Book created by local author and artist honors family coping with terminal illness
Written by Emily Sparacino
Photographs by Dawn Harrison and Morgan Blake Photography
As a young adult fiction author, Anne Riley writes stories based on plots and characters that form in her imagination.
“My mind is a plot factory, with new ideas coming to me almost daily,” she said. “But the meat of a story, the details, develop over time.”
Her first book, “The Clearing,” which was renamed “Shadows of the Hidden” after it was picked up by a small press, follows Natalie Watson, a girl trying to solve the mystery surrounding her parents’ disappearance.
Riley’s second book, “Pull,” centers on female character Rosie Clayton and her adventures with a group of crime-fighting strangers in London who have a special ability called “Pulling.”
Her third book, “Voyage to the Star Kingdom,” is different than the others.
Not just because it’s a children’s book, but because the story is based on reality.
It’s the story of one family’s love, loss and hope in heaven, carefully and tenderly depicted in allegory form.
And it’s the story Riley, a 33-year-old mother of three girls, can’t reread without crying.
“Every time I worked on that story, I wept over it,” Riley said. “It was like being torn open over and over. Even now, more than a year after it released, I can’t read it without crying.”
Released in January 2016, “Voyage to the Star Kingdom” follows a family in Village-Upon-Stone that, in the midst of leading a happy life, must endure a terrible storm hovering over their home.
In real life, this family is the Gieselmann family – Frazer and Dana, and their daughters, Ann Carlyle, Milla and Elle – and the storm is incurable illness.
Riley and her cousin Amy Grimes, whom Riley asked to illustrate “Voyage to the Star Kingdom,” are friends of the Memphis family. The book was a personal project for both women.
To fully understand the meaning embedded in the book’s words and illustrations, one needs to know the Gieselmanns’ story first.
In August 2013, Milla, Frazer and Dana’s middle daughter, started to have seizures that became more numerous with time.
Milla was diagnosed with Batten disease – an incurable, inherited neurodegenerative disorder – one year and two months later.
Children with Milla’s type of the disease have a life expectancy of eight to 10 years.
On the heels of Milla’s diagnosis, Frazer and Dana had Ann Carlyle and Elle tested for Batten, since it is a genetic disease.
Ann Carlyle, 8, tested negative for the disease.
Soon after that, however, the family was hit with news that Elle, the youngest of the three girls, also had the disease despite her lack of symptoms to that point. But her first seizure followed closely behind her diagnosis.
“Shortly after I found out about all this, which was over a year ago, I found myself weeping over the situation and desperately trying to think of something to do,” Riley wrote in a blog post in November 2015. “For a moment, I actually considered quitting my job and going into genetic research so that I could find a cure for these girls.”
Riley prayed to God, asking for guidance on how she could help the family during an unimaginably trying season of life.
God’s answer to Riley’s prayer came in the form of a “mental nudge,” as she called it; a quiet directive to use her gift for storytelling to tell the family’s story.
Riley and Grimes embarked on an emotional journey to create a book that would honor the Gieselmann family and shine a soft, faith-filled light on their experiences.
“I was fortunate to have Amy Grimes in my corner with all of this; she is responsible for the great majority of the plot ideas, and I was able to add a few elements of my own, write it all down and tie it all together in a neat little book-shaped package,” Riley said. “Her illustrations capture the heart of the story so beautifully and perfectly – I could not have asked for a better artist to take on this project.”
In the book, the family prays to the Star King for help in the storm. He sends them gifts meant to comfort and sustain them, but doesn’t remove the storm.
Then, he sends an Angelfish messenger to deliver an invitation to the family for a special banquet in the Star Kingdom.
But the Star King asks that the family’s two younger daughters depart for the kingdom before their parents and oldest sister.
At this point in the story, the weight of impending separation settles to the bottom of one’s heart like an anchor to the ocean floor.
The Gieselmanns have shouldered that weight for years now.
Their sweet Milla passed away in November 2016, shortly after her 6th birthday.
Elle is involved in a clinical trial for an experimental drug intended to slow or halt the progression of Batten disease.
Riley consulted with Dana and Frazer throughout the book project to ensure it honored their family in every way.
“They loved the idea and were thrilled with the finished product,” Riley said. “I think it was hard for them to read at first – after all, it was about their family, their children. But they have told me that it’s been helpful in talking to their oldest daughter about what’s happened to their middle sister, and we were able to give some of the original artwork to them, which they have on display around their house.”
The purpose of the book, Riley said, was to remind the family that people’s lives on earth are a tiny part of the whole story, “that there are beautiful, perfect things waiting for us in eternity, and that once we are there, the pain of this world will be forgotten.”
“In the first part of the story, when you see the family’s life being turned upside down – there’s real grief there, which was intentional,” Riley said. “Amy and I wanted to show the sadness of the family’s separation and turmoil so that the story would carry the weight of that brokenness (and if you look closely at the illustrations, you can see the grief on the family’s faces), but then the ending comes – hope, light, meaning. That’s what we wanted for this family. And for all of us.”
“Voyage to the Star Kingdom” ends with the two daughters who were summoned to the kingdom first realizing the rest of their family has joined them for a banquet with the Star King. They are together again, but this time, for eternity.
In March, Baptist Memorial Health Care in Memphis announced it will open two new grief centers, one of which will bear Milla’s name.
The midtown location, the Kemmons Wilson Family Center for Good Grief, Milla’s House, is set to open this summer on the grounds of Idlewild Presbyterian Church, according to Baptistonline.org.
All profits from the sales of “Voyage to the Star Kingdom” go to the Gieselmann family’s trust fund, Riley said.
Since the book’s release in January 2016, Riley has had her third child and is delving back into writing on a consistent basis.
“I’m currently captivated by an idea for a new YA novel, and I’ve also worked on some other children’s book ideas, too,” she said.
Riley, who is originally from Birmingham, started writing for publication in August 2008.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising and public relations, with a second major in Spanish, from the University of Alabama.
She works as the Content Team Director at Uptick Marketing.
“I am a freelance editor and have worked with about a dozen aspiring authors on everything from query letters to manuscript editing,” Riley said. “I have a very neglected blog on my website, and sometimes I blog for the company I work for at Uptickmarketing.com.”
She does occasional speaking events and attended the Alabama Writing Workshop in February.
Riley, her husband and their three young daughters live in north Shelby County.
Riley enjoys hiking, reading and drinking coffee early in the morning by herself.
But, more than anything else, she loves to write.
“I think some people assume it’s easy and anyone can do it. Then there are other people who are good writers and have a story to tell, but they think it’s too hard – and they’ll never finish,” Riley said. “The truth is somewhere in the middle; it takes a long time and a lot of hard work to get a book publication-ready, and while anyone can be an author, it takes a special kind of dedication to be an author well.”
To follow Riley’s writing endeavors, visit Annerileybooks.com. For more information about Grimes and her work, visit Storypaintings.net.