KidLit in Color author Valerie Bolling was excited to have the opportunity to chat with her KidLit in Color sister Tameka Fryer Brown about her latest book, THAT FLAG, which released a week ago on January 31.
Tameka, you’ve been on roll! At the end of last year, we welcomed your books, TWELVE DINGING DOORBELLS (illustrated by Ebony Glenn) and NOT DONE YET: SHIRLEY CHISHOLM’S FIGHT FOR CHANGE (illustrated by Nina Crews), and now we get to celebrate THAT FLAG (illustrated by Nikkolas Smith).
What’s your one-liner to describe your newest release?
Thank you so much, my dear sister! THAT FLAG is a story about best friends divided over the meaning and significance of the Confederate flag.
How did this book come to be?
I wrote THAT FLAG after the murders of nine church members in Charleston, SC by a 21-year-old white supremacist whose social media showed him posing with a weapon of war and a Confederate flag. I, like so many others, was angry at the atrocity, and distressed by the subsequent debate as to whether the Confederate flag was indeed an emblem of hate…or merely a symbol of Southern pride. I decided to write a picture book about that flag, as opposed to a story for older children, because the longer we wait to share these kinds of truths with our kids, the more embedded the influence of racism will be in their hearts. We can’t keep doing the same old, same old and expect this societal plague to disappear on its own. We must all be intentional about doing our part to dismantle white supremacy. Writing books for our future adults, leaders, and changemakers is mine.
Tameka, all you’ve said is so true. We must be intentional about fighting racism and other types of oppression, and the truths we share with children are a part of this necessary work.
Can you tell us a bit about your publication journey?
Though THAT FLAG was first written in 2015, the book didn’t sell until 2020, after the nation’s so-called “racial reckoning.” I now consider that delay divine providence, because I could not imagine a more perfect illustrator than Nikkolas Smith or editor than Luana Horry to help bring this story to life, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work with either of them had it sold earlier.
What a wonderful shout-out to your illustrator and editor who are both deserving.
What changed about THAT FLAG from acquisition to publication?
The main thing that changed was giving Ms. Greyson a more active role at the story’s climax. Originally, the plot involved a direct conversation between Keira and Bianca about the origins of the Confederate flag, but my editor suggested that for this story, it might be better to have an adult character shoulder the responsibility of doing the educating—not a Black child. It was very insightful feedback, so I gave Ms. Greyson that role in the story, which makes all the sense in the world as she is their teacher!
Yes, teachers play an important role in children’s lives, and I think Luana’s suggestion “to have an adult character shoulder the responsibility of doing the educating” was a smart one.
What did you learn that you didn’t already know as you did research for this book?
Through research I did for the backmatter, I learned about the original Stars and Bars version of the Confederate flag, namely how it was a source of confusion for the Confederacy on the battlefield because it looked so much like the American flag. Subsequently, there were several battle flag designs used by various Confederate units, including the one we most often call the Confederate flag today—also known as the Dixie or Rebel flag.
It was also eye-opening to read Alexander Stephen’s Cornerstone Speech, as well as re-read the Declaration of Causes of Seceding States, both of which are listed in the book’s Recommended Reading section. Those documents clear up a lot of misinformation about the main reason behind the Civil War, much of which came as a result of the Lost Cause Myth, which is something I learned more about as well.
Thanks for giving us a bit of a history lesson and sources we can read to find out more.
Share your thoughts with us about the illustrator Nikkolas Smith. I actually remember how excited you were when you told me that he would illustrate this book. Do you have a favorite page or spread?
I am a ginormous fan of Nikkolas’s art and artivism! I was already familiar with his work because of his many viral Sunday Sketches, so when Luana asked what I thought about approaching him to illustrate, I was like, “YEEESSSSSS!!!!” Nikkolas’s work is stunning and brave and, per his stated purpose as an artivist, inspires so many people to seek positive, societal change. I was and still am honored that he chose to be part of this project.
Of course, I can go through each page and point out all the fabulous things about Nikkolas’s artistic choices, but from an emotional standpoint, I think the last spread is my favorite. It embodies all the hope I have in the power of truth—both the telling and embracing of it.
How do you hope young readers will experience this book? What suggestions do you have for parents and teachers who read this book to children?
After reading THAT FLAG, I hope young readers will feel enlightened by the more holistic sharing of history, empowered to ask their hard questions, and emboldened to speak out for what they believe is right.
To parents and teachers, I’d say familiarize yourselves with the backmatter and information found in the suggested resources, which will be very helpful in answering the insightful questions kids are sure to have. Most of all, just be honest. Honesty is the best way to engage kids about everything, including the more odious aspects of our history.
Yes to honesty! Children need to know the truth of our history, just as adults do.
What book(s) can we look forward to next from you?
My next book is YOU ARE: ODE TO A BIG KID. It will be illustrated by the phenomenal Alleanna Harris and published by FSG in 2024. It’s a lyrical ode to growing up and believing in yourself. I’ve seen the sketches and oh my heart!
I know it’s going to be a beautiful book, Tameka, with your lyrical language and Alleana’s gorgeous art!
For more about Tameka Fryer Brown and her books, connect with her in the following ways:
TAMEKA FRYER BROWN is a picture book author who writes to sow seeds of self-love, pride, connectivity, and inclusion in the hearts of children. Her books have won awards like the Charlotte Zolotow Honor Award and the Anna Dewdney Read Together Award, and have been honored on best book lists by NPR, Parents Latina Magazine, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, New York Public Library, Bank Street College, The Little Free Library, and more. Tameka’s picture books include Brown Baby Lullaby, Twelve Dinging Doorbells, Not Done Yet: Shirley Chisholm’s Fight for Change, and That Flag. She is also a member of the Brown Bookshelf, WINC, and BCHQ. tamekafryerbrown.com