Gaia Cornwall is an illustrator and children’s book author, best known for her book “Jabari Jumps.”
We asked her about her creative process, what it’s like to read her book with children, and her tips on being brave.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did the idea for “Jabari Jumps” come around, and why was it an important story to tell?
A lot of people ask me where I got my idea for the book, so I have a couple of things to say about this.
One is me. When I was little, I was really scared to jump off the diving board, even though I loved swimming and I loved the water. So as a creator for kids, I like to tell stories that kids can relate to. And that was just this feeling that really stuck with me. I figured a lot of kids would have a similar experience. But even if it’s not an experience specifically with a diving board and a pool, everybody can relate to fear and overcoming it.
Then, another one. I came up with this idea a really long time ago. I was watching the Olympics a lot. Cullen Jones, who is an Olympic swimmer, was winning all these medals at the time, and he was the first African American to win a world record in swimming. I was really interested in him and started researching him and his story, and he works with Make a Splash Foundation, which teaches kids how to swim. So that was kind of kicking around a lot as well.
And then, I don’t know if this is quite what you’re asking, but a lot of people ask me about the Jabari character. “Why does he look like that?”—because I’m white, Jabari’s black, and obviously, we do not look the same. Part of that was Cullen Jones, but a lot of it was based on my family. I noticed friends of mine were saying, “it’s really hard for me to find books that look like my kids.” I decided to make Jabari look like my cousin and the dad look like his dad, my uncle.
What’s your artistic process, and how do you envision your illustrations? Did the words come first or did the images come first for you?
That’s so hard! I don’t remember. I feel like a lot of times I’ll get a snippet of something. Either it’ll be an image or it’ll be a little bit of phrase. I don’t remember which came first in this case, but usually, I kind of do it at the same time.
When I’m writing, pretty quickly I have an image of what they’re going to look like or the setting. I’m pretty visual, so I’ll do a lot of drawing while I’m writing as well. There’s a lot of sketching and teeny, messy drawings that no one else can understand or make sense of. And then I do pencil. I start everything in pencil.
How much of your process is digital?
It’s kind of half. So everything starts drawn with a pencil on paper, and then I do the coloring in Photoshop. But I also scan in a lot of patterns or textures, so like in the bushes there’s patterns that I painted and water-colored, and like, a lot of the background.
Then I did some collage. I have this collection of old books that I bought at thrift stores over the years, so I cut them up and made the city out of the books—or out of old pages. Yeah, so there’s kind of a lot of techniques, and then I put it all together in Photoshop.
How do you find the response that kids have had toward the book?
When I do school visits, we talk about the process and then about fear and bravery. We discuss what that is and how you feel when you’re scared and how to deal with that—being scared. We talk about how can you be brave and what is the brave thing to do. It seems like those are universal things that kids can all relate to and all really want to talk about.
I don’t know what age this changes, but they’re all eager to tell you what they’re scared of. That was surprising to me because I think so many times you feel embarrassed or ashamed of being scared. I don’t know if it’s the age or if it’s just a safe place to talk about it. Everybody’s happy to raise their hand and say what’s really scary, and it’s all different things. It’s just been really great. It’s been really fun to read it to everybody.
Have you thought about using these kids’ ideas for future books about Jabari and his fears?
Yeah, that’s really sweet. It’s funny; when I was actually working on the book, my son was really cautious—he still is a very cautious kid—but he was really scared of a lot of things. And he wanted things that he was scared of. And it was this direct parallel to the slide.
I’d be working on this book all day about a kid who’s standing at the diving board and can’t jump off. Then I’d go to the playground with my son, and he’d be sitting at the top of the slide just looking down. It was this cathartic thing because I kept thinking about the dad in the story.
I feel like especially when you’re at a playground with people around you can feel peer pressure as a parent to be like, “you can do it! You should do it!” And it was just this funny thing where I was like, no. I’m gonna be like Jabari’s dad and be like, it’s okay. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to do it.
And it really was like this for a year. He fell off a slide, and so it took him a year, literally, to go down. It was just like this sweet thing that happened while I was making the book.
It’s also interesting you created a character who gave you a different choice in that situation.
Yeah, I know! It was like, “I wanna be this dad, this awesome dad.” It’s like I aspire to be Jabari’s dad.
If you were to give advice about being brave, what would you say to anyone trying to muster up courage?
I say in the talks to remember that to be brave, you have to be scared. The definition of bravery is doing something even though you’re scared. And I think we get scared because it’s our body’s way of telling us to stop and pay attention to what’s going on.
My advice would be to kind of stop and pay attention. Figure out if this is something that you actually want to do, and if it’s important to you, and you need to go forward. You can pretend to be a superhero, and picture your superhero doing whatever scary thing is that you have to do. And taking deep breaths.
We talked a lot about taking deep breaths because your body doesn’t feel great when you’re scared, and taking deep breaths helps your body feel better and helps your brain work better. And also being kind to yourself because I think it’s easy to be mean. It’s easy to be mean to yourself when you’re feeling scared. So just be kind and work yourself through it.
Yeah, I think those are my main pieces of advice. And if you can, listening to music is also an option. Listen to a good song.
Your pieces of advice mirror a lot of what we are working with. We have a free resource kit for teachers who are teaching kids who have been affected by trauma, so a lot of those tips apply.
It’s interesting because I, this is totally off topic, but I have Crohn’s, and I had to learn to give myself shots. I didn’t realize how afraid I was of shots. Like, I was always that kid at fifteen who was crying in the doctor’s office because I had to get a shot.
So yeah, I was trying to come up with how to talk to kids about being scared, and at the same time, I was like, “I don’t think I can do this. Like, I have to do it, and I don’t want to.” So I actually ended up doing all those things.
I had a song I got to listen to, and I had a cool Band-Aid that I got after. I didn’t do a superhero, but I picked really strong ladies who would be fine giving themselves shots. It really worked!
We do have “Jabari Jumps” on the First Book Marketplace, so the kids we serve will definitely be able to gather those lessons.
I’m so excited about that.
So are we.