When Ellen Gaffney (inset) decided to write a children’s book, the Brookline resident was not planning to take a research trip to India. She did not expect to become a self-published author, either. And she definitely did not expect the entire creation process to take more than eight years, but all that and more awaited her.
“You don’t really know how hard it’s going to be and how long it’s going to take. You just kind of naively keep moving along,” said Gaffney, 59.
Her labor of love eventually resulted in “Wings for a Flower,” her first book.
“It wasn’t day in, day out from 2005 to 2014,” Gaffney said. “It was work on it, then stall out. Do some research, go to some conferences, talk to some people, and then rev up again.”
Gaffney’s journey started when her friend, Don Schoendorfer, founder of the Free Wheelchair Mission, told her about Lotus Blossom, a young woman in Chennai, India, who had received a wheelchair from the organization.
After falling ill from what was most likely acute-onset rheumatoid arthritis as a young teenager, Lotus could not go to school and had to drag herself around her house in the slums of Chennai. In 2001, when she was about 17 years old, she received one of Schoendorfer’s four original affordable wheelchair models, made out of a plastic lawn chair equipped with bicycle tires. Schoendorfer heard from a volunteer who visited Lotus in India three years later that, against all odds, she had started walking again.
Gaffney was impressed by the tale. She set out to write and illustrate Lotus Blossom’s story in a children’s book, but quickly realized she needed to see India and meet the young woman in order to do the story justice. A few months later, in March 2005, she went to India for 10 days with Laurie Schoendorfer, Don’s wife. The two women traveled to seven cities and distributed hundreds of wheelchairs on the trip.
“It was always extremely moving,” Laurie Schoendorfer said of meeting the wheelchair recipients. “They get there either carried, or sometimes a whole bunch of them will come in a truck, or literally crawling.”
When the women visited Lotus, she no longer lived in her family’s hut, but in a second-floor apartment that could be reached only by a ladder.
“She had the original wheelchair, which she wasn’t using,” said Schoendorfer. “She said she was saving it to give it to someone else.”
With her research complete, Gaffney, who formerly taught marketing classes at Boston University and Boston College, returned to Brookline to start writing. In the fall of 2006 she stumbled upon a class on making children’s books at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. It was there that she decided to illustrate her book with collages.
By using tissue paper for shadows, paper bags for land masses, and pages from clothing catalogues for fabrics, she worked to capture the colors and textures she had seen in India. Some spreads, such as a street scene that shows the passage of time from day to night, took her more than two weeks to complete, working four to five hours a day. Less complicated scenes took three to five days to complete.
“It is a time-consuming medium,” Gaffney said. “You can do collage a lot more loosely but when you’re trying to portray things realistically . . . it’s challenging and interesting.’’
Gaffney did not go into the art process unprepared. A lifelong crafter and creator, she knits, sews, and has taken classes in enameling and Japanese painting, among others.
However, her lifetime of artistic endeavors was not enough to convince nearly 10 traditional publishers to take on “Wings for a Flower,” a book with limited commercial value whose proceeds would go to the Free Wheelchair Mission.
After two years of fruitless submissions, last spring Gaffney started to consider publishing the book herself. She contacted Three Bean Press in Jamaica Plain. By that time, she had a draft version of the book that had evolved during her years of work. Three Bean provided some editing and cleanup help, but was most helpful when it came to designing the final book, she said.
“If I was 100 percent on my own, I probably couldn’t do it,” Gaffney said.
“Wings for a Flower” was finally published in November. It recently received one of four “honor book’’ citations from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators as part of its inaugural Spark Award, which recognizes exceptional self-published works.
If all 3,000 copies are sold, Gaffney said, the proceeds would underwrite about 500 wheelchairs through Schoendorfer’s organization, which she said has given away almost 80,000 wheelchairs in India.