By Patricia J. Murphy |
JaNay Brown-Wood’s sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Welch, saw something special in her writing and predicted that she would one day be a bestselling author. Today, Brown-Wood, PhD, a children’s educator and author, is the creator of Imani’s Moon and 10 titles coming out this year. So she’s well on her way to making Welch’s prediction come true. Brown-Wood also teaches in the Early Childhood Education Department at Folsom Lake Community College in Folsom, California. TP spoke with Brown-Wood about how her early school experiences turned her into a writer, when she discovered her calling to become a teacher, and what she hopes to do with her doctoral research and writing to help change the face of children’s literature.
As a child, you fell in love with writing. How did it happen?
Yes, I loved to write. But part of the reason was that I didn’t like to read. I despised him. I couldn’t find myself in the books, which is why I’m doing what I’m doing now. So I started writing books with characters from my own family and about myself. One of the books was called Detective JaNay. It was about getting into all sorts of adventures and solving crimes. I also wrote a series of shorter books called Taylor the Tyrannosaurus Rex that featured my sister, Taylor, as the T. rex that got into all sorts of trouble. It turned out that I enjoyed reading the things I wrote.
Was there anyone who encouraged you to write when you were in school?
My family has always been very supportive, and still is. And there was also my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Welch, who was always making predictions for all her outgoing students. His prediction for me was, “Bestselling author, JaNay Brown has done it again…” As a sixth grader, I was told that someone saw value in your work, that you have talent and that you are going to turn that talent into something when you grow up, I think I just internalized it. This encouragement coupled with the support of my family helped me grow to become a writer.
How do you think this early talent for writing impacted your educational experience?
I think it was my writing that fueled my love of school, learning, and teaching. I loved learning and expanding my knowledge, and trying new things in a supportive environment. In addition, I also liked to write and recite poetry. Whenever I had the chance to recite poetry or role-play using my body to better understand concepts, I did. I remember winning a poetry contest where I had to recite my poem – and that kind of solidified everything.
What made you want to teach?
My dear Aunt Netty had a daycare called Harris Daycare in Fresno. I went to this daycare as a child and volunteered there as a teenager. While volunteering, I discovered that I enjoyed being around children, working and playing with them. I was also watching my aunt in action and seeing so many examples of warm, responsive care and how she built an environment that supported the children as they grew. This experience really enlightened my interests and set me on the path to teaching—and doing everything I do now.
How did you end up choosing early childhood education?
While getting my baccalaureate, I took a course on culture and learned about the academic achievement gap, and I think that’s what decided it for me. I learned how black and brown children lag behind other groups in studies, especially in reading and math, that this happened early in a child’s education and that the basis must be stronger to help these children improve their academic skills. Learning these things catapulted me into the field of early childhood education and into becoming a preschool teacher.
Can you tell us a bit about your doctorate and your dissertation?
Pursuing my PhD allowed me to research aspects of how the lack of diversity in children’s books can affect children. I investigated whether the race of a character in a picture book would influence children’s interest in reading that book. It allowed me to delve into things like biases and biases that some kids might have. I thought if we could identify that, it would give us more evidence of why we need more diverse books. If we can discover that these biases exist and we can also discover that giving children books that act as mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors, we can see how this affects biases and can reduce them. Then, it can lead us to ask ourselves, “Why don’t we put more diverse books in the classroom, curriculum, and libraries?” » I completed my PhD program and graduated in 2019, and am currently completing and preparing my thesis for publication. My thesis focuses specifically on children’s picture book covers and narrative development.
How did you go from teaching to creative writing and publishing your own children’s books?
After graduating from high school, I decided to try writing children’s books. During my doctoral studies, I had learned that there was a lack of diversity in children’s books when you look at the statistics — the number of books that were published featuring various characters. And all of those things came together. I knew I had a voice that I wanted to share, that I wanted to speak about the black experience that was not stereotyped and that could be drawn from my own experience. It took me eight years, from the idea of my first picture book to holding Imani’s Moon in my hands. The story is about perseverance and parallels my journey as a children’s author. Along the way, I heard many “noes” and people telling me: “You can’t do that! But I didn’t let anything stop me.
You’ve been very busy since Imani’s moon cI came out in 2014. What keeps you going?
I think it’s that confidence in me and I have an important voice to share. It is also when I have experiences with children who read or listen Imani’s Moon, and they see themselves in the book, and in me; it is a powerful motivation. These kids deserve to see themselves in books and in the creators of those books, and to know that being an author is a viable career choice for them, too. Because if we don’t, we won’t have various authors writing various books. I think my willingness to do these things has helped me accomplish everything I’ve done and continue to do. I am also very lucky to have such a supportive family. I couldn’t accomplish half of what I do if it wasn’t for them!
How do you think your teaching experience influences your writing?
I think my teaching requires me to be intentional in writing. Like when I teach, I have to find a way to try to bring the concepts to life and connect them to my students’ experiences so that my lessons have meaning for them. I think that goes hand in hand with storytelling too. That’s because in a story, you also have to be able to weave all of those pieces together in a meaningful way. So whether I’m teaching a lesson or writing a story, I need to create something that allows the learner or reader to feel seen and learn something while engaging them in a compelling narrative.
For example, I write a series of chapters titled love puppies about magical puppies helping children navigate difficult social situations. With these, I write stories where I also try to infuse them with strategies to help my readers overcome difficulties in making friends and other social skills.
Can you tell us about some of your current books—and what are you working on now?
I have a new title, Why not you?that I wrote with Grammy artist Ciara Wilson and Super Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson, two Chicken Soup for Soul Babies titles, a new series, Where in the garden?, and many more to come in 2023 and 2024. As for work in progress, I’m working on branching out into longer form books, including a collection of poetry and a medium gravel novel. I am also working on my love puppies series, among other titles.
What are your hopes for the readers of your books?
I want my readers to be able to find themselves authentically in my books. While many of my protagonists are African American or black, my new What’s in the Garden? The series follows four different children through different gardens. One character is black, one is Latinx, and one is white and is in a wheelchair, and one is Asian. Each child also has a different family composition. Amara has two grandparents raising her, Miguel has dads, Lynn has a single mom, but two grandparents who are also in the picture, so there’s diversity, but that’s more than racial diversity. It is important for me to represent it in my books.
I also want readers to walk away learning something new and/or practicing a skill that will help them succeed in whatever endeavor they choose. I also want them to be engaged in literacy, to be excited to read my books, to want to read more and more books – and maybe even write theirs.