In Deedee Cummings’ experience, the languages of hope and peace are ones people struggle to learn, especially if those people are vulnerable children. As a therapist, she primarily works with foster children, which exposes her to a lot of heartbreak as the children struggle, moving from home to home, or from just being in the system. She hopes “when people read my books…they feel a sense of calm, a sense of peace, a sense of hope,” she says.

That’s the desire that led her to write books like This Is the Earth, a spare picture book for very young readers that explores the diversity and universality of life. One of the book’s messages is that everyone has their own story—and that all of those stories are valid: 

I promise to hear you and when I don’t like what I see, / I will try to see you through your lens, not the one made for me.

In the beautifully illustrated poem, children of many colors, abilities, and attitudes, with different types of houses and different senses of style, all share the pages, respecting each other. They find ways to work together to create a better world. Kirkus Reviews calls the book’s message “poignant,” continuing, “This work gently encourages kindness and empathy.”

The ability to hear other peoples’ stories is one that Cummings feels is becoming rarer. “In our culture—we’ve always kind of been this way, but it’s definitely getting worse—I can’t even hear your story without somehow feeling threatened,” she explains. “We are so polarized when it comes to just hearing someone’s journey.” 

Cummings’ journey to writing was roundabout. She attended law school when she was a child protective services worker, but she was disillusioned with the imbalance and unfairness she saw in the family court system. She had also earned a master’s degree as a social worker that enabled her to become a licensed therapist. While she has continued to work as an attorney, mostly in pro bono cases, she practices much more as a therapist. She noticed a frequent trend among the children, where “a bunch of big people, a bunch of adults, would sit around a table and ask a child, ‘What is wrong with you?’ They would go through this list of things: ‘You lie, you steal.’ These children would take [in] these messages, and in therapy, they would tell me, ‘I’m a liar. I steal.’ So they’re taking these labels and attributing these labels to themselves as truth, not just for today, but maybe forever.”

But Cummings believes, “none of us are what we are today.” She wanted to give children a chance to change their own narratives, so she began writing with them, telling their stories of what happened, why they lied or stole, but then allowing the children to write what happened next. “It gave them total control and total power over who they are,” she explains. Through her children’s books, she wants to impart some of that same lesson to readers spread out far wider than the reach of her therapy practice. She hopes her readers take away “that it’s never too late to start over, that they write their story, that they say who they are.”

Giving readers the tools to envision their own stories and identities and helping them see through the lens of others shows up in different ways in her picture book for older, independent readers, In the Nick of Time, a Christmas story in which a black boy named Nick Saint accidentally receives a letter intended for Santa. After initially wanting nothing to do with the letter, he comes to realize that he has the power to help a friend in need—and to investigate his own privilege. “Nick’s transformation from a child concerned with material things to a kid who wants to help others rings true,” writes Kirkus Reviews.

Nick journeys from self-absorbed to a child who hears and sees the stories of others—and performs the classical holiday storyline of a child helping Santa Claus. While Nick’s mother, whose very authentic voice reflects Cummings’ own parenting style, is a strong presence in the story, it’s Nick who drives the plot, who decides to find a way to help, and who ultimately makes a difference in his friend’s life. Making sure Nick was the focal point was important to Cummings, who explains, “I want children who read the book to not wait around for an adult to say this is the right thing to do. I want them to look around and say, ‘How can I make the world a better place?’ ” 

Cummings not only empowers children through her books, she is the founder of the It Pays To Read initiative, which provides mentoring and modeling—and reading time, for which the participants receive a monetary incentive—to children who lack reading skills. The program invites community members, including chefs and firefighters, to talk about the difference reading has made in their lives. It also gives the children, all of whom have begun the program not knowing reading could be fun, exposure to positive reading experiences. Cummings has shown that desire to enlarge the community of reading on an even larger scale in founding the Louisville Book Festival in her current home of Louisville, Kentucky, which will be held for the first time in October 2020.

Through her work growing readers in all her careers, Cummings strives to make the world a better place. “I want [my readers] to know that peace and hope are languages that we have to learn to speak,” she says. “That they know that there are other people…like them who want these things, too.”

Alana Joli Abbott writes about pop culture, fantasy and science fiction, and children’s books, which she reviews with the help of her kids.