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Christine Platt is a local author of children’s books and advocate who brings her passionate belief in social justice to young readers. She has an astonishing 13 new books coming out in 2020, all of which explore history and culture through a child’s lens. Platt, who reads at Busboys and Poets on Nov. 14 and at East City Bookshop on Nov. 16, spoke to City Paper via email about her new books, how she manages to be so prolific, and why children’s literature is essential.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
WCP: So, you have 13 children’s books coming out in 2020, including books in three series: Ana & Andrew, This Is…, and Sheroes?
CP: Honestly, it’s unbelievable to see the actual number. Children’s books are so much fun to write, especially when the stories are interconnected like the Lewis family in Ana & Andrew. Because I created these characters, they actually feel a little like my children. Many of their adventures are loosely based off of activities I did with my daughter when she was younger, like making snow cream in the winter. In comparison, the publisher, ABDO, created the Sheroes series. They wanted an early reader series that focused on the lives of amazing women in history. So, ABDO picked Harriet Tubman, Sacagawea, Joan of Arc, and Cleopatra. (Of course, as soon I saw Harriet Tubman I said, “Yes!”) It’s the same for the This Is… series. The publisher, Callisto, selected Neil Armstrong, Helen Keller, Alexander Hamilton, and how lucky am I, another Harriet Tubman request. Only one of the 13 books is a standalone. It’s a middle-grade book about Martin Luther King Jr.
So, that being said, it doesn’t necessarily feel like 13 books—more like I committed to write books for three series and one standalone. Or perhaps that’s what I’ve convinced myself to help me get through it. Also, it never seems real until I see the finished product. It’s always a fun surprise for me, too.
WCP: What’s your secret to getting so many books lined up in such a short period of time?
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CP: Again, I think it’s because I was signed for three series. Also, most educational publishers are relatively small houses. You get to know the editors and production team really quickly. I’m sure it makes things easier for them to work with authors and illustrators they’ve worked with in the past, especially for series. The stories will have the same flow and energy. And with each series, I get to further expand the characters and storyline. For example, in the next Ana & Andrew series, the family grows with The New Baby and The Perfect Pet.
WCP: How did the idea for the Ana & Andrew series begin? How do you decide on the theme for each book?
CP: The series features siblings, Ana and Andrew, going on adventures that teach them about African American history and culture. The collection is an extension of ABDO’s Carlos & Carmen series which features Latin American twins. I was asked to pitch to be the author of “a series that focuses on African American history, culture, and family life,” so I had a lot of creative input, including selecting the title [and] names of the characters, Ana and Andrew. And when looking at the family dynamics, I chose to incorporate African American and Caribbean lineage to give children the opportunity to learn about the history of the African diaspora, not just America.
Deciding on a theme for each book is actually the easiest part—people of the African diaspora share a lot of similar experiences, and those traditions that African American families are able to remember are very important, very sacred. So, writing about experiences like attending a family reunion can be a wonderful window book for black early readers, and the perfect window book for other early readers. I also use these books as an opportunity to write about topics I would have loved to read to my daughter when she was younger.
WCP: Did you always plan on writing children’s literature and will you continue on this path, writing such a large number of books each year?
CP: Believe it or not, I always thought that I would never write for children because I didn’t think I could. Because my first two books were written for adult audiences, I just assumed that I would stay in the historical fiction adult genre. In early 2016, I was writing my third book when my agent, Emily Sylvan Kim, called about a potential project that focused on African American history and culture. (Actually, “writing” is a stretch—I was struggling.) So, I was very excited until she said, “It’s for children.” And I was like, “What? No!” But Emily encouraged me to give it a try. It’s so interesting how these things work out. I often wonder what my response would have been if I hadn’t been struggling to write my third book—I’m almost certain I would have said, “No, thanks.” Isn’t that wild?
In May, I was at my first writing residency, The Lemon Tree House, when my agent called. When she told me that ABDO had selected me to write the first four books in the Ana & Andrew series, I just screamed with joy. It was really wonderful to get my first real book contract while away at a writing residency. Writers know how hard this industry can be. There’s much more disappointment than good news. So, everyone there celebrated like it was their first book contract too.
And yes, so now, here I am a few years later with a total of 17 children’s books published by fall 2020. And six more under contract for 2021. I think I finally found my lane with writing children’s literature. Thirteen of the 17 books were written this year so at least I know if I ever must produce large numbers of books within a short time frame again—I can do it. I think that’s the biggest difference—knowing I can do it.
WCP: Your writing focuses on inclusivity and equality, and you are also a passionate advocate. Can you tell us about some of the advocacy work you’ve done in the past?
CP: Aside from being a storyteller, I am first and foremost a historian. For almost 20 years, my work has centered on the history and complexities of people from the African diaspora. This includes everything from working at the Department of Energy as a senior policy advisor focused on energy and environmental justice to recently serving as a race, equity, diversity, and inclusion expert for nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Since May 2019, I’ve been writing full-time. So this work and advocacy is now channeled into storytelling, which I absolutely love. Prior to May, I served as the managing director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University. Advocacy can happen in so many different ways, from storytelling to organizations using social media to spread awareness and execute campaigns of change. I’ve had a wonderful career and I love that I’m still able to do advocacy work through a different creative medium.
WCP: What made you decide to begin writing as a tool for advocacy? And why children’s literature?
CP: There’s just something about storytelling that is so powerful, especially when it comes to children’s literature. Rudine Sims Bishop wrote a wonderful piece called “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” She speaks about the importance of children having windows and mirrors—a way in which to see others and a way to see themselves. I cannot stress how important this is for early readers. To see themselves represented on the pages of a book in a positive way, to have their peers get a glimpse inside their lives and maybe get some answers to questions they’ve been curious about but too afraid to ask. One of the easiest ways to teach race, equity, diversity, and inclusion is by normalizing it through storytelling. It’s not even teaching, really. It’s just accurately representing society and the importance of all cultures and histories. Many of us grew up reading window books. Imagine to always be looking at someone else’s amazing story, someone who looks nothing like you. It affects students’ self-esteem, their desire to read and learn. It’s so complex. And so easily remedied.
WCP: What book are you reading and loving right now?
CP: Like much of the world, I am reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer, which is such a literary treat. The prose is so beautiful, and it’s centered on one of my favorite topics—the history and lasting implications of the transatlantic slave trade. To say I love The Water Dancer is an understatement.