Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Wednesday, July 21, 2021: Kids' Maximum Shelf: When We Say Black Lives Matter

Candlewick Press: When We Say Black Lives Matter by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Candlewick Press: When We Say Black Lives Matter by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Candlewick Press: When We Say Black Lives Matter by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Candlewick Press: The Patchwork Bike by Maxine Beneba Clarke, illustrated by Van Thanh Rudd

When We Say Black Lives Matter

by Maxine Beneba Clarke

"Little one," two Black parents address the baby in their arms, "when we say Black Lives Matter, we're saying Black people are wonderful-strong." Award-winning Australian author/illustrator Maxine Beneba Clarke's opening sentence visually accentuates the phrase "wonderful-strong," distinguishing the lettering with yellow-orange color and gradually increasing font size. Beneba Clarke's intention feels immediately clear, and her gorgeously vibrant picture book When We Say Black Lives Matter proves to be a work of inspiring power.  

From spread to spread--illustrated in watercolor pencils on cardstock with a linen-like texture--the parents (and additional adults) attentively, lovingly watch over the growing child. The toddler learns early to request "basic RESPECT," a necessity Beneba Clarke heightens with a stained-glass background featuring a figure in chains. That image instantly articulates the sorrow and harm from a history that's "done us wrong." The young child is taught to "raise your voice" because "when we scream out Black Lives Matter... we're saying enough is enough is enough and we need to put things right." The child matures into adolescence, now out alone without hovering supervision; threats of violence loom ever closer because "trouble still STALKS, to this day." Police in riot gear approach, then encroach: a white chalked body outline, yellow-and-black tape barriers, a weeping parent... all too familiar sights because "ain't no freedom till we get ours."

Brutality and fear are undeniably real, but Beneba Clarke chooses to amplify messages of resistance and strength. Multiplying images of clasped, intertwined arms showcase people in varying hues standing together as partners and allies: "when we call out Black Lives Matter, we're saying walk with us." A smile for Black Lives Matter is an assertion that "we are enough" and an expression of "raising our spirits high." For the "Black-beautiful-brave" child, the joy of laughter calls upon the ancestors for guidance "to rise." The flourishing, expanding community both safeguards and uplifts the child, ensuring "when we know that Black Lives Matter, then darling, we know our worth: that we are as precious as every soul whose story has journeyed the earth." When the Black child, grown, graduates into adulthood with hands up in unconditional, triumphant jubilation--not in confrontation, defeat, surrender or supplication--then "we know we'll be all right."

When We Say Black Lives Matter is Beneba Clarke's second title for which she is both author and illustrator; her first, Fashionista, was released in Australia in 2019 and will be published by Candlewick in the U.S. in 2022. When We Say Black Lives Matter has already been shortlisted for the 2021 Australian Book Industry Award for Best Picture Book of the Year. Before Beneba Clarke garnered substantial success--deservedly so--as a children's writer, she was also lauded for her adult fiction and memoir, and celebrated as a slam poet champion as well.

Her artistry here is especially noteworthy--boldly outlined, and bursting with energy and intensity. The actual text remains affectingly unfixed, eschewing straight lines, using dynamic font sizes, italics inserted for emphasis, and certain significant words ("raise," "radiant," "precious") highlighted for even greater urgency. Her figures are varied--shades of brown, young and ageless, short and tall--with features left to the imagination, inviting diverse readers to see themselves on these pages. The textured roughness of the background seems to underscore the challenges ahead for every Black child, their families and their communities, because growing up, alas, cannot and will not be a smooth, uncomplicated transition. The rugged surface also suggests resiliency and perseverance, bearing witness to the figures in constant motion while they "bellow," "stand," "smile," "laugh" and rejoice to the rhythm of "a-thundering on djembe drums."

"I see this picture book as an act of Black Love," Beneba Clarke writes in her back cover author's note. Born and based in Australia, Beneba Clarke identifies as being of Afro-Caribbean descent. Her extended family, she explains, lives "in over eight different countries across the world, including America, Australia, Germany, Barbados, and England." Black Lives Matter--a movement that began in the U.S. as a social media hashtag in response to George Zimmerman's 2013 acquittal for the shooting death of teen Trayvon Martin--went global with the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The escalating protests throughout the U.S. led to worldwide calls for racial justice and police reform. With Beneba Clarke's empowering book in hand, parents, teachers, caregivers and all engaged adults have a commanding tool to gently and realistically explain to youngest readers the myriad ways that Black Lives Matter, "in protest and in song, in joy and in sorrow." --Terry Hong

Candlewick Press, $16.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 6-9, 9781536222388, September 14, 2021

Candlewick Press: When We Say Black Lives Matter by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke: Uplifting Black Lives Matter Around the World

(photo: Nicholas Walton-Healey)

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Afro-Caribbean Australian author/artist who creates across genres and audiences: adult fiction, nonfiction, memoir and children's books. Her award-winning titles are steadily migrating to the United States, including her second picture book with Candlewick Press, When We Say Black Lives Matter (available September 14, 2021). [This conversation took place before We Need Diverse Books announced that it was discontinuing its use of the term "Own Voices," a move that many in publishing have since also adopted.]

Black Lives Matter began in the U.S. after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2013. In 2020, George Floyd's murder ignited BLM protests around the world. As an Australian, how did you choose "Black Lives Matter" as the refrain of your newest book?

A few years ago, the BLM movement was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize. I was asked to interview Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of U.S. BLM, and Rodney Diverlus, one of the founders of BLM Canada, at Sydney Town Hall for the award ceremony. What struck me was the universal applicability of the term BLM. In Australia, BLM refers first and foremost to Aboriginal Australia, and the fact that we exist on what is essentially Black stolen land. At this event, there were people from my background (African diaspora) as well as Indigenous Black Australians, and we all came to this term with our own histories and truths. So I wanted to try and create a picture book that could essentially exist in any community but might mean different things depending on where it was read, and using this term seemed to be a really powerful way of doing that.

The U.S. and Australia have similarly problematic BIPOC histories. As an Australian of Afro-Caribbean descent, do you feel you "belong"? Is your identity something that's challenged in your home country?

As a child, growing up in Australia, it was rare to see other locals of African descent, let alone Afro-Caribbean descent. My parents migrated here from England in 1976, having both grown up there. I was always asked, "Where do you come from?" even though I was born in Sydney and haven't lived anywhere else. I think this contributed to a sense of unbelonging, but to me, I am Australian of Afro-Caribbean descent. I think that identity is challenged less now than it was several decades ago, but there are still times when that's questioned.

As a mother, do you imagine your children as your ideal audience? Do you have a specific reader in mind when you're writing?

I love writing for children. I do write books for adults, as well, but in so many ways, as adults we are so close-minded. I sometimes feel like the adults who really might need to read my work in terms of their ideologies would never pick up a book like mine. With kids, it's different. They're willing to go up a beanstalk or ride a broomstick, so empathizing with people who might have different experiences is just another journey they can go on. But I also think of the parents. I try to create multi-layered kids' books that adults will also enjoy in some way.

Your first picture book, The Patchwork Bike, began as a story in Foreign Soil, your collection for adults. Did When We Say Black Lives Matter also have previous incarnations?

Yes, that first picture book had roots in a story, "David," in my first published fiction book. Interestingly, the story in The Patchwork Bike was primarily about a family of Black kids and a bike made of junk--kind of a comment on poverty and imagination. But the illustrator, Vietnamese Australian street artist Van Thanh Rudd, overlaid it with a Black Lives Matter theme: the numberplate (license plate in the U.S.) on the bike is BLM, and there's iconography of kids dancing on top of an abandoned police car. That was something that I thought would never be cleared to appear in a picture book (particularly in Australia), so in a way, I think Van empowered the idea that it was the right time to tackle things like this in the picture book medium.

When We Say Black Lives Matter was shortlisted for an Australian Book Industry Award for Best Picture Book. Congratulations! Do you feel Australia's publishing industry is genuinely welcoming of diverse voices?

Thanks! It was a real surprise to be nominated for this book. And the winning book, Our Home, Our Heartbeat, was by an Aboriginal author and two Aboriginal illustrators. It was such a win for diversity in kids' books. It's a very recent thing, this embracing of diversity in Australian books. When I was growing up, the only picture books we could get hold of featuring non-white kids in Australia were those that were sent from relatives overseas.

You've had experience working with both Australian and U.S. publishers. Is #OwnVoices as significant there as it's become here? Have you noticed major differences? What about differences in your audiences from both countries?

#OwnVoices is definitely a conversation that seems to be happening in the U.S. and Australia in tandem. I think the conversation in Australia has been slower, but it's happening, and the global connection of the world via technology and social media means that all those conversations are tapping into each other, which is great. My audience in Australia is probably similar to my U.S. audience, although there is a higher Black population in the U.S. In Australia, I sometimes do events where most of the audience is Anglo Australian. That's a good thing, though, as long as my work is also read by diverse readers and accessible to them. I think with the kind of conversations I'm wanting to have with readers, you have to take as many people along with you as possible. I also think there can be the dismissal that "Black books are for Black kids," whereas in my opinion, all kids and adults should be reading as diversely as possible.

You write across genres--adult fiction, nonfiction, memoir, children's books. How do you approach such different projects? What are you writing next?

Poetry is always my starting point for any kind of writing. All my picture books start out as poems and, in my memoir [The Hate Race], there are poetic refrains peppered throughout. But poetry sells less in Australia than in the U.S. or U.K.; people just don't seem to be interested. In a way, I feel like a lot of my work is trying to disguise poetry in other forms, so people don't realize they're consuming it!

I'm working on a project currently that I can't announce because it's yet to be pitched, but for the very first time, I'm illustrating the text of another writer whose work I absolutely love and respect, which is very new because I never envisaged making images for someone else's words! --Terry Hong

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