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Denton man dreams of children’s book hero

Profile image for By Lucinda Breeding / Features Editor
By Lucinda Breeding / Features Editor

Joe Rivas has never let his cerebral palsy keep him from realizing his dreams.

The Denton resident has raised $2,000 to attend the 42nd annual Summer Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators on Aug. 2. Once there, Rivas said, he hopes his 20-minute consultation with a publishing official will bring him one step closer to publishing a series of books about a little boy named Willy Wilmer, who goes on adventures with his friends and changes the world a little bit at a time from his wheelchair.

Rivas was born in Dallas with cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that limits his motor skills and speech.

Rivas said his speech difficulties have made more than one person mistake him for someone with limited intelligence. But neither his wheelchair nor his labored speech kept him from completing college and becoming a certified rehabilitation counselor and a professor who teaches at North Central Texas College through online, distance-learning programs.

Rivas served on the Texas Council on Developmental Disabilities for years and is an advocate for people with developmental and physical disabilities.

Writing a children’s book series about an adventuresome boy who has a stutter and uses a wheelchair might seem like a simple feat for a man who isn’t easily discouraged, but Rivas has the same struggle as any other aspiring writer. He has to convince a literary agent to represent his work to publishers — and he has to create an approachable character who can engage children’s imaginations.

“There was one lady in the society who said what I wanted to do isn’t possible,” Rivas said. “But I’m doing it anyway.”

Rivas, who spoke with the help of his longtime nurse, said he dreamed up Willy Wilmer in 2013.

“There isn’t a character like this that I remember,” Rivas said. “I remember reading a lot of books as a kid. I’m a big Charlie Brown fan. But I never found a character who was like me. And I thought I could be the one to write a character like me.”

Willy Wilmer is an elementary school student who makes a close circle of friends, and together they stand up to schoolyard bullies and educate elected officials who don’t stop to think about the ways they exclude people who use adaptive equipment like canes, walkers, scooters and wheelchairs. Willy and his friends convince the city where they live to create “curb cuts” so that people with canes, walkers and wheelchairs can cross the street and use the sidewalks.

Rivas, 47, said he was educated using a mix of mainstream schooling, a program that puts Texas children with disabilities in a typical classroom with some accommodations, and special education designed to help him grow more independent and stay independent.

To write The Adventures of Willy Wilmer and his Cool Wheelchair, Rivas has to get out of his wheelchair, kneel or sit on the floor in front of his laptop computer, and use a pencil to type. Rivas’ cerebral palsy draws his hands and fingers up, rendering two-handed typing impossible.

Rivas said he decided to attend the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference in Los Angeles in August because a Dallas conference plugged him into a network of published writers and publishing professionals. He raised the funds to travel to Southern California and stay at a hotel with restrooms and rooms accessible to people using wheelchairs.

He’s raised almost all the money needed to make the trip but hopes to cover the cost of all travel and expenses. He’s held a car wash and a rummage sale and sells Willy Wilmer T-shirts — the front features a cartoon Willy in his wheelchair and the Blogspot address where his stories can be found. The back declares: “letting kids with disabilities be kids.”

The conference requires $100 to schedule 20 to 30 minutes with a literary agent or publishing professional. Rivas said he will share his Willy Wilmer concept with an agent. The worst-case scenario? He leaves the consultation with advice on how to improve the series. The best? A publisher picks up Willy for publication.

Rivas said he looks at Willy as someone who can encourage the able-bodied world to see things from the perspective of someone with developmental or physical disabilities.

“I was thinking of someone who wanted to advocate,” Rivas said. “Willy is someone who’s a little overly stubborn. He wants to do everything he can do. He’s friendly. He’s outgoing and motivated. And all of his friends have different personalities.”

To read Willy Wilmer stories, visit To buy a Willy Wilmer T-shirt, which benefits Rivas’ travel to the summer conference and his publishing quest, visit

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.