Former Center Moriches teacher Mary Jane Viaggio Hayes, who goes by the pen name MJ Hayes, is the author of more than nine children’s books. Though she finds inspiration in the world around her, it’s her own life that reads like a story at times.
The year was 1966, and Hayes was young, fresh out of Adelphi College and working as a third-grade teacher at Center Moriches Elementary School (now known as the Clayton Huey Elementary School), when she was hit by a drunk driver. The accident was horrific, according to Hayes. She was thrown 30 feet into the air and went into a coma vigil, which is an ongoing vegetative state. According to mayoclinic.org, coma vigil is rare and happens to only about 20,000 people per year; a person can come out of it or may remain in a vegetative state forever.
Hayes said her mother was instrumental in her recovery, working tirelessly to “revitalize” her brain by reading stories and reciting math problems and other facts. After 11 months, Hayes miraculously recovered and went back into the field she loved so much, teaching—but no longer in Center Moriches. However, the accident would stick with her for the rest of her life, long-forgotten bits of her memory reemerging like letters in a cloudy bowl of alphabet soup.
One such memory reappeared years later, while reading through the chapters of her own book, “Dakota, Help Me See the Light,” about a blind child named Gavin. Hayes realized that she had gone blind for a period of time after her accident. Her father had come to visit her in the hospital and she remembered hearing him and wanting to see him but only seeing blackness, which is what Gavin sees in the book.
“My dad came in and he made it known that he was there with me. I heard his voice and I can remember saying to him, ‘Daddy, I wish I could see what I hear,’ but I couldn’t see. My dad was there, but I couldn’t see him,” she said.
Even before the accident that changed her life, Hayes enjoyed writing. It wasn’t until she became a teacher that she decided to start writing books; at first, they were class projects.
“I’ve always loved writing. As a kid, I would write stories and then draw the pictures, too. Always writing and drawing. Then, once I got into teaching, I started writing as like a class project. ‘Ollie the Octopus’ was a class project. It wasn’t published, but everyone loved it,” she said.
When Hayes moved to Florida after a divorce in 2007, she decided to double down on writing.
“I’m not going to go to the bars and drink. I stayed home and worked and wrote and researched. I worked a lot, as in like 24/7. And I spent a lot of time in writing classes learning how to become a better writer. I was always working on proposals, typing away—always typing,” she said.
Hayes attended conference after conference and writing class after writing class, always working to become a better writer, developing her voice and style. Then, she attended a Highlights conference and met Patricia Gauch. Gauch is well known in the world of children’s writing as an author and the former editorial director of Philomel Books.
At a breakfast breakout session, Hayes told Gauch about her latest idea, a children’s book about a deaf girl named Emma who puts on a silent concert, picking up instruments and playing them but without any sound coming out, and at the same time teaching a bully the true meaning of silence. Gauch thought the idea was unique and interesting, Hayes said.
“She told me, ‘When you’re finished writing, I want you to contact me,’ ” said Hayes.
When Hayes finished writing “Emma’s House of Sound,” she sent the manuscript to Gauch and Gauch sent back two pages full of edits and constructive criticism, which Hayes said she was incredibly grateful for. Hayes kept on writing and editing, but now had something new to research: how to get published.
According to Hayes, there are three different ways to get published: by finding a traditional publisher; hiring a company to help you publish; or self-publishing.
Hayes decided that she wanted to do it all herself.
“I hire my illustrator, my editor. I’d still be waiting to be published if I hadn’t done it myself,” she said.
Hayes said doing it all herself has given her greater creative control so she can delve into subjects she enjoys. Doing it herself also means she has had to do her own publicity.
Hayes promotes herself with a website and on social media. She also stays active doing school events and appearances, and has won writing awards on Long Island and in St. Augustine, Fla. Though, her goal is always to bring awareness to the type of children she writes about.
“I never thought I would be where I am now. I always wanted to write and become famous. But I didn’t want to get awards just because I want to put them on my wall. I want to get awards to bring substantive help to a child. That’s what makes me write,” said Hayes.
As for what is next for Hayes, she says she’s always coming up with new book ideas.
“There’s a lot of spontaneity. I saw a squirrel eating a nut and got an idea for a book. I lost a shoe and got an idea for a book. My books are cute and they always have an educational and philosophical slant,” she said.
To find out more about MJ Hayes visit www.mjhayesauthor.com.
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