Anti-drug story emerges as a children's favorite

January 11, 1994|By Sandra Mathers | Sandra Mathers,Orlando Sentinel

For years, Debra Wert kept most of her ideas for children's stories filed away in her head.

It took just one episode of "World News Tonight With Peter Jennings" back in 1987 to convince the former insurance company sales representative it was time to start writing.

Ms. Wert, then 33, quit her job, moved in with her parents, pulled out a notebook and started her first book . . . in longhand.

Today, the Longwood, Fla., children's author is on her way to becoming a publishing Wunderkind.

"Mac's Choice" didn't exactly hit the bookstores when it was printed five years ago, but it did make it into a few school systems in Virginia and Maryland.

Today, Ms. Wert's anti-drug message, written as a fairy tale for third- through fifth-graders, is in its seventh printing -- and in 500 school systems nationwide.

It has taken six years for the softcover book that Ms. Wert wrote, illustrated and helped market to make it big. But she isn't complaining. She has earned $70,000 and rave reviews from children, adults and national anti-drug organizations.

"This is what I do well. I've found my niche," says Ms. Wert, who still lives with her parents and writes in longhand.

The soft-cover book, with its accompanying teacher-parent workbook, is published by Rocky River Publishers in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and sells for $12.95.

It's a story about Mac, a caterpillar whose destiny as a Monarch butterfly is forever altered first by leaf-eating trips to a marijuana field and, finally, by cocaine supplied by a devious palmetto bug. Instead of turning into a graceful butterfly, Mac emerges from his chrysalis deformed -- half caterpillar, half butterfly and unable to fly.

The book's unhappy ending is a shocker for the elementary set, says its publisher, Miriam Williams Wilson. "You can hear a pin drop when you read that story in the classroom," says Ms. Wilson. "The children are just enthralled. I've seen both children and adults cry. When it's over, they're ready to talk about drugs."

She calls "Mac's Choice" a "remarkable book" and one of the few on the market that presents an anti-drug message in a captivating story.

Drug prevention experts agree. A drug prevention resource organization affiliated with the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth gives the book a four-star recommendation. And the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information calls it "scientifically accurate" and "appropriate and appealing."

An art education major who graduated from the University of Maryland in 1976, Ms. Wert said the idea crystallized as she watched a newscast in 1987 that featured the death of a 10-year-old boy accidentally shot in a drug rumble in the nation's capital.

"They showed this tarp-covered body lying in the street," Ms. Wert recalls. "I had this story in my head . . . I decided it was time to do it."

These days, Ms. Wert has three more books in the works. Oh yes, in between will be a much-requested sequel to "Mac's Choice." "Everybody wants a happy ending," Ms. Wert says. "No, Mac won't ever fly, but he will go through rehabilitation."

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