Justis Ward entered Mercer University with plans to become a doctor but left with an unexpected and newfound purpose.
A biochemistry and molecular biology major, he followed that career path without hesitation until his senior year. By spring, he had been accepted at three medical schools, including Mercer, but he had started feeling called toward a different future.
He had finished most of his science courses, so he was able to take four more classes for his creative writing minor. In addition, he started a Christian band with friends at Mercer and was writing a lot more, including some children’s stories.
“Between the music and creative writing, something started stirring. I wasn’t quite sure what it was, but I knew that something was getting close to changing,” he said.
In the end, he declined the medical school offers. He graduated in 2017, and after struggling to find a science-related job, he accepted a position teaching third-grade math and science at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Bibb County.
“For the next two years, I was teaching and trying to instill the love of reading, writing, math and science,” Ward said.
As he was reading with his students and helping them improve their skills, he noticed how much they loved talking about the books. But while a lot of the titles were fun, they didn’t encourage conversations related to current events. His students were asking him questions about what was happening in America, but he wasn’t sure what their parents were telling them. He didn’t want to overstep his bounds, but he also didn’t want to ignore the truth.
“I thought it was my responsibility as a teacher to give them a well-rounded view, a view that would allow them to make their own decisions about what they thought was right and wrong. So I started writing stories,” he said.
That led to the creation of his online publishing house, Good Stories for Kids. Ward now has 13 illustrated books available for free download, and there’s a subscription option for people who want new stories sent to them each month.
The books are geared toward children ages 4-9, but their messages are relevant to everyone. They break down topics such as lying, stereotyping, unconditional love, patience, recycling, privilege, perseverance and sharing.
His book “I Do Not Like Dogs” tackles the topic of discrimination by telling the story of a boy who assumes all dogs are mean. “Brown Fur” addresses the topic of racism through a creative retelling of the Ahmaud Arbery shooting.
Each book has questions at the end to spark conversations between parents and their children, with different levels of questions for different age groups. Ward said he has read some of the books to his 4-year-old niece. While a topic like racism is over her head, he was able to use one of his books to talk with her about how people have different skin colors and all colors are beautiful.
“The true value of the books is to be able to have the conversation after them,” Ward said.
He also has written about 15 blog entries geared toward parents, and the entries have focused on subjects like raising leaders, talking to kids about racism, truths and falsehoods about Confederate symbols, and what they need to know about privilege.
Ward recently gave an online “Alumni Bear Talks” presentation about his writing initiatives, at the invitation of Mercer Director of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives Dr. Ansley Booker.
“It was a huge moment in this journey that I’ve been walking since graduation,” he said. “This was a massive opportunity to spread the word on my books but also spread some of the knowledge that I’ve been putting on my website. Now more people have accessed the site, and it’s slowly growing.”
Ward has taken a break from teaching as he and wife Jordan, a 2019 Mercer graduate, prepare to welcome their first child in early 2021. However, he continues his work for Good Stories for Kids and would love to incorporate his storytelling into the next chapter of his career.
A lot of people ask Ward if he still uses his biochemistry and molecular biology major or if it was a waste, and he was quick to say his education made all the difference.
“The ability to research, the ability to synthesize information and relay it in a way that’s accessible to different audiences … it’s straight out of Willet,” he said, referencing Willet Science Center on Mercer’s Macon campus. “I don’t think I would have become the writer, the researcher, the person I am today without Mercer. All of those things shaped me.”