For the past year, Fred Wills, the mastermind behind the “Just Jessica” comic series, has drawn a new cartoon of his 16-year-old daughter every day. At first glance, Wills seems like another talented dad going out of his way to connect with his teen, and that much is true. But take a closer look and it’s easy to see why these captivating comics are gaining national attention.
Wills, a registered nurse in Stratford, CT, was inspired to create his popular “Just Jessica” character by his teenage daughter, Jessica. As Wills explains, she is a regular teen who just happens to have an extra chromosome. Jessica was born with Down syndrome and falls within the category of special needs, but to the Wills family, she remains her unique and special self with plenty of angsty teenage tendencies. As the comic portrays, she’s “just Jessica.”
Every night, Wills draws a new “Just Jessica” comic and posts it to his Facebook community before printing out a copy to tape to the microwave for Jessica to find in the morning.
In the daily comics, we see Jessica navigating life in typical teenage fashion: Jessica baking, Jessica listening to music, Jessica sitting in class. Every well-drawn cartoon has a creative caption and relates to something the real-life Jessica is experiencing in her daily life. Being the talented dad he is, Wills has been drawing funny comics for all of his five kids for years. But for Jessica, the youngest of his five children, Wills has a special purpose behind his daily cartoon — to show his daughter just how normal truly she is.
Since creating his “Just Jessica” Facebook page and Facebook group, Wills has taken his mission a step further. Celebrating Jessica’s individuality isn’t only a tool he uses to empower his teenage daughter, it’s a way to reach out to other families with children just like Jessica. The spirit behind Wills’ “Just Jessica” community, is that while people with special needs and their families appreciate kindness and consideration, they don’t want to be singled out.
“Our daughter Jessica is truly a ‘blessing from God.’ She is a unique snowflake and ‘special’ person. However, in her own words she is ‘Just Jessica.’ In so many ways, Jessica thinks, feels, and acts like a regular, old-fashioned teenager. The arguments, fears, loves, and pains, the acting up and acting out, the body changes, the anxiety, the humor, the full gambit of emotions and trials we all go through are hers. Through it all, she dances gracefully along the thin line of ‘special needs’ and what many refer to as ‘normal.'”
Evidenced by the overwhelming response to his comic, Wills has a message parents so desperately want to hear. Wills is one of many parents pushing for a different representation of the cookie-cutter kid in the media. Instead of presenting the “typical” kid as the norm for all children, parents are asking for more diversity in commercials, in magazines, and in toys, so that their kids don’t feel excluded.
Thankfully, we’re living in a world where this change is happening. The picture-perfect Barbie doll is being replaced by DC Superhero dolls that look like real girls. A teen model with Down syndrome made history when she walked the runway at New York Fashion Week this year, following another major milestone where a transgender teen was named the face of the Clean & Clear campaign in early 2015. Even among the youngest kids, gender-neutral children’s clothing lines are being introduced to teach children how to express their individuality, with advertisements that include kids of all abilities.
“Seeing people with special needs as a more common part of any story in the media helps to make them more a part of the overall fabric and less singled out,” says Wills.
Because of Jessica and other positive role models, our kids can read comics and watch TV shows and play with toys that make them feel like it’s okay to be themselves, whatever that looks like. And the funny thing about redefining the word “normal,” is that it’s these differences that draw us together. As Wills explains, “We are more alike than different.”