Hands Up! Reminds Black Children That They Are Beautiful and Worthy of a Life Well-Lived

by Breanna J. McDaniel

I started writing Hands Up! late in the summer of 2014, when I lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. At the time I was writing, the news was playing on a nonstop loop on my television. My phone buzzed constantly with news alerts in between meetings, and I often scrolled through Facebook and saw the pain of my people, Black people in the United States, being splashed across the screen as mothers cried for children lost to them forever. My heart, like that of many people in my community, continued to be broken. But my spirit wasn’t.

There were around six different versions of the story I worked on before I landed on this one and not all of them were picture book manuscripts. There’s a short story version. Another was a super long narrative poem with multiple characters and voices. I even had a version that was meant to be a chapter in a middle grade novel. But at the time, my nieces and nephews were very young, and I knew I wanted to write the story for them.

When I’d go home to Atlanta for holidays or for a weekend, I always tried to visit with my sister Shalonda, and when the news showed stories about shootings, I wondered what her little ones playing in the room with us were hearing. I wanted them know their lives matter. I hoped that if I wrote a picture book about what was going on, following in the footsteps of women like Zetta Elliott with her book Bird, I could show them how necessary and beautiful and worthy of a life well-lived they are.

I worked with on the manuscript for over a year with a good friend but I kept missing the mark. The book had a lot of words but it was missing a sense of hope. Picture books are my very favorite form of writing but I think they can be very hard to write, especially when you want to put so much love, grace, empowerment, and growth in a very short text. When I started working with my friend and editor extraordinaire Dana Chidiac, she reminded me that it was a picture book. With illustrations. Even though I couldn’t pull in all of the words I wanted to, I could suggest some messaging for the art, like “V”s for Viv (life!), which is the little girl’s name in Hands Up!; or the words on the signs at the protest Viv leads; or the inclusion of my haven spaces growing up: the rec center, library and school. Shane W. Evans took my words and suggestions and created a visual masterclass on how to expand the possibilities of imagination within a text.

The result was that five years after I started writing my first draft of Hands Up!, I’d written a picture book that I’m delighted to share with whoever wants to read it. There are flowers and sunshine and singing and HOPE and throughout is the image of a Black girl who is life personified. She matters every single day, 24/7. Her pain, her joy, and her being are important.