About four years ago, LSU Law Professor Michael Malinowski was feeling “pretty burned out” with writing academic legal papers.
“I’ve always loved expository writing,” says the author of several academic books and more than 50 law review articles, whose expertise is biotechnology and related health care and bioethics issues. “But legal writing can be a very stifling genre. I wanted to do something more creative.”
Inspired by conversations with friends who work with children in a variety of fields and the cultural shift he has observed in the public’s acceptance of genetic testing, Malinowski set out to write a book that introduces children to the basic concepts of DNA and genetics.
He’s the first to admit the result, “Why Am I Me?”—released on Oct. 22 by Lake Charles-based Ally-Gator Book Bites—doesn’t deal with the usual themes found in most children’s books. But in an age in which millions of people are embracing genetic testing to learn more about their ancestry and health, DNA is an issue that Malinowski feels today’s children need to be knowledgeable about.
“This generation is going to be immersed in this stuff their entire lives,” he says. “Shouldn’t we prepare them for it when they’re young?”
“Why Am I Me?” does this through the story of identical twin sisters named Chloe and Carly, who ask their mother why they look the same after their fifth birthday party. Their mother explains that as identical twins, they have the same DNA. Naturally, the girls then ask what DNA is.
“The challenge was to introduce DNA and genes in a way that children can easily understand,” Malinowski says. “So, it’s a pretty rudimentary explanation, with the mother comparing DNA to instructions on a box of cake mix and explaining that DNA is like a set of genetic instructions that make up who we are. And while most people have a different set of instructions, or DNA, what makes the girls’ unique is that they have the same set of instructions.”
The story follows the girls through their first year of school, where their interests begin to diverge as they make different friends and get interested in different activities. After Carly becomes angry about the changes and insists they need to have the same haircuts and do the same things because they have the same DNA, the story concludes with another lesson from their mother about how DNA “is just the beginning” and that shared DNA doesn’t mean they’re the same person.
“The lesson I want children to take away is that our DNA and genes are the framework for who we are, but the choices we make and the life experiences we have change us and also influence who we are,” Malinowski explains. “DNA and genetics don’t take away free will.”
Though the subject matter of “Why Am I Me?” may be relatively complex in the world of children’s books, Malinowski says children ages six to 10 will be able to grasp the concepts with ease. San Diego, California-based artist Michelle Joy Montrose illustrated the book, which is currently available online from Amazon and Ally-Gator Book Bites. Malinowski is also exploring opportunities for getting it onto local bookshelves.
For the busy professor, distribution deals and sales figures are not a chief concern. He’s dedicated the book to the St. Jude Research Hospital (“where the best of DNA science is used to save the lives of children, and where DNA science is made better,” as he writes in the dedication) and he plans to give a percentage of the sales proceeds to the hospital.
Ultimately, for Malinowski, the success of “Why Am I Me?” can be measured in the way it has rekindled his interest in writing.
“It’s the ultimate in telling the truth. I found such a purity in it,” Malinowski says of writing for children. “Of course, you can get at the truth in a law review article, but you’re very restricted in how you can go about it. With a children’s book, you can be totally honest without having to litigate everything.”
As he continues to work on an extensive law review article focused on the implications of DNA genetic testing company 23andMe—a project that encompasses “pretty much the work of my entire career”—Malinowski is also considering publication dates for his second children’s book, which is already written and illustrated.
“We’ll see how this first one goes,” he says. “I have no idea how it will do because this is all new to me—and that’s the fun part. Of course, I can’t let go of the law review writing, but this experience has allowed me to think about other writing projects I’d like to do. I actually have a third children’s book in mind already, and I’m also interested in writing teen novels and adult books.”