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Stow couple’s graphic novel debuts with HarperCollins, a tale of beating boys at football and fitting in

Stow resident Misty Wilson was the ultimate tomboy when she was growing up.

So much so that when the boys on the playground at Wadsworth Middle School shunned her when she wanted to play football with them, she figured, “Who needs them?” She took it a step further by going out for the seventh/eighth grade football team in the Wadsworth City Youth League.

“For years I’d be on the playground at Franklin Elementary School in Wadsworth doing all the things the boys were doing,” Wilson, now 34, recalled, “like playing football and basketball, arm wrestling, having pullup contests on the monkey bars and stuff like that. I started liking football when I was 9 years old when my mom met my stepdad. He watched a lot of football, and I’d watch it with him.”

Wilson had not intended to actually play football competitively until she was in seventh grade, when the boys on the playground told her to stay away from their game.

“They told me I couldn’t play, that it wasn’t really for girls,” she said. “So I decided if I was on a team, they couldn’t tell me I couldn’t play.”

Wilson went out for the Wadsworth City Youth League seventh/eighth-grade team — the Redskins — and made the squad. She said everyone but her teammates were supportive of her venture.

“The coaches were extremely accepting of me. They never had a negative word to say,” she said. “They always treated me like everyone else. They actually gave me a lot of extra help and pointers because, when I first started, I had no idea what to do. Playing on a team is a lot different than playing with the boys at recess.

“My family was really supportive. I’d never been into traditionally feminine things, so it was kind of expected. My stepdad was really pumped about it. My mom was a little scared I’d get hurt, but she was supportive. I didn’t really get pushback from friends, but there were definitely girls who thought it was weird. I think it’s more widely accepted now than it was then. Being a tomboy, it wasn’t completely out of left field.”

Wilson details her experiences on the seventh/eighth grade football team in her debut children’s book, “Play Like A Girl,” a graphic memoir scheduled to be released today. It chronicles not just her one season of football but also her life as a middle school student trying to find her place during what is often a difficult time for youngsters.

“The vast majority of boys on my team ignored me like I wasn’t there at all,” she said. “There were a select few boys who always had something to say about the fact that I was on the team and treated me poorly. I definitely took it personally. I was an extremely competitive kid, so it bugged me in the first place being told that I wasn’t allowed to play football. I wanted to prove that girls can do this. Even though I struggled at first, it was a perseverance thing where I just kept going until I got good at it. I’d been friends with these boys, but then, all of a sudden, they were like, ‘Hey, we don’t want you on the team because we don’t want to lose with a girl on the team.’ I wanted to prove myself.”

At first, Wilson had a buddy on the team. With Wilson’s urging, her best friend went out for the team with her, but she quit early on. Wilson had a difficult time learning all the ins and outs of playing the sport of football, but eventually she became one of the better players on her team.

“I was a really big kid. I hit puberty early, the growth spurt,” she said. “The boys were still pretty small. When I got to middle school, they were starting to grow, but I’d kind of stopped growing, so we were all the same size at that point. And I was always kind of a tough kid.”

Wilson was the starting offensive right tackle for most of the season. She also played halfback and defensive right tackle at times. She relished playing defense most of all.

“I loved the idea of stopping the ball and tackling people,” she said. “The physicality of the sport was really what I was into. My goal was really just to prove myself and have fun.”

Have fun Wilson and her teammates did. They finished undefeated and won their league championship.

Wilson steered clear of any major injuries.

“My only one was when, while playing offensive right tackle, my forearms got bruised at the beginning of the season,” she said. “My coach gave me forearm pads, and I was good to go. I got the wind knocked out of me a couple times while playing offensive right tackle because I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know to stay low, and all of a sudden someone’s head was in my gut.”

Wilson was an extremely competitive youngster, and believe it or not, that is what prompted her to quit football after only one season.

“I had a really terrible competitive mentality back then, and by the time eighth grade rolled around, the boys were starting to get bigger than me,” she said. “I always wanted to be the best at everything. I was afraid that I would no longer be able to keep up with the boys. Halfway through eighth grade I totally regretted not at least trying, but at the time I just didn’t want to possibly not be the best.”

Wilson went on to graduate from Walsh Jesuit High School in 2006 and then earned three degrees from Kent State University: hospitality management in 2010, nursing in 2013 and a master’s in teaching in 2015. She opted for the teaching degree and currently works as an intervention specialist tutor for fifth graders at Walls Elementary School in Kent.

Three years ago, in October 2019, while teaching third graders in the Crestwood School District, Wilson felt a calling.

“My students were pretty obsessed with graphic novels, so I decided to pick one up, Raina Telgemeier’s ‘Smile,’ ” she remembered. “I loved it so much. I was like, ‘It’s so simple.’ I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if I could write a graphic novel.’ I had students, even at the ages of 8 and 9, who would complain and were crying because they weren’t part of the popular crowd. I had kids staying inside for recess who felt like they didn’t fit in anywhere. I was like, ‘I feel like I have a story to tell.’

“I came home one day and said to my husband, David, ‘I have an idea to write a children’s book.’ It’s about football, but it’s also about the time in middle school that’s so hard when you’re trying to fit in and can’t really seem to be able to find your place and really figure out who you are. I had zero experience with writing. I had no idea what I was doing, but I decided to go for it anyway.”

“What makes me super proud of Misty is that she’s someone who didn’t have a writing background but felt compelled to write a book,” David Wilson said. “She did a lot of hard work learning how to write, a lot of studying, a lot of independent learning and a lot of sweat equity into figuring out how to tell a good story. Even though it was her story, there were still a lot of nuances that went into how to tell it.”

Misty asked David to illustrate the book. After all, he is a professor in the Visual Communication Design department at Kent State and a creative director at the indie publishing house Belt.

“I’d done some shorter comics, indie comics beforehand, so this was my first big project in terms of illustration,” explained David. “I’ve done newspaper and magazine illustrations before, including for The Boston Globe. I wasn’t used to that long of a project. It was like a rollercoaster. It had its ups and downs. I’d get burnt out, but then I’d get reinvigorated when we’d hit a stride. It was a haul.

“Working together on a book was really nice for us because, living together, we can kind of pick each other’s brains at any point in time. It’s a very organic workflow of handing things off to each other without any sort of email communication or waiting for other people.”

The Wilsons hired an agent, who sent a 45-page outline to multiple publishers in March 2020.

“After we sold it soon after (to HarperCollins),” Misty said, “we ended up getting an edit letter back a few months later from my editor, who was basically like we need to learn something about telling a story. The editor wrote, ‘You do have a natural story here in terms of your character goes through a lot of changes and learns a lot, but you need to kind of tie it all in together.’

“Getting the edit letter back from my editor was incredibly educational because she walked me through the things I needed to consider like what the character wants and what her motivation is. I also started buying and reading writing craft books that showed me how to structure a story and pique peoples’ interest.”

Eventually, everything came together nicely. “Play Like a Girl” ($12.99 paperback, $22.99 hardback) is targeted to 8-to-12-year-olds.

“We’re very much being marketed by the publisher as a girl playing a male-dominated sport and persevering through adversity,” said Misty. “The book is about so much more than football, though. It’s about learning to be comfortable in your own skin and finding the people who accept you for you and being true to yourself. There is sequential art and dialogue, so your words are telling the story, but also the art is telling part of the story.”

Added David, “There are between three and six illustrations on every page.”

The Wilsons have two daughters aged 6 and 4. Asked if she would allow either of her daughters to play football down the road, Misty paused before responding.

“I don’t know if I’d let them play football,” she said. “As a mom, it would probably make me really nervous. I’d be extremely supportive of the fact that they want to do something that’s a male-dominated sport, but at the same time … I know too many kids who have grown up playing football and ended up with so many concussions.”

What is next for the Wilsons?

“We’re working on a second children’s book for the same publisher,” said Misty. “David will illustrate it. This one will be completely fiction. Right now, it’s about a girl and a boy who were once friends and they get thrown into detention together. While simultaneously rekindling their friendship, they also try to abolish detention and come up with a better alternative.”

Misty took a shot in the dark in authoring a book with no previous professional writing experience. It was a triumph for her, just like it was when she tried out for the football team in seventh grade.

“My experience playing football was a lesson in showing that success comes from trying,” she said. “You can’t succeed if you don’t try.”