When a routine mammogram in 2009 revealed breast cancer in Katy Tessman-Stanoch, her world was thrown into a tailspin. The Minnetonka musician and mom got a double mastectomy on her 40th birthday and then spent months undergoing chemotherapy and reconstructive surgeries. Throughout the process, she and her husband David Stanoch struggled to find the words to explain cancer to their sons, Louis and Maxwell, who were at the time, 6 and 3.
“I looked for a book to read them that would help them understand,” says Tessman Stanoch. “I never found that book. All the children’s books I could find about cancer were about saying goodbye to a grandparent, or they had really long narratives on each page. I just kept thinking ‘My 3-year-old isn’t going to read this with me.’”
A gardener, she found herself using flower metaphors to bring cancer down to their level so they could be a part of what she was going through. When she finished her final surgery in 2011, she was determined to do all she could to help other women—and their children—cope with cancer.
“I never thought I would write a children’s book,” says Tessman Stanoch. But, looking through her journal at all the times she had compared cancer to a weed or her body to a garden, she realized she had all but written the book she tried so hard to find. This is how Our Mama Is a Beautiful Garden, self-published by Tessman- Stanoch in October 2013, bloomed.
But before that, Tessman-Stanoch needed great artwork to bring her story to life. Enter Jessica Bailey, a local tattoo artist with an interest in children’s literature, and whose own family had been affected by breast cancer. Bailey’s stepmother, Kate Bailey, co-founded the Of Scars Project, which celebrates cancer survivors through photographs, and for which Tessman-Stanoch had modeled.
Says Bailey, “I wanted to be involved because I—like nearly everyone else—have seen the effect cancer has not only on the people with cancer, but their families and friends. Katy's desire to create a book that explained this scary, complicated thing to children in a softer, less complicated way seemed very important.”
For the illustrations, Bailey tried to mimic the feel of the story with “soft and accessible” illustrations inspired by one of her favorite children's book author-illustrators, Jon Klassen. To create a textured, geometric and playful look, she began by making black ink washes on paper, scanning them into her computer and changing the colors. “From these three or four swatches, every single thing in the book was cut out. I arranged these pieces to make people or couches or flowers,” says Bailey.
The 30-page, full-color story is written from the point of view of Louis, a young boy, with younger brother Maxwell chiming in from time to time. The boys talk about dealing with their anger by hitting a blow-up clown, having relatives come to stay with them during treatments, and watching how chemotherapy kills the “weed seeds” of cancer.
“[The book] explains each step and always tries to point out the silver lining,” says Tessman-Stanoch.
Says Kyle Knock of Minnetrista, whose wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 when their twins were seven, “The book so eloquently deals with the issues that come with cancer: hair loss and chemo and anger and things like that. It allowed our kids to get used to ideas and concepts, and it was a launching point into having that hard conversation.”
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and it marks the five-year anniversary of Tessman-Stanoch’s diagnosis. Tessman-Stanoch has partnered with organizations such as Patterson Dental and Hope Chest for Breast Cancer to make copies of Our Mama is a Beautiful Garden available to families facing cancer. The book is available at Excelsior Bay Books.
For information on event dates, book signing, Katy's story, and graphics visit rhythmelodic.com/mamasgarden
For information about the Of Scars project visit ofscars.com
Excelsior Bay Books
36 Water St., Excelsior