If you were a voracious reader as a child, you know there weren’t always a ton of options when it came to stories that featured Black characters. And as much as things have progressed, it’s still a problem, particularly when it comes to literature designed for young readers and parents who are still reading to their children.
Thankfully, there are people hoping to address that. Recently, we spoke to Kelly-Jade Nicholls, founder of Woke Babies, about her new series of children’s books Hairy Tales and why stories featuring Black children are vitally important.
MadameNoire: What inspired you to start Woke Babies?
Kelly-Jade Nicholls: Growing up my mom tried to ensure that I had Black books around me and Black dolls. She would import dolls from the United States because it was a lot harder in the U.K. to gain access to Black dolls and books. And I know how important that was for me and my upbringing.
As I got older and was trying to buy books for my nieces and nephews, I’d go to the book shop and realize there were no books. It was so hard.
I kind of did a lot of research. And after self-publishing my own book, I realized that Black authors need help with distribution and Black children need more access to a diverse range of books because only 12% of books published feature a Black protagonist. And in the U.K., it’s 4 percent. My idea for creating Woke Babies was to make it easier for parents who want to have more diverse books for their children, who want their children to be surrounded by images that look like themselves. And also to help authors because so many Black authors are having to self-publish their books because mainstream publishers are not taking them on.
MadameNoire: What is representation in story so important for Black children?
Kelly-Jade Nicholls: It just builds self confidence, self esteem. There’s this saying that you can’t be what you can’t see. For instance, my niece read this book called Look Up about Mae Jemison. And the moment she read it, she said, ‘I want to be an astronaut when I’m older.’
I got a DM from a parent at the very early stages of Woke Babies. And it was so powerful and so sad that it made me realize why Woke Babies is so important.
This woman wrote: “Thanks again for this book. [My son] absolutely loves them. It’s been a year since we’ve started getting them and we’ll never stop. He used to point at the bear in Going on a Bear Hunt and that’s what he compared himself to the bear. He said, ‘That’s me because I’m brown like the bear.’ Now he sees himself in the books and that’s so magical.”
When I got that I was heartbroken. How can a child relate to a bear? Now with Woke Babies, it’s a way for him to realize, he is normal too. It’s a way for parents to help their children see that they’re not the odd one. It’s a diverse world.
Growing up, I would go to Princess parties and never once did I think that I could be a princess and dress up as that character and it was because the only images of Princesses that I would see were white characters. I couldn’t relate. And that’s why I wanted to do this Hairy Tales project with Tangle Teezer, re-imagining fairy tales with Black characters.
Fairy tales is an area where diversity lacks. Apart from the ones that we just published, I don’t know any fairy tales that have Black characters. That is why I really wanted to get on board with this campaign. Now, our children can be Rapunzel because now there’s a Black version.
The media has their agenda when it comes to Black people and we need to take ownership of how we want our children to grow up and how we want our children to be. Children’s books is a great way to start build your child’s confidence and self-esteem. A lot of Black children’s books tend to focus on social issues. And I feel like our children should get the opportunity to read any kind of imaginative story that helps develop their love of reading.
MadameNoire: Can you speak to me about your partnership with Tangle Teezer?
Kelly-Jade Nicholls: They saw through research how Black people are underrepresented in the beauty industry. And they wanted a way to work with children and wanted me to publish three books. I got Trish Cooke, who’s an award-winning author in the U.K. She managed to break through 20 years ago. I wanted to work with her because she meant so much to me.
Then we worked with a U.S. illustrator called Angela Corbin.
What Trish did was turn fairy tales into Hairy Tales because Tangle Teezer wanted to help Black children learn to love their hair. And Trish did it in such a great way with Zel Let Out Your Hair. It’s such a beautiful story. And another one, Jackson and The Beanstalk. It’s about a boy’s hair who grows up like the son.
A woman wrote to us and said her son was being bullied about his hair. But after reading that book, he absolutely loves his hair and wants to wear his afro.
And a portion of the proceeds from this campaign are going to Pretty Brown Girl in the U.S. and we’re donating to schools in the U.K. It was just an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
MadameNoire: What do you see as the future of Woke Babies?
Kelly-Jade Nicholls: My aim—and I always say this—is when Woke Babies purchases a book, a Black author becomes a best-seller. That’s my aim is to show publishers that there’s such a huge demand. And the reason why they’re not seeing the demand is because they’re not publishing enough. I want to create more opportunities authors and illustrators. I want to be raising young kings and queens who completely understand their self-worth and know that they’re powerful.