Acclaimed children's book author Sara Hoagland Hunter has written a captivating and compelling new book with an unusual twist -- its heroine is autistic. Hunter is well-known for her 10 books for children including The Lighthouse Santa, a New England holiday classic, and The Unbreakable Code, the story of the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, which was presented in 2006 by Arizona's governor, Janet Napolitano, to each of Arizona's 100,000 fourth-graders.
Sara Hoagland Hunter's latest book, Every Turtle Counts, is based on a true environmental phenomenon that occurs annually on Cape Cod, where the author has spent much of her life. It draws as well on her relationship with her autistic niece, Mimi. The heroine -- also named Mimi -- is not identified as autistic until the last page of the book. Her personality simply drives the narrative. As the opening lines of the book state, "There were others who walked the beach that day, but only one who stopped to look. And she made all the difference."
Every Turtle Counts - beautifully illustrated by award-winning artist Susan Spellman -- tells the story of an extraordinary environmental occurrence: The rarest and smallest sea turtles in the world, the Kemp's ridley, typically hatch on only one small beach near Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. A recent U.S.-Mexican initiative to enhance the endangered species has led to their hatching in Texas, too. As an author's note to the book explains, "Each summer, the youngest Kemp's ridleys wander as far as Massachusetts to feed on shellfish and herring in the rich waters off Cape Cod. They have survived sharks, nets, and tanker traffic to grow from the size of a dime to the size of a pie plate. When the water temperatures drop in Cape Cod Bay, some become confused as they try to migrate south and are blocked by land. Trapped on the north side of the Cape, the cold-blooded creatures lose body heat as the water temperature drops. For a short period in November and December, the comatose, 'cold-stunned' turtles drift to the beaches of the Cape's north coast. Thanks to the efforts of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the New England Aquarium, and a host of turtle rescue facilities from Massachusetts to Florida, many of the cold-stunned turtles are rescued, rehabilitated, and relocated."
That's where Mimi enters the picture, discovering on the beach a "cold-stunned" Kemp's ridley that others insist is dead. Mimi's family's landlord, seeing the "dead" and "dirty" sea turtle that Mimi has now placed outside their house, calls the Massachusetts Audubon Society to get rid of it. The arriving Audubon man explains that the endangered sea turtle could be just cold-stunned and adds, "I never give up on a turtle. Every turtle counts."
The story progresses as the comatose turtle is transported to the New England Aquarium's turtle rescue facility south of Boston, and both Mimi and the turtle respond intriguingly. At one point, in an attempt to teach the turtle to swim, Mimi splashes the water around the turtle, now known as Ridley 3 (because the Animal Care Director says, "If I name them, I get too attached"). The Director pulls Mimi back saying, "Ridley 3 has always lived in a big ocean, and doesn't like people getting too close." The author adds, "Mimi knew exactly how that turtle felt."
Every Turtle Counts is not a book about autism. It is a book about nature and a child who connects to it; it's for all children from the ages of five to nine. As the author, whom I met through a friend, says, "Autism is constantly with my niece, but it doesn't define her life - neither does it define the book."
In endorsing Every Turtle Counts, Temple Grandin -- the bestselling author and professor of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of two -- does not mention autism. She simply writes, "A lovely book that will motivate children to seek the wonder and beauty of the natural world."
The real Mimi is, in Sara Hoagland Hunter's words, "a huge gift to our family." She adds, "I wanted to write a book that would star her in an adventure and draw on some of the things that make her different and wonderful. In doing so, I wished to add my voice to the growing chorus of parents and loved ones who know that young people on the spectrum have much to give. This book is a tribute to all of the incredibly dedicated parents who are on duty around the clock in supporting their children."
In dedicating the book to Mimi, Sara Hoagland Hunter writes, "For my niece, Mimi, whose unfiltered joy and affection expand our spectrum. You have never rescued a sea turtle but, like Mimi in this tale, you have great gifts to share."
The author is Chief Operating Officer of Goodman Media International, the New York City-based public relations firm.