Magnificent Millie is a children’s book with a difference. It’s based on a true story - a deeply personal shared journey by author Stefanie Patterson and illustrator Caroline Robertson.
Stefanie Patterson, of Bradford West Gwillimbury, first met Millie Grace Robertson and her family at SickKids hospital in Toronto.
Stefanie’s son, Henry, had been born at Southlake Regional Health Centre but was transferred to SickKids when doctors discovered a congenital heart defect. He had his first open heart surgery at the age of only one week old, and he spent the next 70 days in cardiac critical care.
“One in 100 kids will suffer from congenital heart disease. Henry is one of them,” said Patterson.
Millie was another.
For six long weeks, they were in critical care together, in the bright, sunlit room known as The Cottage. And while the parents exchanged only glances and smiles, said Patterson, in a way, the two families “got to know each other well. We were sharing the same motions, walking the same path.”
And sharing the same hopes for recovery, putting their faith in the cardiac team at SickKids. “They perform miracles every day,” she said.
Both Henry and Millie improved, and eventually returned to their homes. Although Millie needed additional surgeries, she was able to spend most of last summer, Christmas, and her first birthday with her family. But after 10 open heart surgeries and five catheter procedures, Millie suffered a blood clot and went into cardiac arrest, suffering irreparable brain damage.
Millie passed away on May 2 at the age of 16 months.
“My husband and I went to see her the night she died,” said Patterson. “That was a turning point for me,” and one that hit close to home. She felt grief, anger – but it wasn’t until sometime later that the idea of a book, a children’s book about “Magnificent Millie,” came to her.
Patterson was reading a bedtime story to her 4 1/2-year-old daughter about Wonder Woman. “I thought, this is silly – Wonder Woman isn’t a hero. Millie is a hero.”
That’s where it began, but it was to be a long journey before Magnificent Millie was a reality. Patterson was a writer and a blogger, but, she said, “this was out of my comfort zone.”
She wrote multiple drafts, trying to tell a story that deals with big issues in a way that kids can understand. “It’s not a sad book,” she said, but one that “opens a window for kids to talk about it, to ask questions… I never say ‘death,’ I never say ‘life,’ I never say ‘heaven.'"
Patterson also had to get permission from Millie’s family before going any further. It was tough to decide what to say to Millie’s mom, Caroline. In the end, she sent a “really long email" explaining her idea, with a request for an honest opinion and a promise to go no further if the Robertsons were opposed.
“She wrote me back in 10 minutes, saying "This is an awesome idea. How can I help?"
Planning to self-publish the book, she told Caroline that she was still looking for an illustrator – and Caroline immediately offered her talents, sending back the portrait of Millie that became the front cover of the book.
“It’s her. It was a perfect match,” said Patterson. “Who knows Millie better than her own mother?”
She sent a draft of the story, and the collaboration began. The two moms shared tears, artistic suggestions and produced Magnificent Millie. “It definitely was a team effort. It’s definitely an honour to work with her,” Patterson said.
The book isn’t only the story of Millie. It’s also a book about congenital heart disease, about all kids who are "heart warriors," about their families, and about the love they feel and the struggles they experience.
“These kids are so tough and so brave and so determined, and they’re heroes – and that’s Henry, too,” said Patterson. “He’s come so far. He’s your average little boy," but he’s not “fixed.” He will always have a congenital condition that requires monitoring and possible additional surgeries.
Magnificent Millie is a children’s book that is also for parents, she said.
“Parents who lose their children swim in deep waters, and they are exhausted, sad, lonely and beaten,” said Patterson. Magnificent Millie provides support and comfort.
“It’s very special. It’s never been done before,” she admitted, which meant that the initial response from booksellers was mixed. Now that the book is available on Amazon, the response from the public has been more than positive.
“It’s really taken off in Nova Scotia” - Millie’s home province, where she has a big fanbase and 400 followers on Facebook – and Patterson is hoping for similar success in Ontario. She and Robertson also plan to send the book to palliative care centres and cardiac units to help other families going through difficult times and loss.
The paperback book is available on Amazon and at Chapters and Indigo for $14.99.
“It’s not about money. It’s about teaching adults and children alike a valuable lesson. It’s about distribution,” said Patterson. “I want as many people as possible to get their hands on this book” to get to know Magnificent Millie and her story.
“Sometimes you start something and think, 'What have I done?' It’s special. We’ve turned a tragedy into a beautiful story.”
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Robertson continues to use her art to deal with her grief, and to make a difference. She has drawn a series of cards, illustrated with delightful images of Millie and sea creatures, and is donating 100 per cent of the proceeds from their sale to the SickKids Foundation. For more information, visit her Facebook page.