Kathie: Welcome to MG Book Village, Nicole! Your upcoming debut novel, JUST RIGHT JILLIAN, comes out on February 1st from Versify Books. Can you give our readers a brief synopsis of it, please?
Nicole: Just Right Jillian is the story of a super smart, super shy 5th grader. She weaves, she sings, she runs…she does a little of everything except express her mind in public. She has promised her grandmother that she will be more confident in herself, and when the annual schoolwide academic competition rolls around, she finally has a chance to follow through. Of course, breaking out of her shell is much easier said than done! Jillian has to dig deep inside, and gets encouragement along the way from friends, family and some unexpected allies.
Kathie: One of the things I most enjoyed about your story is how well you captured the voice of young middle-grade kids. I know that you’re a former elementary school teacher. What and who inspired this story and your main character, Jillian?
Nicole: Thank you! I was a very shy child and grew up to be a relatively shy adult. I can point to many moments over the years where I wish I’d had the courage to speak up. I still remember the overwhelming combination of twisty nerves and disappointment I experienced throughout elementary school, wanting to say something and not being able to. I’ve long wanted to revisit that time and reimagine how it might’ve gone.
I mined my experiences as a teacher as well. At my school, all fourth grade classes hatched chicks, and it was a huge deal every spring. The kids loved it so much, and it always brought out new and fun aspects of their personalities. While drafting, I realized I could bring chicks into Jillian’s story, and they could be a pretty apt metaphor for her journey.
Kathie: I love that Jillian mentions that there’s a difference between someone who is shy and someone who is hiding. I felt that Jillian was both, but what are your thoughts?
Nicole: This is so insightful and you’re right, Jillian was both. People hide for all kinds of reasons, regardless of their personal traits. Maybe they don’t want to disappoint someone, or perhaps they haven’t accepted something about themselves. There are any number of reasons someone might hide their true nature. But when you’re shy, even what some may consider to be low stakes interactions can feel overwhelming. Ultimately, neither hiding, nor being shy feels good.
Kathie: I’ve heard author Paula Chase talk about the importance of stories with Black characters that are about daily life rather than “issues” books, and I think you did that so well. What do you hope young readers see as the main themes in your story?
Nicole: I wanted to write a story about friendship, courage, and self-expression – things we all grapple with in one way or another. We’re all different, and we don’t have to conform or pretend to be someone else in order to live our lives more fully. But! We might have to do some reflection, or take some risks, and we might mess up along the way. All of that is a part of life.
At the core, this is a love story. There’s generational love, and love from teachers and family members, love from friends, and self-love. There’s a lot of harshness around us and I really want to be known as one who writes love into the world.
Kathie: I had red glasses as a child, so I related to Jillian’s attempt to add a punch of personality using color. Do you have a favorite article of clothing or accessory that helps you feel brave?
Nicole: What a great question! I have different articles for different reasons. I wear a royal blue shirt when I want to feel powerful, especially in front of certain types of audiences. I wear a turquoise dress to feel poised and charismatic. I also wear big dangling earrings and red lipstick to feel cheerful and confident (mostly on Zooms). I haven’t been out and about much during the pandemic, but when it’s cool enough, I love to wear fishnets and boots for more sass and pizazz. To me these are all nuanced ways of feeling brave. They help brighten something in me that may otherwise feel a little dim.
Kathie: What has the debut experience been like for you so far?
Nicole: It’s been quiet actually, and a study in patience. There’s a long lead time in traditional publishing. I received an offer for Jillian in late 2019. Now it’s 2022. That said, things are picking up speed very quickly! I’m hoping to remain organized and somewhat relaxed so I can enjoy everything.
Kathie: Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing?
Kathie: I wish you all the best with your book’s launch next week, and thanks for taking some time to chat with me today.
Nicole: Thank you so much! I really enjoyed the conversation and I appreciate the opportunity.
Nicole D. Collier was born and raised just south of Atlanta, Georgia. She taught elementary school before going on to work with learners of all ages. Now an author, consultant and executive coach, she’s been known to run, dance, and turn cartwheels on sunny days. Just Right Jillian is Nicole’s first novel.