Jose Rios turns over a new leaf with popular children’s book.

November 29, 2018

Submitted by: Matthew A. Werner

Many of us look at a leaf and see a source of shade, or something that comes and goes with the changing seasons. But Jose Rios looked at a leaf and saw the power to alleviate a child’s anxiety and that vision led him to write the children’s book, “A New Leaf.”

Rios is a custodian at Memorial Elementary School in Valparaiso, Indiana. He has worked that job for 22 years. He locks and unlocks doors, shovels snow, waxes floors, vacuums floors, cleans up spills, repairs lights, and carries out trash. It started as a part-time gig—his previous job had been cut and, hey, it was a paycheck—then it turned into a full-time position. 

“I always get asked, ‘Did you always want to grow up to be a custodian?’” Rios said. “Nobody grows up wanting to be a janitor, but the people are nice, the kids are great, and the benefits have allowed me to raise three kids.” 

So, the job is OK? 

“There has never been a day I haven’t found something good in my job. It might be near the end of the day, but there’s always been a positive. Every day.”

Although he enjoys what he does, Rios always needed a creative outlet. He started drawing as a boy and the hobby stuck with him through adulthood. 

“That was my escape—to draw,” Rios said. But he always kept it to himself. 

At work one day, some kids saw his drawings on a folder he was carrying. 

Did you draw that? they asked. Ohh, I want one.

“Well, if you give something to one kid,” Rios observed, “everybody wants one. So, I said, ‘If you get an A on your pre-test, I’ll draw something for you.’” 

Kids scored well on pre-tests, quizzes, and school projects and Rios drew little pictures for them—a dog, a grasshopper, a smiling bumblebee. Some of those drawings ended up in his book, but the book’s inspiration came from his abuelo—his grandfather. 

As a kid, Rios never felt comfortable in school and he developed a close bond with his abuelo who picked him up at school every day. Jose looked out his classroom window and saw him parked on the curb, reading one of his novellas, waiting for the final bell to ring (an avid reader, his grandfather had only an elementary school education). On the ride home, Rios’ abuelo asked about his day and listened. 

“I was having some difficulty at school,” Rios said, “and he said, ‘OK, but what are you going to do about it? You don’t have too many options. You can run from it, hit your head on it, or see it in a different way—turn over a new leaf.’” 

The lesson stuck. 

In “A New Leaf” a young boy named Drew is attending a new school for the first time and he is scared. Alone at lunch, a grasshopper befriends Drew, listens to him and offers a simple piece of advice: you can turn over a new leaf. 

“Every year we have a kid who comes in, who doesn’t want to be there at school. Kindergarten kid, first day at school, cries his eyes out. Sometimes you have to tell the parent, ‘OK, it’s time to pull the Band-Aid, leave him, and it will work out.’ And it always does.”

But Rios remembered that scared feeling from his own childhood and wished he could do something to help. He recalled a lesson he once learned—people can use small objects to rub to relieve anxiety—then he saw a student with that familiar, scared look on his face.   

“So, I gave the kid a trinket—a turtle-shaped eraser. I said, ‘Here, take this turtle. When I was little like you and I got scared, I’d take this turtle in my pocket so I wouldn’t be so scared. When you’re not scared anymore, bring it back to me. And if you lose it, that just means you don’t need it anymore, so don’t worry about it if that happens.’”

Rios forgot all about it. At the end of the day, the kid brought it back and said, “I don’t need it anymore. I’m not scared now.” 

Jose Rios can’t deliver turtle erasers to everyone and that’s where the leaf came in. 

“It’s something everyone can access themselves. It’s an idea to transfer your anxiety.” 

Rios channeled life lessons into some drawings and scenes, but the idea sat for five years. Then inspiration struck again. 

“It was a science fair the kids put on, all ages, and one of the kids, his science project was a book. It was about a multi-colored rabbit that represented his uncle who had some illness. Just because he’s different, you don’t have to treat him different. The kid was in first grade and I thought, if this kid can do it, I have no reason to sit on my duff and not get this book published. I made the decision to get it published within a year, or quit talking about it. That’s when it went from being an idea to becoming a goal.” 

Rios got to work. He wrote and illustrated the book himself and “A New Leaf” was born.

“Being around teachers there always was this idea to give back. The teachers and community were always so good to me. So, I wanted to challenge myself. What am I going to do, what am I going to contribute, what can I give back to the people who have been there for me? I wanted to step up to the plate, but with what? Well, I had this story.” 

“A New Leaf” has been well-received by teachers, librarians, parents, and children. Rios does book readings at libraries and elementary schools when he can. He’s held book-signings at local businesses, where he signs books and hands out stickers. 

What’s next for Jose Rios? He dusted off a novel he wrote 13 years ago and he’s thinking about another story for his little friend, Drew. 

“Kids today feel a need to identify with so many things, so ‘Be yourself’ will be the next lesson Drew hopefully will learn.”

Keep an eye out for that one and in the meantime, turn the pages of “A New Leaf.” 

Click here to get a copy of Jose Rios’ book, “A New Leaf” 

Dig the Dunes was thrilled to have our logo adorned by some original Jose Rios illustrations!



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