KidLit in Color members Kirstie Myvett and Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow discuss Jamilah's latest picture book, Hold Them Close: A Love Letter To Black Children.
KM: Hold Them Close, A Love Letter To Black Children, touches on the complexities of Black children’s feelings in a poetic but very real way. You open with examples of happiness then seamlessly delve into the heavier stuff that Black children must, unfortunately, face. Tell us why embracing both the happy and sad is so important for Black children.
JTB: When I began writing this book, it was in response to Black pain. I wanted a way to help children manage their feelings about our collective and ongoing traumas. Yet and still, I wanted to affirm that they are deserving of joy. I wanted to affirm that at heart, we have always been a people who find and make joy in spite of the most unimaginable cruelties. We are a people who have created and continue to create culture and beauty in spite of oppression.
KM: I believe this book is powerful and that it will be a tool to help children explore their feelings alongside their parents, teachers, and classmates. When you wrote HTC, did you think about the potential dialogue that would take place around it because you so eloquently address what I imagine children are feeling during difficult, “bigger than sadness” times?
JTB: I did write with a hope that this book would serve families and communities in having necessary conversations. Unfortunately, I know we will need ways to navigate continued racism, and I do hope this book is a support in doing that work. It’s hard to talk about “sadness bigger than sadness” in picture books because we want stories for children that are light. Our kids need that. Nevertheless, there are moments when life just isn’t light and when it’s impossible to shield our children from heavy realities. I wrote this book for those moments, wanting it to be a comfort and a tool in those moments.
KM: The illustrations and photography really drive your message home. While looking at the cover, I was overcome with memories of my own sons when they were little. I became very emotional looking at the stunning images throughout the book. Please tell us about illustrator Patrick Dougher and photographer Jamel Shabazz, whose artwork and images grace your book.
JTB: I sometimes tear up when I look at the images. Patrick Dougher is an acclaimed Brooklyn-based fine artist who works in many mediums including major city murals and has also worked with youth in his community as an art therapist. While this is his first book, he’s his own institution in the art world. Jamel Shabazz is a legend. He has documented New York City neighborhoods for decades. He is from Brooklyn and his photography has been shown in books, documentaries, and exhibitions. I adore his loving portrayals of the models in the book, especially the children. I still can’t believe I was able to have both of these artists work on my book.
KM: What is the message you want Black children to get from this love letter?
JTB: You are loved, you are worthy, you are heard, and we got you when times are hard. Hold on to who you are, hold on to your joy, and always, always, ALWAYS hold on to hope.
KM: I feel children of other races will also benefit and gain empathy from reading HTC. What is your message for non-Black children who, out of curiosity, pick up this book with its compelling cover?
JTB: I think the message above could apply to them as well. In addition to that, I hope they are inspired by Black resistance and resilience. I hope they see our shared humanity.
KM: What do your boys think of Hold Them Close?
JTB: The oldest has told me it inspires him, which is heartening. The youngest seems to appreciate the language and images. I hope it builds up their sense of self.
KM: Lastly, how will you celebrate your launch?
JTB: I’m excited that I’ll be celebrating on launch day with the community organization, Start Lighthouse Foundation, because it will mean celebrating with many children in the Bronx. While I’m not from there, I have done multiple school visits in that borough, and it always feels like home when I go there. I also am looking forward to upcoming events local to Philadelphia, including a story time with Children’s Book World during launch week and an event with the African American Museum of Philadelphia later this fall (date TBD).
KM: Thanks so much for stopping by Jamilah and congratulations on your latest book!
Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, M.S.Ed, is a Philadelphia-based, award-winning children’s book author. A former English teacher, she educated children and teens in traditional and alternative learning settings for more than 15 years. As an inaugural AMAL fellow with the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC), she developed foundational curricular frameworks for youth and adult anti-racist programming. Her picture books and middle grade fiction, which feature young Black and Muslim protagonists, have been recognized as the best in children’s literature by Time Magazine, Read Across America, and NPR. These works include Mommy’s Khimar and Irma Black Award Honor Book, Your Name is a Song. In addition to producing children’s literature, she invests her time in mentorship of aspiring children’s book authors through multiple programs including We Need Diverse Books: Black Creatives Fund and the Muslim Storytellers Fellowship of the Highlights Foundation where she is also a committee member.
You can learn more about Jamilah at http://jamilahthewriter.com.
Illustrations by Patrick Dougher and photography by Jameel Shabazz and copyrighted.