HOLLIDAYSBURG - For more than 24 years, Hollidaysburg-based children's book author and publisher Norma McPhee has provided stories for special needs children that also familiarize non-handicapped children with physical and cognitive disabilities from muscular dystrophy to autism.
"The hero in each book is a child with a disability," McPhee said.
Late last week, McPhee read a story to Stay & Play Preschool children who visit the Hollidaysburg Area Public Library weekly.
"I think it's good for kids to learn about kids who may be different from them - kids who they don't see every day so that they know ultimately they are more similar than different," parent Jessica Stanek of Hollidaysburg said.
McPhee said school districts and universities are the main market for the books. And many of the 23 books she has published have been written by educational experts, parents and school psychologists who submit manuscripts to her.
"It's reality-based fiction," she said.
McPhee, an Air Force wife and mother of four children, began writing in the 1980s for her grandson, who died before his fourth birthday from complications of severe cerebral palsy.
The Altoona Children's Center gave McPhee a memorial gift of $25 to publish the stories she had written up to that point, and the nonprofit publishing company Jason & Nordic Publishers Inc. was born.
Jason in the name is in memory of her grandson, and Nordic comes from a combination of the names of Norma and her husband, Dick. The undertaking was funded by her husband's retirement pay from his career as an Air Force chaplain.
"Just the cost of bringing out 1,500 books costs thousands of dollars," she said.
When her husband died in 2011, McPhee turned to Penn State Altoona to help her publishing company survive financially.
The Penn State Altoona student branch of the nonprofit organization Enactus - an entrepreneurial action group formerly known as Students in Free Enterprise - helps to market and manage a business until it's capable of sustaining itself.
"We help her with marketing by using Facebook and Twitter and scheduling book events to really open up her business," sophomore business student Leila Farzam said.
A story shared with the Stay & Play students was about a deaf boy who raises Sophie, a puppy who will one day become a service dog for an adult with a disability.
Children also met a special guest at the library who had a tail, they were told.
It was not a monkey and not a lion, as the children supposed.
Instead, Center for Independent Living employee Leslie Kelly visited with her service dog, a yellow Labrador named Nokie.
Kelly, who is deaf, works to increase awareness of people using service dogs.
Nokie is trained for tasks, including nudging Kelly if a fire alarm sounds, picking up her car keys if she drops them and retrieving a ringing phone for her.
"Her books are just perfect," said Kelly of McPhee.
McPhee said she is in the process of publishing a story submitted to her by a medical hospice about a child with a serious illness.
"It will be a delightful book on a difficult subject," she said.
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O'Reilly is at 946-7435.