CHELMSFORD — Despena Zouzas has always loved to read and write and has turned that love into a career teaching English language arts to middle and high schoolers with special needs.
“Since I was young, along with teaching, my parents have always instilled a love of reading into our family,” she said. Now that she has had the time during quarantine, she’s achieved another long-term goal of hers: publishing a children’s book.
“I’ve always been really interested in children’s literature, and then growing older, just thinking back to all the great books that I read when I was younger, that’s kind of what really inspired me to get into writing children’s books,” she said.
Her book, “Nala’s Backyard Adventures: Nala Stands Tall,” follows Nala the Maine coon cat, inspired by Zouzas’s real cat, as she defies peer pressure from others to catch a mouse.
“She ultimately realizes ‘the mouse can talk just like me. He has feelings just like me. This isn’t something I really want to do.’ And she ends up walking away from her friends and deciding to apologize to the mouse, and they end up becoming friends,” she said.
The moral of this story is that it’s OK to stand up for what you believe in, even if you’re the only one, and even if it’s hard to do so, according to Zouzas. She hopes that reading this book with one’s child may segue into conversations about peer pressure, making the right choices and following one’s moral compass. She said the book is appropriate to read aloud to children of any age, but is suitable for children in grades 2-4 to read themselves.
Zouzas, who grew up in Chelmsford and earned a degree in special education from Fitchburg State University, learned about the importance of reading for children’s cognitive and emotional development while in college and on the job as a teacher in local schools.
“You can use books or things like social stories to help any student, but also students with special needs, to understand rules, routines, social norms, emotions, they really can be used to teach so many different skills,” she said. Reading with children is also helpful for language development.
Shawnic Coleman, Zouzas’s friend, read the book with her 9-year-old son, Naevan. She said he found the book suspenseful and enjoyed the illustrations, drawn by Maria Katinas. Coleman also used the example of Nala and the mouse to discuss the story’s morals with her son.
“Even though they’re not in school right now, oftentimes, (children) get into situations where they may want to do something because of their friends even if they know it’s not right,” she said. “I like how this book said even though you’re friends with them, sometimes that’s not always the right thing to do. You have to do what you know is right.” She added that her son is eagerly awaiting a sequel.
Before publishing “Nala Stands Tall,” Zouzas had no idea how to publish a book. But those who know her weren’t surprised by her ambition.
“She is so good with children … so it didn’t surprise me at all. She’s a smart girl and she’s got a good heart,” said Dacey Zouzas, her godmother and relative and a Lowell Sun columnist. “She mentioned that she wanted to do a book and she was excited about it, and she did everything on her own.”
Zouzas began writing her book in March, and after researching her options, she decided to self-publish her book through Amazon. She then found Katinas, her illustrator, and underwent multiple rounds of edits with her as they perfected the look and format of the book. She also edited the book herself through multiple iterations.
“It was kind of tough to look at my own work over and over again, because there’s some things that I didn’t notice until the very end,” she said. “If anyone else was thinking of doing this, it can be done. It’s just, there’s a lot more work than I thought originally to get it published.”
Zouzas is now working to promote her book and get it into local bookstores and libraries, and hopes to expand the book into a series featuring Nala navigating other tricky social situations. The book is available on Amazon and at the Artisans Exchange in Chelmsford.