A little girl looked up at an old woman in the bathroom of a local church holding a bottle of soap not knowing how to get the cleanser out. The woman asked her a question in a language she didn't understand and proceeded to help her wash her hands. For the little girl, the moment was convenient and amusing, but for the woman, it was inspiration.
Children's author Dee Harris didn't speak Spanish and couldn't communicate with the girl, but as her books so often highlight, kindness is a language of its own and one that adults need to teach the next generation how to speak. Her stories come from her days as a child in Plant City where she grew up working in fields picking strawberries, but they have been updated to speak to a modern children's audience.
"There is such a need right now for children's books about things like kids being taunted, kids of all races and how they see homeless people," Harris said. "The books cover all that through tales from my childhood. I'm the kind of person who will have an idea and write it down and so when I remember things from my childhood, it'll be an inspiration for a book."
Harris' first book, "I am Not a Hippopotamus, I am a Little Girl" is a tale about a girl who is teased about her weight and receives some confidence boosting words from a homeless woman. The book was published by the Peppertree Press in June of 2011. It's the beginning of a series called Lyndee's Come With Me following a main character, Lyndee, a combination of the author's name and her stepdaughter's.
"I was teased as a little girl for my size," Harris said. "At the first signing I did for that book, more than 200 people showed up and I was shocked. It got great responses from kids and parents tell me the kids are always asking them to read the book to them. I think it's because there aren't enough books for kids anymore."
Her second book, "The Croaker Sack Bunny", was published in April of this year and tackles the economic difference between families through a simple story of a school play. Her third book is in the making and is intended to satisfy the length requirements of some readers.
"The Croaker Sack Bunny, is a tribute to my mother who once made me a costume out of croaker sack," Harris said. "The third book will be called The Magic Blue Bike and I want it to teach children to use their god given minds through imagination. I've had readers keep asking me to write a book with chapters so I'm going to do that."
The length won't be a challenge for Harris, who originally went into her writing career with the intention of publishing a novel, only to decide it wasn't for her. In the past, she had published poems and eulogies, but a calling towards children's literature was a natural thing for Harris despite not having any kids of her own.
"I've always loved children," Harris said. "You can't go around hugging children, but they still need to be shown kindness and I think that is something I want to show in my books. I've had adults read my books and say they remember going through that as a kid and they love the books because of the message."
The books are illustrated by Brandon artist Lisa Bohart who Harris met online. The two met for lunch and immediately hit it off, with Bohart able to grasp the imagery Harris wanted for the books right away.
Harris has done book signings from Fort Myers to Tampa and often donates her books to charities such as Goodwill Bookwork's and at community meetings for new mothers. Looking at everything as an opportunity to open her work up to those who can benefit from it, Harris is ever trying to send her message to new recipients.
"Nobody does book signings anymore and children still love to hold a book in their hands," Harris said. "Nannies write me letters and they love reading the books to the kids because the message is that kindness wins in any situation and friendship can't be measured. I really feel the children need that message today. It's working and I'm loving it. I don't expect to be famous and I don't need to be."
Harris now lives in Seminole Heights with her husband, Eric, a retired railroad engineer. Her books are on sale at Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com and PeppertreePublishing.com. The books cost around $12.95. For a signed copy, e-mail Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org.