Zibby Owens: Welcome, Shani. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m delighted to chat with you today.

Shani Mahiri King: Thank you, Zibby, so much for having me. I completely identify with the title, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Just yesterday or the day before, my wife was like, “Shani, when’s the last book you read?” I honestly couldn’t remember the name of the last book I read. Don’t even ask me what the last movie I saw was that is not a child’s movie. I have no idea.

Zibby: As of yesterday, we’re trying to go through the entire Home Alone — it’s more than a trilogy. There are like five of them. I don’t even know what you call that, quinci… I don’t know. We’re working our way through the kids’ movies as well. Yes, one byproduct, unfortunately, is sometimes less time to read. I’m bringing books like yours, which are quick to read, yours, not always, on this podcast to people who — or maybe they wouldn’t have discovered them otherwise. I only have a PDF version. Do you happen to have your actual book, or not?

Shani: I don’t happen to have my actual book. Part of the reason is I’m in São Paulo right now, so it was be a heavier lift to get me an actual copy of it. Like you, I’ve just seen the PDF version.

Zibby: Well, it looks great. Tell me the whole backstory of this children’s book, Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter. Tell me about the illustrations, the people you profiled, how you came to do it, the whole story. How did this come to be?

Shani: Zibby, all of my books begin from the same place. They begin from conversations with my kids. I wrote a book before this, Have I Ever Told You?, that is really a book that is what I did say to my kids and what I wanted to say to my kids. That last book I wrote about four ago before the last election. I just felt like there was a lot of political discourse that my kids were, in different ways, exposed to. I didn’t want that discourse to diminish who they thought they were. That’s why I wrote Have I Ever Told You? This book, Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter, comes from a similar place. It involves, in part, some conversations that I have had with my kids, but also conversations that I’ve wanted to have with my kids. For a long time, I’ve wanted my kids to be aware of all of their history. I’m African American. My wife is Nicaraguan. I’m Jewish. My wife is Catholic. I was born in the United States. My wife was born in Nicaragua. We’ve moved around quite a bit.

My kids have a lot of history, which is part of the palate from which they can draw their own identities. For a long time, I have wanted my kids to know more about all of their histories. One of the histories is black history, is African American history. My kids are six and eight. I’m not sure, Zibby, how old your kids are. My kids don’t usually like to just sit and listen to history monologues by their daddy or by their mommy. Occasionally, I’ll talk to them about history when I pick up books. It was always challenging to me to try and figure out how to expose kids to their history unless we happened to go on a trip to Nicaragua, for example, or a trip to a particular African American heritage site. The Black Lives Matter movement happened. It’s happening. It was just a reminder, a similar kind of thing, that I really want my kids to be proud of who they are, and so I wrote Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter.

There are two parts to the book. The first half is really an inspirational narrative of a speech or story that you may want to tell your kids or they want to read. The second half involves over a hundred biographies of people mentioned in the first half which gives really curious and inquisitive kids the opportunity to ask questions and get them answered about people mentioned in the first half. Another feature of the second half of the book is that there are quotations from each of the people mentioned in the back, each of the people in the biographies, which allows kids to be inspired by these people in their words. They’re really people from every field and endeavor, anywhere from science to athletics to sports. It’s not only historical, but it’s contemporary. You have anyone from Charles Hamilton Houston, whose grandfather was a slave and led the legal fight against segregation, to Jay-Z and Beyoncé who are modern-day — there are lots of names that you could give them, but business moguls, entrepreneurs who inspire people in their own way.

Zibby: Wow. Yes, that’s all amazing. My kids, by the way, are also — I have a six-year-old and a seven-year-old and then two thirteen-year-olds. I’m in it with you with them not particularly wanting to sit down for a history lesson. I feel like unless it’s a holiday, I can’t really get them to focus. Why are we celebrating this? Wait, you mentioned that you are Jewish also. I haven’t met, I don’t think, any African American Jewish people before. Tell me about that.

Shani: I was basically raised by my mother, by a single mother, since I was four, so my entire memory. She’s Jewish. I actually don’t know what religion my father was. He wasn’t really involved. My mom’s Jewish. My biological mother is a white Jewish woman from Revere, the Boston area. If you hear her speak, you will know that she’s from Boston. The phrase that we’ve taught our daughter is, I park my car on Harvard Yard. My mother has a very, very strong accent. I’m not exactly sure why I don’t. I’m not particularly religious, but I was raised Jewish, culturally Jewish. We celebrate the Jewish holidays. In our household now, my wife is Catholic, I’m Jewish, so we celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas just because that’s what I did when I was growing up. I celebrated Hanukkah. My wife celebrated Christmas. We do that for our kids to expose them to both religions.

It’s interesting. We were just speaking with both our daughter and our son yesterday. The topic of religion or God or the afterlife came up. I told the kids my view. Gabby, my wife, told the kids her view. My daughter, she just had this look of sort of frustration on her face. We’re like, “Suriyah, what’s wrong?” She was like, “It’s just confusing.” I was like, yeah. It is very, very confusing. One of the points that we wanted to make to her was that no one knows, from our perspective ultimately at the end of the day, what the real story is, what the real answer to fundamental questions — is there God? It’s a belief. What the fundamental answer is to what the religious history of the world is, no one knows. What’s important is that you can believe whatever you want to believe. You shouldn’t judge someone else for believing what they believe. That, I think, got across to her and to Matias as well. Whether there’s anything deeper than that that got across to them, I don’t know.

Zibby: I guess we’ll find out what actually stuck in twenty, thirty years, something like that. We can circle back then. Coming from a mixed-race family, do you feel that you also need to tell the story of the Nicaraguan history to your kids? Will you be getting to that book, or is it because this is so of the moment and, of course, there’s so much national, not even national, just worldwide focus on making things more in common parlance and all the rest?

Shani: I have a couple of thoughts, Zibby. First of all, I’ve always wanted to, as I mentioned, teach our kids African American history. I always felt like I’m proud of all of my heritage and who I am. I want my kids to have an opportunity to be proud of who they are. There are some children’s books that talk about different aspects of African American history. I wrote this particular book because I hadn’t really seen a book that covered it in exactly this way, this breadth of coverage in both the digestible way in terms of first half, but also a deep way in the second half that allows kids to explore and can even be a resource for educators. The Black Lives Matter movement was a reminder and helped, but it’s something that I wanted to do anyway and I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Also, it’s a time during which our kids, as you know being, among other things, a mom, our kids really need us. It’s challenging. It’s challenging to be the same kind of solid presence for our kids when we’re dealing with this craziness and this pandemic among other things too. For a lot of reasons, it’s a time where our kids need us. I wrote it not only for my kids, but because I have the opportunity to write it for other kids as well.

In terms of the Nicaraguan history, yes, we have made many stops on that train. My wife is a very proud Nicaraguan, as is her mother. Her mother, my suegra as we would say in Spanish, or sogrina in Portuguese which I’m learning now, is also a proud Nicaraguan. We eat gallo pinto. We eat queso frito. We eat nacatamales. Yes, we are exposing them to Nicaraguan culture as much as we can. One of my wife’s biggest, I don’t know if it’s a frustration, but I think something that makes her a little sad is that we can’t travel as freely as we would otherwise be able to do. So far in our lives, we’ve been very fortunate to be able to travel. One thing that we haven’t done is we haven’t taken the kids to Nicaragua. Nicaragua really is a fundamental part of who my wife — she spent a lot of time there. She’s very close with her Nicaraguan family. She’s fluent in Spanish. That’s something that we would like to do more of when we have the opportunity to travel more than we can now. We want to expose our kids to all of their history. Then like you were saying Zibby, ultimately at the end of the day, who knows what they’re go be like? Who knows how they’re going to identify? We just want to give them the opportunity to explore aspects of their identity.

Zibby: Very true. Not that this is any of my business, but I’m wondering, how did you meet your wife?

Shani: It’s interesting. Whenever somebody tells us their story of meeting, they’re like, I saw X from across the room, and it was love at first sight. They have these amazing stories. My wife and I don’t have that kind of amazing story. We met, actually, at work. I had been working in private practice as a lawyer in New York. Then I moved to Northern California. My wife was born in Nicaragua but moved here when she was four and reared in Oakland, California. I had been in private practice. She was working at a not-for-profit organization that represented only children in different kinds of substantive proceedings and dependency proceedings and education proceedings and immigration proceedings and guardianship proceedings. I had reached a point in my legal career where I had always wanted to do this, but I reached a point where I could. I was moving to California. I just thought it was a good point to switch gears, to switch from private practice to representing kids, to child advocacy, which is something that I’d always wanted to do. I interviewed at this not-for-profit. I got very lucky and got a job there. They were fantastic people, fantastic lawyers. That’s how we met. We were friends, and that’s all she wrote. That’s where we met. Then we moved to Florida when I got a job as a law professor at the University of Florida. We moved to Gainesville, Florida, which I had never thought of at all before moving there because I grew up in the bigger city, Boston, and then moved to New York. My wife grew up in Oakland, and so I had never really heard of Gainesville other than the Florida Gators, the football team. I didn’t really know much about Gainesville. Then we moved to Miami. Now we’re in São Paulo for the time being.

Zibby: Wow. That’s a journey. I love it.

Shani: That’s how we met. She’s great. She’s much smarter than I am. She is an incredibly kind person. One amazing thing about her is that she’s really busy. She’s a really busy lawyer doing high-stakes and complicated litigation, but she has an unbelievable ability to be emotionally available to our kids. As is the case for many parents, you work. It’s impossible.

Zibby: That’s how you met your wife. That was a great story. I also wanted to know, what plans do you have for more books? and how you’re doing this with your regular job. You already have a lot going on. This is such a service you’re doing by combing through all these biographies. If the fonts were different, this could’ve been a huge biography, middle-grade type of project. The bios were smaller at the end. Tell me about your upcoming stuff.

Shani: The way that I usually write — I don’t know how other people do it. I’m sure it’s different for everyone. The way that I usually write my children’s books is I just sit down when I happen to be thinking about something and write a draft. That’s how both of these children’s books worked. The second one involved, you’re right, considerably more research than the first, but it was really even rewarding personally. I knew many of the people in the book, but I didn’t know everything about every one of these people in the book. What’s next? A couple of things that are in the conceptual drafting stage. One is more Have I Ever Told You? books from different perspectives. This happens to be a book about African American history, but there are many different kinds of Have I Ever Told You? books that could provide access to kids to different histories. You mentioned, do I plan to expose my kids to all of their different histories? Yeah, and I’d like to write more Have I Ever Told You? books.

Another project is slightly different. I mentioned to you, Zibby, that I think that my kids are, even though they complain sometimes, maybe a little bit too much, I think they’re very fortunate kids in so many ways. One of the ways they’re so fortunate is they have gotten to travel more than I could’ve ever imagined. Last summer, because of my wife’s job, we spent about a month in Panama. The summer before that, we spent about seven weeks, eight weeks, in Buenos Aires. Another conceptual project is a project that is a children’s book that explores the story or path of children who are from traditionally underserved populations traveling to these different locations and how they experience them. I never thought about traveling in the way that my kids travel. One thought was to provide a window and access to the experience that my kids are having to other kids through a children’s book. Those are a couple of things that I’m working on. In terms of how I find time to do it, it’s really so much fun for me to do. I feel like particularly during this time when there is so much going on and we really need to be there as much as we can for our kids, it’s the least that I can do to try and use this platform to try and speak to kids.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I can’t wait to see what comes next. It’s so funny, in The New York Times today, there was a whole thing — you know that At Home section? I don’t know if you read The Times. They have At Home. Today, it was like, you’re at home with your kids for the holidays. What are you going to do? If you’re the type of family who used to love to travel, you can do these things. I was reading it like, what? What am I going to do? There were all these resources to pretend as if you’re traveling with your kids. They all seemed pretty shoddy, but having a book like yours would fall into that great category.

Shani: I do read The Times. My wife and I had the exact same — right now, our kids’ school has — wait for it — a five-week break. We have five weeks. We had received recommendations from the school as to things that they should do. For one of my kids, for my older kid, it’s thirty minutes of reading three days a week and this math program which probably takes her about ten minutes. Then for my son, it’s about fifteen minutes of reading. Now, I’m not a mathematician and I haven’t done the exact calculations yet, Zibby, but that leaves a lot of hours during the day.

Zibby: For Roblox?

Shani: For what? I really appreciate people working hard to try and help come up with ideas. I think there are things that will take up the time. Maybe we’ll do some baking. It’s a challenge. My wife and I were talking about it. One of the approaches that I take is that this is really an unprecedented, at least in my lifetime, time during which some of the rules that we normally have I think are just going to have to be off the table. Ultimately at the end of the day, my wife and I will do the best that we can to give our kids some stimulation during the day. At the end of the day, they’re not going to have as much as we would like. We’re not going to be able to do the things that we would normally do. As long as they’re relatively happy, they’re going to be okay. This is one of those situations where I think my wife and I just have to continually remind ourselves that, you know what, let’s just put one foot in front of other. We’re going to do our jobs. Our kids will get some stimulation. If they watch their iPad a little bit more than normal, it’s okay this time because they’re going to be just fine. Listen Zibby, I know that I spent a lot more time in front of the screen when I was a kid.

Zibby: Me too. I’m always saying that. I’m always referencing commercials and shows from the eighties and whatever. At one point, I talked to my mom. I was like, “Did I watch TV all the time?” I do remember reading a lot, but there was not a show I appear to have missed. Honestly, all the kids are going to be fine. We’re all going to be fine. Actually, it might even lead to some course correction on the overparenting front because we all see that, you know what, they’re fine. They’re in the other room. The world’s not coming to an end.

Shani: You know what it reminds me of? It reminds me of when your kids are little and — I don’t know if you did this. You read all of these parenting books and blogs. People have such strong opinions about what you should do and shouldn’t do and how things will ruin your kid if you do them or don’t do them. Should you let your kid cry? Should you not let your kid cry? At the end of the day, all the kids are fine. They’re just fine. It’s the same thing now. I really do wonder if this will result in a course correction because the kids are going to be just fine.

Zibby: I say this all the time, but the more kids I have, the more I realize that I have nothing to do with how they turn out. All I can do is mess them up, but they are who they are from day one. I’m just like, who did I get? As long as I love them and make sure that there’s some boundaries and I’m not mean and I’m a loving parent, the kids are going to be okay. All this philosophical parenting talk, I didn’t see this coming. Thank you for coming on my podcast. Thank you for your book. I can’t wait to get a hard copy to read to my kids who, despite all their time on screens, somehow don’t like to read books on screens, of all the things. I’m jealous of you being in Brazil. I hope you survive these five weeks.

Shani: You too, Zibby. Thank you so much for having me. If it makes you feel better, yes, we are in Brazil, but just like you, I am inside. We could be anywhere right now. Good luck to you in this next five weeks. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Thanks for coming on. Take care. Buh-bye.

Shani: Bye.