Vision and writing often go hand in hand. However, Mississippi State University alumnus John Wilburn has managed to pursue his dream of becoming a children’s author despite any physical impairments.
After a fall in high school which caused a brain tumor, Wilburn subsequently faced damage to his optic nerve. Though the tumor was removed, his eyesight has severely declined with age, leaving him legally blind at 79-years-old.
With the support of his family and assistance from his granddaughter Jonette Sherden, Wilburn successfully published his first children’s book in March of 2018.
Sherden helped him research different publishing companies and find venue’s for him to share his story with others. She also reads the story at events for him.
“As he has gotten older, he will need more help walking around a new place, but his brain is as sharp as a tac,” Sherden said. “He is truly wise and knowledgeable. My whole life he has always been a reader and he always writes, and his vision loss hasn’t changed any of that.”
However, it was not until this past Saturday at the Book Mart & Cafe that Wilbur had the opportunity to share his book Larry the Leaf with his fellow MSU alumnus.
Wilburn came to MSU in 1958, even living in Old Main the semester it burned down. His love for the university and Starkville have always been an important part of his life and something he passed onto his grandchildren, specifically Sherden who is an MSU alumna and Starkville resident.
“I have always had a special attachment and love for Starkville and the university,” Wilburn said. “It gets in your blood and becomes a part of you.”
Sherden said even though Wilburn lives in Huntsville, his MSU roots are still a very important part of his life, which is why reading in Starkville is very special to him.
“If walking around a football stadium wasn’t this giant undertaking, he would be in the stands with a cowbell,” Sherden said. “He is a bulldog through and through and it means the world to him that he gets to come back and have his book read.”
Larry the Leaf follows the journey of Larry, a maple leaf on a tree named Max. Throughout his life, Larry gets a girlfriend named Flo, makes friends with several other leaves and acts as a guide to his friends as the leaves change colors and face stormy weather.
Wilburn said his favorite part of writing is using his imagination to visualize a story line.
“Whenever we were kids, we had a couple trees in our front yard that we would climb and then try to find the largest leaf,” Wilburn said. “I took that original memory and shaped it into something new.”
Wilburn said he vividly recalls his first experience with creative writing on the first day of his 9th grade English class.
“Our teacher walked around the class room and handed everybody an item,” Wilburn said. “She wanted us to write a 300 word essay about what we thought about the item. She handed me a pipe cleaner, like the kind you use to clean a smoking pipe. I wrote about being a pipe cleaner and how disgusting it was. She thought it was hilarious.”
While his story has many characters, plot lines and elements, Wilburn said he wrote everything as a natural progression of his thought and imagination.
“When I started writing, I didn’t really know where it was going, but I just started to see it piece together in my head,” Wilburn said.
Sherden said even though he did not pursue it with intention until two years ago, writing has always been a part of his life.
“The writing would be anything from a poem for mother’s day or something he just thought of randomly,” Sherdan said. “He is a man of faith so often times his pieces would be about faith or spirituality. He is also a very patriotic person so he loves to write about holidays or memorials.”
While most of the story was written in order of how the events occur, Wilburn said the ending of Larry the Leaf was something he had in mind during the entire writing process.
“We have an opportunity for life after death, so why not a leaf?,” Wilburn said. “So, when Larry turns brown and falls from the tree, I didn’t want to put him in a bonfire. I wanted this leaf to keep on keeping on so I came up with the idea of a little girl, Katie, finding him and putting him in a picture frame in her house.”
Wilburn said the publisher has already edited the sequel to Larry the Leaf called Larry and the Thieves and expects it will be released sometime before Thanksgiving.
As his family helps him grow his social media presence and share his book with the world, Wilburn remains focused on writing and using his imagination to positively impact the lives of others in the same way his favorite authors had done in his life.