Ci6 Keynote: We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices

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Booksellers at last month’s ABC Children’s Institute in New Orleans were galvanized by a special keynote conversation between Cheryl Willis Hudson and Wade Hudson, editors of the new anthology We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices (Crown Books for Young Readers, September 4); Phoebe Yeh, their editor at Crown; and author Kwame Alexander, one of the book’s contributors.

Wade Hudson, Cheryl Willis Hudson, Phoebe Yeh, and Kwame Alexander at Ci6
Wade Hudson, Cheryl Willis Hudson, Phoebe Yeh, and Kwame Alexander at Ci6

The Hudsons are a married couple who have run Just Us Books, a publisher of black interest and multicultural books for young readers, for the past 30 years. They put together this anthology in response to an increasingly polarized world in which many parents, educators, and young readers are seeking perspective, encouragement, and hope to speak up and fight for change in their communities.

At the keynote on Thursday, June 21, Wade Hudson told booksellers he and his wife and co-publisher came up with the idea following the 2016 presidential election, when their niece posted on Facebook that her six-year-old daughter Jordan was feeling terrified about the future in light of some of the cruel comments then-President-Elect Donald Trump had made during the election cycle about people of color, immigrants, women, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups. The anthology’s original working title, said Wade Hudson, was “What Shall We Tell Them?”

“We got to thinking that there are probably other young kids who feel the same way, so what can we tell them?” said Wade Hudson. “How can we reach them to assure them that despite what we are confronted with, there still is hope, that we can still deal with this, that we’ve come through difficult challenges in the past and we will come through this?”

We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, which features a foreword by renowned children’s illustrator Ashley Bryan, contains writing and artwork from 50 of the foremost diverse children’s authors and illustrators, many of whom the Hudsons know or have worked with. Yeh, vice president and publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers, said this anthology will be the largest #OwnVoices book in print this September, counting all 52 children’s authors and illustrators, the book’s production and design teams, and herself serving as the Hudsons’ liaison at Crown.

WeRisecovef“There has never been a book quite like this before, and we are very proud of it,” said Yeh, who first spoke to Wade about the idea at a previous BookExpo. “[Doing this book] came out of love and just wanting kids to feel like you are not too young to stand up for what you know is right. So that is what I am hoping kids will take away from this.”

The anthology’s contributors include Jabari Asim, Tonya Bolden, Floyd Cooper, Sharon M. Draper, Sharon G. Flake, Chester Higgins Jr., Marilyn Nelson, Ellen Oh of We Need Diverse Books, James E. Ransome, Rafael López, Javaka Steptoe, Eric Velasquez, 2017-2019 National Young People’s Poet Laureate Margarita Engle, and Jacqueline Woodson, the 2018 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

“Each author or illustrator has his or her own voice and his or her own way of looking at the world, and I think we recognized that each of them would bring something different and unique even though they were writing on one single topic. And that’s exactly what happened,” said Wade Hudson. “There’s such a wide variety of pieces there that address the concern about the direction of the country but also provide hope and inspiration and love.”

Notable contributions discussed during the keynote included that of Jason Reynolds, whose poem “A Talking To” closes out the anthology, and of Carole Boston Weatherford and her son Jeffrey Weatherford, who illustrated his mother’s poem about the Golden Rule. Other notable pieces include Roy Boney Jr.’s, about Native American stereotypes; an illustration by Cuban American artist Edel Rodriguez; a hopeful letter Rita Williams-Garcia penned for students on Inauguration Day 2017; and a photo essay by the Hudsons’ son Stephan depicting his local Muslim community.

Alexander, a longtime friend of the Hudsons, said the inspiration for his own piece came a few years ago, when he was driving around with his seven-year-old daughter listening to a story on NPR about yet another unarmed black man gunned down by a police officer.

“I realized two things: one, that I was going to have to write about it to be able to have some sort of exchange with her myself, and two, I was going to have to turn off NPR,” he said. What he wrote for his daughter at the time, he explained, became his contribution to the book.

When asked by Yeh about parents and educators who may have concerns about the book’s subject matter, Cheryl Willis Hudson said the book’s engagement with upsetting current events and difficult topics is not only age-appropriate, but necessary. “You can’t not talk about police brutality when you see it,” she said; there’s so much in the media already, children will become aware of the news no matter what.

“My father used to say, ‘Our vines have tender blossoms.’ Little vines hear things, so we just have to be prepared to talk to children about racism, about deportation, about gender inequality. It’s all around them and children see everything,” she said. “And that’s why we chose the wonderful contributors we did: people who have been writing for children and lifting children’s voices and speaking in their voices and speaking in #OwnVoices, so we’ve got a wonderfully diverse cast talking about all of these important things.”

“If we don’t find ways to share really important issues with our children, we defer and allow others to do it,” added Wade Hudson. “One of the things we are confronting now is, where is the counternarrative for what is happening in our country? We need voices that are answering the negative stuff that is going on. It’s our responsibility as parents and educators and writers to help young people understand the world in which we must live.”

Cheryl Willis Hudson, who served as art director for the book and paired all of the writers with their respective illustrators, said most of the entries are formatted as double-page spreads of text and illustrations. The writing is at an 8- to 12-year-old reading level, she said, but the content can be grasped by younger readers through the art. The Hudsons are currently working on an educator’s guide in both print and digital formats as well as an audio version of the book that includes a soundtrack by Wade’s composer brother Curtis Hudson, who wrote the Madonna hit “Holiday.”

“What we really want to bring to kids,” said Cheryl Willis Hudson, “is the message that you can lift your voice, that you can change the world, you can do things that your parents did, that your parents didn’t do, you can be your own self, you can own yourself, and this book validates that. That’s what we hope this book will do.”