The story of how Chip Gilbertson and Gina Restivo came to write a children’s book together starts with a date.
The two, both single parents, met through Match.com in 2008. While there was no long-term romance in store for them as a couple, they became close friends. And they learned that they had each thought about writing a children’s book since they were young. They decided to collaborate.
Three years later, the two published their first book, Fly Danny, Fly, which received a Mom’s Choice Award last month. The book, about a boy and his (possibly) imaginary flying pig, seeks to inspire creativity in its readers. It also supports a nonprofit foundation set up in honor of a 4-year-old boy, who was Restivo’s neighbor, and died from Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP) while the pair was working on the book. His death and the family’s foundation helped inspire the authors to finish their project.
“There are a million people who want to write a book,” Restivo said. “We needed something bigger than us to get us there.”
For their work, The Huffington Post has chosen the authors to be its Greatest Person of the Day for March 12, and they'll be featured along with others who are working to improve their communities on the site's Greatest Person of the Day page.
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Turning their idea into a reality
Soon after they met, Gilbertson said the two were talking about their mutual dream to write a children’s book.
“We both looked at each other and said, ‘well, why haven’t you?’” remembers Gilbertson, who lives with his 16-year-old daughter in Evanston.
They committed to going for it as writing partners. They spent their free time working on the manuscript about a boy who sees a flying pig even though no one else does. (Spoiler alert: By the end of the book, the pig has been spotted by others, to the great delight of the little boy.)
Gilbertson had recently left his job as an investment banker because he didn’t find it fulfilling enough. Restivo continues to work as a manager of an electrical contracting company.
By late 2009, the pair felt like they’d gotten the manuscript in good shape, but were frustrated by their unsuccessful search for a publisher. They were determined to donate part of the book’s sales to a charity, which Gilbertson said was a sticking point with prospective publishing houses. The writers also didn’t like that they would lose control over the choice of illustrator under the publishers' rules, he said.
“It all just seemed so unromantic from the standpoint of being an artist,” Gilbertson said.
Tragedy strikes close to home
Shortly before Christmas 2009, Restivo learned that 4-year-old Danny Stanton had died from SUDEP. Restivo was acquainted with his family, which were known for having the “fun house” in the Edgebrook neighborhood where she used to live. Restivo now lives in Skokie.
Restivo, who has two children, now 10 and 7, was devastated by the news. She joined a Facebook page to support the family and noticed that within a few hours, thousands more people had joined, too.
The family turned that support into the Danny Did Foundation to educate people about epilepsy. The name comes from a line in the eulogy that Danny’s father, Mike Stanton, delivered, in which he told mourners to enjoy life because Danny did. (Mike Stanton is an officer with the .)
Restivo mentioned the foundation to Gilbertson, and the two immediately knew they wanted it to be the recipient of the book’s charitable giving.
Teaming up with Danny Did
Restivo approached Danny’s uncle, Tom Stanton, about working with the foundation. Stanton talked with Danny’s parents, who read the manuscript and agreed to create a partnership.
“The message of the book is one that I really want to promote and foster, and is in line with our foundation’s message — and that is hopefulness and enjoying life,” Tom Stanton said.
Gilbertson and Restivo tweaked the book to honor Danny — they named the main character after him, for example, and on one page they have the pig wear a Cubs jersey, which was Danny’s team. There’s also a full page at the end of the book telling readers about Danny and the foundation.
Stanton said the book provides a unique way for the foundation to reach the general public to educate them about epilepsy. The foundation’s other efforts tend to target the epilepsy community.
Working with the foundation and learning about Danny gave Gilbertson and Restivo the extra push they needed to finish the book, they said.
Tom Stanton said the family is honored by that inspiration.
“It means a lot to Mariann and Mike that Danny inspired them to complete the book,” he said.
Learning the publishing ropes
Once the manuscript was finished, the pair found a Denver illustrator they liked after interviewing people across the country on Skype. Then they decided to invest their own money in the project and self-publish the book.
It came out last May and the two have been working with independent bookstores, toy stores and children’s boutiques like and to carry it and host book signings. They also speak at schools about writing and about the book’s message to be creative and follow your dreams. They often team up with the foundation for fundraising events.
The Mom’s Choice Award was a great coup and a “much needed punch in the arm,” Restivo said. The book jacket now proudly sports a gold sticker announcing the award.
They haven’t made back their initial investment yet, though they’re still donating a part of each sale to the Danny Did Foundation. So far, the foundation has received more than $1,000 through the book, Stanton said.
Gilberston and Restivo said the process has had a steep learning curve but has been rewarding in its unexpected surprises. For example, a young woman named Laura Forney, who is an aspiring singer/songwriting star, approached them about writing a song based on the book. Her single, I Am Me can be downloaded for free when you purchase the book.
“People get inspired that we tried this and so they’re trying things,” Restivo said. “If that’s what this book does — it gets people to be inspired as we were inspired — I’m thrilled.”