The Importance of Black Joy in Children’s Books: A Conversation with Kelly J. Baptist and Darnell Johnson

A few years ago, conversations surrounding the importance of joyful books that feature Black characters finally started to pick up steam. Though BIPOC readers, specifically Black readers, have noticed the lack of joyful diverse books for some time, publishing is finally getting to a  place of recognition that Black characters are more than just oppression and a teaching moment for outside readers. BIPOC are just like everyone else with varied lived experiences that aren’t always rooted in pain. In this guest blog post, we hear from author Kelly J. Baptist and illustrator Darnell Johnson to discuss the importance of Black joy in children’s books and how that translated into their newest title The Electric Slide and Kai.

THE ELECTRIC SLIDE AND KAI book coverTell us about the importance of children’s books that celebrate Black joy.

Darnell Johnson: Books that celebrate the joy of black children are important. It’s like a door that is unlocked when a black child sees themselves in a book. And the character is expressing joy they themselves have been conditioned to keep private, it frees them. Encouraging them to let their light shine and not be afraid to enjoy life to the fullest. Taking delight in their unique expression of joy that is theirs to own and for no one to take from them. It says to them, dream and set goals with no limits. They have value and much to contribute. It invites them to live in the manifest dreams fought for by those before them. Yes there is more to be done. But it’s a start and a creative step towards empowering black children to further venture into spaces unexplored. Continuing to make room and shatter the ceiling of what’s possible.

The Electric Slide and Kai is an awesome story I had the pleasure of illustrating. The pages are filled with the love shown in a black family. It’s a slice of life story that brings the reader into the expression of black joy through dance, and from value and acceptance from those you love.

Kelly J. Baptist: Books that center Black joy are important for a very simple reason: they show Black reality. Yes, as a people, we’ve faced and continue to face a myriad of joy-stealers, but the reality is that we are human; thus, we are not immune to experiencing a wide range of emotions, just as anyone who is human does. Black children lose teeth, learn to walk and talk, start Kindergarten, and tussle with siblings just as all children do, so books portraying them in these and all scenarios is not just appropriate, it should be the norm. It should not be shocking to read a book about a Black child learning to tie his or her shoe, or being nervous about starting school–we wear shoes, we start school! Joy is as much a part of our reality as any other emotion, and to hide it is a detriment to readers of all colors.

What would you like to see in the future of Black children’s literature?

KJB: More, more, more! More books that step away from narrow story-lines of what it means to be a Black child. I want to see Black children on a family vacation, Black children swimming and skiing, Black children making friends and singing in a choir. In a nutshell, Black kids just living. Our lives matter; they are unique and greater than any trauma or pain we go through. I want to see future books dispel stereotypes and color outside the lines!

DJ: Moving forward I would like to read and see more stories in Black literature that celebrates the fullness of life for children of color. Affirming them of the greatness inside. I think children have had enough of stories about oppression. Let’s show them hope for the future and faith for the present. And one of the best and creative ways to do that is through children’s books. It allows for us to tell any and all kinds of stories. Why limit Black children to a single narrative. The inspiration found within the pages can empower our children for change in reality.

What books bring you joy?

DJ: Some books that I have recently read (for myself and to my son) and currently reading that bring me joy are Crown: An Ode to The Fresh Cut, Love Gave, Love Made, The World is Awake, Miles Morales Spider-man and of course, The Electric Slide and Kai.

KJB: Hair Joy and Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut bring me so much joy! As a Black woman, I’ve worn my hair very long and very short; sat in both beauty and barbershops and experienced the unique joys of both. Hair is such an important element of Black culture, and these two books represent that well. Sulwe was magical, both in message and illustration. Honey, Baby, Sugar Child brings me joy because it reminds me of my own mama’s boy, Zackery, who sneaks in my bed often! I love the vibrancy of city life in Messenger, Messenger and I Got The Christmas Spirit. Finally, I love the family themes in Going Down Home With Daddy and…. The Electric Slide and Kai!  For Kai, I was inspired by watching my young daughter trying to copy AKA moves at a wedding reception. Simple. She could’ve been any child, watching any kind of dance. The bottom line is that kids imitate adults they see, especially if those adults are doing something cool. That is a universal theme.

Find more information about The Electric Slide and Kai here.

Check out our Book List: 10 Picture Books That Are Not About Oppression.

Kelly J. BaptistKelly J. Baptist grew up in southwest Michigan, and after living in Alabama, Florida, and Minnesota, she is happy to be right back home in Berrien Springs! She works as a social emotional learning interventionist and is the author of the middle grade novel Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero. Kelly keeps busy with her five amazing children, who often play loud music that leads to epic family dance parties. You can visit her on Twitter @kellyiswrite and online at kellyiswrite.com.

Darnell JohnsonDarnell Johnson is a Miami native who discovered his passion for art while watching Saturday morning cartoons as a kid. Currently he resides in Alpharetta, Georgia, with his beautiful wife and newborn son. Darnell pulled inspiration from his childhood, family, and friends to draw life into the characters for The Electric Slide and Kai. He hopes the lines, colors, and shapes he makes sparks the imagination of young readers. You can visit him online at artofdarnelljohnson.com.

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