Eden Prairie native Hugh Burke and his girlfriend Kylie Donohue teamed up to write a children’s book that teaches kids about diversity.
Burke, a second-year medical student training to be a pediatric psychiatrist at the University of Minnesota, and Donohue, a second-year student at the Illinois College of Optometry in Chicago, aimed to create a story that would entertain young readers and impart important lessons about working together and recognizing one’s strengths.
“I don’t think a lot of boyfriends and girlfriends get to experience (writing a book together),” Burke said. “We felt like we were working toward something that we really cared about and both wanted to come to life.”
The result is “The Way We Play,” a book that follows a group of students during their school playtime. While playing games together, the “classmates come to recognize their own strengths and appreciate the differences that make them all unique,” according to the book’s synopsis on the Barnes & Noble and Amazon websites.
Burke said he hopes the book will empower adults to recognize children’s inherent power and capabilities. For kids, Burke said, it preaches an open-mindedness and encourages social interaction with a diversity of perspectives and experiences.
According to Burke, “The Way We Play” is intended for readers in the age range of pre-kindergarten to first or second grade.
“Through the different perspectives and activities you can become more well-rounded in the end,” he said of the book’s underlying theme. “Become a better human.”
An idea emerges
Burke said he is passionate about working with underprivileged groups and serving the communities that “have not been as fortunate as we have been.”
Growing up in Eden Prairie, Burke said he learned a lot of good lessons from his parents and the sports he played.
“One of the themes in the book is teamwork, learning to be part of a team, and I was a big Eden Prairie sports person, all the way up to high school,” he said. “I felt like I had to break out of Eden Prairie, too, to go get some different experience. I don’t think I really grasped until I left how lucky I was as a kid growing up there.”
Through writing, he found a creative outlet for his advocacy.
“I wanted to make some of these topics relevant for children in a way that they could understand and enjoy,” Burke said. “Writing this book has been a great way for me to combine my passions for medicine and social justice in a creative way.”
After graduating from the University of Notre Dame, he spent a year before medical school in Chicago doing service work. Burke worked with a group called Taller de José, which translates to Joseph’s Workshop in English. It helps the Latinx community on the south side of Chicago with issues such as immigration and rental assistance.
At the University of Minnesota, he joined the Neurodiversity in Medicine student group.
Highlighting “people that weren’t born neurotypically,” Burke said the group focuses on individuals with conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, severe developmental delays, and psychiatric disorders. “As a healthcare professional, it’s important to understand how to work with these patients and ensure that their needs are met,” he said.
Burke was inspired by some of the discussions that took place in the student group to create the concept for the book. From there, he worked to develop the idea into a fun and engaging plot that would be suitable for children.
“I was like, ‘What if we take animals and have them do a bunch of things and kind of highlight each animal’s strengths and weaknesses and sort of wrap it up into a fun Aha moment at the end?'” he said.
Burke and Donohue, who met while studying at Notre Dame, began brainstorming book ideas together.
Like Burke, Donohue took a year off before starting her graduate studies. She worked in a fourth grade classroom on the south side of Chicago, teaching social and emotional learning to children.
“We sort of planned out that we were going to do this,” Burke said. “And then I got an email from the U of M that they were offering grants to students to pursue artistic projects that had some sort of relation to medicine. I took that as a sign that we really need to jump on this and make it happen.”
Burke successfully applied for the Fisch Art of Medicine Student Awards.
“We were able to use that money to pay illustrators and people to put the book into some sort of print ready format as well as get it on some of the major sites where books are sold,” Burke said.
During the writing process, Burke and Donohue received help from Dr. Woubeshet Ayenew, Burke’s faculty advisor. In addition to being a cardiologist at Hennepin Healthcare and a member of the faculty at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Ayenew is also a children’s author.
“I always admired that he was able to do that with his spare time,” Burke said.
Ayenew helped connect the two new authors to the non-profit literacy organization Open Hearts Big Dreams. Through that organization, they connected with Jane Kurtz, a children’s book author who grew up in Ethiopia and now lives in Portland, Oregon.
“We actually got some help from her, too, on some of our rhyming schemes and plot refinement,” he said.
Burke and Donohue started working on the children’s book in March and finished it during the summer. Some of their collaboration was done over Zoom calls since they attend schools in different cities. It was first available for purchase on Oct. 4.
All earnings from the sale of the book are being donated to Ready Set Go Books, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) project by Open Hearts Big Dreams that aims to increase child literacy and a love of reading in Ethiopia.
One of the best parts of the experience for Burke has been seeing pictures of children reading his book, either sent by friends or family members.
“It’s been really fun and fulfilling to see the impact it’s having on young readers,” he said.
A future version of “The Way We Play,” translated into Amharic, one of the major languages of Ethiopia, is in the works.
“It would have more relevance to readers (in Ethiopia),” he said. “Like, some of the animals (in the current book) might not be super relevant to a kid in Ethiopia. They’re not seeing a kangaroo.”
In the meantime, Burke is interested in continuing to write books. The University of Minnesota offers the Fisch awards to current students there annually.
“As long as I have an idea ready by springtime I would like to write a book every year until I graduate (in May 2025),” he said.
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