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Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

By Maya Smart

What does Santa Claus really look like? Nancy Redd’s new children’s book, The Real Santa, features one boy’s quest to find out. In today’s video, I chat with Nancy about this beautiful Christmas tale, the importance of representation in kids’ stories, and the behind-the-scenes process of creating a picture book.

Watch the video of our conversation, or scroll down for the transcript.

Thanks so much for joining us this afternoon. I’m so excited to hear about your latest book, but before we dive into this wonderful, beautiful, soon-to-be classic picture book for the holidays, I wanted to take you back to some of your childhood holidays in Virginia. What were some of the things that your mom did to bring the holidays to life in your home? Some of the traditions?

Oh, I love that. That’s such a great question. First and foremost, I love you, Maya and I love Christmas. Our Christmas began the day after Thanksgiving. We put the tree up and there would always be a lot of cooking. It was a very big deal putting the ornaments on because a lot of our ornaments are decades old and they’re a collection of beautiful, emotional products that we’ve just kept. 

A lot of them were very special black Santa ornaments or black angel ornaments that they had found on some faraway trip. Because we’re from Southern Virginia, near North Carolina, a small town called Martinsville, and there were no stores for the longest time that carried a diverse array of possibilities. So whenever my mom or my dad or family member would travel to the big city or up north, they’d always come back with these incredible, diverse things. 

And a lot of our Christmas decorations actually came from friends and family who would send us things from Philadelphia or New York or other cities. So it’s just a huge thing in my household. It’s my favorite holiday and Santa is one of my favorite holiday characters.

So I see a couple of young men in the background. One is your son, and then there is also another beautiful black boy asleep on his pillow. So tell us a bit about that character and also the boy who inspired him.

Yes. So The Real Santa is my children’s book and it is a wonderful story of a little boy, based not only on my son, but so many boys like him, and girls, and myself and my brother, who wondered what the real Santa looked like. And the answer really has never had a satisfactory ending for people of color. I wanted to create a joyous, inclusive, heartwarming tale that anyone can enjoy and have the spirit of Christmas fill them inside with wonder and imagination. 

And I feel really lucky to have gotten the chance to share this little boy’s story based off of my own son, who still to this day stays up every night, as long as he can, to catch the real Santa in action. And he’s never successful, but like our protagonist, he ends up getting an answer that’s satisfactory and it maybe comes from his dreams, it maybe comes from reality, and that’s for the child to decide when they read it.

It’s such a lovely concept. And I can’t wait for all the families at home to get a chance to flip through and see that. I see also, in your backdrop there, the cover of your previous book, Bedtime Bonnet. Tell us what was different about your creative process and coming up with your second picture book, now that you’ve got one under your belt. Was it a little bit easier to dive into this book or did it present any challenges, all its own?

Every book presents challenges, because the books that I write come from a deep yearning in my soul. I’m fortunate to be able to pull them out, but it’s always a journey, because it’s a discovery for me. So, when I first started writing Bedtime Bonnet, it was because I was frustrated that my daughter didn’t want to wear her bonnet, because she never saw anybody wear her bonnet because she was not yet at the age of sleepovers, but her hair was getting messy because she didn’t want her bonnet. 

But the cartoons on TV, African-American cartoons, never wore their bonnets to sleep. So she thought the bonnets were only for old people like me and grandma. So that was, it was hard. I’m always reminded by myself and the people I show my writing to, and especially, I’m very fortunate to have an amazing editor in Sarah Sergeant at Random House, [that] this isn’t about me. This is about the kids. 

So, figuring out how to get messages across without the angst, but with the self-love and expression, for me, is always a challenge, because when I first started writing The Real Santa, the protagonist, the little boy was more frustrated. He was like, I see all these Santas, but I don’t know! I’m upset! I don’t know which one’s the real Santa!” 

And my editor was like, “Look, I know this is emotional for you, but you got to dial this back. You have to figure it out from the perspective of the child.” Because the child is not upset. The child knows what Santa looks like. He’s just looking for confirmation. He’s not looking for an argument, right? So we tweaked and finessed until we came up with a story that, like Bedtime Bonnet, affirms and assuages any fears without causing conflict.

And in this book, in addition to the boy and all of the Santas, he’s also surrounded by this wonderful extended family. Can you talk about his sister, mom, and dad, and grandparents, and why it was important to show the intergenerational elements of that family in the book, as well?

I feel like it’s one of the best parts of family that needs to be incorporated more. I grew up—both of my grandfathers passed before I was born, unfortunately, but my grandmothers were extraordinarily pivotal in my life for different reasons. 

My maternal grandmother, who I’m named after, Nancy, I spent most of my life with. I mean, we would literally come home from school and my mom would get in the car, we’d go to grandma’s house. And I was just hanging out there. I mean, it was just, like, literally my life. My grandmother’s as important as my mother, right? And I wanted to, I want to always express that in the work I do, how important intergenerational households are for me. 

I really, in Bedtime Bonnet, I think it was really important for them to all be living together because I don’t see a lot of intergenerational households and I, while we were all in different houses, we may as well been living together. I mean, sometimes I’d spend the night over there and sometimes I wouldn’t. And I want people to see our joy, our private lives and how beautiful and interconnected we are and how loving everyone is.

You mentioned some of the notes that you made for the illustrator to help her come up with visuals that amplified what you wrote in the text and also helped to add another layer of storytelling to the book. Tell us about that collaboration between the writer and the artist.

It’s really fun. And I feel very fortunate to be able to do so. I can’t draw worth a lick. You know, my daughter loves art, like your daughter, maybe they’ll illustrate our books one day. But I’m very lucky to have collaborated with two incredible illustrators for both of my books. 

And what people don’t realize is they’re not just working in a vacuum. The author offers art notes and they can be as simple as “family in living room.” I choose to go more detailed with what I want each character to do, because there are a lot of subliminal messaging and Easter eggs that I like to put in my books and also representation. Small things, such as in Bedtime Bonnet, on the cover of the book, I wanted her to have an earring in her ear. I wanted her to have a beautiful lush robe, right? Instead of reality, like a tattered nightgown, which is what I’m actually living in, but that’s neither here nor there. We’re aspirational with these books. 

And so, with The Real Santa, we had a lot of fun coming up with imagery that expressed joy, love, trust, safety, security, and with—keeping a little bit of magic. And so some art notes might be one or two sentences, like “family outside.” There is a snowman Santa. There is a mailbox Santa, there is a black Santa decal on the car. There’s a black Santa on the window. There are black Santas everywhere, because that’s what I grew up with, right? 

And then the artist somehow brings it to life. I have no idea how they do it. Charnelle did such an amazing job in this book, somehow living in my brain. And it’s partially because she, too, lives this truth, right? She knows exactly what I’m trying to do. And that’s the power of our own voices, and the power of when you have an illustrator and author team who truly get the subject from a yearning inside of wishing we had this when we were growing up. That’s how you get to this, which is really outstanding, her work is.

Recently, in your career, you focused on writing for children and picture books has been your chosen format, but throughout your writing career, some of the same themes of representation and safety, security, some of the other things you’ve mentioned, have come up in other ways in other work that you’ve done. Can you talk about the trajectory of your writing career and what’s up next for you?

Well, I have to laugh, because my first book, as you know, when I was 26, was Body Drama, which was the first ever photographic guide to puberty. And it was because I was a young lady and I felt uncomfortable about aspects of my body. And I didn’t want anybody to feel uncomfortable about aspects of their body. I was very close to teenagers, at 26, so I wrote for teenagers. 

And then, as I got older, I wrote more books geared towards women. Like, when I became a mother, I wrote a nonfiction book, called Pregnancy, OMG, which is a photographic pregnancy book, right? It’s a mom-to-mom book. 

And then I became knee-deep into motherhood and was looking at the books that were out there and saw gaps and holes that I wanted to fill with my version, my vision, for what my children see in themselves and the written word. And it’s so much fun to be able to do this, and I feel very fortunate.

So, for the typical child who picks up this book and reads it, is notto your earlier pointgoing to have all of this background and context and complicated ideas about race and representation in their mind as they’re reading. After you got through the process of working through all of those issues, coming up with your title, telling the story the way you wanted to tell it, setting it aside for awhile, when it comes in the mail and you hold that hard copy in your hands for the first time, how does that feel? Does it feel resolved and now you’re ready for a new challenge? Or is this a challenge and is representation something you’ll continue to revisit?

This book arrived yesterday. One of the reasons I have all of these pillows and stuff is because I didn’t know if the books would arrive in time for our publicity boosts. So I had to have something [so] people could see the cover of the book, but the book arrived. And as soon as it arrived, my son just totally went ballistic, because he was like, “Yes, my book!” You can see, he also loves Christmas. (That’s him right there.) He loves Christmas so much. And he loves that his story has been placed in the historical experience of all children’s wonder, many children’s wonder, of who this jolly icon actually is, what he actually looks like. 

So for me, it is a closure of sorts. I did, I’ve done everything I can, just like with Bedtime Bonnet. When I first came up with that idea for a book, it was considered preposterous, like who wants to read a book about a bonnet? Well, you know who wants to read a book about a bonnet? A lot of children who didn’t understand what a bonnet was and why their mommas and daddies, you’re trying to make them wear one. 

And my favorite is looking at the reviews of the book and the ones that say, “My daughter didn’t want to wear her bonnet until we got into his book. And now she asks for it every night, and we play games with grandpa hiding the bonnet.” You know? 

And that’s just so heartwarming, because it takes something that a lot of us, myself included, grew up with a little bit of shame about, right? Like we weren’t out here like proudly wearing our bonnets, or talking about our bonnets as a critical, key facet of our beauty routines. But now that shame may have been eliminated or at least minimized for the next generation. 

And so a similar feeling is, with The Real Santa, so that for this next generation of children, they’re not growing up othered. They have options, they have representation. They have something, a north star to look towards for the beliefs that are held near and dear in their hearts and in their family. And they don’t feel left out of the large mainstream conversation.

Well, thank you so much for the work that you’ve done in both of these last two picture books. As a mom, I’m so happy to have them on our bookshelves at home. Well, soon, I don’t have this one in hard copy yet, but I’m excited to add it. 

I just got it. Yours is on its way!

To add it to my shelf soon so Zora can appreciate it and share it with her friends. Again, thank you, Nancy. It’s been wonderful to chat.

Thank you. I’m excited to add your book on my bookshelf.

Thank you.

Maya Smart is an author and early literacy advocate who helps parents nurture, teach, and advocate for children on the road to reading. Her book Reading for Our Lives: Why Early Literacy Matters and How to Achieve It is forthcoming from Avery/Penguin Random House.