Gray skies closet the city outside of Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital on a recent Tuesday morning, but inside, volunteer Wendy McLenithan, aka the Book Fairy, spins tales of magic and delight.
In a world where cancer, cystic fibrosis, leukemia and kidney disease strive to steal the spirit of young children, McLenithan steps in with words that slay fear, or at the very least, transport listeners and readers to a place outside the four walls of the hospital room in which they reside.
En route to visit patients in children’s hospital rooms on this morning, the Book Fairy scatters a smidgen of reading dust on little Easton VanderZwaag, 18 months, who is Flintstoning a Little Tykes red and yellow car through the fifth floor lobby while waiting to be discharged.
McLenithan scans her colorful book cart, organized from preschool on up to middle school, pulls a copy of “Go, Dog, Go,” and places it in the trunk portion of Easton’s plastic car.
She does this with all the children she visits—leaves a book they can keep for their very own.
“He does like books,” says Easton’s mom, Shannon VanderZwaag, as her son continues to scoot along in his toy car. “Thank you.”
McLenithan heads to the sixth floor room of Manuel Arana, a 10-year-old living with cystic fibrosis.
She glances at patient notes that may indicate Manuel’s interests, then scans her book cart, hoping to pick a book that will brighten his day.
She pauses, as if to intuitively land on the title that was meant to be. Almost 40 years of teaching experience guide her hand.
She selects “Why, Fly Guy?” a collection of why-answered questions, such as “Why do I have to brush my teeth?” and “Why do elephants have trunks?” She pulls two more books from the cart, then enters room 606.
McLenithan sidles up next to Manuel’s hospital bed and opens the selection.
“Here’s a crazy question,” she tells him. “Why do feet smell?”
Turns out, it’s about the bacteria that grows when our feet sweat in our socks.
His smile is temporarily interrupted by a nurse entering the room.
“I need for you to take your pills for me,” the nurse says, handing him a chocolate milk chaser.
The Book Fairy continues feasting on words.
“Why do I hiccup?” she reads.
As she explains that sometimes the diaphragm twitches on its own, John Schuen, MD, a Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital pediatric pulmonologist, enters Manuel’s room.
“I hate to interrupt the Book Fairy,” Dr. Schuen says, stethescope draped around his neck in preparation for listening to Manuel’s breathing. “I’m excited that you’re reading about the lungs.”
McLenithan takes leave, but the connection she feels follows.
“Sometimes it’s like a perfect connection,” she says. “I’m on a lung page and the doctor comes in to check his lungs. I get chills sometimes on how connective this is. See how he connected with the book to segue into what he needs to do? That’s so cool.”
Celeste Montiel, Manuel’s mom, said the Book Fairy has visited three times in the two weeks her son has been in the hospital.
“I think it’s great,” Montiel said.
After leaving Manuel’s room, McLenithan jots down notes about the boy’s interests. She’ll share the notes with Sarah Smith, Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital teacher, to help with lesson plans and future Book Fairy visits.
Making a match
McLenithan continues pushing her cart through the sixth floor, where she visits with Sam Campbell, 15.
She knows Sam likes video games, so chooses a couple of Junior Scholastic magazines and a book on artificial intelligence for his reading pleasure.
“I think this might be a good match,” she tells Sam, who will undergo surgery later in the day. “This is something you could do after surgery today when you’re feeling a little better.”
Sam said he’s already read one book dropped off by the Book Fairy—about warriors. He’s excited to break open another.
He sits cross-legged on his hospital bed, reading an article in the Junior Scholastic magazine entitled “Border Wall Contenders.”
McLenithan sees books and magazines as a vehicle to open their minds to imagination, magic and light.
“They can leave the four walls of the hospital and go somewhere else for a while,” she said. “I love this. It’s just like the best gig in town.”
McLenithan makes a few more stops, reading to a preschool girl, then a middle school boy. Then, she stops into the ninth-floor room to read “Pete the Cat and the Lost Tooth” to 6-year-old Riley Hoffman.
It’s a perfect selection—Riley is cuddling a stuffed animal kitten.
“Who’s that?” the Book Fairy asks.
“Maria,” Riley tells her.
She reads the book, placing her finger under each word she utters. Riley follows along, and smiles.
“We love ‘Pete the Cat,” Riley’s mom, Amber Winters tells McLenithan. “I think the Book Fairy is a great idea. It keeps kids reading. It’s good for little ones like him to have somebody bring a book in and be able to read to him.”
It’s a bright spot for Riley, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2013. Four years of treatment slowed the disease, but in late March, the family learned it had returned.
“I think this is really good for him,” Winters says. “It’s an activity other than watching TV.”
McLenithan said the synchronicity is amazing sometimes. She picks a cat book from the cart, and Riley happens to be cuddling a cat. And has cats at home.
“It’s uncanny how it matches,” she said “It’s working. It’s just working. It’s just life-giving.”
McLenithan became the Book Fairy two years ago after a chance meeting with Smith at a Lake Michigan cottage. Prior to that, she worked in education for almost four decades.
“That was the beginning of my becoming the Book Fairy,” McLenithan said. “It was meant to be. For me, it’s become just a beautiful blessing in my life. Every Tuesday, I come down to the hospital. I always think about how I can be of service to the child and to brighten their day with a good book.”
Because of her years as a teacher, she is able to select age-appropriate reading for the kiddos.
The books are donated by community members, or purchased with community donations.
McLenithan said she loves being the conduit, and delivering that generosity, through words, to the children.
“It is the best retirement job you could want,” she said. “I get to use all my skills and most of all, I get to be connected with the love of children. That’s really the core of who I am.”
Smith said the Book Fairy is a popular and meaningful character at the children’s hospital.
“Our students, parents and staff, myself included, are so grateful for the Book Fairy,” Smith said. “Her personality truly leaves a sparkle in this place. Not only does she work to match a child’s reading level, she also has a knack for finding high-interest topics that further increase the likelihood a child will engage with the story and practice reading.”
Smith said she’s humbled by the generous book donations from the community.
“These donations allow us to put books in the homes of our school-aged patients, and to offer a positive and engaging distraction from their medical needs.”