Tim Tebow is championing kids' differences.
The pro athlete drew inspiration from his advocacy work with special needs children to write his first kid's book, Bronco and Friends: A Party to Remember.
The picture book, which was published on Tuesday, features the names of children Tebow met through his foundation's wish-granting program, W15H. The result is a charming tale about celebrating differences that will inspire young readers.
In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, Tebow discusses the new book (which follows a sight-challenged dog named after his own late dog Bronco), the challenges he's faced during the COVID-19 pandemic and what married life has been like since his wedding to Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters last January.
Tebow explains that it was incredibly special to name characters in the book after W15H kids, who have since passed away and are "in heaven now." (The Tim Tebow Foundation helps children with life-threatening illnesses fulfill their dream of meeting the star athlete.)
"Even though they're not with us, I was still able to honor them and their memory and how much they meant to me," Tebow, 33, tells PEOPLE.
"They've been a big inspiration in a lot of [ways]," he says. "In their life and the way that they handled the adversity that was put in front of them, the grace that they had. So many of the W15H boys and girls that I've had the chance to get to know and really love over the years have had such an impact on my life. So, we got the chance to honor a few of them in here."
In Bronco and Friends: A Party to Remember, illustrated by Jane Chapman, Bronco makes his way to a party and tries to find a puzzle piece he was asked to bring. Along the way, he meets Ethan, a bird with an injured wing, Alexis, a goat with allergy problems, and Chelsie, a bunny that keeps tripping on her extra-long ears.
"One of my favorite parts of this book is the ending, 'You're unique. You're special. You are wonderful,' " Tebow says. "Because that's really what I want every single boy or girl that reads this book to know: they are unique and unique is special… There's going to be so many times in their lives where they're told otherwise. But I believe that they were created in love, by love and for love, that God has a great plan for their life and that they are unique."
Tebow is also excited to feature his dog Bronco that he lost in November 2019 in the book.
"[I wanted to] capture his love for people and the memory of how sweet he was," Tebow says. "He's a Rhodesian Ridgeback. They're known for hunting lions in Africa in their history. But he was just a big teddy bear and he was just so sweet."
Four months after Bronco's passing, Tebow and his wife adopted three new puppies, Paris, Kobe and Chunk.
"It's been so much fun. Probably a little bit more messy and dirty than it would have been without them, but there's a lot more joy and fun and laughter," Tebow says of their life with three dogs. "If you look at the book, you'll see them on one of the back pages, kind of in the background. They look super cute and they're so sweet. They bring me and their mom a whole lot of joy."
Since the wedding, Tebow says he's loved married life.
"It's been so great," he says. "I think we love marriage more than dating… It just gets better and better."
But life, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, hasn't been without some big challenges. Tebow explains that he and Nel-Peters have been following safety measures to stay healthy and protect others during the pandemic. They've also had loved ones who have gotten sick with COVID-19.
"We've done a lot of different testing and trying to be smart," he says. "We've tried to really be supportive of our families and parents in this time and keep them protected. We've both had a lot of loved ones that have gone through kind of ups and downs with it, in this COVID time. Some of them have gotten pretty sick with it. So I think that's probably more of our focus has been really trying to protect them."
Tebow, who is signed with the New York Mets, has also had to navigate disappointment because the baseball season has been impacted by the pandemic.
"It's been a unique last couple of years. Three years ago, I got injured. Two years ago, I got injured again. And this last year, we didn't have a chance to have one season because of COVID," Tebow explains. "And so, that's been disappointing."
But Tebow is "very excited" to return to baseball and is focused on staying positive.
"You've always got to see the silver lining and the blessings even in the disappointment," he says. "[The pandemic] gave me more time with Demi and the three puppies… it has been disappointing not to get a chance to play this last year, but you try to see the silver linings."
Bronco and Friends: A Party to Remember is on sale now.
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