If I have to see another cuddly baby bear or adorable turtle with googly eyes on a greeting card wishing me Happy Birthday or Mother’s Day, I’m going to… just accept it. I mean, what other choice do I have? The card with the smiling, toffee-colored boy is like some brand of Yeti: I have yet to see one, and doubt such a thing even exists.
The lack of diversity in greeting cards started to pluck at my nerves 7 years ago, when I ventured out to find thank-you notes for my baby shower. Granted, there’s always Hallmark’s Mahogany line, but that’s just one option—and when has having just one anything ever been the American way? As a mom-to-be, I wanted more. I wanted representation, my real life reflected in the corny greeting cards we share on birthdays and sweet holidays. And once my cinnamon bun was actually out of the oven, the craving for this only grew stronger. I wanted to see versions of him on paper—in cards, in children’s books, in all the media around us—as he moved deeper into living a real life, not as an “other,” but as an actual part of this world.
(Photo by The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation)
Being able to see him — us — embodied in countless adventures and a full-color life is imperative.
Because having brown faces in the foreground counted, seen and relevant, strikes out against the usual erasure story that has persisted for decades, the one in which black lives don’t matter, they don’t even leave a mark.
Because despite the urgency that I might bring to my own message for this child—that he is worthy and important and dear—the predominate image of black people, especially black men, in this “post-racial society” contradicts my affirmations with a deafening and damaging chorus of thug, criminal, threat, worthless.
Because helping my son shape his identity while navigating through intolerance, discrimination and warped perceptions based on scrambled theories and unchecked fear becomes that much more frustrating and heartbreaking when the full spectrum of the black experience is not represented in the media surrounding us. It’s imperative because it’s not just a kid’s book or just a birthday card, but instead, tools that contribute to how children of color cast themselves in their world—forming how they see themselves and how others see them.
I remember reading The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats as a child. I can still see myself huddled in a carpeted corner of the public library in Montreal, flipping through the book. I was probably 7 or 8, and didn’t have the full language back then to underscore what it meant to me, seeing this brown boy in a red winter coat stomping through the white snow. But the fact that, 30-odd years later, I can still connect with the quiet pride and sweeping joy that I felt the first time I read that book means something. And that I can share that same book (one of the first that I bought as a mother) with my own brown boy is a triumph. But I want more victories. Beyond doors being forced opened, I want entire walls knocked down and rebuilt anew on a proper, upright foundation.
According to annual data collected by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center, the number of kid’s books published featuring “African-American content” went from 93 to 179 last year—almost double. But that’s 179 out of the 3,500 books that were published in 2014. That calculates to 0.05 percent. Not good enough. Not even close. Change that is set to the speed of molasses hardly feels like progress at all.
If, as the late children’s book author Walter Dean Myers wrote in a New York Times Opinion piece last year, “books transmit values,” then what message is being sent to children of color when most or all the protagonists in the stories they enjoy don’t look anything like them? You have nothing to add. Just sit over there on the sidelines and watch.
It’s not fair. More important, it’s not true. These children, our children, have much to add. They have imaginations and dreams and ideas and influence, and they deserve every opportunity to tell their stories of black lives in all its forms.
I absolutely treasure the experience of reading to my son at bedtime. It’s something I’ve been doing since he was in my belly. I will never get enough of the marvel that takes over his face as he listens to the words strung together and soaks up the colorfully illustrated pictures. His curiosity, comprehension, enthusiasm, and keen retention (no skipping words or passages, mama!) have already begun to intensify since he started learning how to read for himself. Soon—if it isn’t already happening—he will begin framing his life, who he is and the skin he’s in against these funny and fascinating stories that he so enjoys. And when he looks deep into the page beyond the words and doesn’t see his reflection, what story do I tell him then?
This essay was originally posted on the Washington Post’s “On Parenting” column.
These first four months of 2015 have been a glorious ride. Kicked it all off in January with some truly fantastic news: I landed a two-book deal with Kensington. Two novels! The first of which will be published in Fall 2016.
(Photos by me; @nbee3 on Instagram.)
Then we followed up with some wonderful birthdays — my son’s, mine, my mother’s, and my younger sister wrapped up the cake-day celebrations at the end of March. And let’s not forget that MMM turned five last month, too!
There have also been some firsts and fist-bumps for me professionally, starting with publishing my first essay for the Washington Post‘s On Parenting column. I have two(!) more essays filed with them, to be published soon. And then over the weekend, my first BuzzFeed post went live, and the reaction to it has been really good. I keep getting notices about it “blowing up” on different social media sites. Like McConaughey would say, alrigh’, alrigh’, alrigh’.
Plus, spring has finally decided to join us, here on the Northeast. And over the weekend, The Youngster showed us that he knows how to ride a Big Boy bike. From balance bike to real-deal two wheels … my heart, my heart!
(Photos by me; @nbee3 on Instagram.)
So, yeah. I think it’s time to spread some love up in here with a giveaway. And this one is so, so good — in every sense of the word.
I’m so pleased and honored to be able to offer up two outstanding products from fashionABLE, the company dedicated to creating sustainable business in Africa by working with local women there to help them start small business cooperatives. (Definitely read more about fashionABLE’s worthy commitment to create lasting change.)
Each product is named after one the African women with whom fashionABLE works, and there’s also a note attached to the item about what the woman was able to do through this partnership. (Special shouts to Liz and my Cool Mom Picks fam for introducing me to fashionABLE and all the good that is coming out of this group.)
This very special giveaway will see one lucky reader walking away with a Mamuye Tote, which is handcrafted in Ethiopia and made from 100 percent Ethiopian distressed leather. Listen. I have this tote, and I’m here to tell you all — dopeness! You will look fly with this slung over your shoulder. Trust.
That same lucky loo will also receive one Selam Scarf, which is 100 percent super-soft cotton and hand-woven in Ethiopia. Again, flyness is guaranteed with one of these medium weight numbers.
And all you have to do is leave a comment below, sharing some good news — could be yours or your neighbor’s. DASSIT!
Honestly, how fab is this? Pretty damn fab, I’d say.
Good luck, good people. The winner will be announced at the end of this month.
It must have been 20 years ago (or more) that I learned about Civil Rights activist Mildred Loving, her husband Richard and the couple’s landmark Supreme Court case — Loving v. Virginia — that defeated the state’s ban on interracial marriage.
The couple’s surname — the perfect counter to all the hate and intolerance they faced — naturally stayed with me. And so during Black History Month, when I read about a new children’s book coming out called The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage, I was immediately intrigued.
Then the stars lined up the next month, the day before my birthday, when I went to the Brooklyn Museum to check out the fantastic Kehinde Wiley exhibit with some friends. Guess who was there, in the gift shop, signing copies of their new book?
Of course I made my way over to introduce myself and compliment them on their fine accomplishment! And of course I asked if they’d be down to do an interview with MMM. (That’s how I do for you. Because you know you’re my boo — all of you.)
A quick bit about the talented duo:
Selina Alko was born in Vancouver, Canada, but has lived and worked as an illustrator in New York City for over 20 years. Selina began her children’s book career by illustrating the dynamic New York City-themed children’s books My Subway Ride and My Taxi Ride. She is also the author/illustrator of B is for Brooklyn, Every-Day Dress-Up and Daddy Christmas & Hanukkah Mama.
Sean Qualls has illustrated many highly acclaimed children’s books including Emmanuel’s Dream (The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah) (2015) by Laurie Thompson, Giant Steps to Change the World by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee, Lullaby by Langston Hughes, and Before John Was a Jazz Giant by Carole Boston Weatherford, which was named a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book. Sean also created the art for Dizzy by Jonah Winter, which received five starred reviews, and Freedom Song by Sally M. Walker.
Selina and Sean currently live in Brooklyn, NY, with and their two children.
In addition to being sweet, these two are pretty damn smart. Read the Q&A with Q&A and see for yourselves! [WAIT! Did I just coin something? Q&A with Q(ualls) & A(lko)??! King me, people. King me!]
Q. How did you end up writing this book? What drew you to the story and to telling it this way?
Selina Alko: The Lovings’ story has been on our radar since we got married 12 years ago. I toyed with the idea of telling it for older kids (possibly as historical fiction), but settled on doing the simpler picture book format with the idea that this important love story can (and should!) be told to young kids. The challenge was telling it in a simple and fairly digestible way.
Q: Sean, what brought you to children’s book illustration? You’re obviously a huge talent, but was there something about the art form that really appealed to you?
Sean Qualls: When I was first starting out in illustration, I took whatever jobs came my way. I illustrated a lot of stories for magazines. I was unsure where my work fit.
As I did more self-promotion , children’s book publishers started asking to see my portfolio. About a year or so after I was offered my first picture book, I was offered 2 or 3 more. Although I did not set out to illustrate picture books, looking back it makes total sense — my work is more narrative than conceptual and I’m very interested in conveying emotions through my art.
Q: Selina, similar question — what was it about children’s books that drew you in?
SA: Rather than just doing one-off illustrations for editorial jobs, I like having a big project — like a 32- or 40-page picture book — to create a whole world of images in. I also like the idea that picture books are long-lasting and the stories and art can really live on in the imaginations of young children.
Q: How was it working together on this book? Was “division of labor” set out early and you just stayed in your respective lanes? And — not meaning to start trouble here — but did one of you have “veto” power that the other didn’t? Or did you agree to come to all decisions together, consensus across the board?
SA: I like that metaphor of staying in our respective lanes! If only it were that simple … But fortunately, we have separate studios so we did stay in separate spaces while we created, and also fortunately, we have great respect for each other’s decisions. So usually it worked out pretty well to trade off with the art — especially if one of us was stuck on something and needed help.
SQ: Initially, we did have a plan to divide the labor. More often, though, one of us would work on a piece until we got stuck or the other one wanted to work on it. Sometimes it was just a matter of who was more available. We’d have meetings to determine if each piece was going in the right direction, and if not, what needed to be changed. Ultimately, several pieces were cut apart and reassembled. That was fun!
Q: Selina, as a fellow Canadian (yeah!), I’m curious to know if you think your Canadian perspective influences your work as a writer? Did you notice a shift in how race and “the Other” is handled as you moved from a mosaic (Canada) to the melting pot (the States)?
SA: This is a great question, one I haven’t been asked and so I really appreciate it. I grew up in Vancouver, BC, where it was very white and I knew nothing of America’s complicated racial history. My Jewish family raised me to be very open, and I feel that I moved to New York with rose-colored glasses and a perhaps somewhat naive attitude toward race. Living here (for over 20 years now) has been totally eye-opening for me in terms of race, and then marrying Sean even more so! I have learned a lot about African-American history because of Sean, and how racial identity has shaped his entire life and still does so on a daily basis. My Canadian perspective helps keep me optimistic and hopeful (which I think are good things!), but I think I have become more realistic now too. All of these qualities can’t help but permeate my writing and my world view.
Q: If you could boil it down to one message, what do you hope the book says to parents and children?
SA: Change is possible.
SQ: It’s important to stay true to your values.
Q: Screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years A Slave) said that on his new TV show, American Crime, he had “one of the most reflective writing staffs probably working in Hollywood.” He said reflective instead of diverse because he said, “diversity is something we tried to achieve in the ’70s. Right now, organizations need to be in reality, not in diversity.” I really liked “reflective,” because that’s what we’re talking about when we’re pushing this important issue of media representation when it comes to our children of color. These kids need to see themselves represented, reflected in the stories they’re taking in. It’s imperative.
When you set out to tell stories for children, how much does “diversity” weigh on your mind? Is it deliberate or more a case of telling a story from your life experience and worldview, so it will automatically be diverse?
SA: Excellent point. For me, the characters I create and the way I write is partially deliberate (to reflect my own new family), but also in the hopes of reflecting more of an ideal world of integration. I think our neighborhood here in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is fairly diverse (or reflective), but America at large needs to do better.
SQ: This is such a hot topic and I’m really happy that it’s being so widely discussed. I’ve given the subject a lot of thought. I believe diversity for diversity’s sake is okay, I applaud it when it happens. It’s my opinion that everyone is a creator and should create work that reflects them and their reality. Don’t wait for someone else to validate your life in their art. All too often we think validation has to come from outside of ourselves.
Q: What’s your reaction to the criticism that the NYTimes Sunday Book Review voiced in its otherwise favorable review of the book, saying that the “language of colorblindness is at odds with a story about race”?
SA: That criticism was important because it opened my eyes to how I was describing color in Mildred and Richard’s relationship. I may have been projecting some of my own Canadian attitudes about race onto their courtship. I have since worked on a revision of that passage, which will be in a reprint of the book coming out soon. I continue to learn about the complications and subtleties of racial identity and remain open to criticism and feedback as a writer.
SQ: I appreciate what the reviewer had to say. Her criticism makes the mostly enthusiastic review more authentic in my mind.
Q: Have your children seen this book? And if so, what was their reaction?
SA: Yes, they helped us work on it along the way. I think the Lovings story and our art are so much a part of their lives already that it’s hard to see if it phases them at all.
Q: Has you son or daughter shown an early interest in drawing — outside of the usual kid level?
SA: Yes, especially our 9-year-old son. He has always had a phenomenal imagination and meticulous drawing ability.
SQ: Both of our kids love to draw. Our son is almost 10. He sometimes accompanies me to art and craft fairs and sells his drawing alongside me.
Q: As writers and artists, we don’t like to let the steam out from the pot we’re cooking. But can you share a little bit about what you’re each working on next, so we can keep an eye out?
SA: We illustrated another book together on the coattails of THE CASE FOR LOVING called TWO FRIENDS. It’s about the little known friendship between Susan B Anthony and Frederick Douglass. It was super fun to delve into a totally different historical period, and for me to learn even more about American history. Illustrating non-fiction is a constant learning process; one that I just love!
SQ: We just finished work on TWO FRIENDS. Also, I’m working on my first picture book as author and illustrator. It’s about how Africans brought their music with them when they came to America and how the music and the people nourished one another.
So, guess what time it is? At this point, do I really even have to say? Because I think you already know thisssss. Yup. It’s GIVEAWAY TIME! That’s right; one lucky MMM reader will win a copy of Selina and Sean’s lovely book, The Case For Loving, totally gratis. All you have to do is leave a comment below about a children’s book that remains a fave for you. Maybe it’s a book that made you laugh or cry or feel seen and heard — whatever the impact, speak on it here.
The winner will be announced next week! And stay tuned to MMM for a couple more giveaways coming very soon.
Today marks five years of the Ms. Mary Mack blog! Can you believe it? Man. When I think back to where I was five years ago, as a new mom … listen, even I’m giving myself a round of applause. We’ve come a long way, baby. And, more important, we’ve learned and laughed through it all.
(photo by Nicole Blades, Samsung USA Imagelogger)
And you deserve shine, too, friends. Yes, all of you who have supported me and this blog over the last half a decade. I SAID HALF-DECADE. WE OLD, THELMA! Your comments, your “Global Mama tales, your guest posts, your advice, and your willingness to listen and share your stories as we work at this parenthood thing — all of it is priceless, all of it is treasured. Thank you.
To celebrate MMM growing up, I’ve decided to make some changes on the blog. It’s more natural progression than a change. Being honest, I considered shutting the whole thing down and focusing on other projects. But somehow that didn’t feel right.
As I wrote on the homepage (top right-hand column), Ms. Mary Mack began as a parenting blog that tracked the monumental transition from “me to mom,” with the hope of gaining insight, information and wisdom, and passing it along. I still feel that way, that there is insight and intel to gather and share. However, it felt like the scope needed to widened beyond “just” parenting.
That’s because there’s more breadth here.
Six years into being a mother, I’ve changed. We all have. We’ve grown into this integral role of parent with confidence and compassion. So now it’s quite natural to widen the focus of this blog to include the other interests, influences and important parts of our lives. This means pop culture, media, trends, hot takes, photography, all of it. Hey, we may even debate whether red velvet will become the new pumpkin spice. It’s all relevant. It’s all good. And I hope you’ll join me as we keep it moving forward.
A love toast (heh.) to you, my friends. And Happy 5th Blogiversary to us all!
(photo by Nicole Blades, Samsung USA Imagelogger)