Dr. Ibram X. Kendi On How To Make A Children's Book With A Message Compelling

The author of Anti-Racist Baby is bringing the stories of Zora Neale Hurston to a young audience.

Raising Anti-Racist Kids
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My daughter has a fantastical imagination at age 3, as many kids do. She’s always on the lookout for books that delve into the make believe. I, as her mom, seek out stories that center and reflect her Black identity. When books successfully merge those two, it’s just magical. Enter The Making of Butterflies, a children’s story originally written by the incomparable Zora Neale Hurston and, now, adapted by scholar, father, and bestselling author Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, the author of Antiracist Baby, Stamped From The Beginning, and more.

Kendi is in the process of adapting several Zora Neale Hurston stories for younger audiences, all pulled from her 1935 collection, Mules and Men, a treasure trove of 70 Black American folktales. Kendi tells me he discovered this collection back in grad school, and remembers “just being not only blown away with Zora as a writer and a collector and a treasurer, really, of these rare Black rural folktales, but also the folktales themselves.” He continuously returned to the book over the years. “Then when I became a father and I started reading children's books to my daughter, I just couldn't help but make the connection and see that some of those folktales, namely this folktale of how butterflies were created, could make a wonderful story for children.”

His adaptation of The Making of Butterflies stays true to the language that Hurston wrote in — Ebonics — and is a delightfully playful origin story that kept my daughter enraptured from start to finish. Illustrated with gorgeous cut-paper collages by the talented Kah Yangni, the book focuses on the Creator, a nonbinary Black young child who travels from the Old South to a Harlem-esque neighborhood, paying deep homage to the Great Migration of African Americans who create beauty out of scraps.

Kendi has also recently completed a young adult adaptation of Barracoon, Hurston’s account of Cudjoe Lewis (Kossula), the last known living survivor of the transatlantic human trade to the United States. Kossula’s story is one of great suffering, pain and loss combined with resilience, strength and the power of storytelling. (In 2022, he published Magnolia Flower, also based on a Hurston story.)

Since the release of Kendi’s Antiracist Baby in June of 2020, there has been a wave of book bans and attempted book bans, attacks on curricula that explore the racist origins of our country’s history. Some of Kendi’s own books, like How To Be An Antiracist, have been banned. Kendi’s retelling of Hurston’s folktales are a much needed tool for parents fighting to help our children learn the true roots of their culture in academic settings.

I spoke with Kendi, whose own daughter is 7 years old, about his project, exactly what parents can do about attacks on our children’s education, and which books are in heavy rotation at his house.

Can you talk a little bit about the power of publishing The Making of Butterflies and Barracoon in Ebonics as they were originally told, even as we're living through a time when young African American children are sort of discouraged or steered away from this language?

Zora Neale Hurston was a huge defender and chronicler of all aspects of African-American culture, including, of course, the language that we spoke. I personally did not think I could truly convey this story, this folk tale, this cultural treasure, if it wasn't conveyed in the language in which it was spoken. That's like trying to play a song where you just got the lyrics and no beat — it's just not going to be the same. I also think it's important for children to learn the ways in which in the Americas, Black people created new languages — new languages in the United States, new languages in the Caribbean, new languages in South America — that are often disrespected and denigrated and considered broken.

The Making of Butterflies is slated for kids “newborn to age 4.” Let's imagine that a parent buys this book for their newborn, or they get it as a gift. How might they use this book as sort of a teaching tool as the child grows older?

Many children begin reading phonetically, which means they're sounding out words and thinking of them as being written in the way they're sounded out. I'm mentioning that because in many ways, Ebonics, when it's written, is written phonetically so it actually makes it easier for a new reader to read. That's sort of one way in which I think particularly for 4- and 5-year-olds, parents could use this as a learning tool. Secondly, just to ask the child, particularly when they start talking at 1 or 2 years old, "Tell me about, have you ever wondered how squirrels were made? Have you ever wondered how trees were made?" to really engage the child's imagination of things that they see every day.

What do you think makes a good children's book?

I really appreciate stories that have some real symbolism and meaning and lesson behind them. For me, being able to combine these powerful, funny, interesting stories with these animal characters with certain messages that will inspire or encourage children. In this case, for them to really think about what it means to create something, I think makes for a good children's book.

What's the book that's most requested in your home right now?

Imani, my daughter, she actually really appreciates stories with animal characters.

What was your favorite children's book as a child?

So my father bought me these series of Black biographies. There were these very short Black biographies — I think Coretta Scott King was involved in their promotion. Those are probably the most memorable books, partly because of the work that I do today and because they really opened my eyes up to the history of Black people and even racism.

How would you compare the culture now to when you released Antiracist Baby? Do you have any advice for parents? What do you recommend that we do in the midst of all of this intense opposition?

I think that one of the major differences today is that there have been all sorts of very intense efforts to frame anti-racism as anti-white or even racist. That has potentially then caused some people to change their viewpoint on what the real problem is, which is racism. I think it's important for parents to know that one of the oldest and most violent white supremacist talking points is that anti-racist is code for anti-white. That has long been the talking point that has organized particularly Klansmen and lynchers and Jim Crow segregationists — to think that efforts at equality, diversity, and multiculturalism are actually harmful to white people, which then causes them to engage in violence towards those people who are trying to create equality. I think it's important for parents to understand the context of what they're hearing and that indeed it is incredibly important for us to not believe those white supremacist talking points.

None of our children are born thinking that a particular racial group or skin color is better or worse. But if we don't actively teach them to appreciate the totality of the human rainbow, if we don't actively teach them that certain groups don't have less because they are less, then they're going to be taught something else, and we have to protect them from that something else.

The Making of Butterflies, Magnolia Flower, and Barracoon are available everywhere books are sold but please consider purchasing from Black-owned bookshops such as The Lit Bar.