Phatty the cat enjoys spending his days perched on his favorite chair looking out over Central Park. His life takes a tumultuous turn when a mean hawk lands on his terrace. This story is one of adventure and overcoming bullying. Author Marie Unanue is here answering questions about The Adventures of Phatty and Payaso today.
- How did you become passionate about bullying?
As a child I was bullied, I can remember what it felt like to not fit in at times. I wasn’t a jock, I wasn’t the cheerleader, and I wasn’t in with the “cool” crowd. I kind of just floated along and befriended anyone that wanted to be friends. When I saw how my overweight cat ran from the birds on the terrace I imagined how hard it is to be an overweight child in school, or the child that isn’t cool or doesn’t fit in. I wanted to write a book that spoke to children about that feeling.
We know that bullying is an age-old problem, and it has only been amplified now that social media has allowed the bullies a platform after the children leave the classroom. I am hoping that children will learn how to handle bullies from this story and more importantly, I am hoping that the bullies see how horrible it is to be bullied and make better choices when dealing with kids they don’t like, or that don’t fit in. My characters all have strengths and weaknesses and they are all working on how to use their strengths to help them to overcome their weaknesses; they are also learning how to be vulnerable and take risks.
Children will also get a bird’s eye view of a character with special needs, Max, the main boy in my story. He is on the spectrum and suffers badly when other children don’t include him, or chastise him. This story allows kids to see all different perspectives on bullying.
- What inspired you to write this book?
While writing from my home office for various publications reporting on the latest and greatest in honeymoons and weddings, I found another muse for my writing, my animals. After months of working from my home, I couldn’t help but turn my attention to my crazy furry family. Daily I found myself laughing at something crazy and off the wall my cats or dog would do. While, watching my animals, and as crazy as it sounds, my neighbor’s Cat, interact with each other, I found a story inside of my heart I needed to share.
From that moment on, I turned my writing from weddings and honeymoons in an entirely new direction, a four-legged furry and funny direction. I focused on my overweight cat and his unique friend from the apartment next door, Payaso, in time, I dreamt up a ‘tail’ about a bunch of friends overcoming obstacles and their own fears and insecurities while going on an adventure in Central Park. I wanted the story to focus on kindness and the importance of strong character traits, like grit, zest, social intelligence and so forth. I wanted the animals to teach lessons by examples on how to treat each other with unconditional love, acceptance and empathy. I wanted to reach children in a way that would make them pause and reconsider how they were going to treat each other going forward after reading the book. I loved that I was able to mix in personalities, ethnicity and ability and offer children characters that had difference strengths and weaknesses that they would relate with.
3. What is special about the setting of “The Adventures of Phatty & Payaso?”
Most of the story takes place in a New York city apartment overlooking Central Park. When Phatty the cat realizes a large hawk has plans to rob his home, he takes it upon himself to venture out into Central Park and try and find the Central Park Zoo Keeper to help him capture the hawk. Shortly after his leaving the safety of his apartment his friends head out into Central Park to find him. This adventure story lets children experience life in Central Park… in the greatest city in the world!
- How does your book handle its special needs character?
The book addresses how today’s children familiarize and connect with children that have special needs and/or suffer from the ability to adapt or fit in with social groups. I want to offer children a different perspective on the challenge some children face on a daily basis to fit in, feel comfortable or feel/be included. On several occasions throughout the book, children are given examples of how small acts of kindness, behavior modifications, or considerate actions towards someone struggling to fit in makes a large impact on that person’s life.
I became interested in Autism Spectrum Disorder because I have a friend who is a specialist with children on the spectrum, and there is nothing in literature that helps children understand autism or how to treat that child. Because of that, children and parents can both be scared of these children—it may be frightening because they may act differently and not communicate in the same way. I wanted to write a character that had tics but was a really sweet soul, for children to see that just because someone may not be the same as you, that they may still have something important to share with you. “Just because my friend rocks back and forth, he’s not strange—that’s just how he communicates” and we can understand what that means with a little bit of background information. Autism is so broad that every child is different, but like Max, they may all long to fit in, have friends, and be part of a group. Because Max is on the spectrum, he has trouble with communication, and in this story we see him challenge himself and realize that he can handle himself way better than he ever imagined.
- You set out to write this book in part to help develop positive character traits. Which are the ones most described in the book?
We know through research from the non-profit organization Character Lab (Characterlab.org) that there are several character skills missing in many of today’s children. They have discovered that character strengths are malleable, and surprisingly little is known about how they can be intentionally cultivated. Character Lab is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in 2013 by one scientist and two educators: Angela Duckworth, author of “Grit,” and the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania; Dave Levin, co- founder of the KIPP public charter schools; and Dominic Randolph, Head of Riverdale Country School.
“The Adventures of Phatty & Payaso” focuses on six skills that are lacking in today’s children. They are:
- Curiosity: Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering.
- Gratitude: Being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen; taking time to express thanks.
- Grit: Finishing what one starts; persisting in a course of action in spite of obstacles.
- Self-control: Regulating what one feels and does in the service of goals and standards; being disciplined; controlling one’s emotions.
- Social Intelligence: Being aware of the motives and feelings of other people and oneself; knowing what to do to fit into different social situations; knowing what makes other people tick.
- Zest: Approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things halfway or half heartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated.
The book demonstrates these important and necessary character skills through the actions and behaviors of the books characters. I studied these traits and then developed which character would have which skills as a strength or area for improvement. Together, the characters all possess these traits and throughout the story they teach each other, through actions and by example, how to grow and develop these skills.
Throughout the story, each character learns something about themselves they didn’t know, while realizing that friendship is more than just someone to play with. Friendship is about kindness, helping and caring about others, and doing the “right thing,” even when the “right thing” is difficult.
Order your copy of The Adventures of Phatty and Payaso here.