Remembering Jewel Kats (1978 – 2016)
by Victor R. Volkman, President
Loving Healing Press, Inc.
Jewel came to me in 2009 with a pitch for a vastly under-served area of great personal importance to her, specifically, treatment of abused girls in the South Asian immigrant community: a highly cloistered environment where you did not talk of such things, regardless of how often they happened. The book was “Reena’s Bollywood Dream: A Story About Sexual Abuse”. I am always clear about including a subtitle so parents know what they are getting. The purpose of this book, like others we had published before, was to make sure the child knows that the abuse was not their fault, that they are not the only one in the world to have this happen, and the importance of reporting all inappropriate contacts.
Her major mission, helping children cope with disabilities and normalize them in society, started with her most heartfelt project “Cinderella’s Magical Wheelchair” and together we envisioned the “Fairy Abilities Tales” where each book would rewrite a cherished fable, but with a fully empowered protagonist who just happened to have a disability. As time went on we tackled cerebral palsy, autism, and vitiligo. We were in the planning stages of visually impaired Little Red Riding Hood when Jewel’s health took a turn for the worse — among other things her own vision declined into legally blind. But she had the kind of heart that could turn the most foul turn of fate into an asset.
Even reading the manuscripts could bring tears to my eyes — the sheer pluck of the hero/heroine and nobility of spirit, starting from a situation where most of us would just give up. That was the case in The Princess Panda Tea Party, my eyes are welling up as I write it, where the girl in the orphanage with cerebral palsy, the butt of jokes, with the clumsiness that comes with the disease, by sheer willpower and faith learns the manners and skills required to put on a tea party for the visiting royalty.
Jewel’s generosity of spirit also showed in her helping to develop illustrators along with her work. The early books used up and coming watercolor artist Richa Kinra. The later books allowed her the freedom to cultivate brand new artists in their field to help them find their voice as well. Most recently, her innovative collaborations with Claudia Marie Lenart, an American fiber artist, helped create an astonishingly beautiful 3-D look for the illustrations of Hansel and Gretel: A Fairy Tale with a Down Syndrome Twist. While some critics claimed that Hansel went too far beyond his Down Syndrome disability, that is an argument you would never hear from Jewel where purity of spirit and courage carry the day. For Jewel, the Fairy Tale was a mechanism where we could show our ideal selves: heroic, kind, forgiving, and above all gracious Soon to be released, the groundbreaking “Jenny and Her Dog Both get Cancer” brings Jewel’s love of animals to the forefront in a way that brings this difficult subject home to children.
While Jewel styled herself as a “diva” and could be bossy up to a point, there was no one more generous and thoughtful with her time and attention. At a book event, she would be sure to make sure that any child with a disability got extra special attention and would find her inner princess powers. It’s hard to judge the impact of someone else in your life until they’re gone: a sad fact of life. Today I checked my outgoing mailbox and it shows that I sent 1,736 replies to emails to Jewel Kats since she first contacted me. I have to say that’s how the Diva-esque part impacted me, but since she called me “Dear Editor”, how could I not respond? Some days we would exchange up to 8 emails. It could be exhausting but it was always, always in service of making a better product, getting more exposure, and making a bigger difference in the world.
One of Jewel’s core beliefs was that ALL girls can be a Princess. Why not? It doesn’t matter what shape you are, what you can or can’t do, what color your skin is, how well you speak, every girl was a Princess in her eyes and that brings me the tears again. Childhood can be a cruel place and she was dealt an awful hand with her childhood car accident that brought chronic pain to her every day and declining mobility, but STILL she would volunteer to read stories to children at the hospital which had held her prisoner for so many months. She was that kind of person, who would bring a girl with cerebral palsy backstage for a personal meet and greet, and that girl would be a princess for all time.
I want her to be remembered for all that and more.
Michelle Meera Katyal (a.k.a. Jewel Kats) was pronounced dead on January 7th, 2016. The official cause of death is listed as complications following surgery in October 2015 to repair a bowel obstruction. She had two decades history of struggling with gastro-intestinal disorders and was frequently hospitalized for it. Jewel also had struggled with an eating disorder.