Maryann Cocca-Leffler has reached the top of her dual professions. She is an award-winning author and illustrator of 70 children’s books.
Now the Everett native’s distinguished career has taken “a little turn” as she has redirected her focus on her disability rights advocacy with the publishing of two nonfiction picture books on the topic:
“We Want to Go to School! The Fight for Disability Rights” (2021), co-authored by her daughter, Janine Leffler and illustrated by Maryann, is the true story about the people behind the 1972 landmark case which ensured a public-school education for all.
“Fighting For Yes! The Story of Disability Rights Activist Judith Heumann” (2022), is a biography of one of America’s greatest living activists who was instrumental in leading the famous 1977 504 Sit-in which paved the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This book, illustrated by Vivien Mildenberger, just received the 2023 Orbis Pictus Award Honor by the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English).
Cocca-Leffler brings a distinctly personal touch to her fervent advocacy for disability rights. Her daughter, Janine Leffler, a graduate of New England College, now in her 30s, was born with cerebral palsy.
“I’ve been her advocate since day 1,” said Cocca-Leffler, “Though I am not a person with disabilities nor have I suffered discrimination myself, I have seen the injustices and exclusion up-close as I helped navigate life for my daughter. Because of her, we were able to spread the word about the history of disability rights through these books.”
Janine was also the inspiration for the picture book, “Janine”, about a differently abled character who loves who she is and inspires others. It was based on a bullying experience Janine had as a child.
Cocca-Leffler lectures widely, in-person or virtually, at schools, educators’ professional development programs and community events. Janine joins her at school visits when she can. Maryann was recently called upon to do several corporate diversity training programs for international companies.
“Through my books, I teach about the history of disability rights and the struggles that people with disabilities have encountered to be included in society. I truly believe that we need to learn about the past in order to build a better future, a future which embraces inclusion in all walks of life, including schools and the workplace. Many people with disabilities are unemployed or under-employed, despite the fact that they are willing and able to work. There is a lot of work to be done.”
Remembering Her Roots in Everett
Maryann Cocca-Leffler grew up in an Italian family in the Woodlawn section of Everett, attended Saint Anthony’s Elementary School, and graduated from Everett High School in 1976.
“In fourth grade, one particular teacher, a nun at Saint Anthony’s, happened to instill this idea that I could actually make a career in art,” recalled Cocca-Leffler. “She saw that I had some talent and gave me my first little art kit. I remember asking her, ‘Do you mean people will pay you to make art?’ And she said, ‘Yes!’’’
Her Everett High School art teacher was also supportive of her career dreams.
“Ms. Elaine Sapochetti was a new art teacher and had a lot of vibrancy,” recalled Cocca-Leffler. “She inspired me to go on to art school.”
Studying at the Mass. College of Art
Determined to focus on a career in art, Cocca-Leffler enrolled in the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, majoring in illustration.
“When you begin art school, you don’t really know what area to focus on, so I took every single art course possible, including; pottery, architecture, graphic design, drawing and painting, before I landed on illustration,” said Cocca-Leffler. “It seemed like a natural choice, since I loved children’s book art and already had acquired quite a collection of children’s books.”
By the time Cocca-Leffler was a senior at Mass Art, she began to show her portfolio to Boston-based publishers such as Houghton Mifflin, Little Brown, and Addison Wesley.
“So, before I graduated, I was hired to do the illustrations for my very first book, “Thanksgiving at the Tappletons,” which was written by Eileen Spinelli and published by Addison Wesley in 1982,” said Cocca-Leffler.
Interestingly, the book just celebrated its 40th anniversary in print. Cocca-Leffler had re-illustrated the book in 1992.
Making Her Transition From Illustrator to Writer
Cocca-Leffler began traveling to New York City publishers to showcase her portfolio to art directors and editors. Up to that point, Cocca-Leffler had been illustrating other people’s stories, but had not yet written her own. That soon changed. She explains, “As I began meeting editors and art directors, they were very encouraging just like the teachers way back in Everett. During one visit with an editor, she pointed to a cat in my portfolio, and said, ‘Write a story about this cat.’ I did. That became, “Wednesday is Spaghetti Day,’’ which was the first book I wrote and illustrated, publishing in 1990.”
An amazing career was born. Maryann Cocca-Leffler has written and illustrated about 45 books and illustrated another 25 books. “My career has come full circle,” said Cocca-Leffler. “I began my career illustrating other people’s work, but now I’m open to collaborating with illustrators on some books.”
Having illustrated her first book in 1982, Cocca-Leffler she just celebrated her 40th anniversary in the business. She has no plans to stop, and is currently illustrating her next book, “Don’t Ask Cat!” (2024).
Her Everett roots live on. Her favorite book is “Bus Route to Boston” (2020) which is about her family growing up on Woodlawn Avenue, taking Bus 111 into Boston, and going into the North End to buy vegetables and cannoli, and then shopping in Filene’s Basement.
“I still get letters from people who take that same bus into Boston with their children,” related Cocca-Leffler.
Continuing Her Advocacy
Maryann Cocca-Leffler is setting the standard in the authoring of books about people with disabilities. Her message of inclusion is striking a positive chord with publishers.
“With calls for equity and inclusion there has been a shift in the industry and publishers have finally begun publishing diverse books of under-represented groups, including disabilities,” noted Cocca-Leffler.
Cocca-Leffler said she loves the new direction of her book-writing career. She is inspiring people in the field of disability rights.
“My goal is for the history of disability rights to be taught in the classroom, right along with civil rights. That’s what I would love to see, and I’m getting a really good response from teachers,” said Cocca-Leffler.
Maryann Cocca-Leffler and her husband, Eric Leffler, also a 1976 Everett High graduate, now live in Maine. In addition to their daughter, Janine, they have a daughter, Kristin, a middle grade social studies teacher and writer.
To find out more about Maryann’s books and visits, check out: www.maryanncoccaleffler.com
To buy autographed books and support her local independent bookstore, ‘Print’ in Portland, ME, visit: