Monday, February 15, 2010

From the Ashes: Using Words to Inspire Youth

by Jenny Chen

JJ Express Magazine

I was quite the prolific writer as a kid, filling entire Whole Foods bags with my scribbling about boarding school girls, orphans sent to battle mythical creatures, and detective shorts. Since my efforts were acknowledged by a smattering of youth awards and publications, I aimed my sights higher – my dream was to be published in Cricket Magazine. Cricket is a high-quality literary magazine for children. The late Lloyd Alexander sat on its Advisory Board…this was the real deal.

As a 10-year-old, I sent off a manuscript into the unknown land of New Hampshire to begin what I was sure would be an illustrious career as a writer. Then I waited, and waited, and waited. Nearly a year later, a letter arrived. I opened it up – inside was my unopened manuscript and a rejection letter.

The letter read, “We’re sorry, we don’t publish student work.”

I was crushed.

There had to be some way, I told my brother, for youth to be published alongside adults. I was frustrated that youth work were always relegated to magazines specifically for young people – like Creative Kids – or in the back of a magazine somewhere. There had to be something we had in common.

In taking out the recycling for my mom, it hit me. Change. More specifically, social change. People young and old, rich and poor, were all affected by issues like pollution, discrimination, and poverty. If there’s one thing that all people have in common, it’s the desire to see a better world for us and for our children.

The idea stewed in my mind and didn’t really take hold until I was a junior in high school and I started doing research for my Humanities and Arts Senior Independent Project – on picture books and comics. Comics were a powerful, timeless art form that combined both words and images in an almost alchemical way.

Spurred by this thought, I contacted several artists about my idea. The Managing Editor of New Moon Magazine for Girls at the time, Lacey Louwagie, answered the myriad questions that I had about everything from layout to editing. I enlisted the help of my brother who had the artistic skills I did not possess. We received a $1,000 start-up grant from Youth Venture

And that was how JJ Express Magazine – a quirky little publication that resists categorization – was born. We use comics to inspire youth to create social change.

It isn’t a comic book – because the comics inside are illustrated by artists from all over the world and in all different styles. Within one issue, you can find manga and Dick Tracy style back to back. It obviously isn’t a bread and butter literary magazine. It probably can only be described as an anthology of sorts for children.

True to our founding mission to involve everybody – all ages, all backgrounds, all walks of life, I have had the opportunity to work with artists from Brazil, Vietnam, France, and some just from Maryland. Some are students, some are professionals, and some are just life-long dabblers in the cartoon arts. We’ve received grants and awards from Youth Venture, the Best Buy Foundation, and the Disney Minnie Grant Foundation. We currently circulate magazines all over Montgomery County.

Today, I stay up late at night listening to the outside chatter of college students die down as the drift off sleepily to bed while I layout the latest issue, chat with an artist in France, and answer mail from readers. I love every second of it.

And to think – all this came from the stubborn dreams of a young girl who just wanted to be a writer.

Jenny Chen is currently a freshman at Colby College.

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