Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Every now and then a crazy idea captures my imagination and won’t let go. In 2013, it was to sell 1,000 short-sleeved t-shirts in the dead of winter to raise money for a local nonprofit with deep roots but little name-recognition. In 2014, it was to transform a Richmond trolley into a Brooklyn cityscape inspired by Ezra Jack Keats’s classic children’s book “The Snowy Day.

I thought the story’s urban landscape and celebration of childhood made it perfect for the Richmond Christmas Parade. The story about the innocence of play and the comfort of home stars Peter, a black boy. When it was published in 1962, it was considered a “pioneering portrayal.” Sadly, all these years later, it’s still noteworthy to see a black child in a storybook. In 2013, 3,200 children’s books were published, and fewer than 100 of them featured black children.

In Praise of Diverse Books for Children

Only in retrospect do I see that celebrating a Jewish author in a Christmas Parade or passing out books instead of candy aren’t obvious choices. In the moment, though, I was emboldened to measures like asking perfect strangers to help brainstorm how the heck to build and affix a book scene onto a vehicle, in a sturdy (yet temporary!) way.

I have my ride-or-die friends to thank for this confidence. They take me seriously when I say that some combination of glitter and zip ties can inspire young readers and help change the complexion of children’s literature. They aren’t scared off by detailed emails outlining the vast chasm between my vision and my skillset. They hustle to build a bridge for me with their knowledge and resources. I am forever indebted to them.

Author Meg Medina on her experience helping to build the trolley and then riding on it during the parade:

The fact that you were going to celebrate reading — at Christmastime when we think of kids and toys, right? — the fact that you were going to celebrate this other kind of gift, this other way of enjoying yourself, was really impressive to me.

I love The Snowy Day. It’s such a beautiful little book. It has such a place in my heart for obvious reasons with the Ezra Jack Keats award, but it’s a sweet and beautiful book and, I don’t know, it seemed perfect to me. I wasn’t sure you were going to be able to make that trolley look like Peter’s neighborhood, but, you know, you really did.

It was amazing, and I loved the faces on all the kids lining the whole parade. I’d never been in the parade. That was really fun, to look out and just see how excited they were to get the plush toy, to get the board book. It was really exciting to see kids feel happy about that, and to have somebody they look up to, because at this point you’re such a recognizable force in the city for all good things. It was so wonderful to see you galvanizing kids and getting them thinking about books in a different way. It was just a great day. I loved being in the trolley. I’d never ridden the Richmond trolley, so it was a big, new experience all the way around.

In Praise of Diverse Books for Children

As Richmond Christmas Mother, I had a vision and a title, but so many friends (and friends of friends) brought the muscle to both The Snowy Day Trolley and the larger Christmas Mother campaign, which raised $325,000. Friends, and friends-of-friends alike, made the magic happen and I can’t thank them enough.

Thank you to …

  • Shaka Smart, who invests in my community efforts wholeheartedly, every time.
  • Sarah Starkey, a mural painter and set designer, who designed the trolley panels and managed construction.
  • Molly Todd, who did the initial sketches which brought the trolley theme to life and was a key closer who helped us pull it all together in the end.
  • Travis Gardner and Wayne Wilfong of Gardner Construction who did the hard work of securing the Snowy Day panels we built to the trolley with zip ties and clamps so our hard work could endure the elements and travel.
  • Ron Roane and the RVA Transit Inc. family who let me take over their trolley garage for FOUR DAYS while we painted, cut, glued and glittered everything in sight.
  • Siewers Lumber and Millwork, which donated plywood for the project.
  • The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation for providing posters, which we gave out during the Christmas Parade and awarded through online donation drawings.
  • MerryMakers, Inc. for donating 96 The Snowy Day dolls, which we gave out along with copies of the book.
  • Carrie Fleck Walters who designed our gorgeous parade banner.
  • The trolley-building elves and advisors extraordinaire who cut out coffee-filter snowflakes, painted book scenes, hand-lettered signs, helped me think through parade logistics and more: Gigi Amateau, Cheryl Burke, Khatera Ballard, Tamara Cason, Teresa Coleman, Felicia Cosby, Kristin Dukes, Robin Farmer, Angie Hutchison, Bernette Johnson, Kelsey Leavey, Denise Lewis, Ashley McNeil, Cameron McPherson, Meg Medina, Otesa Miles, Margaret Payne, Mieko Timmons, Gayle Jessup White,, and Michael Paul Williams.
  • The parade crew who helped pass out books and spread holiday cheer along the route: Donald Adams; Stacy Hawkins Adams; Gina Burgin; De’lonne, Darryl II and Daniel Cheatham; Kristin Dukes; Bertha Duque; Latrell Evans; Charlotte, Eva, Kate, Juliet and Travis Gardner; Ashley McNeil;  Jace, Jazz, Just and Otesa Miles; Margaret Payne; Max Shavers; and the inimitable Zora Smart.

Why do we need diverse books?  A few good answers …

Reading Diversely FAQ: Part 1 via Book Riot

We Need Diverse Books to Build Character through Characters via MayaSmart.com

Making Children’s Books More Diverse: What You Can Do via The Guardian