Juleya Woodson wishes she had a book like the one she’s just written when she was a little girl.
Woodson, who grew up in Evanston and is a 2009 graduate of Evanston Township High School, is the author of “I Hope They Understand,” a book which affirms that all children are special, while specifically telling Black children that they are beautiful. The book is for children up to age five.
“I remember not feeling beautiful at that age,” Woodson says. She recalls seeing people on TV with “lighter skin, and long straight hair.” Woodson says she even tried to straighten her own hair using an iron, but the hair just ended up getting burned.
Woodson laughs about the hair ironing now, but also puts it in a much larger picture, that Black children need to be reminded of their own self-worth in a world which can sometimes deny that value.
The killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor reinforced that reality.
“I remember all the chaos in our world,” Woodson says. “I felt afraid, insecure, and unsafe. I couldn’t imagine how children felt.”
“I needed to write a book,” Woodson says, with the message that “Black is beautiful and Black is great.”
The 20-page paperback book focuses on a young Black girl, although children of other races and ethnicities are also pictured. The value of all children is part of the message, celebrating racial and cultural differences.
But the key message is to remind Black children of their own inherent beauty, creativity and self-worth. One of the pages says:
“I hope they understand,
even though my eyes are
a little rounder than my friends,
my eyes are beautiful.
“Whisper it with me,
My eyes are beautiful.”
Woodson works with young children every day, as a gamily support specialist with the Childcare Network of Evanston, an Early Head Start and Head Start preschool and social service provider.
And while “I Hope They Understand” is a children’s book, adults are also an intended audience. By helping children learn about racial differences, Woodson says, the book can be a conversation starter for their parents as well.
Children are “pure little souls,” without any prejudices, at least at the start. But they can quickly learn negativity from adults, so it’s critical, Woodson says, to help make children and adults comfortable about discussing the often uncomfortable topic of race.
One of her purposes, Woodson says, is to build “empathy, not sympathy.” She hopes families will build a more diverse collection of books, to help foster cultural and racial understanding.
“I Hope They Understand” is illustrated by Woodson’s college classmate Michelle Wang. Both attended Lakeland University in Wisconsin.
But it was simply a stroke of good luck that Wang became the illustrator. Woodson put out a Facebook post looking for an artist, and Wang responded.
Woodson also had one very important Black child in mind when she wrote the book, her two-and-a-half year old son Kayden. “He was a huge part of my motivation,” she says.
“My hope for him,” she adds, “is for him to go through the world with his head held high.”