Kirby Howell-Baptiste, LITTLE BLACK BOY: Oh, the Things You Will Do! and LITTLE BLACK GIRL: Oh, the Things You Can Do!

Kirby Howell-Baptiste, LITTLE BLACK BOY: Oh, the Things You Will Do! and LITTLE BLACK GIRL: Oh, the Things You Can Do!

Zibby is joined by British actress Kirby Howell-Baptiste (from “Queenpins,” “The Good Place,” “Killing Eve,” and more!) to discuss her two beautiful and uplifting picture books (and love letters to her inner child): Little Black Girl: Oh, the Things You Can Do! and Little Black Boy: Oh, the Things You Will Do! Kirby describes her book publishing experience, the themes that inspired her (community-building, Black female empowerment, and Black male joy), and the significant reason behind the slightly different book titles. Kirby also talks about her acting career, her favorite creative outlet (it involves unsent Tweets), and her dream of writing a toilet book!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kirby. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Kirby Howell-Baptiste: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: You have two books coming out at once, which is very ambitious of you. It’s quite a way to dive into the children’s book market. Tell listeners about your books and how you decided to do these and get them out and why at the same time and all the rest.

Kirby: I have two kids’ books, like you say. This is my first-ever published books. The first is called Little Black Girl: Oh, the Things You Can Do! The second is Little Black Boy: Oh, the Things You Will Do! The reason there are two is — I originally wrote Little Black Girl quite a few years ago. It coincided with when my niece was born. Then I had this idea of things that I wished that I had heard or been told when I was that age. I almost started it as a love letter to her, which then in turn became a love letter to my inner child. Then the idea didn’t go anywhere. I was with a team that were like, “I don’t know.” At that point, it was sort of like, stick to acting. Then it went into the deep recesses of my laptop. Then during the pandemic, I had a lot of time. I was literally just cleaning things up and going through and reading old things that I’d read. It was both nostalgic and also to inspire me during that time. I came across the book again. I read it. I think it’s rare as a writer — well, I think it’s rare as any sort of artist. You often fall out of love with the things you’ve made. You become very judgmental.

Zibby: You can call yourself a writer. It’s okay.

Kirby: Okay, as a writer. Thank you for giving me permission. I am publishing two books. Now I can call myself a writer.

Zibby: It counts.

Kirby: I reread it. There have been tweaks, but I really fell in love with it all over again. It was years later. My niece was ten-teen, as my mom calls her, entering a whole new phase in her life as well. I felt like it was more relevant than ever, particularly to hear words of encouragement because more than when I was a kid — we weren’t surrounded by so many voices in general. Not all of it is positive. I felt like that needed to happen. Then when I pitched the book to Stacey at Penguin Random House, she was like, “This is great. You think there’s a second book?” to which I immediately said yes. I was like, now my mouth’s written a check that I have to cash. It just became very natural that it would be a sibling book, this companion. We had Little Black Girl. We were talking about female empowerment and Black girls being able to access things and do whatever. The natural other side of that coin is Black male joy, which I think is so under-explored in literature, in film, in TV. That’s how number two came along.

Zibby: Wow. You did a great job. The writing is really moving. I see what you’re saying about healing your own inner child at the same time. There are parts even with Black Girl where you talk about how Black women have to band together and how the warmth comes from everybody bonding together after everything. The sense of community and collaboration and all of that, it’s really amazing. It’s very moving the way it’s written.

Kirby: Thank you. I hope that. I think in general, all of us do better in communities. Me personally, I feel like I’ve had sort of two upbringings as a Black person, growing up in the UK and being Black British and Caribbean and then coming here and seeing the race relations here and seeing it from an African American’s perspective. I feel like the common denominator, often, in communities that have been moved out of their natural habitat is the fracturing of communities. I think it’s our job and we realize that we are stronger when we do come together because that’s the only sort of a survival skill. Community is truly one of our most basic survival skills.

Zibby: It’s true. Can I read a little piece, a little page about this part of the book? Where should I start? For people who haven’t seen it yet, first, it’s about careers that you can do and not letting anybody hold you back by saying no and don’t do it, sort of like when people told you not to write a book. “Do what you want. The world’s a blank slate, and remember that love will always destroy hate. You can travel the world or stay close to home. The world is your oyster to wander and roam. No, she’s too Black or not Black enough, words you may hear, but your skin will grow tough. Not tough on your own, for there are many others, generations of women, your sisters and mothers. For we are Black women who have weathered the storm. When the world is cold, we keep each other warm. Our history is rich. We’ve been here since the start, growing and changing, a living work of art.”

Kirby: It’s lovely to hear it out loud because you never hear it out loud except when you’re saying it. That’s the first time I think I’ve heard it.

Zibby: It’s not funny when I’m saying out loud, “I am a Black woman”? I’m not a Black woman.

Kirby: No. It’s great to just hear it and be like, oh, okay, yeah. When you’re in your own head, you’re like, I know the rhythm. Does everyone else know it?

Zibby: I hope I got it right. It’s really good.

Kirby: Good. Great.

Zibby: It’s inspiring. “You’ll shatter the ceiling, bring others with you to share that great feeling.” That’s a great line. It’s a great line.

Kirby: Thank you. I hope so. I’ve always been inspired as well. The thing about kids’ book — of course, when you write something like this, you have to target a demographic. It is a kids’ book. I look at things like Oh, the Places You’ll Go! I didn’t even read that until I was literally going off to the next chapter of my life, which was between high school and college. There are these really big transitional moments in people’s lives where you just need something positive put to you in the most simple form. I find that kids’ books, same with cartoons and things like that, are such a vehicle for a bigger message.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s like those graduation speeches, just short, punchy things for getting you onto the next. It’s very true. Then the other book, let’s see if I can quote from that or if I put that away. Hold on, I think I have it here. That one focuses more on an aspiring marine biologist as this Black boy is exploring the world and uncovering things. Even there, you have the support of his whole network. You have an image in the water with him and everybody else and, again, this collaborative way for people to pursue anything that they want with nothing holding them back at all, just shooting for the moon type of message.

Kirby: There’s a small distinction in the titles as well. For Little Black Girl, it’s Oh, the Things You Can Do! Little Black Boy, it’s Oh, the Things You Will Do! Larry and I — Larry, who cowrote Little Black Boy — we went back and forth. It was such a small word. We debated it for ages until we had to email Stacey to be the tiebreaker. We were like, “Should it have the same title, or do you feel like this makes sense?” Stacey was really, really helpful. We just talked it out with her. Language is important, but it’s small. What we really boiled it down to was that for Black women, I think there is a struggle with the expectation that they can do anything. It’s almost like you have to be given permission to be allowed. Whereas with young Black boys, people put this idea of them that they even will do anything. There’s almost the lack of expectation. It’s expected that you won’t do anything. That became such a pivotal way of expressing the difference in the way we’re treated in our upbringing.

Zibby: It’s so true. I can imagine those conversations.

Kirby: It’s so small, but you go back and forth for hours.

Zibby: Every word, oh, my gosh. Tell me how you are going to launch this book and do whatever, your film projects, your TV projects. You’re doing four different projects at once or something insane.

Kirby: I’m always doing four different projects at once because I can’t sit still. If only you knew my mother. I’m always like, “Mom, take a holiday. Relax.” She can’t relax. I’ve inherited the gene. I moved away for over ten years, and I still became my mom. It’s impossible. I am actually really fortunate. The project I’m on right now, it has just so timed out that it’s quite light through November. It’s really kismet, actually, that I get to have this time. We’re launching it in a number of ways. We have a book reading at Barnes & Noble on the 19th. The book launches on the 15th. It’s available for preorder now. There’s other little things that are coming in. Larry and I really, really want to make a point to do some readings at some libraries and some schools and things like that because that’s very, very, very important to us, to get the book to places that they might not have access to it. I’m honestly really, really excited. I want to live my best writer life and be touring as if this is the nineties or something. I want to tour the world with this book. I am really excited about it. One of the things that I’ve said to a lot to people is, if you can offer it as a gift to people — we don’t make the prices of these books. I recognize that a book that’s $18.99, to a lot of people, that’s chump change, but to a lot more people, that’s a huge amount of money, so if there’s a world where people could buy this as a gift or donate it to a school or a foster home or things like that so people who really do need to hear words of encouragement that might not be hearing it otherwise get to hear it.

Zibby: You should put some links somewhere.

Kirby: Yeah, we have to do that. We have to make some links. This is good. Lauren’s taking notes. We’ll make some links, some sort of donation matching, and things like that. We’re going to get there.

Zibby: There’s even a way — not to promote Amazon or anything, but there’s a way where a lot of charities, you can just send it directly there. You go into your wish list.

Kirby: A wish list, yeah.

Zibby: I’m sure there’s better ways. Anyway, you don’t need this advice. You’ll figure it out.

Kirby: Listen, I’ll take advice from anyone. Why not? Lauren’s hearing it. We’ll have something to email about after.

Zibby: Can you just tell me how you got started as an actor and this creative type? As you’ve done eight thousand things every minute, what are some of the other things that you’ve gotten accomplished along the way?

Kirby: How I started, I feel like I have a very — in an odd way, I think it’s a very satisfying journey to hear, but it’s not a really sexy journey. It’s not like, I was walking down the street, and someone stopped me and gave me the role of a lifetime. I think that is a sexy story. At least when I was coming up, I would rather hear stories like mine. I have scrapped and worked for everything. There’s no one in my family who’s in this industry or who I think would ever even want to be on camera. I feel like my journey has been very incremental. It’s just grown over time. I did acting at school. Actually, where I really started was, my mom put me in these community center acting classes when I was young at a place called the Anna Scher Theatre. I’d go there after school once, and then twice, a week. Everyone in North London, where I’m from, went to Anna Scher at some point. I fell in love with it straight away my first day we came in. We would do little improvisations and dances.

I’ve always been a TV addict. My family would always say I was raised by TV. I would watch TV relentlessly, but I don’t think I ever connected, when I was a kid at least, that that was a job. You kind of think it’s real. When I went to Anna Scher, I realized that that’s what people were doing. From that moment on, I loved it. Then I just chipped away. I did background work when I was younger and moved out to LA on a visa for school, on a student visa, and then got another visa after, worked at a café under the table whilst I was at school. Again, always have a lot of projects going on at once. Then it’s truly, one thing has led to another. Yesterday, I was on set of a show that I’m on. We have a new cameraman. He said, “Kirby, we did Comedy Bang! Bang! together.” That was almost ten years ago. That was my first-ever thing. It was incredibly cool. We were chatting. I said to him, “You have no idea. That was my first-ever costar, on Comedy Bang! Bang! I have never been more nervous in my entire life.” I think I had one line. It was terrifying to finally be on a professional set.

Zibby: Wow, I would be terrified too. My daughter sang for the first time. She’s a great singer. She finally did her first performance at school. She said that her whole body was shaking so much that even her voice was shaking. I was like, “It’s never going to get worse than this. The first time you do it, this is the bottom. Every other time, it’ll get better.”

Kirby: I also think that there is something particularly intimate and raw about singing in front of people. I want to do my job for the rest of my life, but if you ask me to sing in front of people, I will quit immediately. It’s not a thing I have any interest in. I will say, actually, weirdly enough, the only thing I think I could be capable of singing — I think it’s because I love it. I love the musical Cabaret. I studied it at school. I just fell in love with it. I’m also someone who loves English and loves history. I loved the history of it and all of that sort of stuff. I think it’s because it’s fun. If, gun to my head, I had to sing anything, it would be from Cabaret.

Zibby: There you go. Learn something new every day. What is your schedule like with the roles you’re doing? Do you have to show up really early? Do you do creative writing as a release at different times? Is writing a part of your life, or reading? Are you reading in between takes? What’s your life like?

Kirby: When I’m working, I read a lot of scripts. Often, it feels like, when I’m reading a book, you kind of have the guilt. You’re like, I know there’s other things because I’m being sent scripts. There’s other things to be reading. I rediscovered my love of reading during the pandemic, like a lot of people, but not just, oh, I read a page or two. When I was younger, I would just sit, particularly in school holidays, and read all day. It was one of my favorite things to do. I rediscovered that during the pandemic. Then I just read a book for Book of the Month. I loved that. Something about also having a deadline, it makes you do it. I spent three days reading this book. It was so glorious. I would plan my day when I wasn’t working.

Zibby: What was the book?

Kirby: It’s called The Last Party by Clare Mackintosh.

Zibby: Oh, yeah, I love Clare Mackintosh.

Kirby: So good. I’m a big mystery — that’s my jam. I do read a lot. I try to read more. This is actually going to encourage me because I just got a Book of the Month subscription. I like to have that deadline to be reading every month. Then schedule-wise, I am more or less always busy. Truly, if it’s not actual work — right now, again, I have the lightest schedule, filming-wise, that I’ve had in years. I work maybe two days. Then I’m off for five. The way it’s shot, we shoot in big blocks. You’ll shoot very intensely for a couple days. Then you’ll have a lot of days off.

Zibby: What show is this that you’re referring to?

Kirby: This is for an Apple show that I’m filming right now. Writing is my sanity, actually. It’s the most pure expression of myself. We all have a need to express ourselves. We all need to talk. For me, writing is a way of getting — when you’re trying to explain something to someone and they keep interrupting, that’s what conversations online feel like. You’re like, no, I haven’t finished the thought yet. When you write your own thing, it’s, these are all my ideas. This is what I think and feel about this thing. It’s put out there. You can digest it however you want in whatever timespan you want, wherever you want, and then think about it. If that prompts something, then it does. For me, if I have something that I’m struggling with or — when I found out about — we’re still in the midst of it — Roe v. Wade being repealed and things like that and all the stuff we’re into, I remember texting a friend who’s a director and just being like, “I really don’t know what to do.” Like most people, I feel very, very powerless. Then I ended up, because I love comedy as well, writing a comedic short that was kind of tangential. It was very much this, but not in a preachy way. You might not know we’re talking about this. It was kind of the only way I could stop feeling crappy about it because I at least expelled some of the feelings and the emotions.

Zibby: I am the same exact way, by the way. In one of these cabinets, I have every journal from when I was eight years old and up. It’s funny. I feel like we should rebrand writing to busy people and just be like, what if you could talk without being interrupted?

Kirby: That’s what it is. Wouldn’t you love to talk without being interrupted?

Zibby: Maybe that would intimidate people. I don’t know. It is nice.

Kirby: I guess you have to be more cognizant of what you’re saying because you’re going to get this one chance. That’s also good because we often talk and then think, which is what we’re doing so quickly. We’re so ahead of ourselves. Whereas when you write something and you leave it there and you come back to it, you’re like, huh. I’m not on Twitter, but I have a whole notes file that’s called “Tweets I’ve never sent.” It’s not actual tweets, just things that pop into my head, whereas I think most people will post it. That’s not what you do with the first thought that comes into your mind. You have to sometimes put it there. Then you come back, and you’re like, what was I saying? I must have been mad.

Zibby: That is so smart of you. One day, that can be a book too.

Kirby: I would love that. I really want to make a toilet book.

Zibby: At the checkout counter type of thing. I love it.

Kirby: Exactly. I love those books. Those are excellent. I love those things.

Zibby: I used to collect all those tiny quote books. Do you remember? You’re probably not . I used to collect all those little ones. What is your next book going to be? Is there another one coming? What do you think?

Kirby: There isn’t at the moment, but I think I would like it to be a toilet book. Similarly to the way I’ve chosen acting roles, I kind of just go where the mood takes me. It will be drama to really ridiculous comedy to something that’s really heavy. I’ve written these kids’ books. I don’t know that the next thing is necessarily a kids’ book. I think it’s just whatever is inspiring me or amusing me at that moment. That’s what I would go to. A toilet book is really a thing that I’m excited about, maybe because I just like the phrasing “toilet book.” Also, I don’t always want to take my phone into the toilet, but it’s become a habit that we all do it. I want to get back to not taking a phone into the toilet. It’s hard to start a novel. You want something that’s digestible and easy.

Zibby: You know what you should do? Make it look like a phone. You should have the cover, and it could be this size. Then you could just open it, and it would be in it.

Kirby: Lauren, I hope you’re taking notes. All credit to Zibby for this.

Zibby: I think that would be really funny. Then you could actually keep it in the bathroom.

Kirby: On the toilet.

Zibby: You could put it facedown. You could actually do a collab with Apple since aren’t you doing an Apple thing? You should have them do it so that they have the logo.

Kirby: Yes. This is excellent. What I was thinking today when I was in the toilet, I was like, it should also be sanitary. It should be made out of a material that isn’t just paper. It should be covered. If it wasn’t something that looked like a phone, at least the outside could be hard. You could always just wipe it down if you wanted to. Not that it’s going to get crazy in there, but bathrooms are bathrooms. Everything’s in the air.

Zibby: Like a kids’ book, almost, like a kids’ thing they would take in the bath.

Kirby: Exactly like that.

Zibby: It’s so fun. Why has nobody thought of this yet?

Kirby: We’re doing it. This is next.

Zibby: Great. I love it. Tweets I’ve never sent. Actually, you could even — I’ll stop. Anyway, it was great meeting you. There’s obviously so much you could do. Congratulations on your books. It’s perfect that they’re out before the holidays. These will be great. I’m doing this gift guide. We’re going to put them in the gift guide and all this good stuff. Congratulations.

Kirby: Nice. This was lovely. I honestly could talk and spitball with you for hours.

Zibby: I know, right? This would be fun.

Kirby: Are you in New York?

Zibby: I’m in New York. Are you? No, you’re in LA, right?

Kirby: No, I wish I was in — I have to get out of LA. I’m in LA. I wish I was in New York. Also, cities in general are conducive to people who interact with other people a lot. I think you just become a better conversationalist. You’re just exercising the muscle of talking much, much more than people in LA.

Zibby: Maybe. Also, this is my job. No, I’m kidding. I’m totally kidding. This is actually just what I’m like all the time. That’s why this is so fun. I might be opening a bookstore in LA soon.

Kirby: Oh, my god, I would love that. I want to do readings. I have a toilet book that’s in the shape of an iPhone coming soon.

Zibby: That’s right, yes. Stay tuned. I’ll keep you posted.

Kirby: That’s awesome. Congrats.

Zibby: I hope to meet you soon.

Kirby: I would love that.

Zibby: Good luck. Talk to you soon. Buh-bye.

Kirby: Bye.

Kirby Howell-Baptiste, LITTLE BLACK BOY: Oh, the Things You Will Do! and LITTLE BLACK GIRL: Oh, the Things You Can Do!

LITTLE BLACK BOY: Oh, the Things You Will Do! and LITTLE BLACK GIRL: Oh, the Things You Can Do! By Kirby Howell-Baptiste

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