“What can you create that truly speaks to this moment?” Karida L. Brown and Charly Palmer Discuss The New Brownies Book
Time to hand you a jot of history this morning. Listen close:
In 1920, as Black art and writing flourished during the Harlem Renaissance, scholar, author, and activist W. E. B. Du Bois and managing editor, Jessie Redmon Fauset, started a magazine for children. Calling it The Brownies’ Book: A Monthly Magazine for Children of the Sun, it was the first magazine aimed specifically at Black young people. In his role as editor-in-chief, Du Bois reached out to the era’s most celebrated Black creatives—writers, artists, poets, songwriters—and asked them to contribute their “best work” to The Brownies’ Book “so that Black children will know that they are thought about and LOVED.” Among its contributors was Langston Hughes, whose first published poems appeared in The Brownies’ Book.
Fast forward. Nearly 100 years later, author, educator, and Du Bois scholar Karida L. Brown and award-winning artist and children’s book creator Charly Palmer were just beginning a new relationship together. As the new couple talked about the artists and writers they most admired, they soon discovered that they both wanted to revive and expand upon the Brownies’ Book legacy and showcase new art and writing for children from today’s brilliant Black creators.
The result of their efforts will come out this Fall from Chronicle Books. Building upon the mission of the original, Brown and Palmer—who got married in 2020—have created THE NEW BROWNIES’ BOOK: A Love Letter to Black Families, to be published Oct. 10, 2023 (which is to say, yesterday!). This deluxe hardcover book, packed with 60 all-new stories, poems, songs, photos, illustrations, comics, short plays, games, essays, and more is designed to reflect, celebrate, and inspire a new generation of children and families.
Now I had learned all about original The Brownies’ Book way way back in my Harlem Renaissance Literature class in college in 1998. Little did I know back then that I would have the opportunity to interview the creators of the new edition 25 years later on this site.
Before I delve into my questions for Karida and Charly, I do want to make one thing clear. In this book, early on, I encountered one of the greatest Halloween short stories for kids that I’ve seen in decades. It’s called “Nobody Loves the Debbil” and I do ask Charly about it directly near the end of this interview. If you get your hands on this book, please seek it out and pronto.
And now, a bit of background into an important work:
Betsy Bird: Karida and Charly, thank you so much for answering my questions today! I’m just so freakin’ excited about your upcoming book! So first things first, how did you get the idea to create The New Brownies’ Book in the first place? What’s its origin story?
Charly Palmer: You know, the genesis of this book is a product of the ordinary magic of our daily conversations. One day, we found ourselves passionately discussing the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois and his revolutionary work, “The Brownies’ Book”. We had touched on it a few times before, but on that day, the concept ignited something within us. We realized that it was time to breathe life back into this work by reviving the original Brownies Book. And with our wealth of connections to extraordinary writers and artists, we knew we were uniquely positioned to make it happen.
Karida L. Brown: Indeed. While co-authoring a book on W.E.B. Du Bois with Jose Itzigsohn, I was immersed in Du Bois’s voluminous archives. It was in the midst of this research that I stumbled upon The Brownies’ Book. Reading Du Bois’s personal letters from 1920 of him pleading with authors to contribute their “best work” to the children’s periodical was deeply moving. Despite juggling monumental tasks such as organizing the Pan-African Congress, writing numerous books, and editing The Crisis magazine, Du Bois still made time to create this literary gift for children. It was humbling and inspiring. Sharing these findings with Charly early in our relationship, we both agreed that we needed to do something with this. Then, the pandemic hit. It was not only a period of introspection for us but also a time to think about the experiences of Black children in particular. Recognizing their needs and wanting them to know they are deeply loved, we realized this was the perfect opportunity. The stars seemed to align even more as it happened to be the 100th year anniversary of the original Brownies’ Book. And thus, our New Brownies’ Book was born.
CP: What truly warms my heart about this project, and I believe sets it apart, is our commitment to the power of original creativity. Rather than asking for leftover pieces of art or writings that have been put aside, we reached out to contributors with a heartfelt request for their most precious, innovative thoughts. We asked, “What can you create that truly speaks to this moment?”
The response was not just affirming, but profoundly moving. Our contributors answered the call with such enthusiasm, some of them even found themselves spurred to explore new avenues of expression. Take for instance, my wife, who beautifully crafted a poem for the first time. This project stirred something in me as well, leading me to pen pieces that I hadn’t envisioned before.
This journey, more than anything, was a testament to the boundless inspiration that can blossom from a collective commitment to authenticity. Every contributor, every piece of work became a precious thread in the vibrant tapestry of our book. It was more than just a project; it became an evolving masterpiece, brimming with love and gratitude.
BB: At the beginning of the book you mention that inside each issue of the magazine The Brownies’ Book was the declarative statement, “DESIGNED FOR ALL CHILDREN BUT ESPECIALLY FOR OURS.” Would you say that’s a fair statement for The New Brownies’ Book as well? How would you like this book to be used best with kids and their families?
KB: Picture this: The New Brownies’ Book, literally wrapped in gold, right there on your coffee table, ready to invite dialogue and share stories with every member of your family across all generations. This isn’t just a book—it’s a bridge connecting diverse experiences, a spark that can ignite laughter, deep conversations, and shared memories.
We’re hoping that you’ll not just read this book, but live it. Imagine grandparents and grandkids bonding over its pages, parents reading stories aloud to their little ones, or your kids, nestled in their favorite reading spot, lost in contemplative moments with our book.
Life, as you know, is a tapestry of diverse emotions. We’ve tried to reflect that in our book—it’s filled not just with joy, but also with the solemn moments of life, like the pain of loss, the inevitability of change. So, here’s what we’re saying: The New Brownies’ Book isn’t just a book; it’s a doorway to explore the richness of our shared human experience. Dive in, engage, and let’s make this a journey to remember.
CP: We are writing for every child under the sun. And, believe me, every child is indeed under the same sun. The remarkable thing about the stories in our book is that they spring from the core essence of being human. The authors and artists are intentionally all Black. But the essence of the stories, the heart of the art is about experiencing life, feeling, existing.
And I firmly believe that this universality is a powerful part of our book. It’s a testament that this book is meant for everyone. While we describe it as a love letter to Black families, it is, in essence, a love letter to all families who cherish, appreciate, and honor their children. Because, isn’t that what every family is about? So, how do we envision this book becoming part of your family? It’s there to inspire conversations about everything that matters: love, life, death, food, and so much more. This book is about embracing the full spectrum of human experience, and sharing that with the ones you love most. Isn’t that a journey worth embarking on?
BB: I think that a lot of people forget that before children’s literature became as all encompassing as it is, magazines were a HUGE part of young people’s reading in the early 20th century. Karida, could you talk a little bit about the original The Brownies’ Book periodical and not just the sheer importance of its publication but the logistics of letting families know that it existed? In a pre-internet age, how did W.E.B. Du Bois let people know that this magazine existed?
KB: Du Bois was the editor of The Crisis Magazine at the time, which served as the media outlet for the NAACP. Now, you have to understand, The Crisis Magazine wasn’t just a publication; it was a lifeline connecting Black communities across the nation. At the height of Du Bois’s tenure, The Crisis Magazine was one of the most widely read Black periodicals in the United States.
While it boasted a paid membership exceeding 100,000, that number doesn’t even begin to capture the total number of readers. The Crisis Magazine traveled far and wide across America via the rail system, accompanying the African American Great Migration. It was more than a magazine; it was a beacon. Through it, Black folks shared vital information – which cities were hospitable, where job opportunities were brewing, where new cultural institutions were rising.
The Crisis Magazine was a platform to express our aspirations, our dreams. It also kept the Black masses in tune with the global political climate, highlighting how it affected and was affected by people of color.
Now, here’s where the original Brownies’ Book comes in. It was, in fact, an offshoot of The Crisis Magazine. The first announcement about The Brownies’ Book? It was made in a 1919 issue of The Crisis Magazine. Du Bois was letting everyone know, “Hey, something wonderful is on its way.” So, you see, he had a built-in network, ready to spread the word.
BB: The original The Brownies’ Book was, ironically, a magazine. Your The New Brownies’ Book is an actual book. Was there any thought of ever doing a magazine as well, or was the intention right from the start to make a book?
CP: You’ve pinpointed a fascinating detail there – the original The Brownies’ Book was actually a magazine! As for The New Brownies’ Book, we indeed went the book route from the get-go. There was just something about the idea of a bound collection of stories and artwork that felt right to us.
But I’ll tell you something funny now that we’ve got the book out there. We’re looking at it, incredibly proud of course, but there’s this nagging feeling of, “We’re just getting started!” There’s a world of stories out there, a treasure trove of possibilities. So, who knows? We might just see someone rekindling that original Brownies’ spirit, putting out the call for more tales and artworks from the heart and bringing back the magazine for children under the sun. And wouldn’t that be something?
BB: It would! And your line-up of contributors is extensive and incredible. You’ve got April Harrison and James Ransome and so many more. What was your process for selecting people? And how did you solicit contributions from the creators? Did you have any say in what they submitted or did they come up with their pieces entirely on their own?
CP: We asked them, “What magic can you create? Can you please craft an original piece, something that represents your very best?” And the responses were just overwhelmingly enthusiastic! It was like an echo of “yes” reverberating across the creative community. In fact, the entire process was an avalanche of positivity. We have since had numerous contributors expressing how privileged they felt to be a part of this project. And let me tell you, it was a far smoother journey than we could have ever anticipated. Seeing their passion and dedication, it felt like we were all pieces of the same puzzle, coming together to form a picture far more beautiful than we could have dreamed.
KB: You know, as we embarked on this journey, we were keenly aware that we were reaching out to creatives who were masters of their crafts. These were people oozing with creativity, intelligence, and a passion that had honed their skills to an awe-inspiring level. We recognized the deep, resonating love they had for Black people and knew they would bring their very best to the project. So, we did what any sensible people would do – we trusted them. We gave them the freedom to contribute in any way they felt most expressive.
Now, here’s the fascinating part: we had absolutely no clue what form their contributions would take until they arrived. For instance, when we approached Dr. Marcus Anthony Hunter, a well-established sociologist with numerous books under his belt, we expected him to share a historical anecdote for the children. But he surprised us with a beautiful poem titled ‘Children of the Sun’. I mean, who knew he was a poet?
And that, my friend, was just the beginning of a cascade of delightful surprises. We received heartfelt love letters, thoughtful time capsules aimed at their own children, and captivating pieces of art across various forms and mediums. Dr. Lawrence Ralph’s piece, for instance, was a wonderful surprise. Every time we received a new piece, it was like unwrapping a gift. This project wasn’t just about creating a book – it was a journey of discovery that we hope each reader can share as they delve into its pages.
BB: One thing that really stood out for me as I read the book was just how fun the read was. This isn’t to say that there isn’t serious content too. There definitely is. But I like that it’s this great mix of feelings and styles. Was that important to you from the get go?
CP: Absolutely! Isn’t it wonderful how rich the tapestry of human emotion is? We’ve got joy, sorrow, humor, love, all of it, and we wanted to showcase this in our book. We gave our contributors free rein and trust me, we had no idea what they’d come up with. Now, if I’d asked them to write about love, for instance, we would’ve ended up with so many unique perspectives.
KB: But here, we asked them for a love letter to Black families. Imagine this as a call, or like a bat signal, if you will. The response was as diverse as it was heartening. Some chose to express their current state of mind, like those grappling with the pain of losing loved ones during the height of Covid. Their pieces highlighted how we grieve and mourn our losses, which I think is an essential part of the human experience. Then, there were those that chose to celebrate joy and humor, dishing out funny stories, delightful images, charming poems, and more. One piece that comes to mind is Halima Taha’s ‘A Love Letter to You.’ It’s so poignant because it speaks to the inner strength, the spirit, and the inherent love within each of us. It’s a gentle reminder to our children of the love that resides within them.
Essentially, our contributors channeled whatever their spirit and their ancestors moved them to express. And what poured out was an array of emotions, experiences, and perspectives that we, Charly and I, were privileged to curate and compile.
BB: I don’t suppose that there’s any chance that any of these are going to be turned into posters or anything (she said, looking significantly over at the Langston Hughes poem “Fairies” and Charly’s incredible accompanying art)?
CP: That wasn’t our initial plan, but it’s an intriguing idea. If we were to make a poster, the cover would be a strong contender. The artist, Tokie Rome-Taylor, has done an exceptional job, and it’s clear how much people love it. Every time they see the image, they’re touched in some way, so we’d likely go with something like that.
BB: By the way, Charly, my favorite piece in this book, bar none, is “Nobody Loves the Debbil.” Cause that art and that short story are just a fantastic way to kick off the whole project. Love it! In fact you’ve just filled this book with incredible art. I have to ask, how long did this project take the two of you to finish? Because it looks like years and years went into its making.
CP: We’re very grateful to our editor, Natalie Butterfield, at Chronicle Books for her patience and guidance throughout this project. It was a journey of about two years, but the end result turned out to be magical. We were intentional about working together, alongside Chronicle, to produce the right book. Now when we look at it, the finished product surpasses even our own expectations.
KB: As Charly mentioned earlier, our relationship is founded on great conversations. This project was born out of countless discussions about W. E. B. Du Bois, the Brownies’ Book, current issues facing Black folks in America, and our shared aspiration as a couple to contribute to something bigger. It’s these years of conversations that formed the backbone of this book. We hope you’ll experience The New Brownies’ Book as a labor of love, as it truly is a heartfelt gift from us to you.
CP: As I was hearing you speak, I realized it took a hundred years for this book to happen. It was inspired in 1920, and it led up to what has happened in The New Brownies Book. So it was a 100 year process.
BB: Finally, can we see more of this in the future? Failing that, what are you two working on now?
CP: Currently, I’m working on illustrating the book ‘Flamboyant’. It’s a project close to my heart as it’s a collaboration with the renowned author George M. Johnson, whom we would have definitely invited had we known him before starting this project. As for the future, I’m quite excited as I’ll be working on a new book with the illustrious Kwame Alexander. In addition to these, I’m continuously involved in art shows, notably with Knowhere Gallery, spearheaded by my agent, Valerie Francis. We work on various projects each year.
KB: I’m currently embracing the thrill of my sabbatical, diving headfirst into a couple of historical nonfiction projects that I can’t wait to share with the world. The first book I’m penning is a deep dive into the history of Black education, titled ‘The Battle for the Black Mind’, forthcoming with Legacy Lit at Hachette Books. My mission is to illuminate the many untold stories in this area. The second project is a vibrant and intimate biography of Shirley Graham Du Bois, the audacious and impactful woman who was the second wife of W. E. B. Du Bois. Both projects are in full swing, and I anticipate wrapping them up next year.
In the midst of all this, promoting the new Brownies book has been a joyous journey, resonating with audiences far and wide. So, stay tuned and thank you for your time. There’s plenty more to come!”
Today I must thank Karida Brown and Charly Palmer for taking so much time to answer my questions today. Thanks too to Diane Levinson and the folks at Chronicle Books for helping to set all of this up. As of yesterday, you can find copies of THE NEW BROWNIES’ BOOK: A Love Letter to Black Families on shelves in libraries and bookstores everywhere. Be sure to check it out (particularly “Nobody Loves the Debbil”!!).
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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