It’s safe to say that children’s books are failing black children. Children’s literature continues to misrepresent our community, providing very little opportunity for children of color to actually see someone who looks like them doing something they never thought of. Representation matters. It gives our children the idea that “this could be me someday.” Without it, dreams of who they can become are limited.
It’s been said that books are mirrors, reflecting our own lives back at us, and that reading is therefore a means of self-affirmation. Recognizing that the black experience is missing in children’s books, Dr. Thomishia Booker, CEO and Author of Hey Carter! Books, is increasing representation of black boys in literature and elevating black joy.
“When I had my son, I was looking for books to build his library,” Booker shared. “As I was looking for them I realized that there were no books with black boys on the main cover, and when it comes to narratives, there are so many false narratives about our black children, especially black boys.”
Booker taking on the task of ensuring black children across the world saw themselves represented in literature had to have impact at home with her own son. “In the school he’s at now he’s one of few black boys, so it’s super important that he has these messages and that he goes in there with that self-confidence. I think it’s been a slow progression for him understanding that his mom writes books, that the books are about him, and that he’s the main character, so I think he’s been building up to that,” she explained. “Now, I really see him connecting it and being like that’s me and I’m proud of who I am, I’m proud of my skin.”
Booker talked about the impact of diversity and inclusion in children’s books within the classroom. “I’m reading some books right now about the neuroscience connected to children’s ability to see themselves, and it’s really a requirement for learning. When our students walk into classrooms and they don’t see themselves depicted anywhere, it’s scary. Our children need their stories told. Other children need to see our stories and know that our children are filled with joy. If we really want our children to be successful in school, they really need their culture, their stories, their truths to be heard and seen consistently.”
Affirming positive messages for our children builds self-esteem and self-belief. Affirmations are very effective in nurturing their wellbeing and Booker has incorporated them in her family’s daily routine.
“As adults, we have a lot of practices that we use for ourselves and we sometimes don’t share them with children. One thing that I wake up and do every morning is affirmations. I write them down. They’re all over my desk. So I share that with my son and with children. I feel like they need that,” she shared with BeenWorthy. “They need to affirm themselves and have those messages to know their worth and grow up with that self-confidence. It’s also foundational in terms of raising black children in this world and having that security. We have to combat those dominant negative messages, and affirmations really help with that.”
The children’s book writer shares that her son’s favorite affirmation is “I am powerful”.
Booker’s “Brown Boy Joy” was featured in Netflix Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices, a program highlighting Black celebrities and artists reading children’s books by Black authors. Although she didn’t see this opportunity coming, she shared that it solidified all the work that she’d been doing. “The book was chosen because it aligns with the teaching tolerance social justice standards, particularly in the identity domain. They chose the book based on the work that I put out there, and now it’s coupled with this platform and the other celebrity authors. It was amazing and it provided me the opportunity to say that I’ve worked this hard for a reason. We entered into a negotiating process and I learned a lot from that.”
Not only did Netflix select “Brown Boy Joy” to be featured in their programming, but music legend Jill Scott was handpicked to read the book aloud on the show. “She did such a great job reading the book,” Booker shared with a big smile. “They actually paired the authors with the celebrities they felt could carry out the books in melodic ways, so Jill Scott was definitely a perfect match for “Brown Boy Joy.” She laughs and shares that “In fact, when I’m asked to read my own book, I’m like, can I just play you the Jill Scott version?”
Booker firmly believes that “representation really matters. It matters for me even as an adult, so seeing her (Jill Scott) read that was also encouragement for me to keep going.”
As of result of “Brown Boy Joy’s” timely message and impact, the Netflix feature was nominated for a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Children’s Programming. Booker was shocked to achieve this level of recognition.
When she wrote the book she knew who she wanted it for, she knew the message was important and that the time was now. “I really just wanted to get my book in the hands of as many black boys and black children as I could. Of course, with Netflix and the NAACP, they kind of elevated that to a new level,” she explained. “The show is in a variety of languages and it’s international, so this is really what my brand is about. Now, many children are seeing what black joy looks like. All the accolades continue to pour in, and for me, it’s just black boys are being seen.”
There’s a different level of honor that comes with being recognized by your own. As a self-published author who wanted agency over her stories and control over the creative process, Booker shared that “when I receive acknowledgement from black voices like the NAACP, that’s what matters most to me. That’s our people. They are elevating our voices in a way that matters and I am so grateful that my name is listed next to so many creative and acclaimed people.”
The phrase “brown boy joy” has not only been used and celebrated within Booker’s books, but also widely across social media. We’re seeing euphoric images and videos shared of black boys of all ages, and it’s the type of content that should be filling timelines over the those that perpetuate negative stereotypes and false narratives.
The NAACP Image Award nominee explains that “when I talk about brown boy joy I’m talking about skin color. I’m talking about when we walk into a room, that is the first thing that is seen. I want black children to know that our skin means so much. Our melanated skin has so much power, so much beauty, and when we walk into spaces we need to claim what belongs to us.