Columbia couple write children's book about food allergies

Jack Wethington, now 7, was 18 months old when he had his first serious allergic reaction. At a play group, he sipped from another child's cup, which contained milk.

"Within minutes, his throat was closing, he was turning red, he was gasping," recalled his mother, Julie, who teaches second grade at Hammond Elementary School, where Jack is a first-grader.

Julie called the allergist, who stayed on the phone with her as she administered epinephrine through an EpiPen. Jack's symptoms eased, though he still had to spend several hours at Howard County General Hospital for observation.

Julie and her husband, Lang, an art teacher at Glendale Elementary School in Glen Burnie, already knew their son was allergic to eggs, dairy products and peanuts. But the incident highlighted the challenges they would face keeping their active and curious child safe.

"It was very stressful," recalled Lang.

They had to teach Jack that he was not allowed to put any food in his mouth unless he asked an adult first. Yet they didn't want him to live in fear.

With those conflicting goals in mind, the couple wrote and illustrated a children's book, "Yes I Can! Have My Cake and Food Allergies Too," which was published in the spring by DragonWing Books, the publishing company owned by Lang's mother, Liz Wethington, who lives in Columbia.

"What we started to really struggle with was the fine line between keeping him safe and keeping him from living a life full of fear," said Julie. "That's kind of where the idea for the book came from."

The book, written by Julie and illustrated by Lang, shows a family that looks a lot like the Wethingtons (though Julie is blond and the mother in the book has a brown ponytail).

"Like many kids his age, Jack hears the word 'NO' a lot," it begins, showing a picture of a boy painting on a wall. It goes on to say there is one "NO" rule Jack always follows, which is, "No eating anything unless you ask Mommy or Daddy first."

The book, which includes a recipe for Jack's Favorite Chocolate Cake, made without eggs, dairy products or peanuts, is available through Amazon and the Dragon Wing website, It's also at the Howard County Public Library.

Liz Wethington illustrated children's books for Huckleberry Press in Connecticut before starting DragonWing in 2004. The company also sells a book that she wrote and illustrated, "The Dreadfully Dreadful Dandelion Disaster." She said she would like to expand the business with other writers and illustrators.

Meanwhile, she is working to get "Yes I Can!" into the hands of parents who have children with allergies, by contacting parent groups and doctor offices.

Plenty of books provide safety advice for parents who have children with allergies. But the Wethingtons couldn't find a book explaining what parents can do to help their child "feel confident and included and not feel sorry for himself," Julie said.

Julie read the book to her students at Hammond Elementary, and she said they responded by feeling sorry for Jack. She told the children the reaction is natural, but not what children with allergies want. She hopes the book will be used as a "teaching tool for kids who are friends with kids with allergies," she said.

Julie and Lang began dating when they were students at Oakland Mills High School, and they now live in Columbia with Jack and with their twins, Max and Annie, who are almost four. Jack had eczema as a baby, and a pediatrician tested him for allergies when he was one.

Jack had another allergic reaction when Julie was on bed rest while pregnant with the twins, and Lang accidentally gave him cereal with cow's milk instead of soy milk

"It was a doozy of a reaction," said Lang.

Julie, who was in the final few weeks of her pregnancy, went to the hospital with her family.

"I was like, 'If I go into labor, at least I'm in the hospital,' '" she said.

But mostly, the family has found the balance between being careful and having fun. Julie and Lang became experts at reading food labels, and Julie turned her baking skills to the challenge of creating allergy-free treats for Jack.

In particular, she didn't want him to feel deprived at parties, so she would ask what was being served and create allergy-free versions of the cookies, cupcakes and doughnuts that other children were eating.

They're also careful with what they feed their twins, staying away from shredded cheese, for example, because Jack might accidently eat a shred.

Jack said his favorite foods are hamburgers, hot dogs and tacos. He praised his mother's banana bread as "really good" and spoke fondly of her chocolate cake. And he shared a favorite memory.

"Last year, I went to a birthday party and the people who had it made sure it was safe for me," he said with a grin.

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