By Shantee Woodards
The Capital, Annapolis, Md.

Dona Rudderow Sturn’s new business aims to help young people like Sarah Johnson recognize their inner awesome.

She is head of the Annapolis-based JNP Project (Jane Not Plain), which works with children’s book authors and educators from around the world to create illustrated books focused on self-esteem.

From a 650-square-foot space on West Street, Rudderow Sturn and her staff produce and sell books and materials that make up the multi-part series, “Jane & Jake’s Adventures to Awesome.”

“It’s still an issue today that kids have low self esteem. Kids grow up with low self esteem; they become adults with esteem issues,” said Sturn, who has four sons. “When I was raising my children (in the 1990s), there was nothing on the market that I could interact with, have them engage with, to help enhance their self-esteem. I still work on that with them today.”

Sturn wants her Annapolis office to serve as the national headquarters for a series of similar shops around the country. In the meantime, she rolls out her message to schools and asks students to identify their inner awesome, or positive traits about themselves. She read her books at Bates Middle School recently, where she was a featured speaker of the after school group, Girls Breaking Boundaries.

“I learned you should always be truthful to other people or people will think you’re a follower and not a leader,” said Sarah, an 11-year-old sixth grader and a member of the group. She said her inner awesome was singing, dancing and gymnastics.

An artist and former advertising executive, Sturn’s initial plans were to create a series of illustrated books geared toward tween girls. But after running it by a test market, she decided on an audience of boys and girls ages 5-12. In November, she found an open space on West Street once served as a spa for the Loews Annapolis Hotel. She approached corporate and now their parent company is the landlord for the business. Its official opening date was in January.

At the West Street office features at least two other workers. Sturn is responsible for the book illustrations, while children’s book authors Kathleen Szaj, Judy Bartkowiak and Jim Westcott make up the writing team. Szaj and Westcott are in the United States, while Bartkowiak is based in the United Kingdom. Every Thursday, the office holds a Skype meeting with an extended team of experts who handle other aspects of the business.

Bates Middle School teacher Megan Zimmerman heard about Sturn and invited her as a speaker to Bates’ Girls Breaking Boundaries. This the second year for the group, which has weekly meetings where career women talk about their journeys. The themes of Rudderow Sturn’s books — such as honesty and self-confidence — tied into the messages Zimmerman is trying to convey to the group.

“Self-esteem and confidence among middle school girls is a challenge,” said Zimmerman, who also is a seventh grade language arts teacher. “It’s important to support these girls … so they can take care of themselves, so when they get to high school, they’re solid. They’ll feel good about their choices. They’ll feel good about who they are.”

On a recent visit to Bates, Sturn and the students read aloud from “The Journey Begins” and “Truth.” The books taught sixth grader Ashley Espinoza “how to be helpful and honest” and seventh grader Carley Taylor that “(lies) hurt other people’s feelings.”

Sturn told the girls not to let anything interfere with their happiness or their inner awesome.

“If you’re kind, that’s an inner awesome,” she told the group. “If you want to be happy, if you want to make yourself happy, who controls that? You do. You control your feelings. Don’t forget that.”