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Children's and Young Adult

Books on Black Icons for Children

selected by Jamia Wilson and Andrea Pippins

Jamia Wilson and Andrea Pippins discuss books that that tell the stories of some of the greatest black icons in history – and explain why reading books that celebrate these extraordinary lives can be transformational for all children.

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Jamia Wilson and Andrea Pippins

Jamia Wilson is executive director and publisher of Feminist Press at City University of New York; former executive director of Women, Action, and the Media; and former vice president of programs at The Women’s Media Center. Jamia has been a powerful force in the social justice movement for nearly a decade.
Andrea Pippins is an artist, illustrator and designer whose work has been featured in O: The Oprah Magazine, Family Circle, The Huffington Post, Bustle and others.
Together they have produced the illustrated book Young, Gifted & Black (Wide-Eyed Editions, Spring 2018).

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Jamia Wilson and Andrea Pippins

Jamia Wilson is executive director and publisher of Feminist Press at City University of New York; former executive director of Women, Action, and the Media; and former vice president of programs at The Women’s Media Center. Jamia has been a powerful force in the social justice movement for nearly a decade.
Andrea Pippins is an artist, illustrator and designer whose work has been featured in O: The Oprah Magazine, Family Circle, The Huffington Post, Bustle and others.
Together they have produced the illustrated book Young, Gifted & Black (Wide-Eyed Editions, Spring 2018).

Save for later
 

Jamia, you’re a writer and an activist, and Andrea, you’re an artist and illustrator. Together you’ve produced an empowering children’s anthology Young, Gifted and Black – published this month – which profiles 52 inspirational role models from black culture: everything from mathematicians, poets and politicians to athletes and singers. Can you tell me something about what it meant to you personally?

Jamia: I come from a lineage of civil rights activists and educators who taught me that knowledge is powerful and infinitely valuable. They always encouraged me to actively question, to make my own decisions, to value my own sense of discernment and to think critically. I’m grateful that they took the time to fill in the gaps that my schoolbooks were often missing, especially when it came to teaching me about diversity, global issues, black history and culture. I’d like to think that Young, Gifted and Black is a composite of many of the books, videos and conversations they shared with me about the importance of exploring, uplifting and celebrating my ancestors – and the sacrifices they made, the lessons they shared and the trails they paved so the next generation could be closer to freedom.

The sensibilities I grew up with informed my interest in building a career at the intersection of activism, education and media, and I’ve been working to align my passion and my purpose throughout my life. Writing this book has been cathartic, rejuvenating, inspiring and liberating. I hope that our readers will experience some of the same feelings I had while researching and writing about the lives of our 52 luminaries. Their courage, their audacity and their strength of spirit makes me less afraid to show up in the world and lead with my strengths unapologetically.

Andrea: My background is graphic design and as far back as grad school the thread with all of my projects was activism or empowering women or empowering people of colour. Those were things that were always showing up in my work. So I didn’t hesitate to get involved with this amazing project that speaks directly to empowering people of colour and creating beautiful imagery for young people to be inspired by: lifting these icons up and showing them in a great light.

Jamia: When the opportunity to write Young, Gifted and Black came my way, I instantly said yes and looked at a bucket list I created over a 15 years ago that said: “write a children’s book for your younger self.”

“About 80 percent of children’s book authors, editors, illustrators, marketers and reviewers are white worldwide”

Andrea: There is a lack of stories from our perspective, the perspective of people of colour. A lack of stories that are either written by people of colour or stories about people of colour.

Jamia: A children’s book about people of colour by a black woman writer and illustrator in this publishing landscape is rare. I’d like for teams like mine and Andrea’s to be less of an exception. The reality is that the communities who are most affected by social injustices know the most about how to create solutions their communities need. That’s just one reason why we need more books like ours and I’m excited that this discussion is happening.

Studies show that about 80 per cent of children’s book authors, editors, illustrators, marketers and reviewers are white worldwide. That’s why I’m dedicated to being a part of transforming the future of publishing into one that represents the full spectrum of readers and our community worldwide. Media and culture shapes how we perceive ourselves and our potential in the world. As the first woman of colour to lead the Feminist Press, it is important to me to be a part of changing the publishing landscape so that it is more inclusive at all levels. I’m proud to be in this role at a time when black women are breaking new ground as leaders in publishing, including Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation and Vanessa Kingori, publishing director of British Vogue. At the same time there is a lot more work to do and more glass ceilings to be shattered.

Speaking as a bookseller, I agree. Although things are better than they were 20 years ago, I still feel that the books on the shelves do not sufficiently represent our society as a whole.

Andrea: I’m really excited for it to be out in the world. When I’m working, I’m always thinking about myself as a young person, and being hungry for images like this and stories like this. I’m always thinking about that young person and hoping their eyes will light up when they see these images and read the stories. That they’ll get that sense that they can do what they set out to do. That they will be able to see reflections of themselves. The mission for my work is to create images and tell stories of people who are too often ignored – and this is a book that really allowed me to do that.

Jamia: As a lifelong activist, I have been sustained by the books inhabiting my shelves and also by the power of books to change hearts and minds and ignite action. Since childhood, I have drawn courage and insight from books that gave me hope and stirred me to fight for justice, speak truth to power, and dare to be myself in a world that often tells me to try to contort myself in order to fit into a limited box. I felt less alone when I saw myself in the stories of people who were transformers, change agents and catalysts who dared to move when others stood still or spoke their truth when it was more convenient to keep quiet.

Books like these offer a thrilling sense of possibility for the children who read them.

Jamia: Growing up, books like The Diary of Anne FrankIggies House by Judy Blume, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry and countless others helped me feel seen, heard, and purposeful. I hope our readers will see themselves in the heroes in this book. I know I did. When I was writing Stevie Wonder’s profile while undergoing complications with a lifelong visual disability I’ve been dealing with, writing about his life helped me feel that same sense of connection and community books have always given me. I hope that our readers will experience this too.

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Throughout my experience writing this book I’ve kept in mind Stevie Wonder’s wisdom, quoted in our book: “Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn’t mean he lacks vision.” These words have given me comfort and inspired me to think bigger, be resourceful, remain resilient, and to envision a world of possibility of my own creation, not one limited by other folks’ perceptions of who I am or what I can be.

You have chosen five children’s books between you. Each of these books celebrates an iconic figure (or figures) from black history. Let’s begin with Andrea’s choices.

Andrea: First, I’d like to talk about Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carol Boston Weatherford. This is a remarkable story of hope, determination and strength. Being an illustrator, the visuals always speak to me, and Ekua Holmes, is a phenomenal illustrator. I’ve been a fan of her work for a long time. Fannie Lou Hamer’s story is very, very interesting – and the way that the illustrator was able to capture this visually – the colour, the layout on the page, the overall compositions are beautiful.

Fannie Lou Hamer was a champion of civil rights. A woman who overcame prejudice and abuse and yet turned that experience into a message of hope. We can all learn from that.

Your next choice is, Josephine: A Dazzling Life, the true story of Josephine Baker – a dancer, singer and comedienne of 1920’s Paris.

Yes, and this book celebrates and perfectly captures how radical she was for her time – for any time really. It also emphasises the fun and energy of her life. Josephine Baker was strong-willed – an artist who was truly ground breaking. There is a retro quality to this book which I really appreciate. Even though his style is more reminiscent of the 1950s and Josephine Baker was around in the 1920s it works, because Christian Robinson is a phenomenal artist with a great sense of colour. I’m such a big fan of Robinson. So many of the books that he’s illustrated have won awards. His illustrations have a simplicity to them and this allows him to quickly tell the story.

Let’s take a look at your third book, The Little Leaders by Vashti Harrison – a book that you both chose – perhaps because it celebrates  the achievements of a wide range of extraordinary women of colour.

Andrea: I think, this book is phenomenal. It’s a book that I wish I had it when I was a little girl. I think it’s great for young people to have these books. I was really happy to see that there was a book specifically for women in black history. We’ve talked about the need for more stories of people of colour, alongside this we also need to empower young girls and young women. Show them different stories of women who have persevered against the odds and who have been determined throughout history.

Looking at the illustrations – they are so lovely and emblematic of her style. I enjoy how she celebrates each figure by placing them in their environment of expertise, while allowing the figure to stand out in bold colour against a softer background.

“Our ancestors’ stories are often absent or diminished in cultural conversation ”

Jamia: These concise, clear and compelling biographies capture our imaginations and provide important information with accessible language. My attention was held by both the powerful words and the colourful illustrations and I’ve seen children in my life light up while reading these stories. I was also thrilled to see a book about black history that illuminated black women’s specific role in driving change – since our ancestors’ stories are often absent or diminished in cultural conversation.

The fourth book on your list is Firebird which tells the story of the internationally acclaimed ballerina, Misty Copeland. Jamia, I think this is a book close to your heart, isn’t it?

Jamia: I have loved ballet ever since I took my first class when I was four years old. Through ballet, I learned how to be strong, powerful, disciplined and graceful. I gravitated towards this book and this story because Misty Copeland (featured in Young, Gifted and Black) is one of my heroes. I will never forget being told by a ballet teacher that I should adjust my movements to avoid “bulking up with muscle and looking like Flo Jo” while white girls in my class were praised for their lithe builds. I was already self-conscious for hitting puberty early, but it was worse to be singled out for having a different body type than many of my classmates at that point in my life.

“This book inspires readers to imagine themselves transforming into and reclaiming the shining, phoenix-like firebird they were always meant to be”

I wish I had this book when I was questioning whether I could fit in, feeling awkward for not being able to find so-called ‘nude’ shoes, leotards, and tights to match my complexion, or wondering if I should get a new hobby because I couldn’t find many role models who looked like me. What I love about Firebird is that it presents a relatable story about how to work hard and focus on your goal in spaces where your value and presence may not be readily embraced or understood. It’s also refreshing because it addresses the ways we are conditioned to doubt ourselves without shame or victim-blaming. Instead, it inspires readers to imagine themselves transforming into, and reclaiming the shining, phoenix-like firebird they were always meant to be.

Jamia, your fifth choice is Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou which, in this edition, is illustrated by the American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Jamia: I still read Life Doesn’t Frighten Me often. I thought of this book while we were working on Basquiat and Angelou’s profiles for Young, Gifted and Black because both of them influenced me as a creative person — even though I never met them. When I was a child, my mom always described me as an old soul who was “born 35.” I always wanted to be told the truth, to sit at the adult table, and to watch CNN with the grown-ups. To hear the real story and not the watered down one. I loved being a kid, but I wanted to get to know the meaning of wisdom and I had a sense early on that it wouldn’t always look pretty or feel like fun.

“The message I took from it when I was a kid was that I should trust my instincts, acknowledge my fears, look them in the eye, and keep running towards the light anyway”

Of the book, Maya Angelou said it was “for all children who whistle in the dark and who refuse to admit that they’re frightened out of their wits.”  When I first read Life Doesn’t Frighten Me as a pre-teen, I was drawn to the quirky merging of art and poetry from two great black artists with a strong point of view and voice. Both were fearless about owning their distinct voices and shining a light on the shadows we grapple with in the world and within ourselves. The message I took from it when I was a kid was that I should trust my instincts, acknowledge my fears, look them in the eye, and keep running towards the light anyway – just like Maya Angelou and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Do you think that it is fair to say that the books we have discussed today can be transformative – perhaps especially for young people of colour, but also for readers of all backgrounds?

Jamia: They are for all children – for people who may not be black but have black people in their lives. We created our book to help all children learn how these great luminaries have contributed to history. Children don’t necessarily learn about these individuals at school, nor do they see their life stories in films or on TV – their stories have too often been pushed to the margins.

I fully believe in the transformative power of books to inspire people to speak up against bullies whether they are on the playground or in the White House.

Our stories matter and sharing our stories can inspire others to make change in the world. All too often, we receive cultural, social, and political messages that tell us that our value is based on our ability or inability to fit into a narrow ideal rather than our ability to lead, teach, transform and ignite social change. Because past generations were bold enough and brave enough to express themselves – in spite of grave obstacles – I’m able to show up with more resilience because they provided the roadmap.

When I think of that history and how my ancestors before me paved the way for my story, I am reminded to love and cherish my entire self and my voice and to protect and defend it with sacred ferocity. I want this for our children.

Andrea: I believe that reading or hearing stories about others who shine despite setbacks or fears is inspiring and encouraging. Most importantly I believe it is valuable to see that there are many versions of success, many different paths to get there and that each journey is unique and special. My hope is that young people will be inspired to overcome obstacles that may come as they pursue their dreams and that by seeing so many options for dreams that they remember they can define for themselves who they choose to be.

Interview by Zoe Greaves

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