Dinosaurs, magic potions, baseball games — the usual fodder for kids’ books doesn’t include HIV-positive characters.
Justin B. Terry-Smith, the young 31-year-old author of the children’s book “I Have a Secret,” breaks into the rarely covered topic by writing about a young boy with HIV and the interpersonal obstacles he faces.
“The purpose of the book is to teach children who are HIV negative that there are children who are HIV positive and they shouldn’t be treated differently,” Smith says.
He believes there’s a public misconception that HIV-positive children should be treated different from other kids.
“Personally knowing children that are HIV positive, I see what they go through. Children should be hugged and played with, and I hope that children reading my book will walk away with the understanding that children should act the same toward one another.”
The book, published by Creative House International Press, Inc., retails for $12.95 and tells the story of a young, HIV-positive boy crumbling under the pressure of keeping his status secret.
Smith, who lives in Laurel, Md., and is a legal assistant by day, also believes that exposing children to literature on HIV topics will help children understand HIV better as they get older, especially as their academic studies expands into the realm of prevention and causation.
Bill Potoczak, president of the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland agrees.
“We have to educate and promote awareness and prevention with various age-appropriate materials because we are starting to see an increase in HIV-positive teenagers who contracted the virus through sexual contact.”
Potoczak believes introducing simple literary topics that discuss children with HIV is smart because it introduces the topic, even if it is a bare minimum. He says this type of elementary education may help the youth understand the virus can be transmitted by birth, thus squashing any misguided and uneducated views that HIV is only transmitted through sexual contact.
Smith’s book is personal because in 2006, Smith discovered he was HIV positive. He says it’s caused him to look at life through “a new lens.”
“It pushed everything to the forefront for me,” he says. “I kept thinking about at what age will I die?”
Smith accelerated his academic studies and will be graduating in November with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Smith married his partner in August 2009 in Provincetown, Mass., one of the few states that recognize gay marriage. They’re planning to have children.
“Children are everything to me,” he says. “I love children. I want to be a foster parent or adopt … HIV will not get in my way of any of my goals. I want to live. I want a family.”
Smith’s talents go beyond writing children’s books.
On his website, justinbsmith.com, Smith writes about his life experiences and how he deals with HIV in “Justin’s HIV Journal.”
“I am open about my status. I want people to see the life of someone with HIV. I want people to know that I lived with HIV and that everyone has to have their own journey.”
Smith also discovered that there was not a lot of material on people with HIV showing what their life journey is like.
“I took a camera into the doctor’s office to record the whole session, so viewers can see what a person with HIV is told. Then I went home and posted the video. People need to know what happens and what it is like sitting there listening to your doctor discuss your health.”
Smith admits disclosing his HIV status to his family wasn’t easy.
“My mother found out through a secondhand source. So when she first asked if I had AIDS, I said no, because I didn’t have AIDS.”
Later in the same conversation, Smith had with his mother he finally disclosed that he was HIV positive.
“I just didn’t know how she would take it. I was worried about her.”
Today, his father and mother are supportive, including his 92-year-old grandmother.
“I love my family and I really appreciate their support,” he says.
Smith has been an HIV and gay activist in the Washington area since 1998.
The Air Force vet writes for several gay and health outlets and he says he plans to stay busy and make the most of his life expectancy of 62.
“I’m not afraid of dying,” he says. “I’m afraid of what people will say about me after I die.”
Visit creativehousepress.com to order the book.