Don McNamara's inspiration to write children's American Sign Language books started in 2007, a year he was relieved to see end.

In January that year, his wife died suddenly of a cranial aneurism. Regina McNamara had just turned 51, and the couple were celebrating 30 years together.

Later that year, granddaughter Abigail was born. Just days after her birth, she contracted a virus that attacked her nervous system. Her diagnosis, quadriplegic cerebral palsy, left her able to hear, but not talk.

No, that's not all of it.

Abigail's older sister, Alyssa, is also disabled after complications at her birth left her "globally delayed" and unable to talk.

Nothing in McNamara's lifelong career as a special agent with the U.S. Department of Defense prepared him for such heartache.

"I was a 'certified tough guy,' and then all this stuff happened and I thought, 'I'm not so tough,' " said McNamara, who spends his winters in Tucson and summers in Syracuse, N.Y.

Yet after a while, after leaning on family and friends for support, he decided he'd had enough sorrow and pain.

"You try to solve problems as an agent," he said. "The first thing they teach you in law enforcement is to search for the truth."

So, McNamara decided to apply those concepts to his personal life and focus on what he could do. He longed to help his granddaughters, and to communicate with them more, and so he began to teach himself to sign.

Next came the idea for the books.

"Fun With Abby & Alyssa" was first published in December 2011 and includes six books that revolve around everyday events such as preparing for bed or visiting the zoo.

"I thought, 'If they fail miserably, at least the girls can go to the library and say, 'My grandfather wrote that book about me,' " he said.

The books are not failing.

Both Tucson Medical Center and Diamond Children's Medical Center are using them, he said.

Libby Quinn, of Sign With Baby Tucson, which teaches sign language to parents and children, said McNamara's books are "great for preschool-aged children and beginning readers."

Quinn said the books are "very child-centric." She likes both the topics he chooses and the illustrations, which were done by Liam Gooley, the son of one of McNamara's lifelong friends.

Coincidentally, another of McNamara's childhood friends, Marty Fox, is a board member and outgoing CEO of Tucson's Playability Toys. The company focuses on children with special needs and now carries McNamara's books.

"I'm certainly happy to be in a position to be able to help him with distributing his books to those who can benefit from them," said Fox, who attended high school with McNamara in Syracuse.

"I love the books," he said. "We all do here."

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If you Go

• What: Fifth annual Tucson Festival of Books.

• When: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Don McNamara will be in the Children's Tent from 11:45 a.m. to 1:45 p.m.

• Where: University of Arizona campus. Attendance and parking are free.

• What: Authors, book discussions, workshops and literary activities for the entire family.

• Sponsors: The UA and the Arizona Daily Star. The University of Arizona Medical Center is the presenting sponsor. Net proceeds will promote literacy in Southern Arizona through the Tucson Festival of Books Foundation, a nonprofit organization.

• Bookmark it: Go to for more information. You can sign up to follow the festival through email newsletters.

• Social media: Follow the festival on Facebook at and go to to follow on Twitter.

• Mobile: Apps are available for iPhone, Android devices and Kindle Fire.

• Plan it out: The best way to see the authors and participate in the workshops and other activities is to make a plan. A comprehensive pullout section that details the event and includes maps was in Sunday's edition of the Star.

Tucson Festival of books

Don McNamara, known as "Grandpa Don," will be signing his books from 2 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday and from noon to 5:30 p.m. next Sunday in booth 249 at the Tucson Festival of Books. If you don't make it to the festival, the books are available at Crizmac Marketplace, 1642 N. Alvernon Way, or at

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at 806-7754 or