Physical education teacher Kris Ayers has multi-colored feathers in a vase, feathers on her tennis shoes and a pair of jeans with a feather.
The feathers demonstrate the “light and pretty feet” of Kiana, the main character in Ayers’ children’s book, “Warrior Princess,” who is tasked with keeping her village of Feliz safe from the Negative Nellies, using a line from the book.
There is a feather in the book pocket and illustrated images of feathers throughout the story, published in 2017, alongside a runners journal, a children’s coloring book and a resource guide for educators.
In the story, Kiana’s shoes are “heavy and ugly,” Ayers said.
“Her perception changes with her teammate, Oscar (the Ostrich),” Ayers said. “He allows her to see her shoes in a different light. That’s what helps her stay positive.”
A Story to Encourage a Team
Ayers originally hadn’t planned to publish the story, nor make a collaborative project out of what she wrote simply to encourage her cross country team.
Ayers, a Greeley resident, taught physical education and health at Thompson Valley High School for 20 years until she retired in May 2016 — but she didn’t exactly retire and now writes and works part-time at UCHealth’s Healthy Kids Club in Fort Collins.
She taught special education, physical education and health for another eight years at schools in Delta and Greeley after earning her bachelor’s degree in physical education and health and master’s degree in special education.
Ayers, who swims and runs for exercise and has competed in a few triathlons, also coached swimming at Greeley Central High School for four years and at Thompson Valley for eight years, followed by serving as an assistant cross country coach for another eight years at the Loveland school.
“I can’t imagine a life without movement. It’s so important,” Ayers said, admitting that she’s more of a swimmer than a runner. “I still run, not very fast or very far. … Running is difficult for me.”
In 2013, Ayers saw her cross country team experience what she describes as a “roller coaster year.”
“My role on the team oftentimes was to motivate and inspire the girls to get out of their head and to perform the best they can,” Ayers said, adding that at a placement meet that fall, the girls performed poorly. “It was a terrible meet for us. I didn’t know what to say to this team of girls to motivate them and encourage them. When I was watching them run, their shoes were heavy. It looked so difficult and not fun.”
The First Draft
After the meet, Ayers headed to her car and began to write what later became “Warrior Princess,” starting with “Once upon a time …” on a tiny piece of paper. She wrote to try to give the girls some encouragement.
“It was the coolest thing,” Ayers said. “It flowed out of my hand onto the paper.”
Ayers didn’t share her story right away until after photographing the girls putting on their “fast and light” running shoes — seven members of the team had qualified for state, she said.
She framed the girls’ photographs, inscribing “Warrior Princess” on the bottom of the frames, and gave each of the girls a colorful ostrich feather she’d ordered online.
She read them the story and handed out the gifts during her pre-race speech the night before the race, held Oct. 13, 2013.
In response, the girls wrote in ink on their hands, an image that is in one of the story’s companion materials.
“When they were running, they were reminded of all the things that brought them joy and purpose in running,” Ayers said. “They ran like warrior princesses, and they won the state title. It was so exciting. … In the story, it talks about Negative Nellies, which can be things we say to ourselves or outside forces. … The Negative Nellies were not there that morning. … It was this calm confidence, and they were excited and they were focused.”
After the race, Ayers thought the story had served its purpose and put it in a filing cabinet. But after attending a business seminar in October 2016, she thought about the fact she had written something to share after the speakers kept mentioning writing and speaking as important skills for entrepreneurs. She went home and reread the story.
“When I reread it, I saw that it’s not done serving its purpose,” Ayers said.
The Companion Materials
Ayers gathered her team, which she calls her “tribe,” to turn the story into a book. She worked with Thompson Valley teachers Tina Unrein as the illustrator, who happens to love drawing feathers, birds and landscapes, and Joy Shaw to provide the layout design. Jennifer McDermid, an English teacher at Thompson Valley, aligned the story to Colorado state standards and with Ayers co-wrote “Warrior Princess Runs the Extra Mile: A resource guide to using ‘Warrior Princess’ in a variety of educational settings.”
“I think something amazing about the whole thing is she started with this children’s book and brought it to fruition, and all the other things emerged,” said Joy Shaw, a retired speech teacher and Loveland resident. “I said yes to helping with one publication, and we ended up with five with two copies of the book.”
Shaw referred to the soft and hard-cover editions of “Warrior Princess.”
“There’s a lot of motivation in there, small little baby steps,” Shaw said. “I am amazed, after compiling, at its versatility and how it’s touched different kids in different ways.”
The other materials in the “Warrior Princess” set include “Warrior Princess and Friends: A Children’s Coloring Book” and “Footprints and Feathers: A Warrior Princess Runner’s Journal,” a gratitude journal written by Ayers and illustrated by Unrein. “Warrior Princess” also has 29 discovery questions at the end of the book for personal reflection.
“What makes it so unique is it can be as simple or as complex as you decide to make it,” Ayers said, explaining that “Warrior Princess” is written to appeal to readers in grades K-12. “It really is relevant for all ages and all cultures.”
Ayers keeps her own gratitude journal and has a few ideas for her next writing project, she said.
“I am grateful for this tribe, for the girls that were on my team, for the students I had,” Ayers said.
‘Being Positive Can Go a Long Way’
One of the team members, Hayley Berg, a student at Louisiana Tech University and a member of the school’s cross country team, likes the story for its messages of being positive and being part of a community.
“The main character is super lovable, super relative, and reminds the reader that being positive can go a long way,” said Berg, 21, a 2014 graduate of Thompson Valley. “I think it just really reminded us that you can’t do anything alone. The best things happen in groups. With a team, you can do a whole lot more than you can do individually.”
For details about the project or to order the books, visit iamawarriorprincess.com. The books also are available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Book Baby.
A portion of the proceeds from the books will go to local running clubs and schools to purchase running shoes for those in need.
Shelley Widhalm is a freelance writer and editor and founder of Shell’s Ink Services, a writing and editing service based in Loveland. She has more than 15 years of experience in communications and holds a master’s degree in English from Colorado State University. She can be reached at shellsinkservices.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.