Paging kid books that don’t shy away from the tough stuff

Page 1: “This is a book about racism.” Page 2: “For reals! And yes, it really is for kids.” A Kids Book About Racism, by local tech entrepreneur Jelani Memory, is a sharply designed read-aloud book about racism: what it is, how it makes people feel, and what kids (and their grown-ups) can do about it.

At once personal and universal, the book is just one of a dozen released by Memory and his partners at A Kids Book About, a new Portland company that eschews traditional publishing models—no Amazon or bookstores—and sells directly to readers from its website (akidsbookabout.com). The first six were launched in October and touch on other sometimes tough-to-talk-about topics: feminism, depression, money, belonging, and creativity. Six more drop this month, on cancer, body image, adventure, failure, anxiety, and gratitude.

The first title was a product of Memory’s own attempts to talk to his brown biological kids and white stepkids about race: in August 2018, he created the book he thought his family needed. “I printed literally one copy and handed it to my kids.”

A Kids Book About Racism draws on Memory’s own experience as someone of mixed race in order to talk about what happens when we treat people differently based on the color of their skin. Its beauty is in its clever design, using typeface and color to elevate simple-seeming sentences and illuminate big concepts.

“The unlock for me was when I started to show it to adults,” says Memory. They all wanted a copy, and they wanted to see more. While Memory was reluctant to wade into what he calls the “broken” world of publishing, he couldn’t let the idea go. “One afternoon, I’ve got a list of 100 books. And then I started to pick apart each part of the publishing process, starting with: how do you acquire authors?”

That part, it turned out, was easy. Through his Portland circles, he landed on some experts in their fields: Wildfang CEO Emma McIlroy (A Kids Book About Feminism) and author and speaker Kevin Carroll (... Belonging) among them. For A Kids Book About Depression, he approached longtime friend Kileah McIlvain, who was diagnosed four years ago with bipolar disorder.

So how did he turn this multitalented bunch into children’s book authors? Memory and his A Kids Book About partners, Jonathan Simcoe and Alex Trevor Devine, take each expert through a daylong workshop, emerging with a structure and text for the book at hand. “They asked helpful, open-ended questions so they could really understand where I was coming from,” recalls McIlvain.

McIlvain has used her own book to talk to her four children about her experience with depression and finding help, and says it was a helpful tool for a family conversation about her mental health. It may seem like a weighty topic for the target 5- to 9-year-old demographic, but Memory says teachers and parents often wait too long to have these conversations with their kids. “We wanted to be that most ground level, basic place to start.”

“So if you see someone being treated badly, made fun of, excluded from playing, or looked down on because of their skin color ... call it racism.” That’s the last two pages of A Kids Book About Racism. The end of the book, and a good place to start.

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