Over her Thanksgiving holiday break, Izzy Hadala sat holed up at home with her laptop, pecking away two-finger-typing the first few words of her second novel.
Her first book, “The First Day Speech,” may have only come out four months ago, but Izzy already sits with a pad of paper containing countless ideas carefully scrolled, many more scribbled out, brainstorming for her second. She’s trying to reach a more mature audience this time, she says. An audience that’s more wooed with free clothing than chocolate chip cookies. An audience, she says, even more in need of the message she’s trying to share.
Her one-letter-at-a-time typing is measured and thoughtful by both intent and necessity. As her hands move across the keyboard, they tell a story beyond the words she’s crafting on the computer screen — but one she’s learned to sum up in less than 10 minutes, or 40 pages, flat.
“Let’s address the elephant in the room,” Izzy says directly, gesturing her hands out widely in emphasis and display.
Born with ectodermal dysplasia, a condition that halted the development of her fingers, toes and teeth, Izzy’s fingers are functional, but not in the same way or shape of those folded in the laps of room of 10-fingered children she addresses. On her first day of school, from first through fifth grade, Izzy gave a speech to her classmates at Altamonte Elementary explaining her differences.
“I did it so they could get all of their questions out of the way, and we could kind of continue the year without it being awkward or anything,” she says.
After her first speech little girls complimented her shoes and soccer skills they’d seen her practicing on the school fields, and first grade boys asked if she’d been bitten by a shark or had her hands caught a lawn mower. Getting the questions out of the way now, she said, was better than dealing with them all year. “Get a good look at me and get over it,” she says, repeating her yearly mantra.
“And then my mom brought cookies, so if they weren’t going to pay attention to me, they would associate me with cookies, and cookies are always good,” she says looking back now with a laugh.
At 13 she turned the story of that speech into a book, published in August by Wild Onion Press — a publisher that focuses on putting out stories by and for children with special differences. In the book, a boy named Charlie, born with a facial cleft, overcomes and addresses his difference by giving a speech to his classmates on the first day of school.
At 14, now going into her last semester of eighth grade at Orangewood Christian School in Maitland, Izzy is working on her second novel in between classes, soccer practice, and making trips to tell her story across the community and the country.
She’s stopped giving her speech in school due to middle school’s revolving class schedule — “That’d be a lot to say and a lot of cookies to bring,” she says with a laugh — and instead is working to spread her message of stopping bullying on a larger scale.
After being named one of Florida Hospital’s Healthy 100, in September NBC’s “Today Show” spotlighted Izzy and her book following her from doctor visits at the hospital to classroom guest-speaking visits in local schools.
An Aeropostle-labeled navy polo shirt she wore in the segment spurred a partnership with the teen clothing store, and a trip for Izzy and her mom to New York City to see the design process of its clothing and an opportunity to share her story with others. The brand also shipped enough sweaters to her school to give one to every seventh and eighth grader at Orangewood, along with “STOMP Out Bullying” bracelets given out in October for national anti-bullying month. Free clothes and bracelets, she jokes, being the middle school equivalent of an anti-bullying award just as cookies were in elementary school.
“Now I’m just her secretary,” her mother Jackie Hadala says with a laugh. “…It’s been a such a whirlwind of things its hard to keep track. If you told me Christmas was tomorrow, I’d probably believe you.”
Jackie says watching Izzy grow up and mature from a persistent baby using her hands the best she could to scoot and scoop up her rattle, to stepping up to combat the pestering questions, behind-her-back whispers and in-public pointing that shadowed her adolescence, has changed her ideas of bullying and how the community can come together to stop it. It’s no longer about just being pushed down on the playground, or getting your lunch money stolen, she says, it’s become more clever and less direct.
“It’s that silent bullying that I actually think is more prevalent now, but just as hurtful, but hard to prove and hard to get under control,” she said.
At Orangewood Izzy is a familiar face, from spreading her story at sermons to leading the middle school soccer team to the playoffs as a left mid-fielder. She’s pushed her differences aside, principal Tim Mitchell says, and instead is recognized for her positive attitude and academic performance. He says she has a knack for making people feel comfortable around her that makes her shining light on the school’s campus.
“With Izzy, you see Izzy, you don’t see a disability or a difference. It takes very little amount of time with her to realize…she is who she is,” Mitchell said. “She’ll tackle anything. There’s nothing she’s not willing to take on… Izzy is who she is and you just love her for that.”
From the silent bullying, soccer to writing, her mom says she’s watched Izzy overcome and succeed in doing everything she’s put her mind to in her 14 years.
“Except scissors,” Izzy adds with a headshake and a mock-frustrated sigh. “I don’t like scissors…but I’ll figure it out eventually.”
For more information about Izzy’s book, “The First Day Speech,” visit wildonionpress.com/FirstDaySpeech.html
Zipping back and forth on the soccer field, her underdeveloped feet laced up in cleats and hands only used pumping up and down for speed, she melds seamlessly with her red-and-white jerseyed team. She steps up and calls plays, and celebrates goals with exuberant fist-pumps, hugs and high fives.
At her church, First United Methodist of Winter Park, she sings with the choir, and volunteers weekly with its youth group. In the preschool library down the hall sits a copy of her book to be read and checked out by the church children. Her next book, she hopes, will land in the young-adult section, refreshing middle school children on differences and how people with them aren’t always so different.
“I never thought I’d be writing my first book. If you told me two years ago ‘You’d be a published author, Izzy,’ I’d say no way, you’ve got the wrong girl.’ …I’m supposed to be sitting home watching TV all day, right? But instead…” she says trailing off with a laugh.
“It’s like I have to pinch myself kind of because I’m not sure I’m awake.”