The year was 1988 and spouses Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson recognized a dearth of—and urgent need for—children’s books that reflected the experiences of Black children. It was over two decades after the publication of Nancy Larrick’s essay in the Saturday Review, “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” which criticized children’s book publishers for their lack of diversity. But, dishearteningly, little had changed.
Instead of waiting for the day when the industry would begin welcoming diverse voices, the Hudsons founded Just Us Books, a New Jersey–based indie publishing house that has grown and evolved since its launch as a self-publishing effort. They have written dozens of books, beginning with Cheryl’s Afro-Bets ABC Book and Afro-Bets 123. And they have teamed with several traditional children’s book publishers, including Abingdon, Abrams, Candlewick, Newbridge, and Scholastic. In 2018, they joined forces with Crown Books for Young Readers, publishing an activism-focused collection called We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices. A follow-up to that book, The Talk: Conversations About Race, Love & Truth, will be published by Crown this fall.
For all of its strides forward, Just Us Books has maintained its integrity as a family-operated publisher, never losing sight of its mission. “Early on we began to be recognized as a viable children’s publishing company and an emerging cultural institution in the Black community,” Wade says.
Back in the ‘80s, Just Us Books gave the Hudsons the freedom and opportunity to create the books that they felt weren’t available. Their knowledge of their community enabled them to effectively promote and market their titles. “Through our early advocacy for diversity, we lifted up the importance of reading,” Wade says.
In the pre-internet era, connecting with readers meant handselling books to families. “We went directly to our audiences at day care centers, churches, and community functions to sell our books and did not depend solely on traditional channels of sales and distribution,” Cheryl says. “Positive media coverage and word-of-mouth recommendations also went a long way in attracting readers.”
Books such as the Afro-Bets series drew readers eager to see themselves reflected on picture book pages, and the publishing venture began attracting aspiring authors and illustrators, many of whom would go on to become luminaries of the book world. Just Us authors have included Higgins Bond, Sharon M. Draper, Nikki Grimes, and Kelly Starling Lyons. “I think our high standards for content and production and our grassroots distribution made Just Us Books a company that children’s book creators wanted to work with,” Cheryl says.
By 2004, the Hudsons had witnessed incremental changes in the children’s publishing world, but they recognized how much work was left to be done. They launched Sankofa Books, a Just Us imprint, with the mission to “bring classic Black-interest children’s books back into print.” In 2009, along with their children, Katura and Stephan, the Hudsons introduced the multicultural imprint Marimba Books, with the goal of “publishing children’s books that are more representative of who we are as a society and as a world,” Wade says.
Always driven to empower communities through books, the Hudsons were motivated to act following the 2016 presidential election—particularly, Wade says, after a young family member expressed distress about Donald Trump’s negative comments about “people of color, immigrants, and people with disabilities.” The Hudsons surmised that, if one child was feeling this way, others would be, too.
“How could we make them aware that we had gone through many struggles before and that the way we faced those struggles offered hope for tomorrow?” Cheryl asks.
The Hudsons approached writer and artist friends, requesting creative pieces to serve as responses to the question. Cheryl and Wade collaborated with more than 40 contributors (including Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, Javaka Steptoe, and Jacqueline Woodson) for what would become We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices. Events took a fortuitous turn when Wade ran into Phoebe Yeh, v-p and editorial director at Crown Books for Young Readers. “She asked what we were doing at Just Us Books,” Wade says. “I told her about the anthology and she was very excited.”
The Hudsons agreed to a partnership with Crown, believing that the new platform “would enhance the creative potential as well as market penetration,” Wade says. “It was a great relationship. Crown Books embraced our initial vision and broadened it.”
For The Talk: Conversations About Race, Love & Truth, the Hudsons and Crown took a similar collaborative approach, bringing together 30 authors and illustrators, including Tracey Baptiste, Grimes, E.B. Lewis, Grace Lin, and Meg Medina. The contributors “share important perspectives about the harsh realities of our world, but they also provide encouraging invitations for us to listen better, learn more, be honest, and dig deeper to make our world safe, equitable, and supportive for all of us,” Wade says.
The book was planned before the uprisings that followed the killing of George Floyd, giving it a tragic prescience. “As racist acts and the protests they have engendered command global attention, talking about racism, privilege, and identity—especially with our young people—is more urgent than ever,” the Hudsons said in a joint statement. “These talks may be difficult but they must take place. Too many people have run away from them far too long.”
Just Us Books is also gearing up to publish picture books with the poets Marilyn Nelson (illustrated by Wayne Anthony Still) and Useni Eugene Perkins (illustrated by Laura Freeman). The Hudsons continue to pursue their own creative endeavors, including a coming-of-age memoir from Wade scheduled for 2021.
The Hudsons have felt the impact that Covid-19 has had on the United States, but they are resolute. “We know that even in difficult circumstances there are opportunities,” Wade says. “In profound ways, this pandemic has shed more light on the structural racism and classism that have characterized our society for centuries. This reaffirms for us the importance of the mission we established more than 30 years ago and how much work still needs to be done.”