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'America the Funny' -- Young Patient's Sense of Humor Shines in Book

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By Johnny Rigg, MD Anderson Staff Writer

Massachusetts.jpgMaking people laugh is the inspiration behind 13-year-old Shelby Taylor's book, "America the Funny," a collection of puns and riddles about the 50 states.

In July 2010, Shelby was a patient at MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital when Martha Askins, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics, noticed her.

"I started seeing Shelby in psychotherapy. She had acquired some side effects from the treatments, but she had certain well-developed functions -- her sense of humor and her spontaneity," Askins says. "She's very creative and thoughtful."

Askins believed that the young girl would benefit from the Arts in Medicine Program, where the primary goal is to foster joy through artistic expression.

"She had an amazing sense of humor, even as a little kid, and was always good with playing on words," says Diana Taylor, her mother. "She was writing stories at 5 years old. We have journals full of them."

Askins put Shelby in touch with Arts in Medicine Program Director Ian Cion.

"I'd meet with Shelby to work on illustrations for sessions that usually lasted about an hour. As we got closer to completion, we'd often work several hours at a time, going back and forth with drawings and ideas," Cion says.

Art brings comfort
At first, Shelby had to overcome insecurities caused by her limited mobility, Cion says.

"The longer we worked together, the more comfortable he made me, and was able to get more out of me," Shelby says. "Coming up with the jokes was pretty easy, but making the book was kind of hard. I'm very proud."

Early ideas for the book originated while Shelby was attending Camp Sunshine, a camp in Maine for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. Her health status kept her from participating in some of the day's activities.

"A lot of the kids at the camp were from Massachusetts. Shelby turned it into Mass-ACHOO-setts," her mother says. "This was one of the first jokes she told the counselors. The more she told, the more they laughed."

Shelby's family and Cion are looking for publishers and a few copies have been printed.

"We recently received the first hard copy of the book. It was nice to see a big smile on Shelby's face," says David Taylor, her father. "This is a good thing for her ... we are all very excited about the process."

Shelby plans to continue her career as a storyteller and to use her natural humor to keep people laughing.

"I'm maybe thinking of writing one about countries. But that's a lot," Shelby says.

Read this story and much more in the latest issue of the Family Matters newsletter from the Children's Cancer Hospital.

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