Written by Jaimee Green
With sparkling hazel eyes magnified by thick spectacles and brilliant front teeth, 8½- year-old Teddy Wells pours over another copy of his recently published book.
Carefully putting pen to paper, he continues signing his name in small circular motions, sporadically giving his large glasses a push upward to keep them from sliding down his nose.
Slouching in his chair while swinging one leg back and forth he leans close to the pages, concentrating.
Piles of his recently published book, How Snake Learned To Smile, are stacked neatly in rows on a table inside the North English, Iowa, community center. Teddy proudly wears the snake-shaped nametag cut out by his grandmother. A large homemade poster featuring the cover of his book sits upright behind him reads, “Meet the Author.”
At such a young age, it is his first book signing. While excited, he perhaps doesn’t grasp the true sensationalism of this experience. At a tender age, he is realizing his dream while overcoming the physical obstacles of a speech impediment and vision problems. So, today is his shining moment. Most likely, one of many. A kind of ‘from this day forward’ type of experience that will remain just below the surface of his belly often resurfacing as butterflies just long enough to remind him of his strengths, creativity and beauty. In fact, Teddy personifies the character of Snake in his book. But, we’ll get to that later.
As an aspiring author, he is telling a great story about acceptance, inner beauty and the value of kindness. Today, the small and curious crowd that has ascended onto the community center is patiently waiting for autographed copies.
To understand the true sentiment of this story, you have to back up a bit to the beginning. Last January, to be exact.
“I was experiencing a sleepless trip to San Diego to see my art piece on display at the Natural History Museum Gallery opening and all I wanted to do was get some rest when a fellow passenger kept trying to visit with me. I finally gave up on the idea of getting some sleep and indulged her and I am so glad I did because she turned out to be an amazing person. Now, I have this inspiring experience to share,” said Kitty Kolden, an artist and employee at Northeast Montana Health Services.
It turns out that the talkative lady, Grace Wells, was the grandmother of young Teddy.
In conversation at some 32,000 feet, Wells and Kolden shared information about each other including Kolden’s photography, Grace’s love of sketching and their mutual love for the natural world. Exchanging email addresses, they parted.
After Kolden returned home the flood of emails between the two began to flow. The most inspiring of them was the one stating Teddy had been motivated after viewing Kolden’s photography online. In particular, her series of snake pictures helped inspire his children’s short story and her bull snake photographs would create the final touches for his story.
Typing as if they had known each other for years, Kolden gets choked up when she reads a few other emails from Grace. “Her ease with words is wonderful. Her sentences are delicious and create vivid images and feelings,” Kolden said.
The final consensus was that Kolden would help them to publish Wells’ book through a website called ArtsCow. A total of 80 copies were made of the 20-page book and more are available to print in a moment’s notice. Professing to be something of a doodler, Grace created a sketch of a snake wearing glasses that is reading Teddy’s book with the caption, “It all sounds great, but how will I sign autographs?” It is featured on the last page of the book.
Many locals know Kolden creates the Kolden Report, in which she documents family gatherings and outdoor scenery to share via email with friends and family. What started out as a way to keep connected with family has caught the interest of many and is now sent to people in seven different countries. It also helps people view her latest photography and travels. Recently, she featured her photography of bull snakes in it and some of the photos were just what was needed to complete Teddy’s story.
The storyline is one of kindness for others and more than just acceptance for those who are different, but also admiration of those differences. The story begins with a snake that hides under rocks and retreats whenever people come around. After repeatedly hearing that he is ugly, he starts to believe it. In the end, the kindness expressed by one person changes the minds of many and provides the snake a chance at happiness. “What I take away from the story is that everybody should be given a chance and that everybody is beautiful, you just have to look,” Kolden said.
“This smiling snake has topped off my Montana summer with whipped cream and a cherry on top,” said Grace Wells. Much like the snake character in his book, Teddy is different in the sense that he faces challenges. “Teddy has long been the boy that nobody notices. This book has created so much joy for him,” said Grace Wells.
If you’ve had the chance to meet Kolden, you probably already know she is full of positive energy. It seemingly radiates from within gently slapping at those she comes into contact with. She has a willingness to truly experience life and takes advantage of its seemingly inopportune opportunities.
While inspiration most often resonates through an emotional song, a vibrant sunset or fluid ballet, Kolden was able to find inspiration in the most unassuming of places; a cramped seat aboard a Boeing 747 airplane. With open eyes and a catch-all heart, she is able to see the extraordinary in what many might view as ordinary; just as she creates her extraordinary photographs one click at a time.
“This story about Teddy is amazing. That kid is going to bloom,” Kolden said. She is donating some of the books to local elementary schools to share the lessons behind the story. “The message is very powerful,” she said.
To date, Teddy has even received an email from a Bengali translator and author from India named Subhamay Ray who read the book and wanted to offer congratulations and encouragement to the young author.