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The kangaroo bounces easily over the jump rope, but the hippo trips and falls. The giraffe tries to duck behind a bush during hide-and-seek, but the pelican soars overhead and spots her. The seal swims easily in the creek, but the chimpanzee struggles.

"I'm not a great swimmer, but I'm doing my best!" the chimp says cheerfully.

Whether shining or stumbling, the animals keep smiling throughout "The Way We Play," a children's picture book by University of Minnesota medical student Hugh Burke and his friend Kylie Donohue, a student in Chicago.

"Each animal brings different skill sets and weaknesses to the table," said Burke, a 25-year-old Eden Prairie native and second-year medical student.

The book is about accepting and even appreciating diversity, in this case not primarily ethnic or racial diversity but diversity of skills. The book's young animals — who represent human children at play — observe without judging their classmates' varying levels of abilities.

"We see the hippo falling and getting up and he's kind of laughing and modeling a lighthearted spirit," Burke said. "He's realizing, 'This may not be my thing but that's OK.'"

It's OK to be bad at some things, the book tells us, a comforting thought for anyone who's experienced failing a test or being picked last for a game of pickup softball.

"The most important thing is that you can learn from not only your specific faults and strengths but those of others and the people around you," Burke said.

Or as the book's teacher, Ms. Owl, puts it when she calls the class back inside after recess, "We're special and different in what we can do, and from each of our friends, we learn something new. No matter how tall or how fast or how slow, when we play with each other we find ways to grow."

A pelican easily finds a giraffe trying to hide behind a bush in “The Way We Play.”
A pelican easily finds a giraffe trying to hide behind a bush in “The Way We Play.”


Combating ableism

Burke, who wants to become a pediatric or adolescent psychiatrist someday, hopes the book will form a connection with his future patients, whose skills may vary due to neurodivergent conditions such as autism.

His book may serve as a lesson for children who might be tempted to treat others differently because of their abilities. Research shows that kids with autism are more likely to be bullied.

But Burke also wants to combat ableism, or lack of sensitivity toward people with disabilities, at every level. He belongs to a club in which medical students practice working with neurodiverse youth in a way that emphasizes individual kids' needs rather than demanding that they conform to others' expectations.

"I think there are a lot of components of ableism in our society, especially in medicine," he said. "There are a variety of ways where health care can improve in the way treatment is tailored to the needs of the individual."

Combining science and art

When he got the idea of writing the book, Burke discussed it with his faculty adviser, Dr. Woubeshet Ayenew, a cardiologist on staff at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Ayenew thought it was a great idea.

Hugh Burke
Hugh Burke

Provided photo

To cover the cost of hiring an illustrator and self-publishing the book, Burke obtained a $1,500 grant from the university's Fisch Art of Medicine Student Awards, founded by the late Robert Fisch of Minneapolis, a prominent doctor and artist.

"Alongside trying to help students being the best version of themselves, what I emphasize to students is that the best practice of medicine consists of a measure of science and art," Ayenew said.

Practicing an art can help doctors develop the skills to communicate with patients in sensitive and effective ways, he said. "How you deliver what you know to each patient is really not the science, it's the art of medicine."

In addition to his cardiology practice, Ayenew translates children's books into the languages of his native Ethiopia, such as Amharic, for Ready Set Go Books, a literacy project of Open Hearts Big Dreams, an American nonprofit that supports youth in Ethiopia.

Ayenew is translating "The Way We Play," a translation that includes both language and culture. Ethiopian children aren't familiar with seals or kangaroos, so those animals will be replaced by animals they'll recognize, such as elephant, hyena or baboon.

Burke has earmarked proceeds from the book and all future rights to Open Hearts Big Dreams, and Ayenew is working on the translation.

Meanwhile, Burke is already thinking about concepts for his next book. Writing "The Way We Play" helped "unlock a passion I didn't know I had," he said — a passion not only to write but to spread a message.

"Medical students and professionals inherently have a platform," he said. "I want to use mine for good."