OAKLAND -- Sixteen-year-old Jaime Needham has a visual impairment -- she can't see at night -- but she has a grander vision: to protect the animals at the San Francisco Zoo, where she interns as a giraffe keeper.

Jaime is the courageous protagonist in "Zoofari," a new young adult book by Oakland resident Amanda Bybee, an orientation and mobility specialist at the California School for the Blind in Fremont.

"Jaime is a regular person who overcomes more obstacles than the average high school sophomore and has to fight hard to prove her independence," Bybee said.

The 44-year-old author has personal experience with visual impairment -- one of her eyes crosses, which causes her to have double vision when she looks to the left.

"It's not a functional impairment, I can still drive, but it's sometimes socially awkward -- it's something I bring to the table in the classroom," said Bybee, who was "embarrassed and self-conscious" about the condition as a child.

Bybee brings that sensitivity both to her work with the blind and to her books.

"I think emotionally I have more understanding because of my vision," she said. "One of the topics we teach at the school is self-advocacy and empowerment, and it's something I also want to demonstrate through my books."

Bybee has also written a series of short stories called "Finding a Way in the Dark: the Blind Bat Short Stories," in which the characters are teen bats. Despite their differences, the "angsty" bats eventually learn to get along. The author also has another young adult series in the works entitled "The Guardian Angel Series."


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"The first of the three books, called 'Grandma,' will be out in the spring," Bybee said. "It's about a 14-year-old girl who has albinism and suffers anxiety from a lifetime of moving from place to place."

The teen is teased at school for her pink eyes and pale hair and skin, but finds solace in a stray dog that appears in her backyard. She comes to believe that the dog is her beloved grandma, who passed away.

Bybee, who holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing and a master's degree in special education from San Francisco State University, has been working with visually impaired people for 10 years, including three years at the Lion Center for the Blind in Oakland. She grew up in San Francisco, just a couple of miles from the zoo.

"Being a native San Franciscan who grew up near the zoo, I just had to pick that location for 'Zoofari,'" she said. "As a child, I used to wonder if wild animals would turn up in my back yard if they escaped."

She's also thrilled that modern technology has opened up the world of books to the visually impaired.

"One of the subjects I teach at the school is 'assistive technology,'" Bybee said. "Modern technology has changed things a lot for blind people, who now have access to e-books on their iPads or phones. They're wonderful tools."

One of Bybee's visually impaired students will be reading a synopsis of "Zoofari" in Braille on March 4 at Mission Coffee in Fremont.

"I want to model for my students that they can self-publish and write for e-books," Bybee said. "I have a great writer in my class. I want to help empower her to reach her vocational goals — how to start early and follow her interest."

"Zoofari" can be purchased on Barnes and Noble (for Nook) in mobi (for Kindle), Apple (e-readers), Kobo, Diesel, www.smashwords.com and, coming early spring, in print, via Amazon distributors.

BOOK READINGS
OF 'ZOOFARI'
  • 6 p.m. Friday: Java Beach Cafe, 2650 Sloat Blvd., San Francisco
  • 3:30 p.m. March 4: Mission Coffee, 151 Washington Blvd., Fremont
  • 2 p.m. March 8: Jump n' Java, 6606 Shattuck Ave., Oakland
  • 6 p.m. March 14: Espresso Roma, 2960 College Ave., Berkeley