By LaRonda Gardner Middlemiss
Books were not really a big feature in my childhood. I don’t have memories of bringing home picture books from the school library, or of picture books being read aloud in class. Instead, what I have, are a few very specific book-related memories.
The first is of my parents buying my sister and I each a book that came with a read-aloud record, the Audible of the ’80s. For my sister, it was Horton and the Egg, and for me, one of the Winnie The Pooh stories. We both loved listening to the Horton and the Egg book. It was such an engaging and fun experience. I have a memory of me begging my mama to let me take my Winnie The Pooh book and record to school to share with my first-grade class. It must have been for a ‘show and tell’ sort of thing. Well, my mama gave in, let me take it, and I never saw that book again. It went missing somehow. I think the most devastating part of that loss was the apparent lack of concern or indifference that my teacher had to the book having “gone missing” from her desk. It was just something that happened, and she seemed to quickly move on with a shrug. I could be wrong, but I always felt like it made its way home with her for her daughter to enjoy. At least, that’s where my young, suspicious imagination went.
The third memory I have is of my mama scraping together enough money so that I could buy a book at the school book fair, a book I thought I really wanted. It was called The Ketchup Kid. I really liked ketchup, so I was sure this book would be interesting to me. I was wrong. I lost interest quickly and I never finished it. I still feel a little bit guilty about it today, because I wasted my mama’s hard-earned money.
Needless to say, I didn’t have a particularly strong relationship with books and was sure I wasn’t a fan of reading. Throughout my school years, all the way through graduating university, reading to me was synonymous with being required and a chore. It wasn’t until a few years after I graduated that I began reading for fun. I honestly don’t remember the first book I decided to read for pleasure, or even why, but whatever it was, it opened my eyes to stories that felt connective and real.
Years later, when I became a mom, my husband and I introduced books very early on to our son. There were many options, even books for the tiniest hands providing sensory input through touching, sound, and sight. And now my son loves books. He loves it when we read to him and he loves to read to us. I think this is in no small part to us performing picture books for him, making story time as fun and engaging (and sometimes exhausting) as possible. Through this experience, I’ve become fascinated with children’s literature, especially picture books. While I do enjoy reading middle grade and YA, picture books are my favorite.
So much a favorite that one day, seemingly out of nowhere, I was inspired to write stories of my own. While cleaning the house, I was thinking about my son and his biracial identity. I found myself thinking about how important it is for him to see himself reflected in the stories he reads—but the options are few. I thought about how planting positive seeds of his racial identity is important at an early age. How loving and believing in himself is critical, and how ideal it would be to provide him, and other children, words of self-affirmation through picture books.
Beyond his racial identity, I began to think about my son’s diagnosis and how rare it is to find protagonists with Down syndrome. I realized that, despite all the wonderful, colorful and different stories out there, there is room to make the landscape a bit richer by sharing more stories that feature children from beyond the margins. A child with Down syndrome is still a child who learns, plays, explores, and overcomes challenges; with all the silliness, joy, tears, mischief, and stubbornness you can see in every child.
Letting less-seen kids see themselves on the pages of a book; featuring them, not as a spectacle, but as kids experiencing life, having fun, upsets, victories, and overcoming challenges, is vital. Sometimes things may look a little different, but what connects them is, like all kids, they are learning, growing, and seeking adventure.
I wonder if I had seen images like the beautiful work of Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Vashti Harrison, Ebony Glenn or Keturah A. Bobo, that showed a girl like me, whether my relationship with reading would have been less of a chore. I wonder if I would have even seen my required textbook reading with more favorable eyes. Math was always my thing, but I wonder if maybe reading could have been, too.
So, for me, writing stories that let children, who are so often not seen in literature, see themselves on the pages of a book, and letting them know they matter, is important. If they matter enough to be represented in a book, then perhaps the connection to that book will spark a desire to find more books and that will help nurture a healthy and lasting relationship with reading. And, perhaps more importantly, also help build their confidence, affirm themselves, and encourage them to be as awesome as they were born to be.
That is why I write.
I Love Me! by LaRonda Gardner Middlemiss illustrated by Beth Hughes is on sale now.
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LaRonda Gardner Middlemiss is a picture book author, who came to writing by way of motherhood. Her son’s love of storytime, which for him meant anytime, immersed her in the wonderful world of picture books. Enjoying books with various themes and approaches to storytelling, from the quirky to the quiet, eventually inspired her to begin writing stories of her own. By day she is an engineer and when not busy battling wits with her husband or having fun with her son, she enjoys listening to children’s book themed podcasts, gaining insight from NPR, and watching movies. She also likes creating art and hopes to someday both author and illustrate her own books. Books that will entertain, enlighten and empower children across the globe. She lives in North Carolina.