It takes a bit of bravery to move outside your comfort zone and try something new. That’s the central message of a new children’s book, Jabari Jumps, about a young African American boy who, with the help of his patient father, sets out to conquer the high dive.
It’s equally applicable to the book’s first-time author and illustrator, Gaia Cornwall. A longtime illustrator, Jabari Jumps is her first foray into the world of children’s books — and as a Junior Library Guild selection even before her debut, she’s clearly making her own splash.
Who is Jabari? What was the inspiration for this character?
I started work on it in 2011. One of my inspirations was Cullen Jones. He’s an Olympic swimmer. A few years earlier, he’d won a bunch of gold medals — and he was the first African American to set a world record in swimming.
So, he was kicking around in my head. The stories that I write, in general, are subjects that are relatable to kids. I’ve always really loved swimming. I can still remember psyching myself up to jump off the diving board. That was a big experience for me.
Did you set out to write a story with an African American lead?
I did. He was always a black character, the little boy, though I didn’t have his name for a while. I think on a personal level, I wanted to create a book that reflected my extended family and the city I lived in [Brooklyn] and my life experiences. But then, too, it’s so important for kids to see themselves in picture books.
I know Brightly has written about this. If you want to create lifelong readers, you keep kids engaged by reading about subjects they love, and one important element of that is having protagonists that look like them and mirror their family and their life. It kills me that that’s not happening for kids of color, in general.
I hope it’s a shift that we’re a part of — and that it’s changing for the better.
You are the mother of two kids, a 3-year-old boy and a 1-year-old girl. This is a story about a father and his son. Was it a challenge to put yourself in that role — or is parenting universal?
In my head, he’s this really strong, kind dad. And I think, for this book in particular, it’s about universal parenting — that balance when you’re a parent, dealing with your kids who are scared. You want to push them and you want to acknowledge that they’re scared, too. And that’s a fine line.
I have a sensitive kid. He is teaching me to walk this line.
How has the notion of being brave or taking a leap played out in your life?
My son, when he was younger, fell off a slide. He wouldn’t go on the slide for a year. I was working on the book at the time, and there he was, sitting at the top of the slide looking down like, “Nope.” Then one day, he did it. It’s that idea of being ready — and what it feels like to take the leap.
We say the phrase “Use your bravery” a lot in my household. My husband was telling me that the other day. I hope it’s a good topic to talk with kids about, using Jabari in that way.
For me, personally, that’s a message that I tell myself often. My mom would talk about fear a lot, about using it as a guide, and to go after things. If you’re scared, maybe it means that it’s worth going after.
Gaia Cornwall is an illustrator who loves making patterns for surface design. Her work can be seen in magazines, in logos, on various products, and even in movies. Jabari Jumps is her first picture book. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island. For more information, visit gaiacornwall.com.