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Connecting With Mr. Quigley’s Keys

When I think about it now, I can't remember if it was a decade or a dozen years ago, but I can so clearly feel that moment when my friend, first-grade teacher Jennifer Quigley, got to meet my father, the day she got that long-overdue, coveted daddy hug, the day she told me how much he reminded her of her Daddy. The two men had many similarities: Both had enlisted in the military as young adults, both were handymen, both were men of integrity and character who regarded their handshake as their bond. Then she shared the part that really stuck with me, the part where he was the maintenance man for the same school district where she got her first job teaching 4th grade, the part about how she and her students would get super excited when they’d hear his keys coming down the hallway toward their classroom, the part about how an injury from his time in the Korean War had left him deaf. For him, deaf meant that he couldn't hear a single thing.

I distinctly remember telling Jennifer that I could hear the title of a picture book jingling in my head: Mr. Quigley’s Keys. I encouraged her to write it, but she quickly declined, saying, “I’m not a writer, but I know someone who is.” Full stop.

Wait, was she really giving me permission to write her daddy’s story? If only I were a fiction writer; it’s just not my genre of choice. And that’s where that idea stayed, with just a random rattle of those keys over the years, until October 2019, when a young Art teacher named Audrye reached out to me and asked if I might want to connect over a cup of coffee. She said she’d heard good things about me and was wondering if I could mentor her. It was the morning after that meeting that I realized the illustrator for my picture book had just found me. Now all I’d need to do is write the story.

That, and find a publisher.

Because of the pandemic pause that Spring put many of my mentoring and speaking engagements on hold, I had a lot of time to script and sharpen the story; by the summer of 2020, I’d met with Audrye virtually to discuss the vision for the book so that she could start the illustrations which would bring my words to life. I reached out to a few people, who recommended EduMatch Publishing; I sent a proposal their way in June and, within the month, I heard back that they loved the story and would like to offer me a contract. Since I’d heard that most publishers prefer to use their own seasoned illustrators, I let them know upfront that I had a young illustrator in mind and kindly requested they’d consider us as a package deal. Thankfully they agreed, and, in a serendipitous twist, we signed our contracts on the 35th-year anniversary of the passing of Jennifer’s dad, Don Pittman, the hero handyman who inspired our story.

The EduMatch process included working at our own pace toward our deadline, then finding a Focus Group to help us improve the story. We are so grateful to the critical friends from all across the country and beyond its borders for the rich feedback that helped us reach the finish line.

We had some setbacks, likely put in our path to punctuate the point that we are can-doers, just like Mr. Quigley; one of them ended up being a huge blessing in disguise because a design issue brought my daughter Kaitlyn to our team. Despite the obstacles, we're delighted to share that Mr. Quigley’s Keys was officially released on June 8, 2021.

One feature that has really resonated with our readers is the twelve camouflaged keys that are hidden in the illustrations throughout the book, one for each of the traits so beautifully modeled by Mr. Quigley as he jingles through the hallways listening to hearts and looking for ways to serve. Play is, after all, our brain’s favorite way to learn.

Another favorite is the American Sign Language (ASL) that's woven into the story as Ms. Pittman’s can-doers surprise him by signing the birthday song for him. I treasure these thoughts from some fourth-grade readers in Houston, Texas:

~I love your book. It made me learn so much that if you’re deaf, that does not mean that you can’t do good. Also, I loved the mini-game of finding the keys.

~Thank you for reading that book. It was amazing! I loved it because it taught me many things. I really liked how everyone in the book is nice to each other and I LOVED the drawings. Also, I loved how you hid the keys. It was tricky finding them but my favorite part was when they all surprised Mr. Quigley. Also I loved how the word on the last key {behind his knee on the wall mural} has no wrong answer and how Mr. Quigley is deaf and everyone from the class does sign language.

We are especially grateful that this story provides the opportunity to teach about empathy by how Mr. Quigley serves his school family and by the way in which the students collaborate to connect with him through his language:

Not to fix it for him, just to feel it with him.

In the back of the book, our readers will find enrichment pages that include a message from the Quigley family, some comprehension curiosities and key character questions, a few writing prompts, the ASL alphabet and numbers so that students can learn to sign, and a list of new vocabulary words.

We hope that the quiet echo of Mr. Quigley’s Keys will leave an indelible imprint on your hearts as it wraps you up in a huge hug of gratitude, hope, and love, just as it did for Jennifer when she finally held it in her hands and turned the last page to get that long-awaited daddy hug.

Watch the book’s trailer {here}.

Visit my author page at

Order the book on Amazon at

Connect with me on Twitter: @BarbaraGruener

About the Book

Inspired by the real-life story of an unsung hero, Mr. Quigley’s Keys invites you to walk in the work shoes of a beloved handyman as he quietly jingles through the hallways, listening for ways to serve and connecting by heart. Bask in the admiration and pride that the students feel for their Navy veteran, whose war injury left him deaf, and watch as his every move models the school’s keys to connection: love, perseverance, work ethic, empathy, goodness, and peace. Spend a birthday in the cafeteria and experience the joy of receiving a Quigley creation, then savor the sweetness as the can-doer classmates turn the tables to thank their faithful fix-it friend. Turn the final page for a key twist that’ll wrap you up in a huge hug of gratitude and love.

About the Author

Barbara Gruener is a nationally-recognized school counselor, speaker, and character coach who has had the pleasure of working with and growing alongside learners from every age and stage during her 38 years as an educator. Author of the Mom’s Choice Gold Award honoree What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara works passionately to positively influence school climate change while fostering healthy habits and caring connections among school families and their stakeholders. In addition to spending time with her family and friends, Barbara loves inspiring people to savor being in the moment as they unwrap the present together. She and her husband John live in Friendswood, TX, where they raised their three now-adult children.

Connect with her on Twitter: @BarbaraGruener

Read her reflections at her blog: Corner On Character

Bookmark her new author page:

Check out Mr. Quigley’s Keys, now available for presale at Amazon.

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