Raph the dodo isn’t like most birds. He can’t fly. But with those strong legs, he comes to find he’s proficient at another skill: unicycling.
The story of Raph and his friend Hawk is at the center of “Raph’s Tale,” a children’s book written by Dan Shapiro of Rockville and illustrated by John Watkins-Chow of Kensington.
Shapiro is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician. His adult children suggested he collaborate with Watkins-Chow, who was their math teacher at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.
Watkins-Chow said he has no formal art training, but has been doodling for most of his life. He’s an avid comic book reader and enjoys drawing superheroes.
Shapiro said his kids recalled how Watkins-Chow drew pictures on the board to illustrate mathematical concepts and how upset students were when he erased them after class. So Shapiro asked him if was willing to illustrate his story about Raph the Dodo and Hawk.
“We got together at Starbucks,” said Shapiro, who consults with parents who have children with autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, mood disorders, genetic syndromes and other developmental differences. “And I told him the story. Right there, on some Starbucks napkins, he started doodling these incredible sketches. And I’m thinking, ‘Wow am I lucky.’”
Shapiro is also the creator of Parent Child Journey, a 10-session parent training and support program. He wrote a textbook for parents to follow in as they took the support program. He said he wanted to weave a fable into the textbook, “just to lighten the story, inject a little humor and have a meaningful metaphor.” He also wanted illustrations.
At first, the only characters Shapiro had in mind were a child and an adult, Watkins-Chow said. The two discussed using formless blobs or letters of the alphabet to represent them — the goal was to make the characters genderless. Eventually they settled on animals. First it was foxes. Then bears. Until finally they settled on birds — a hawk and a dodo.
“I was very grateful that he was not too particular and gave me lots of leeway,” Watkins-Chow said. “It was a lot of fun. Animals are certainly not my bailiwick. I’m accustomed to drawing superheroes.”
Shapiro included the fable in his 2016 book, “Parent Child Journey: An Individualized Approach to Raising your Challenging Child.” Ralph and Hawk build a boat and go on a journey up the river. It’s an adventure Shapiro based on his passion for kayaking.
In Shapiro’s 2019 follow-up book, “Parent Child Excursions: ADHD, Anxiety, and Autism,”Raph and Hawk encounter new friends Dog and Turtle. The characters learn lessons on diversity, friendship and resilience. Shapiro said each character has a strength and weakness and they must work together to achieve their goals. For example, Raph can’t fly like Hawk, but can ride a unicycle, which is based on another hobby of Shapiro’s.
“Who would have thought that a bird could ride a unicycle, but necessity is the mother of invention. And there you go. A bird that can’t fly, but can get by,” Shapiro said. “One can fly well and the other one cannot. And how does the flightless bird get by? Well with a lot of help from his friends, as it turns out.”
In August, Shapiro decided to release the two stories together as a standalone book.
“Raph’s Tale” is about 70 pages and features some two dozen of Watkins-Chow’s illustrations. The book includes images for children to color and a section on the history of the dodo. The story is meant to be read to elementary school-aged children.
“Raph’s Tale” is available for purchase on Amazon.
Shapiro said he plans a formal book launch on Oct. 22, when he’ll read from the book via livestream from parentchildjourney.com.