Children’s Book by Brittney Cooper on Women Who Changed the World Is Featured at the Zimmerli
The Rutgers professor, along with illustrator Cathy Ann Johnson, visit the art museum Sept. 29 to discuss Stand Up! 10 Mighty Women Who Made a Change
Brittney Cooper, a New York Times best-selling author known for her social commentary on race, set out to write a children’s book about Black girls and women who changed the world to help start conversations early about their contributions.
The exhibition, which runs through Feb. 12, features vibrant illustrations and preparatory materials for Stand Up! by Cathy Ann Johnson, an award-winning children’s book artist. The Zimmerli also is hosting a talk with both the author and illustrator.
Stand Up! tells the story of 10 historic female figures including legendary Civil Rights activists Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks and contemporary role models such as Bree Newsome, who removed the confederate flag from the South Carolina state house grounds, and Mari Copeny, a youth activist who fought for clean water in Flint, Mich.
“Brittney Cooper's words were so powerful that we had to actually discuss, 'How are we going to design this for an early learner audience, a younger audience?'” Johnson said. "One of the things I loved about the manuscript … was that she didn't talk down about a very sensitive subject.”
Cooper, an associate professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies and Africana studies at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, talks about her inspiration for Stand Up! and how she approached writing for a younger audience.
Why did you decide to write a children's book?
As a fourth grader, I learned the story of Rosa Parks in a young adult biography of Dr. Martin Luther King. It was ground-shifting for me in helping me to understand the history of the racism I was already experiencing at school and what the fight for freedom might look like.
Writing this book is my opportunity to be in conversation with young people about Black women and girl freedom fighters in a moment where we really need to expand our understanding of who our heroes and sheroes can be. In my life as a professor, I get to teach about Black women who have fought for this country to be a better, more inclusive place, but I don't believe those conversations should begin or end in college. They should start as early as possible, and this is my offering to young people in service of that mission.
What is your target audience and what do you want them to learn from the book?
This particular book is for children ages 5-8. I want them to see American history from the perspective of Black women and girls who have grappled with everything from slavery and the Constitution, to racial segregation, to the contemporary fight for clean water.
In this moment when our country is embattled over the teaching of critical race theory, which is really a battle over teaching American history properly, disrupting the kind of white-washed history of our country and normalizing the presence, participation and contributions of Black women and girls from the 1700s forward feels precipitous. I plan to write at least two more children's books with Scholastic.
How did you choose the women you are highlighting? What does bringing together Ruby Bridges, Bree Newsome and Mari Copeny teach us, and why did you want to bring together their stories?
The great thing about being a women's studies professor is that I get to talk about all these women in some capacity in my daily life. So, I picked some of my favorites across the span of American history, many of whom I don't necessarily get to write or teach about in depth, and chose to highlight them.
Ruby Bridges, Bree Newsome and Mari Copeny span three generations of Black women's and girls' activism, and they are all still alive. I wanted young people to know that standing up for what's right is not just something that happened in the past with people who are long gone. Many of these freedom fighters are among us today. And in the case of Bridges and Copeny, they began their activism as girls, which I hope inspires young people to know you don't have to wait till you are an adult to begin standing up for justice.
In reading your book, this was immediately noticeable: You don’t talk down to your audience; you speak to them as equals. How did you balance that with some possibly complex or challenging/frightening notions?
This is a core principle of mine as a public Black feminist scholar, and someone of working-class origins: Always respect your audiences. The true test of whether you know your material well is the ability to translate it so that anybody who engages in good faith can participate.
Children almost always engage in good faith, and they deserve to be taken seriously as thinkers learning what it means to navigate a world filled with both good and hard things. This book tries to engage young people at the intersection of what is good in terms of the fight for justice and what is hard in terms of our persisting legacies of discrimination.
How does the Zimmerli exhibit tell the story/help you reach your audience?
I'm so excited to be able to share this work with Rutgers and the surrounding community. My hope is that folks in New Brunswick and surrounding cities will bring their children to experience both the art and the text, which will be rendered in both English and Spanish.
I think universities cannot be places that extract from communities. We have to contribute and enrich. I hope this exhibit does this, while making this work come alive for local audiences and for our students at Rutgers.
Brittney Cooper, author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Woman Discovers Her Superpowers and co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective blog, and illustrator Cathy Ann Johnson will hold a book reading and signing at the Zimmerli on Thursday, Sept. 29, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Seating is limited.