Interview with Katie Petruzziello
Illustrations by Nadja Sarell
When her three year-old daughter, Mila, needed cochlear implants for hearing loss, Katie Petruzziello searched for fun children’s books that represented children like Mila, to no avail. Undaunted, she decided to write and self-publish her own book, Mighty Mila, which features a main character with hearing loss and focuses on believing in yourself and celebrating what makes you unique.
How did you begin this journey?
I’m glad you ask that question because it’s an important backstory. Mila had mild hearing loss when she was young and wore hearing aids, but her hearing dropped rapidly over the course of six to eight months, until she lost all remaining hearing. She very quickly became a candidate for cochlear implants, which she got in early 2020.
During that time when her hearing loss was rapidly dropping, I talked with her Teacher of the Deaf, Ashley Machovec, and told her that I needed to find some books to read to Mila with characters like her so she could familiarize herself with what was happening. She told me that she had actually wanted to write a book for some time and would love to write one based on Mila. So she wrote and published a book, Mila Gets Her Super Ears, right around when Mila got her cochlear implants. I had the opportunity to work with her on some of the language, and I loved it.
Once Mila had her cochlear implants, she was no longer as interested in reading books that focused on a character’s journey with hearing loss, but instead wanted to find books with deaf/hard of hearing characters where the story wasn’t focused on the disability. We couldn’t find any, so I knew I had to write that book. Children with hearing loss deserve to see themselves in fun, adventurous stories doing all the things that regular kids do. Because that’s what they are: regular kids.
That’s how, a year later, we got Mighty Mila. It’s a fun story that kids like Mila can pick up and see themselves represented and empower them to be the hero. But it’s equally important that other kids pick it up, learn more about someone that may be different from them and see that kids with cochlear implants can do everything they set their minds to. Ultimately, that’s why I wrote this book: because I was inspired by Mila. Even without hearing loss, this girl was meant to be a book character. She’s incredibly sassy and spunky and silly; the things that come out of her mouth are gold. [Laughs]
Did you do this in your spare time?
Yes. I have a corporate job and three kids, so during the day there is no time for passion projects such as this. I’d work on it every night after the kids went to sleep between 8:00 and midnight. I was completely sleep-deprived, but it was fulfilling me.
What was it like to self-publish?
Self-publishing is not for the faint of heart. [Laughs] It’s hard. There’s a ton of research to do and a lot of different advice out there. I learned by joining the right independent children’s authors social media groups and workshops. You also have to find the right editor and illustrator. I had to learn how to create my own LLC and figure out how I’d get it printed and sell it on my website and retailers such as Amazon. I also did a Kickstarter preorder campaign, which was an insane amount of work. But I learned so much and got so much support on social media, I wanted to give back and share how Mila was doing. Making connections and helping others through this journey is important to me.
How did you find your illustrator, Nadja Sarell?
I love Nadja, who’s based in Finland. I searched for about three months for an illustrator because I knew the specific illustration style I wanted: something bright, whimsical, and traditionally drawn. I finally came upon the Astound Agency, and I told an agent there that I loved Nadja’s style. Nadja had historically only worked with traditional publishers but agreed to read my manuscript. She loved the story and mission so much, she took a chance on us. And she just took my vision to the next level.
How did Mila react to being a star in a book?
I think she thinks everybody is a star in a book. When I’ve done book readings, kids will wander up to Mila because she’s in the book, and she’s unfazed by it. Being four, it doesn’t really affect her. She thinks it’s exciting and loves the story, but it’s just “Mommy’s project” to her.
How about the rest of your family?
It was really important to me to not have my son, Luca, feel excluded because he’s six and more aware of what’s going on. There’s naturally more attention at times on Mila because of her hearing loss and therapy, so it’s always a big focus of mine to make sure Luca doesn’t feel slighted. That’s why I put a purple cat in the book because, for some reason, Luca’s crazy about purple cats. We’d had a discussion about the book. I asked him, “How many books have a boy that looks like you?” He said a lot. I asked how many had girls like Mila with hearing devices, and he said, “None.” So he understood—and was thrilled that there was going to be a purple cat in the book.
My youngest daughter, Sofia, is two and basically Mila’s mini-me. I’m also lucky that my husband has been picking up most of life’s big and little messes as I focus on the book. I also forced him to help me to edit the book by asking his opinion a million times. [Laughs] It’s definitely been a team effort.
Honestly, in the present, I have been so focused on getting this book done correctly because I want everyone who has believed in us to have a gorgeous, high-quality book.
Now that our Kickstarter preorder campaign is done, I will work to get the book printed and up on my website and into retailers like Amazon. Going forward, my dream would be to make this a series with more books. If a publisher would be the right fit, great, but I’m comfortable self-publishing now and don’t want to compromise my mission and vision. The ultimate dream? Having it become a TV show, kind of like Fancy Nancy, but with a spunky main character with hearing loss, because getting into different mediums will reach different kids.
You’ve been on this journey for a year now. Looking back, how would you describe it?
This journey has been exciting, exhausting, and energizing. It’s exhausting because of all the work and effort and the ups and downs that come with self-publishing. From an energizing perspective, it makes me so happy to see the support, especially through the Kickstarter, where people came out of the woodwork to support us and our vision, and that makes me so happy. Knowing that the world really wants inclusive children’s books makes all the time, effort, and lack of sleep that have gone into this so worth it.