Former South Carolina House Representative, CNN political analyst, and bestselling author Bakari Sellers (My Vanishing Country) is publishing his picture book debut Who Are Your People? this month. In the story, a young Black father explores the history of Black people in America with his children to provide them with a sense of both identity and pride. Sellers spoke with PW about his debut, the importance of representation for Brown and Black children, America’s “empathy deficit,” and the importance of teaching people to dream.
How did the concept for Who Are Your People? emerge?
My twins, Sadie and Stokely, inspired it, and I’ve always wanted Black and Brown children to have images that they could read and see themselves in. I didn’t want them to have to look at blue people to be able to see individuals who look like them and see themselves on pages. I loved my first book, which was My Vanishing Country, but this children’s book is truly a passion.
When did you know you wanted to write a picture book?
I’ve wanted to write a children’s book for a long period of time. Thing was, I had to have a New York Times bestselling book in order to get an opportunity to write a children’s book. It’s a hard industry to break into, and having some success has given me this opportunity. I want to write many more; I want this just to be the first iteration.
Why this book and why now?
I think it’s necessary. I think in the conversations we’re having across the country, people want to know how to talk to their kids about the issues of race. With young Brown kids, Black kids, they’ll get a sense of pride. With white kids or others, they’ll read the book and they’ll get a sense of understanding. We live in a country right now where we have an empathy deficit because we don’t know or understand the struggles of others. I think this book helps break it down for kids who are ages four to eight, if not younger, to understand and be prideful in who they are and where they come from.
What do you want readers to take away from Who Are Your People? Who are you writing it for?
I want readers, especially young people, to dream. I want them to dream new dreams and be able to dream big dreams. I hope their parents are inspired to dream themselves when they read the book to children or watch them read this book, and to usher in a new generation of leaders for today.
How did you choose your illustrator, Reggie Brown?
I had a few choices, but I can say that one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life was choosing Reggie as a partner—his ability to give those words life and not only that. Being Black men and being able to tell this story, for me, gives a certain level of pride as well. I hope that Reggie and I are able to be partners in this journey of telling our story for a very long time.
What projects can readers expect from you in the near future?
I am working on an adult book that should come out after the election in 2022.
Who are your literary influences?
James Baldwin, of course, because he was so edifying and didn’t need a whole lot of words. My dad, who gave me the ability to dream. Weirdly enough, the best book I’ve read in the past two or three years was Cicely Tyson’s Just as I Am. I don’t know if it gets the credit it deserves, but as a memoir telling her story, the vivid imagery she painted, the story of struggle and triumph, of overcoming, it was just powerful beyond measure.
If you could tell any story, what would you like to tell next?
I would probably tell some civil rights stories. I want to put together an overview and then dig down deep into the pieces, and maybe tell some stories about the heroes and heroines who got us this far, the shoulders upon which we stand.
Who Are Your People? by Bakari Sellers, illus. by Reggie Brown. Quill Tree, $18.99 Jan. 11 ISBN 978-0-06-308285-4