From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Black Children DO Read!

In order to change a people you must first change their literature.

Noble Drew Ali

Books had always been my refuge. As a young boy growing up in segregated Louisiana during the 1950s and 1960s, I turned to books to explore the world outside my small hometown. I read whatever I could get my hands on: newspaper articles, essays, poetry and novels. In all my reading, I rarely came across anything that reflected my own experiences as a black youngster. Black people were largely missing from the literature I read, and when we were included, negative images like that of Little Black Sambo often stared back at us. I felt left out.

When I became a parent years later, I was eager to provide my children with the things I had missed as a child. In 1976, when our first child was born, my wife Cheryl and I planned to decorate her room with vibrant and positive images of African American culture and history. We found just one poster of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Disappointed but not discouraged, Cheryl, an artist and graphic designer, decided to create her own illustrations of black children. The characters she created displayed a lot of the characteristics we saw in our daughter and her friends: bright eyes, curious minds, mahogany skin, energetic spirits. On decorative poster board, Cheryl made the adorable characters twist and turn to form the letters in our daughter’s name. Friends with young children asked for custom-made nameplates, too. We named the lively young characters the AFRO-BETS® Kids. Response to her designs reinforced what we already knew: We weren’t the only ones looking for learning material that featured positive images of black children.

Our search to give our children the very books I yearned for as a child turned up the same large void. The children in most picture books hardly ever had cornrows like our daughter, Katura, or chubby brown cheeks like our son, Stephan. And the few books that did reflect African American culture were scarcely available outside Black History Month. I instantly remembered what a challenge it was for me growing up to ignore the negative stereotypes, look past the intentional omissions, and see myself and my people as strong, smart and capable. I didn’t want our children to face the same challenge.

Joining my background in marketing and writing with Cheryl’s in art and design, we set out to publish the kind of books we felt our children needed. We developed an idea for a children’s book that taught the alphabet using Afrocentric themes, and presented it to various publishing companies. “A is for Africa, B is for a brown baby, C is for cornrows.” The idea was fun, innovative, even necessary, some editors agreed. But all we received were rejections. There was just “no viable market for black-interest books for children,” some told us. Dismayed, we wondered how could this be? Were they implying that black kids don’t read?

We were charged with a motivation that only an insult like that could spark. Cheryl and I used the dozens of rejection letters that filled our mailbox as a springboard. We decided to publish the AFRO-BETS ABC Book ourselves. Before the book was even printed, orders were pouring in from parents, teachers and black bookstores. In less than three months, we sold all five thousand copies of the books. We quickly went back to press, printing five thousand more. Those books sold even more quickly. It was clear we were on to something important.

With the publication of our second book a year later, we launched our own publishing company. It would specialize in positive, educational and entertaining black-interest books for children—the kind of book skeptics said no one would buy. Stepping out on faith, we withdrew all the money from our personal savings and set up shop in our home to start Just Us Books. And that’s what it was: just us. Just two of us who were convinced about the importance of our mission, who were driven to fulfill this need, and who had no previous experience in how to do it.

In a few years, Just Us Books was an established leader in multicultural publishing, with a growing book list available throughout the country. It wasn’t long before large publishing companies followed in our footsteps. The market that many said didn’t even exist is today a thriving segment of the publishing industry. We welcomed the “competition,” knowing this meant change: change in the way black children would be allowed to see themselves, which warmed our hearts.

In 2003, Just Us Books celebrated its fifteenth anniversary. But what’s made all the hard work worthwhile isn’t our success as a company, or the multicultural publishing industry’s tremendous growth. Rather, it’s the impact that books like ours have had on young readers.

Since we published our very first book, Cheryl and I have been uplifted and encouraged by the positive feedback from parents, grandparents and teachers who say that our books are exactly what they had been looking for. Some of the most touching feedback, however, comes from the children themselves.

One day, among the usual pile of bills and other mail that crowds my desk, I spotted an envelope that stood out from the rest. It was addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Hudson in big, bold letters written with bright red crayon. Already smiling, I carefully opened the envelope and pulled out its contents, which were written with the same colorful and carefully drawn letters. There was the unforgettable waxy smell of crayons. I could tell this was going to be good, so I sat down to enjoy it.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Hudson,

I love your Afro-Bets books. I read one every day. Please write more books.

Your friend, Angela

P.S. I love Glo. She is a dancer just like me and she is the best Afro-Bets kid.

I held that letter in my hand for several minutes, as my mind embraced the meaning of this simple but powerful message. Phrases like “just like me and she is the best . . .” that were foreign to my childhood now rolled easily from a crayon-filled little hand. I thanked God for giving us this mission, for ordering our direction and allowing us to help black children understand their value, their place and their belonging in the world through literature.

My mission was reinforced.

Wade Hudson

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