Diabetes education — which boils down to medical lingo and nutritional advice, etc. — may be essential, but let’s face it, it’s kind of… boring.
That’s why it’s always refreshing to see our community finding new ways to engage PWDs (people with diabetes) — with superheroes, interactive story games, and even fantasy video games for hardcore “gamerz.”
Now a husband and wife team in New York have found yet another route to spicing up D-learning; they’ve created a graphic novel for kids and adults that teaches you all about diabetes self-care, Cathy-style (for those who remember that strip). In case you’re wondering, a “graphic novel” differentiates itself from “comics” in that it’s a stand-alone book that presents content (fiction or non-fiction) in cartoon format.
Fellow type 1 Kim Chaloner and her husband Nick Bertozzi are behind Diabetes and Me: An Essential Guide for Kids and Parents, a 176-page
comic book, err, graphic novel, complete with a brief into by Kim and a full glossary of D-terms. Some well-known authorities in the D-Community have vouched for the book — Dr. Bill Polonsky, CDE Gary Scheiner, and Divabetic founder Max Szadek among them.
Diagnosed as a teenager at age 16 back in 1984, author Kim is a middle school science teacher in Manhattan and also works as dean at a private school there, so diabetes and education go hand-in-hand for her! And her husband’s name may sound familiar, as Nick’s a pretty well-known cartoonist whose work has appeared in many venues, and he also teaches in Manhattan.
The new novel is packed full of D-101, broken down into six chapters that talk disease basics, healthcare team, blood sugar nuances, meal and exercise aspects, and the critical support aspects of living with diabetes.
We chatted with Kim recently about this new down-to-earth, visually appealing take on D-Education, and found her personal story pretty fascinating, too:
DM) OK, tell us your diagnosis story — what it was like for you back in the ’80s?
KC) Dealing with type 1 diabetes was something I was uncomfortable talking about as a teenager. I was the second child in my family to be diagnosed. My younger brother was diagnosed in 1978, when he was only 7 years old. Being diagnosed with type 1 was a surprise, but all the signs were there: I was losing weight, finding myself hungry and thirsty, and experiencing blurred vision. And after orienting myself to the routine, and sharing some health education sessions with my family, I remember feeling somewhat numb.
Did you go into denial, or just hide your diabetes from others?
Perhaps, dealing with the daily work of testing my blood glucose, giving myself multiple injections, and measuring my food, was overwhelming to my 16-year-old self. More likely, the constant worry that I was not managing my health well, thanks to the unrelenting collection of data about food and glucose that I needed to analyze and respond to, made me feel a little helpless, and sometimes very vulnerable and inadequate. I took the “I’m fine” approach, choosing to avoid being honest about my difficulties at times, and as a young person, putting myself in greater danger by not using my support network for help when I needed it. Despite being an honor student, the head of a few high school clubs, and a fan of the study of biology, I found talking and learning about diabetes tough.
When and how did you reach a point where you could talk more openly about it?
It wasn’t until I became a science teacher, and an insulin pump user, that I found my “person with diabetes” voice. Prior to the convergence of teaching and using a pump, I thought I could keep my diabetes to myself as a teacher as well. But when kids started noticing me “dial in” my bolus in the lunch room, as I snuck my pump out of my pocket, the questions came like a hurricane. “Is that a phone?” “Can you play music on that?” “How do you know what to dial in?” Around the same time, when my older daughter was toddler, she would carry a wooden block in her back pocket, telling others that it was her “pump.” How could I deny giving these kids a solid answer to their questions? How could I deny really being open to new questions myself? In thinking about how to incorporate a discussion about diabetes, food, health, digestion, and technology, I found myself discussing diabetes with more confidence, and taking better care of myself as well. The number of people who have been allies to me as a result of speaking out about diabetes has been incredibly meaningful.
How did you take those feelings and come up with the idea for Diabetes and Me?
When friends suggested that my husband and I collaborate on a graphic novel for kids about diabetes, I was thrilled about using his artwork to tell stories that might empower kids. Anything that can help a kid move from a frightening diagnosis to a place of feeling empowered and informed, seemed like it was “worth a shot!” It was fun to work on this project, and to create characters kids can relate to. Retelling and shaping the story of my experiences as a diabetic helped me think about how children today need ways to process their experiences, and share their struggles and triumphs.
So you really are focusing on kids with diabetes?
Kids diagnosed with diabetes… need that support network. They need to be able to speak for themselves, share their stories, and learn to use all the resources available to them. It takes teaching self-advocacy skills, and helping them through the anxiety of trial and error that all treatment programs entail. They need emotional reassurance, and they need to find their “voices” in order to ensure better outcomes. When a child, afraid of seeming like they’ve done something wrong, conceals a high or low blood sugar, real danger can ensue. Having a healthy body and a healthy body image require an “it’s takes a village” approach that teaches kids to pursue knowledge, use information without judgement to improve health, and to critically interpret the barrage of unhealthy messages about food kids encounter every day.
Over the years, I’ve worked with students from second to ninth grade, and as many teachers will tell you, my students have taught me a great deal. One of the most incredible lessons has been the power of sharing a story with people who can relate to you, care about you, and encourage you to keep learning and growing with less judgement and more understanding. In the 27 years since my diagnosis, I’ve been lucky to have new technologies available, such as the insulin pump, that make managing diabetes easier. But I’ve been even luckier to find ways to speak up and share my diabetes. I hope that more children are taught these skills at an earlier age.
Thank you, Kim!
Even though her graphic novel is pretty elementary and chock full of D-basics, I’m personally a big fan of these clever drawings being used as the vehicle for education — although I did wonder about the choice of black and white. Don’t kids today expect vibrant color?
I liked the illustration of Kim as the D-Coach for the other characters in the book, and also liked how Nick draws diabetes as a word with eyeballs above each letter that follows the characters around. We’re always being stalked by our diabetes, indeed! There are also some great illustrations of D-tech and future ideas, like the concept of blood sugar watches that we recently wrote about. And of course, the superhero healthcare team of endo and CDE, among others with powers and tools to help manage diabetes. Fun stuff!
As mentioned above, we love the idea of creating new ways to make D-education fun — from comics and kids’ books to video games and kid-friendly apps. Much of it comes down to encouragement rather than scare tactics when you’re initially learning about diabetes, so it’s great to see Kim embrace a favorite mantra of the Diabetes Community in a key illustration: “You Can Do This” — something championed by another of our D-friends Kim Vlasnik
Thanks for sharing your “graphic” story, Kim. Congrats to you and your husband on this cool new book!
Released on Nov. 12, Diabetes and Me can be purchased on Amazon.com for $21.51 in hardcover, $11.55 paperback and $9.99 in e-book format for a Kindle.