The Journey of NEM Takes Flight: A Conversation with Erika Brannock

by Jessica A. Kent

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In 2013, two bombs were detonated at the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring over 260 others. Erika Brannock was at the finish line that day, with her sister and brother-in-law, waiting to watch her mother, who was running her first marathon, come down Boylston Street to finish the race. The first bomb detonated directly in front of Brannock, and her injuries would result in the loss of her left leg above the knee, injuries to her right leg, and hearing loss, and she would spend almost two months in the hospital. Yet in that moment on Boylston Street, right after the detonation, Brannock knew that she wasn’t ready to go, that there was still more life to live and work to be done.

Five years later, Brannock has released her first children’s book entitled The Journey of NEM, about a dragonfly named NEM who loses one of her wings during a storm. NEM recovers with the help of family, friends, and medical personnel, and upon emerging back into the world, fitted with a new prosthetic wing, discovers that everyone is different in their own unique way.

“I started thinking after I got injured, how can I do something with this experience that I’ve had, and my journey,” Brannock explains, as we spoke together in Boston on the five year anniversary of that day. “I have a bigger purpose than this. It can’t just be that I got hurt and I survived it. Instead, I really wanted to be an example for other people.” As a preschool teacher, Brannock’s passion is her students, and while family had been wondering when she’d write her own memoir, she decided that a children’s book would be more appropriate. The idea was to create a book that was accessible to a young audience through cartoon characters, rather than something that was scary, or even dull or boring. She also wanted to “flip on its end” the idea that being different or special has a negative connotation to it. Another motivation was her newborn nephew, to whom she dedicated the book: “I wanted to be able to do something to show my nephew that it’s Ok to be different.”

NEM’s journey is beautifully illustrated by John F. Baker III, one of Brannock’s close friends. The look of NEM and the dragonfly world of the book were based on a stuffed animal dragonfly Brannock bought her nephew before he was born. She said the experience of working with Baker was comfortable, and because he knew her so well, “it’s like he took the ideas right out of my head and put them on paper.” The story wasn’t written immediately, though, and Brannock hit six months of writer’s block trying to visualize how NEM and her prosthetic would look. It took some of Baker’s sketches in order to get the visualization necessary to finish the book. 

One can find elements of Brannock’s life and story throughout the book, either as inspiration or as tribute. Dragonflies are her favorite (“They’re very magical and gorgeous. They are very beautiful creatures.”), and she happened to be wearing a dragonfly necklace on the day we met. The name “NEM” as well stands for “Nicole, Erika, and Michael,” Brannock’s sister, herself, and brother-in-law. NEM can be seen wearing a spiral necklace, an ode to Brannock’s sister, who “has a thing with spirals.” Brannock discovered that a spiral can represent strength and resilience, two themes of the book, and the spiral motif can be seen throughout the illustrations.

NEM’s mother plays an important part of her recovery, as Brannock’s mother did for her: “I had to have her in there somewhere because she’d done so much for me. She’s truthfully the rock that got me through it.” The conversation NEM has with her mother – asking whether other dragonflies would think she’s “weird-looking” – were conversations Brannock had with her mother, who reassured her that she was going to do great things, and could get through it. “I really wanted her represented well, and the illustrator perfectly turned my mother into a dragonfly – the jewelry my mom would wear, and colors she would wear.”

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Brannock also wrote her experiences at Beth Israel into the book, as NEM finds solace and friendship with the medial staff. One of the illustrations, of NEM leaving the hospital with a long line of staff applauding her as she goes, was based on a photo taken when Brannock herself left the hospital. Once NEM leaves, her fears and concerns about being different were Brannock’s own concerns, and NEM’s discovery that her friends and strangers were accepting and loving were Brannock’s own discoveries. 

One element of her story she chose not to represent was the bombing. Instead, NEM is hurt by a storm that appears at an event her and her family are attending. Brannock has been careful with how she explains what happened to her students, telling me that “I’ve always told my students, or any time I talk with young children, that I had an accident and that I was hurt.” She wanted to find something that wouldn’t be scary, but would make sense in the context. Thus, the idea of having a storm toss NEM against a tree. “It seemed to make sense. She’s in a forest, and that’s what would be around. So it wouldn’t be as traumatic of a situation as what happened to me, but it was still believable that that’s how she got hurt.”

Before traveling up to Boston, Brannock had the chance to read The Journey of NEM to her students this past week. “They were all captivated with it, and they were telling me how much they love it. It was amazing watching their faces while you’re reading this to them, and you can see them processing it and taking it in, and how intense they’re feeling what’s going on.” One of Brannock’s biggest concerns after the bombing was her students: what they would find out, how to reassure them, and how to allow them to be curious and ask questions (watch Brannock’s TEDx Talk to learn more about how she lovingly handled her students in the aftermath of the incident). She’s been intentional in allowing them to voice their concerns and fears – one student expressed feeling sad after NEM gets injured – but also showing them that everything can be Ok, and that NEM does get better. “This is a great way to teach kids about being different, and about things that happen to them not defining them. And to also not be afraid of people who have differences. If they see them and they have questions, they should feel comfortable asking these questions and being curious about these things, and not being told, ‘You don’t ask people about that stuff.’ Because if they never learn about it, then they’re just going to think it’s weird and uncomfortable. And it shouldn’t be.”

The primary message of the book is that we are all different in our own way. NEM realizes at the end that having something different about her makes her special, and that “all of the dragonflies were a little different in their own ways, and that made them special.” Yet there’s also a message, too, about not being afraid of hospitals and medical personnel. For Brannock, who became friends with many of the hospital staff, it was another important message she wanted to convey, how caring they are despite being affected as well. “Kids get scared going to the doctor and I wanted them to know that it can be a fun place, you can enjoy yourself there while you get better. I started calling it my hotel room instead of my hospital room. I wanted them to feel that it’s a comfortable place to go when you need help.” In the book, NEM can be seen getting her nails painted with the medical staff, taking photos, and building rapport.

There aren’t many books for children that tell this story, about the loss of a limb and the recovery afterward. As a teacher, Brannock looks for books that show representation of differences, and too often the books are too factual, too explanatory. She wanted to write a book that she didn’t see, one that children can read and enjoy, be drawn into by the story and the illustrations, and learn without it feeling like homework or research. 

So what is Brannock’s hope for the book? “My hope is that this book really shows people that we have much more differences than we realize, and to be kinder to each other. Just be a little bit more loving to people, and to accept each other’s differences and to embrace them and celebrate them, rather than think of it as a negative thing that you’re different. That it’s actually kind of cool that you’re a little bit different.” The Journey of NEM has taken flight, but Brannock already has other ideas for other books, so we may see more of NEM soon. 

On Marathon Monday, Brannock will be cheering on the runners, meeting with survivors, catching up with friends. A resident of Maryland, she returns to Boston each year, and when asked why coming back is important to her, she replied, “I’ve wanted to come back because I make it a point to be an example to my students. Just because something bad happens to you or something scary happens, it shouldn’t keep you from going somewhere or doing something that you love doing.”

You can order a copy of The Journey of NEM here. Erika Brannock will also be signing copies after the staged reading of Finish Line on Tuesday, April 17 at the Calderwood Pavilion.