A HURRICANE hurtling toward Ms. Love's Mystical Island will destroy a magical orchid that protects the Earth's ozone layer - unless four urban kids can decipher an ancient map's clues and find the scattered pieces of a supernatural crystal in time.
Susan Love, 45, of Somerton, hopes her first e-book, Ms. Love's Mystical Island Adventure, grabs her young readers in the same way she has inspired writing students during 18 years in the Philadelphia public schools.
Ten years ago, when Love taught second-graders at Luis Munoz Marin Elementary School in North Philadelphia and then fifth- and sixth-graders at Penn Treaty Middle School in Fishtown, she connected with her ethnically diverse students by researching and celebrating their island ancestries.
"I had children whose siblings were shot and killed right in front of them," Love said. "One student lost her 16-year-old sister to gang violence when she was 6. It's hard for a child to see the light when all this is going on in your world.
"I was dealing with children with very low self-esteem," Love said. "I could relate because I was a foster child and I didn't fit in."
Love was placed in foster care when she was 5, after being rescued from a fire that destroyed her home and left her mother unable to care for her.
She said she was saved from despair by Donna Waitz Cohn, her caseworker from Lutheran Children and Family Service, "who told me, 'You'll do something great when you grow up. You'll find your path. You have one.' "
Another caseworker, Donna Newman from the city's Department of Human Services, inspired Love to get an education.
"If it weren't for those caseworkers, it would have been hard for me to see the light," Love said.
So as a teacher, when Love was faced with a classroom of children who she felt were in danger of drowning in despair, she threw them a lifeline just as her caseworkers had thrown her one.
She turned her classrooms into islands, complete with tropical plants, a waterfall and a reading area under a thatched roof.
"The whole island thing," Love said, "was about: Here's this Caucasian woman, who is obviously not Puerto Rican, but who is celebrating the children's culture.
"Other children in the class were from the Philippines, the British Virgin Islands, Cuba, Hawaii. By the time I got through researching their family histories, everyone had an island to come to when they came to my classroom."
Today, Love's classroom at John M. Patterson School in Eastwick, where she has taught since 2009, has fewer physical island touches but is just as driven by Love's determination to connect with her students.
"Some people look down on city children and don't see them as children who can succeed," Love said. "The truth is, they are very capable learners. They just need the teacher to believe in them, to value their culture and where they come from. I do."