From her grin and mischievous personality to the navy blue bow in her hair, Daniella Llano is like a character from a book, a cross between the cute and fearless Madeline and the equally cute and outspoken Judy Moody, but with a twist you might not see coming.
Dani, as she is known, is a 9-year-old with Down Syndrome.
And she is the inspiration for the book, In My World, Down Syndrome, written by her sister Gabriella Llano, 15, and her cousin Tiziana Vazquez, 16, both sophomores at Our Lady of Lourdes Academy in Miami. The girls will appear at 5 p.m. Saturday at Books & Books in Coral Gables for a launch of the book, self-published by Author House.
More like sisters than cousins, the girls mirror their mothers, Dr. Ayleen Pinera-Llano, a pediatrician, and her sister Silvia Pinera-Vazquez, an attorney in Miami. While the two are like typical teenage girls who giggle and finish each other’s sentences, they are focused on sensitizing other children about a world unknown to most of their friends. The book is aimed at kids ages 9-13.
Gabriella and Tiziana say that growing up with Dani, watching her deal with the challenges of Down Syndrome and the example of openness and tolerance she has set for friends and family, has shaped their lives.
“She doesn’t see flaws in anyone,” Gabriella says.
“She doesn’t care how they look, who they are,” adds Tiziana.
“I feel like I’m more understanding of situations more open to everything,” Gabriella says. “It’s easier to see through people’s eyes. You get what they’re going through.”
The girls summed up the message of the book in one word — “empathy.”
“Empathy for the children who do go to regular schools and have a disability — how the other kids treat them,” Tiziana says.
The plot centers around 9-year-old Mika, who is struggling to fit in at a traditional school. As her friends mature, Mika’s social development is slow. She continues to enjoy toys and favorite television shows her friends have left behind. Her best friend is drawn to new friends who share her interests.
The book explores how a painful incident for Mika ripples through the lives of other members of the family.
Dani also attends a traditional school, St. Theresa Catholic School in Coral Gables, where she is the only child with Down Syndrome, Dr. Pinera-Llano says. However, she has many friends, and has not experienced the problem the character Mika faces, though she shares the character’s love of activities favored by younger children.
“Everyone knows her, and loves her,” says Tiziana. People, particularly children, who were not used to her spontaneous hugs, now welcome them.
“She’s such a big influence on the kids in her grade,” Gabriella says. “She doesn’t know it, but she is an example and they follow.”
How did two high school sophomores with classes and a long list of after-school activities manage to write a book? The two say they sought guidance from Denelsa Febo, their eighth grade English teacher at St. Theresa Catholic School in CoralGables.
“She was the one who opened our eyes to writing,” Tiziana says.
The girls say they knew they needed someone to enforce structure and deadlines. They finished the book last summer.