BENJAMIN TREVIÑO | STAFF WRITER
On any given school day, you’re likely to find Shawn Elliott Russell at an area school, singing and rapping the words to his breakout children’s book, “Be Still, Little Tree, be Still.” Published in May 2016, the book tells the story of a little tree who is frightened by an approaching storm. An older and much bigger tree teaches the little tree how to embrace the thunder, lightning, and rain as necessary aspects of the growth process.
“When I wrote it I wasn’t even planning on publishing it,” said Russell. “I just wanted to help people find their way through something that I had been through for a couple of years. I had been struggling with anxiety and panic attacks. I tried exercising. I read all the books on how to relieve anxiety, none of it worked for me. The book is about establishing a new relationship with how you feel in your thoughts. It gave me my first bit of relief so I just dove into it and my life just started slowly changing.”
Russell had been an occupational therapist assistant, but his heart remained tethered to the musical career that had fallen by the wayside because of his mental health struggles. Following the book’s publication, Russell took the big leap and became a full-time author and presenter, incorporating the little tree story into a traveling rap/hip hop show that inspires children from kindergarten to high school.
He’s also developed a line of merchandise that includes a video and a pocket-sized version of the book that people can carry with them. His innovative approach to teaching and learning is what earned him one of this year’s Innovation Grant Awards.
“Shawn has a great story, because it’s a personal journey that he’s been through,” said McAllen Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Steve Alhenius. “He has developed an entire business model around his book. He now has the merchandise that goes with it. He has a path to market where he’s pitching to schools and getting a chance to talk to kids, and it’s just a really powerful story.”
Russell says that one of the key traits of a good innovator is having a clear goal in mind and not allowing one’s self to be defeated by obstacles. He likens it to being in a dark room, trying to reach a door on the other side.
“When I bump into a piece of furniture I don’t sit down and feel that I’ve failed,” said Russell. “That piece of furniture has taught me where not to go and in that sense it leads me to my path to that thing that I know I’m going to get to.”
Russell has written other stories and songs, but right now his focus is on sharing his debut book and promoting its message. “Be Still, Little Tree, be Still” has become an entirely new way of life for Russell, a life in which panic and anxiety have been replaced by innovation and inspiration.
“If I’m not doing something for the book I’m doing some sort of research in terms of the message of the book,” said Russell. “The thing that’s always evolving is my presentations. They’re very interactive with the kiddos and I’m always looking to share my story in new ways that connect with the audience best. I love to make people cry,” he added wryly, “That’s how I know I impacted people with my presentation. If I see tears I know I did my job.”
For more on Russell’s book and to request a presentation, visit: www.bestilltree.com. For more information on the chamber’s Innovation Grant Awards, visit: www.mcallen.org/business-community/innovation.