Twitter and Instagram had just become the “in thing” when 16-year-old Charlie Mills was in the first year of sixth form at Leventhorpe School, and the absolute obsession for students was to be “liked”.
Charlie admits he was active on both, more so on the photo sharing social media platform Instagram, and people liking his posts was important.
“I’d delete a picture that I’d put up if it didn’t get enough likes,” said Charlie, now 22. “Then I thought, why not put something up I really like and not worry whether it gets liked by others?”
At the time Charlie was studying a creative writing module for his English A-level and it got him thinking about a project.
“I decided to take a step back and see what was influencing people,” he said. The idea of a children’s story with a strong message to teach children to embrace their differences was spawned and he began reading popular authors such as Julia Donaldson and Roald Dahl for inspiration.
The rhyming rhythm of the story was set, but as with most students Charlie left it until the last minute to write his masterpiece.
“It was more or less ‘it’s due in tomorrow’,” said Charlie, so It’s Cool To Be Me was written over one night.
The story is about a boy who loved sports and won merits at school. He enjoyed being good at school, but wished he was cool. One morning he awakes to see a genie in his garden and he grants the boy his wish. Just as the genie is about to grant the boy his wish, he is interrupted by a dragon who takes them to have tea with his mum and to meet his friends, two friendly giants.
As the adventure goes on and the boy takes a selfie of his new pals to show his friends at school, when he gets home he comes to realise “nobody cares if I’m nerdy or cool”.
The story ends with the words: “I’m the same as I was, but now I can see, I love who I am, it’s cool to be me.”
After some editing and finding an illustrator – from Macedonia – the book was published. And Charlie has also raised £3,000 on the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform that focuses on creativity to enable him to get started on a second one.
As Charlie says in a video message on Kickstarter: “Filters were taking away people’s natural beauty as they tried to hide their imperfections and I wanted this book to teach children to value their kindness, companionship and love over the number of likes they get.”
It seems it has done the trick as the book, now published in hardback and paperback, has won rave reviews, with one author and kindergarten teacher saying after she had read it she was in tears adding: “You touched on such an incredibly important issue…but what made me cry is the story is so relatable.”
Charlie took part in an online bedtime reading session for pupils at his old school Fawbert & Barnard infants based in Knight Street, Sawbridgeworth and he also revealed he had sent a copy to a teacher in Canada who loved the story and told him her students were quoting from it!
Charlie, who lives with his mum and little sister in Sawbridgeworth, has just graduated from Bournemouth University with a degree in economics.
The lockdown took its toll as he was made redundant from a job in the law-tech industry at the start of the coronavirus crisis at the end of March.
But he says the enforced period at home has helped with his productivity, as he had the time to campaign to get the money on Kickstarter and also write the second book.
He now faces the choice of finding another job and making writing his hobby or, if it takes off, gaining a living from it.
In the meantime, as the lockdown eases, Charlie will be hoping to have the chance to do more readings and get the message out to as many as possible – it’s cool to be you!
It’s Cool To Be Me, paperback version £10.99, hardback £13.99, can be purchased by checking out Charlie’s website www.itscooltobeme.co.uk.