Zibby Owens: Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” the Instagram version and eventually the podcast. Would you mind holding up your book so everybody can see it? All Because You Matter, so beautiful. You had an amazing unboxing video with your son, which was just awesome. Would you mind telling everybody what your children’s book is about?

Tami Charles: All Because You Matter, really, it’s the book of my heart. I wrote this book for my son, essentially. His name is Christopher. He’s ten years old. It’s really a tribute to him and to all children, especially children from black and brown communities, marginalized communities, to really just remind them of all the ways that they matter to us and in the universe. All Because You Matter, this is my book baby.

Zibby: Beautiful. Would you mind opening one to three pages?

Tami: Absolutely, yes. I’m going to read the intro. “They say that matter is all things that make up the universe: energy, stars, space. If that’s the case, then you, dear child, matter. Long before you took your place in this world, you were dreamed of like a knapsack full of wishes carried on the backs of your ancestors as they created empires, pyramids, legacies, building, inventing, working beneath red-hot suns and cold blue moons thinking of you years ahead because to them, you always mattered.”

Zibby: You’re a poet. It’s like poetry. Did you start out writing poetry? How did we get here? Where did you come from? Where were you born? How did you start writing? Let’s back up.

Tami: I was born in Newark, New Jersey. What state are you in, actually?

Zibby: I’m in New York.

Tami: New York, awesome, so you might have heard of Newark, New Jersey. I was born in Newark, New Jersey. I’m the daughter of a technician and a retired teacher, vice principal, and principal at my school. When I was growing up in my elementary school, my mom was very, very key in developing my love of reading. I loved books as a child. That filtered into my adult life. The one thing was, for as much as I loved books, I didn’t really think that I could be an author growing up because it wasn’t something that I saw. I didn’t have access to books that featured positive depictions of kids of color, so I kind of thought I couldn’t be an author. I did the next best thing. I became a teacher. I did that for fourteen years. It was wonderful, but I always had that hidden dream tucked in my back pocket that I really wanted to be an author. When I began my career teaching, I started to notice that there were a lot more diverse books for kids today than what I was used to growing up. My students and I, we would read these books. We would write stories together. They would say, “Miss Charles, you should do this. You could be an author.” It’s almost like my students gave me the green light to follow my childhood dream of becoming an author, so I did. I got rejected along the way in the beginning, but I kept pushing and I kept pushing. Eventually, I was able to become published. It’s really been such an amazing journey for me. That’s where we are now. I no longer teach because I write full time. It’s great. I became published in 2018. I’m still a baby with this stuff, but I’m loving it.

Zibby: Tell me about your first book.

Tami: My very first book that published, it was called Like Vanessa. That’s a middle-grade novel that I wrote about a thirteen-year-old girl from Newark who shyly enters her school’s beauty pageant even though the kids at school, there’s some kids who think that she doesn’t stand a chance. That’s called Like Vanessa.

Zibby: This picture book that you just wrote is not only lyrical and beautiful, but so important for the times that we’re in right now. When did you write this? Not that it matters month to month, but when did you write it? Was this always in the works? Give me the timing.

Tami: The timing is this. First of all, I want to say this was the book that, as a mom, I didn’t want to write. The second I became a mom of this little boy, I just wanted to keep him small forever. I wanted to keep him shielded from the cruelties of the world, some sad realities that have been going on in our communities, especially communities of color. I didn’t want him to even know about the bad stuff. As time went on, I knew that my son would grow up and he would experience things. Maybe he himself would be put in situations where maybe he feels like he doesn’t matter. I knew that I had to write this story to have a starting point for conversation for those tough questions that I knew would eventually come. They started coming once he entered school. He learned things. He met friends of all kinds. I remember one of the earliest questions was, “Mommy, if Dr. King was such a good person, why did they hurt him?” He was five or six when he asked that. I was like, okay, I can’t avoid it anymore. I have to find a way to get real with him, let him form his own opinion about things that have happened in our history, but all the while reminding him of how much I love him. I kind of put that off for years. My son is ten years old. In 2018, by this point, he was eight.

I had a dream one night. I literally dreamt of this book. I dreamt of all the words. That never happens, by the way, at least for me. I dreamt of all the words. I saw the art. I knew who did the art in my dream. I woke up that morning and I wrote it really, really fast. I remember my husband was on a business trip. I called him and I read it to him over the phone. He goes, “You need to send that to your agent now.” I’m like, “No, that’s not how that works. I need time. I have to revise it. I have to workshop it.” I sent it to her that day. It was a Friday. I remember getting in the car to drive to the Boston Book Fest. By the time I was in Hartford, Connecticut, I stopped for coffee, I got an email from my agent saying, “We’re going out with this on Monday. Let’s go.” I think by either that same day or the next day, we already had an offer on the table. This was one of the fastest projects I’ve worked on. It never works like that.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Now it’s coming out in this time, congratulations, tomorrow. So exciting. First of all, how are you celebrating this? Second of all, how do you feel compared to 2018 when you had a traditional release of a book to now?

Tami: This COVID is keeping us apart. I can’t take it any longer. I miss humans. I miss traditional gatherings for book-ish events, but here we are. At least we have this. I’m very thankful for this. As far as tomorrow goes, my son — that is him on the cover. When he was eight years old, we did the cover. My son told me, “Mom, this is my book. I’m in charge tomorrow of our day.” He claims it’s a surprise, but I think I know what we’re doing. The book is in Target, which is a big deal because I’ve never had a book in Target. I believe we’re going to Target tomorrow. I think we’re also going to Barnes & Noble because the book is there. It was selected as one of the best books for October by Barnes & Noble. We’ll be going to those two places. I’m hoping there’s going to be some kind of food involved.

Zibby: I’m always hoping there’s going to be some sort of food involved.

Tami: I think that’s what we’ll be doing, and then just coming home and having a quiet little celebration at home. He’s in charge. It’s his book. I’m just the .

Zibby: The video you sent me, he asked you if he was getting paid for this book. You’re like, “Yeah, with , essentially.”

Tami: That kid’s a hustler, I tell you. Yesterday for the book launch, I had a virtual launch with Books of Wonder. I didn’t have to bribe him to do it because he was really happy to do it, but you better believe that he said, “So I don’t have to do my chores today, right?” No, he didn’t have to do his chores yesterday.

Zibby: I loved the basic premise of the book, which is obviously, people of all kinds, shapes, sizes, colors, whatever, we all matter. The people who came before you have been working in the effort to make sure you have better lives, which is for all generations to come. This word matter is so of the moment with Black Lives Matter. Yet in the book, you don’t reference that at all, unless I missed it. It wasn’t the introduction. It wasn’t in the author’s note. It didn’t speak to that particular movement. Was that on purpose? Did you choose the word on purpose, or it just happened to be that way like matter in the universe?

Tami: I think I did a bit of a word play. When you think of matter, you think of — at least when I first heard the words in my mind, I thought of the universe and all the things in the universe, everything that makes up this universe, the sun and the stars and the moon and even grass. In thinking of that and positioning that with the fact that there’s been such an increase of injustices against people of color, particularly black people — my son, now that he’s getting older, he was seeing that. He had questions about it. If you think about the universe and if you think about what has been going on in our country, I had to write it in a way where I let him know that there’s been a place for you in this universe from the moment that it was created. Of course you matter. You matter because the people that came before you worked hard and they made it so that you could be here today and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Absolutely, this is an homage to the belief that black lives matter. Of course we do. If all lives matter, then we matter as well. I have to say that in order for all lives to matter, we have to really acknowledge the ones who feel that they don’t.

I know that there have been times where my son would see certain things and he would have questions about it. I said, I have to let him know that he matters because that’s my job as his mom, to pour love into him, to let him know that as you navigate this world you are literally carrying on your backpack, the hopes and dreams of your ancestors. Someone asked who illustrated the book. Bryan Collier is the artist of the book. He did it so lovingly. If you look throughout the art, he uses ancestral petals. Within those petals, you see different parts of faces. Those are the voices and the faces of our ancestors. They’re whispering to our children, you matter. You mattered before you even got here. Don’t forget it. Carry that with you as you navigate this world. I tried to do that in the most loving way. I didn’t want to do it in a way didactic way because you may see something in the text or in the art that is totally different than what another person may see. I wanted to write it in a way that opens up interpretation and conversation. You hit the nail on the head. At the end of the book, there is a spread of all the people and all the people marching and really amplifying the belief that our children matter. It’s in there. It’s in the art. If you hear it out loud, you can hear it whispered in between the words.

Zibby: Even the way you talk is so beautiful. It’s so visual.

Tami: It’s in there. I want my son to know that. As I mentioned, I’m a former teacher. I remember this very look, that look. It’s the same look of all children. It’s a look of a student who looks at a teacher and says, “You say I matter. Okay, tell me more. Tell me more about that.” It’s that look of longing. It’s a look of hope. I’m really hoping to convey that to anyone who reads it, but particularly for those who need to hear it the most.

Zibby: That’s the magic of a successful book. It’s giving people what they need that they didn’t necessarily even know they needed it. Then there it is in your hands, and boom.

Tami: I’m telling you, when you tell a child that they matter, there’s a power in that. Something about that will lift them and catapult them forward in their future. I’ve seen it. As a teacher, I’ve seen it. I have students right now who are — oh, my gosh, I have students who are business owners now. They’re married with children. They own this. They travel here and there. I’m just looking back like, wow. I’ve had students come to me and say, “Miss Charles, because you told me this, I knew that I could do this.” Imagine the power that you have as an adult to just whisper those words in a child’s ear. You matter.

Zibby: It’s so important. It’s great. Can I steal that and use it on my own kids? I know I’m not your target audience.

Tami: You know what I love that Scholastic has done? They’re really billing this as an all-ages picture book. I love that. Someone just wrote, can she give us a look at the artwork? I’ll hold up a picture. This is one of my favorite images. You can see it. That is a child taking their first steps to their mom. It’s supposed to be my son. One of my favorite memories is when he took his first steps. That’s a moment that matters. Children have all these little moments in their life that matter. What a gift it is for us to be there and witness that. It’s been such a great journey with this book. I really do think that anyone of any age can read this book and pull something out of it. Listen, I’m forty years old. I still need to be told that I matter.

Zibby: When you were saying that about how good it makes kids feel, I was like, that would make me feel good too.

Tami: Exactly. Even now as a grown adult, I have moments where I feel a little less than. That kind of message is something that, really, anyone of any age can benefit from. I know first and foremost our children need to hear that, for sure.

Zibby: Are you planning brand extensions? I could just see this as a pillow because your artwork is so gorgeous, or a framed thing or “You Matter” T-shirts.

Tami: All of it. I want to show another picture. If you lift up the cover, check this out. I didn’t even know this until recently.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Wow.

Tami: Such a powerful image. That’s my son with his eyes closed. Those lines, Bryan recently explained why he chose to put those lines across his face. Those lines are paths. They’re roads and rivers. They almost represent interconnectedness, that connection, the ties that bind us together. I love that. I love what he did with the art. If you even look around his face, you see the word matter, just a little piece of it. Here are all the people surrounding this child whispering to him, marching for him, taking a stand for him, all because he matters. The art is spot on. I wish I could take credit for it. I can only credit for, that’s my baby on the cover and in the book.

Zibby: You’re the inspiration. You wrote it. You can take credit for as much as you want.

Tami: Yeah, there we go.

Zibby: Are you working on anything else now?

Tami: I am. Let’s see if I have it. I do. I write books of all kinds in all ages. I write young adult novels, middle grade, and picture books. I also write nonfiction. This book, All Because You Matter, publishes tomorrow with Scholastic. I’m really excited about that. I actually have some more projects forthcoming with Scholastic. My next book that’s publishing with them is on the young adult side. This is a young adult novel. It’s written in verse. It’s called Muted. Little fun fact about myself, when I was a teenager/in my early twenties, I was in a singing group. This was in the late nineties when the music industry was saturated with girl R&B groups. We tried really hard to make it. It didn’t happen, but we did have some good times. The music industry had and still has a bit of a Me Too moment. I noticed that it’s been really increasing now. Full disclosure, my singing group, we came out unscathed. Even though we did not get the record deal and the Grammys and all of that, we came out on the other side okay, but there are people who don’t. I wanted to explore that, the dark side of the music industry and what it takes to fight back and get your power back. Muted tells the story of a seventeen-year-old girl who does just that. That comes out February 2nd.

Zibby: I feel like if I spent a week in your house, I would leave feeling so great about myself. Everybody gets this boost of — you just infuse confidence and power into .

Tami: Thank you.

Zibby: That’s how I’m seeing it.

Tami: I appreciate that. Thank you.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Tami: Yes, lots. First off, this is not easy. You got to go into that knowing it. I’ve had friends and family members along the way who probably thought it was, but after they’ve seen this, years and years of the journey, they’re like, oh, this is harder than what I thought. It’s not easy, but it’s so worth it. It’s so rewarding. If this is your dream, you just have to keep going. My biggest piece of advice is put your blinders on. Just focus on whatever those writing goals are for yourself. Focus on those because it can be very tempting to see how other people are doing, how other writers are doing and feel like, oh, man, I’m not writing fast enough or my writing isn’t good enough. No. You have to put your blinders on. You can still clap for the other writers. There are so many writers that I admire and adore. Your process is your process. You have to celebrate every moment along your journey. Just don’t give up.

Zibby: Excellent. Thank you. Thank you so much for coming on. I’m so excited to have caught you right before your big pub day. Obviously, you have so much more in store. I look forward to following all of your releases. I think this book will be a smash hit. It has all the elements of a successful book. It really helps people.

Tami: I hope so.

Zibby: I think it’s great. Thank you.

Tami: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Tami: Bye.