Queer Eye star Karamo Brown and his son, Jason, have teamed up to create a picture book aimed at reminding readers of all ages that they are “perfectly designed.” With an awareness of familial history and a wish to encourage others towards self-acceptance, the father-son duo, along with illustrator Anoosha Syed, have created a joyful story about accepting yourself just as you are. Karamo and Jason spoke with PW about the importance of self-love, working together on a creative project, and what’s next.
Was writing a book for children a longtime goal? From where did the idea of collaborating on a picture book come?
Karamo: It wasn’t a long-term goal. When Jason was younger, I made him do a lot of creative writing outside of his homework, which he hated. I told him it would pay off one day—and here’s that day! After I wrote my memoir and it was a success, I was offered an opportunity to write a children’s book. I immediately thought, “If I’m going to do this, I want to include my son.” We had several meetings—the publishers wanted to make sure he could write and see what his talents were—but I said, “Don’t worry, he’s been writing since he was 13!”
Jason: 12! I was 12! [laughs]
Karamo: So, it wasn’t a dream, but I was very happy as a parent to be able to give this opportunity to [Jason] because he’s a really exceptional writer and he has a great point-of-view that I’m glad people are getting to hear.
Jason: I agree with my father that this has not been a long-term goal, but it has been a long-time goal of mine to work with my father. Especially in a way that shares the lessons he taught me and my brother. [Collaborating on a picture book] was the perfect thing to do.
Why is this specific message of self-acceptance and the relationship between parent and child so important to you both?
Jason: It was very important to us that this message reach everyone. Especially with the prevalence of social media and everyone feeling like they need to look and feel a certain way. This pressure often causes insecurity and sometimes causes people to do really bad things to themselves. [Self-acceptance] is a message that everyone needs, not just kids.
Karamo: In our family, we’ve had generational trauma. I wasn’t accepted by my father and my father felt unaccepted by his father, so, for me, it was important that those generational chains were broken. It started with me making sure my son always knew that he was accepted no matter who or how he was. I believe that every part of him is special and perfect. It’s a message that I heard in my house until I identified as gay, and a message that my father heard until he decided to go his own way. I can only imagine how many other people feel as if their parents don’t really see them for who they are. We wanted to share a message to inspire those families to accept and love their children and let them know that they are perfectly designed and important.
Karamo, do you feel your experience as a social worker has informed your role as an influencer, TV personality, and, now, children’s book author?
I 100% believe that my work in social services has helped. When Jason was younger, he used to come with me to work at the LGBT center. He would see me working with LGTQIA youth who had been kicked out of their homes, who had been told that they didn’t have a future, and that they were not enough. Though I was helping them gain other services, within that, I was also helping them to believe in themselves again. So, Jason has been seeing me share these messages not only in our home, but with other kids.
Jason, how did your training in the dramatic and comedic arts impact your approach to storytelling and writing for children?
Like my dad said, he’s been making me write for a while now, so I was able to express myself from an early age. I’m used to thinking outside the box, and my training helps ensure that I communicate clearly.
How did you settle on the format for the text, which features call and response between the two main characters?
Karamo: That’s something I do in my work. Whenever I speak at colleges and universities, I always try to get people to repeat. When you repeat a message to yourself out loud, it seeps into your subconscious more quickly. It was important for me to make sure the reader was calling and responding to what was being said. If I say, “I am,” and you say, “love,” eventually, every time you hear “I am,” you’ll think “love.” Same thing with “perfectly designed.” The more you say it aloud, the more it sticks. It’s a format that I think is encouraging and will help the message reach people.
Jason: He taught me that and I’ve always applied it to my life. Now it’s embedded in my head.
What was your collaborative process like?
Karamo: We weren’t in the same room very often because I was away shooting Queer Eye, but a lot of it was me being in dad mode. I’m not going to pretend that I was like, “Just write. Just let the words flow.” I was more like, “This is the real world. There are deadlines. You have to have a clear message.” And, if [Jason] didn’t follow through, we would have some very stern, but respectful, conversations. But it was okay because Jason has never done this before. I’ve written a book before, but this is his first experience and he needed the encouragement and guidance. It was great when we finished it because I was so proud of him; he stepped up to the plate at every stage.
Were you at all involved in the process of choosing Anoosha Syed as illustrator?
Karamo: We were very involved with choosing Anoosha! There were several portfolios sent over to us, then we had to figure out which artist fit best. That’s a decision I put on Jason, actually. Luckily, he chose the artist I wanted to choose. He has taste!
Did you offer any guidance on the direction of the art?
Karamo: Throughout the process, we would be sent character images. I would make notes, then Jason would make notes, then we’d bring it all together.
Jason: The art direction was probably the coolest part. I would have my ideas and vision, but I was working with someone else—and that someone else just happened to be my father—so I wanted to tread lightly. But he really made the point that this was my time to shine. I did have to step up and give it my all.
I noticed that the rest of the Fab Five from Queer Eye make an appearance in the book’s endpapers. Was that your idea or Anoosha’s addition?
Jason: That was Anoosha! And it’s so cute!
Karamo: The publishing house came to me to ask if it’d be okay if the rest of the Fab Five were incorporated and I said, “Of course!” I think they’re a part of my journey and Jason has been around them many times. I always wonder to myself what it would have been like if Jason had met the rest of the Fab Five when he was a kid, if this stuff that’s happening to me now would have happened when he was younger. [Anoosha] drew them perfectly and I think it’s a fun Easter egg!
Which authors or illustrators do you most admire? Did they at all inspire your approach to writing?
Karamo: It was suggested by a friend that I shouldn’t look at other picture books when working on ours because I’d start comparing and worry. So, I’ve stayed away from all picture books, but I did recently pick up Jimmy Fallon’s picture books, which I love!
Jason: It was a little different for me. I really love Marc Brown, the creator of Arthur. Those are classic; he’s a great, great writer. He didn’t inspire me directly, but I love his work.
Will you be touring and doing events to promote I Am Perfectly Designed?
Karamo: Yes! Our tour starts November 5. We’ll be visiting five cities: New York, Austin, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. It’ll be cutting a little short because of my schedule for Queer Eye, but we’ll try to pick it back up again later.
What’s on your to-do list for the next year?
Karamo: After this book tour, we’re going on a family vacation, which we do every year. My schedule for next year is packed with more filming and projects that will be announced soon. My goal is to hopefully have Jason start writing his next picture book! He has some more ideas and there’s one that I feel is spot-on. I’ve done some research and haven’t seen anything else about the subject. We’re taking it one step at a time.
Jason: I am working on another book, so we don’t even have to say hopefully!
I Am Perfectly Designed by Karamo Brown & Jason “Rachel” Brown, illus. by Anoosha Syed. Holt, $18.99 Nov. ISBN 978-1-250-23221-2