Photographer Jonathan Diaz started the Anything Can Be Project in 2014 to create photographs that place children with cancer in settings of their dreams. Initially Diaz thought the series of photographs would make a good coffee table book, but realized that format might not have mass appeal. “I wanted the book and the stories to go to as many people as possible,” he said. “One way was to get authors, the biggest names we could find, to write short stories about the kids and their dreams.”

That project became True Heroes: A Treasury of Modern-day Fairy Tales Written by Best-selling Authors (Shadow Mountain), an anthology of original short stories and photographs based on the dreams of children who are cancer patients. Award-winning writers such as Shannon Hale, Brandon Mull, and Ally Condie have created original stories to accompany Diaz’s photographs, making the children heroes of their own stories. The book’s September release is timed to coincide with Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month, and all proceeds are donated to the Anything Can Be Project.

“It took me literally 30 seconds after [Diaz’s] pitch to know this was something we wanted to publish,” says Chris Schoebinger, director of publishing at Shadow Mountain. “Reaching out to authors about this project was the easiest sales job I’ve ever had. There was immediate positive reaction. What I love most about this book is that it feels like a publishing event, with so many authors gathering behind this cause. It’s also a perfect springboard for a discussion of how booksellers can serve a vital role in their communities, by booktalking this collection to raise awareness about cancer.”

Schoebinger calls True Heroes “a perfect fit” for Shadow Mountain, “because of who we are as a publisher. It reflects the empowering values that we’re so passionate about. It’s not just for those suffering a life-threatening illness, it’s for anyone who wants to know they can dream. Sometimes it’s dreaming that gets us through the hardest things.”

When Diaz called Ally Condie, author of the bestselling Matched trilogy, he had a particular character in mind for whom Condie could draft a story. “She was a teenage girl named Breann, who was a dancer,” said Condie, who met up with Breann, her mother, grandmother, and two friends for lunch. “It was cute because they were going dress shopping for a school dance. She had this guy she was excited to go with. It was a really fun meeting, because she had just been through so much. She had her legs operated on and they thought they would have to amputate, and they said she wouldn’t walk for years and she was walking within months.”

While many of the book’s stories are fairy tales, Breann wanted a story grounded in her current reality. “She wanted a story about teenage life, set in the real world,” said Condie, who decided to write a story, called “The Drop-Off”, set at a dance. “The part that made it exciting is that each story in the book is written for the child. The point was to write something they wanted.” She emailed it to Breann for approval who said she “loved it.” Condie added, “It was humbling to tell her story because she had been through so much, but it was also really joyful to see how much happiness she was taking in everything.”

A New Lens on Life

When Diaz, an attorney by trade, discovered the power of photography, he told PW, “It was like a light bulb turned on in my mind.” He started out doing family and wedding photography, but felt that the medium had a unique ability to tell stories that might help others. When photographing his own children and asking them what they wanted to be when they grew up, the idea for the Anything Can Be Project popped into his mind. “I though I could take this idea and use it for kids with cancer. They are facing a life-threatening disease and they could really use this.”

He reached out to a number of organizations that didn’t understand the project, until he fortuitously met Amanda Flamm, whose daughter Amelia, or Millie,had cancer. Amanda put Diaz in touch with other families of children with cancer. He began photographing them, and when Millie passed away in July 2013, he felt like she was a huge part of the project. “I dedicated the book to her,” he said. “There’s a hummingbird in the background of a lot of the pictures, and it represents her.”

Diaz talked at length about photography’s “lasting appeal,” saying that people take pictures to create lasting memories. “I wanted to create images of them living their dreams so they could look at the images and say, ‘Wow, I made my dreams come true.’ ” He works with the children he photographs to make the images as personal as possible. “I meet with pretty much every child before a photo shoot and talk about their dreams. For the child who wanted to be a dragon rider, I asked, ‘Do you like a certain type of armor? What does your dragon look like?’ I want the kids to really feel like they are part of the dream.”

When Diaz first began his Anything Can Be project, he had a full-time job as an attorney. As he was reaching a deal with Shadow Mountain, his firm downsized and he lost his job. While he still does contract work, it has been difficult to find full-time employment. He credits his family and this project with keeping his spirits up. “I preach about keeping hope alive,” he said, “but I have to say that these kids are the ones that have gotten me through this trial that I’m facing. They’ve helped me keep my hope through this difficult time. I recognize that their struggles are much harder than what I’m going through. I’m sitting here trying to give them hope and they’re the ones that have given me that. They’ve taught me way more than I’ve taught them.”

He wants the book to bring the same hope to people everywhere. “I think that this book is universal to anyone that needs to be inspired, anyone that needs to feel hope and know they can manage their own struggles whatever they are.”

So far the project has been funded through corporate sponsorship and donations, and Diaz hopes the shift to nonprofit status will help him fulfill his ultimate wish, which is to continue the work. “I want to dedicate my life to this project.”