Talking to Cleo Wade is like talking to an old friend who you hardly see but when you do, you pick right back up where you left off. So went our recent conversation about her magical new children’s book, What the Road Said. The new mom and activist, who worked on the book through her pregnancy and into the first couple months of her daughter’s life, has created one of those rare children’s books that triggers introspection in you as you’re reading it to your kids. As we teach kids about race and privilege and class, it’s a timely reminder that we can model for them what it looks like to ask questions even when we don’t get answers — and to move forward always, even in the face of the unknown.
Wade, a community builder, poet, and the author of the bestselling books Heart Talk: Poetic Wisdom for a Better Life and Where to Begin, does incredible work in her community, including sitting on the board of the Lower Eastside Girls Club, the National Black Theatre in Harlem, and the Women’s Prison Association. With a devout Instagram following, Wade — one of Marie Claire’s 50 Most Influential Women and a Fast Company 100 Most Creative People in Business — has been described as the Millennial Oprah (we still love you, OG Oprah!). She recently partnered with Barbie on a collection of dolls that “celebrates the power, brilliance and determination of Black women.” Now, she’s channeled her worldchanging, creative energy into another gift for our children.
In What The Road Said, a little Brown girl discovers a brand new road one day. “Where do you lead?” the girl asks the road. “Be a leader and find out,” comes the reply. On her adventures, the girl encounters doubts and (occasionally) solutions; she asks questions that sometimes have no “right” answers. She explores what to do when you don’t feel brave at all, when you are afraid of change, and what it means to lead with love.
As a Black mom, I am adamant about surrounding my two kids of color with books starring protagonists who look like them. This is critical to the sense of belonging that I want my children to feel, and to their own sense of personhood. It’s also important for white kids to read books where the hero is a kid of color — storytelling is a powerful tool in decentering whiteness and challenging white children to consider a world where everyone does not look like them. I was thrilled to have a chance to speak with Wade about her introspective and profound kids book, and get her thoughts on why this tale is so necessary right now.
I wanted kids to not invest in thought patterns that instill shame. I wanted the book to be anti-shame and focused on compassion and the realistic version of life.
Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs: Cleo, What The Road Said is a book for kids and it’s also a profound book for adults. The messages you share are applicable to my life as a woman but also are lessons I want to teach my son. One of my favorite lines is, "Sometimes we go the wrong way on our way to the right way." It speaks to the grace of making mistakes, which some children are afforded more than others. Can you speak to that grace?
Cleo Wade: This book is a great one for adults, indeed. It asks the question,“What are things we struggle to internalize as an adult?” As I wrote this book, I wished I had this role model in my life, as a kid. There is a patterning of shame that starts from childhood, this idea that your worst day is your identity. People often ask me what advice I’d give my younger self and I have to think about what advice I would have been able to hear. Your words are only as powerful as how people are able to hear and feel them. I wanted kids to not invest in thought patterns that instill shame. I wanted the book to be anti-shame and focused on compassion and the realistic version of life. My 7-year-old inner Cleo can hear that. She really needed that as a kid.
I love this idea of being a leader by taking the unknown path. Can you talk about why that's so important, especially in light of the protests of the summer of 2020, where so many people got involved without knowing what lay ahead?
In the past, the truth is we weren’t having the right conversations about leadership. That idea of leadership was very hyper masculine, patriarchal, and ruling with an iron fist kind of way. The leaders I’ve looked to throughout history are people who led with curiosity and bravery and kindness. They led by having a strong connection to self, so no matter where you end up, you can be yourself there.
What The Road Said is the story of a young brown girl winding through a land someplace within herself. Even adults don’t understand vulnerability until we’re modeling it in action. We can be in places we’d never thought we’d end up, do things we never thought we’d have to do, If we remain in a state of curiosity. There has to be a fundamental okayness inside us. Whether it’s going to a protest or standing up to racial injustice — I wanted to broaden this kind of mindset so it could be placed in any situation. The goal of the book is to create an internal compass for young people so whatever they’re grappling with, there’s guiding baseline principles.
Our ideas in conflict depend on our ability to give someone else space to process their pain and have them do the same to you.
In your book, the girl asks the road, “What if people are mean?” The response brought to mind an article I read last year about "deep canvassing,” a method of engaging with potential voters based on empathy, listening, and sharing in order to find common threads. Why is this concept of how to navigate cruelty so important to teach kids from a young age?
An underlying theme of the book is the ability to trust yourself. At times, it can feel like your own inner wisdom talking. The book leads the traveler through this dark and scary forest and the traveler is introduced to the concept of bravery. But it’s important to not skip the step of trust before bravery. Sending the energy of trust through your whole body is so important. The trust comes and then the bravery comes. There has to be a feeling of trust and vulnerability and real dedication to kindness. You’re deciding to be led through a dark and scary forest.
Our ideas in conflict depend on our ability to give someone else space to process their pain and have them do the same to you. Bravery without trust can lead us to do things that we think are brave. It could be peer pressure. It could be acting against our own triggers and trauma and maybe we are not ready to do that. The focus is on going through your own dark and scary forest first. I wanted to make sure there was a journey that was a self check-in. The journey of investigating what’s scary.
Can you talk about your decision to not end the book at the destination or the end of the road?
One of the things I put on my writing board when I started exploring this book was a [message] that said it is always OK to not know the answer to the question but it should never be because you’re afraid to ask the question. I wanted kids to see the protagonist as a person who isn’t afraid to ask questions. I want [readers] to say, “Look how much road is ahead.” People should take the energy or style of continuing on with your own question and finding that within yourself.
I started this book while I was pregnant and finished during the first two months of my daughter’s life. The poem this came from was from before I was in a serious relationship. The book is a role modeling of how to move through life. It’s made up of mantras for kids. It’s a book about living and growing, which happens our whole lives. The reader became the journeyer in the end and on their own path. I want for the child to feel like they are talking to me. I wanted to end the book the way it begins, so young readers feel like they can be that traveler.
There’s that James Baldwin line that says that kids never listen to their parents but they never fail to imitate them. It’s also applicable to kids and adults. It’s on us to ancestrally break habits. The entire book is how we can role model and not preach.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
#OneAction To Take Today:
Read What The Road Said to your kids. Be sure to make your purchase from an independent bookstore or request it from your local library. Here are a few guiding questions for a discussion with them:
- Why do you think the book features a Brown girl?
- What do you do when you’re afraid of doing something?
- How do you think you can become brave enough to do things that are scary at first?
- Why do you think it’s important to ask questions?
Raising Anti-Racist Kids is a column written by Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs focused on education and actionable steps for parents who are committed to raising anti-racist children and cultivating homes rooted in liberation for Black people. To reach Tabitha, email email@example.com or follow her on Instagram.