Jenika, a guest post by Kerry O’Malley Cerra
One of my favorite aspects of being an author is visiting schools to chat with kids about books, reading, dogs, my favorite color, and anything else that pops into their brains and out of their mouths. After my first novel, Just a Drop of Water, was published, I spoke at a local middle school. A few weeks later, a packet of thank-you notes showed up at my door. One girl wrote that if I ever needed a character name, she’d love for me to use hers because it’s unusual, and she rarely saw it on knick-knacks in gift shops or anywhere else. With an uncommon first name myself, I could completely relate. When I was growing up, all my friends got cool stuff with their names on them—key chains, mugs, and particularly those coveted little license plates for bikes. I got zip!
I was already writing Hear Me when I read Jenika’s letter. Though I hadn’t met her during my school visit and I didn’t know what she looked like, I wanted to give her a kick-butt character, so I changed the name of my main character’s best friend to Jenika.
I work as a media specialist in the same district where Jenika went to school, so after I sold Hear Me to a publisher, I looked her up and confirmed she was still local. She would be a high school senior when the book was set to come out in the fall of 2022. I decided to surprise her at school with the letter she had written and a copy of the book. The principal there is a friend of mine, and he was in on the plan. But when September rolled around and Hear Me came out, the database showed that Jenika had moved out of state. I was crushed. Why had I waited? I wished I’d contacted her earlier.
I wasn’t kicking myself for long, though. If you don’t already know, authors are diligent researchers, and a little sleuthing helped me track down Jenika’s mom’s email address. I couldn’t type my message to her mom fast enough. I hoped that I could at least mail Jenika a copy of the book and that her mom would agree to take a video of Jenika receiving it. But when her mom’s reply came, I could hardly control my excitement.
She wrote, Thank you for reaching out to me. I was so touched by your email, I got a little teary because I know how Jenika was when she was younger about her name.
They had moved across the country, but it turned out they lived only twenty minutes away from a town I was scheduled to visit a few months later. Come on! I mean, if that’s not fate, what is?
We quickly agreed not only to meet up in a few months but to keep the secret till then.
I’m not good with secrets. And this one was doozy. I was bursting with excitement. I wanted to tell everyone that I was finally meeting this girl. Did I also mention that patience is not a virtue I possess? This whole thing pushed me to my limit.
Finally, the day arrived. Jenika’s mom told her they were going to take candid senior photos that morning. I sat in the hotel lobby watching the clock on my phone move ever so slooooowly. I had no idea what either of them looked like, so it was up to Jenika’s mom to find me. But when I saw them walking, I knew straight away who they were, and my heart leaped.
Jenika, clearly confused, sat across from me. I handed her the letter and asked if she remembered it. Even after reading it and recognizing her own writing, she had no idea what was happening. We chatted about my author visit to her school years before, and bit by bit, some of it came back to her. When I told her how much her letter touched me and how much I could relate, we swapped stories about elusive Jenika and Kerry merchandise.
Then . . . I pulled out a copy of Hear Me. She took it and thanked me for giving her the book, but I told her to open it and flip through, so she did.
After a beat, recognition Etch-A-Sketched across her face.
There on the page was her name. In fact, it was on many, many pages. And that’s when the tears came. Hers. Mine. Her mom’s. All right there in the hotel lobby.
It’s an experience that will remain in my heart forever. There’s something utterly special about connecting with readers on any level, but having this moment with Jenika, when she realized that her beautiful name is out in the world where others will see it—well, that was on a whole new level.
We spent a few more hours together, chatting, eating, and taking photos. It’s an honor to know her. She’s a strong, fierce, hardworking girl whose insight on life is thought-provoking. I left hoping we’d keep in touch, but knowing regardless that she was genuinely happy. And that was enough.
I did recently hear from her, and this is what she had to say. Thank you again for the opportunity of a lifetime. It’s honestly hard to put into words what I felt when you were first explaining to me the real reason behind meeting with me. I’d say exhilarating would probably be the closest word. I was shocked because I honestly thought you would never respond to my letter. I couldn’t fathom a stranger using my name out of the trillion choices you have. I’m so happy I wrote it, though. When you told me that you kept the letter all these years and showed me, it brought some faith back into humanity for me. I couldn’t believe that it could mean that much to you. I’m extremely grateful to have my name in a book, and the experience of finding out will never be forgotten. –Jenika
While she may never see her name on gift shop merchandise, I hope having it in a book will suffice.
Meet the author
Kerry O’Malley Cerra is an award-winning author of middle grade books. Her first novel, Just a Drop of Water, landed on five state reading lists, won the Crystal Kite Award, a Florida Book Award, and was named to VOYA’s Top Shelf Fiction list for 2014. Her second novel, Hear Me, is out now. Stay tuned for her forthcoming books, Make a Little Wave, (Aug. 2024 from Carolrhoda Books, Lerner Publishing) and the tentatively titled nonfiction picture book The Gallaudet Eleven: The Story of NASA’s Unheard of Bioastronauts (March 2026 from Little Brown BFYR). Kerry’s work has received praise from The New York Times, Kirkus, School Library Journal, Booklist, VOYA, and the Horn Book Guide calling her stories moving, perceptive, well-developed, and woven with an expert hand. Kerry lives in South Florida with her family and two poorly behaved rescue dogs.
Kerry O’Malley Cerra’s Website: http://www.kerryomalleycerra.com
About Hear Me
A year after being diagnosed with hearing loss, twelve-year-old Rayne is doing her best to live a “normal” life and act like nothing has changed.
But her hearing keeps failing her. Even with hearing aids, she has trouble following conversations and hanging out with her friends the way she used to. Her grades are slipping, surfing is now a wipeout, and she can’t understand the lyrics of her favorite singer’s new songs. Rayne’s parents are pushing for her to get cochlear implants, which could restore her hearing—though she would hear sounds differently than she did before her hearing loss.
Rayne isn’t convinced the surgery for CIs is worth the risks and challenges. In fact, she’s terrified of it. She begs her parents to consider other options, but they’re not budging.
With the surgery looming, Rayne sets off on a search for alternatives. Along the way, she discovers that “normal” can have many meanings—and that even though her ears may be broken, she is not.
Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/06/2022
Age Range: 10+
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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