Helen Payne wasn't sure about her mom's idea of writing a book based on her – especially when the main character's troubles with spelling would closely resemble her own.
"It was a little embarrassing, because not everybody has a book written about their difficulties," said Payne, a 15-year-old sophomore at Dana Hills High School. "But I'm really glad she wrote it now, because it's really relatable and it helps a lot of people."
Jody Payne, a Dana Point resident and former high school English teacher, said the new book isn't just the story of her daughter's spelling problems but also is about self-acceptance and "finding your own inner winner."
Payne started writing the book, called "Miss Spellin' Helen," four years ago when her daughter was in middle school. The book's fictional title character is in fifth grade.
The story also includes an antagonist based on a rival from Payne's own middle-school experience. Velvet Winger is an overachiever who tries to make the character Helen look bad. The characters end up going head to head in a school spelling bee.
Payne said her daughter "has always been a smart kid, and she would do everything to spell better and work at it. I mean, she is such a hard worker and so determined.
"I wanted to capture that spirit of a kid who just wasn't going to give up," said Payne, the former writer of a family-oriented column for the San Clemente Sun Post News.
She said Helen's troubles with spelling affected her daughter emotionally and that there were thoughts that she might have dyslexia.
"We tried everything," Payne said. "We would sing the spelling of the words, make flash cards, copy the words in different colors, make the letter shapes with our bodies (like with the song 'YMCA')."
Eventually, however, Helen – like her counterpart in the book – managed to overcome her challenges. "She worked really hard and has improved tremendously," Payne said.
The book truly was a family effort, with Payne's youngest daughter, Rachel, 13, drawing all the inside illustrations. Rachel also inspired a character in the book.
The cover picture was drawn by Danielle Song, 18, a friend of Payne's eldest daughter, Allison.
"This is the first time anything I've ever drawn has been published," Song said. "I was just really excited because I had never been asked for anything like that before. ... It was really nice to be able to share that with other people."
Payne said she has sold more than 50 copies since the book's release in October and has given away more than 100 for classroom use.
Helen said that while spelling will never be her strong suit, she is better at it now and hopes her mother's book will show young readers that they're not the only ones who have trouble.
"Now I'm in accelerated classes, some AP (Advanced Placement) classes," Helen said. "It's definitely gotten easier."
What readers are saying at Amazon (all five reviews were positive):
• "I read the story and fell in love with it. I also enjoyed the artistic style. I can't wait to read it to my struggling spelling clients."
• "'Miss Spellin' Helen' is our new favorite book! My 9-year-old son and my 12-year-old daughter both really enjoyed this book. We can all relate to Helen and the drama that comes with school and friendships."
• "This book is so cute and funny; funny for kids and adults too. As a retired teacher, I would happily recommend this to anyone for their kids and to teachers for their classrooms."