Simply put, there is nothing like it. Dressed in baggy overalls stuffed with tennis balls, poop bags, dog treats and leashes, I’m sitting on a folding chair in front of 45 six to eight year olds. The kids are sitting cross-legged on the floor, their eyes glued to my face as I read Poco a Poco, the story of a mother dog and her puppy who were abandoned at a garbage dump.
As the story, which is based on true events, unfolds their expressions are like mirrors, reflecting sadness, concern, disgust, laughter, and finally joy when the dogs are rescued and find their forever homes. The moment I read, “The End,” hands fly into the air as the kids compete to share their own stories and ask questions:
“Why did the people abandon their dogs?”
“What did the dogs eat when they were at the dump?”
“Did they have to fight the vultures for food?”
“Why do you think black things like vultures are so creepy?”
“What happened to the homeless men who lived at the dump?”
“Who’s helping the dogs now?”
As always, the kids knock my socks off. The questions they ask are smart, intuitive and full of compassion. They have thrown their hearts into the story and want answers that make sense.
Afterwards, as the kids are gathering their things and putting on their backpacks, a six year old with red hair and freckles flings her arms around my waist, hugs me tight and says, “It was perfect.”
Like I said, there’s nothing like, but it took me 53 years and many sidetracks to discover that my love of animals, storytelling, drawing and kids could be harnessed to change the world. For most of those 53 years I was the proverbial odd person out. I never fit comfortably into the boxes corporate America and Japan assigned me. I questioned authority, shared ideas that were not part of my job description, and expressed my opinions freely. In Japan, where women are expected to keep low and pretty profiles, I was told I had “a bad personality for a woman.” Back home in the states, I launched a career as a freelance journalist. The fact that I managed to support myself says more about my tenacity than my skill. Though I met and interviewed many remarkable people I was never happy telling other people’s stories.
Then in 2008 I made a huge course correction. While volunteering at my local animal shelter, and watching how children and dogs changed one another’s lives, I came up with the concept for CritterKin – a lovable pack of mixed breed mutts and their leader, Ms. Jenaia. It was while sketching each of the characters that I realized I was modeling Ms. Jenaia after myself. Her passion for helping canines and kids understand and help one another, coupled with her peculiar taste in fashion (overalls, work boots, and a floppy sun hat) felt like a perfect fit.
Fast forward to here and now. I’ve been embodying and giving voice to Ms. Jenaia for more than eight years now, and the experience continues to teach and touch me in many ways. As Ms. Jenaia I live both as an illustration and as a character who walks out of the pages of my books into children’s lives. The moment I put on those baggy, faded overalls, fill my pockets with colored pens and dog treats, and plop my sun bleached old hat on my head, I leave my day-to-day existence behind and step into the world I have imagined for and with the kids.
Together we leap feet first into the stories, embodying characters, discussing their peculiarities and problems, and sketching our versions of their lives in words and pictures. For our short time together I AM Ms. Jenaia, and there’s no one I’d rather be.
To see a short video of some of the kids Ms. Jenaia has worked with visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqLo6bK9LpU
Copyright 2017 by Jena Ball. All Rights Reserved.