I was that kid: nose always stuck in a book. When I wasn’t reading the latest from the Babysitter’s Club or Sweet Valley series, I was writing books. In fact, I wrote my first book when I was five. It was called The Princess and the Gold. (Riveting, right?) I spent many nights with my comforter thrown over my head like a tent, flashlight in one hand and my newest book in the other. I just couldn’t get enough of the written word.
When I turned sixteen, I landed my dream job: a bookseller at Barnes and Noble. I stacked books, I recommended books, I sold books, I displayed books.
When I graduated high school, I began college, declaring my major: English. After graduation, I continued on to graduate school, teaching one or two writing classes a semester while earning my degree in Teaching of Writing. And then I spent eight years teaching college students that writing can not only be helpful but also incredibly beautiful.
When I became a mother by transracial adoption over seven years ago, I brought my afro-headed baby girl home to a nursery with an ample collection of board books. There was never any question that like her mama, she would love to read. With each child we adopted, our book collection grew. There were potty board books in the bathroom, books for every holiday and season, books on the weather, on art, on history.
However, what I noticed and continue to notice, is the lack of books featuring children who look like mine.
When I was a child, the books I read from those starring Laura Ingalls and her life on the prairie to Kristy and Stacy from the Babysitter’s Club, and even from the television shows (Saved by the Bell and Full House) and movies (Clueless!) all starred girls who looked like me: peachy skin and brown or blond hair.
But even today, in 2016, most books star a peachy-skinned girl. She’s the heroine. She’s the protagonist. She’s smart. She’s beautiful. She’s popular. She’s talented. She’s IT.
But what about girls of color?
My girls, and those who look like them, shouldn’t be in the background of every story. They don’t need or desire to be the sidekick, often clothed in stereotypes: sassy and street-wise. They don’t want to be the token diversity character, the one friend with afro puffs and brown skin. Worse, they shouldn’t be the antagonist, the villain, the “bad guy.”
They are like most little girls: they want to be IT. They want to be the protagonist, the one who wears the tiara or stars in the play or wins the ball game. They want to be depicted as talented, beautiful, smart, and valued.
Of course, we do everything at home as our kids’ parents to tell them they are these things. We fill our home with any and all Black art, music, books, movies, and toys we can find. My girls have a mentor and a hair braider: both of whom are strong, Black women who have achieved much success in their lives and are powerful role models.
But to this book-lover trying to raise readers, it’s not enough.
A few years ago, I took my oldest daughter, a devoted fan of all-things-unicorn, to our local bookstore. I said she could pick out one book, and her only request was that it be a book featuring a unicorn and a “brown girl.” We searched high and low. Book cover after book cover featured a glistening white unicorn and a peach-skinned, blond-haired protagonist.
There were times we went shopping for dolls. In any given line, there were five or six dolls. They had peach skin and different hair colors ranging from blonde to medium brown. Then there was the lone “ethnic” doll: her name was usually Jasmine or Kiera, and she had straight (yes, straight) dark brown hair, tan-ish skin, and sometimes brown eyes, but usually green or an unnatural purple. Even the “ethnic” doll looked nothing like my daughter with her black tightly curled hair, deep brown skin, and coffee colored eyes.
Situations like these told me that enough was enough. As a former teacher and current writer, why should I stand by and accept (and purchase) books that don’t empower or affirm my daughters? Though we had found treasures along the way, such as dolls and books, there simply wasn’t the selection that white little girls had. It was nearing National Poetry Month, and I thought, why not take my daughter’s experiences and interests and write a poetry book?
The concept of Poems for the Smart, Spunky, and Sensational Black Girl came about like a flash. I spent hours jotting down everything my daughters had faced: challenges, joys, surprises. We talked about life events like when their baby brother was adopted into our family, when my oldest faced a bully on the school bus, the excitement surrounding a recent birthday celebration. We talked about when they got their hair braided, what church feels like, and dreaming of what most little ones do: what to be when they grow up.
I listened and wrote. Listened and wrote. And then I contacted an illustrator and asked, “Can you take this dream of ours to the next level?” She said yes, and reflected the poems through her art: art featuring girls with different shades of brown skin, hairstyles like cornrows and afros, and eyes a beautiful chocolate brown.
The day I received the book proof, I ripped open the box, tears in my eyes, and placed the book in my girls’ hands. They flipped page after page, their smiles widening with each turn. This moment was everything.
I look forward to the day when my daughters have dozens, even hundreds, of brown-girl poetry books to choose from.
But until that day, they will continue to say, “Mom, let’s read our book.”