By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
North Shelby County tech executive Martha Underwood took her time during quarantine to step out of her box.
While in lockdown with her family, she fulfilled a longtime dream of writing a children’s book. The book is inspired by her youngest son’s experiences and reactions during the pandemic.
“He was so worried that because of COVID, we weren’t going to give any presents or we couldn’t get our tree,” she said. “I told him, no, we will still have Christmas.”
They began doing Christmas-based projects in the late spring and early summer to ease his fear.
It inspired what has now become The Elf Series, a collection of four books written to help young children explore diversity, self-esteem and emotions through the magic of Christmas.
Each of the four books follows a child who is excited about Christmas but fears their struggles to manage their emotions may ruin the holidays. So, they strive to communicate their feelings to their parents with the help of magical elves.
“Kids respond better when there is an incentive,” Underwood said. “So, the Christmas theme draws the child in and allows them to become more open to exploring the ideas of emotions.”
At home with her two children, Underwood puts a focus on understanding and articulating emotions when parenting her children.
“We talk about how that’s our superpower and that they should not be afraid to talk to me about how they are feeling,” Underwood said. “It’s important that they be able to talk to me and for me not to get upset.”
Occurrences in the books have been directly inspired by situations she and her husband experienced with their 10-year-old son.
“He’s so fearful of riding his bike down hills,” she said. “My husband would always say, just take it slow. One pedal at a time and we can make it.”
She included it in the book to show that, with the help of your dad and some guidance, you can accept the fear, understand what it is and still forge forward.
At first, Underwood wrote a book about a boy named Parker, which was inspired by her son’s middle name. Her son then asked whether there could be a book for girls. So, she wrote a story about a little ballerina named Paiyton. Both main characters are black.
To bring in an element of diversity, she created the Ethan and Emma books, which have similar storylines with minor changes that distinguish each character.
As the series continues, she plans to have the characters interact and showcase ways in which we are all the same.
“In the next stories, we’ll have Paiyton living across the street from Emma, and they’ll go to ballet together and we’ll see them experiencing things together,” she said.
Her Creative Side
In her journey writing the books, Underwood had to overcome a certain fear, showcasing that the lessons she is teaching through her stories hold true even in adulthood.
“It’s always nerve-wracking releasing your creative side to the world,” she said.
“My whole career has been in tech,” Underwood said, “even though I have a passion for creative writing. I actually have a degree in literature.”
Though she has a creative educational background, her tech education superseded. She attended a computer magnet high school and minored in technical writing.
“I just stayed on the technical path and became a software executive, which has been my career ever since,” she said.
It wasn’t until she spent quiet time in quarantine, being with her sons 24 hours a day, that she felt comfortable releasing that creative side of herself once again.
“It was that time being at home and really immersing myself in the creative side – has made me realize just how much more powerful that makes us, even on a strategic and business side,” she said. “We can use both sides and not to be afraid to do that.
“We’re all just trying to make it, as humans, and enjoy our life experiences while learning from each other,” she said.
Underwood isn’t new to providing teachable moments or pep talks. She does that regularly through her work and her volunteer efforts with Girlspring, where she serves on the board and speaks on topics ranging from female empowerment and diversity to her own experiences as one of the few black female executives in her field.
By writing the Elf Series, Underwood hopes to show kids and adults that they shouldn’t be afraid to step outside of the box they have been put in, whether that is due to their career, schooling, background or anything else.
“We all have something valuable to share, but we all have different experiences that we can bring to the table,” she said. “How can I incorporate that into the children’s stories to make sure they really understand that in a fun and engaging way?”
There has been an outpouring of support from the community to back up her work, Underwood said.
The first books in the series were released in September, and by November she had found enough encouragement from the community to add on. She said she’s been surprised how easy the ideas flow.
After making an initial post about the books on her Facebook page, the announcement bounced around social media. She said that, through that one post and its shares, 200 books were purchased in the first couple of weeks following the release.
The Elf Series is available in hardback, paperback and e-book on Amazon.com, Barnes & Nobles and BN.com. Locally, the series is available at Once Upon a Time in Homewood and Mountain Brook.