Sherri Winston, author of President of the Whole Fifth Grade, has written another middle-grade novel centering important issues such as self-esteem, anti-blackness and recognizing generational trauma. Lotus Bloom and the Afro Revolution follows a gifted girl named Lotus whose hair makes the first impression before she does. When Lotus gets the opportunity to enroll in a new school, she is faced with bullying and sexism because of her natural hair. Pulling from current events and her own family’s experiences, Winston addresses struggles that marginalized students of color face not just in society but within their own communities. We spoke with Winston about her new book and drawing inspiration from her daughters and Black girls everywhere who dare to stand up to injustices and prejudices.

There seems to be a boom of social justice-themed books in children’s literature currently. How did you go about addressing these themes for young readers in Lotus Bloom and the Afro Revolution?

The funny thing is, I didn’t set out to write a social justice book. Maybe in 2011 or 2012, I was watching our local news here in Orlando. A piece came up about a young African American girl who was a cellist in an orchestra and attended a small, private school. She had big, natural hair and you know, pretty much what happened in the book happened to this child. She complained that the kids were pulling and messing with her hair. The school threatened to kick her out and that just stuck with me. I finally got to a point where I talked to an editor and I said, you know, this thing happened and it really struck me. I had done some research and I found out that it was hardly an isolated incident. I found articles showing that even girls in Africa are stigmatized for their natural hair. If you can't be Black in Africa I just don't know where that leaves us. I set out to tell a story [showing] that young people can stand up for their rights and that older people should be sensitive to the things that we say to our kids about what's acceptable and what’s not, and how we stand behind them.

Why do you believe it was important to make your antagonists other people of color instead of using the white villain trope?

I didn’t want it to fall into that basic white villain trope kind of paradigm. I was looking to make the argument more real. I wanted to write in a way that reflected how we live. As a Black woman with Black daughters, [I feel that] anti-blackness never cuts deepest from the white villain. It cuts deeper when it’s somebody who looks like you.

According to your website, you are a library performer. How do you envision a performance for Lotus at your local library or a book tour?

I'm going on a book tour in September. Right now, I have a beautiful afro puff, courtesy of my neighborhood beauty supply store. When I was little, this afro was such a sign of protest, and my family so desperately wanted not to portray anything negative. I wasn’t allowed to have an afro when I was growing up. So, you know, I’m thinking of ways to make that part of the performance. So it’s a little bit funny and it's a little bit silly, but it’s also quite real and quite serious, to talk about self-acceptance and self-awareness and things that are in the public domain for discussion now that were only whispered about behind closed doors when I was young.

You said you couldn't wear an afro when you were younger. When you were creating Lotus, did you see a lot of yourself in her, or is she someone you wish you could have been?

My first book that really got noticed was President of the Whole Fifth Grade. In that book, [the heroine is] very sassy—outgoing, and adventurous. She’s who I wished I could have been at 10 years old. I wish I would have had her fight. I mean, I had it, but I wasn’t allowed to show it. Inside, I was a total badass like Angela Davis. But outside, I had pressed hair and non-threatening clothing. I fell in line. So writing [Lotus] allowed me to express that part of what I wished I could have been like when I was at that age.

For readers who may not know, how would you explain anti-blackness and how does that differentiate from racism?

It goes back to the first question you asked about having people of color being impediments, as opposed to white people, the typical white villain; my goal is always to show that the problem is deeper than just the basic way that it is represented. This isn’t something that happens overnight. This is generations of agreement. When I was in college, we were talking about Black crime and I would have to explain that we watch the same news you watch. In the same way, it affects what [society] expects from people who look like us. It affects our minds, too. So we become sort of indoctrinated to the cultural message of the masses, and we get caught up in it.

My family always tried to teach me to strive to be better, but they also had a message, “If you want to get to that point, you can’t run around here bushy-headed and throwing up the Black Panther sign. You have got to learn how to live in both worlds.” I tried not to instill that in my own daughters. I wanted them to be proud of their Blackness and let them know that if some administrators step to you about your hair or how you look or anything, I will go all mama bear. I read about anti-blackness because it’s real. And I don’t know who else is or isn’t writing about it. I just know from my life experience it has always been real and it’s always been an issue, whether it was in the background or the forefront.

I realized that the 12-year-old me had more to say than the adult version of me. So I just started listening. I guess I'm still listening.

What first drew you to wanting to be an author, especially a children’s author?

I’ve always been a storyteller. You know, I’ve been trying to make up stories since I was 11 or 12. I taught myself how to type on my mom’s old-fashioned typewriter when I was setting my first story. I tried to write it but I didn’t know how to make quotation marks so I used parentheses. I went into young adulthood thinking I was going to be Terry McMillan. I wrote some stuff and I just realized that the emotional age of the voice inside me did not speak to an adult audience—she was 12. So I had to calm myself down enough to listen. And that’s a process as a writer because you want to do one thing and the voice that’s making you want to write a story is trying to guide you to do something else. Maturity comes when you finally learn to listen to that voice. And I realized that the 12-year-old me had more to say than the adult version of me. So I just started listening. I guess I’m still listening.

What do you want adult and young readers to take away from Lotus?

If you’re an adult reader or a parent, look at what you’re modeling to your child. Look at the choices that you are giving them and decide whether or not you can be more expansive, lenient, and understanding. As parents, we just want the best for our kids. Sometimes we draw a path that’s too narrow and we do it without listening to the child. What your child needs at six is not the same as what they're going to need at 16. In Lotus, the mom is so caught up in the voice of her own mother that she’s not listening to her child. I want [parents] to understand what they are saying to a child when they say the hair God gave you is bad hair. I hate that expression. But also, this is just for everybody to learn how to check yourself—just because something doesn’t work for you, it doesn't make it wrong.

What are you working on next?

The next book is with Bloomsbury and comes out next fall. Right now the working title is Sharp Teeth. It’s about another social issue. In this case, a girl is taking care of the family because the mother has opted out. So a lot of parenting fell on her character. We treat all these kids in school like they’re on an even playing field, but it’s not even close. The other book is tentatively called The Brave Girls. You made me think about my work in a way that I hadn’t. The Brave Girls is a fun book because, to me, it’s the Black Babysitters Club. In the Black community, we didn’t have a lot of girls who did babysitting. Our hustle was doing hair. So it’s about these three girls who make a little hair braiding business together in the neighborhood.

Lotus Bloom and the Afro Revolution by Sherri Winston. Bloomsbury, $16.99 Sept. 6 ISBN 978-1-5476-0846-1