Paige Starr remembers a day several years ago when she, her mother, and her youngest brother, Blake, then about 5, were in line at Walmart, waiting to pay, when a well-meaning but clueless woman addressed Blake.
“Oh, no!” the woman said. “What happened to your lip?”
Paige felt her mother stiffen. Blake was born with a facial deformity commonly known as a cleft lip. He had already had surgery to address it, and he would have more.
Lots of children would have been upset by the woman’s insensitive question. But not Blake.
“I was in a fight with a pirate, and he cut my mouth! But don’t worry because I won!” Blake told her. “And he knocked out my tooth. Look! Look!”
The Franklinville mother and daughter couldn’t help but laugh. And Blake was just getting started.
“He has always been unapologetically himself,” his sister said.
Paige, now 22 and a future teacher, is hoping to pass on some of the inspiration her little brother, 13, has long been for her. She is the proud author of Brave Blake, a children’s book recently published by Dorrance Publishing of Pittsburgh.
The book’s hero is Blake, a second grader, who worries that his birth defect — a cleft lip — will affect what his classmates think of him and dash his hopes of winning the Best Smile competition. To better his chances, he makes up a story about a run-in with a pirate, only to get called out on his tall tale by the class bully.
In the end, our hero learns important lessons about the value of being yourself, as well as friendship.
For Paige, Brave Blake is a dream come true. She has the unlikely combination of her brother and COVID-19 to credit for helping to make it happen.
“For many years, it had been a dream of mine to become an author, but truthfully, I never thought I would be smart enough to be able to do it,” said Paige, a senior inclusive education major at Rowan University. “I always associated that profession” — writing books — “with great intelligence and wisdom.”
But during the 2020 shutdown, boredom set in. Cleaning out some cabinets, she came upon a project she did years before while at Delsea Regional High School: a children’s book about a little boy like her brother and his pirate adventure.
The education major started revising her old project, turning it into a manuscript with a message for youngsters. A self-starter, she set out to sell it on her own, submitting it to eight publishers. Five turned her down right away.
Then on Memorial Day, an email came her way. She could barely believe her eyes: A publisher wanted to publish Brave Blake.
Since then, Paige’s project and the excitement surrounding it have snowballed. She loves that she found her illustrator from her old high school, current senior Talia J. Metcalf. A student teacher at Glassboro’s Thomas Bowe School, Paige has also had the thrill of seeing her pupils enjoy her book; she gave each one a copy for Christmas.
In addition, the book’s theme of embracing differences is very important to Paige, who plans to attend Drexel University to pursue a graduate degree in global and international education. Her goal is to teach abroad and promote classroom inclusivity in other countries.
On top of all that, Brave Blake is a shout-out to a little brother who has had a big impact on the author’s life.
“Though this is my book, this story is a nod to him and who I hope every kid in the world gets to become,” said Paige.
She called the book Brave Blake because her brother is, she said. Of course, he’s also her brother, and sometimes he does get on her nerves. But, she added: “He’s a very, very special kid.”
“Everything he does, he does with his head held high, shoulders back. He’s fearless,” Paige said. “We have two other brothers, and he looks up to them so much, but he’s always just himself. He doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. He’s not afraid to tell you, ‘This is who I am, and I’m OK with it.’”
Blake, in his laid-back way, pretty much agreed.
“I was never really offended by” people’s questions, Blake said. “I feel I’m a really strong-minded person. That stuff really never got to me.”
Part of an outdoors-loving family, Blake enjoys playing sports and hunting and fishing with his brothers, Chuckie, 19, and George, 16, and their dad, Chuck. He’s got a while to decide his future, but he thinks he’d eventually like to join his father’s business, Starr General Contracting.
In the meantime, he is proud of his author sister, and he’s enjoying having a book inspired by him.
“I kind of joke with her about how I want a percentage of it, but it’s cool,” Blake said. “I read it a lot. I love it. It sums up the story, and I like how even from when she first wrote it in high school, the story didn’t change that much.”
Stephanie Starr is proud of both her daughter and her youngest son and their differences.
Like many mothers might, early on, she worried about how Blake might be treated because of his somewhat different appearance, and she even felt some guilt. Cleft lip and palate are conditions that tend to run on her side of the family.
But Blake was always an original, even as a tiny tyke. His bold encounter with the pirate was just one of the fanciful stories he’d happily spin about his not-so-typical lip — even if people didn’t ask.
“He would tell anybody who would listen,” his mother said. “We’d have to tell him, ‘Stop talking to strangers. They don’t all need to know.’ But every time was a different story. He just went with it.”
Blake has had two surgeries, plus braces, to address his condition. More braces are in store, and, according to his mother, very possibly another significant surgery. If it were up to Blake, though, he said he would forego that.
“I’m fine with the way I look,” he said.
Paige, meanwhile, has stayed true to her passion for helping her others, according to her mom.
“She’s always been wise beyond her years, she did everything early and she always had that caretaker quality,” said her mother. “And she still does.”
Paige hopes Brave Blake and its message will be one more thing that can help further the goal of acceptance for all kids. She doesn’t have specific plans for a second book, but she thinks inclusivity will likely be a theme she returns to when she tries her hand at writing again.
Meanwhile, there’s graduation to look forward to, grad school, and basking in that well-deserved first-time author’s glow.
“For now,” she said, “I’m just trying to enjoy such an exciting year of my life!”