Inspired by her parents, Desiree Williams wrote and published a children's book to help kids see themselves more often in the world.
School psychologist and mother Desiree Williams, MA/AC ’15, got serious about finishing the children’s book she started after her father died a year ago. Now “Brilliant Brown Babies,” which she wrote, illustrated and self-published last spring has been selling about 10 copies a week on Amazon. She was inspired to start the project when her son Cortland was almost 2. As she read to him, she noticed there were lots of fun and engaging books for young children with white characters. There were not many that featured Black characters. “Children look for role models to see where they could be in life one day,” Williams said. “I think representation is so important. It is essential.”
She dedicated the book to her father Charles A. Williams, a city health services administrator, “who always made sure all the brown babies in his life knew how brilliant they were.” The picture book, with bright drawings inspired by Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, aims to get that message out. The pages have a series of affirmations that follow the title: “Brilliant brown babies… have curly, curly hair … always care and share … are smart, smart, smart!” and “love to make art.”
“I wanted it to be something that was colorful and engaging in rhyming language to build on those early learning skills so that Black and brown children could read and feel proud of themselves,” Williams said.
She started her book by writing the words out, like a poem. She thought of books like Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” which Cortland enjoyed. “I looked at what he liked and tried to emulate off of that,” she said. Williams incorporated Black culture and history as she wrote. There’s a line about coming from kings and queens of Africa. A character wears a baseball cap with an X for Malcolm X. Another is dressed in red, black and green, the colors of the Pan-African flag designed by Marcus Garvey.
“I wanted to create something that would help parents teach their children,” said Williams.
She credits her mother Tonja Williams, an associate Buffalo Public Schools superintendent, for helping to shape the book and her career. Her mother’s focus on addressing racial inequities influenced Williams and eventually led her to GSE to earn a master’s degree in school psychology and continue to study the African-American experience in education. “We discussed things like racial disparities in special education, as well as testing biases, which truly encouraged my activism as a school psychologist and author,” said Williams.
When the book was ready, she chose the self-publishing company IngramSpark for its broad distribution.
Amazon readers responded with enthusiasm and 5-star ratings. “I wish I had a book like this growing up! All of the messages are so powerful and sweet, the illustrations are so cute! I really believe that all children need to be able to see images reflective of themselves in books, media, etc. This is a gift for my 1-year-old niece, I hope she keeps it forever,” wrote one.
Williams has been accepting invitations to share the book with students virtually. She has talked to a high school art class in Queens and read the story to a children’s book club in Washington, D.C. One memorable reaction: As she read the page about beautiful skin, she could see a little girl listening on the Zoom screen smile and point to herself, as if to say, “You’re talking about me!”
“You could see the pride,” Williams said. Reactions like that have been their own reward: “I would write this book, or put another book out, for free,” she said.
She is now at work on her next book to help children better identify their emotions.
Williams’ regular job at Hamlin Park Claude and Ouida Clapp Academy includes cognitive, behavioral, social and emotional student assessment. “Every day is different,” she said. “One of the things that I do all the time as a school psychologist is make sure the children who come into my office know how brilliant and special they are, no matter what.”
Published in At Buffalo May 8, 2019