People often ask how I came up with my chapter book character, Jada Jones. The truth is I didn’t find Jada — she found me. I heard her and her friends in my children’s voices, saw them in the eyes and smiles of kids I met when visiting schools. Smart, sincere, bighearted, and brave, Jada and her friends represent the amazing children I know who deserve to be the stars of stories, too.
These characters stand for the kids who sometimes freeze when faced with public speaking, but reach deep inside and soar; for the kids who can feel unsure as they navigate friendships, but keep pushing to make connections; for the kids who love science, reading, Double Dutch, anime, sports, music, crafts, and more. They are beautifully and uniquely themselves, and they fill every classroom — we just have to look.
In a world where popularity can take center stage, we sometimes forget to remind kids of the shine they hold inside. All around, students stand out by being who they are. Jada. Miles. Lena. Mari. Jackson. Simone. Hallie. Carson. Replace my characters’ names with children you know — I bet you find they have a lot in common: bouncing back from challenges, finding humor in hard situations, growing from mistakes, celebrating what makes them special. I’m often in schools for author visits and writing residencies, and I’m always touched by the courage and character of the young leaders I meet.
I’ve watched as kids who used to stare at the floor when standing in front of the class start to stand tall as they feel the love for their stories. I’ve watched children who have trouble mastering the latest dances find their own grooves. I’ve felt my heart swell as students lift each other up when they’re low and cheer on friends when they’re riding high. They’re rock stars, class acts, sleepover scientists, and dancing queens just like Jada. My series is my testimony that I see and hear them.
As a writer, the greatest gift is learning something you wrote made a difference. The mother of a teacher once sent me a note that still makes me beam with pride. A group of girls was bullying a classmate. The teacher pulled one of them aside and asked what she thought Jada Jones would do. After lunch, that girl stood up against the bullying, and by the end they were all playing together and having fun. They were inspired by my series, but I doubt they know how much they inspire authors like me.
It’s tough to be brave and go against the crowd. It’s scary to be true to yourself when you feel all alone. But kids do it all the time. They stumble and pick themselves up. They feel the fear and press on. They find their way and fill the world with their light. We adults can learn a lot from kids. Here’s one lesson I try to pass on, through Jada Jones and all else: dare to shine by being who you are.