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Story about cat teaches children to ‘stand tall’ against peer pressure

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 3/4/2021 Cindy Cantrell
a woman sitting on a table: Special education teacher Despena Zouzas of Chelmsford recently published her first children's book, "Nala's Backyard Adventures: Nala Stands Tall," Nala is named for her 10-year-old Maine coon cat. © Hope Zouzas Special education teacher Despena Zouzas of Chelmsford recently published her first children's book, "Nala's Backyard Adventures: Nala Stands Tall," Nala is named for her 10-year-old Maine coon cat.

In addition to sharing a love of reading and writing through her English and language arts classes, special education teacher Despena Zouzas of Chelmsford is dedicated to helping her students learn how to navigate various social situations.

So when classes paused last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 26-year-old wrote a children’s book to empower young readers to “stand tall” and do the right thing even when, she writes, “You feel like the only one in your corner.”

Nala’s Backyard Adventures: Nala Stands Tall” was published this past November, with illustrations by Maria Katinas of Watertown. The 30-page paperback tells the story of a cat (named for Zouzas’s 10-year-old Maine coon) who is tested by peer pressure after the first mouse she has excitedly caught pleads to return to his family.

Despite being ridiculed and rejected by her feline friends, Nala returns to the woods to apologize to the mouse for frightening him. She tells him remorsefully, “I thought all I ever wanted to do as a cat was catch a mouse, just like everybody else. But yesterday I realized you’re just like me. You talk just like me. You have feelings just like me. And once I realized that, I knew I was making a big mistake.”

Nala concludes: “I may have lost some friends, but I don’t want to be someone I’m not just to fit in.”

Born and raised in Chelmsford, Zouzas has stayed true to her lifelong dream of teaching. After earning her bachelor’s degree in elementary education and master’s degree in special education at Fitchburg State University, she worked as an elementary school and special education aide for two years. She is now in her third year of teaching seventh- to ninth-graders at a private school.

Zouzas empathizes with the desire to fit in, and she is particularly sensitive to students who struggle with their self-esteem due to issues with social media.

“As a teacher, I see my job as advocating for students who don’t feel they have a voice,” she said. “Writing this book has been another way for me to tell kids it’s OK to be the only one who makes a different choice than other people.”

While Zouzas has had less time for writing since resuming teaching duties, she is planning future adventures in which Nala helps teach coping strategies for regulating emotions. In the meantime, she hopes adults as well as children enjoy the story and benefit from discussions when reading together.

“I always encourage parents to read to their kids. Whether it’s to talk through different teaching points, learn something new, escape into a made-up world, or simply spark a love of reading,” Zouzas said, “reading truly offers something for everyone.”

“Nala’s Backyard Adventures: Nala Stands Tall” is available for $11.99 on Amazon.com as well as Artisans Exchange and Old Mill House Coffee located at 24 Central Square, Chelmsford (artisans-exchange.com).

Cindy Cantrell may be reached at cindycantrell20@gmail.com.

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