By Debora Timms
Richmond native Betty K. Bynum said her first steps into the world of children’s literature were a fluke. The actress and singer, who lives in Los Angeles, self-published “I’m a Pretty Little Black Girl!” in 2013. Since then, she has released two more titles, “I’m a Lovely Little Latina!” and the latest, “I’m a Brilliant Little Black Boy!” – a collaboration with her son, Joshua B. Drummond.
The inspiration for Bynum’s first book came while she was listening to another actress, Julianne Moore, promoting her own book, “Freckleface Strawberry.” As Moore talked about feeling different and trying to hide herself as a child because of her pale skin, freckles and bright red hair, it struck a chord.
“I started thinking about all the colors we had with little black girls in my neighborhood,” Bynum said during a recent phone interview. “I sat down that day and in about 45 minutes I wrote ‘I’m a Pretty Little Black Girl!’”
Bynum had no idea what to expect next. She had a
deal to sell her book through Target, and she started out by ordering 5,000 copies. She thought they would sell over a period of time; instead they sold out in two weeks. Her second run of 5,000 copies sold out as well.
“I realized then that I had something on my hands,” Bynum said, “but it wasn’t until I sold 15,000 copies that I realized this was really huge. After that, people started asking me, ‘Can you please write a book for our boys? We need a book for our boys.’”
Bynum thought about it. She knew there was a real need for books that reflected black boys in the market, but she had been focused on the girls and felt if she was going to write about boys she would need some help with it. When her son said he would help, Bynum replied, “I love you. You’re hired.”
“Josh was such an inspiration for the book,” Bynum said about her son. “He looked at the stuff that I wrote, and some of it was pretty girly, and he said, ‘Mom! You gotta change that up – this book is for boys.’”
The pair collaborated, tag-team fashion while Drummond was at college, trading sections of the book back and forth and writing and re-writing. They promoted the finished book through a hashtag social media campaign: #Bbrilliant featured celebrities such as Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Ealy and Vin Diesel.
“It was really beautiful to see it all come together with a bunch of positive people in one video promoting something for the youth,” Drummond said by phone. “I did a lot of research before writing the book and I felt that, with illustrator Brian McGee, this was really going to be something special. The way he uses color, it felt almost like a comic book and it really stood out to me.
“There just aren’t that many books out there for our boys,” Bynum added. “There are more books for girls popping up, but we need books that inspire our boys to read.”
Although there has been a push for more diversity in children’s literature, there has been little change in the percentage of books about people of color being published since the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), a library of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, began tracking the numbers in 1994. In 2015, only 243 children’s books were about African/African Americans. This represents a mere 7.5 percent of the approximately 3,200 titles received at the CCBC from U.S. publishers during the year.
The Association for Library Service to Children addressed diversity in an April 2014 white paper titled The Importance of Diversity in Library Programs and Material Collections for Children. It states that “diverse, culturally authentic materials in library collections allow all children to meet people like themselves and develop an appreciation for the beauty of their culture and the cultures of others.”
It is this benefit that has been behind efforts such as Multicultural Children’s Book Day, which began in 2014 as a way to celebrate diversity in children’s books, and the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, whose vision is “a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.”
Author Matt de la Peña is a supporter of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. In a promotional video on YouTube he explained that the ability to see ourselves in books helps connect us to the human experience by providing us a mirror, as well as a window on the world.
“I’ve always believed that reading is the ultimate form of empathy,” de la Peña says in the video. While we all want to see ourselves in the stories we read, it is just as important to encounter people who aren’t like us so that we can make sense of the world around us.
Both Bynum and Drummond believe they’ve created something that does that, filling a need in the community and in the marketplace.
“Just to say the title of ‘I’m a Pretty Little Black Girl!’ or ‘I’m a Brilliant Little Black Boy!’ is an affirmation in itself,” Bynum said. “Any kid who picks up the book and reads the title will have to speak those words and say that to themselves. Putting that out there is very important. It is an affirmation, but it also opens them up to the possibilities that if you think it, you can become it.”
Bynum pointed out that the U.S. will become a majority-minority country over the next generation, and topics of race and diversity have come to the forefront of the current political landscape. With major publishing houses slow to fill the void, Bynum said it’s up to independent publishers like herself to come up with the ideas for books that
will support children of color in the market.
During Black History Month, Bynum hopes to promote her titles and continue to push for more diverse children’s literature. She plans to release more in her “I’m a Girl! Collection” including, “Hooray! I’m a Girl in the USA” and “I’m an Awesome Asian Girl,” as well as working again with her son on a follow-up to “I’m a Brilliant Little Black Boy!”