Leading kids through books
This interview is from A Kids Book About: The Podcast, with host Matthew Winner, author of A Kids Book About Leadership, Orion Jean, and illustrator Don Tate. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Orion Jean AND Don Tate! What terrific company!
Orion is the founder of the Race to Kindness, an initiative that’s put over 500,000 books into the hands of kids. He was also recently named Time Magazine’s Kid of the Year!
And Done Tate? He’s the author and/or illustrator of some of my absolute favorite books!
What is the value of reading to you?
Orion: To me, reading is a skill that everybody should have.
I feel like reading can help solve so many problems. Just being able to, you know, sit down with a book and [take] some time away from the world to go on an adventure or learn about a historical figure or something that happened in real life or an event that you might not have known about before.
Reading gives knowledge and knowledge is power, in my opinion.
So I think that reading is one of the building blocks. One of the essential building blocks for everyone to be the best that they can be.
Don: Well, first of all, I just want to say how honored I am for an opportunity to share this space with such an accomplished young man.
Orion, I first heard about your Race to Kindness initiative last year, and I was so impressed with you as a kind and giving human being. So thank you for all of the work that you do to make this world a better place.
It's a privilege to now be able to say that Time Magazine's Kid of the Year is someone that I know now.
What makes reading and learning to read an invaluable skill in my mind?
First I want to remind folks that I am an author and an illustrator of children's books.
I am a children's book creator, not a children's reading specialist or reading teacher, but I do believe that reading is a valuable skill. I mean, just look at Orion here and all that he's accomplished at his young age.
I would venture to say—and Orion, you correct me if I'm wrong—that reading, learning to read, is what put Orion on a path to becoming Time Magazine's Kid of the Year and everything else that he's done in his short life.
There's a book that I wrote and illustrated called Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton. It's the story of the first African American to get a book published in the South. It's the story of a man who was enslaved in the 1800s, a man who was not free. He could not call his life his own. This was a man whose job it was to work in the fields from a sun up to sun, down with no pay.
And yet George accomplished more in his lifetime than the man who enslaved him. George became a successful poet. He published three volumes of poetry and, get this, it was protesting his enslavement. And he delivered three commencement addresses to college students.
How could a man who was enslaved accomplish so much?
Well, when George was a kid, he snuck and taught himself to read.
So reading is a skill that can put us on a path to reaching heights that we may never even imagine.
I recently published a t-shirt that reads “Books Saved My Life,” and I truly believe that.
There can be a lot of challenges that stand between a kid calling themselves a reader and finding that just-right book.
Orion: I feel like one of the reasons that kids aren't the biggest fans of reading is simply because they don't have access to the kinds of books that they would like to read. I mean, if the only books that you've ever been exposed to are, you know, old school books about history…
Maybe you may like history or maybe it would just be exposed to the wrong kind of thing—because there's some kids out there who would love to just sit down and read a history book and there's nothing wrong with that—but there are also kids out there who want to but maybe don't have access to, like, a book about an adventure or a mystery or dinosaurs or wizards or all of these things.
And I feel like one of the problems that kids have with reading is when the only time that [they’ve] ever really read is [when] being forced to—then it's not usually something you want to do for enjoyment.
I think for me, it was just a matter of finding books that interested me and topics that interested me. And I think that if other kids can find books and topics that interest them as well, then there will be a lot more kids who are looking forward to getting more books.
Don: You know, I think that one of the biggest challenges to reading is, reading has a lot of competition. When I think about my own grandchildren, and I have seven of them, they each have iPhones. They have their own Instagram accounts and TikTok and other social media accounts. Each and every one of them have X-boxes and PSP video game consoles with dozens of games. They all have TVs in their rooms, TVs with hundreds of channels to choose from.
Books have to compete against all of this. Unfortunately, books and reading often take a back seat to TikTok. Reading is something that really must be stressed in the home, you know?
I feel like, but not only stressed, it must be modeled by example, you know? For example, with my son, who is now a college student at the University of Texas, but when he was a kid, we expected him to read. You get up. You do your chores. You take a shower. You take care of your pets. And, yes, you read. It wasn't optional, but he thanks me for it today. In addition, my wife and I—we modeled reading in the house. He saw us reading daily. Reading was something important in the Tate home, and so that's something that he grew up and valued.
I think that another challenge is that while I love books, I love reading them and I love making them, your typical picture book costs $19- $20. It is much cheaper than an XBox and a PSP, but that's a whole ‘nother conversation for a whole ‘nother day. Picture books aren't necessarily cheap.
And I've met many kids who did not own their own books. And I've met a lot of kids at school visits throughout this country. That's why I'm excited to have joined Reading is Fundamental in their Rally to Read 100 initiative where we celebrated and engaged kids in reading. In my case, on the important topic of, like Orion mentioned, adventure.
As you think about the books you love and the books you’ve had read to you, the books you read in school, and the books you gravitate toward when you can pick absolutely anything your heart desires, I’ve got a question for you.
When was the last time you saw yourself in a book?
Orion: I think it's, like you said, it's very important to see yourself reflected in the books that you read. If you're only seeing books about people who don't look like you or act like you, are dressed like you, they don't talk like you…then you can't see yourself in an environment where these things would be possible because you've never seen it before.
You've not been represented. So you feel like there are only certain kinds of things that you can be, things that you can do, because those are the only times that you ever see yourself. I mean, for me personally, I was just looking through books to read the other day.
And I was trying to find a book to read because I just finished one and I was just looking and I was like, just so confused about why there were so few books about people that looked like me doing adventures or in fantasies or in different kinds of environments that [I] might not normally see myself in.
Because I feel like even not just me, there are other kinds of cultures that you don't see represented enough because people aren't writing about those experiences. But that's why it's important for me to be able to say that I was able to write a book that was different than what I’ve seen.
Usually I think it was great that I was able to talk about how important leadership is and it's kids knowing that it was me a little, you know, 11 year old boy [that] looks like them can go out and do these things—and that they can do them too. And I feel like if other authors or aspiring authors [are] able to see themselves represented in the area that they want to grow up in, then that can inspire so many things.
It really speaks to possibility, doesn't it? When you can see yourself there, you can see that there's a way or a chance or a hope for you to get there too. And when you don't see yourself, it can feel like that's not a place for me. That was beautifully articulated.
Don: Yeah, I really appreciated Orion's answer. You know, I learned so much from listening to young people, so I was especially anxious to hear what Orion would have to say. Particularly because he's growing up at a time when there is more diversity in books than when I was a kid. You know, I grew up reading Dick and Jane.
I grew up reading Mother Goose rhymes. Jack Sprat can eat no fat. Little Jack Horner, who sat in the corner. Jack and Jill, who went up the hill. Dick and Jane. None of these Jacks—they didn't have any black friends. So when a child grows up, not seeing themselves in books, not seeing people who look like them, you know, I think they can feel invisible.
They can feel unimportant in the world in which they live. They might feel that the books that they read are simply for white people. That's how I felt when I was a young kid. I often felt like books are for books or for white people. There's not any black people in the books that I read. It wasn't until I got older and discovered books like Black Boy by Richard Wright and Native Son by Richard Wright and the autobiography of Malcolm X and those of many others that I realized that, you know, yes, reading is [for everyone].
The authors who wrote those books wrote for people who looked like me. And I think another thing that can happen when books lack diversity, when they lack accurate images of diverse people and experiences, it reminds me of when I talked to my nearly 80 year old mom about children's books and she recalls some of her favorites from when she was at.
That's why I'm thankful that today we have books that portray Black people and native people and Asian Pacific Islander people and LGBTQ people accurately and authentically and joyfully on the flip side. What do you think it does to the mind of a white kid who grows up reading books featuring white people? Because when we talk about books as windows and mirrors, historically white kids get all the mirrors. Well, those kids can grow up thinking themselves more important than others. And there we end up in some of the messes, a divided country that we're living through today.
Orion and Don are not just sharing their books with the world, they’re sharing their own personal stories by how they live their lives and how they walk through the world.
Knowing your story and knowing how others might find strength or hope or understanding or affirmation through hearing your story is a really, really powerful thing.
Orion: I feel like for me, my story, being a normal young kid who always cared about helping others who was taken and put on this platform to suddenly spread that message to a wider audience.
And I think that just seeing how this has grown from something. You know, I wanted to do in my community, something that's gone international and people across the world are going out in their communities and making a difference. And I think that literally my story is helping kids find a leader inside of them.
And for this reading across America, then I agreed to join as the host of this event because it supports my passion for inspiring other kids to read so they can succeed, lead and achieve. I know that, you know, as a reader, I can have an impact on my community and across the country and without books, that would not be possible for me.
It's important to be that person walking through the world—to be that light for other people. We can walk this way. We can do this. We can make this change. That's beautiful.
Each week on A Kids Book About: The Podcast, we talk about the big things going on in your world with a different author from our A Kids Book About series. This week we spoke with Orion Jean, author of A Kids Book About Leadership, and illustrator Don Tate.