Elkins Park, PA Therapist, Author
And Artist Michael J. Oswald
Releases Serious Stories For Children:
Special People, A Primer For Dealing
With Children With Special Needs
Michael J. Oswald laughs when thinking about his path from receiving a degree in Fine Arts to becoming a therapist working primarily with children with special needs. “Art became a hobby, kids became my job.”
Either way, it has been a win-win for the Elkins Park, PA resident. He has illustrated and written four children’s books over a 30 year period. His newest book, Serious Stories for Children: Special People, is the first published in full color. This is his pride and joy. While not wanting to focus on a particular disability, the main characters in My Friend Ted, A Boy Named Monk, The Girl Who Knew Enough and I Feel may exhibit characteristics of ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome, Autism, emotional, and behavioral issues.
It is Oswald’s intention that the book help families with children with disabilities better understand the behaviors, but also for the general population to realize how these children may be struggling. Through this understanding, they will become more tolerant. The stories are written simply to leave room for the readers and their adults to add their own notions.
“My work is to help people and this is an extension of that,” he said. “This is to help the children deal with problems and learn how to promote positive outcomes. The writing is rather plain. It’s not meant to be read strictly for the entertainment value. It’s meant to be read together with children, parents, therapists and teachers and discussed. As always, an adult and child reading together can ask questions, discuss options, and personalize it to their own unique situation.
“I have based each new story on the challenges of a specific child or family who I have known. They are depicted here as role models of behavioral concerns and struggles that are universal. If a child is one of the lucky ones who finds great success and ease in navigating their world, they can learn, together with their parents, that some of their friends with special needs may be struggling with managing their own lives, and gain insight into how to support them when they are together.”
While working toward a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree in Illustration and Art Education from Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts), he began working summers at Paley Branch/Federation Day Care Services in Northeast Philadelphia. He continued to work there after graduating in 1972. He was Group Worker/Camp Program Director.
“They kept giving me the challenging kids,” he said. “We had the idea of developing stories with lessons for the kids at the day care center. That’s where Serious Stories began. I found I enjoyed working with children, but realized I needed to get credentials.”
In 1975, Oswald received a Master of Arts in Group Dynamics with Special Children from Goddard College. After numerous jobs helping children and adults with special needs, he started a private practice in 1995, as a Child and Family Therapist and Behavior Consultant, providing treatment and behavioral consultations for children and families with behavioral, emotional and developmental concerns. He works with mental health, mental retardation populations as well as children with special needs.
“I do a lot of art with children,” he said. “It enables us to interact at a different level than just talking. I always begin our work together with a ‘Me’ book. They can write and draw about themselves and they can share who they really are through these exercises.”
Over the years, he began to draw and write individual stories about children he knew or worked with and they would come together as one of his titles. A Boy Named Monk in Serious Stories for Children: Special Friends was a collaboration with a nine-year old client.
“He and I worked together for a few years,” said Oswald. “He did a lot of drawing and writing himself. He was resistant at first to writing his story. With a little therapeutic coaxing, he began to participate. I would give a lead sentence and he would fill it in. He helped define the character. He then helped with the pictures and ideas. It’s funny. He chose to have his character be African-American, even though he is not African-American.”
There are pictures of Oswald on the back cover drawn by children over the years.
Serious Stories had a previous version. In 1978, the stories included were called: The Wrong Toy, The Shopping Trip, and The Accident. In the first Serious Stories, the goal was “…to write stories about the challenging issues we frequently saw with the children and wanted to provide a tangible example of how to resolve them. It was an opportunity for children to respond to several story themes, to identify how they feel, to express those feelings, and to consider what one does with how one feels.” Two more stories were written for a future project but not published.
After his youngest daughter, Jenny, was born, he attended a bar mitzvah where the bar mitzvah boy had made a book as a project very simply on his computer. That inspired Oswald to use the ability of the new technology to begin a new phase of storytelling.
Subsequently, he wrote and illustrated three stories about Jenny growing up, published as Dear Jenny, Growing Up Stories using the new print on demand publishers. In 2002, he reissued Serious Stories For Children with the two additional stories. In 2006, Three Years Apart, a story about sibling relationships, was published using his growing grandchildren as the models. It is about a sister and brother who experience normal childhood conflicts but grow up to enjoy a positive connection.
“It was after these personal projects were completed, that I began to record some of the lessons learned from the children I knew from my work,” Oswald said. “Their stories inspired me and I hoped they would inspire others.”