It was January 2011. My two-and-a-half-year old daughter and I nestled into our couch in Brooklyn for some television. It had been decades since I’d watched cartoons growing up in Richmond, Virginia and on that cold New York City morning, I became hot with rage. The shows on TV were worse than what I watched as a child. Girls were humorless princesses. Boys were funny and tough. Everyone was white. What would become of my brown daughter?
And that’s when it hit me. Be the change.
I called Carey, an old friend from the University of Virginia, to voice my frustration. She worried too—and her son was white. We met on Valentine’s Day and what started like so many other nights – conversation, pad thai, wine – became something special. We used to think people decided to become entrepreneurs first and hunted for an idea second. After that night, we realized it's the idea that shows up and grabs you. It becomes so compelling you can't help but follow.
Neither of us were industry insiders. I was a Wall Street lawyer-turned-novelist and Carey was a stand up comic-turned-executive headhunter. The learning curve was formidable.
We leaned in, reaching out to everyone we knew to discuss children’s media and diversity. Over and over, we heard how hungry kids, parents, and teachers were for different voices. It’s no surprise: a recent study shows that 57% of children’s books feature male protagonists, compared to only 31% female. When it comes to color, forget about it: it’s basically white, (and God forbid you’re a girl of color). This discovery made our mission easy: bring girls and kids of color to the page in authentic ways. Not all girls are princesses. Not all Indian-American kids have parents who own 7-11’s. Not all African-American kids grow up in the projects. Our books would reflect life, in all its glorious nuance, rather than relying on tired clichés, which are a snoozefest anyway.
One year, and thousands of conversations later, we launched In This Together Media, a company that publishes middle grade and young adult books with greater diversity. In two and a half years, we brought ten books to market. We were invited to the White House. Twice.
Kids, parents and teachers sent emails, Facebook messages, and tweets thanking us for the material. In one case, a teacher called to say a ninth-grade student who’d not spoken or written a word all year raised his hand after reading one of our novels and told the class how the protagonist’s mother was similar to his own mom. Now he wants to be a novelist and corresponds regularly with our author. Another mother reached out to us after her three daughters failed to find a single sports series featuring a girl at their school’s Scholastic Book Fair. Our Soccer Sisters series meant the world to them.
Seeing your life in story is validating to an adult. To kids, it is a lifeline. These are our greatest accomplishments. We might not be able to engineer the system so that every child has friends from different backgrounds, of different ethnicities, with different family dynamics or different orientations. But we can provide stories whose perspectives broaden kids’ views of what is possible.