“Black history is a history of heartbreak and triumph. Of incredible creativity, joy, and light, sometimes in the face of terrible pain. It is the story of always moving forward, of hope that each day will be better than the one before. Such a story — that spans continents and centuries — it’s too big to capture here, but we’ve offered a glimpse,” said New York Times bestselling author Rio Cortez.
We (virtually) sat down with author Cortez to discuss The ABCs of Black History, her illustrated picture book — available at all of our KIPP SoCal elementary schools, which was made possible through our "Authors to KIPP" program in partnership with the Creating Conversations bookstore. Letter by letter through rhyming verses, this book illuminates historically significant concepts and figures to explore a big subject — the timeline of Black history in America. We dive into this moving read with Cortez, discuss why representation matters, and her passion to amplify the voices and experiences of the BIPOC community.
Q: What do you hope children get out of this read?
I hope that children are able to see themselves. I hope that they’re able to see that the story of Black history has been a story of triumph and joy and not only one of struggle. I hope that they’re able to be inspired. In this book, there’s something for everyone, there are people who are engineers, painters, musicians, writers, community organizers, movement builders — and so I hope that young students are inspired by some of the legacies of those folks in whatever field they’re interested in for themselves.
Q: Can you speak to the importance of representation in published pieces such as your book?
I’m so grateful that in the last several years this is a conversation that has been happening more and more. When I was growing up, there was very little representation. I very rarely saw myself reflected in illustrated books or in any books as I got older! On the story level and in the classroom level, I’ve seen it personally how it really does make a difference. It may seem so theoretical, but when you’re sitting down and you can see yourself and recognize yourself as early as my daughter’s age of three — that’s powerful.
I’m reading to her a lot and for her to see herself on those book pages or perhaps on a school mural (which sounds amazing), it’s a way to validate her experience on earth. It’s a way to validate BIPOC students’ experiences. It’s a way where my daughter doesn’t have to wonder if the way she is is unusual. She can recognize herself and that’s such a subtle and invaluable experience for people to have. I’m so glad that your students have that representation on your KIPP campus murals.
Q: All 26 letters are important. Which one stands out to you as immeasurable lessons for children of color to move forward today in the freedom struggle?
One of my favorite and most challenging letters in the book is the letter ‘U’. ‘U’ covers a lot of things, it stands for the ‘United States’ and ‘unfinished.’ I feel like this is an important message for children — I think the story of where we are is very much unfinished. I wanted to acknowledge that there’s still so many places that we could move forward and do better in!
This is not a closed storybook, it is very much open in the sense that we are part of that history and capable of shaping it! This is the letter where we have an opportunity to make that clear and also lend some truth to the idea that maybe there’s further on the road to go.
Q: What are some positive affirmations that you practice and why is it so important for kids to practice them at a young age?
I don't remember practicing positive affirmations as a child, but I feel like that would have made such a difference. For me now, I think it's taking deep breaths and setting my intention for the day. Every morning I take five minutes to myself and I think of a place that makes me the happiest, this sets me up for success and the day ahead.
As far as affirmations in the book, I hope that it’s affirming for children to see this story and maybe learn new things about the history of Black America!
Q: Who are your favorite artists “whose wisdom and words bring to life worlds where our voices are heard”?
There’s a page in the book where a little girl is putting her hand up on a bookshelf and there are all these spines of incredible writers. For me some of those folks include Octavia Butler, she was an incredible pioneering science fiction writer who I admire so much! Some of my favorite poets are Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, I can name so many poets that I snuck onto that spread that Lauren Semmer illustrated in the book. Outside of writing, I would say Jean-Michel Basquiat, who I really love. And a lot of folks in theses pages inspire me, but I would say, those are the writers/artists that I feel I always return to.
Q: This book is so inspirational. Who would you say inspires you every day?
A lot of people inspire me everyday, it’s so lovely to get inspiration from others. Specifically, my three-year-old daughter inspires me and I’m sure a lot of parents feel this way about their kids! Watching her learn and seeing her curiosity for the world is a daily inspiration. She teaches me on a daily basis how to be present, which I think can get harder the older you get!
This is a time for our young readers to prepare for big ideas. Cortez concludes by asking, “As you read this book, what connections can you make KIPPsters?”