As society makes strides for inclusivity we have seen Disney princesses of every race, films featuring gay parents, and wheelchair-bound kids in catalogs.
But when is the last time you saw a children’s book featuring a main character with a severe mental disability?
Gwendolyn Boyd Moss, a Bronx-born and bred mother of three, real estate agent, and mental health advocate couldn’t find any, so she wrote one herself.
After her son Justin (aka Jo Jo), was diagnosed with autism at age 3, and later schizophrenia at 14, Moss saw that he struggled to build relationships with other children, and was often the victim of bullying.
The Soundview mom wanted to develop a teachable tool that could be used to start a conversation with youngsters about their peer’s suffering from mental disorders.
“It’s a fun descriptive tool, parents can sit down and talk about the characteristics, and this way if a child throws a chair in the middle of class, or doesn’t look others in the eye, the other kids can know that it is because of a disability, and they can embrace their peer and prevent bullying when they get older,” said Moss.
She mentions that one out of every 68 children is being diagnosed with autism today, and called it “an epidemic”.
“We need to stop sugar coating it and really embrace what’s going on,” says Moss.
Moss’ book ‘My Big Brother Jo Jo & His Friend Schizophrenia’ is written from the point of view of Jo Jo’s younger brother, and is the first text of her four-part ‘My Special Friend’ series.
Other titles include ‘Mr. Autism’, ‘The Bipolar Bandit’, and ‘Angela and the ADHD Fairy’ which all delicately break down the characteristics of each disability for small kids to understand.
On a larger scale Moss believes that society needs to do more for the mentally disabled.
“We talk about it taking a village to raise a child but to me that village is our nation,” said Moss. “We can’t wait until we have a situation where kids are shooting up a theater and then ask ‘where are the parents?’ when the fact is there are few services.
“We talk about it when it’s in the public eye, or when something is in the news, or during election time, but then it’s disregarded. It’s important that people educate themselves, there’s a lot of judgement out there,” she said.
Moss says creating funding and services for afflicted children is vital so that they can access early intervention resources as well as facilities if need be.
“Some facilities only take private insurances and that leads to a child being in and out of facilities so then they regress,” said Moss.
Jo Jo spent three years in facilities on and off, although it was not what Moss wanted at the time.
Jo Jo turned 21 on December 27. It’s been a long journey, but today Jo Jo functions at a third grade level.
He’s very sociable (an unexpected trait for his diagnosis), he loves to dance, and he manages his basketball team. He’s well known and well loved by those around him – his school even had a parade for him after he returned from post-brain surgery.
Moss appears on the new show, ‘Selling It: In the ATL’, a WeTV show based in Atlanta which shows her juggle life as a single mom, career woman, and mental health advocate.