A stack of books sit in a stack at the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library in Indianapolis. Tribune News Service
Jason Tharp, The Independent
I’ve always been a storyteller. In fact, I knew at about six years old that I would one day be an author and illustrator. It was Syd Hoff and Shel Silverstein books that cemented that dream in my heart. I would get lost, transported, and find friendship in their books.
They became my friends, changed my life, and they never knew I existed. Funny how some things in our lives can do that.
I was an overweight “weird” kid who found it almost impossible to sit still, struggled with learning, and if I’m being honest, this future storyteller never cared where a comma went. Grammar has always felt backwards and still to this day I don’t understand it. Thank goodness for editors! Creating worlds and characters has never felt wrong and my imagination has always been massive.
Being the kid that doesn’t fit in puts a target on your back and attracts bullies of all sorts. It’s lonely, confusing, and depressing to feel invisible when all you want is for others to see and feel your greatness. Have you ever felt invisible?
I was a lucky kid. My parents encouraged me to dream massive dreams. So when I was brave enough to share my dreams, I didn’t understand why others would laugh. Why would my eight grade guidance counselor tell me, “You won’t amount to any because all you do is draw all over everything” And why at such a young age did I hate myself? After high school came art school where I learned to feed my hate for myself, literally, until one day I tipped the scales at around 400 lbs. I ended up losing over 180 lbs and have kept it off to this day. Free from college and out into the real world to begin the same task as most adults. How do I make more money to buy more stuff? But why didn’t anyone tell me there’s a trade-off? And why is that trade-off sometimes your dreams? Sure enough, I slowly forgot my dreams, falling right into the rat race and deeper into the pit of self loathing.
Being a human is hard. This pattern persisted for years until one day I decided I had enough and quit my corporate job. Although it wasn’t part of the plan, this began the “failing years”. Until one day on the edge of bankruptcy and foreclosure I am sitting in my office alone at 2.30am, snot and tears running down my face, telling myself for the millionth time how horrible of a person I am, that no one cares, I should just give up.
Then a question broke through the noise and it changed everything. What would happen if I truly chased my big “weird” dreams? Could I reject everything an adult is supposed to say yes to? And try saying yes to everything that a six-year-old would say yes to? And that’s exactly what I did. I dreamed like a younger me.
And turns out publishers liked what I wrote. The new “wins” lead me to find therapy, read loads of psychology books, and begin getting to know myself. It’s Okay To Be A Unicorn! began as a therapy project for me. It was an attempt to write something I wish I had when I was a kid. The idea was to write a tool that could help that ONE kid that might struggle like me? Here’s a hint I was writing about myself. I needed to create a character kids would love instantly so I could talk to them about hard stuff and if you’ve noticed kids like unicorns.
I used his differences to create a world like I experienced and through my own therapy I learned the importance of us accepting ourselves, that we don’t need everyone to like us, and our differences are pretty cool. It’s worth mentioning, I had been traveling the country for years talking to LOTS of kids at schools. I ask questions, keep quiet, and listen. They think I am there to teach them, but they teach me. They are just being themselves. I wish more adults would be like that.
In July 2021, the last parts of my wall of self hating crumbled when I had a seizure and was diagnosed with a glioblastoma. I am lucky that they removed my tumor, and I have had clear scans. Please feel free to send and extra good vibes my way.
Nowadays, we live in a world full of fear. It clouds our vision so much that it’s all we see, but I promise if you look for it, there’s always love sitting and waiting for you to see it.
When the superintendent and school board of a local school banned It’s Okay To Be A Unicorn! and It’s Okay To Smell Good! prior to last week’s school visit, I knew where I stood. I write stories to not entertain insecure adults who want to project their fears upon a children’s book. Instead, I write for that ONE kid that feels different, confused, invisible, and in love with dreaming. Why? Because I was that kid. I believe that books have that power. Books saved me, and maybe one day a kid struggling may be saved by one of my books. You never know, but I sure hope it’s available for them to see and not put on a shelf of “bad books”.
Do I really think fear of rainbows and unicorns was the cause for the banning of my books? Maybe, but it was fear of the unknown, of a conversation, looking foolish, asking a question, and being willing to empathise with another human.
I enter schools with an agenda. It’s sharing my story, being relatable to the kids, and hoping that maybe some of the magic I’ve been lucky enough to receive will leave an imprint on their heart.
In all my years of school visits, I’ve learned so much from the kids, but nothing is more powerful than what they can do that you and I can’t.
They can be present, soaking in the magic, believing unicorns are real, that their imaginations can take them anywhere. It’s us adults that ruin that for them. Don’t believe me? Turn on a bubble machine in a room full of kids and sit back and watch.
That’s magic. Try to remember a time you felt invisible? Maybe it was last week? Or when you were a kid? Do you remember how good it felt to be seen? Maybe it was a smile on a bad day. Maybe it was someone who traded you your PB&J for your favourite fruit roll up.
Or it could have been when you looked in the mirror at yourself and said, “You got this!” I’m willing to bet if you close your eyes and think of it for a few minutes, it will fill your heart with magic. Because not only did they help you, but they helped themselves. Here’s the thing about kindness. It doesn’t take much, it’s super contagious, and can save lives just like books.