Becoming Brave is Jennie Cashman-Wilson's first children's book. Her background is in arts fundraising and working with young people, which is how she met her late husband, the acclaimed jazz trumpeter Abram Wilson. After his passing in 2012, Jennie set up the Abram Wilson charity to support minoritised young talent in the music industry.
Tomekah George's delicately hand-crafted illustrations have featured in newspapers, food packaging, pottery, classrooms, books and digital campaigns across the US, UK and Europe. Her work is constructed from early memories and love for Afrofuturist themes expressed through a blend of colourful and textural layers. Her handmade pieces sit somewhere between a print, collage and a painting.
Becoming Brave (Little Tiger Press)
In Becoming Brave, Jennie Cashman-Wilson explores fear, courage and loss by drawing on events from her own life, particularly her relationship with the late musician Abram Wilson, who showed her the way to 'becoming brave'.
It's a story that deals with overcoming fear, and facing grief, and its message is the importance of following one's heart. Jennie tells ReadingZone about the events in her life that lead to her discovering her own creative path, and to writing Becoming Brave.
Review: 'This beautifully crafted story is one of the bravest stories I have read. Bravo to Jennie and Tomekah.'
"Why are we so obsessed with children, especially girls, being 'good'? I think this attitude can stop us from really seeing our children. I think they 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."
Q&A with Jennie Cashman-Wilson
1. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your passions in life?
I spent the first 25 years of my life wanting to be an actor, then I got scared and put all my creativity into a box and convinced myself I didn't need it. About 10 years later I 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 10 years 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 but was too scared to try. We worked together for three years before he passed away in 2012. I then set up a music education charity called the Abram Wilson charity 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 the story that is 'Becoming Brave'.
2. What is your picture book, Becoming Brave, about?
It's 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 be good and please grown-ups never felt good enough and that in turn led to me giving up on what I really wanted to do and instead doing what I thought would keep the peace.
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 though. 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'.
3. Why did you decide you wanted to write a book based on your experiences?
I never set out to write a picture book. That was a very happy accident. I did decide to explore my creativity more and signed up to a two-week clowning course at the beginning of 2019 (yes really). That's when I learned about the magic of failure: if you're confident enough in yourself then, when things go wrong, you have the ability to pivot and turn 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 amongst one of my journals and I didn't think anything of it.
4. Why did you want to write this story for children? Do you feel that this message of 'being brave' and believing in yourself, from an early age, can be life-changing for children?
Every year between 2013 - 2019 I was invited to Symphony Hall in 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.
That year 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. I think I wanted them to understand that being brave requires feeling scared and risking failure and I wanted them to know that they would be okay. 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.
5. How would you like to see adults share Becoming Brave with children to take this further? Do you have any other activities or discussions to suggest for them?
I think there are two things that are really important to me about this story. The first one is how much adults and what they project onto children can affect those children and who they then become as adults. Why are we so obsessed with children, especially girls, being 'good'? I think this attitude can stop us from really seeing our children. I think they 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 certainly the experience I had when I look back on it.
The other important message is about grief and this idea that kids don't experience it. I lost my baby brother when I'd just turned four and my parents didn't let me grieve and that had a massive impact on our family 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 know it was okay and normal to feel how they were feeling and to express that. You have to express your grief and allow space for the deep sadness and loss that you feel or you'll never heal and it will affect you for the rest of your life.
6. How well do Tomekah George's illustrations support the story in Becoming Brave? Do you have any favourite spreads?
Tomekah has done a fantastic job of bringing 'Becoming Brave' to life. This is her first picture book and she was only 19 when she signed the contract with Little Tiger. Emma Jennings from their design team did an incredible job of mentoring her and I think the whole process of finding Tomekah (a young person of colour) and investing time and resources in nurturing her talent is a brilliant example of how you properly diversify the workforce in your sector.
In terms of favourite spreads, that's a hard one! I really love the two pager of Abram playing trumpet to an audience. Tomekah has captured him so brilliantly in this, I think it was the first spread I saw after she'd started working on the book and I loved it from day one. 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.
7. Can you tell us what the Abram Wilson charity does, and how you see Becoming Brave as part of that work?
The Abram Wilson charity connects and opens doors to the music industry so that minoritised young talent has an equal chance to realise their creative potential. And yes, I absolutely see the two as intrinsically linked. I wouldn't have written the story if it hadn't been for meeting Abram, losing him and then what subsequently followed afterwards. The process of making the book and ensuring that we hired an up and coming illustrator of colour also very much aligns with mine and Abram's values and that of the charity.
8. What kinds of music do you most enjoy? What else do you enjoy doing to relax?
I can't answer that first question! It depends on the day, what I'm doing, and who I'm with. As I write this I'm preparing to go to a festival called We Out Here. There are lots of great acts that I'm looking forward to seeing. My charity, Abram Wilson, has a takeover slot for two hours which is going to consist of three up and coming acts: MEI, Bad Honey and Bina. I'm also super excited to see Ezra Collective who are headlining on the last night. I've been following them since they were teenagers!
Other things I do to relax are: walks and runs with my dog Misty; yoga; spending time with my partner Adam, either where I live in Bedford or where he lives in Brussels; I love a good rom com; catching up with friends; the usual!
9. Do you have any other books / picture books planned? Are you writing another book currently?
I do have another story in the works but I'm sitting on it and mulling it over right now. I'm trying to get to the essence of what it's about as it's quite a sweet surface level story and I want to get to the big juicy emotions that underlie it. In order to do that I need time because even though I love dealing with big feelings it also brings up stuff for me. So yes I am writing another book and it's a process : )
10. Are there any picture book writers or illustrators who have particularly inspired you as a writer? Are there any books for children you would like to recommend here?
I love The Garden of Hope by Isabel Otter and Katie Rewse, The Girls by Lauren Ace and Jenny Lovlie, and If All The World Were by Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys. Also anything by Tor Freeman, Dapo Adeola and Maisie Paradise Shearring.