Justine Hail on Shy Shelly, Shyness and Bullying

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My daughter and I became instant fans of Shy Shelly, a children’s ebook released last year by OMF Literature. It’s a story of middle-schooler named Shelly Trudy who keeps to herself most of the time, creates paper stars and plays with her pet turtle, Huey Louie. She longs to have a friend but she is just too shy.

I don’t how many times I asked the author, Justine Hail, when the second book would come out! Finally, Shy Shelly vs the Bully, was released a few days ago and my daughter and I immediately downloaded our copy.

Jianne and I are super fans of Shelly and Justine and want to know more about the fictional character and the brains behind this fantastic new book. Here’s what Justine shared in an interview…

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What was your inspiration in creating Shy Shelly? How did the character came about?
I was entering our office pantry to get hot water when the idea of a girl who found it difficult to speak up popped in my mind. She couldn’t introduce herself, she couldn’t greet people, she couldn’t speak her mind. For every word unspoken, a great moment passes her by. And that character resonated with me because I do have bouts of shyness from time to time. I would want to ask but I would keep it to myself. I would want to say hi but would look the other way.

My dad also observed that there are many kids nowadays who are experts in computers but have difficulty saying their names during an introduction. I realised then that many of us (kids and adults) struggle with shyness.

Everyone is shy to a certain degree. It’s a constant struggle. And I wondered, wouldn’t it be great to have a character that would be just like us — struggling to speak, struggling to shine, struggling to make a difference? I’d like to think Shy Shelly is the shy person in all of us who not only wants to stand out but stand up for something important.

I remember you as one of the hosts of the 90’s kids show called 5 & UP. How did you overcome your shyness during that time? 
On an interpersonal level I am shy. It takes a long time for me to warm up. Maybe a year? Haha! But when it comes to performing arts, I become a totally different person. I forget that I’m shy. So it wasn’t hard for me to be on 5 and up. I enjoyed it very much! But looking back, there were still some things I missed out on as a child because I was shy. There were things I didn’t do because I feared what other would people would say. I’d say that I’m still overcoming shyness. That’s why I learn a lot from Shelly as I write her story.

Photo by Ian Roxas

Justine during her 5 & Up days (Photo credit Ian Roxas)

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(Photo credit Justine Hail)

How will this book encourage the young readers to get over their shyness? How can the parents help their kids to come out of their shell? 

I think kids will find a friend in Shelly. Shelly is someone who understands them, who knows what they’re going through. Shelly won’t give them a step by step guide on how to be the confident star-collecting kid. But Shelly will struggle her way into overcoming daunting situations like facing a bully or choosing who to be friends with. Hopefully, Shelly’s experiences will inspire kids to face shyness in their own unique way.

I’m neither a parent nor a psychology expert, but I speak as someone who was a kid many years ago. Growing up, I was able to manage my tendency to be shy by being part of a volleyball varsity and the children’s show 5 & Up. I believe that allowing children to enter new worlds on their own (whether joining a club, a TV show, a workshop, a camping trip) will help them have a definition of who they are and who they can become, making them more confident individuals.

When older children enter a new world without their parents, they are compelled to navigate the territory on their own. They are able to make decisions, discerning what is right or wrong. But this should be a world a child chooses to enter. No one likes to be forced. But everyone wants to be encouraged. Parents should constantly be their source of guidance and affirmation.

Your second book deals with bullying in school. Shelly and her friends fell victim too to the class bully. Have you ever had a similar experience and how did you face the bully?
Yes, I was kicked in the stomach in the second grade! Our helper learned about it and confronted my classmate (which is not the best way to resolve the problem of course). I hated my classmate for a long time but for some reason, we became friends again in sixth grade. Perhaps the kick was accidental so it didn’t really leave a deep wound in me.

The most difficult part of elementary was feeling left out in school. I felt like an outsider most of the time hearing rumours that this person did not like me because she didn’t think I deserved a high grade, or this group of people plotting to throw tomatoes at me. It was terrible! It was tough to find a permanent set of real friends.

I wasn’t able to deal with this chapter of my life all that well. I actually became a people-pleaser, clamming up in my teen years, so that people won’t have a negative opinion of me. I wasn’t able to stand up to bullies as a kid. Only as an adult, with the Lord’s help, did I get to correct my negative thinking. That’s why I feel that there should be more content out there that help children navigate their elementary years. (I agree)

What would Shelly would tell other kids who are also victims of bullies in school?
You may feel helpless when first taunted by a bully. But you are not powerless. You can choose not to be defined by what the bully says or does to you. Shelly became part of a group that stood against bullies and so it’s important to not face bullying alone. It’s a gigantic enemy! So just like Shelly, be part of a squad or form your own Secret Squad! And don’t forget to go together to the school authorities.

“Rattled by the approach of their number one enemy, Shelly froze, her stomach in knots. Jake was the one who stole Patty’s homework. Jake was the one called her friend “Vanna, Vanna Vomit.” Jake was the one who trapped her in a circle of mocking laughter, calling her “Smelly Jelly” in the playground, the first week of fourth grade. If Jake caught the Secret Squad in the act, they would be thrashed in a pit of pain and torture—not just until fourth grade, but until the end of elementary life!”              Excerpt from: Justine Hail C. de Jesus, Shy Shelly vs the Bully

On her writing experience

How did you get into writing? Who are writing heroes?
I started writing in grade school. My mom encouraged me to write poems, stories and songs. Being an English teacher, she sat with me regularly instructing me about paragraph structures, enhancing my vocabulary, giving me writing exercises that were to be accomplished within a time limit. My mom knew that I loved Language that’s why she spent time training me. And so expressing myself through writing became second nature. The writers who influenced me the most are Roald Dahl, the writers of all the Disney movies I watched as a kid, and the 5 & Up producers.

Is Shy Shelly your first published work?  Yes! It’s a dream come true to have a published book! I burst in tears in front of my mother and sister, while having breakfast when the first Shy Shelly ebook was finally released. Now that the second book is out, I feel doubly grateful because kids get to enter Shelly’s world once more and grow with her. Hard work and faith bore fruit. I thank God for this privilege to share stories.

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Why write children’s books?

I love children’s content! A big part of it is because I grew up in a kiddie journalist show and we went out of town, almost weekly, to cover stories. So storytelling for kids has been part of my life. I also believe that childhood is a crucial stage. Children face many trials and these contribute to how they would define themselves as adults. I want them to have books that encourage them in dark times. I want them to have books that describe them not as tiny people but as great people. I want to create books that empower kids.

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The work of illustrator, Elbert Or, is so appealing. The graphics are engaging and definitely added to the book’s overall appeal. You must have worked closely together for him to be able to put your words into images 🙂 How was that process like?
It was fun! After reading the manuscript, Elbert presents his thumbnails in sketch or in digital format and then he asks for my comments and the publisher’s too. He comes up with the illustration ideas, researches on do-it-yourself pages, and just consults with me to make sure they are consistent with the story and characterization. Elbert gets what Shy Shelly is about and so I’m grateful for how he has made the book a great visual experience.

What can you say to aspiring young writers who someday want to publish their own books? What tips can you give them to improve their skill in writing?
1. Read books and watch good TV shows and movies.
2. Learn new words.
3. Be clear. (Don’t use flowery words just to impress)
4. Interact with different kinds of people
5. Write from the heart

*Other photos from Ms Justine Hail.

*The Secret Story of Shy Shelly (book 1) and Shy Shelly vs the Bully (Book 2) are available for download at Amazon, iBooks, FlipReads, Buqo, and Barnes&Noble.