Spotlight Image: Author Tameka Fryer Brown, photo by D.E. Photography
Over the summer I read That Flag by Tameka Fryer Brown, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith (HarperCollins, 2023) and was awed by the story, the art, and how Tameka made this topic so accessible for young readers. I’m thrilled to share our interview with Cynsations readers.
At its heart, That Flag is a story of friendship, but in this case the obstacle in the story is one friend’s family flying the Confederate battle flag. Each family has a very different belief about what the flag represents. Was there a particular event that inspired you to write this story?
Yes, it was the Charleston church shootings. I wrote That Flag in 2015, after a white supremacist murdered nine members of Emmanual AME Church in Charleston, SC, immediately following evening bible study—which he had joined them for, by the way.
Following that heinous act came a familiar public debate about the Confederate battle flag (which the killer had posed with in multiple photographs found on social media), as to whether it was truly a hate symbol or simply a representation of Southern heritage and pride.
Distraught by the murders and frustrated by the dispute, I wrote this story to set the record straight about that flag—to tell the truth about how it came to be, how it’s been used throughout history, and how it is still being used today.
What did Nikkolas Smith’s art bring to your text? To what extent did you work together?
Nikkolas is an artivist who is all about creating art that inspires people to make positive change. In That Flag, he has portrayed the emotional journey of Keira and Bianca brilliantly, with illustrations that are evocative, compassionate, and in the end, hopeful.
Nikkolas and I did not collaborate directly, but the synergy is there all the same.
What do you hope young readers will take away from this story?
The importance of truth—seeking it, embracing it, telling it. I hope young readers will be inspired to seek answers for their own hard questions, and that the adults in their lives will be courageous and honest in aiding them.
Symbols of racism, enslavement and division are not subjects typically associated with picture books. Why is it important to share a story like this with elementary age readers?
If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll continue to be what we’ve always been. A racist society is what we’ve always been, and the only way to change that is to be intentional about doing things differently.
Studies have shown that elements of racial prejudice can be seen even in preschoolers, thanks to all the different types of messaging they receive daily.
If we truly want to create a world without bigotry, we must be intentional about planting seeds of empathy, equity, and justice in kids’ hearts as early as possible. The longer we wait to start combating the influence of white supremacy on the next generation of leaders and decision makers, the harder it will be to effect lasting change.
Just look where our nation is right now as it relates to civil rights. We’re moving backwards at lightning speed! We cannot sit idly by and watch it happen. As a children’s book author, my way of helping to create a better future is by planting seeds of truth and love in kids today.
What advice do you have for writers tackling complicated topics for young readers?
Tell the truth—clearly and simply—with respect, compassion, and love for every child.
What’s coming next/ what are you most excited about in your writing life now?
I have a book coming out with Farrar, Straus & Giroux in November 2024 called All the Greatness in You. It’s an affirming ode to “big kids.” Alleanna Harris is the illustrator, and I can’t wait to share her gorgeous, heart-melting art with the world!
Tameka Fryer Brown (a native of Miami, Florida) has called Charlotte, North Carolina home for over 25 years. She is a picture book author who writes to sow seeds of self-love, pride, connectivity, and inclusion in the hearts of children. Her first literary accomplishment as a children’s book writer came when she was awarded one of two First Prizes in the 2008 Cheerios® Spoonfuls of Stories® New Author Contest.
Her published works include Brown Baby Lullaby, My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood, and Around Our Way on Neighbors’ Day, which have collectively won awards like the Charlotte Zolotow Honor Award and the Anna Dewdney Read Together Award, and have been honored on best book lists by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, New York Public Library, Bank Street College, NPR, Parents Latina Magazine, The Little Free Library, and more. Tameka’s most recent star-reviewed picture books are Twelve Dinging Doorbells, Not Done Yet: Shirley Chisholm’s Fight for Change, and That Flag. Her next book, All the Greatness in You, will be published by FSG/Macmillan in November 2024.
Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma. She has published numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and two regional interest books for adults. She is a board member of Lago Vista’s Friends of the Library and an Austin SCBWI volunteer. She loves inspiring curiosity in young readers through stories of hope and adventure.