It all started in a doctor’s office more than 20 years ago. Alice Randall (The Wind Done Gone, Ada’s Rules) and her daughter, Caroline Randall Williams (now 25), filled their hour-long wait not with old editions of Highlights magazine, but instead with their own story of a little black princess on a magical island.
Since that day, like the staples of early African-American folklore—Br’er Rabbit, John Henry, Stagger Lee—the fairy tale of B.B. Bright has grown, layer upon layer, enveloped in oral history by a mother and her daughter. Precocious B.B. comes to life in their first book together, The Diary of B.B. Bright, Possible Princess.
“B.B. was the princess of infinite possibilities,” Caroline says. “One of the big things my mom always said to me is ‘Smart people are never bored.’ She’s said that since I was very little, so B.B. was a way of creating my own entertainment.”
The three of us are talking at Longpage, Alice’s home in Nashville, on a sweltering Thursday afternoon. Alice and I are seated at the far end of her colossal handmade dining table, and Caroline joins us via Skype from the University of Mississippi, where she has just started her first semester as a poetry grad student. For both mother and daughter, it’s clear that B.B. represents far more than entertainment: She’s a princess to outshine other princesses, and a black heroine to transform the landscape of black children’s literature.
Black Bee Bright, or B.B., is a 13-year-old orphan under the care of three godmommies on Bright World, an island seemingly suspended among the stars, keeping B.B. separate from the reader’s world (“The Other World”) and her own homeland, Raven World. B.B. is secretly the royal heir to the Raven World throne, but she cannot leave the island until she passes her Official Princess Test and meets the eight princesses on the dangerous side of the island. That’s a tall order for any girl, but B.B.’s not just any girl. She might have dreams of boyfriends, best friends and the cool clothes she sees in magazines, but she also knows the Harlem Renaissance writers, loves Shakespeare and faces the unknown with little fear. B.B. shares her dreams and goals to change the world through smart, zippy entries in her diary.
Any little girl, regardless of race, will find B.B. to be funny, adventurous and inspiring—as well as a quintessential middle school girl—but her rich black cultural heritage is personally important for both Alice and Caroline, who spent their respective childhoods searching in vain for a strong black character.
“As I was writing these stories with Caroline initially, it spoke to me,” Alice says. “It was almost like having the black doll I had wanted in my own childhood.”
“I think that’s a great celebration for all kids in humanity—that your race shouldn’t be a tragedy for you. That, I think, is the most revolutionary thing about our book.”
Caroline did have a black doll, the American Girl doll Addy, but she found Addy’s experiences to be harsh and traumatizing in comparison to the other American Girls’ stories. “The other American Girls, they have their trials,” Caroline says, “but Addy gets whipped by an overseer in the first book.”
Alice chimes in, “And forced to eat a tobacco louse or something!”
“I remember one of my best friends’ moms telling me not to tell her daughter about that,” Caroline says. “We’d all gotten the American Girl books together, and we were talking about them at a sleepover. . . . I was telling what happened in Addy’s first book, and [my friend’s] mom was like, ‘No, we don’t talk about that.’ And I was like, ‘Well, it’s my American Girl book!’ But it is crazy; I shouldn’t have been reading it either!”
Through B.B., Alice and Caroline were able to create a character who is proudly black, well informed about her cultural history, and whose trials have nothing to do with the color of her skin. “One of the things that I really love about this book,” Alice says, “is . . . there’s no trauma over the race. Which is one of the things I think is strange about reading books with black central characters, in particular children’s books, is race is always a trauma. . . . [For B.B.,] it’s not a tragedy. No part of her sadness is around her race, and I think that’s a great celebration for all kids in humanity—that your race shouldn’t be a tragedy for you. But in black children’s literature, it almost always is. That, I think, is the most revolutionary thing about our book. That’s something that Caroline insisted on.”
B.B.’s difficulties come more from the process of growing up and becoming a smart, confident young woman, but her main hurdle, the Official Princess Test, reflects a growing reality in children’s lives: test anxiety. Caroline, who taught elementary school in Mississippi for Teach for America, witnessed first-hand her students’ stress about the upcoming National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test.
“Our students already at six years old were starting to worry about the state test,” Caroline says. It’s no wonder: For children in Mississippi, failure is a real possibility. One out of every 14 kindergarteners and one out of every 15 first graders in the state repeated the school year in 2008. And once behind, Mississippi kids tend to stay behind, as results showed only 61 percent of Mississippi’s students graduated from high school on time, 10 percentage points below the national average. (source)
“[Kids] are constantly being tested,” Alice says, “and their parents are being reproached and praised based on these tests, and the kids were moving on or not moving on based on these hard-and-fast test numbers. . . . We’re coming to an age when people want to see results. And we obviously critique that in certain ways, that these kids are not just test results.”
Plucky B.B., despite the fact that her entire future will be decided by her Official Princess Test, sticks to her guns and answers questions in her own way, even going so far as to interrupt the exam, speak her mind in a very un-princess-y manner and walk out entirely. Afterwards, B.B. must wait to hear her results, but the pressure of possible failure doesn’t keep her down. She works on her candle business (her friendship with bees comes in handy), furthers her involvement in the Heifer Project (though she cannot leave Bright World, she can send mail to the Other World and is very involved in charities there), and then heads off on her own to the other side of the island, where she learns more about herself than any test can prove. B.B.’s no Snow White; she tackles her own problems head on.
“B.B’s sort of actualizing her own things,” Caroline says, “and taking possession of her future as a princess and feeling confident about her own testing choices and having her own sense of self, despite whatever the result may be. She’s gathering her courage from her experiences.”
After encountering such an unforgettable character as B.B., it’s great news to hear that Alice and Caroline hope to continue the series with a second book for B.B., a B.B. picture book and, most excitingly, three more princesses with two books each.
“This is a journey that we are inviting every girl to make,” Alice says. “You’re finding your own leadership skills and your own creativity and your own nurturing, your own intellectualness, your own physical prowess. If you want to say it in a highfalutin way, the Jungian girl-power power.”
At this, Caroline laughs. “Mom,” she groans.
Alice laughs, too. “I said if you want to say it in a highfalutin way! One of Caroline’s great qualities is, she may be smarter than me, but she always keeps it simple. She’s the younger one, but she’s the one who’s wise enough to say, ‘Let’s bring it down to earth.’”