Ukulele-Playing Dr. Marino Breaks Into Publishing With A Prescription For Change
She’s a pediatric emergency medicine specialist, a children’s book author and she plays the ukulele. She recently diagnosed a worldwide problem and wrote her own prescription for change in the form of her first children’s book that teaches compassion and a little TLC.
“I wrote ‘Chepecho And Her Clippity Flappity Floppity Friends,’ on a short break in between jobs,” said 37-year-old Ochsner Hospital for Children’s Dr. Meg Marino. “I was traveling in Italy with my family last summer and we kept seeing this creature with hooves and wings and a fishtail that appeared in a lot of the public art. The main character Chepecho, a name I created from the French, Italian and Spanish words for horse, fish and bird, teaches kids not be afraid of those who are different and that we are all the same and we can all be friends. This book helps parents start conversations on a wide range of topics including bullying, discrimination, equality, interfaith relations, immigration issues and LGBTQ families.”
Chepecho wants to play with other animals including horses, birds and sea lions, but they are afraid because Chepecho is different. Marino said her heartwarming story, released by Mayaseen Publishing on Monday, Sept. 10, shows Chepecho helping others see how similar they all really are. She said her book examines how to make healthy friendships, bring people together despite their differences and encourage acceptance of others.
“Every day I see the consequences of bullying on the lives of children in my pediatric emergency room,” said Marino. “In the news, I see the increasing divisiveness, bigotry and xenophobia in our society. This message of acceptance isn’t just for children. I hope to help all people understand that we should embracing diversity and not fear it.”
Marino said she also traveled to Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Jerusalem last summer and viewed Nazi propaganda in the form of children’s books that taught children how to hate. That’s when she realized the world needed more books that teach kids about empathy and equality, how to love and how to accept those who are different. Marino said “Chepecho” does just that.
“I want kids to be surrounded by positive messages that help them embrace the differences in themselves and others so that they can experience more love and less fear,” she said. “There has been a new wave of intolerance in our culture over the last few years that made me realize that we need to spread more messages of love and acceptance in the world. Lessons on embracing diversity and being kind to yourself and others can benefit both adults and children. We can change so much about our lives and how we relate to others by changing the way we think. Young children absorb and incorporate new lessons into their lives every day. Let’s make those lessons positive.”
Marino sent her first draft to her friend Zahraa, a pediatric intensive care physician.
“Someone looking in from the outside might think that we don’t have a lot in common but she is one of my best friends,” said Marino. “I wanted to share the book with her because it felt like this book was about us. We are so different on the outside but on the inside we are so similar. She asked if she could share it with her mother. I had met her mother once before and I knew she did some work with reading to refugee children, but I didn’t know that she owned a children’s book publishing company. Six weeks later I received a call that Mayaseen Publishing wanted to publish my book. Mayaseen only publishes children’s books with a positive message and their mission is to donate books to children affected by war. After a 10-minute conversation, I knew that Mayaseen was the right publisher for me and for ‘Chepecho.’ Our values are definitely aligned.”
One thousand books from the first printing of “Chepecho” will be donated to refugee children through Project Peace that brings books to displaced and refugee children affected by war. A portion of U.S. sales proceeds will be used to create translated editions of the book in Arabic and other languages. “Chepecho’s” book illustrator Lina Naddaf was born in Syria and has illustrated several children’s books all over the Arab world.
“Over the years I have treated many children who fled war-torn countries with their families,” said Marino. “I was trying to find ways to do more to help outside of treating the children in the hospital. When Mayaseen Publishing told me that their mission is to put a book in every child’s hand and that they wanted to translate my book into other languages and distribute it to children in refugee camps, it seemed like a wonderful way to help put some positive energy into that part of the world. I hope that my books can bring a little bit of light into their lives.”
“Chepecho’s story is one of compassion, acceptance, and open-mindedness,” said pediatric psychologist Jill West, Ph.D. “Neither children nor adults can hear messages like this often enough. Characters like Chepecho allow us a way to start conversations early with children about what it means to accept that we all have differences, and what matters most is that we embrace those differences.”
“The next ‘Chepecho’ book, which will be released at the end of next year, will teach children to develop compassion for themselves and not compare themselves and their abilities to others,” said Marino. “It teaches that we just need to work hard and that success doesn’t necessarily mean being the best at something. It just means trying your best. It encourages children to try things new things, explore new skills and not tease others or judge themselves based on the abilities of others. We are only competing with ourselves.”
Marino said entering the publishing business was no accident, and writing has now become the life’s blood of her creativity.
“When traveling last summer, I found that I had a ton of creative energy because my brain wasn’t focused on working,” said Marino. “The first draft of ‘Chepecho’ came to me, and I wrote it in one sitting in a tiny notebook. I don’t know that I would have had the time or the creativity to write the book if I hadn’t taken this break. When I got back from my trip I realized that the creative part of me that wrote the book is part of me all the time, not just when I am on vacation. I just have to dedicate the time to it now that I am working again. I have learned that I need to be much more organized than I am naturally and that I need an additional 20 hours each day. Thankfully, I have a supportive family that has helped me create some systems that are keeping everything running smoothly. Having a full-time job and launching a book at the same time would be impossible without my family.”
Marino will be releasing another book next year called “Taramina’s Bubble.” She said it was inspired by her pediatric patients that she sees in the ER who are insulated from the outside world by their parents and their iPads and that they cannot relate to people. Marino said the main character Taramina lives in a bubble that protects her from everything bad in the outside world. When her bubble is popped she tries to put it back together again but she realizes that the bubble has been keeping her from making friends and developing connections with others. Marino said she hopes the book will teach kids and parents that it’s acutely important to see what’s happening to others in the world.
“I write books that help children develop empathy and emotional intelligence,” said Marino. “I think it is important to teach children that everyone can be friends and that at our core we are all the same. My books teach children how to stand up for things they believe in, how to make friends with those who are different, how to stop bullying, how to do things for themselves and how to not compare themselves to others.”
Marino has also written several children’s songs that she plays on the ukulele that reinforces the messages in her books.
“So far I have only been playing the ukulele outside of the hospital,” said Marino. “I started writing songs that reinforce the lessons from my books, and they will be released online later this year. Children learn so much from music and repetition. Songs are a great way to get children to internalize the values from the books. I am still trying to find ways to incorporate playing the ukulele into my medical practice. I would love to play the ukulele for patients. I hope to find a way to bring music therapy into my emergency room for procedures and sedations that can be especially stressful for kids. My job is very hands-on and so is playing the ukulele. Right now, I seem to be using both of my hands all the time to treat the patients.”
While Marino may be nursing new ideas for children’s books, she said she has no plans to permanently hang up her stethoscope any time soon.
“I love being a pediatric emergency medicine physician and I can’t imagine giving it up,” she said. “There is a critical shortage of pediatric emergency medicine subspecialists in the country and especially in New Orleans. I feel a responsibility to continue to practice even when I have other wonderful projects in my life. I am so thankful to work in a profession where I can take care of sick kids every day and feel like I am bringing something to my community. I will definitely continue to write children’s books but I will always practice medicine.”
Marino’s “Chepecho And Her Clippity Flappity Floppity Friends” is available at Amazon and local bookstores throughout New Orleans.