Jason Tharp is the author of It’s Okay to Be A Unicorn!, a children’s book that conveys values of kindness, inclusion, empathy, and self-empowerment. Earlier this year, a scheduled visit to Buckeye Valley West Elementary School was cancelled after local school board officials deemed the content of Tharp’s book to be pro-LGBTQ+. The ACLU of Ohio sent a demand letter to Buckeye Valley Board of Education for violating Tharp’s and the students’ First Amendment rights. Following the demand letter, the district stated a new commitment to providing a diversity of viewpoints to its students, and offered assurance that Tharp’s book is not subject to any ban.
Learn more about Tharp’s inspiration behind It’s Okay to Be A Unicorn!, and his remarkable resiliency in the face of immense difficulties.
I’ve always been a storyteller. In fact, I knew at about six years old that I would one day be an author and illustrator. Syd Hoff and Shel Silverstein books cemented that dream in my heart. I would get lost, transported, and find friendship in their books.
Hoff and Silverstein became my friends, changed my life, and they never knew I existed. Funny how some things in our lives can do that.
I was an overweight “weird” kid who found it almost impossible to sit still. I struggled with learning and if I’m being honest, this future storyteller never cared where a comma went. Grammar has always felt backwards. Still to this day, I don’t understand it. Thank goodness for editors!
Being the kid that doesn’t fit in attracts bullies of all sorts. It’s lonely, confusing, and depressing to feel invisible when all you want is for others to see and feel your greatness. Have you ever felt invisible?
I was a lucky kid. My parents encouraged me to dream massive dreams. Creating worlds and characters has never felt wrong and my imagination has always been massive. So, when I was brave enough to share my dreams, I didn’t understand why others would laugh. Why would my eighth grade guidance counselor tell me, “You won’t amount to anything because all you do is draw all over everything.” Why at such a young age did I hate myself?
After high school I went to art school where I learned to feed my hate for myself, literally, until one day I tipped the scales at around 400 lbs. I ended up losing over one-hundred and eighty pounds and have kept it off to this day. Free from college and out into the real world to begin the same task as most adults. How do I make more money to buy more stuff? Why didn’t anyone tell me there’s a trade-off? Why is that trade-off sometimes your dreams? Sure enough, I slowly forgot my dreams, falling right into the rat race and deeper into the pit of self-loathing.
Being a human is hard.
This pattern persisted for years until one day I decided I had enough and I quit my corporate job. This began the ‘failing years”. Until one day, on the edge of bankruptcy and foreclosure, I sat in my office alone at 2:30a.m. With snot and tears running down my face, I told myself for the millionth time how horrible of a person I am, that no one cares, and that I should just give up. Then, a question broke through the noise and changed everything. What would happen if I truly chased my big, “weird” dreams? Could I reject everything an adult is supposed to say yes to? Could I start saying yes to everything a six-year-old would say yes to? That’s exactly what I did. I dreamt like a younger me.
It turns out publishers liked what I wrote. The new wins led me to find therapy, read loads of psychology books, and begin getting to know myself. It’s Okay To Be A Unicorn! began as a therapy project for me. It was an attempt to write something I wish I had when I was a kid. The idea was to write a tool that could help that one kid that might struggle like me. I was writing about myself. I needed to create a character kids would love instantly so that I could talk to them about hard stuff. And, if you’ve noticed, kids like unicorns. I used the unicorn’s differences to create a world like the one I experienced. Through my own therapy, I learned the importance of people accepting themselves. We don’t need everyone to like us, and our differences are pretty cool.
In July 2021, the last parts of my wall of self-hate crumbled when I had a seizure and was diagnosed with a glioblastoma. I am lucky that doctors were able to remove my tumor, and I have had clear scans since. Please feel free to send and extra good vibes my way.
Nowadays, we live in a world full of fear. It clouds our vision so much that it’s all we see, but I promise if you look for it, there’s always love sitting and waiting for you to see it.
I have been traveling the country for years talking to many kids at schools. I ask questions, keep quiet, and listen to them. The students often think I am there to teach them, but they teach me. They are just being themselves. I wish more adults would be like them.
When the superintendent and a local school board banned me from reading It’s Okay To Be A Unicorn! and It’s Okay To Smell Good! prior to my scheduled school visit, I knew where I stood. I don’t write stories to entertain insecure adults who want to project their fears upon a children’s book. I write for that one kid that feels different, confused, invisible, and in love with dreaming. Why? Because I was that kid. I believe that books have that power. Books saved me, and maybe one day a kid struggling may be saved by one of my books. You never know, but I sure hope it’s available for them to see and not put on a shelf of “bad books.”
Do I really think fear of rainbows and unicorns was the cause for the censoring of my books? Maybe, but so was fear of the unknown, of a conversation, of looking foolish, of asking a question, and of being willing to empathize with another human.
I enter schools with an agenda. It’s to share my story, and be relatable to the kids. I hope that maybe some of the magic I’ve been lucky enough to receive will leave an imprint on their hearts.
In all my years of school visits, I’ve learned so much from the kids. Nothing is more powerful than what they can do that you and I cannot. They can be present. They soak in the magic, believe in unicorns, and let their imaginations take them anywhere. It’s us, the adults, that ruin the magic for them. Don’t believe me? Turn on a bubble machine in a room full of kids and sit back and watch.
Try to remember a time you felt invisible. Maybe it was last week? Or when you were a kid? Do you remember how good it felt to be seen? Maybe it was a smile on a bad day. Maybe it was someone who traded you your PB&J for your favorite fruit roll up. Or maybe it could have been when you looked in the mirror at yourself and said, “You got this!”
I’m willing to bet if you close your eyes and think of it for a few minutes, it will fill your heart with magic. Because not only did they help you, they helped themselves. Here’s the thing about kindness: It doesn’t take much, it’s very contagious, and it can save lives - just like books.
Live More. Love More. Wonder More.