Adams Elementary School fourth-grade special-education teacher Cari Poock reads from her book, “Mackenzie’s Gift,” to her twin 7-year-olds, Mackenzie and Jonah. Daily Times Herald Photo by Larry Devine
Adams Elementary School fourth-grade special-education teacher Cari Poock reads from her book, “Mackenzie’s Gift,” to her twin 7-year-olds, Mackenzie and Jonah. Daily Times Herald Photo by Larry Devine
Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What kind of trick is this? A box wrapped in brilliant red paper and tied with a silky white bow, but there’s nothing inside.

As the main character young Mackenzie learns, though, in Carroll teacher Cari Poock’s first-ever book, “Mackenzie’s Gift,” the empty package represents the most meaningful gift of all — God’s love.

In this children’s Christian book, Mackenzie quickly takes to heart and practices the lesson that “God gives us everything we need because He gives us His love, and not matter what, God will always love you.”

“Mackenzie’s Gift” has been published by Tate Publishing and Enterprises of Mustang, Okla., and is available $8.99 soft cover or $15 hard cover from Poock (790-5207) or online at Tate Publishing.

Poock will sell and sign books at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Carroll Public Library, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Splurge! gift boutique in Denison and at 10 a.m. Saturday, July 14, at Strawberry Point in northeast Iowa where Cari’s parents, Jerry and Patty Hilton, live. Cari graduated from Starmont High School in nearby Arlington in 1995 after attending Adel schools from third through 11th grades.

Cari and husband, Aaron, a Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School graduate, both teach in Carroll Community Schools. Aaron is a math teacher at Carroll Middle School, and Cari will be starting her ninth year as fourth-grade special-education teacher at Adams Elementary.

Cari dedicates her inaugural book to Aaron, who she says, “reminds me of God’s love every day, and to my parents, who raised me to know God’s love.”

Cari and Aaron have been active at St. Paul Lutheran Church, and the inspiration for “Mackenzie’s Gift” comes from some joking at a Happy Birthday, Jesus party at the church fellowship hall following the annual Christmas program.

At the party, friends gave Cari an empty gift box she was told was filled with God’s love.

“That became kind of the running thing to say that night,” Cari recalls.

“I went home  and had a lot on my mind — school to get ready for, the Christmas program and party. I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and wrote a book.”

Journaling had become a habit for Cari since she was ordered to begin bed rest a month before she gave birth to daughter Mackenzie and son Jonah on Nov. 9, 2004, in Omaha, Neb.

The twins were born 10 weeks premature and both weighed less than 3 pounds. Both have battled through medical problems.

Jonah was born with cleft lip and palate and has undergone several surgeries to fix his lip and roof of his mouth. He will have additional for his jaw.

Mackenzie, for whom “Mackenzie’s Gift” is named,  was born with coarctation of the aorta, therefore, blood was not flowing adequately to her lower extremities. When her kidneys began to fail, she underwent surgery at 3 weeks old and still under 3 pounds.

Children’s Hospital heart surgeon Dr. Kim Duncan “said he’d never performed that surgery on a baby that small before,” Cari says.

“Thank God everything worked out well,” she adds.

Both Mackenzie and Jonah will be in second grade this August at Fairview Elementary School.

“They’re doing great,” Cari says.

Jonah is enjoying T-ball this summer and practices in the backyard with mom and dad.

Mackenzie loves doing cartwheels and gymnastics.

“She doesn’t stop moving,” Cari says. Doctors have lengthened the time between checkups for Mackenzie to two years.

Both children love the outdoors, riding bikes and fishing. They’re competing against each other in the Carroll Public Library children’s summer reading program. “They push each other. That’s a good thing,” Cari says.

While in the hospital with the children — they didn’t leave until more than three months after birth — Cari wrote in her journal daily to relieve stress.

“But I’ve always enjoyed writing,” she says. “I love telling stories, and I love writing, so it’s kind of a thing to do. You know when you have a lot on your mind and you just want to put it down in words.”

Bedtime storytelling is a special memory of her own childhood, and Cari now enjoys that time with Mackenzie and Jonah.

“I love making up stories,” she says. “That’s the most enjoyable part. When Jonah and Mackenzie were little, before they’d go to bed I’d tell them stories, and we’d make up stories together, all three of us. That’s the fun part — being creative and using your imagination.”

With, “Mackenzie’s Gift,” Poock says, “My big goal was to have people realize how lucky we are — we’ve been given so much — and appreciate everything we’ve been given, know that everything that’s been given is a blessing from God.”

Cari, 35, is superintendent of St. Paul Church’s Sunday school program and teaches Sunday school and vacation Bible school. Aaron is an elder in the church. They help with St. Paul events during the year.

“Mackenzie’s Gift” is probably geared toward children about first-grade age, Poock says.

She hopes kids and parents can read the book and talk about the message. “I think it’s good to have that discussion with kids,” she remarks, adding, “Any age level can get a message out of the story. I think the message is for everybody.”

Poock had to do some rewrite on “Mackenzie’s Gift” from the first draft. The publisher said it was too short for an adult book and recommended trimming the number of characters to make it a children’s book.

“I took the same idea and focused on one character,” Poock says. “The original had multiple characters going through different situations and an angel coming and giving them an empty box.”

Poock also worked together with the publishers on the cover design and illustration of characters.

Poock wanted Mackenzie, the main character, to be a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl — like her daughter.

“The (publisher) asked, ‘When you wrote the characters, what did you think of?’ I said, ‘Well, I thought of my daughter and then described her,” Poock recalls. She adds with a laugh, “I told them, ‘I don’t care what the mom looks like, as long as she’s skinny and pretty.’”

When son Jonah saw the proposed illustrations, Poock says, “He laughed and said, ‘Is that supposed to be you, mom? Well, she’s skinny.’”

Poock says of the finished product, “I’m thrilled with how it turned out. … I think they did an awesome job.”

The Poocks moved to Carroll from Mediapolis, where they began their teaching careers after both graduating from Iowa State University in 2000. While Aaron has taught at CMS since moving to Carroll, Cari taught sixth grade for a year at Charter Oak-Ute before landing her current position at Adams. Cari has both elementary and special-education teaching endorsements. She received her master’s degree in literacy through online study from University of New England.

Her first job was as a special-education teacher, and she says, “I loved it. I love working one-on-one with kids, and I love to see their growth. With special education you get that smaller group to work with and feel that you can make a difference with kids who have special needs.”

Cari’s dad has been a longtime  school administrator in Minnesota and Iowa, with stops including Clermont, Adel and Starmont. He most recently has worked as interim principal at Starmont.

Encouraged by her experience with “Mackenzie’s Gift,” Cari started work on a second book.

“Jonah wants me to write a book about him, so I have started an outline,” she says. “I’ll write it for him, but we’ll see if it gets published. Hopefully it does. Hopefully there are more books to come. That would be a dream-come-true.”