Award-winning children’s book author Derrick Barnes has built an illustrious career writing for children with picture books, early readers, and middle grade novels. In his latest, The Queen of Kindergarten, Barnes returns to the first day of school in this follow-up to his bestselling picture book, The King of Kindergarten, both illustrated by long-time collaborator Vanessa Brantley-Newton. In Queen, a Black girl faces her first day in kindergarten with all the excitement and poise of a queen. Barnes spoke with PW about why reading children’s books featuring Black kids is vital for all children, the storytellers he looks up to, and the family members who inspired his characters.
What motivated you to begin writing for children?
I kind of fell into it. My first job right after graduating college in 1999 was at Hallmark. I was the first Black man in the history of the company to be hired as a copywriter. Gordon C. James, the illustrator of [my books] Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut and I Am Every Good Thing, and I met at Hallmark. He had an agent by the name of Regina Brooks and I’ve been with her since 2003. One of the first book deals she came to me with was from Just for Us Books. It was a two-book deal for early reader books. I got lured into writing children’s books and I love it.
What compelled you to write The King of Kindergarten and The Queen of Kindergarten?
With The King of Kindergarten, I did a lot of research and I found two things. The books always had a child who was extremely nervous and scared of going to school. I wanted to flip that on its head and have a child who was brimming with confidence. If a child gets their hands on this book and they may be nervous about going from pre-K to kindergarten, seeing a beautiful brown boy with all this confidence, maybe that will translate to their own personal experience with starting school for the first time. Second, in all the kindergarten books I found, I didn’t see any published by a major publisher that featured a Black child starting school for the first time, so that’s major. When we went out on the King of Kindergarten tour in 2019, a lot of Black mothers would come up to me and ask, “When are you going to write one for the queens? When are you going to do one for the little girls?”
Are the central characters in your books based on people in your life?
Yes. My wife and I have four boys. My oldest boy is 21. I have a 17-year-old who’s graduating from high school next month, a 15-year-old who is the cover boy for Crown; and, the cover boy for The King of Kindergarten, that’s my baby Nnamdi. He’ll be 11 in a few weeks. In The Queen of Kindergarten, I kind of based that character on my wife, Tinka. We don’t have a little girl, but if we had one, I figure she’d be like my wife—very energetic, a life-of-the-party kind of person, super smart. I’m the opposite, I’m real laid-back. I knew if I made a little girl character, she was going to be like Tinka.
How important is it for you to write books for and about Black kids? What do you hope readers take from these stories?
I used to say that I write primarily for Black children because I want them to see themselves as important, and every child needs to see themselves as important. But you don’t realize how important it is for white children to see non-white children be the center of the universe, to be protagonists. It’s so important that white children get to see Black children not in a stereotypical way. If they don’t have Black children in their immediate environment, they’re going to always defer to those stereotypes. I try not to put anything regarding race into my books. They just so happen to be slice-of-life books that feature a beautiful Black child with a beautiful Black family. I just want to normalize how magnificent we are.
Who are your storytelling role models?
I’m a big fan of Langston Hughes. He’s the first major writer I was exposed to. Not just the poetry but his essays, his short stories. Gwendolyn Brooks. Roberta Flack. Derek Walcott, a West Indian poet. I love all his work. Walter Dean Myers, obviously. He set the stage for all of us Black male authors.
What projects can readers expect from you next?
This year, I have another book coming out, on September 27, entitled Victory Stand. It’s a graphic novel, my first graphic novel, about the life of Tommie Smith, the 1968 Olympic track and field superstar. I’m so excited about that book. I have a Christmas book coming out at the end of next year called Santa Has Got to Go. I have another graphic novel-picture book hybrid entitled Like Lava in My Veins, and I’m currently working on a middle grade novel.
The Queen of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, illus. by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Penguin/Paulsen, $17.99 May 24 ISBN 978-0-593-11142-0