By Alice Faye Duncan
What vigilant person raised you up like a sturdy flower to help you bloom? Who mothered you? Was it your Mama, grandmother, or favorite auntie? Was it your adoptive mom, stepmother, or a demanding teacher who affirmed your light?
When maternal arms wrap love around a child, that child learns a great life lesson. The word “mother” goes beyond the bloodline. “Mother” is an action verb. To mother well means to serve the constant and ongoing measures of love that meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of a dependent child.
In these trying times, great numbers of children live apart from biological parents. When we take notice of those standing in the gap, we often find them to be conquering dragon slayers, bridge builders, and caregivers (compensated and not compensated), unafraid to step up and mother children.
When I was a college student in Dr. Elsa Barkley Brown’s African American History class, she gave a lecture on slavery and “fictive kin.” The term means made-up or invented relations. Dr. Brown explained that the nefarious machinations of plantation life separated Black families. In response to the separations, Black men, women, and children formed chosen kinships on the plantation to give life stability and meaning.
The process of choosing relatives and making families, not related by blood or marriage, remains a strategy of survival and wellbeing to this day. My mother accepted a weighty task when my grandmother died. Mama raised her baby sister as her very own child. Twelve years separate Aunt Pat and me. Mama has loved us both with equal tenderness. Under her roof, she kept us fed, dressed us well, and sent both of us to college. My aunt is my big sister and she is my mother’s oldest child.
As a schoolteacher working in an urban environment, I have witnessed great success stories that never make the evening news. I know countless grandmothers, aunts, and big sisters, who did not retreat, but valiantly cared for children not their own, until those children walked across a stage under shining lights to receive high school diplomas.
My picture book Just Like a Mama is a lyrical read-aloud and love note that celebrates children who are chosen and cherished. While my two characters do not share the same bloodline, Mama Rose is Carol Olivia’s “heart and home.”
Adopted children and forever parents deserve to see themselves in print. My editor, Denene Millner, agreed with me. Then in 2017, she went on a journey to champion my book into publication. She found a delightful illustrator in Charnelle Pinkney Barlow. Charnelle’s bright pictures jump off the page with joy and start the reader smiling.
While I wrote Just Like a Mama to affirm children mothered by forever mamas, my love note also inspires empathy and understanding in the hearts of young readers who do not share this experience. And no matter the child’s age or gender, every reader leaves the poem assured that love brings healing and “mother” is an action verb.
When I think about my childhood, I remember that a great company of mothers took part in my blooming. Mama was my primary gardener. But there were also neighbors, church ladies, and teachers who planted seeds of goodness in my life to reap a harvest of good. Just Like a Mama is my expression of gratitude for the mothering that I received from many. And as I offer readers my thank you note, I dedicate the joy of it to all loving families in every splendid form.
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Alice Faye Duncan is a National Board Library Media Specialist who writes books for children. She is the author of Honey Baby Sugar Child, A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks, and Memphis, Martin and the Mountaintop, a 2019 Coretta Scott King Honor Medal. Her new book Just Like a Mama is a lyrical read-aloud that celebrates children who are chosen, cherished and loved. Free lesson plans are available at www.alicefayeduncan.com.