Thomishia Booker: “I want children to feel confident and a sense of pride”

I want children to feel confident and a sense of pride. When children open my books, they instantly see themselves and feel a sense of connection. The messaging and illustrations were created to do just that. I always love hearing when parents tell me their child found a character in the book that looks like […]

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I want children to feel confident and a sense of pride. When children open my books, they instantly see themselves and feel a sense of connection. The messaging and illustrations were created to do just that. I always love hearing when parents tell me their child found a character in the book that looks like them. This lets me know the books have accomplished what they were made for. Although my books are for children, the affirming messages speak to the hearts of all who read the book.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Thomishia Booker.

Thomishia Booker launched Hey Carter! Books after being disappointed in the lack of representation of Black boys in children’s books. Her brand and books are inspired by her son, Carter and focused on building self-identity in young Black boys. She has set a clear vision to curate an animated series filled with “Happy Black children loving their happy Black Lives!” Thomishia’s work is recently featured in the Netflix original series Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices featuring Jill Scott, Common, and Tiffany Haddish. She is the only Indie author among the cast of celebrities and New York Times Best Selling Authors Jacqueline Woodson and Derrick Barnes. Her book “Brown Boy Joy” was chosen for Bookmarks using a social justice education framework that focused on concepts of Identity, Respect, Justice, and Action. As a result of this project, her book “Brown Boy Joy” is endorsed by the Black Caucus American Library Association and Association for Library Service to Children. Thomishia has worked hard for the last four years building her business from the ground up. At 9 months pregnant, she and her family sold books at the Black Joy Parade in Oakland. She tells stories of difficult lessons learned, self-doubt, and connecting with her community to get her message out there. Thomishia is a licensed therapist and works full time as a healthcare administrator. She is also a part of the Black Literary Collective (Building Leaders and Activists with Collective Knowledge) a group of Black authors in the Bay Area working to decolonize educational spaces. Her education, professional and lived experience make her qualified to speak on a variety of subject matters.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

Thank you for inviting me to share my story. I am appreciative of the opportunity. There have been many steps along the way that have brought me to this point in my career. After earning my Masters in Social Work, I worked at a counseling center managing non-profit mental health programs for children 0–5 years old. As a licensed therapist, I saw young children who wanted different color hair and skin than what they were born with. During this time, I also became passionate about racial equity gaps for Black and Brown youth. From there I went on to pursue a doctorate in Education Counseling Psychology and my dissertation was on skin color bias and African American women. Each of these experiences were preparing me to write stories about building self-confidence and representation for Black children.

It wasn’t until I became pregnant with my son that I decided to write a children’s book. My pregnancy was emotionally challenging, and I turned to writing to express some of the tender feelings I was experiencing. There were so many unknowns and I was worried I would have to choose motherhood over my career and myself. Writing felt natural and helped me process my feelings. I also understood my responsibility as a mother of a Black son. I wanted to take ownership and change negative narratives that exist for Black children. My responsibility to ensure my son thrives became very clear to me. I harnessed my feelings into a beautiful gift for my son and my painful introduction into motherhood birthed the brand Hey Carter! Books.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

Negotiating a deal with Netflix is definitely the most interesting moment in my career to date. Last year, Netflix approached me because they were interested in having my book Brown Boy Joy be a part of a new series they were releasing. Brown Boy Joy aligns with the Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards in the Identity Domain for children 0–5 and they felt it would be a good fit for the show. I will never forget the day I received the call from Netflix. I admit I was nervous, but I also knew the worth of my brand and the intentionality that went into getting to this very moment.

As a self-published author, I didn’t have formal representation and had to negotiate on my own behalf. I learned so much from the experience and I am grateful to be able to leave such a powerful legacy for my children. My main goal with Hey Carter! Books has always been to allow Black children to see themselves in all their greatness. The Netflix original series, Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices provided a platform for the world to see what Brown Boy Joy truly is.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

There have definitely been a lot of challenges along the way. Usually when I am asked this question, I talk about the challenges I had throughout the process which range from issues with illustrations, inventory management, and editing to name a few. As I reflect on my journey, the biggest challenge for me was actually starting. As I mentioned before, my pregnancy was a difficult time for me emotionally and physically. Prior to becoming pregnant I would only write in private or for school. I never imagined myself becoming an author, although I feel like I had these stories inside me for a long time. The process to becoming an author started before I actually decided to write a book. Getting started required me to heal from past traumas, overcome fears, and truly believe in myself. The hardest part about doing anything is starting. There are so many people who have a great book inside them but are afraid to get started. Navigating the self-published world can be daunting but it can be done. There is a community of self-published authors willing to share their experiences as well as free resources to get you started. Regardless of the reason why, I want to encourage aspiring authors to just start. Be the person who decides to just start…today.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Prior to the pandemic my family and I would spend our weekends selling books at community vendor events. Community events are my favorite way to sell books because I enjoy the one-on-one interactions and the opportunity to get my books in the hands of who they are meant for- Black families. Vending was also an opportunity for my husband and I to expose our son to Black entrepreneurship. We brought Carter to every event despite it being difficult to run a business with an active toddler. As Carter grew older, he began to take a more active role in the business.

One summer at the Art & Soul Festival in Oakland, we gave him the task of handing out stickers and telling kids about the books. He was apprehensive at first but quickly warmed up to his role as a marketing intern. We gave him a few pointers and Carter bravely stood in the middle of the crowd with his father and shouted “Buy my mommy’s book”. The response was overwhelming. People were so excited to see Carter and were asking for his autograph and to take pictures with him. He became an instant local celebrity. Sales that day increased exponentially, and Carter earned a permanent position on the marketing team. After this event, Carter’s involvement in the brand became more and more necessary. To this day he continues to tell everyone about his “mommy’s book”.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I have a few projects I plan to release this year. In terms of most interesting, I am working on an activity guide to go along with the Hey Carter! Children’s Book Series. The activity guide is an extension of the book series and is aligned with the Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards. Teachers and parents will be able to utilize the Hey Carter! Children’s Book Series as a starting point and follow up with relatable and culturally relevant activities. Teachers often share that they are uncomfortable talking to children about race or don’t know how to start. This guide will help take away some of that uncertainty.

What is the main empowering message you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

I want children to feel confident and a sense of pride. When children open my books, they instantly see themselves and feel a sense of connection. The messaging and illustrations were created to do just that. I always love hearing when parents tell me their child found a character in the book that looks like them. This lets me know the books have accomplished what they were made for. Although my books are for children, the affirming messages speak to the hearts of all who read the book.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great (Self Published Children’s) Book Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Writing your children’s book is just the beginning: After your children’s book is written you will need to think about illustrations, editing, and formatting. Be sure to have a contract in place that protects your work and does not include royalties. I learned this lesson the hard way after I entered into a contract with an illustrator who ended the project before the book was done.
  2. Invest in quality illustrations: This is not an area where you want to take shortcuts. Illustrations can be costly but quality artwork will allow you to sell more books. When considering writing a children’s book it is important to remember who your audience is. Your book must appeal to the buyer (parents) and also the reader (children). I intentionally used yellow for the cover of Brown Boy Joy because it grabs your attention. The little brown boys on the cover are also purposeful to allow Black children to find themselves instantly.
  3. Don’t limit yourself: Think BIG picture! Consider a series or additional products like dolls or coloring books to go along with your book. There are so many ways to sell a children’s book. Be as creative as possible when trying to sell your book. One way I have done this is by partnering schools to do presentations about my book.
  4. Conduct research: Before releasing your book get feedback especially from children. It’s also important to find out what children’s books are already out there. Both of these things were helpful to me when I first got started. I conducted parent and child focus groups where I read my book and made changes based on the input provided. I also conducted searches on my book title to avoid duplication. If you want your book to stand out, you will need to know your competition.
  5. Strategize for success: The months leading up to your book launch are crucial for marketing your book. I highly suggest building an email list and making announcements on social media before your book is complete. This will help spark interest and increase presales.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

Finding inspiration daily.

Whether it’s through reading or writing, I find inspiration daily to perfect my craft. The more I practice writing, the more comfortable I am with words. The more books I read, the more I am inspired. Writing exercises have been particularly helpful when trying to make book ideas more concrete. I enjoy playing around with words and will try different ways to say the same thing to get ideas flowing. Let’s say I wanted to write a children’s book about Black hair, but I am unsure of where to start. One way I would approach this is to write down everything that comes to mind when it comes Black hair: what it looks like, smells like, feels like, what it means to me, what it means to others, and so on. This allows me to focus on the topic and create themes around the topic. Eventually the themes lead to an outline and I am able to narrow down my approach to writing a children’s book about Black hair.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I read a lot of children’s books! Reading children’s books helps me keep up with trends and study different writing styles. Having small children also helps but I often find myself reading children’s books alone to get inspired and learn from others. I also study children’s book illustrations and am constantly looking for unique artwork that will speak to children. Reading poetry is another way I am easily inspired. I appreciate the way poets are bold and unapologetic with words.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I have already begun to start a movement. I am showing the world unapologetically Black joy. There are so many anti-Black messages in the world that writing about Black joy is revolutionary. I write stories for Black children with the intention of them seeing themselves. This means that my books aren’t for everyone and I am okay with that. Black joy is contagious and the more it is represented, it will become the norm and shatter negative stereotypes that perpetuate systemic racism.

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