Cheryl Willis Hudson and Wade Hudson’s work has been a part of my life for years. When I was a college student, I worked as a literacy coach in the Harlem and Washington Heights neighborhoods of New York City, and I found that the Afro-Bets were a surefire hit with all of the children. When I was a new mom, I was infinitely grateful for books like Bright Eyes, Brown Skin and the Book of Black Heroes. The Hudsons know how to give children what they need to feel seen, loved.
I was equally unsurprised and enormously thrilled when I learned of their latest project, the anthology We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices. This collection asked contributors to answer a question: “In this divisive world, what shall we tell our children?” I was honored to be included in the resulting compilation of poems, essays, letters, art, and more, all part of a collective message of love designed to empower “the nation’s youth to listen, learn, and build a better tomorrow.” In this interview, I chatted with the two editors about the inspiration for We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices and the world of children’s books today.
What do you hope young readers will see and feel when they open this book?
CHERYL WILLIS HUDSON: When youngsters open this book, we want them to be able to see reflections of stories and images that could be part of their everyday lives. We want them to see various forms of creative expression from a diverse cast of children’s book creators. We want our readers to be engaged, inspired, and motivated to express themselves, too — in their own authentic voices, with the knowledge that their thoughts and actions matter. That we see them and appreciate their stories.
What was the first spark of this collection? How did you decide on an anthology instead of a picture book or novel? What was your vision for the “voice” of this collection?
WADE HUDSON: I was devastated following the presidential election in November 2016. Like many other Americans, I couldn’t understand how someone who I thought was not fit to lead our nation had been elected. So I started venting on social media, sharing my fears about what I thought was to come. While on Facebook, I ran across a post by my niece, Kelli. In the post, Kelli shared how her daughter Jordyn, then only six years old, was devastated as well about the future under the new president. Jordyn had heard all the nasty, vile, and demeaning things he had said about women, people of color, immigrants, those with disabilities. Jordyn was frightened, terribly frightened. That caught my attention. I had not thought that much about the impact that the vitriol from the Donald Trump campaign that dominated the media was having on our children and young people. I thought about that for a few days. Now, I am one who normally looks for solutions, answers to problems. So we came up with the idea of an anthology that could be used to encourage, offer support, words of wisdom, hope, and love for them. An anthology would, we thought, provide a platform for many voices to join in this mission of reassurance and hope. An anthology would also allow many of those who had already written and illustrated for and connected with young people through their creative works. We chose as a working title What Shall We Tell Them? We drafted a proposal for the project that we sent out to some of our friends and fellow children book creators.
The response was phenomenal. Like Cheryl and I, most of them were looking for ways to address and share their concerns and perspective about the state of our nation during this critical time. Although we eventually changed the title to We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, I think the initial title, What Shall We Tell Them?, provided the vehicle for a central theme — a “voice” if you will — for the anthology.
Your work has been an inspiration to so many for years, and I was so inspired by just being a small part of this project. Once things got underway, how did you find your contributors? Was there something in particular that you sought out?
CHERYL: Once our proposal was written, we reached out to authors and illustrators whose work we admired. Many of these folks we had either published previously through Just Us Books or worked with in some way in the children’s book industry. Several, however, were relatively new. We wanted to include voices and visions that would resonate with 8- to 12-year-olds — whether they were eager readers or perhaps even reluctant ones. We looked for outstanding, authentic voices from a diversity of backgrounds and locations — voices that would resonate with middle grade youngsters — particularly with children of color and those from indigenous backgrounds. So in this volume you’ll find words and illustrations for elder statesmen like George Ford and Ashley Bryan. You’ll also find relatively new voices like Hena Khan, Roy Boney Jr., and Jeffery B. Weatherford. There’s an intergenerational feel as well as a contemporary slice of life element in the selections.
I won’t ask you to pick a favorite — but were there any things you noticed in some of the pieces? Were there any commonalities or unexpected themes or patterns?
CHERYL: What did we notice? We found that each piece was uniquely focused. Although written or told from personal or specific perspectives, the themes were universal and could speak to youngsters from a wide variety of backgrounds. There was a welcoming spirit in every entry as well as a strong thread referencing social justice and equality. There was a sense of consciousness and awareness of current issues like confronting racism and Islamophobia as well as addressing topics like making friends or being kind to others. We found that the variety in text entries was amazing: There were poems, letters, prose, essays, music, an advice list, and even a mini-play. And the styles in the visual components were just as varied: There were watercolors, pencil drawings, collages, oil paintings, photography, and digital art. There are declarations like “Tell it in Your Own Way,” instructions like “How to Pass the Test,” and affirmations like “Advice,” as well as provocative questions to consider like “What Songs Will Our Children Sing?” Even though each of the entries maintained its own unique rhythm, together they reflected a unified voice of affirmation and hope.
Many of the pieces explore what many consider to be “tough topics.” Why is that important? There is also a range of emotion and tone — from joy to and celebration to acknowledgment of heartbreak and pain. How do you think this book can be used in classrooms and libraries? Communities? Homes?
WADE: When I was growing up, parents and adults made concerted efforts to protect us from what they felt was harmful and from things they thought our young minds were not ready for. And in many ways, they were successful. Today, that is extremely difficult to pull off, if not impossible.
Parents no longer have control over what their children are exposed to. Social media, cable television, and video games are just a few of many sources of content and information. And these sources are everywhere. And then, of course, children share with each other. So, I think, rather than spending all our time and energy trying to protect children from that which we think might be harmful to them, we need to find out what they already know and engage them so that we can present opportunities for better understanding for them and for us. We must be aware of age-appropriateness. But we must be willing to engage our children. Books like We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices are excellent vehicles for helping to facilitate discussions about “tough topics.” There are many, many other titles. And these books are often accompanied by teachers or educators’ guides that provide guidance and direction.
One of the unique features of We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices is that each narrative in the book can be a standalone conversational piece. An outstanding and in-depth educators’ guide has been produced and it offers questions and other areas of inquiry to help teachers and parents to further explore each piece in the anthology.
What advice would you give to children’s book creators of color and industry professionals of color? What tools do we need to navigate the world of children’s books, and what do you think we need to create and do to nurture our work and our institutions?
WADE: First, I would say learn your craft so that you are prepared for opportunities that may come. If you are a writer, take writing courses, attend workshops, and write, write, write! And read, read, read! I would offer similar advice to artists who are interested in breaking into the industry. Second, I think it is important to establish relationships with other book creators. There are a lot of great people in children’s book publishing. In many ways we are like a big family, encouraging and supporting each other, offering advice and sometimes sharing opportunities. Networking is important. Stand firm on your core values yet be open for opportunities to grow and encounter new experiences. Finally, be willing to be a part of the push for more inclusion, equity, and diversity in publishing. I think it is important to be a part of the push to create more opportunities for others, especially for people of color who are grossly under-represented across the board in the industry.
CHERYL: My advice is always to read widely and cross-culturally. Book creators should listen to the stories of real children and treat them with respect. They should also embrace children’s sense of wonder and appreciation for storytelling and incorporate that appreciation within their own work. Professionals in the industry need a variety of tools to navigate the world of children’s books and each of us has to do our homework to avoid the pitfalls of defaulting to stereotypes and narrow views of culture.
Just Us Books is celebrating 30 years — congratulations! How and why did you start your own publishing company? What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced? If you were to produce a “highlight reel,” what might that include? What’s next for each of you as creators and publishers?
WADE: Well, we started Just Us Books because we wanted to address the dearth of books for children and young people that drew from Black experiences, Black culture, and Black history. Cheryl and I had developed several projects and when we pitched them to publishing houses they were rejected. “Black people don’t buy books” was a common refrain at that time. We knew, of course, that that wasn’t true. The real problem was that publishers had overlooked, often deliberately, the potential of the Black Book Buying market. Many of the few “Black” books, as they were called then, were not written by Black writers. Thank God for the early pioneering Black authors and artists who worked tenaciously to make as many books available as possible. These trailblazers included Walter Dean Myers, Virginia Hamilton, Lucille Clifton, James Haskins, Eloise Greenfield, George Ford, Tom Feelings, Jerry Pinkney, Sharon Bell Mathis, Alice Childress, John Steptoe, Patricia and Fred McKissack, and others.
When we started Just Us Books in 1988, we joined a movement in Black book publishing fueled essentially by writers in the adult book market, particularly Black women writers such as Terry McMillan, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. There were several hundred Black-owned bookstores and outlets, a growing number of Black-owned publishing companies and Black distributors and wholesalers. But Just Us Books was the only publisher whose focus was to produce books for children and young adults. So, in many ways, we were breaking new ground. Much of our efforts included educating those in decision-making positions as well as marketing and selling our books. We were often carrying out our tasks alone as we pushed to get our books on the shelves of bookstores, retailers such as Target, Kmart, Toys “R” Us, and others. We think, our efforts, in many ways, have helped to demonstrate that there is a viable market for books that reflect our world’s diversity. But, it required a lot of work.
As we prepare to celebrate our 30th anniversary, our mission remains basically the same. We want to continue to publish quality books that reflect our diversity as a country and world. For us, it is not only business, it is a mission. For that reason, we are in it for the long haul, despite the industry’s peaks and valleys and difficult challenges that persist. Others have helped pave the way for us. We stand on their shoulders. It is our obligation, we believe, to offer our shoulders to those who come after us.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.