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Celebrating Diversity 

Local author Jessica Parham hopes to help children navigate conversations around differences.

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Scott Elmquist

Although Jessica Parham had never published a book, for years her hobby had been writing them for children. When she began dating the man who was to become her husband, he impressed her by making one with one of her stories out of a SnapFish photo book.

Marriage and children weren’t far behind.

A native Richmonder and stay at home mother of three, Parham was inspired to write and publish her first children’s book “Good to Be Me” when her daughter Norah, a glasses wearer since she was 6 months old, started questioning why she was the only one in the family to wear them. The same question came up when Norah saw someone at church with a limb difference and again when she noticed that a friend had darker skin than she did.

“As a parent, I was struggling with how to answer those bigger questions, so I went on a search for a book that could help guide the conversation,” Parham says. Although she found books that explained individual differences, she didn’t find any books that depicted children just living life together despite their differences. “I wanted to show the abilities of kids, not the disabilities, and because I never found one that I loved, I wrote it.”

Inspired by her children’s curiosity, she started typing, reading it out loud as she went.

“They were dancing around the kitchen repeating every line I said, clapping and loving every second of it. Then they kept asking me to read it to them and that’s when I knew I had something,” she says.

Because she wanted full rights to the book, Parham felt traditional publishing was not the right path for her, nor did she want to self publish. After deciding that hybrid publishing was her best bet, she asked for recommendations from people who’d gone that route, deciding on Mascot Books. She submitted five stories to Mascot and it was interested in four, suggesting that she begin with “Good to Be Me.”

“Kids are naturally curious, but sometimes as adults we can feel embarrassed by the tough questions that they have about differences, disabilities or diversity,” she explains. “I wanted the book to be simple in the wording and powerful in the illustrations, but I also wanted kids to be able to lead the conversations at home or in school and feel safe to do so.”

Working with illustrator Srimalie Bassani was a long and very involved process because Parham had such a clear vision in her head. Going through the book line by line, Parham wrote out what she wanted on each page, down to each difference that she wanted to see. The list was long and included Down syndrome, vitiligo, limb differences, kids in wheelchairs and leg braces, feeding tubes, eyeglasses and braces, as well as variations in race, body types, height, hair types and eye colors. Explains Parham, “I tried to include a large variety differences for kids to be able to see themselves in the book in one way or another because it was really important to me to have kids feel represented.”

Written for children in preschool though elementary school, the book includes questions at the end to help parents and teachers navigate conversations about diversity and kindness. Parham suggests reading the book with kids slowly to let them take in the pictures and ask questions as they go along. Currently, “Good to Be Me” is available at Happy Haven in Short Pump. Parham is talking to other local bookstores about carrying it, but with the pandemic, many places aren’t taking in new inventory.

The newly published author is hoping that the book makes all children feel loved and seen. Ideally, she wants them to feel comfortable navigating conversations with their parents and teachers about differences. She also hopes the book makes adults feel comfortable discussing the subject with their kids.

When it comes to parents teaching tolerance and kindness to their little ones, Parham sees her book as a starting point for important conversations.

“More is caught than taught, so make sure you’re showing your kids how to love others well, not just telling them to do it,” she says. “I sign all of my books with ‘Let all that you do be done in love’ because if we all did that, imagine the world we’d live in.”

“Good to Be Me” is available at Happy Haven RVA, 4300 Pouncey Tract Road.

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