The lack of diversity in children’s books seems like it should be a problem of the past. But it’s not. We talked to author Deanna Singh about changing the current narrative in children’s literature.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I’m an attorney by trade, but throughout my career I have always just followed my purpose in life. I define my purpose as shifting power to marginalized communities. As a result of that, I’ve taught elementary, middle and high school, and at the postgraduate level. I’ve done things in politics, practiced law, started a legal clinic for Marquette University and run a school and three foundations. I think the best way to describe my title, or what my career pathway has been, is social entrepreneur.
Do you think any of these experiences led you to write?
Oh, definitely. A social enterprise is created to solve for an issue. The solution I was trying to solve for when I wrote both I Am a Boy of Color and I Am a Girl of Color is really the lack of diversity represented in children’s literature. I found that, even today, only 22 percent of children’s books actually feature children of color even though children of color in our school-age population [make up] more than 50 percent. What does that mean? It means that children are not able to see themselves in literature, and that has a lot of ramifications.
We teach our children to read, read, read – reading is fundamental. Any reading teacher will tell you the number one way to engage a child in reading is to help them find themselves in the work, help find themselves in the book. But, if our children aren’t present, it’s really hard then to find themselves there. And so you start to look at things like the achievement gap and literacy issues, and you wonder if those two things are not related.
I figured that, if I wanted to be a part of the solution, I should have an offering that showed the counter-narrative, which is positive images of children of color in books.
What kind of responses do you get from the children you read to?
First of all, they ask the best questions. And second, I can’t leave a school or classroom without receiving an unsolicited hug, which to me is really a strong indicator that children are connecting with the work or connecting with me. That’s just an awesome, totally, totally awesome benefit of the work I get to do.
Do you feel any different now than when the books were first published?
To me, the fact that there’s an opportunity to really go big and really change the narrative, that’s exciting. It’s not about me writing more children’s books. Now, I’m like “what can we do to get to the next layer, where there is more access for all people of color and children to write their own books?” There is so much talent and such a need.
I Am a Girl of Color depicts joyous girls of color who will become phenomenal women. Who are some phenomenal women you admire?
So, when I actually did the initial book release, I highlighted a woman in Milwaukee who fit every characteristic in the book. Some of the people on that list were Cecelia Gore, from the Brewers Community Foundation, and Amy Lindner, who is now the president of United Way. We have all these really great women who are taking a bold stance in the community and are availing themselves to young women in this city. I think that’s really powerful.
Can you take me through your process writing the books?
The first book, I Am a Boy of Color, was based off a letter I had actually written to my children. I wrote this letter about everything I wanted them to know that was true about themselves. If something happened to me, they would still know these things. When I looked at the letter it was really what I felt about all the children I’ve had the opportunity to work with. And so that was the starting point. I used that letter for the book’s narrative.
How do you think the experience of growing up in Milwaukee has affected you as a woman of color?
One of the things I didn’t see a lot of when I was younger was professional women. I had a lot of really powerful women in my life, but a lot of them didn’t have access to the professional world. So, I think that has been one of the things I’ve been really glad I’ve been able to do – be able to provide an example that at least in my growing up I didn’t have.
Why do you think you have continued to live in Milwaukee?
I really love Milwaukee, a lot. My roots are here. I think there is so much potential for this city to be even better than it is, particularly for communities that are marginalized, and I want to be a part of that change.