Elementary and middle school was a hard time for Hilary Kinney.

She was bullied, mostly for her poofy hair.

Yet, despite low self-confidence, Kinney always felt as though she could make a difference in her small town.

Now, she’s hoping to inspire more young students to understand how they, too, can have an impact on their community, through her book “Penelope’s Petition.”

In the book, Penelope, an 11-year-old with poofy hair like Kinney’s, is on a mission to save her neighborhood’s park.

She and her best friend, Alex, use their knowledge of the First Amendment to circulate a petition.

The book aims to teach kindergarten and first grade students about political apathy, teamwork and the power of their own voices.

Kinney, a Moundsville native, currently works for Inspire U.S., a multi-state nonprofit that works to motivate high school students to register to vote and participate in elections.

She has completed several readings of her book in various counties of West Virginia, including her home in Marshall County.

On Friday at noon, Kinney will give the keynote address at the 2019 Women’s and Girls’ Day at the West Virginia Legislature, an annual event hosted by the West Virginia Women’s Commission.

Her speech will focus on Penelope’s courage to make a difference in her own community and why it’s important for girls to discover the influence they can have on their own schools and towns. Each girl in attendance will receive a copy of the book.

Where did the idea to write ‘Penelope’s Petition’ come from?

About two years ago, I started thinking about the idea of writing a kids’ book. In light of the 2016 elections, and just realizing how many people really didn’t have their voices heard and then the nature of the work that I do, I was really trying to think of ways to engage kids and young people. Working with Inspire, I kind of realized how different civic education varies from state to state. What is being taught and how it’s being taught in Pennsylvania is so different from what is happening in West Virginia.

What do you remember about learning about civic engagement in school?

We learn about United States history throughout the course of our education but we aren’t always taught about it in a way that says, “This is your right and this is how you can participate.” I feel like when I learned about the constitutional amendments, our rights, it wasn’t really delivered in a way that was necessarily inspiring. It was more “study the facts, study what happened in our past 200 years ago, these are the rights that are afforded to us,” but it was never really described to me in a creative, fun way. I feel like we cannot start early enough, honestly, because we instill values in our kids at a very young age. Working with high school students, I was starting to see that we could reach kids a lot sooner.

How did you attempt to make civic engagement relatable to the elementary school-age in this book?

I don’t talk about the political parties or the greater political system. I remember learning about the Constitution when I was in fifth grade, so I kind of replicated that. Penelope is 11 years old, she is in the fifth grade and she is, too, learning about the Constitution. So, I really boil it down to what impacts us locally. Politics isn’t just about who is running for president or national security or healthcare. All of these impact us, obviously, as individuals, but politics is also local and local politics in many places isn’t necessarily as partisan as what we see on the news, depending on where you live. In a small town, like where I’m from in West Virginia, your voice can really make an impact. Bringing up an issue that everyone can relate to, that is politics and that is government. Politics isn’t just people bickering on CNN or Fox News. I’m honestly very afraid that the type of clashing and polarization we see in our politics right now is going to affect younger generations. I am afraid that is going to deter young people from participating.

How do you relate to Penelope?

Penelope and I aren’t exactly alike but we have a lot of similarities. Anyone who has seen the book already will notice right away, and kids notice this, too, Penelope has really big, poofy, curly hair and I had really big hair when I was in elementary school. I was bullied for it, so I wanted to make sure there was that representation. Being bullied in elementary school is really something that I have carried with me, so it was like an outlet of expression to be like, “Oh yeah, Penelope is going to have big hair because I did, too.”

Are any other characters inspired by other real people?

One of the characters in my book, “Mrs. Jones,” is based on a teacher that I had in high school. She briefly talks about the Constitution and what it is. I had Susan Jones for (advanced placement) U.S. History, when I was at John Marshall High School in Glendale, and she was just outstanding. She really incorporated creative ways for us to learn U.S. history, which was incredibly impressive, because for anyone who has taken AP U.S. History, you have to cram a lot into your brain for the AP test at the end of the year. I never felt like she was teaching to the test. We actually took a trip to Michigan to visit the Henry Ford Museum that year, and she was just so enthusiastic about U.S. history and making sure that her students were not only prepared for the test but having fun. I really wanted to make it a tribute to her.

Clearly, you have an interest in politics. Why have you chosen to work in a more nonpartisan field?

I knew that I wanted to be involved in politics but 2016 was a little bit rough for a number of reasons. Working on campus, I realized how many young people don’t turn out to vote. The statistics are out there as well, but just trying to interact with college-aged students, it’s hard to vote, because you’re either re-registering to vote or you’re applying for an absentee ballot. There were students at WVU from all over the world and all over the United States, so just trying to engage young people, college-aged 18 to 20-year-olds, in talking about voting was so complicated. Voting rights is inherently more of a democratic issue but I personally think that both parties, and all parties, really, need to take a stake and a stance in making voting rights more accessible, because we have people who don’t know how to register to vote. I kind of found voting access, voter registration, voter education to be a fair, even ground for me. At the end of the day, most people can agree that we need to make voting more easy or accessible in some way.

Penelope’s Petition is illustrated by Annika Wooten and is for sale at Amazon.com.

Reach Jennifer Gardner at jennifer.gardner@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5102 or follow

@jenncgardner on Twitter.

Features Writer