Autistic writer from Madison uses animals to teach lessons
New Haven Register - 4/8/2017
April 08--NORTH BRANFORD -- Tommy Canning's voice dropped an octave as he portrayed the sounds of a menacing tiger -- a character from one of his unpublished stories -- for his family and two mentors at the Atwater Memorial Library on a recent Wednesday afternoon.
It was a far different setting than the ones he has come to write about.
Canning, a Madison resident, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder when he was 4 years old. Now at 22, writing has become an outlet and a way for him to continue learning about what interests him the most, nature and the environment.
When Canning was younger, he and his mother would create a world beyond his wildest imagination. Word-by-word, they wrote stories that depicted the different types of creatures that inhabit all parts of the world.
"He would say a little bit and she would say a little bit, and together they would build these stories," his father, Paul Canning, said.
Now, these stories that were created when he was a child have been put to paper for a wider audience to enjoy.
"It's great for him because he has wanted to express himself and tell his stories, so this has been an outlet for him," Paul Canning said.
'Island of the Jungle Kids'
"'Hello, jungle kids,' he growled. 'I take it you know who I am?' 'Pashu Shakti?' whimpered Julie. 'Yes,' he said with an evil chuckle," read Canning from his manuscript.
"'What do you want with us?' demanded Emily. 'Lunch,' he said. 'We don't have any food,' said Peter. 'It's you who's the food,' snickered the tiger. Emily gasped in horror," Canning read. "Emily, Peter and Julie turned to run, but Pashu Shakti made another giant leap and landed right in front of them. The jungle kids were backed into a corner. They were trapped. Pashu Shakti was about to pounce on them when Mfalme and Malkia appeared and slashed him out of the way with their claws."
This is just one passage of Canning's "Island of the Jungle Kids," a 30-page story about a young girl named Emily, her brother, Peter, and sister, Julie, who are forced to live on a tropical island after a shipwreck separated the siblings from their parents. A pride of lions -- Mfalme and Malkia -- raise the children as their own alongside their two cubs. But the story's antagonist, Pashu Shakti, an evil tiger, tries to separate the mixed family, Canning said.
Fast-forward five years later, Emily, Peter and Julie are reunited with their parents. But after living a life filled of adventure, they choose to stay with the pride of lions, who treated the siblings like family from the start, Canning said.
The story -- which has yet to be published -- was inspired by the "Jungle Book" and "Tarzan," Canning said.
Since he was a high school student, Canning has been compiling stories about what interests him the most: the various species that inhabit the world's most unique environments. So far, Canning has written 10 series -- totaling 30 manuscripts -- at different stages of completion.
"Some of the characters that he developed when he was 6, 7, 8 years old made it into his stories later on in his life," said "Coach" Joe DeFrancesco.
DeFrancesco first met Canning when he started working at the E.C. Scranton Memorial Library six months ago in the Children's Department.
"(DeFrancesco) was putting away some of the animal books I had read and he complimented me about reading them. When I told him that I am an author, he was amazed and we became friends," Canning said.
Since then, Canning, DeFrancesco and his wife, Donna Wiedenmann, the children's librarian at Atwater Memorial Library, have worked together to help Canning with his craft and generate awareness about his writing.
In March, the Atwater Memorial Library acted as host for Canning for a two-part program where the author read a section of his book to an audience, Wiedenmann said. The program allowed Canning to receive listeners' feedback about his writing.
Canning said he wants to receive as much feedback from readers about his manuscripts before publishing his work to ensure these are the types of stories that people want to hear.
"He has been asking anyone and everyone he can to read his book and he wants the public to decide," DeFrancesco said.
Canning, DeFrancesco and Wiedenmann said they hope to hold more programs similar to the one in North Branford at other public libraries across the state.
Before Canning writes his stories, he creates character profiles and makes a list of settings he would like to incorporate into his work. While these profiles and lists are always written in raw format on his iPad, they serve as a launching point for Canning to begin crafting his stories.
"Tommy will just send me all the different animals he might want to incorporate one day. We have hundreds and hundreds of animals in here," DeFrancesco said. "Then he will further break it down into details about them, specifics and anecdotes that he might be able to put into the stories."
Creating a message
While Canning hopes to use his stories as a way to introduce readers to a variety of animals, DeFrancesco said he also uses it as an opportunity to communicate important messages.
"He'll teach lessons in his stories -- like animals will only take what they need to survive. These are lessons throughout his stories that he hopes children start adhering to," DeFrancesco said.
Through these stories, Wiedenmann said Canning hopes to teach children how to take care of the environment through the animals he depicts in his story lines.
"I've loved animals for as long as I can remember," Canning said. "I hope someday I can donate some of my money to help endangered animals."
While Canning said he hopes to engage children in the importance of preserving the environment, he also hopes to grab people's attention by bringing his characters to life.
Canning has developed character voices for the different roles in his stories. He said he creates his own adaptations of television character voices. The voice of Pashu Shakti in his manuscript "Island of the Jungle Kids" was based on the fictional character Shere Khan from the "Jungle Book," he said.
"Because he has watched so many movies, he thinks like if he is in the movie and he writes like that, too," DeFrancesco said. "When he gets into character, it's something that he taps into and he gets all excited about it. He walks the walk and talks the talk every day of his life."
Wiedenmann said it's this type of imagination and creativity that is important now more than ever to get children engaged.
"For kids today, with all of the technology, it is hard for them to imagine it without it being presented to them," Wiedenmann said. "If they can listen to the story, they can imagine it. Tommy's stories are really descriptive that way -- with the voices and the descriptions. You can imagine being on the shore or on the island."
But this is just the beginning for Canning. While he is working on completing his manuscripts, he said he hopes to have his work published one day. And no matter where Canning's writing may take him, his family, DeFrancesco and Wiedenmann said they'll be with him every step of the way.
"(People) are going to fall in love with him once he does his characters and tells his stories," DeFrancesco said.
Sam Norton can be reached at 203-680-9906.
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