By Sarah Murphy Traylor
Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Larry C. Fields III’s debut books, Little Black Girl and Little Black Boy, shine with dazzling images and words of encouragement, Black joy, and hope. Little Black Girl celebrates “shattering the glass ceilings” and the many “magical things you can do,” and Little Black Boy empowers readers with the knowledge that “it’s okay if you laugh, it’s okay if you cry.” The authors hope that these books encourage readers of all ages to celebrate growth and progress at all ages.
I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Howell-Baptiste and Fields about their experiences as readers and writers as well as their process in writing these books. Both shared foundational reading experiences as young readers that shaped their lives.
Howell-Baptiste shared, “I’ve always been an avid reader, and a book that stuck with me for a lot longer than people think was a book called Nancy No Size. I related so much to the protagonist—she did not really fit in anywhere, but she was just right as she was, she was perfect as she was.” Howell-Baptiste shared that she was not sure if even her mother would know what an impact this book made on her, but it stands out for her as an example of the power of books and how what we read at a young age stays with us for a long time.
Fields recalls reading fantasy books and the Little Critter books, as well as taking on a challenge to see how long it would take to read a book. “I asked my dad how long he thought it might take me to read a book, and he said he did not know but grabbed The Magician’s Nephew, and it took me to a magical place. I started reading more and more.”
Both authors reflected on their experiences with writing at a young age as well as over the COVID 19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown and how that influenced the writing of these books. Howell-Baptiste reflected, “During lockdown at my childhood home in London, I found sketches and comic books I wrote (in my youth). As a homebody, I stayed in and my best toy was my imagination, constantly reading and writing and was always making up stories and had to get them on paper.” Fields shared that writing was not always his strong suit but he always had a vivid imagination and creativity and, through his partnership with Kirby Howell-Baptiste, began getting ideas on paper.
Howell-Baptiste first wrote Little Black Girl several years ago and presented the idea to an agent, who rejected the idea, communicating, “stay in your lane as an actress.” Then, during the pandemic and lockdown, Howell-Baptiste went through her computer.
“I went through so many pilots and screenplays and things that were finished and half-done and saw ideas for books and this idea for kids books. I re-read it and during the pandemic and everything in the social justice space, it hit me even harder. I sent it to my now agent, and she said I think this is fantastic and the ball started rolling. She even asked about a second book, and it seemed so natural to have a sibling book.” In creating Little Black Boy, Howell-Baptiste knew that she wanted to partner with Fields since “I believe that I can speak to my experiences but not those of other people. Larry could [speak to the experiences of a little Black boy] and had that voice… it would be a waste to not put [his creativity] on paper.”
In thinking about the messages they wanted to share in each book, the authors reflected on the importance of community. Fields said, “I really wanted to hit on the fact that no one has gotten where they are by themselves, a lineage of people are there to help. It really takes a village.” Howell-Baptiste reflected, “I hope that these books are not just read by or to children. I hope that they will be a token to give, at graduations, at career changes, at big turning points. They speak to anyone at any stage. This message of growth and empowerment and a conversation about Black joy—this is important not just at a young age but as adults.”
The words empower and soar and align beautifully with gorgeous illustrations by Paul Davey. Each page includes an illustration to accompany the poem, many of the images focused on STEM. Howell-Baptiste shared, “In that time, coming out of the pandemic, writing the second book and revising the first, we really had a sense of community and wanted that pushed in the writing and illustrations. The illustrations are mesmerizing. We are in love with Paul’s work.”
Fields reflected, “We’re really trying to get the author and artist’s brains to get the picture.” Howell-Baptiste continued, “Finding a theme that is not literal but furthering the message of growth and exploration was the challenge… Paul, Larry, and I worked well on the second book. It was just me on the first book and we knew that a collaboration would be better. We could speak to one another, and it shows.” The STEM theme and intricate illustration from Paul Davey allow for Howell-Baptiste’s vision to come to life, to allow for “conversation about limitless possibilities”.
In the vein of limitless possibilities, Fields wanted to include in Little Black Boy a message drawn from experience: “Growing up in a household with other men, it can be hard as an artsy kid. They don’t want to hear you cry. I am very ‘Everything is for everyone.’ It is okay if you cry. You do not have to be tough on the outside. You can be soft on the outside and soft on the inside.”
Howell-Baptiste agreed, saying, “Be who you are.” Fields shared, “I hope that it gets across to all readers. They can still play sports. They can just BE.”
As the books prepare to go into the world, I asked both authors to share any lessons learned over the course of this journey. Fields reflected, “Anything is possible. I never thought I would be here writing a children’s book. If you have any ideas, write them down. Everything that you write matters. You will circle back to it, and you will be glad it is there.” Howell-Baptiste shared, “It is also about growth. It may not be the best but everything takes time and growth and skills. Every voice is valid. You are the only one who has lived in your experience. You may write something, and it may not be as deft as it could be but in time it will be and you will learn how to hone your voice.”
As the book prepares for launch, I wondered what else was top of mind for the authors. “As we approach the holiday season,” Howell-Baptiste began, “these books make such great gifts. Donate one to a school or share with another organization—anything to get these books out. The reality is that the books cost money and not everyone has access, but we want to get this message out and make sure to give this book to others so that all have access.”