My Friend Julia: An Interview with Author Jennifer Cook

Everyone experiences the world a little differently! In the new book My Friend Julia: A Sesame Street ® Book about Autism young readers meet a very special friend named Julia. Julia is an autistic girl who loves art, building, and starfish hugs. Being autistic means she thinks and plays in her own wonderful ways.

Continue reading to hear from author Jennifer Cook and find the perfect pairing titles.

Front cover for My Friend Julia

This colorful book provides an age-appropriate introduction to autism for all readers. With simple sentences and bright illustrations, favorite Sesame Street characters share what makes Julia special. Young readers see some of Julia’s experiences and favorite activities as she plays with her friends.

Highlighting the importance of empathy, inclusiveness, and understanding, the book recognizes similarities and differences between Julia and her friends. Each character brings something new and gives readers an opportunity to join the conversation.

Spread from My Friend Julia in which Julia is introduced.

After reading, children can explore the book’s back-matter to find inclusive, kid-friendly ways to connect with other kids.

Author Jennifer Cook brings joy and fun to every page to encourage positive reflection. Jennifer was identified as being on the autism spectrum in 2011, just after her three children were also diagnosed. She has written eight best-selling books, advised at the White House and National Institutes of Health, appeared on Netflix’s Love on the Spectrum, and sits on the Autism Society of America’s Council of Autistic Advisors.

An Interview with Jennifer Cook

Had you heard of Julia’s character on Sesame Street before writing this book?

I was super familiar with Julia before Lerner approached me to write My Friend, Julia! In fact, a few years ago, as a member of the Autism Society of America’s Council of Autistic AduIts, I had the privilege of participating in a brainstorming session with Sesame Workshop as they designed the character and her initial backstory. At the time, I shared this experience and all it meant to me (which was and is ENORMOUS) on Amy Poehler’s “Smart Girls at the Party.” This even inspired fan art of me and Julia together — which is currently framed and hanging in my office! . Then, just two years ago, Sesame invited me to serve as an advisor to further develop  new story ideas for Julia as she became more and more nuanced, gained a family, played, and solved problems. Through all of this energy invested on the front-end, I’ve always felt a deep love for Julia and an almost protective affection for the children she reaches, because talking about Julia means more than talking about autism. It’s talking about being human. 

What was your favorite part about writing My Friend Julia? What was the most challenging part?

All around the world, Sesame Street is way more than ABC’s and 123’s. It’s serious social activism. Since 1969, Sesame has been keenly aware that kids are open-minded in ways adults often are not, that a “no big deal, they’re just part of the gang” attitude can literally affect the thinking of an entire generation. Deaf characters, kids in wheelchairs, children with Down syndrome. Even if the world thought Black, white, and Latino characters all sharing a neighborhood was radical, on Sesame Street, diversity didn’t seem forced. It just was.

In creating Julia, Sesame did it again. Which is why I cried when I got the request to write this book. Asking me to introduce Julia was a great honor. It was also an enormous — and a little bit daunting — responsibility: represent an entire community while putting words into the mouths of iconic, beloved characters…who just happen to be tackling a multi-layer, sensitive, culturally sophisticated topic in a way such that the complexities of even neurobiology and personal value would be readily digestible…by children. Boil down what adults have trouble defining. Put big ideas into simple, powerful phrases. That’s not an easy assignment. In fact, for most writers, I’d say it’s massively frightening to leave yourself no cloak of words to hide amongst. To bare yourself, boldly and vulnerably. Which is all to say that at once, the very charge, “write a book called My Friend Julia,” was one of the proudest and most terrifying invitations of my life. I felt the deep weight and joy of it. And I still do.

What does your writing process usually look like? Did it change at all while writing this book?

My Friend Julia is the ninth book I’ve written, but the first written for children. So, almost everything about the way I usually compose had to change. There would be no witty anecdotes. No lengthy chapters to edit or reorder. No chance to clarify ideas. This book was going to be WAY harder to write because it had to be authentic but not verbose. Complex but not complicated. Sophisticated but not subtle. It was going to be a totally new endeavor.

What I did know, above all, is that I wanted the thrust of the book to be that Julia was not part of the Sesame Street gang for the sake of being inclusive. This wasn’t going to be about inviting someone to play because some adult said, perhaps with well-intentioned condescension, that “differently-abled” kids shouldn’t be left out. This wasn’t going to be tokenism. That’s not what Sesame does, and that’s not what I would allow this little girl to represent. No. I wanted to make it very clear that Julia was an attractive friend in her own right. A little bit different. A little bit the same. Very worthwhile of the investment of energy and patience it might take to appreciate her wonderfulness. As I pared down concepts to their core, that was the idea that I leaned into. And I think that’s the child who has come to life on these pages.

What do you hope readers will learn or discover from reading your book?

Unfamiliar is uncomfortable until it’s understood. From My Friend Julia, it’s my hope that children and their caregivers will discover that they, like Julia, Elmo, Ernie, Cookie Monster and the rest, are a “little bit different and a little bit the same,” too. That can be tricky. And sometimes confusing. Yet always wonderful. Moreover, I hope that I will have given them language to use to understand what it means to be autistic — beyond a diagnosis or list of challenges or discomfort. I hope the takeaway with be that normal and typical are not synonyms. But that through a “from the inside out” lens, this story is one of respect and of this truth: before and after everything else, we are all on the human spectrum.  

Connect with the author

Visit the Sesame Street Workshop

Find all sorts of resources for families and students on the Sesame Workshop website! These resources can help students feel ready to return to school and learn what it means to be a good friend.

Further Reading

Pair My Friend Julia with these titles to foster a community of compassion and friendship in the classroom!

Five-Minute Friendship Starters: A Sesame Street ® Guide to Making a Friend by Marie-Therese Miller

Making a new friend is easy with help from Sesame Street! Filled with suggestions for conversation starters, easy games, and ways to demonstrate caring, this delightful book helps young readers learn fun ways to approach, get to know, and have fun with a new friend—in just five minutes!

“[G]ently guides children toward best practices for making friends. . . . An indispensable addition to a collection serving young children.”—School Library Journal

Let’s Talk about It!: A Sesame Street ® Guide to Resolving Conflict by Marie-Therese Miller

Everyone experiences conflict, even on Sesame Street! This guide comes with simple steps to help readers become kind and independent problem solvers.

“[A]n asset for preschool and early elementary school teachers, or for parents helping their little ones to begin learning about conflict resolution. Reviewer Rating: 5″ –Children’s Literature

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