I have always been a storyteller at heart. When I was younger, I’d make up stories using my Barbie dolls and teddy bears as the main characters. When I learned to write, I’d capture stories on paper. And when I learned to type, there was no stopping my fingers from creating a world on my computer screen. I write because I love to create and because I enjoy pushing the possibilities of my own creativity.
However, I’ve come to realize that I write for a bigger cause now. Yes, it’s therapeutic and fun, but now writing is so much more than that for me. You see, in late January, I welcomed my first child into this world, a beautiful baby girl who is my everything. And although I’ve always known that diversity is important, it feels even more dire. Now, I write so that I can help kids see themselves on bookshelves, in libraries and bookstores, in stories that make it to the big screen. I write so diversity can be embraced and transformed into acceptance and compassion instead of fear and disdain for the unfamiliar. I write for a better tomorrow for my daughter, Vivian (pictured below).
Let me take you back.
When I was younger, I don’t remember seeing myself in the books I read. Even though there were some stories that featured black children, I remember many of them being about experiences that were a part of my history, but were not my story. For example, I remember reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, but never feeling like I saw myself. It felt more like a history lesson. I know that there is so much value in books like these, historical fiction or stories seeped in the tension-fraught history of African Americans in this country, but that book wasn’t a mirror for me. Off the top of my head, I can think of very few stories that came across my lap that I felt reflected me as a kid.
JaNay front and center wearing red and white with her Grandma behind her
With the current push for diversity, we hear of the importance of windows and doorways to see the experiences of others, as well as mirrors to reflect, and walls or stereotypes to be broken down. This is so important! This allows for people to look at differences as strengths and to accept each other despite these differences. And it has to start early. It has to be seamless for young readers so their acceptance of diversity is so inherent in their experiences that they don’t know any other way. Then, they can feel validated when they see someone like themselves overcoming obstacles in the pages they read at home and in school. If that had been the case for me, I wonder how it might have shaped the person I am today.
See, when I was younger, I was not a fan of reading at all. I despised it. My older sister could lock herself in her bedroom for days and read books as if she didn’t need food because her books were nourishment enough, but I couldn’t. I didn’t. Books were boring. I wonder if I had found books that I saw myself in, that sucked me into the world of literature, whether I’d be telling a different story about my past right now. It really wasn’t until the Harry Potter series came out that I began loving to read, and I was reluctant to pick those books up—I didn’t even touch them until I was well into my late teenage years because of my aversion to reading. And even so, those books didn’t reflect me; they were just so entertaining to read. So this made me wonder: what if as a young teenager, I had found a book like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and had the chance to read about a young black girl coexisting in both a very black and also white world. Or, who’s natural hair stands tall and proud on the cover of the book. Might that have colored my world in a different way? Even as an adult, reading this book touched me at such a deep level because I could relate to Starr in multiple ways.
JaNay holding one of her baby cousins
All children should have this opportunity: to see themselves while also being able to learn about and see others who are different than they are. And then learn to embrace diversity. And so I write.
With Grandma’s Tiny House: A Counting Story, I’ve already heard so many people of differing backgrounds and skin colors say “that’s how it was at my grandma’s house, too!” Talk about breaking down stereotypical walls with works that double as mirrors and windows as readers see themselves and realize the similarities they share with each other. I can’t wait to have discussions with children about their own family gatherings, so they can hear from the kids in their classes and see that many share similar traditions—whether it’s piling into a grandma’s house, eating similar dishes, or something else entirely.
So, I am realizing that I do write because I love it, because it’s a part of me and has always been. But, I am also writing to help add my own shades of color to children’s literature, adding my mirrors so others can see themselves, too. And what an accomplishment it would be for children’s literature if in the future, when Vivian talks about the books she read and was read to as a child, and those she studied in school, that she can’t choose just one to talk about because so many reflect her. That would show progress.
And progress is a really, really good thing.
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