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Harvard Authors Spotlight: MG Prezioso ’13 on Destigmatizing Chronic Illnesses in Children’s Books

"Charlie's Big Race" by MG Prezioso
"Charlie's Big Race" by MG Prezioso By Courtesy of MG Prezioso
By Katherrin A. Billordo, Crimson Staff Writer

Pumped with exhilarating energy and determination, a smiling young cheetah sprints across a tall, swaying savannah on the cover of MG Prezioso ’13’s “Charlie’s Big Race.” Thick, bubble-gum pink and yellow sweatband and all.

Prezioso’s eye-catching children’s book is the first in her Whole Wilde World Series, a collection of children’s books created to highlight, introduce, explain, and normalize chronic health conditions and allergies in a way that is relatable and digestible to young audiences. Each page bursts with informative words, animated, colorful backgrounds, and with even more adorable characters.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Prezioso was an English concentrator and avid theatre participant at the College. However, she didn’t actually begin to pursue her interest in creative writing until after she graduated. Now a Dunster resident tutor and PhD candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Prezioso’s work primarily focuses on storytelling in literature.

“My research focuses on how kids get absorbed or immersed in books and how that influences various aspects of their social-emotional identity, learning outcomes, and cognitive development,” she said.

Prezioso is also working with her advisor to analyze the value of literature and its role in transforming our society. Her academic pursuits allowed her to naturally pivot towards creating literature for younger audiences.

“Charlie’s Big Race” centers the story of Charlie the Cheetah, a loveable character whose dreams of running in the Grassland Fair and Games Race are momentarily interrupted when her lungs start to “whistle and squeak” during her intense physical activity. On a visit to Dr. Wilde’s office, Charlie quickly becomes diagnosed with asthma, learns to use an inhaler, and accepts this new facet of her identity before going on to win the annual field day, proving to all young readers that chronic illnesses are a part of what makes a person unique and won’t stop someone from achieving their goals.

When asked why she chose to make asthma the central theme of the first book in her children’s series, Prezioso relayed her personal connection to the chronic illness. Both Prezioso and her sister have had asthma since they were children, so she has extensive firsthand experience with living with the condition.

In addition to her personal experience, asthma is one of the most common chronic conditions for kids. Despite asthma being so common among children, it remains uncommon to see stories showcasing it or other medical topics in children’s books.

“I think there are books that exist that grapple with these topics, but I think they are a bit long and a bit too informational sometimes,” Prezioso said. “Perhaps there’s just an overload of information and it’s not as digestible for kids. That’s what this book is trying to do — to provide a tool that is going to be easy for kids to understand that’s hopefully enjoyable.”

Even if a reader does not experience asthma, food allergies, or chronic illness, Prezioso explained that everyone can benefit from knowing how to best keep kids safe and normalize the illness.

“There is a lot to say — not only about providing information for kids as a tool for when they get diagnosed, but also about destigmatizing it, having conversations about that as a part of kids’ identity, and celebrating that part that makes you unique,” she said.

When asked to give any advice to undergraduate students that might be considering writing their own children’s book, Prezioso encouraged students to absolutely go for it and explore the space.

“First decide whether or not your book would be well suited to a traditional publishing house or whether you essentially want to be the creative, the founder, the coordinator, the researcher as well as the writer,” she said. “If so, self-publishing is a really amazing outlet for that. The joy of self-publishing is getting to be involved every step of the way.”

Prezioso described the process of creating this book as incredibly rewarding and exhilarating.

“It feels so exciting to have a finished product, to start with an idea and see it through to the very end,” she said.

With the creation of this book, Prezioso wants everyone to know that this genre of medical children’s books might be seen as a niche market, but that it doesn’t have to be.

“Yes, food allergies or chronic conditions are a subset of the population, but it’s so important to have all children learn about these issues and topics and be able to recognize them and support their classmates,” Prezioso said. “To have them destigmatized and feeling like they’re accepted and included and that everyone is operating with kindness and empathy for what it means to live with these sorts of conditions.”

—Staff writer Katherrin A. Billordo can be reached at katherrin.billordo@thecrimson.com.

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