The "CSI guy" is back in Western New York, with two new graphic novels ready to launch. Anthony Zuiker, creator of the "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" television franchise, and his wife Michelle, a Buffalo native and schoolteacher, have been creating these books since they co-founded Zuiker Press in 2017. All their titles give voice to young authors who have championed their pain and heroics so others can learn from it.
WBFO's Marian Hetherly had a chance to catch up with Anthony Zuiker before his visit to the Rotary Club of Grand Island Wednesday evening.
A lot of people know who Anthony Zuiker is, but they may not know about his latest project. Actually, Zuiker Press developed from his son's idea.
"My middle son Evan wanted to write a book to tell the kids at school what was wrong with him," Zuiker explained. "He's high-functioning Asperger's. He said, 'Dad, I walk on my toes. I make humming noises. I do spin movements with my hands. I do spider finger gestures.' And kids didn't understand why he was doing that. They would call him things like 'retard' and call him names and he just felt in his little mind, at 11, 'Hey, if I could write a book and give the book to every kid on the first day of school, maybe they'd understand my condition and they wouldn't make fun of me and be more sympathetic to who I am and what I am."
Zuiker set out a game plant to do A for autism, B for bullying, C for coping, D for divorce,' but then Evan rethought the project.
"He, in his little mind, felt, 'Hey, if someone takes a picture of my book, a picture of my face, and posts it online or posts a meme about me, I'm gonna feel really aweful about myself, and he begged me not to publish it. So we've shelved that book for five years," Zuiker said. "You know, the thing about Zuiker Press is you have to use your own likeness, your own name. You are the ambassador of your issue. The whole point is that I want kids to know this is a real kid, not a cartoon character."
Zuiker does all the interviewing of the young authors, the writing in their voice, and with his educator wife Michelle and a half-dozen staff members, he publishes each child's story in comic-strip form.
But these are serious topics - like the story of Las Vegas teen Hailee Joy Lamberth. Her parents contacted Zuiker, a native of Las Vegas, to tell the story of their daughter, who fatally shot herself at age 13.
"Hailee Lamberth was a perfect, straight-A student. She had a boy like her and she liked some other boy, and that boy turned very violent against, made fun of her, called her names," Zuiker said. "Hailee started cutting herself in secret for about a year and then in her suicide note, she said, 'You know, all the names in the world I can deal with that, but the one thing this person said to me, his voice that I couldn't shake was, no boy will ever love you.'"
Zuiker said the story was so empowering it led to new legislation.
"They have now passed a Hailee Law in Las Vegas," he said, "which means that the victim and the bully and the victim's parents and the bully's parents have to be notified within 36 hours or you lose your license and you can be prosecuted. This school completely covered it up. They got sued and they lost in court."
Part of Zuiker's visit to Western New York is to meet with potential community partners who can help donate books to local schools. He said CSI money pays the $75,000 cost to publish each book, but the community makes the donations allowing copies to be free. He said some $150,000 in books have already been donated to Buffalo-area schools.
"We've learned by traveling the country that a lot of the schools just don't have anything in place," he said. "I think the two things our graphic novels do successfully is this: Number 1, when you put that book on a child's desk and they turn to the very back and see the real picture of the author, the first thing the young person says out loud is, 'I'm not alone,' which is 90% of the battle. And then when they open the book up and see it's a graphic novel, or a comic, about the real kid, what happens is when they finish, they raise their hand and start talking about what happened to them.
Zuiker said creating these books has been an awakening for him, as well.
"You know, the one thing the suicide mother said to me and I'll never forget is that, 'My daughter didn't know she had options,' and this book clearly talks about having options: switching schools, talking to an adult, taking your life back, home schooling, telling a counselor. It's giving kids tools, because a lot of kids will just clam up and the next thing is, they're hurting theirselves."
Available on Nov. 5 will be two titles: Activist - A Story of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Shooting told through the eyes of 14-year-old Lauren Hogg, who lost two of her best friends on Valentine's Day 2018 in Parkland, FL. The other book is Brother: A Story of Autism by Carlton Hudgens, as told by his sister Bridget Hutchins.
Coming out in the spring will be two more graphic novels: Identity: A Story of Transitioning by Corey Maison and Goodbye: A Story of Suicide by Hailee Joy Lamberth.