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A New Picture Book Reminds Black Sons: You Are 'Every Good Thing'

Oct 24, 2020

The kids in I Am Every Good Thing are compared to the best things: moonbeams on brand new snow, the center of a cinnamon roll, a perfect paper airplane that glides for blocks.

When Derrick Barnes first started writing children's books 15 years ago, he didn't see Black kids — and Black boys in particular — being depicted in this way.

"Whenever you saw a black male character in children's books, he was either playing basketball, he was a runaway slave, or just visually looking very docile or assimilating," Barnes says.

Barnes has four sons of his own and he wrote his new book to be empowering and affirming — two bounces and a front flip off the diving board on a Saturday morning affirming. "I compare our sons to things that are universally good ... to show America that our boys have just as much value as your sons," he says.

Illustrator Gordon C. James says he sought to "celebrate the beauty, the power, the elegance, the grace, the brains of these children."

James and Barnes last worked together on their 2017 book, Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, but they actually go back 20 years — they used to work at Hallmark Cards together. Because they're friends, James says there's "probably more back and forth" than in the average picture book project.

"I am Saturday mornings in the summertime. / I am two bounces and a front flip / off the diving board. / I am hilarious. I am the life of the party. / I am the smile forming on your face / right now."
Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James / Penguin Young Readers

Barnes knows that James is always drawing. "Whenever we're together in between book signings ... he's sketching in a sketch book," Barnes says. "So his mind is constantly working."

As he started working on I Am Every Good Thing, James decided that he wanted the illustrations to depict not just one child, but many. "When I read it, I imagined it being just all these different boys representing every boy," James explains.

So he hired models and got to work with his oil paints.

Penguin Young Readers

"Most of the boys that you're going to see in here, they're real people," James says. The illustrations show children of different ages, sizes and skin tones. They are pictured alone, with friends and with family.

"It is a difficult job to get the full picture of a people — or even of a segment of people — but that's what I was trying to do," James says. "And I did it with full color, a lot of emotion, painterly strokes."

For Crown, James depicted Silas, one of Barnes' sons on the cover. For the cover of this new book, James painted his own son, Gabriel. He's standing arms crossed, looking tall and proud.

"My son is autistic, and so he doesn't often get asked to do things or asked to be the center of things," James says. It was powerful to illustrate his child "looking like how I feel he sees himself and how we see him as his family."

"It was very important to us to have a black boy on the cover that had a very confident look — like this boy could come from any American environment or neighborhood," Barnes adds.

James and Barnes talked about how this deeply positive book was in many ways "a reaction to something negative." James consciously depicted the characters in places like swimming pools and classrooms, where Black children have long faced racism and prejudice.

"I wanted through the illustrations for these kids to feel empowered ..." James says. "I want them all to feel like they belong everywhere, like there are no limits to the places they should be, or the things that they can be. No part of this life — this full, amazing life — should be off limits to you just because of who you are."

"I am brave. I am hope. / I am my ancestors' wildest dream. / I am worthy of success, / of respect, of safety, of kindness, of happiness."
Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James / Penguin Young Readers

Melissa Gray edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DERRICK BARNES: (Reading) I am every good thing that makes the world go round, you know, like gravity or the glow of moonbeams over a field of brand-new snow. I am good to the core, like the center of a cinnamon roll - yeah, that good.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

That's Derrick Barnes reading from his new book for children, "I Am Every Good Thing."

BARNES: I compare our sons to things that are universally good, like the center of a cinnamon roll or jumping off a diving board on a Saturday morning during the summer - things that make everyone feel good. I am helping my grandmother cross the street, you know, something that everyone can relate to just - you know, basically to show America that our boys have just as much value as your sons.

SIMON: The book is illustrated by Gordon C. James.

GORDON C JAMES: I just really tried to celebrate the beauty, the power, you know, the elegance, the grace, the brains of these children.

SIMON: They last worked together more than three years ago for the book "Crown: An Ode To The Fresh Cut," which won a Newbery Award, a Coretta Scott King Award and a Caldecott Award. But Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James have known each other a long time.

JAMES: Derrick and I have known each other for almost 20 years. We both used to work at Hallmark Cards together. Oddly enough, not even back then, we had never worked together. And so this is the second book that we came together on. Because we're friends, there's probably more back-and-forth than in the average project.

BARNES: You never know what you're going to see, but I know Gordon's body of work. I know that he is a fine artist. So I'm really excited when he actually shares, you know, those first drawings with me - you know, those first paintings because I know he's always working. Whenever we're together, in between book signings, he's sketching in a sketch book. So his mind is constantly working.

JAMES: There's a couple of ways you could have gone. Like, we could have had one character and followed him throughout the book. But when I read it, I imagined it being just all these different boys representing every boy. And so I hired models. Most of the boys that you're going to see in here, they're real people. So you're going to get boys of all different skin tones. You're going to get boys of different sizes, different weights. You're going to get different ages. You're going to see them by themselves, interacting with each other, with their parents, with their grandparents. It is a difficult job to get the full picture of a people or even of a segment of people. But that's what I was trying to do. And I did it with bold color, a lot of emotion, painterly strokes. You know, it's an oil paint.

SIMON: "I Am Every Good Thing" begins with a light heart. I am skateboard tricks, a perfect airplane, Saturday mornings in the summertime. And it flows like a song, gradually growing more complex and more serious.

BARNES: (Reading) I am the undisputed champion. I am a highlight reel of magnificence. I am the celebration, the applause and the standing ovation. I am victory. I am a brother, a son, a nephew, a favorite cousin, a grandson. I am a friend. I am real. I am tight hugs and a hand to hold, a shoulder to cry on if you have to. I hope you never have to. I am here.

SIMON: Derrick Barnes has four sons. For their last book, "Crown," Gordon C. James depicted one of them, Silas. For the cover of this new book, Mr. James has painted his son, Gabriel. He's standing, arms crossed, looking tall and proud.

JAMES: My son is autistic. And so, you know, he doesn't often get asked to do things or asked to be the center of things. And so to have him out there, you know - he's - I'm trying not to get emotional, but he is - you know, he is on the cover looking like how I feel he sees himself and how we see him as his family. You know, he's very smart. He's very strong. He's very outgoing, even if it doesn't always come out that way.

BARNES: That's what we're shooting for. You know, when I got in this industry in, like, 2004, you know, whenever you saw a Black male character in children's books, he was either playing basketball, he was a runaway slave or just, you know, visually looking very docile or assimilating, you know what I mean? So it was very important to us to have a Black boy on the cover that had a very confident look, like this boy could come from any American environment or, you know, neighborhood.

JAMES: So we talked about why the book was created, right? It's a reaction to something negative. But I wanted through the illustrations for these kids to feel empowered. There are pictures of boys - they're in the woods. There are pictures of places where - that are often, like, controversial or problematic for Black boys. So they're at the swimming pool. They're in the classroom. They're in all these different places, and they're doing all these different things. And I want them all to feel like they belong everywhere. Like, there are no limits to the places they should be or the things that they can be. No part of this life, this full, amazing life, should be off limits to you just because of who you are.

SIMON: Illustrator Gordan C. James and author Derrick Barnes talking about their book, "I Am Every Good Thing."

BARNES: (Reading) I am brave. I am hope. I am my ancestors' wildest dream. I am worthy of success, of respect, of safety, of kindness, of happiness. And without a shadow of a doubt, I am worthy to be loved. I'm worthy to be loved. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.