Very early in their relationship, in March 2017, artist Charly Palmer emailed Karida L. Brown a question: If you were to write a children’s book, what would it be? Brown, who has a doctorate in sociology and is a professor at Emory University, had always adored the Berenstain Bears books. “I thought I was a bear,” she recalls, speaking from their home in Atlanta, Georgia. However, she had another, very different answer for Palmer, explaining that she would love to create a book inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’s writing for children.
Since graduate school, Brown has called Du Bois her “North Star and guiding light.” In 1920, the NAACP founder began publishing The Brownies’ Book: A Monthly Magazine for Children of the Sun, which circulated for nearly two years. Aimed at Black and brown children ages 6-16, the magazine’s inside cover announced, “DESIGNED FOR ALL CHILDREN BUT ESPECIALLY FOR OURS.” Brown recalls, “When I first learned about The Brownies’ Book, it shocked me. It really brought me to tears to think that one of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century, who was so very busy, would take the time out to make this happen.”
Now, the couple has turned their email musings into a stunning compendium of art and prose also aimed at young readers. The New Brownies’ Book: A Love Letter to Black Families is a thought-provoking collection filled with 60 stories, poems, essays, songs, photos, comics, plays, illustrations and photographs. They come from a wide variety of Black creators ranging from award-winning illustrators like James Ransome and poet Ntozake Shange to a number of young people—even Zoe Jones, a 5-year-old. In the book’s introduction, Palmer describes them as “an A-team of creative people that shared the same passion and commitment to Black Love.”
After sending out a request for contributions at the beginning of the pandemic, Brown notes, “We got loads of surprises with the submissions—and the range of literary and artistic expression.” For instance, she expected some sort of historical essay from Marcus Anthony Hunter, Ph.D., a UCLA professor. Instead, he sent an astonishing poem, “The Children of the Sun,” which helps introduce the collection. “We really thought that people would stay in their lane and stick to their genres,” Brown says, approving of the fact they did not.
Zoe Jones, the 5-year-old daughter of a friend, wrote a poem called “Kisses Make Things Better (But Sometimes They Don’t).” Two years later, when she saw the poem in the book, she said, “This person has the same name as me”—and she was ecstatic when her mother reminded her that it was indeed, her poem. Wesley Gordon, the 14-year-old son of one of Brown’s colleagues, wrote a powerful essay about the death of his grandfather, “Death Leaves a Scar; Love Leaves Memories.” Brown was impressed and sent him revision suggestions. “We were really intentional that this book should give new writers and artists the opportunity to have their first published work debut alongside some of these creative giants,” Brown explains. “It’s an elevator, in a way. It brings us all up.” In fact, the same was true for the original Brownies’ Book, which featured the first published poems of Langston Hughes (some of which also appear in this new volume).
The wide range of offerings is designed to appeal to many different ages. For instance, “I Don’t Wanna Be Black,” a short story by Shannon Byrd with graphic art from KEEF CROSS, features a young girl encountering difficult racial stories on TV that she doesn’t “quite understand,” but which make her feel “powerless and scared” as well as fearful about her skin color. Her parents’ reassurances—portrayed in dynamic, colorful art—on how proud she should feel about her identity offer an affirming way to address the issue for young readers. Elsewhere, an essay from a Fisk University student discusses the value of her college experiences, while a successful CPA notes the importance of not sacrificing happiness for financial stability.
Some of these stories, you just gotta let it soak. The point is not that the child will comprehend every single nugget. But if the book is on your coffee table, it gets up in your bones, it gets in your spirit. And as you mature, it allows you to explore and tap into the range of human emotions and the human condition through stories and art.
Palmer and Brown emphasize that they wanted this book to be “intergenerational” and encourage conversations among children, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. In The New Brownies’ Book, Palmer includes a portrait of Brown’s Aunt Mary, who often said, when cooking, “You gotta let it soak. When you soak your meat, it’s gonna taste better. Same thing with your mind.” Brown notes, “Some of these stories, you just gotta let it soak. The point is not that the child will comprehend every single nugget. But if the book is on your coffee table, it gets up in your bones, it gets in your spirit. And as you mature, it allows you to explore and tap into the range of human emotions and the human condition through stories and art.”
During his childhood as one of five siblings raised by a single mother, Palmer often found inspiration in biographies of accomplished Black people. “We have a little bit of that woven throughout the book,” he says. One section, “She’roes,” contains the portraits and short biographies of 21 Black women, from Biddy Mason to Aretha Franklin. Palmer adds that he wants readers to know “you all have the potential to be great.” He says, “As much as my subject matter today is of the Black experience, I came to art through the Beatles. I was intrigued by their style of dress and the fact that they looked like they had so much fun. They have really great songs that I still listen to . . . I wanted to try to put on paper what the Beatles made me feel like.” Later on, the writings of James Baldwin made him feel the same way.
If you really look at this book, it isn’t about being Black. It’s about being human, about family love, laws and humor—the threads that connect us all.
This husband-and-wife team would love for their book to be on the coffee table of every Black family in America and around the world, and they have partnered with the nonprofit Page Turners to help distribute The New Brownies’ Book to underserved schools. Palmer notes, “If you really look at this book, it isn’t about being Black. It’s about being human, about family love, laws and humor—the threads that connect us all.”
When asked if they wish Du Bois could see their new book, Brown says, “I feel like his spirit as our ancestor is all over this thing.” She mentions a letter she once read that discussed his desire to restart the Brownies periodical: “It stayed on his mind. So, I know that Du Bois would be so very proud to know that The Brownies’ Book lives on.”