By Anna Daniels
Milena (Sellers) Phillips’ book “Always Fly Away” is not the work of someone who has made a career of writing books for children. This brightly illustrated book written for elementary school children is a reflection of how the author herself has come to understand the world as much as it is a children’s story.
“Always Fly Away” acknowledges the necessary transition that takes place when young children want to start exploring the world with an ever growing degree of independence. It also helps to develop the critical judgement that young children need to recognize when a situation doesn’t feel right and what to do when this happens.
Phillips spins a story that retains the joy and mystery of a child’s explorations while providing ways to assure that the exploration is as safe as possible. It is a remarkable story because she personally experienced the devastating death of her nine year old son Jonathan Sellers.
Jonathan and his friend Charlie Keever had left home for a quick bike ride in 1993. They were abducted and murdered in Imperial Beach. It would take close to a decade before their deaths were linked to Scott Erskine, who was sentenced to death.
This was a parent’s worst nightmare. And while the worst thing imaginable happens to very few children, the statistics don’t much matter if that is your own child. It is a testament to Phillip’s resiliency and deep humanity that she would ultimately craft a story with the intent of keeping another mother’s child safe and alive.
She wrote “Always Fly Away” with the assistance of long time friend Deborah Dorn and the illustrations of Katherine Johnson. The story begins with a young Stella the blue jay asking her mother’s permission to go out and play with a friend by the creek. Stella’s exuberance is palpable:
I fly out the window and soar down the lane-
My wings are stretched far, I fly fast as a plane!
I’m sailing and drifting, ’round curve and ’round bend
It’s so much fun—I wish this day would never end!
Stella starts to feel afraid when her friend does not meet her at the creek and she is instead approached by a stranger, Maurice the cat. He flashes Stella a friendly smile and asks her to help him find his missing collar back in the bushes. He also tells her that he has a big house filled with toys and lots of other birds having fun.
Stella feels an array of emotions in which uncertainty and fear are the strongest. But Phillips also astutely recognizes that children often experience competing emotions that cause them to minimize the sense of discomfort and danger.
Children, particularly young children, see adults as trustworthy. To varying degrees children are utterly dependent upon adults to provide for and protect them. Children are likewise encouraged to be polite and helpful to others. This is an important part of the socialization process into adulthood.
The smiling Maurice plays upon both the propensity for trust and kindness. And he also offers the irresistible— toys and lots of friends in his house.
Phillips is able to unknot those conflicting emotions, emphasizing that when a situation does not feel right, children should first and foremost exercise their own agency in getting away from the situation as quickly as possible, to always fly away. This is an essential part of being independent and too often overlooked when developing children’s life skills.
I kept my distance, stayed alert, and flew away.
When that cat tried to eat me, I knew I must kick, scream and fight,
Then fly away home with all of my might.
Phillips also recognizes the sobering truth that it is not always a stranger that puts a child’s life in danger. This is addressed in the Words to Learn addendum to the story. It is a guide for teachers and adults to explain words like “soar” and “secluded’. It also includes a description of who is a “stranger”.
Yes, a stranger can be a friend’s older sister or brother if you just met them. Yes, a stranger can be a man or woman of any age whom you have known for only a little while. Phillips emphasizes that “Being polite is important, but safety is more important”.
Our need to tell stories is a hallmark of our most basic humanity. Our stories entertain, heal, make sense of the universe and instruct. A consummate story teller’s voice rises from the pages of “Always Fly Away”.
Book performance and signing by Milena (Sellers) Phillips and Deborah Dorn
Tuesday April 26 10:30 am
San Diego Central Library
330 Park Blvd. San Diego 92101
Recommended children aged 3-12
Always Fly Away A Children’s Safety Book
Written by Milena (Sellers) Phillips with Deborah Dorn
Illustrated by Katherine Johnson
Reflective Publishing, 2015
If you’d like a performance at your school or community, please email firstname.lastname@example.org