If there were ever a time we all needed to stop and appreciate each other’s differences, it’s now. Living through a global pandemic and extreme social unrest, many peoples’ lives and relationships have played out over texts, Zoom video conferences and social media. And we’ve learned, if nothing else, that we all approach life differently, in our own unique ways.
“Livi and Grace,” written by Waco native Jennifer Lynch, is the story of two sisters who could not be more different. Olivia, a lovely brunette with a perfect ponytail, wants everything to be just right. Grace, with her free-flowing locks of blonde, goes wherever life takes her. But, despite their differences, the sisters cling to one another, blissfully unaware of how uniquely they approach everything from a bike ride to a creating a painting to having a tea party. They just love being together, and that’s all that matters.
That message is one that Lynch has been relaying to children for most of her career, both as a teacher and an advocate for children.
“‘Livi and Grace’ is about love,” Lynch said. “It’s about loving yourself, your unique self, which is a really good thing. And it’s about being able to see the good in someone else. Even at a young age, you can do that.”
Lynch has been a sworn-in CASA (court appointed special advocate) since 2003, working through the court system with children who have been abused, neglected and hurt in unspeakable ways. Many of the kids she’s worked with over the years, she said, believe they are unlovable and have no value to anyone.
“I started thinking about my cases,” Lynch said. “Many of the kids tell me they hate themselves or that they aren’t good enough. Their stories are heartbreaking, and no one was comforting them or supporting them or celebrating them. There were zero positive affirmations coming to these children. And I desperately wanted them to know ‘You are good.’
As a psychology major at Texas A&M, Lynch did internships with the Rape Crisis Center and the Shelters for Battered Women and Children.
“Through psychology, I was either going to work with people or go into advertising and marketing,” she said. “But my internships, even though that was really hard, heartbreaking work, led me to working with children. When I moved to Austin and learned about CASA through a fundraiser, I knew the organization was really making a difference in kids’ lives. I called the next week, signed up and started training.”
Once she started working with children one-on-one, Lynch said she realized the need to help some of them change their entire belief systems and to find self-love.
“I also felt they needed comfort and hope,” Lynch said. “And I could give them that during our time together. But then they had to go home to different situations — to foster care, to an appropriate family member or sometimes a juvenile halfway house. I couldn’t be with them all the time, and they needed something to hold on to when we were apart.”
The inspiration: a book with a positive message and vibrant characters that they could take with them and read over and over.
And the muses for her book were Lynch’s own daughters, Olivia, 19, and Grace, 16. She said she began journaling about them from the time they were little, as she noticed the details of their individuality and uniqueness.
“Looking at my girls’ differences was a beautiful thing to me,” Lynch said. “I have this one who likes for everything to be beautiful and polished and perfect. And this other one who loves to color outside the lines. It taught me a lot, and I realized I could use Olivia and Grace as representatives of loving who you are and loving others just the way they are.”
Telling their story, she hoped, would be a tool for transforming kids’ lives in big and small ways.
“It would be something tangible I could give them to take home read every night or put in backpack and pull out when they need to connect with a character,” Lynch said. “Everybody is OK, everybody is good in the book.”
“Livi and Grace” was a five-year process, Lynch said, because she was a novice writer and she wanted to do it right. She contacted a New York book editor who guided her through the tedious, yet inspiring process of creating a children’s book. And she admits, it wasn’t easy.
“This was new for me, but I had an amazing editor who was encouraging and honest,” Lynch said. “She told me step-by-step what I needed to do to create a final product I could be proud of.”
And that meant a lot of work and revisions.
“For instance, I really wanted the book to rhyme, and that’s how I wrote it,” Lynch said. “My editor kindly told me that some of my rhymes sounded forced. ‘You are not Dr. Seuss,’ she said. She told me that when kids read the book, it needs to flow and be easy for them. I really had to think about my message and what words I wanted to use.”
The next step was creating a look that reflected the tone and message — and Livi and Grace themselves.
“I had seen the work of artist Missi Jay in advertisements for boutiques in Austin,” Lynch said. “I connected with her through a local magazine. We met and I told her exactly what I was looking for, and she was immediately excited.”
Lynch said she told her it was important for her to capture the girls’ likenesses, for sure, but also their differences. And she wondered if someone could combine all that into an illustration.
“I supplied her with pics of the girls in action — playing the piano, riding a horse, playing volleyball, swimming, playing together,” she said. “I wanted her to see how Grace’s hair was always in disarray and Livi’s was always perfectly in place. I told her I wanted the illustrations to be whimsical and colorful and to appeal to my audience, ages 4 to 9.”
Thinking of some of the children she had worked with, Lynch said she knew they may not be able to read well, so they had to be able to get the message from the pictures.
“I told her I needed it to touch their hearts and make them want to turn pages,” Lynch said. “She did some sketches within just two days, and they could not have been more perfect. When she applied the color, it was exactly my vision.”
Then, they hired an art director who worked with Jay, to make sure that the book was the right size and just the right layout. That required more revisions and approvals on Lynch’s part.
“There’s quite a bit of work to be done even on a children’s book,” Lynch said. “She had me think of everything. If you want your book to be beautiful and polished and represent you and your message, you don’t fast track it. I’m very proud of how it turned out.”
A year ago last month, “Livi and Grace” hit bookstores and now Lynch is able to reflect on all she’s learned about her girls, the importance of embracing differences — and also about her role as a mom.
“I have loved having two little girls, and it has been fun having very different girls,” she said. “Looking back, I may have been hard on myself, knowing that they look to me for how I handle things or how I react to their mistakes and their celebrations. There has been a lot of self-reflection for me. How will I influence them? I want them to be who they are, but am I pushing my agenda for who I want them to be?”
When Grace chose to get out of sports, Lynch said she had to hold her tongue because she hated to see her give up since she was an “amazing athlete.”
“But she wanted to do photography and art lessons and sketching and watercolor,” Lynch said. “She was showing me who she is and who she wants to be, and I needed to let that happen. I had to be quiet and embrace that. We have these ideas of who we want our children to be because we want the best for them. But we have to let them give things a try, even if they don’t work out. Just because I’m uncomfortable, doesn’t mean you need to stop being who you are.”
The book and Lynch’s website offer some activities and parent resources on uniqueness which can downloaded and shared. There are also some ‘love notes’ in the back of the book that can be copied and colored and shared with a friend who might need some encouragement.
“Tell your friend something positive, even if it is just that you like their shirt,” Lynch said. “And if your friend is having a bad day, tell them it’s OK and you just love who they are.”
In these days of unrest when all are searching for their place in a turbulent world, Lynch believes starting early with a dialogue of acceptance and love is key — and the story of “Livi and Grace” can help.
“No doubt, even young kids are going to hear the news or see something on TV or even experience something at school that makes them ask questions,” Lynch said. “That’s the time — or even before — to have an age-appropriate conversation. Livi and Grace have friends of all ethnicities, and they are celebrating the good things about each of them. That’s something we all can do for each other right now.”