PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Dan Sadlowski started on a career in health care and shadowed at Children's Hospital in Boston. He was in awe.
He saw sick children fighting day in and day out. He saw them as real-life superheroes. And when his time there ended, he promised himself he'd come back and be an inspiration, a role model, to help them be resilient in the face of adversity.
But his career didn't bring him back to Boston. It took a detour and he is now a teacher at Richmond Consolidated School, teaching technology and physical education to the elementary pupils. So he had to come up with a new idea to still be that inspiration without being at the hospital day in and day out. So he wrote a children's book with a message of resilience.
"I was strongly influenced to become a child life specialists. They work one on one with the children to make sure pretty much that their spirits are up. I told myself I'd be back there, I promised myself I'd be back there to do that. I went to teaching and I am extremely happy with teaching," Sadlowski said.
"But I wanted to find a roundabout way to get back there and my idea would be to come up with a story that somebody going through a tough time can relate to."
"Finding Brooklyn" was published last October, culminating eight years of work. He started with ideas, expanded it to become a full out graphic novel, edited it, then cut it back down to a children's book, and edited again.
"I have this big long story. I was encouraged by an editor to do a graphic novel. My vision for this is a children's book but it was too long. It took time from pouring my heart out to getting it back to what I envisioned it as," he said.
The story is of a young girl named Brooklyn who wants to be a superhero and finding out that being one happens in real life, not just comic books. Sadlowski sees it as an uplifting and inspiring story that he hopes will find the right person at the right time.
"I wanted to create a story that had resilience in it. I think if I can teach kids, or anybody, one thing in life it would be resilience. I wanted to put that in the book along with the theme of superheroes," Sadlowski said.
Later he added, "There came a time in my life when you could give up, that superheroes are in the made-up world. Or you can look for real-life superheroes. I wanted to create a story that had a little bit of fantasy superhero but also real life. The main character battles what I believe are real-life superhero situations and overcome them."
Sadlowski dates his own inspiration from the book back to when he was just a young boy. He loved to draw and his grandmother told him he could write a book. She grabbed a stack of pictures he drew and asked about each one.
"One day she stapled it all together and I was just blown away," the 32-year-old Pittsfield native said.
Since then storytelling has been a motivating factor in his life. He believes "stories can change people's lives." Eight years ago he started dreaming up ideas for a book, and he admits much of that time was "daydreaming" and jotting down ideas.
It was five years ago he moved to teaching and took his time off in the summer to focus on turning those dreams into a reality.
He finally got the story line down, next was finding an illustrator. Sadlowski had exactly what he envisioned for the artwork in his head, so he needed to find an illustrator who could exactly tranlsate what he envisioned. He was picky. He worked with his sister, Emily Sadlowski, for graphic design work and eventually found Allison Pierce.
Sadlowski said Pierce's previous work didn't quite match the style he wanted but when he met with her, showed her examples of what he wanted, she drew exactly what he envisioned. Right then, he knew he found the right illustrator.
"I didn't feel like it was going to be what I wanted unless I was able to be part of that process," Sadlowski said of his time looking for an illustrator.
As the book progressed, he sought out help in publishing it. And he got mixed advice. He was to self-publish. He was told not to self-publish. Ultimately, he decided that he had the right team in place and, frankly, he didn't want to bring in a publisher to change what they created. He opted to go the self-publishing route.
"I think there are pluses and minuses to both. But once I found a team with Alison and Emily, I knew we could get it done on our own. I didn't need, or want, anybody else's input," Sadlowski said.
Without a publisher, that left marketing and getting the books into people's hands on his shoulders. That's when the book turned into not just an inspiration for others, but for himself.
"I think this book has strangely pushed me toward being out of my comfort zone," Sadlowski said.
It was somewhat of a snowball effect for him. He crafted a lesson plan and asked on social media if any teachers would welcome him into the classroom to share the book. Both local teachers and in eastern Massachusetts and even New York City brought him in. And it sort of took off from there.
"I came up with a few fun lesson plans. I wanted to make them a lot of fun. I wanted to make them creative. I wanted the students to be empowered and feel like they are creating almost their own story and not just talking about my story," Sadlowski said.
Sadlowski said he has a reading comprehension piece to it and the children all understand the themes. The book is intended for students between kindergarten and fifth grade, but those outside of that demographic have enjoyed it as well.
"It easily translates through the K through 5 area but I feel like a good story has no age restriction. I tried to make it for everybody," Sadlowski said.
He started walking into bookstores and speaking to managers about getting it on the shelf. He brought the lesson to book signing in stores, including overseas. The film buff ended up finding himself talking about the book to Travis Knight, the CEO of Laika Films. Knight invited him to see the studio and Sadlowski is now daydreaming that one day Laika Films would turn his book into a movie.
He partnered with Moments House on a super hero day. He brought the book to the Ronald McDonald House in New York City. He has donated copies to toy drives and charity efforts, trying to get the story out there. And he met Lola, a child who is battling cancer in Malden. This October, he's organizing a superhero theme party for her.
Sadlowski's life path may not have led him back to Boston Children's Hospital but he's still trying to do that work - just in a different way.
"I think often older kids, and even adults, are turning away the negativity. We don't want that. But I think there are a lot of great examples of great people out there who learn to take that negativity as one of their strong motivation," he said.
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