When Jess Hernandez graduated from W.F. West High School, she expected to leave Chehalis and never return. Twenty years later after graduating from college, teaching for six years, living in the Canary Islands, marrying and having three children, she is back in Chehalis and about to publish her first children’s book, First Day of Unicorn School, and a short story in an anthology, Don’t Touch That: Parenthood in Sci-Fi and Fantasy.
“Growing up, I always liked writing, but I didn’t think I could make it a career,” Jess said. “I’m diabetic so health insurance was slightly more important than artistic fulfillment. When I got to a place in my life where I knew health insurance was taken care of, I let myself follow my passion.”
Over the years, Jess tried different forms of writing. She dabbled in short stories and poems for the Young Author’s Convention, worked on the Crimson and Gray newspaper in high school, went with her mother to interviews for various local publications and wrote a short-lived column for the local paper.
After graduating from Brigham Young University, it seemed natural to go into teaching. Jess found a job in the Los Angeles School District and soon learned that she was too much of an introvert and dreamer to enjoy controlling 260 kids a day.
It was in Los Angeles where she met and married Ruyman Hernandez, a native of the Canary Islands. They moved to Tenerife where their daughter was born. Jess’s experiences on the island and with teaching are the basis of Jess’s memoir, as yet unpublished.
They came back to the states with their five-month-old daughter and settled in Chehalis. Later two sons were added to their family and Jess went back to school for an online master’s degree in Library Science. She graduated before her second child was born.
“I grew to love picture books during my grad work in librarianship,” Jess said. “There’s so much room for creativity within such a small space.”
Her first attempt at writing for publication was a memoir. After four years of work and 140 rejections, she trunked it. “I was devastated!” Jess said. “I wasn’t sure I could commit myself to a longer work like that again so I turned to picture books. With three kids at home, that was what I read most anyway.”
Jess found a critique partner, read all the new picture books she could get her hands on and followed writers on Twitter. Most of all, she kept writing, querying and getting better.
“By December 2018, I’d been working toward publication for six very long years and had racked up hundreds of rejections,’ she said. “The night before a big Twitter pitch event, I decided enough was enough. It wasn’t going to happen for me. I scheduled some pitch tweets and if nobody liked them, I was done.”
“The next day, my pitch for Unicorn School got over a dozen agent likes, 300 re-Tweets and a ton of comments offering encouragement,” said Jess. “I didn’t get an agent from the experience, but it made me see that what I was doing had market appeal and was worth pursuing. The dream wasn’t dead yet.”
It took another six months and an awesome critique group to get a “yes” from her agent. Even then it was touch and go as the market flooded with unicorn stories, but her agent was convinced her book was different enough to sell, and she was right.
What sets Jess’s picture books apart are the humor and the message. “It reassures everyone that they have a place in this world,” she said. “I think we all need that right now. There are some really ridiculous moments, but also some moments of real emotion that I think kids can relate to.
First Day of Unicorn School is the story of Milly, a donkey with dreams of attending a prestigious unicorn school. With a few creative photos in her application, she’s accepted and must make it through the school without anyone realizing what she really is — a donkey in a party hat.
Jess also has two picture books on submission to editors right now — a silly one about a boy who moves into a haunted house and a more serious one she wrote with her husband about singers who dress up as clowns and sing protest songs in his homeland of Spain.
She’s also drafting a chapter book about a little girl with sensory processing disorder who is obsessed with pirates and wrote a picture book about a baseball team of monsters.
With so many projects and three young children competing for her attention, it can be hard to find time to write, especially with the pandemic limiting childcare options. “I try to fit it in the margins of my life — a minute here, an hour after bedtime there,” Jess says. “It means I get less sleep, but it’s totally worth it. Not many people get to see their dreams come true.”