of the High Seas" by Bobbie Pyron is inspired by 16-year-old Sada Wright, who suffers from juvenile pylocytic astrocytoma. In all, 21 children are featured in the pages of "True Heroes."
In addition to appearing in a story, each child is the subject of an elaborate photo spread depicting his or her dream. Eli is pictured as a BMX athlete. Ellie gracefully juggles fancy cakes as a gourmet baker. Cami appears in her photograph as a fairy, while Carson is a fearless bullrider.
"True Heroes" is the brainchild of Jonathan Diaz, the book's photographer and the creator of the Anything Can Be Project. "I knew I wanted to take the dreams and imaginations of children and bring them to life," he says. "If a child has a passion or a dream for something, they should be allowed to cultivate that passion. They shouldn't have adults in their heads telling them they can't follow their dreams."
Diaz aims to inspire children "rather than tear them down."
He speaks from personal experience. As a teenager, he says he wanted to pursue a career as an artist but was discouraged from doing so by a high-school teacher. Instead, he became a lawyer. A Christmas gift of a camera from his mother a few years ago, however, rekindled his interest in the arts. And as he pursued his own dream, Diaz says he wanted to help children specifically those with pediatric cancer pursue theirs, too. "Cancer is a disease that touches everyone in some way," he says.
Diaz connected with families dealing with pediatric cancer, arranged photo shoots and solicited writers to create stories.
"I was drawn to this project the second I saw the photography of these amazing kids who are such brave fighters, dreaming such big dreams," says author Peggy Eddleman.
Once they saw Diaz's work, others wanted in on the project, as well.
Newbery Honor author Shannon Hale says this: "I'd gotten a couple of emails about it asking me to participate, but I get so many emails I kind of scan them and often forget them. I'm a mess. Then someone sent me a link to the gorgeous photos and I was blown away. A picture really is worth a thousand emails. I thought, 'I want to be a part of that!' "
The book's editor, Lisa Mangum of Shadow Mountain, still marvels at how smoothly everything came together.
"There were a lot of moving pieces to this puzzle 21 authors, 21 kids. All the photographs, the design work but throughout the entire production of the book, I felt a great sense of purpose. Things came together seamlessly. Everyone met their deadlines and delivered outstanding work."
And, as it turns out, the participants had a lot of fun in the process.
Sada loved the photo shoot: "It was wonderful! They did my makeup so I didn't have any zits, and the costume was awesome." The Utah teen attended Salt Lake Comic Con in full pirate regalia, where she met the cast of "Studio C," a locally produced sketch comedy show. She now has an autographed photo hanging on her wall.
Thirteen-year-old Tristan had a similar experience. He calls the photo shoot depicting him as a star football player "amazing." A huge University of Utah fan, Tristan was able to meet players on the team, as well as athletes from the NFL. He also likes the story Frank Cole wrote about him: "He made me the hero and my brother was in the story."
If there is an overriding message in "True Heroes," it's this: The children featured between the book's covers are bigger than the diseases they deal with. They have interests and aspirations that transcend illness.
Linda Gerber, author of Rae's story "Princess in the Mirror," was drawn to the project because of Diaz's "idea of allowing kids to see themselves as their own heroes and showing that anything is possible."
As Sada says, "Kids with cancer are NOT cancer. They're just normal kids. Sometimes we can't do the same things as other kids, but we don't need to be treated like we're babies."
Clint Johnson, whose story "Eli Rides the Sky" appears in the collection, echoes Sada's sentiment: "This project resonates with me as a full-time caregiver of a mother with advanced-stage ALS. I know, personally, that disease can eat up not only a life but one's identity. A unique and diverse person with rich relationships can quickly collapse into 'that poor woman with ALS' or 'the boy with cancer.' The disease is something that happens to someone; it isn't who they are."
Bobbie Pyron, who wrote Sada's story, agrees: "One of the things I love about this book, 'True Heroes,' is it celebrates and shows the dreams that these kids have just like other kids. It focuses not on the illness that holds them down but the inner dreams that let them soar."
Sara B. Larson (who wrote Cami's story) contacted Cami's mother because "I wanted to do her dream justice."
Lehua Parker (who wrote Caimbre's story) told Diaz to sign her up as soon as she heard about the project. But the responsibility of creating a story that would please a young girl who has already dealt with so much weighed heavy on her at times: "It was without a doubt the hardest thing I've ever written. But as hard as it was, nothing we do as photographers or authors comes close to the perilous journeys of these true heroes."
Each of the writers interviewed was personally affected by the project. Says Jennifer Nielsen, "The boy I wrote for, Jacob, was amazing. The story I wrote for him is nothing compared to what he did for me. His courage, optimism and wisdom will impact me forever."
"It would not be overstating it to say that my life was irrevocably changed by meeting little Sophi and her beautiful family," says Sharlee Glenn, author of "Sophia's Wings." Glenn was particularly impressed by the girl's fighting spirit.
Ilima Todd sums it up this way: "These kids are my heroes."
The project has affected not only the participating authors, but also the families of the children featured.
Says Amber Wright: "Sada has had cancer for 6 years and it has changed the priorities in our family. We're more focused on what will make the best memories for the whole family … rather than letting everyone go off in their separate directions. Jon's project came at the perfect time. Dressing up, posing and making memories lets Sada's imagination run wild. It's a new topic of discussion for her friends and family. Instead of having to answer questions about her treatment and last MRI, she can tell them an amazing story about 'Anything Can Be' and Jon's magic camera."
Diaz has plans to continue. "I want to make dreams come to life for as many kids fighting cancer as I can."
By Jonathan Diaz, with stories by local authors including Shannon Hale, Brandon Mull, Ally Condie and Jennifer A. Nielsen
Shadow Mountain Publishing
Pages • 176
Cost • $19.99
For more information about "True Heroes" and the Anything Can Be Project, please visit Diaz's website at http://www.AnythingCanBeProject.com.