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Jonathon Scott Fuqua perseveres as prolific (dyslexic) author, gifted (colorblind) illustrator

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When Jonathon Scott Fuqua was 13 years old, he and his older brother put on their swimming trunks and went surfing during a Florida hurricane.

The wind bent the palm trees rimming the Gulf of Mexico nearly double, like boomerangs. The teens were buffeted by waves as tall as a house. During a brief rest on a sandbar, Scott looked over his shoulder and saw a huge shark silhouetted in the water about 15 feet away. He was certain that any moment, razor-sharp teeth would close around his calves and pull him under.

As he began to swim hard for the shore, he held tight to the image in his mind's eye of a place with firm footing and abundant oxygen.

If his determination never wavered, perhaps that's because he'd spent his entire life out-maneuvering his own self-doubt — a predator that was faster than any shark and just as deadly.

That was more than 30 years ago. Fuqua has become a husband, father and respected author who writes and illustrates children's books. When the school year starts later this month, his newest novel, "Calvert the Raven in the Battle of Baltimore" will become recommended reading for fourth- and fifth-graders throughout Maryland who are studying the War of 1812.

At age 47, he's still determined to master the most difficult challenges he can devise. He's the same kid who, despite very real danger and debilitating fears, didn't give up on himself.

As he puts it: "I never want people to think I'm taking the easy way out."

Fat chance.

Fuqua is color-blind and can't distinguish between red and green. So he became a children's book artist who in one illustration might use seven different shades of red and 13 minute variations of green.

He's dyslexic, which means his brain jumbles the order in which he sees letters on a page, making it as difficult to discern meanings as if the words were written in Cyrillic.

So he chose a career that consists of nothing but arranging letters in their proper order. His 16th work of fiction, a Gothic thriller for teens, will be published in March.

In college, Fuqua was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after experiencing two breakdowns. His books not only deal candidly with his childhood demons, but he also visits schools to talk about his struggle with mental illness.

More recently, the discovery of three crumbling neck vertebrae has resulted in four spinal surgeries in three years, months of recovery, infections, a lifetime regimen of antibiotics to suppress harmful bacteria, and recurring pain.

So earlier this week, he and his 10-year-old took an 18-mile bike ride.

"He pushes himself to the edge of scary and difficult things," says Cary Monet, Fuqua's mother. "He tests himself constantly."

Because Fuqua is sensitive to the plight of the bullied and discriminated-against, his novels often have an underlying theme of political or social justice.

"If someone is downtrodden," he says, "I care."

His first novel, "The Reappearance of Sam Webber" about an 11-year-old boy combating depression, was chosen by the city of Peoria, Ill., in 2003 for its One City, One Book reading program. "Darby," a story of racism in a small Southern town, earned an approving mention on "The Today Show" in 2002. "The Willoughby Spit Wonder," which deals with a parent's fatal illness, was described by a reviewer from the Boston Globe as "the kind of novel, by turns comical, haunting, and thrilling, that comes only once in a blue moon."

In January, Fuqua visited Craig Whiteford's fourth-grade class at McDonogh School. He showed the class original illustrations from "Calvert the Raven," a picture book about a bored kid who gets a bird's-eye view of the bombardment of Fort McHenry. Fuqua discussed his motivations, his techniques and the obstacles he'd faced when he was in the fourth grade.

"The kids adore him," Whiteford says.

"They couldn't get enough of him. He told the kids, 'I had dyslexia and I hated school and I thought I was stupid.' Look at me now. I get to play all day long.'

"The kids in my class who were struggling were hanging on every word he said."

One way or another, most of Fuqua's novels involve a journey into the past, whether to an earlier historical period or to the author's childhood.

Several of Fuqua's main characters are in the fifth grade. That's when he first began showing signs of mental illness during the stressful period when his parents divorced.

The rupture was difficult for everyone, but especially hard on young Scott, Monet says. He recalls raised voices, unpredictable adult behavior and angry outbursts that left him terrified.

It didn't help that Fuqua's father was a military man who traveled around the world. Fuqua was born in Germany and moved about a dozen times before his 14th birthday.

It also didn't help that his only brother, now a microbiologist, was a "phenomenon," as Fuqua says, or that his only sister, now a nurse-practitioner, was a "genius" while he struggled to read and to perform basic math. It wasn't until he was a sophomore in college that his dyslexia was diagnosed.

Until then, he just thought he was dumb.

"When I entered first grade, my teachers thought I would be just like my brother," he says.

"But my grades were terrible. Nobody could figure out what the problem was. It was a great mortification for my father. From a young age, I could pick up a pencil and draw anything I wanted. But my father dismissed that as a secondary feminine characteristic."

Fuqua had his first breakdown in the seventh grade. For four months, he barely slept. He became convinced that "Star Trek" was putting bad thoughts into his head and making him go crazy. He was so lonely as he wandered through the house at 3 a.m. that he would call the time-of-day recording just to hear a human voice.

He saw a therapist and was placed on tranquilizers, but they didn't dent his pain. He learned later that standard drugs used to combat depression are ineffective in treating bipolar disorder.

"When I think of those years now," Fuqua says, "I see them as film strips. The parts that are from the time when I was depressed have melted and burned."

Monet was beside herself with worry. It hurt her that her sensitive middle child was so sad. And nothing could convince her that he wasn't every bit as smart as his brother and sister.

"My mother trusted in my intelligence completely," Fuqua says, "and she constantly reassured me that there was a smart person in there."

After the family moved to Florida and Fuqua entered his teens, his illness temporarily receded. But when he was a junior at Virginia's College of William and Mary, he again became severely depressed. He bought a gun. Two days later, he said, he walked into the school's psychiatric clinic and asked, "Is it normal for a person to want to die and to think about doing it?"

Fuqua was immediately hospitalized. He temporarily dropped out of college, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and began taking lithium.

"Within a week, I was an absolutely new person," he says. "It was amazing. For the first time in my life, when I went to bed at night, I knew who I was going to be when I woke up."

He'll be the first to admit that he still struggles with depression. But no one ever said that self-creation is for the faint of heart.

Monet thinks that her son chose a career as an author, even though it means struggling daily with his dyslexia, because it allows him to revisit and comfort his younger self.

"Writing for Scott has been cathartic," she says.

"At times it has been difficult for other family members because we have different memories of those times. But I understand that it has been necessary for Scott to make sense of his life by writing."

Bruce Bortz, the founder of the Baltimore-based Bancroft Press, points out that it's rare for any author to both write and illustrate his own work — let alone an author who is dyslexic and color-blind.

"I have no idea how he does it," says Bortz, who has published several of Fuqua's novels. "It would be unusual for anyone without his disabilities to write and illustrate as well as he does. He's brilliant at both."

A perk of Fuqua's workday is that he spends lots of time with his kids: Calla, 17, and Gabe, 10. Both have provided an inspiration for the books and served as models for the illustrations.

For instance, when Fuqua was working on "Calvert the Raven," he asked Gabe to pose by pretending to fly through the sky on a raven's back. The boy perched on a coffee table, thrust out his arms and legs for balance, and tilted back and forth.

Now readers who pick up a copy of "Calvert the Raven" will see a drawing on the cover of a lively boy with curly dark hair witnessing the Battle of Baltimore firsthand. There the boy is, astride the back of a great black bird and soaring high above the shark-filled water.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Jonathon Scott Fuqua

Age: 47

Birthplace: Frankfurt, Germany

Residence: Mayfield

Profession: Author/illustrator of 16 books and graphic novels for children and adults; instructor at the Maryland Institute College of Art

Notable titles: "The Reappearance of Sam Webber" (1999), "Darby" (2002), "The Willoughby Spit Wonder," (2004), "Medusa's Daughter" (2008), "Calvert the Raven in the Battle of Baltimore" (2013)

Education: College of William and Mary College, bachelor's degree in fine arts, 1990

Family: Married to Julie Lauffenburger, senior conservator at the Walters Art Museum; a daughter, Calla, 17; a son, Gabe, 10; and two cats, one dog and an aquarium of fish

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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