A father’s journey from bedtime story reader to writer of diverse stories
Becoming a father for the first time readjusted my understanding of beauty. I adored my daughter from first sight. She had my eyes and general countenance, obvious from an early age, but her nose and mouth are clearly my wife’s. Always smiling and looking upwards, she grew more and more beautiful with each passing day and year, making us very proud parents. Then came that night when I felt as though I was failing as a father.
My daughter, then five years old, chose her bedtime story – “Snow White”. I knew that story well, having read and watched it on film several times since my childhood. However, when I read a specific phrase aloud to my daughter – she [snow white] was the most beautiful girl in all the land, with skin as white as snow, lips red as blood and hair black as ebony – I felt a chill like a fresh, uncovered haircut during winter. I had just described beauty with a visual reference that excluded my daughter.
Was I possibly contributing to an age-old skewed perception of beauty, created through the innocence of storytelling? I paused reading and asked my daughter for her thoughts on beauty. She talked about long hair, princesses, red lips and castles. I asked her if she thought she was beautiful, to which she replied, “I guess so.” It was then I realised that I, as a dad, needed to be more deliberate in reaffirming my daughter’s beauty. She needed to know that beauty has many faces and one of them is black like ours.
I searched for images of famously beautiful black women in mainstream media. Beyoncé, Rihanna, Halle Berry and Lupita were obvious choices. I even told the true story that Rihanna and I went to the same high school in Barbados – honestly, we did! This did not seem sufficient. At my daughter’s age, these images did not leave the same impression as Snow White, Cinderella and Rapunzel.
I turned to books from my childhood. In Barbados, where I grew up, we often read stories from the Nelson’s New West Indian Readers collection in school. I see images from these books and remember barefooted racing, kite flying, sugar cane chewing, marble pitching and cricket playing. All great memories. But I don’t recall compelling stories of beauty and bravery, as found in the famous European stories. While virtues like honesty, integrity and kindness are precious values for life, we cannot deny the fundamental validation of personhood that comes with the attribution of being beautiful.
I searched for books featuring black princesses, where I expected to find designations of beauty in abundance. Some of the books I found were Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace, Joyce Hansen’s African Princesses, Ricardo Keens-Douglas’ The Nutmeg Princess and, what has become one of my favourites, Jamila Gavin’s Blackberry Blue. I introduced my daughter to these books, but, somehow, the imagery and fantasy of beauty did not measure up to the Euro-classical princess stories. Black characters often deal with struggle or live in poverty, learning to overcome or bear with their circumstance. Black children tend to be the faces of the orphaned, hungry and poor, but not often of the compassionate and charitable. Seeing blacks and whites in community together is still not common in mainstream picture books and blacks are seldom heroes in multicultural settings. Nevertheless, we cannot allow the intent to make a case for diversity override good storytelling, producing narratives about difference as opposed to captivating, entertaining stories.
This was my impetus to write Princess Nia and the Kingdoms of Celebration. Having carried the ideas around in my head for about one year, I committed to complete a version of the story, including my own illustrations, by Christmas 2015 as a gift for my daughter.
She was thrilled.
In 2016, I decided to take this further, with tremendous support from my family and friends. It was time to rewrite, edit, get feedback and find a professional illustrator who could bring this world to life. Balancing family, a full-time job and musical interests with writing was hard. But once I held the physical proof in my hands in November 2017, almost two years after the first draft, I celebrated the struggle. It was worth it.
I now continue to write the series of books about the Kingdoms of Celebration. So, why am I an author of diverse books? Because I am a father who wants children to know that there is nothing special about diversity. It is simply a beautiful thing.
You can purchase Philip’s book here.
Written by Philip Robinson