It was this innocent question last year from Kenneth Braswell’s then-6-year-old son that acted as a catalyst for the community activist to write a children’s book.
“I had an adult answer for that, but I did not have a 6-year-old answer," Braswell told The Root. “And I fumbled with trying to explain to him what protest meant, why people were protesting and what they were protesting.”
Braswell is the founder and executive director of Fathers Incorporated, an Atlanta-based organization that does a lot of work around responsible fatherhood and black male achievement across the country. Shortly before his son asked the question that opened the proverbial Pandora’s box, Braswell had been in Baltimore for another event that just so happened to coincide with the indictments of officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death.
Naturally, his son became curious about what was going on after learning where his father was. And eventually, after the initial fumble, Braswell came back with a proper answer.
It was only after talking with several other parents and friends, however, that Braswell realized that his conundrum was a common one. Several people he spoke to didn’t know how to address the question he described, and one friend, also an author of children’s books, recommended that he write one about the issue.
And so Braswell wrote Daddy, There’s a Noise Outside, which was fully released to the public, most fittingly, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“I wanted to begin to create a narrative that would allow both parents and teachers to have conversations with young kids, particularly in this case between the grades of one [and] four, about what’s taking place in our communities,” he said.
The beautifully illustrated book features a black mother and father trying to explain the concept of protesting and the different types of protests to their two children, using examples such as MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech as well as the Million Man March. In the end the children understand and jokingly ask whether they can protest school.
To Braswell, books like his are important because it is a conversation that kids and parents need to have, and a conversation that he now hopes to facilitate.
After all, he pointed out, children have historically been involved in protests.
“Children have always been involved in some manner of protest, whether it was marching, boycotting, whatever it was, and so I’m now wondering, in those cases where we have used children to protest a particular issue, whether or not adults take the time to actually explain to their children what [they’re doing] and why they’re doing it,” Braswell mused, recalling how he posed with his own son and nephew in hoodies after the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin.
“Our children deserve to understand the society in which they live,” he continued. “At young ages they begin to develop a framework of their community based on how their community impacts them. Six- to 9-year-old children need 6- to 9-year-old answers about what's happening in the community around them.”
But Braswell’s book isn’t important just because it covers an issue that is poignant and current in the black community. Just having all-black characters makes it special. Last year, in the article “Do Black Children’s Lives Matter if Nobody Writes About them?” Daniel José Older at The Guardian noted that in 2014, only 5 percent of the 3,500 children’s books published featured black characters.
For Braswell, having black characters who speak from their point of view was his second motivation in writing the book, particularly after the horrific failure of the book A Birthday Cake for George Washington, which featured slaves happily baking a birthday cake for the president. (The publisher pulled the book after an uproar.)
Braswell marveled at how everyone, from the author and illustrator to the editors and the publisher, allowed such a colossally bad idea to go as far as it did.
“How did that frame of thought get through so many people [and] no one had the consciousness to say, ‘You know what? This is a bad idea. This is not the narrative that we should be talking about when it comes to slaves,’” Braswell said. “What comes out of that? ‘Oh, it’s really OK to be a slave because at least all your days weren’t bad. You had some good days.’
“So when it comes to black authors, it’s really critical that we begin to start telling the story from our own point of view,” he added.
Returning to his own book, Braswell said, “[And] while this book is critically important for black parents to have, it is just as important for all parents, no matter what your race, religion, creed or color is. It is critically important for all parents to have conversations with children about what’s happening in the world today so that they have a better understanding about what’s taking place [and] that, hopefully and prayerfully, they are better-equipped to come up with better solutions.”
And that’s why Braswell is not done with children’s books yet: He has already written three more to be published and hopes to continue to write about other issues from the black perspective.
For National Men’s Health Month in June, he plans to release a book in which the father suffers a heart attack, in order to get families talking about the issue.
“My hope is that I create a series of books that every family, particularly if they are of African descent, must have … in their houses to help them have a healthy narrative with their children about the issues that they are not only a part of, but the issues that they witness,” he said.
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.