On the first day of school in Healthytown, Peanut is stopped on the way to a classroom by Principal Strawberry, who has an important warning: “He can’t come in!”
That’s the message of a student-friendly book and seminar on food allergies created by Fatima Straughn, a paraprofessional at MS 45 in the Bronx. Straughn, who became a middle school paraprofessional in 2019, conceived her picture book “He Can’t Come In” and its cast of food-allergen characters — including Claude Cashew, Fanny Fish and Shelly Shrimp — as a way to teach young children about the effects of food allergies. She has presented the seminar in several schools and at afterschool programs.
“One in 13 kids has a food allergy,” says Straughn, “and it’s important to know how to recognize the signs and maybe even how to save someone’s life.”
Straughn, who worked in the fashion industry for 16 years before changing careers to work with children, wrote and illustrated “He Can’t Come In.” She shares her skills with students in an afterschool bookmaking club she leads.
Although she designed her book’s characters and its plush toy counterparts for an audience of toddlers, she’s since learned they have universal appeal: The 6th-graders at MS 45 clamored to hold the bespectacled Elliott Egg and rotund Principal Strawberry as they enthusiastically scoured Straughn’s sample food labels for indications of allergens.
“Did you know Nerds candies contain eggs?!” Straughn asked to general astonishment.
“He Can’t Come In” has a lighthearted refrain, but Straughn encourages students to take their own and others’ food allergies seriously. She speaks from experience: Her 16-year-old son carries an EpiPen for a shrimp allergy, which surfaced unexpectedly during a family dinner at Red Lobster.
“Panic is the worst thing you can do,” she said to a student who described the feeling of having one’s throat close up during an allergic reaction. Then she displayed her son’s EpiPens and explained how they work to provide temporary relief after exposure to an allergen.
A student named Isaiah pronounced the seminar “informative and fun,” although he did have one suggestion for Straughn: “In the sequel,” he said, “Peanut should meet Jelly.”