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  • jenniecashman

My Journey to 'Becoming Brave'

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

I didn’t mean to write a childen’s book. It was an accident, but life took me on a path I never expected, leading me to embrace change, face my fears, and rediscover the creative side of myself that I'd locked away in search of something more ‘sensible’.

I spent the first 25 years of my life wanting to be an actor; I was really good at it but I found the industry too intimidating and inaccessible. So, I put all my creativity into a box, convincing myself I didn't need it anymore. Around my late 30s I finally realised this was making me miserable and slowly began a journey of rediscovering my creativity which eventually led to my picture book, 'Becoming Brave'.

During my decade in the creative desert, I met a trumpeter called Abram. I fell in love with him pretty much on the spot. He was everything I wanted to be: brave, creative and passionate but I was way too scared to put myself out there so I lived vicariously through him instead. We worked together for three years before he passed away in 2012. My response to this was to set up a music education charity in his name to continue his legacy and some of the work we'd be doing together.

I wrote a lot during that time and regularly shared my feelings in blogs and social media posts. I told my story again and again on stages before gigs and workshops. I didn't see myself as a performer or writer during those years, but I can see now that it was a good training ground to eventually write 'Becoming Brave'.

'Becoming Brave' is about me and Abram. It's about how at one point I was a free spirited, playful, creative kid but overtime the adults in my life squished that out of me because they were more concerned with me being good. It's about how that pressure to please grown-ups led to me never feeling good enough. That in turn led me to giving up on what I really wanted to do with my life and instead doing what I thought would keep everyone else happy.

Meeting Abram showed me what I was missing out on. When he died I felt like I didn't have anything to lose and so I finally started to do things that scared me. It was definitely a process; it took the best part of seven years for me to realise that failing was okay, which is around the time I wrote 'Becoming Brave'.

Like I said, I never set out to write a picture book. That was a very happy accident. Around 2018 I finally decided to get back in touch with my creative self and applied to do a 2-week clowning course the following year (yes really). It was the most intense course I’ve ever done, and I was terrified every day, not because clowns are scary (they really aren’t) but because clowning, when done well requires so much vulnerability. It was so HARD. But it was also life changing.

I learned to let go, trust myself and embrace things going wrong because that’s where so much magic lies. I began to understand that if you're confident enough in yourself then when things go wrong you have the ability to pivot and transform that perceived failure into something even better than you'd originally imagined.

At the end of the course someone gave me a book called 'The Artist's Way' by Julia Cameron which is kind of like a 12-step programme for people who want to connect back to their creativity. I worked through it religiously for three months and unbeknownst to me that's when I wrote 'Becoming Brave'. For months it was hidden among one of my journals and I didn't think anything of it until a few months later when I was invited to present an award at Symphony Hall in Birmingham.

Every year between 2013 - 2019 I would head up to Birmingham to speak to around 1,000 primary school children about fear and courage, me and Abram. It was part of an annual project with the local primaries called Generation Ladywood. Each year participating students would work towards a big concert on the Symphony Hall stage at the end of the summer term.

Abram was the first artist to be commissioned for this project in 2012. He missed the final performance because he was already in hospital by that point. After he died we created an award in his memory called the 'Abram Wilson No Fear Award' which I was asked to present for six consecutive years. 2019 was the final year of the award and that was the year that I told my Becoming Brave story.

I'd just got a puppy and so I hadn't had time to properly prepare for what I was going to say until a 30-minute window presented itself the day before the concert. The story that I'd written in my journal months previously poured out of me. 2019 was a special year because I would have seen an entire year group work their way through primary school from reception all the way to Year 6.

In the end I think I wanted them to understand that being brave requires feeling scared and risking failure, and that failing is not something to be scared of and can often lead to really great things. At the end we screamed 'No Fear!' at the tops of our voices which had become a bit of a tradition. It was so much fun and I'm so happy I got to share my story with them first. When I got off stage someone suggested I turn my story into a book. I reached out to a friend who worked in adult fiction. She put me in touch with the picture book department at Little Tiger and everything snowballed from there.

For me, there are two things that are really important about this story. The first, is how what we as adults project onto children can affect those children and who they then become as adults. For example, why are we so obsessed with children, especially girls being 'good'? I believe this attitude can stop us from really seeing our children. Kids tell us who they are all the time and I think it's up to us as adults to notice that and bring that out of them rather than becoming focused on trying to contain them in order to make our lives easier. That's the experience I had when I look back on it. When I was good and well behaved, I was praised. When I was loud, assertive and playful I was called names like bossy, aggressive and show-off.

The other important message is about grief and the idea that kids should be protected from it. I lost my baby brother when I'd just turned four and there was no space created for us to grieve together as a family. That had a massive impact on us going forwards. It's why after Abram passed away I was so open about how I was feeling because I wanted people who had gone through something similar to understand that it was normal to feel how they were feeling and to express that. You have to grieve and allow space for the deep sadness and loss that you feel or you'll never heal.

The final piece to ‘Becoming Brave’ is the illustrator, Tomekah George. Her artistic brilliance has breathed life into mine and Abram’s story. Her vibrant and expressive illustrations have added so much depth to my words. I love the spread of grown-up Abram playing his trumpet to an audience. I think it was the first spread I saw after Tomekah started working on the book and I loved it from day one. She's captured him so brilliantly. I also love what we called 'the magic' that flows through the book: the ribbons and sparkles that represent love, creativity and following your heart.

It's remarkable that Tomekah was only 19 when she embarked on her own journey as an illustrator for her first picture book. Emma Jennings from Little Tiger's design team did an incredible job of mentoring her and I think the whole process of finding Tomekah (a young person of colour from the UK) and investing time and resources in nurturing her talent is a brilliant example of how to proactively diversify not just the publishing industry but any sector. It takes time, resources and a commitment to doing things differently.

'Becoming Brave' isn't just a picture book; it's my true-life story wrapped up in a few sentences accompanied by some incredible artwork which I hope will show that no matter how bad it gets you’ll be okay. My journey of rediscovering myself, fuelled by the memory of Abram, has taught me the importance of embracing change and facing my fears. Through my story, I hope to inspire children and adults alike to connect with their heart and really listen to what it's trying to tell them. Will it be easy? No. Will they feel scared? Of course. Will it be worth it? Absolutely.

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