As a child, Jason Tharp dreamed of being a writer and illustrator.

"I was always drawing and writing stories. I knew that's what I wanted to do when I was 6," he said. "I'd get in trouble at school. I was always the kid in the hallway because I drew too much and talked too much."

Now, Tharp is living his dream.

The Powell resident said he finally found contentment three years ago when he committed to a career as a children's-book author and illustrator.

"What I dreamed about at age 6, I'm doing now as an adult," Tharp said. "I'm making a living drawing monsters and unicorns, and I love it."

The message he tells students in his books and his school visits is that they should believe in themselves and not let other people's expectations influence them, he said.

Tharp visited Stevenson Elementary School on Feb. 21, holding sessions with each grade level.

"I want them to know it's OK to be different and to have a dream," Tharp said.

"It's really a message of empowerment," he said. "I tell students they shouldn't be afraid to embrace the weird that's in them. I wish I had had a teacher tell me that when I was in fourth grade."

As a fourth-grader, Tharp had trouble with bullies, he said.

"I was bullied because I was different from the other kids in my school," he said.

He wore huge glasses and had hair that never seemed to lay right on his head, Tharp said.

"I was a poor kid and didn't have a lot of money," he said. "I went to a private school and the other kids had a lot of money. I was different because I wanted to draw pictures and write stories and the other kids all wanted to do something else. They all told me I was weird."

It can seem so important at that age to follow what the crowd says, Tharp said.

"The thing is that, five years later, what those people said to you won't matter -- but that's so hard for a kid to understand," he said.

While he tries to use the lessons he learned from his own experience to help today's students withstand peer pressure and bullying, Tharp said he doesn't sugarcoat things.

"I let them know that if you embrace what makes you different, it sometimes is hard and it takes some courage," he said, "and it doesn't mean you're not going to come across some bullies."

Kindness and empathy are important for everyone, even bullies, Tharp said.

"I think bullies may just need what everybody else needs: a kind word, a friend, someone to talk to," he said. "Kindness is important, but I think in order to be kind outwardly, you first have to be kind inwards. You need to treat yourself right before you can be kind to others."

The impact of bullying stayed with him as an adult, Tharp said, because he continued to believe the belittlement he had received as a child.

"I went through life thinking, 'I don't deserve this,' " he said. "As an adult, I was spending my life trying to be happy by chasing the dreams that made other people happy."

He worked as an illustrator, created images for corporations such as Taco Bell and McDonalds, and also held jobs in brand development and creating product lines.

But it didn't satisfy him.

"It was only when I embraced the 6-year-old in me that I was finally free to be myself and follow my dreams," Tharp said.

Tharp's books include the Peachy and Keen and Super Monsta Friends series for Scholastic Books and Level 1 Ready-to-Read interactive books for Simon and Schuster -- but what he says is his favorite book will be published next year by MacMillan.

"It's Okay to be a Unicorn" paints a picture of the life lessons he tries to impart to youngsters, he said.

Cornelius is a unicorn who lives in a town populated by nothing but horses.

"Unicorns aren't too cool, so he goes around all the time with a hat covering his horn," Tharp said.

He designs a hat for the mayor, who invites him to be the featured attraction at the town's Hoofapalooza.

Cornelius decides to embrace who he is and reveal that he is a unicorn at the event.

Stevenson Elementary School media specialist Kristi Jump said Tharp's message meshes with the school's motto that asks students to "be kind and be safe."

"That's the atmosphere we try to encourage, because if students feel safe and treat each other well, it's going to help make them want to come to school and learn," she said.

"Jason's such a ball of energy," Jump said. "It's been so much fun watching him interact with our students."

"Someone may be having the kind of day where it seems like everything that can go wrong does go wrong," Tharp said, "but if someone just says 'hi' to them, it can have such an impact.

"It's the unicorn effect of just sprinkling some magic to make another person's day a little brighter," he said.

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