Former Atlanta educator tackles shyness and self-esteem in debut novel, 'Just Right Jillian'

Nicole D. Collier
Nicole D. Collier is the author of "Just Right Jillian." (Photo by Teri Lyn Photography)

“Grammy said I’d grow out of my shyness, but since she left, it’s only gotten worse.” Those are the thoughts conveyed by Jillian, the fifth-grader and title character of the new book “Just Right Jillian” by Nicole D. Collier. The Atlanta author describes her debut novel as a “love letter to shy children.” She joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about middle school life and why she relates so much to her timid young protagonist.

Shy Jillian tackles middle school, grief and her self-esteem:

“Jillian is a super smart but super shy fifth-grader, and she has made a promise to her ‘Grammy’ that she will believe in herself and that she will be more confident in herself,” said Collier. “As we begin, we start to see just how that plays out in her life. She really wants to do her best and speak up, but she’s really having a hard time, right up until the time she gets the opportunity to put this new promise to the test.”

“Grammy has already passed away by the time we get to know Jillian, and as a matter of fact, she’s coming up on the one-year anniversary of her passing. But Grammy is the person who taught Jillian how to weave, and Grammy, later on as her health started to decline, moved in with Jillian. But throughout the years, Grammy was always this … vibrant, very alive person, the type of person who makes doctors believe that she can’t even hear because she doesn’t want to be bothered at the time. But she was always willing to allow Jillian to be herself while pushing her to become even more of herself, which I think is always that struggle — really honoring the child as they are while seeing the potential for who they can be.”

How Collier made use of her childhood shyness and understanding of kids:

“I used to teach elementary school myself. I taught fourth grade for about five years and spent a little bit of time also with fifth graders, and so I really loved and cherished all of that time, and I remember them. They leave an impression on you when you’re able to spend hours a day with students over the course of years. But then also, so much of Jillian’s struggle was my own, and I kept that with me for all of these years. So I was able to really draw on my teaching experience and remembering the students, and my own experience and remembering that pain,” Collier said.

“It’s kind of amazing that kids, they really do feel like they have to be little conformists. You know, they have to blend in, in order not to stick out; when the truth is, as Jillian comes to realize, it’s not that she wants to stick out; she just wants to be herself,” said Collier. 

A poignant motif of chickens and eggs: 

“When I taught fourth grade, we hatched chickens, and it was such a big deal. The kids loved it,” recounted Collier. “We studied the whole life cycle and all of those things, and it just hit me that this is the perfect metaphor for Jillian’s journey, really, from the beginning — when we can’t count all of our chickens before they hatch, to the struggle that they have just to stay alive, honestly, as they are developing on the inside, and then that next struggle to break free of their shells.”

Nicole D. Collier’s new novel for middle-school-aged readers, “Just Right Jillian,” is available for purchase here