For years, Seal Beach mother Angela Joy has been looking for more color in the pages of picture books. When her kids were younger she struggled to find diverse books at the library. She used colored pencils to shade in book characters so her children could “see themselves in their bedtime stories.”
“If they weren’t there, I was trying to make them myself,” Joy said in an interview this week.
Joy now joins the effort to diversify the bookshelves of all children. Her debut book Black is a Rainbow Color (published this week by Macmillan) is a vibrant addition to the world of children’s literature.
Six years in the making, Black is a Rainbow Color follows a young girl exploring what it means to be Black. It’s as much a celebration of Black culture and African American history as it is an invitation to young readers of all ages and races to learn more about the richness of both, and consider the range of colors in all human beings, be it themselves or others.
“Black culture is filled with a rainbow of people with many different hues of skin and a great diversity of backgrounds,” Joy explained. On her website, angelajoybooks.com, she expands on that idea. “From umber to alabaster, we are a culture of many shades, tones, and hues—each unique; each beautiful. Yet this wonderful quality is not limited to those of African descent. We are all part of the human rainbow; a dazzling display of beauty walking down sidewalks every day.”
Joy was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota and has lived in Seal Beach with her husband and two children for more than three years. She’s a frequent substitute teacher at J.H. McGaugh Elementary School and co-founded the school’s International Culture Club. Joy said she was inspired by her students at McGaugh in writing the book.
“You don’t have to wait until it rains to see a rainbow,” Joy said. “Go to the playground and see all the children playing.”
But the idea for Black is a Rainbow Color was sparked by a comment Joy’s then six-year-old daughter made during her first Black History Month lesson. “But, Mama, we’re not black, we’re brown,” Joy recalls her daughter saying in the Author’s Note in her book. She goes on to write, “But her words revealed something that I had taken for granted: the understanding that Black is not just a color but a culture, too.”
Joy explains that the word Black can be “dicey” because it is “loaded with historical baggage.” Her intent was to present all that is “beautiful, loving, and strong” about the word to make it “safe and palatable for children of all ethnicities.”
“I want to explain it to both sides so that they can have the freedom to talk about it,” Joy said. “I think it’s for everyone to bridge that gap between the literal and the figurative.”
The book’s vivid pages contain layers of lessons. Its rhythmic prose is filled with references to historical figures like the first African American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. “Black is the robe on Thurgood’s back. Black are the trains on railroad tracks.” The book also alludes to African American literature and music.
Real newsprint with headlines from the past, maps, and photographs are enmeshed in the beautiful collage illustrations by award-winning artist Ekua Holmes. “She tells so much of the backstory in the illustrations,” Joy said of Holmes. The artwork is dazzling and educational.
The lessons go on even after the picture book story ends. The book features an extensive back section with an appendix offering more information on the legends depicted in its pages. There are also poems by Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar and a fascinating timeline tracing the history of Black ethnonyms in America. There’s even a playlist featuring legendary Black artists like Nina Simone and Marvin Gaye.
Joy said she included these bonus features with teachers in mind. “If a teacher is inclined to talk about culture and diversity, I want to make things as easy as possible,” Joy said.
Joy will read Black is a Rainbow Color on Monday, January 20 at 10 a.m. at Chevalier’s Books at 126 N. Larchmont Blvd. in Los Angeles. The event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day will also feature activities for children. Joy said she is also planning a book signing at Knock Knock Toys and Gifts on Main Street in Seal Beach next month. For more information, visit angelajoybooks.com.
Editor’s Note: The author is a McGaugh parent and International Culture Club volunteer.