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A labor of love brings grandmother’s princess to life

If you had to watch your newborn granddaughter cling to life, hooked up to tubes in a glass incubator, what would you promise to give if she could only survived?

Michele Hicks, the front desk coordinator of the USF Physical Therapy Center, honored the survival of her two granddaughters by writing a children’s book series titled Princess Pie. 

“This was a true labor of love,” she said. 

The series is dedicated to the strength of her granddaughters, Aniya and Aunika, who were born prematurely and spent significant time in neonatal intensive care (NICU). 

The first book, published earlier this year, follows Princess Pie and her struggles with vision impairment, an inability to speak, seizures and hip dysplasia caused by severe cerebral palsy. 

“She is the happiest little girl, despite all the challenges and the things that she has faced. She comes out of a seizure smiling,” Hicks said. 

The idea for the book came from a poem Hicks wrote for Aniya, who weighed 1 pound and 8 ounces at birth, in admiration of her will to survive.

After the premature birth of another of her granddaughters, Aunika, Hicks adapted the poem into a full book series that expanded the plot to include characters based on both granddaughters. 

Hicks said the idea hit her as she watched 14-month-old Aunika feeding Aniya crackers on a car trip. Thus, Aniya was transformed into Princess Pie and Aunika became Szeja, the caregiver.

Though Hicks said the story only took an hour to write, the effort to self-publish the final product was time-consuming and expensive.

“I now know that I have to get those other books done, and I have to take the time to invest in myself,” she said. “I wish I hadn’t put it off as long as I did, but I’m glad I didn’t give up this time.” 

Hicks said writing was always a passion. Her first attempt at writing novels was in 1990, but she put off completing her ideas due to the difficulties that came from trying to publish while also being a single parent. 

To stay motivated, Hicks said she kept the advice of James Tokley, Tampa’s poet laureate, close to heart: “To be a great author, you have to be a master storyteller.” 

But Hicks said it was also the joy she saw her granddaughters feel when they read the first drafts of Princess Pie. 

“(Aunika) was screaming in the tub, ‘My Nana’s an author,’” she said, laughing. 

Balancing work and her writing was a challenge, but Hicks said it was something she did for her granddaughters, herself and any parent in need of hope.

Cerebral palsy is the most common motor disability in children, affecting 0.4 percent of all newborns, and is more likely in premature births, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ashley Solberg, a neonatal intensive care unit nurse at Tampa General Hospital, said it is fairly common for babies to spend their first days in the NICU.

“Most of the time, it is a result of the delivery and from being without oxygen for a length of time,” she said.

For families dealing with complications from birth, Hicks said patience and determination are key. She also stressed the importance of a supportive environment and not delaying medical treatment.

Hicks said she also hopes the book exposes healthy children to a different perspective. Her wish, she said, is for parents to share her story with their children and show them another way of living.

“Kids with challenges … are just like them. They want some of the same things,” Hicks said. “I want people to be able to use that book to introduce their kids to … a different view of the normal world.” 

All four books in the Princess Pie series are written, and Hicks’ next book is set to publish some time in spring. 

For aspiring writers, Hicks said her advice is to write what is in your heart and don’t give up.

“Get started. Don’t think you can’t afford to invest in yourself,” she said. “Believe in your dream, even if no one else does.”