Telling Our Stories: Marjuan Canady, Author Of The Callaloo Book Series, Talks Diversifying Children’s Literature

July 24, 2015  |  

Author and playwright Marjuan Canady, 29, has set out to address the desperate need for Black storytellers to produce narratives for our people. And most importantly, for our children, so that they can witness and learn more about their incredible history.

A 2014 study by Cooperative Children’s Book Center also analyzed by Lee & Low Books reported that 37 percent of the U.S. population is made up of people of color. Additionally, the U.S. Census predicts that by 2060, 56 percent of children under the age of 18 will be non-white. Yet only 10 percent of children’s books in the past 21 years have contained multi-cultural content. Canady’s Callaloo series addresses the disparity and allows this generation to take pride in where they come from and to love their Black and brown skin.

Canady recalls that her love for storytelling began as early as the age of three. Like many children, the stories shared with Canady as a child enriched her life and even shaped her dreams for the future.

“I had a love and appreciation for stories and the arts for as long as I can remember, which now I know has played a huge role in my artistry today,” Canady said. “I had and still do have a very wild imagination, and that was all cultivated as a child.”

Canady started her career in theatre after studying everywhere from the Duke Ellington School of Arts, to Fordham University and New York University. With theatre as the base of her love for storytelling, Canady started her journey off as an actor and then began playwriting. Unbeknownst to her, one of her plays would birth her first children’s book.

“Back in 2012, I didn’t necessarily intend to create a children’s book. I actually didn’t even know what I was doing, “Canady said. “I had just completed my second play, Callaloo: A Jazz Folktale, with two performances in New York and Washington, D.C. The play was full of carnival costumes, dance, jazz music and Caribbean folklore. The play was really an extension of my own cultural upbringing as a child born in the U.S. with Trinidadian roots. A good friend of mine and master visual artist from high school, Nabeeh Bilal, saw the play and approached me about developing it into an animated series and children’s book. At the time, I was living in Los Angeles, and he was living in D.C. and we orchestrated developing the book via Skype meetings and icalendar. We were deeply committed to this project, and it was such a fun and organic process.”

As Canady and her partner Bilal began researching and working together they discovered some harsh realities about diversity in children’s media.

“Neither of us had any experience working in the children’s publishing world, so everything was brand new. Once we really began to do the research, we learned of the shocking disparity in the children’s book world. Really, in all of children’s media, including animation, television, interactive games and books,” Canady said. “There is little to no content being developed by artists of color with children of color at the center. The more we got deeper into the work, the more we became so much more committed. For me, it’s not just about books, but about telling fully rounded, culturally accurate, inclusive and compelling stories in books, live performance, animation, digital content, games and classroom materials for all children to enjoy, learn and love.”

Out of this meeting of artistic minds, the Callaloo book series was born with Callaloo: A Jazz Folktale as its first installment. Callaloo highlights the adventures of a young dreamer named Winston, who is magically transported to the island of Tobago from Brooklyn after being sent to the store to retrieve ingredients for his aunt’s callaloo dinner. Blended brilliantly with traditional Caribbean folklore and present day inner-city life, Callaloo provides children with a myriad of learning opportunities in one beautifully crafted story. This was Canady’s goal.

“I want to use Callaloo as a tool for cultural literacy to not only educate in traditional methods — reading, vocabulary, math, geography — but to teach values. Such as tolerance, cultural difference and appreciation, kindness, diversity and acceptance,” Canady said. “I think these are values that are missing in the world, and we have to start instilling these values in children from an early age.”

In order to begin teaching these values through Callaloo: A Jazz Folktale, Canady is involved in community outreach projects at schools and libraries where she reads the story and discusses it with children. To aid in her storytelling, Canady has introduced puppetry into her live readings, bringing Winston to life, which further captivates the imagination and hearts of the audience. “Nabeeh performs the puppet of Winston while I read the book. The children and adults absolutely love him.”

Canady’s success thus far was not easy. It is an enormous task to develop stories featuring characters who are Black.

“I have faced discrimination as a new, young Black writer in this particular field, ” Canady said. “I remember when we first started developing the book. Many literary agents and publishers told me I didn’t have enough experience, and the story was not interesting enough, and there was just no market for these stories. This actually fueled me even more because I knew this was absolutely not true. The truth is there is a much bigger problem in the entertainment and publishing world when it comes to people of color producing their own content. Large companies don’t believe people of color’s stories are valuable because they don’t understand it, and they don’t see it as profitable. Although we have faced some challenges, my team and I decided not to let that stop us. I think we do need to discuss these inequities, however, we also have to create solutions and plans of action to create work and sustainable methods to compete in these respective industries. We also have to support artists who are combatting these stereotypes.”

In spite of her challenges, Canady is grateful for the vast amount of support and love she has been shown on this journey. “The Caribbean and African-American community has been tremendously supportive from the beginning,” Canady said. “Teachers, parents and arts educators all see the value and need in what we are doing. Thanks to our local support, Callaloo is available at Barnes & Noble, over 20 national and international libraries, on Amazon, and other online platforms. The best part of this process is that we get to talk to our audience and find out what kids actually like and what parents want to buy.”

For those upcoming Black writers who are ready to share your stories with world, Canady says that your voices deserve to be heard.

“Live the best life you possibly can and discover your voice. Study those who have come before you and be open to new people, possibilities, and experiences,” Canady said. “The best thing about writing is that there is no formula. You can be free to say what you want in whatever way you believe. Black female voices have systemically been silenced in our history, but the strength, resilience, and vulnerability we possess are our secret weapons.”

One thing that never changes in the Black community is that no matter what obstacles we face, we are built with the endurance and dauntlessness it takes to press on. These characteristics are passed down from generation to generation. These are characteristics our children deserve to encounter early on in their childhood. It’s up to us to make sure it happens by supporting Canady and other young Black women like her who seek to share our stories with the world. Who else can tell our stories better than we can?


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