The write stuff

May 15—SHARON — When Jay Miletsky saw how children's books addressed disabilities, he found too many of them to be depressing, that they pitied affected children for their perceived shortcomings instead of celebrating their potential.

Miletsky — whose daughter, Rhea, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy — aimed for something different.

"I wanted to approach disabilities in a more positive way," he said.

So Miletsky wrote books like "Ricky, the Rock Who Couldn't Roll," about a sentient stone that was flat on one side. Last year, that book won West Hill Elementary School's "March Madness" favorite book contest.

This year, the West Hill students picked another Jay Miletsky book — "Tess, the Tin That Wanted to Be a Rock" — as their "March Madness" book winner. Miletsky celebrated his repeat victory Wednesday by visiting West Hill Elementary, where he was overwhelmed by the welcome he got from the students and staff.

West Hill greeted Miletsky, known as Mr. Jay to his child fans, with a march down the "Tiger Tunnel" — a march down the school's main hallway between two rows of cheering students, many of whom waved small plates covered in aluminum foil to represent the winning book's title character.

After emerging from the "Tiger Tunnel," Miletsky went into the school's multipurpose room, where the students cheered even louder, and took his seat in a director's chair set up in a mock rock garden created by fifth-graders in teacher Ellen Kosick's class.

"Most schools don't go to this extent," Miletsky said. "This could have been a pep rally for a Notre Dame bowl game."

West Hill teacher Lisa Nicastro organized the visit by Miletsky — who drove six hours from his home in Redbank, N.J. She helped solicit contributions, which allowed all of the students to receive T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Reading Rocks at West Hill," courtesy of Sunbelt Solomon and the Hudson Companies."

Nicastro said the entire West Hill staff contributed to the effort, which resulted in a special day for the students.

"For them to meet a real author, it's a big deal," Nicastro said. "It was absolutely amazing. Everyone came together."

Miletsky's presentation started by reading the winning book — spoilers ahead! — which tells the story of Tess, a ball of aluminum foil who had "been living inside of a little boy's pocket with a lizard, two coins and a broken locket."

Tess arrives in Ricky's rock land, where she begins to make friends. But when a crisis occurs, the rocks rush off, leaving behind Tess, who worries that she will slow them down. In the end, though, Tess and her shiny appearance saves the day.

After reading the story, Miletsky explains that Rhea, now 12, inspired him to write children's books and is represented by a ladybug on every page.

Tess, like Ricky from the earlier book, shows young readers that everyone has a special quality that enables them to help others, Miletsky told the West Hill students.

"My daughter is learning how to walk," Miletsky said. "She is learning how to talk. And I'm proud of her every day. I never want to focus on the things she can't do."

For one member of the West Hill staff, learning about the story behind Miletsky's stories was particularly poignant.

Title I reading teacher Nicole Getsie Matoka has a younger brother, Bruce, who has cerebral palsy. Matoka, speaking through tears, said Bruce overcame many of the same challenges Rhea now faces.

"My brother worked very hard to be able to walk," she said.

As they grew up, Matoka said she sometimes had to be not just a big sister. Sometimes she had to be a protector. But Bruce — again, as with Rhea Miletsky — was in a family that loved and valued him.

"My parents made sure he never felt left out," she said.

Bruce, now 36, works at Burger King, and receives services through Whole Life. He lives in Sharon and enjoys activities including fishing.

Matoka said hearing Jay Miletsky's message about ensuring that his daughter is not defined by her disability gave her a special connection with his stories about the rocks that roll together.

"Now when I hear his stories, I'll think of that."