He fights the White-dominated publishing industry by publishing diverse books


The story of a Black girl who loves her hair. A Jewish family celebrating Shabbat. Black Grandma uses shopping as a way to communicate with her grandson about the importance of diversity. A child who learns his mother is transgender.

These are the stories Washington native Kelsea Johnson has published through the company she co-founded with the goal of promoting and sharing stories that showcase the kinds of things she says are often overlooked by major publishing companies. and on television.

He realized that many of the stories he had seen in books, TV shows and movies had nothing to do with his life experiences. When a story uplifted someone from a disadvantaged community, he said, it usually involved that person winning a game. He wondered: Where were the stories about people of color being special by living “normal lives”?

These questions were part of a conversation with his college friend, Kyle Porro, in 2019, which inspired them to found their company, Stirred Stories. Since its launch in 2020, Stirred Stories has published four books, with five more in the works. Books have reached 22 states and more are available on shelves at two local retailers, including Outrage, a social justice store, and Little District Books, an independent bookstore that shares LGBTQIA authors and stories, Johnson said. The motto is “declaring a better future.”

“Being Black and a woman really gives me an investment in disadvantaged communities and hearing our voices in the mainstream,” said Johnson, 27, who lives in Washington’s Brookland neighborhood, but grew up in Hillcrest. “We are very excited to not only tell these marginalized stories, but to make them as authentic as possible.”

There has been growing awareness and demands from the industry to correct these decades-old shortcomings, including the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement and #PublishingPaidMe asks writers to reveal progress to show the differences between White writers and writers of color.

Hachette, one of the largest publishing houses, reported that 34 percent of the contracts with young promoters and artists were with writers who identified as Black. , Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) in 2021, compared to 29 percent in 2020, and 22 percent in 2019, according to the March 2022 report, the company’s third annual report of efforts on diversity, equity and inclusion. Its workforce remained 64.6 percent white. Penguin Random House, another publishing house, released an analysis of its print programs that found nearly 75 percent of its US contributors were White.

Johnson, who joined thousands of people who protested the 2020 police killing of George Floyd and called for an end to police brutality and racism, said those public campaigns were “long overdue.” placed” in view of the wage gaps. He said they reinforced the confusion he already had about whose stories were being told and “lit a fire” under him to continue with his plans.

At Stirred Stories, Johnson said, they put diversity and representation first at every step of turning their authors’ stories into books.

Each project team is made up of people with similar life experiences. The illustrator of the children’s book “The Grocery Game”, in which a Black grandmother and her grandson talk about the importance of diversity when shopping for groceries, was also a Black woman. For the children’s book “My Mommy is a He,” a story about a child who learns what it means to be transgender when her mother begins a gender-affirming transition, includes a transgender photographer and editor non-binary. “The Butcher, the Baker, and the Candlestick Maker,” a children’s book about a Jewish child who buys what his family needs to keep Shabbat when his mother has a cold, also included Jewish editor and artist.

A curriculum is available for each of the books to guide children, families and educators in discussions about these topics in the hope that the “newness or ignorance” of the topic presented in It won’t end up being “an obstacle to someone taking the place of education. book,” Johnson said.

Zina Fattah, 26, of Arlington, Va., is a visual artist for Organized Stories and helps develop the curriculum. As an Arab American from a Muslim background, Fattah said she doesn’t see much representation of her life in mainstream stories. He hopes to one day help spread the word about Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims, which he said can teach important lessons about morality, giving and giving.

“If I can help at least one person raise their voice and share their story, there could be no greater reward than that,” Fattah said.

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Johnson, whose mother is an English teacher at a DC high school, looks to her family’s matriarch for inspiration.

His grandmother, Carolyn Boone Lewis, who died in 2002 at the age of 65, had the ear of former DC Mayor Marion Barry for her advocacy work for the city. Lewis was also one of the first Black women to be appointed to the Securities and Exchange Commission, where she specialized in managing funds and mutual funds and served for more than three decades.

Then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly announced Oct. 21, 1993, Carolyn Boone Lewis Day in the city.

Johnson’s grandmother, Barbara Evon Whiting-Wright, who has died aged 83, mentored a “legion” of Black women lawyers during her decades-long legal career.

When Johnson was growing up, he said he had a “lightbulb moment” and realized: “Oh, my God, I’ve been surrounded by extraordinary women.”

“They deliberately didn’t show that they were special because they wanted me to grow up considering that as normal. They wanted me to naturally feel empowered to strive for what they had achieved, or even more. Or it feels like it is, I belong to certain places where women, especially women of color, are often told they don’t belong,” said Johnson, who graduated from Elon University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Stories like theirs were never told.

Denying ‘attack and delete’

Katherine Rosenblatt, 41, of Montclair, NJ, wrote her book because it was what she needed – and couldn’t find.

As a social worker who specializes in early childhood education, and a former teacher, she often turns to children’s books to help explain the world to her two sons, who call her Mom and her partner Mom. But when their mother began her transformation about five years ago, she could not find any book that could help her eldest son, who at the time could 4 year olds, to understand what was happening and why.

She wrote about this experience, taking notes on the questions her older son asked them, her thoughts on how she handled them, and how she and her partner tried to define gender identity. In June 2021, Stirred Stories published the story, “My Mother is He!” it is told from the perspective of Rosenblatt’s eldest son.

“When I was three and a half years old, my mother told me that she had always felt that her body was not the right size,” says the boy in the book. One line reads, which Rosenblatt said was a direct quote from her oldest son: “I felt special knowing that I grew up in a transgender body.”

The child in the book also talks about learning there are more than two genders. “Some people are boys, some are girls, some are neither, some are both! I also learned that some people’s gender changes as they learn more about who they are.”

Rosenblatt worries about the “attack and erasure” of transgender stories, which school systems have banned from classrooms and libraries. He hopes to find a way to get his book into the hands of people who need it. On the Great Stories website, people can choose to donate a copy of “My Mama is A He!” to a library or school affected by anti-transgender laws or a non-profit organization that supports transgender youth.

“I hope people who need to see themselves in the book see themselves in the book,” Rosenblatt said. “Even people who have never thought about gender can challenge the ideas and assumptions they believe to be true or false, and open their minds and hearts to think about gender in a different way.”

She came out as trans. Then Texas made him investigate the parents of trans children.

Originally, Kai-ama Mootoo-Hamer, 47, who lives in the Bronx, wrote a poem for herself, or more specifically, for the little Black girl inside her who needed to feel she was beautiful.

Hamer found self-love and acceptance for her natural hair as she got older. As a child, she wanted straight hair and started relaxing her hair at the age of 11 – and continued to do so for 30 years. At the age of 41, she he cut his hair and grew his natural hair.

Hamer read his poem to Rosenblatt, a colleague, and Rosenblatt encouraged him to look for Interesting Stories to turn it into a book. “Cornrows, Box Braids, and Little Afro Puffs,” her novel about a young Black girl who visits a hair salon with her supportive mother and learns to love herself, was published in June 2022.

“Your eyes are brown, big, bright. Your nose is round and just right. Your lips are full and fit your face. Your smile, my love, is well placed,” he tells his daughter in the book. “And your hair is soft, big, free. That’s the way it should be. ”

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Hamer hopes that all children who read this book will soon feel that they want. And he hopes it teaches them to recognize the beauty in others.

She said: “I wrote this book for everyone, but especially for little Black girls to see themselves in books and to know that they can be the cover of a book and that they can be the main character. But I want any kids of any race or any culture to look at it and say: ‘This person is beautiful, but so am I. And he’s different from me, but we’re both beautiful.’”

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