Juleya Woodson drew on the anxiety she felt in the chaotic wake of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings to do something she had always wanted to do: She wrote a book. Fear for her husband, her brothers, her cousins and her two-year-old son led her to create “I Hope They Understand,” a slender book for children from birth to five years old about recognizing and celebrating racial and cultural differences.
Her timing was right on.
Ms. Woodson says she saw media coverage of last spring’s events sending a negative message, eroding the confidence of Black people. Recalling her own trepidation at that time, she says she was thinking, “I can’t imagine how children are feeling when they see their parents are insecure. …We think children don’t understand, but they do.”
The book was a response, too, to the lack of diversity she saw in children’s literature. “All children deserve to see themselves in the books they read,” Ms. Woodson says. Too often Black boys and girls do not see themselves reflected in the media’s portrayal of beauty. In her brief story, a little Black girl voices her hopes that her playmates will understand that each of her features, however different from theirs – fuller, rounder, darker, kinkier – should be celebrated. “Whisper it with me,” the little girl says. “My eyes are beautiful.”
It is a message that might have reassured the author’s younger self. As a Black child growing up in Evanston, she longed for lighter skin and hair as long and straight as the girls on television. An attempt to iron her curls left them scorched instead. Not yet five years old, she says, “I did not feel beautiful.”
Young children “just want to play,” she says, adding, “their hearts are so pure” they do not care about skin color. But by the age of three and a half or four, she says, children are beginning to understand racial differences and internalize racism. That makes her case that it is never too early for adults to talk with children about this difficult subject.
Her book will be a good conversation starter and a way to create a healthy understanding of racial difference, Ms. Woodson says.
The process of composing and publishing “I Hope They Understand” flowed smoothly. She completed the whole project in seven months to a year. “I knew I needed to hurry while the timing was right,” Ms. Woodson says. Once she started, it took her just three weeks to write the book, which she calls “simple enough for the youngest child.” She did not experience the typical frustration of rejection letters. She found a good match in G Publishing while searching Facebook to find who published books like hers. A friend from college became the book’s artist after she responded to Ms. Woodson’s search on social media.
Ms. Woodson attended District 65 elementary schools and graduated from Evanston Township High School in 2009. Currently a family support specialist with the Childcare Network of Evanston, she brings to bear a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Lakeland University in Sheboygan, Wis., and a master’s in social work from Loyola University in Chicago. In May, she will receive a master’s in organizational management from Judson University. She works with Early Head Start and Head Start families, using a comprehensive approach that includes connecting her clients with resources like housing, finances, and education.
She has her eye on a doctoral program and on shifting her focus from preschool to higher education and says she would like to start a movement “like Black Lives Matter but more educational.” She envisions a trademarked site (I Hope They Understand) offering articles, blogs, and pieces about racial inequality and wealth-building.
And Ms. Woodson is determined that her first book will not be her last.