Jelani Memory thinks that fire-breathing dragons, cuddly bears, and fairy tales about princesses have their place in the kids’ media landscape—but that enough of that fantasy already exists. Rather, asks the author and entrepreneur, “Where are all the true stories? Who’s explaining what’s happening around the world?”
His quest to inform young children about the realities of the world urged him to write the book, A Kids Book About Racism. It would be distinct from the majority of kids’ books, peeling away the sugar coating and educating kids, 5 to 9, about racism “in all of its gravity and ugliness,” favoring facts and honesty over colorful illustrations and poppy designs.
Memory, founder and CEO of A Kids Book About, joined us on this week’s World Changing Ideas podcast to discuss the concept of broaching topics like racism with impressionable youth. After racism, Memory’s publishing startup has tackled other weighty subjects—incarceration, depression, death, feminism, sexual abuse, being transgender, and school shootings—without euphemisms or those little white lies grown-ups tend to use. “I do think they are heavy topics,” he says, “but I don’t know if kids always perceive them in that way, meaning they don’t carry all the baggage with them.” It’s the adults who get uncomfortable with the subject matter, he says, more than the kids.
The reason for starting this education early is because many children are already experiencing hardships, Memory says. Kids may be going through bullying, witnessing parents fighting, or dealing with the death of a grandparent, without knowing how to talk about it all. “Yes, we want to provide them the security and comfort they need,” he says, “but pretending like it’s not happening [is] creating more discomfort.” The books are a way to approach these issues. “We’re not really selling books. We’re selling the conversation that comes afterwards.”
What’s more, many adults themselves don’t exactly know how to talk about issues like racism, until they get to college or encounter workplace-diversity training—or, worse, they don’t believe it even exists. Memory says his book sales skyrocketed after George Floyd’s murder, which was a huge wake-up call to many that we certainly don’t live in a post-racial society. “These aren’t Black parents, these aren’t coastal parents,” he says of the book buyers. “These are Middle-America white parents who are going, ‘Oh my God, racism is real. I’ve got to talk to my kid.'”
Memory has now added podcasts and online classes to his educational armory, all geared toward the same goal of helping kids grasp tough concepts from an early age—and become better members of society for it. “They’re empowered to be better, to do better, to love those folks around them that are either like them or not like them at all,” he says. “And, most importantly, to love themselves the way that they are.”