Jordan Thierry and Ben Sand, A KIDS BOOK ABOUT

Jordan Thierry and Ben Sand, A KIDS BOOK ABOUT

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jordan and Ben, to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for doing this interview together.

Ben Sand: Absolutely. Thanks for having us.

Jordan Thierry: Thank you for having us on, Zibby.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Ben, you’re the author of A Kids Book About White Privilege, and Jordan, A Kids Book About Systemic Racism, in the new series of kids’ books which are fantastic, educational, inspiring, all the rest. First, how did you two end up contributing to this series? Jordan, take it away.

Jordan: I can go first. I know the founder of A Kids Book About, Jelani Memory, from youth. We played basketball together growing up. We had done some work together as adults. He reached out. He wrote A Kids Book About Racism. We had touched base and were thinking about a topic for me to write. Then after the murder of George Floyd, we reconnected and decided that A Kids Book About Systemic Racism would be a really great topic to help people understand why these racial injustices continue to thrive in our society that explain that phenomenon beyond the individual one-on-one racism, as I think a lot of people like to think of racism, but looking at the systems that allow these things to continue.

Zibby: How about you, Ben?

Ben: In a way, similar. Jelani Memory, the CEO of A Kids Book About, is a friend of mine. He and I have been in a conversation now together over a decade really about what we’re experiencing and are going to continue to experience in our country and in our culture as white people continue to resist their own exploration on the topic of their ethnicity. What does it mean to be white? While we’ve been talking about it for quite some time, I think in this particular moment in 2020 and as we look ahead, Jelani feels that this is an incredible pivot that’s taking place. Now’s the time to make sure that we’re having this conversation. He asked, and I said yes.

Zibby: Amazing. Have you guys met before?

Jordan: We haven’t.

Zibby: No? Oh, my gosh. Ben, this is Jordan. Jordan, this is Ben.

Jordan: Thank you, Zibby, for bringing us together.

Zibby: No problem. I’m surprised that Jelani hasn’t organized some sort of meetup with everybody.

Jordan: It’s been crazy. It’s been very busy over the last few months. With the pandemic, obviously, we haven’t had a chance to do an in-person mixer or anything like that, but hopefully soon.

Zibby: I get it. When you were both writing your books, what were some of the things that you wanted to make sure to include? How did you figure out how to get them into bite-size information for kids? Obviously, writing for adults is way different. What’s your experience been like talking to kids? I know, Jordan, you did a whole deep dive on fatherhood, so I know you’re familiar with that. Ben, you’re part of this contingent, so you’re actively organizing people, but what about kids?

Jordan: For me at least, it was really, really challenging and really uncomfortable, somewhat, of a process because this is such a deep issue. There’s also just a lot of nuances. Writing a children’s book forces you to make a lot of generalizations. That’s the one part that I really struggled with, was making the generalizations. Of course, there’s exceptions of all of these things. I have to have confidence in the parent or the adult that will be reading with these children and helping contextualize what’s in the book and offer some of that nuance themselves based on their own lives and their own family experiences. I just have to trust that process. I haven’t gotten too much critique or pushback yet, but I’m steady waiting for it. That was definitely the hard part, was making those generalizations and knowing obviously there’s exceptions to all these things. The Kids Book About team, they have this process down pat. They really supported me in being comfortable with that and trying to tell the story and also not shy away from some of the harsh realities. I wasn’t sure how to phrase some of those things about genocide, about slavery. I was very grateful that they were not shying away from those things.

Zibby: It is hard to package up genocide in a very — when other books are about sleeping sheep. Those are the choices at the end of the day. How about you, Ben?

Ben: I have three children, two biological white girls and my son is half Vietnamese, half Mexican. We’ve been having a conversation about their whiteness for as long as they really can remember. That really was, for me, where this started to percolate as someone that lives in a very multicultural community. The work that I do intentionally engages communities of color. Part of what I was longing for was a method to try to translate our internal family conversation to a conversation that could spread with the world. I live in Portland, Oregon. When George Floyd was murdered and the protests began, of which those protests continue, I think the white kids in my city were seeing these protests and were asking questions about they meant for them. It struck me that there are not a ton of resources out there to talk to white kids about their white privilege in a manner that actually asks them to acknowledge it, to give it up, and to use it for the benefit of others. So much of the narrative around white privilege has been co-opted by a cultural war that’s questioning whether or not white privilege even exists. When you ask the question, what does it mean to be white in a moment when we’re asking big questions about race? it felt like now was the time to do that. For me, it was a bit of a translation of taking evening pajama conversations and putting them in a book that could be brought to homes across the country.

Zibby: You did it.

Ben: I hope so.

Zibby: Congratulations. Even the format, I feel like this is totally digestible for kids. I have a six and seven-year-old and then two thirteen-year-olds. Although, forget about getting them to do anything. The little guys, I can still read to. The colors, the message, the questioning, it’s an engaging versus didactic type of read for kids, which I think is so important. What is really exciting you guys? Is it that this content is getting out there? Is it that you’re a part of it? There must be something that made you stop and feel passionate enough about this that you were like, yes, I’m dedicating all this time to writing it and marketing it and getting it out there. What is it for you personally that made you the ones to do this?

Jordan: For me personally, I’m just really excited to be in company with folks like Ben and the other authors. We’re all really focused on this really positive message for our young people about love and hope and resistance and change and acceptance. At the end of the day, that’s probably what the Kids Book About legacy is going to stand for because all the books to date have been in that vein. I think it’s going to have a really positive impact over the long term. I’m also just really excited to be equipping parents and teachers with something to help get these conversations started with their kids and their students.

Ben: Zibby, what’s exciting to me about the book and a kids’ book about any of these topics that are being discussed, but particularly the topics around race, is it feels that we are pushing conversations with a generation of kids that are going to be in leadership in a really critical moment in our country’s history. I imagine that we’re looking at a twenty-year arc in this conversation. Some of the elders, some of those generations that have gone before us, are not prepared to have this conversation at scale. We’re seeing a polarization as a result of that. There are many leaders that have huge concerns about our inability to have a conversation about race and the wealth gap in our country. As a result of that, the inability to have that conversation, what it’s led to is those that are in previous generations rejecting the idea of critical race theory or systemic racism altogether. To be able to make a deposit into a generation of young, white kids to ask these questions in critical moments of their formation, for me, feels like it’s a very strategic move for a twenty-year conversation that has to take place with a quickening pace for the days ahead.

Zibby: In twenty, thirty years, we’ll be watching the election. They’ll say, it all started when I read this children’s book.

Ben: Yeah, that’s right. I’m sure that’s what it will be.

Zibby: It’s going to be that. I had it on my shelf. I kept looking at it. There you go. You never know. I think about different children’s books all the time. It’s a good time to really get in there. If you can learn a whole new language without even trying that hard, it’s a good time to learn a lot of concepts that when you’re older, maybe they’re too challenging, or not too. I’m not saying anyone should give up. I’m just saying the impressionable brain at the young age is a good time to get positive messages around. Do you think that getting to a place where kids don’t see race is where you want things to go? Would your goal be having kids today grow up acknowledging — when I was growing up, I feel like everybody was like, we don’t see race. In all my education and all that, I didn’t even realize it was a thing until I was older and people were polarized around it. I grew up in a really diverse education environment and all this stuff. I didn’t think twice about it. There’s so much focus now on race that I feel like, especially for little kids, they might not have even really noticed it before. Is it better to notice and probe the differences, or it is better to just be like, her skin’s a little darker than mine, but I don’t know, whatever? Do you understand my question?

Ben: Yeah. I’ll take a crack at that. Jordan’s book really addresses this even uniquely beyond mine. I think it’s absolutely essential that we have conversations about the black experience in America and the experience of what it means to be a part of the Latinx community. What we have not done historically is taught white kids about their whiteness and helped them to understand that their whiteness has been rooted in a systemic unearned advantage that they benefit from and have been benefitting from for some time. When we think about race and whiteness in particular, which is what this book is certainly focused on, we won’t be able to have a conversation about race that builds bridges until white people learn about their whiteness. I do this a lot. When I talk to white people, I ask them, when was the last time you ever thought about what it means to be white? The vast majority of white people can’t answer that question. They’re not thinking about their whiteness. They don’t understand where the terms came from. They don’t understand how deeply rooted the systemic unearned advantage has been. They certainly are uncomfortable with exploring the topics in Jordan’s book around slavery and genocide and the laws that were created. From my perspective, we won’t be able to move forward until white people understand their whiteness and then begin to wrestle with it in a way that’s critical. That means that to understand your whiteness, you have to understand how whiteness has created an adverse effect at a systemic level for people of color in our country. That needs to be named and parsed out carefully in my view. Jordan, what do you think?

Jordan: I agree with everything you said there, Ben. Thank you. For me, this is not about trying to work towards a colorblind society. It’s about trying to work towards an inclusive, vibrant society where these inequities and injustices don’t exist. The book, for me, is helping encourage young people to take into consideration the history behind the inequities that we see today. That goes not just for race, but I want them to understand that too for gender, for sexuality so we can contextualize these inequities and then work our way backwards to try and address those root causes. If the book helps train that mental framework for young people, then I’ll be very, very pleased.

Zibby: As authors in addition to, I would say, advocates and almost history teachers and documentarians and all the other amazing things you guys do, as authors when you sat down to write this book, what did you learn about yourselves in terms of any sort of advice on writing children’s books, on getting your messages out? What would you tell someone else who was like, you know what, I want to, A, help this problem, and B, do so through reaching kids? What would you tell them? How can they do a good job?

Ben: I would say the key here is let your life speak. Look back on your life and try to identify that thread that brings you to this point where you have a longing to write, you have a longing to communicate. So much of an author’s experience is really about exploring their own identity. For me as a white person and my own white experience being able to write about whiteness and then to want to talk to other white people about this is really a culmination of a journey that I’ve been on that pivots me to this moment to enter into a new chapter of that journey. It was just as important for me to come to the text looking for my own growth in light of my own journey. Any aspiring authors or anyone that wants to communicate to kids I think needs to also imagine how that topic impacts them and to write from that intimate personal space.

Zibby: I’m feeling like, is there a memoir coming on the heels of this, Ben?

Ben: A Kids Book About

Zibby: A Kids Book About Ben’s Life. Is that in the works as well?

Jordan: I agree with everything Ben said there. Picking up on those notes as well, I think people should value their own lived experience. A lot of people just don’t. They don’t think of their own experiences. Their own stories have value for other people to know and learn from. That’s one of the biggest things I’m always pushing for as someone who does documentary work. Share this story because someone is going to benefit from it. That’s one thing. Like Ben said, write from that place. Explore your own identity, your own experiences. The other is a more practical, tangible thing. There’s a lot of fantastic children’s books out there that deal with issues of race, gender, sexuality, culture, but they don’t get out there because the children’s publishing industry is so rigid. There’s just only a few big players. There’s a lot of these really fantastic books that just don’t have this type of reach. What I’m learning from A Kids Book About, because they’ve created a really valuable pipeline for new kind of content to go directly to consumers instead of having to go through the big players in the children’s book publishing industry, the marketing that they’re doing is just incredible. With some of our books being included on Oprah’s wish list, the kind of reach that that’s getting is just — I never would’ve imagined for this children’s book. Trying to pull from some of the lessons from what A Kids Book About is doing in terms of the marketing and the outreach and not having to go through the big players in the industry, I think people can learn from as well.

Ben: Well said.

Zibby: Yes, great point. Definitely, the advice is get on Oprah’s list. I’m going to put that at the top of my list.

Jordan: Easier said than done.

Zibby: That helps. That definitely helps. First, you have to have great content. That’s the first stop. Thank you both. I’m glad I could be here to introduce you to each other. Maybe now you guys can go have a nice, interesting, dynamic, thoughtful conversation of your own without me bothering you with my questions. Thank you for contributing to society and trying to help the next generation. That’s really admirable of you. Big thumps up as a parent and whatever I am these days, as a person. Thanks. It’s awesome.

Ben: Thanks for having us on your show.

Jordan: Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Jordan: Take care.

Jordan Thierry and Ben Sand, A KIDS BOOK ABOUT