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Interview with Travis D. Peterson, author of "Ada and the Helpers"

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

Born & raised in Wilmington, North Carolina, Travis D. Peterson grew up building tree forts and exploring trails in the woods, riding waves, catching fish in the ocean and lightning bugs in the night air.

As an adult, he worked as a bookseller and spent way too much money on stacks of books while pursuing an education as a graphic designer. He went on to design all sorts of printed things and won 10 awards from the Religion Communicators Council for his work.

Travis now lives in Bergen, Norway, where his wife, Anne Berit, is from. They have two brave and wonderful kids—one of which has profound hearing loss and has received bilateral cochlear implants that help her to hear. Travis' debut book is a picture book with a protagonist inspired by his daughter.

Travis D. Peterson

"Be bold! Be brave! Let you be you... and let's help others, too!" That's Ada's motto.

Ada is a dancing, deaf fox with cochlear implants who loves to help others. On her way to dance in a talent show one day, she meets three other creatures who are each facing a physical challenge of their own. She decides to help each of her new friends to see past their challenges and discover their natural, God-given strengths. But can they help her in return? Ada's a bit nervous about the talent show!

Will she be able to hear the music clearly?

Will everyone laugh at her?

Travis, Congratulations on your debut picture book. We are so excited to share your story and your book with the audience at ASL Picture Books.

Your book was inspired by your daughter's hearing loss. Research reveals that 90% of deaf children are born to hearing families. In 2019, the CDC estimated that 6,000 U.S. infants were identified early with permanent hearing loss. At the same time, the World Health Organization states that 34 million children worldwide have hearing loss.

Travis, there are not 6000 new authors inspired to write a children’s book with characters representing this substantial population of children. I’m very interested in hearing all about your story, the challenges, and how a picture book was your next course of action.

You had suspicions about the hearing of your second child, Esther. What was the incident that confirmed for you something was not normal? What were your first reactions?

We had already had a few hearing tests run, but nothing was conclusive yet. One evening, we had my wife’s parents over for dinner. Shortly after they arrived, something was dropped that made a loud noise—a noise that would make any hearing baby jump. I happened to be holding Esther at the time, and I noticed she didn’t respond at all. That’s when it became real to me that our daughter could in fact be deaf. As an emotional person, it was all I could do to hold back the tears while my in-laws were there! As soon as they left, I broke down and told my wife.

After learning of your daughter’s deafness, she received Cochlear implants around nine months of age. What were the immediate results you noticed when her implants were activated? How has the process been for your family?

I love seeing these viral videos of kids getting activated and responding right away, but I’ve learned that in most cases, these aren’t kids who have never heard before. The reality is that when a baby is first activated, the volume is set so low that there is no response. That volume is then slowly increased over time. So, unfortunately, it wasn’t the reaction one might expect. But what I can say is that after only about 6 weeks, Esther said her first word, “Mama!” Okay, truthfully, it was more like “mamamamamamama”, but it was still beautiful! She’s been learning to speak both Norwegian and English, as well as the sign languages for both (but mostly Norwegian.) It’s so impressive to me that even as a preschooler, she’s able to say something to my wife in Norwegian and repeat it to me in English! When she was only about 2 years old, her preschool told us that Esther was the one modeling communication for her class. It just goes to show that sign language does NOT slow down verbal communication!

In Norway, what was the process for testing newborns, and what were you told?

I wish I could remember all of the details for how they performed the tests and the timeline! But after Esther failed the first newborn test, they scheduled follow-up tests. We were told initially that it was likely just fluid in her ears that would clear up over time.

You listened to the professionals and then you did your own research. What did you discover that convinced you that teaching and learning sign language would be beneficial for you and your daughter?

Those in the hospital were telling us that sign language wouldn’t be needed—that her ability to “hear” would be good enough. There is some truth to that—she does hear quite well! But the other side of the coin is that there are times when she doesn’t have her processors on, such as just after waking up, just before bed, and when she’s taking a bath. So there’s still a great need for some form of communication when she’s unable to use her cochlear implants. In fact, we had an unfortunate event happen in the Summer of 2021. She got a hold of the remote to her processors, and something happened that scared her so much that she started screaming and removed them. We weren’t sure how long it would be before she would be willing to put them back on again and quickly realized even after the sign language training we had, we were still severely lacking. Thankfully, what we feared might take years only lasted about four weeks. She’s back to wearing them all day faithfully! However, there are still more circumstances when sign language is such a valuable form of communication for us, such as when there’s a lot of noise around us or even when communicating with a sound barrier, such as a window between us! But with all of that, I have to say that one of the driving forces for me personally was the conviction that there was a massive people group that I had never really had any connection with. I wanted to change that.

I love that you began learning and using sign language. Some countries, such as Thailand, use ASL or American Sign Language. What about Norway? Norway uses its own sign language, and so that’s the language we’ve focused on so far. Although, we have mixed in a bit of ASL as well. Maybe it’s not correct, but as we’ve been learning along with Esther, it’s been helpful for us to choose the sign from both languages that is most natural. I have to say, though, that it seems ASL uses much more fingerspelling than Norwegian sign language. That in itself makes Norwegian sign language seem much more visual!

You worked hard to become a graphic designer. You became a children’s book author with Ada and the Helpers. Did you ever imagine your personal and professional life would work so closely together in this way?