How an author, a NASCAR star and a young boy flipped 'Let's Go Brandon' on its head

By AJ Willingham, CNN

    (CNN) -- Sheletta Brundidge has a keen eye for little miracles. Whether it's faith or gratitude, she knows not to look away when life shows you something special.

That's how an innocent misunderstanding by her son became a viral children's book, which led to a meaningful friendship with one of NASCAR's top drivers. Together, they're turning a hurtful phrase into something positive.

Brundidge, a broadcaster and media personality in Minnesota, writes children's books in honor of her family. Three of her four children were born with autism, and her books aim to educate families about the condition and show her own kids how much they are loved.

"Cameron Goes to School" was for her daughter. "Daniel Finds His Voice" came next, in honor of her youngest son. In the future she'll write about her oldest, Andrew, who does not have autism.

This year, it was nine-year-old Brandon's turn. Brundidge wasn't sure if she could write one in time for Autism Awareness Month in April like she normally does. Too much was going on in the world. No idea really felt right.

Then, in March, a trip to Texas revealed the miracle she needed. While walking around the RV park where the family was staying, Brundidge noticed Brandon was suddenly filled with confidence. Normally shy and quiet, the little boy was strutting and smiling, chatting up strangers and, frankly, worrying his mom with his newfound bravado.

"I thought, why all of a sudden is my son so brave?" Brundidge told CNN.

"These are my fans," Brandon replied. "They know me. They love me."

Brundige was baffled until her son stopped her short and pointed at something.

"See? It's my sign!" he said.

Looking up, she was shocked to see a sign bearing the same slogan as dozens of bumper stickers, banners and other paraphernalia in the area: "Let's Go Brandon."

"That's not a sign," Brundidge remembers saying to her son. "That's your book."

The book led to a charmed meeting

The origins and meaning of "Let's Go Brandon" aren't so positive.

The phrase is a minced oath for "F*** Joe Biden" that originated during a broadcast of the NASCAR Sparks 300 race in October 2021. The crowd at Talladega Superspeedway was chanting the refrain when NBC Sports reporter Kelli Stavast, apparently mishearing the phrase, claimed they were saying "Let's go Brandon" in honor of the race's winner, Brandon Brown.

Conservative personalities immediately latched on to the misinterpretation, embedding it deeply in the political vernacular. Now, declarations of "Let's Go Brandon" are a common sight online and on any manner of conservative merchandise.

Brandon Brundidge didn't know any of that. To him, it was an encouragement.

Within a month of her son's epiphany, and with a lot of hustle from her illustrator and publisher, Sheletta Brundidge released her new book, "Brandon Spots His Sign," this April.

In the story, Brandon is nervous about participating in activities like swimming and dancing because he fears his autism will get in the way. Then he spots "Let's Go Brandon" messages, which encourage him to take more chances. The back of the book also includes tips for encouraging people with autism.

The book attracted the attention of President Joe Biden, who sent Brandon a letter of admiration. It also reached Brown, the NASCAR driver who unwittingly helped spawn the "Let's Go Brandon" craze. Brown had been publicly ambivalent about the phrase, but was struggling to keep sponsors in light of its polarizing nature.

Brown's team reached out to the Brundidges and invited them to an upcoming Xfinity Series race. Within a week, the family was at Wisconsin's Road America racetrack, taking in the event as VIPs. Brown even had the cover of Brundidge's book splashed across the hood of his Camaro.

"I know how it goes. People invite you to places when you get some recognition. But Brandon [Brown] was genuinely the sweetest guy," Brundidge said. "He could have waited. He could have just seen the book and said, 'That's cool.' But he understood the urgency of creating awareness."

The younger Brandon even got to help push out Brown's car which, he told CNN, was one of his favorite parts of the day. That, and getting to know a fellow Brandon, of course.

The boy also gave the driver an autism awareness pendant on a chain, which matches one of his own.

"He hasn't taken it off since," Brundidge said.

For Brown, the charmed meeting was a chance to reclaim a phrase that he feels has gotten too nasty.

"To have this come though was like that breakthrough moment for us," Brown said after the Xfinity Series race. "This can be positive. This can be good. It doesn't have to be hateful or divisive."

CNN has reached out to NASCAR for comment.

And that meeting has sparked a friendship

The new friendship between the Brandons didn't stop after the race. Sheletta Brundidge says Brown calls or texts her son all the time to talk about Minecraft or just check up on him.

The whole ordeal has been a huge boost for the younger Brandon.

"I have seen his confidence go through the roof," Brundidge says. "Kids with autism are so often chosen last or left out. A lot of times, it's because other children just don't understand why they do what they do."

"You just have to pray for a good support system, and for love," she continues. "And Brandon Brown has loved my child. He has put a spotlight on children with autism for the whole world to see."

Now, Brandon Brundidge has a new friend, new fans, and stacks of new books to sign. (Which is hard work, he told CNN.) His mom hopes this experience shows how much children with autism can flourish with love and encouragement.

And, even amid bitter division, there are always little miracles.

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