How One Little Boy Changed My Life and Started a Social Education Movement
Nearly six years ago, I had a face-off with a fourth grader. After quitting my job with no plan, I had rediscovered my lost love of storytelling and writing. This led me to publish my first two children’s books. The first book was for my godson who was two at the time. The other was a story I’d written in sixth grade for a vocabulary assignment. I was enthusiastically excited to become a children’s author. Admittedly, I was less excited about the next step — school reads.
The idea of reading my book to children made me a little bit nervous. I did not enjoy reading as a child myself, so I anticipated that my audience of children might find it, and me, boring. I had no plan for how to react if this happened. I didn’t even know if I had a good read-aloud voice for kids.
On my first school visit, I’d go to a school in my hometown of Detroit. I would read to several classes in the media library throughout the day. My nerves were high, but the children were exceptionally kind. One class even stayed behind to color pages from one of my books. I was delighted to hear some of the children reading copies of my books on their own.
But my last class would be different.
Approximately 25 fourth graders walked in. Some of them were as tall, or taller, than me. They looked apprehensive as they sized me up intensely. I swallowed hard and began to tell them that I’d written the story for the book I was going to read them in sixth grade. Before I could start the story, I received lots of hands in the air asking me about publishing and illustrating. I was glad to have this time to break the ice.
Eventually, I read the story to eager ears after assuring the listeners they could ask me more questions at the end of the story. The opportunity was not passed up. When the class was dismissed and we had waved goodbye, one little boy approached me. He looked stern and disapproving. Before I could say hi or ask his name, he looked directly at me and said, “You didn’t write that book!”
I showed him my name on the cover and my picture on the back. I was shocked, but curious. I asked him why he didn’t believe that I wrote the book. He told me with assuredness, “All authors are old white men with glasses.”
I expected myself to be shocked, but I was not.
When I was a child, I greatly disliked reading for a very important, often overlooked, reason: I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in the pages. I wanted to see little girls and boys with brown and black skin doing cool, adventurous things, but I didn’t. So, I withdrew from engaging in the activity of reading altogether.
I thought by creating brown and black characters, I was solving this problem for children who now felt like I did when I was their age. But here this brave boy was voicing another problem that I hadn’t considered: there needed to be more people with brown and black skin writing the books too.
Children’s books are the first lens through which children see themselves from an outward perspective and where they learn about their own capabilities and place in the world. If a child does not see themselves, it is probably that they think they don’t exist or hold importance in the world. Because of this, I knew that historically underrepresented children needed to see themselves in books having fun, overcoming challenges, being silly and learning new things. But, they also needed to see people from their community making the books, being creative and being willing to spend time with them.
The very next summer, with that little boy in mind, I said yes to piloting my program idea at a local church that would begin to solve all of these problems. I’d use my books to create age-appropriate activities for each grade level. They’d be used to make learning fun and provide the foundation of all of the activities prepared for participants. The challenge for me would be creating the robust of a program for 120 children grades K-6 in a city where the literacy rate is 47% with no formal training in education.
But with the help of my volunteers, the guidance of the experienced Youth Minister and the little boy’s voice in my head, I was determined to figure it out. Feeling deeply that all children deserve to have a positive experience with learning and literacy, I felt as though I had no option. A lot of things needed to change for children of color and this was my moment to create that change.
So the experiment started.
The question was: Can children’s books featuring multicultural characters as protagonists and an ethnically diverse author change children’s perception of literacy, learning and themselves? Secondarily, I wanted to know if caring community members facilitating community-based social education could improve outcomes for children of color in school and in life.
That summer, I’d find the answer was yes. With participants excited to attend camp each day, parents reporting the change and classes of children asking to have a copy of the books I’d written, I’d find the initial answer to both questions was “yes.” But for me, it was just the start. I had to figure out how to serve children around the world, not just one summer camp of 120 students. The theory needed to be proven on a large scale creating an unprecedented system of positive learning engagement for children in the community, at home and in school.
With my books and social education ideas in tow, I became Mrs. Ashlee the literacy advocate working to revolutionize education for children of color. Six years later, I have served to over 5,000 children around the world from Detroit to Washington, DC to Central Region, Ghana. I was given this name by children who had read my books and participated in my programs. As, Mrs. Ashlee, it is my mission to make learning engaging and meaningful for children of color using my philosophy of community education and the power of every day people to make children’s literature and storytelling come alive.
I showed up to a school six years ago as an everyday person to do one thing-read my books. But one little boy looked at me and challenged me to do more. He challenged me to change his world and the world of his peers with my books and my existence with a simple statement. But he also changed me for the better. He showed me a problem I had been blind to and I feel honored that he chose me.
Since then and for the rest of my life, I will continue becoming the person he created in that moment: Mrs. Ashlee.