Today’s debut picture book comes from a writer who was determined to see diversity in children’s books all over the world.
Samantha Hawkins is a poet and essayist. She is a contributing writer to MadameNoire.com. Her work has been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: I’m Speaking Now, a collection featuring stories and poems by Black women writers. She is based in Georgia. You can follow her on Instagram @forevertellingtales.
MY MOMMY MARCHES is the story of a young girl who watches her mom make a difference in the world. Her mom stands up for what she believes in and the entire time, little eyes are watching. But let’s be clear. This story isn’t a focus on the negative things we adults might say or do. It’s a look through young eyes at a mom this child obviously adores and what she sees her mom doing in a positive way. This is a perspective I haven’t seen a lot in picture books that lends this story some immediacy that pushes the reader through the story.
Me: You are a poet and an essayist, among other things, but this is your first children’s book. What is it then that drew you to writing picture books?
Samantha: Well, to be completely honest, this is very much a project that chose me, rather than me choosing it. It all started with an article I came across one day, a couple of years ago, that revealed the results of a study published on diversity in children’s books in the UK. It basically said that a Black or brown child in the UK had a greater chance of seeing an animal face staring back at them in a children’s picture book than seeing a lead character that looks like them, or shares their ethnicity. I thought to myself how unfortunate this was that any kid, anywhere, could go most of their childhood and not see books that mirror them or reflect the many different cultures and complexions of the world around them. In the U.S., there is no shortage of books that celebrate diversity and our differences as people, so I set out to write a book that Black and brown kids in the UK could see themselves in. Thankfully, in addition to its release in the UK, MY MOMMY MARCHES was also published in the US.
Me: I don’t think I’ve seen another picture book out there quite like this one. What gave you the idea for this story?
Samantha: I wanted to write a book introducing young readers to the concepts of activism and social justice. A book that parents could read to their children that would help them have those needful conversations about standing up for what you believe in. But I thought to myself that kids aren’t going to grasp big words like “protest,” or “social justice,” so I needed to break it down to a level that could be more easily understood. The image of someone marching popped into my mind because that is something all kids understand. Even the littlest kids can march with their feet! So, eventually the mental picture came together of a child watching someone they love and respect with all their heart, their mother, marching outside their bedroom window. Marching to make the world a better place. Marching to help fix the problems of the world and to turn people’s sadness into happiness.
Me: This is your debut picture book (yay!). What does your writing process look like?
Samantha: Interestingly enough, writing the first draft of “My Mommy Marches” was effortless and took only a couple of hours. The words just flowed from my heart, and I knew that I had a really good story on my hands. I didn’t question too much of what I was typing. I just let the image in my head do the “talking” and I wrote it as though I was in this little girl’s shoes. Part of my writing process is “stepping back” and letting every line really soak in though. Asking myself, “Is this really what I am wanting to say?” Or “Will this line resonate with a young reader?” I wanted to keep my words rather simple and relatable, but I also wasn’t afraid to use some vivid, picturesque language that would invoke a mental image in the minds of young readers. Truly though, after signing my book deal with Lantana Publishing is when the real work began. Working with editor Holly Tonks on making sure that every line in my story counts for something, brings value, paints the picture, and drives the message home, was a very careful process.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Samantha: It’s amazing how it can take many months to edit and craft a story of less than a thousand words! There is so much heart and work that goes into publishing children’s picture books. And couple that with the fact that you, as the writer, are often revising and adding and having to clarify the text too along the journey of editing a book. Especially, as you begin to get the first rough sketches, and ultimately, the first full-color layouts from the illustrator. An illustrator who in my case I hadn’t even met in person, and yet, their job is to bring my text to life. It really does all come together but it is beyond fantastic just knowing that everyone is doing their part behind the scenes.
Me: I love that. I also love that your character is proud of her mommy, but the whole book isn’t about an adult. It’s all about the child watching and dreaming of doing the same thing. Is activism an important subject to you? Why is this something you want young readers to see and hear about?
Samantha: We always say that “our children are our future,” but this is only partially true. In fact, our children are very much integral and imperative to “our present” as well. It’s so important to the adults of this world that they instill in their children the value of advocating for justice and equality right now, right where they are. It can start with kids “using their outside voice” in the classroom, or at recess, or anytime they see someone being mistreated or subjected to harm because of the color of their skin, or their culture, or the clothes they wear. I wanted to deliver the message through this book that activism isn’t something you should learn about when you become an adult. NO! We can teach our kids now about what it means to “put feet to our words,” and put actions to our beliefs. Activism is a mindset and the sooner our children learn to have the mindset of being compassionate towards others and caring about the issues affecting the world around them (because injustice against one is injustice against all), the more socially responsible they will be as adults.
Me: The illustrations by Cory Reid are wonderful. I love seeing the variety of those marching, as well as locations or weather they are marching in. Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Samantha: Cory Reid is just an incredible artist, and I truly was blown away by his ability to translate some of the images in my text into these inspired illustrations. Cory and I have never met in person, never even talked over the phone to each other, and somehow, he nailed it in illustrating MY MOMMY MARCHES. When I was informed by my editor that Cory Reid was who they had contracted to work on my picture book, I immediately rushed to Google his name so I could get an idea of his work. I was not disappointed!
And now, seeing the amazing response that “My Mommy Marches” is getting in reviews about the lovely cover and the colorful illustrations has been wonderful. One of his earliest roughs that he did for the book featured a dog walking, or marching rather, along with the protestors in the book. I was so excited about it that I wrote my editor and asked her to convey to Cory that this dog which he happened to include in the book bore a striking resemblance to a family dog that had died years ago. I actually asked if he could add the name, “Lollie” to the dog’s collar in the book, and he added this sweet little touch as I requested. That dog is certainly one of my favorite images of the whole text.
Me: Any advice for other picture book writers?
Samantha: Whatever you write, whatever you put out into this world, make it yours, and make it count! Write to change the world, write to make the world a better place for every child, anywhere in the world. Remember that picture books are often a child’s first glimpses of the real world, so what we write truly matters. Own your story and pour your heart into it. It takes a very special person to want to craft and write children’s books, so just remember that this is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. And if at first your story gets rejected, DON’T GIVE UP! Write, Write AGAIN!
Great advice. Thank you for stopping by my blog today Samantha.
Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to read this book, track it down. It was just released into the world a couple of weeks ago. It’s a story that celebrates mothers as well as diversity and justice. That’s a lot to wrap into one story, but this book succeeds in doing so.