Once upon a time, a 7-year-old girl dreamed of becoming a princess. Events in her life, however, put that dream on hold. But as an adventurer with long black hair, she did battle in her bedroom with a couple of pirates. With short brown hair, she fought off those pirates with the help of a red and white army. With brilliant red hair, she acted as a spy to discover the pirates' secrets. And finally, in long blond curls she magically turned what had been troubling her into something else entirely: a dove, which she watched fly away.
The "trouble" with Ally is cancer, and her hair in the imaginary adventures above is in actuality a series of wigs — gifts on loan from Miss Harriet and her House of Hair. What does Ally have to give in return? A promise to help other children suffering from cancer and its treatment and a commitment to being something other than a princess: a survivor.
That's the story according to first-time author Taylor Grey in her new children's book, A Wig for Ally. But it's a story that came with its own troubles: getting it written and getting it published.
Grey (whose father, a FedEx pilot, is a cancer survivor himself) had been a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines based in New York and Minneapolis, flying nationally and internationally, when, post-9/11, she was laid off. So she returned to the town where she grew, Memphis, and she volunteered in 2002 at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, where she read to the kids while they waited for treatment. It was a life-changer.
As Grey recently said: "I just remember leaving St. Jude after my volunteer work, thinking, Why am I so upset?" But it also got her thinking about hospitalized children, children's books, and what is for many in the book business a taboo subject.
"Reading to the kids, I realized there weren't any books especially for them," Grey recalled. "I've since found out there's a very good reason people don't want to publish books about kids with cancer: Publishers think it's a big downer. I pitched the book to maybe 30 publishers and agents, and they all said, 'We think this is a great idea. But there's no way we're going to be able to successfully publish it, make money off it. They were like, 'Good luck!'"
So Grey decided to publish her manuscript herself. She also got a local artist, Michelle Duckworth, to do the illustrations. "Amazing, perfect" is how Grey described Duckworth's artwork. And "perfect!" is how Grey remembered her reaction to an audience member on a TV talk show.
This was back when Grey was living in Tampa, earning a degree in psychology, and having problems with the manuscript for A Wig for Ally.
"I was stressing," Grey admitted. "I was watching Oprah. Uma Thurman was her guest, and this woman in the audience stood up to address the actress. She said, 'This is totally off-subject, but I was diagnosed with cancer about the time the first Kill Bill movie came out. I was thinking about you during treatment ... about your character and her swords. I thought of slicing and dicing the cancer cells inside my own body.'"
"That's perfect! There it is!" Grey remembered thinking of that cancer survivor's message to Uma Thurman — a message that put Grey's manuscript on track, a manuscript that the author admits, in its first draft, was "awful."
"Ally as adventurer came out of that," Grey said, referring to the Oprah program.
Grey's second title, a book for boys called A Hat for Harry (with Duckworth again illustrating), will appear this summer. But in the meantime, the writer is busy publicizing A Wig for Ally: booksignings, events in conjunction with the Memphis office of the American Cancer Society, TV appearances, a possible in-house cartoon for children's hospitals, even merchandising in the form of an Ally doll (and wigs to go with it).
"I didn't write this book to make money," Grey said. "I genuinely want to help. I think that's going to happen. And all these good things that are happening ... it's crazy — after being told by so many in the book business there's no way."
Taylor Grey will discuss and sign copies of A Wig for Ally at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Tuesday, June 1st, at 4 p.m. A percentage of the book sales will be donated to the American Cancer Society. For more on the author, go to taylorgrey.net.