NJ Author DeMaio Writes Children’s Cancer Story for Charity

By Erin Pedrini
Web Production Assistant

Katie Demaio reading Big Charles with Jamison Mulligan. Photo Courtesy of Katie DeMaio.

First time author and Rutgers University Alumni from New Providence, Katie DeMaio, recalled walking around the children’s floor of the cancer center with her friend Charles Pazdera, which served as inspiration for her book. “We would walk around and see children of all ages, going through chemo treatments and hooked up to IVs. It was life changing. I never once heard Charles say, ‘Why me?’ He had 23 healthy years of fun behind him and these children were starting out their lives at a disadvantage,” she said.

Pazdera was diagnosed with pediatric cancer at the age of 23 and was one of the oldest being treated on the children’s floor.

DeMaio said that she and Pazdera wanted to give the children in the cancer center someone to look up to and let them know that they were not alone. She said that they also saw children who would visit their siblings and friends in the hospital and DeMaio and Pazdera would discuss how confused those children must have been trying to understand what was going on. DeMaio said that is when they started to brainstorm the children’s book Big Charles.

“Before Charles passed away, right before his 26th birthday, I promised him that I would create our book. It took me three years of hard work, but I am proud that I delivered my promise to my friend,” DeMaio said.

The story of Big Charles does exactly what DeMaio and Pazdera had intended in their discussions. DeMaio described the main character, Charles, as a fun-loving, mischievous boy that loves macaroni and cheese, playing outside and spending time with friends, just like many other children. Except, Charles is diagnosed with cancer.

DeMaio said that the doctor sits Charles down and explains cancer to him in a simple way, which Charles relays to the readers accompanied by helpful illustrations.

“He said, ‘Everybody is made up of cells, and cancer is when some grow out of control.’ Most follow directions, but after inspection, mine weren’t doing what they were told,” Charles says in the book about how his doctor explained cancer to him.

Throughout the book, Charles undergoes chemotherapy and step by step, he guides the readers through the processes, DeMaio said. She said he teaches readers to stay away from germs, that IVs and needles are not scary, that hair and appetite loss may occur but with each new development, Charles makes the best of it.

“His positive attitude shows kids how they can still have fun even though bad things are happening to their bodies,” DeMaio said about the character Charles.

DeMaio says that when Charles beats his cancer, he shows children that they are stronger than they think and that they need to stick together when going through tough times.

DeMaio said that she believes that Charles is a relatable character for sick children, children who know someone who is sick and their respective parents. “He is fun, playful and honest about his emotions. He relates to the children who are going to diagnosis and chemotherapy. He shows them simple things, like even though they might not have the energy to play outside, they can learn to draw, read books and play board games. He shows them that they are not alone in their struggles with their hair and appetite loss, and that a fun hat and a little chocolate cake can go a long way,” DeMaio said.

As for children watching a peer they know go through cancer, the book keeps them informed about what is going on and not to be scared of the outward changes they see in their friend or sibling. DeMaio said that the book showcases that the friendship of another child plays a big role in recovery and that they are important.

The book helps parents as well, who are trying to explain what cancer is to a child because DeMaio said that Big Charles provides children with answers they can understand about cancer.

Sharing her own experience as a child, DeMaio said that a girl in her grammar school class had cancer and she did not understand why the girl in her class lost her hair and didn’t come to school every day. She said that she was confused. “If my teacher had shared Big Charles with my class, we would have been more informed about what was going on, so that she did not feel alienated. Instead, we were all just scared. Children don’t need to be left in the dark about cancer. They just need to be informed gently about it,” DeMaio said.

In addition to helping children and families with the book’s message, DeMaio has decided to donate all the profits she makes from her children’s book to the Emmanuel Cancer Foundation of New Jersey.

Choosing the Emmanuel Cancer Foundation of New Jersey to benefit from the Big Charles was a “no brainer” for DeMaio. She said she chose this foundation because it is not a typical charity, where money raised just gets funneled into research.

“ECF is there to support the New Jersey families who need support now. From helping families to pay bills, offering family counseling or sending presents during the holidays when finances are tight, they are there every step of the way,” DeMaio said.

DeMaio has not set a monetary goal of how much she would like to raise for the Emmanuel Cancer Foundation, but she’s excited to help however she can. “I can’t wait to get my first royalty check so I can send it to ECF! I am grateful for every single dollar that I can raise for the wonderful organization,” she said.

DeMaio is throwing her first book release party for Big Charles Saturday, March 29 from noon to 4 p.m. in Hoboken at Little Town NJ. All profits received from the party will be directly donated to the Emmanuel Cancer Foundation of New Jersey. Tickets for the event are $100, children are free and information about buying tickets can found on the Big Charles Facebook page. The tickets include top shelf open bar, hors d’oeurves and hot plate items. Every attendee will also receive a copy of Big Charles, which the attendee can keep or can choose to donate to an ECF family. There will be raffles for gift baskets and live entertainment as well.

What’s next for DeMaio after the charity event? She said she does not believe that she will write another children’s book. “I tackled this project and stuck through it for years because it was so close to my heart and I knew I could help children,” DeMaio said.

She said she is the type of person that will always be involved in charity work and will use her gifts and talents to help others as long as she can.

“I’m sure I will start up another project and if I can continue to help people and make them smile, well then that’s just pure magic,” DeMaio said.