A reason to write

Her son Nolan’s life-threatening allergies inspired Michelle Nel to pen a series of books for families. Tracey Tong talks to the Ottawa author

Michelle Nel and Nolan Chow. Photo Courtesy Michelle Nel

A personal support worker, Michelle Nel had yearned to be an author since childhood. For years, it didn’t happen, something the Ottawa resident attributes to an “underlying lack of direction and purpose.”


Then, as Nel describes, “a turn in life’s path brought forth my passion to write, as well of what to write about.” That turn was the birth of her son Nolan in 2007, who suffered a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction when he was just six months old. This was followed by his first life-threatening asthma attack at 10 months of age, followed by a diagnosis of autism in his senior kindergarten year.


Nolan has anaphylactic allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, pea/lentil legumes and soy, suffering multiple reactions requiring epinephrine to each allergen over the years. His symptoms include hives and rashes, facial and tongue swelling (causing him to struggle to breathe) vomiting and wheezing. In addition, Nolan’s eczema as an infant “was severe,” says Nel. “Yet as we learned to manage his allergens, his eczema subsided.” Nolan has been seeing the same allergist, Dr. Antony Ham Pong, for over a decade.


Navigating life with her son’s multiple anaphylactic food allergies and autism inspired Nel’s journey as author.


When Nolan was three, Nel struggled to find allergy books which were positive as well as informative. One afternoon, while Nolan was napping Nel sat at the computer and began writing. The result was a book: To Be A Nut or Not, which, as Nel describes, “provides a safe manner in which to learn what tree nuts look like” as well answering the question: Just what is a peanut?


To Be a Nut or Not transpired for two reasons, says Nel. “As an allergy parent, I am constantly looking for creative ways to teach my son what foods to avoid — a task particularly challenging with tree nuts as they vary greatly in both name and appearance, whole and again unshelled.”


The first book — which Nel self-published when Nolan was in kindergarten — addresses the common confusion in distinguishing between a tree nut and peanut. “There are many products marked peanut-free, yet they, for example, contain almonds,” she says. Although this information is correct, an allergy parent would look further than the peanut-free logo, as being free from one ingredient does not necessarily mean it’s free from another. “It is in assuming that peanuts and tree nuts are the same, therein lies an issue of great concern,” Nel says.


Five other books followed: My Immune System Needs Glasses, which addresses the question of how allergic reactions happen; School Rules, about children with allergies starting school; There Are No B-List Allergies, about why all allergies should be treated seriously; See You Later Allergygator, about food allergy awareness; and The Allergic Line-Up, dedicated all allergy and autism siblings, who more often than not demonstrate great patience beyond their years about why their parents need to devote so much time to their siblings with allergies.


For the first five books, Nel with partnered Jennifer Bebernes, a Colorado-based illustrator that she met in an online group for allergy moms. Canadian artist Scott Hill created the illustrations for The Allergic Line-Up, which went to press in early 2019.


“Seeing our books embraced has been incredible,” says Nel, “yet as a mom, the greatest rewards have been watching my son grow into a young man. Assured of his allergy lessons, he is confident in his ability to self advocate.”


These days, Nolan is managing his allergies well. The family is vigilant with food and has learned to cook almost all meals from scratch. “We educated ourselves on all things anaphylaxis including the use of his epinephrine injector,” says Nel. “There were many trips to the [emergency room], but over the years, we learned and became more comfortable with allergy life.” Nolan was recently declared to have outgrown his allergy to gelatin, which Nel calls “no small success. We celebrate each moment.”


To those allergy parents just embarking upon the allergy journey, Nel has some tips. “The best allergy advice I ever received was to not borrow tomorrow’s problems but rather, focus on what do you need to do to keep your child safe today.”


Current studies demonstrate that introducing foods to children under the age of one does not increase their chance to become allergic to them, pediatrician Dr. Paul Roumeliotis previously told Parenting Times Magazine. “All in all, one thing is clear: Our previous approach of not introducing potentially allergenic foods early is no longer recommended,” Roumeliotis writes. “However, the question of the benefit of deliberate early introduction of these foods to prevent allergies is still up for debate. From a practical point of view, parents do not need to worry about the timing of the introduction of such foods.” The exception, writes Roumeliotis, is if the child has a significant family history of food allergies, particularly to peanuts or shellfish, or if a child has a previous history of food allergies. In these cases, some pediatricians may still recommend not introducing these foods during the first year.

Looking back, Nel remembers holding baby Nolan, “my brain spinning, worrying at once about everything from future birthday parties, managing college dorms, sports teams, picnics [and] packing for canoe trips,” she says. “What if he ever wanted to go travelling? It was in accepting that it was OK for me to take the time learn to be an allergy mom that I found I was less overwhelmed and therefore better able to address my son’s immediate needs.”


Nel — who is currently working as a recreation coordinator at Kemptville Retirement Living — sells her books on her website, allergybooksforkids.ca “This entrepreneurship — a mom-preneurship — has truly been penned by passion,” she says. My aspiration was to create books which were fun, informative and engaging not only for children who have allergies but that they might be used as resources to aid with allergy education be it for schools, caregivers, friends or family. But her biggest successes are her children: Nolan, now 14, and Avery, 23.


“We have always strived to instill in Nolan that allergies and autism are what he has,” says Nel. “They in no way define who he is.”




“Being a special needs mom has meant my hats have toppled not so gracefully off my head many a time. But the title has gifted me the opportunity to grow into a better and more empathetic person.”

-Michelle Nel, author



Books by Michelle Nel


To Be a Nut or Not (2014)

My Immune System Needs Glasses (2016)

School Rules (2017)

There Are No B-List Allergies (2018)

See You Later Allergygator (2018) 

The Allergic Lineup (2019)