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The Brown Bookshelf: Paula Chase

February 28, 2022

Daymaker is energized by the possibilities of our growing relationship with The Brown Bookshelf. Formed and sustained by a collective of nine Black children’s book authors, The Brown Bookshelf is designed to push awareness of the myriad Black voices writing for young readers.

Today, we are sharing an interview with Paula Chase, author of nine books including Keeping It Real, So Done, and Dough Boys. The following interview has been edited for clarity; watch the full length interview here.

Ari: I just asked you to tell me more about yourself and about which books provided the most pivotal experience for you personally, acknowledging that so much of yourself is in each of these stories.

Paula: Let's see, I have nine books out right now. And each of them, as you said, are really, very much a part of me. Every one of my characters has a little bit of me in them. Every one of my characters is going through something that I either experienced or wanted to put out there as an experience; even if it wasn't mine, to be clear, because people always want to know like, well, how personal is it? I mean, every book is personal because you are processing the world for your character. So it's personal right there because you're the one processing it for them.

So, none of my books really, I would say surprised me the most because all of them come from the same place. And that's that place of wanting to represent two really important things. One: that the Black experience isn't a monolith and that there are so many different stories within it. And so these are the stories, suburbanites, working class, upper middle-class, middle-class. These are the stories that I wanted to put out there, but also as I begin to put more books out there, I realized they were also filling in a blank for those readers caught in the middle between traditional middle grade and traditional young adult. I realized how many readers we lose around that 12 to 14 age because the middle grade books tend to be too young for them in terms of how the story is tackled. And yet the young adult is a little bit too graphic; a little too detailed for what they're ready to experience. And so I also write those stories to tell it from the perspective of 13 year old characters for 13 year old readers, so that they understand that we see and hear them, and they’re not forgotten.

Ari: Thank you. I actually took note of your quote about you processing the world for your characters. I think that is not only such a beautiful sentiment, but also such a profound one in that that's a lot to carry

Paula: It is, but it's not because it's a lot to carry for me as someone who is mature and has experienced the world already. I imagine what it's like for them and they're trying to figure it out. And especially now with all the book banning going on, they're being told that they shouldn't be allowed to read certain content. Despite the fact that many of them are experiencing those things that you don't want them to read, and the messages are so mixed and it's so awful. So, you know if you want to call it a burden, if it's the cross that I have to bear, I'm willing to take it because they need to see the world through their eyes, not through what we tell them.

Ari: Absolutely. Have any of your books been on the banned book list?

Paula: Not so far. And I'm actually pretty surprised because these lists are targeting [any] books [that] have a Black person in them, for the most part. I've looked at some of them and I'm like, why is this book here? So I am surprised that it's not, because my book Turning Point most certainly deals with racism in ballet and microaggressions. And Dough Boys is about the two young characters and the fact that they have been introduced to the drug hustle by their coach. So my books don't shy away from topics that are tough.

Ari: What specific challenges do you face in your writing books about Black teenagers for Black teenagers? A second part to the question I would like to ask too, is what challenges do you face as an adult writing books for teenagers about teenagers?

Paula: The challenges I faced writing Black teenagers for Black teenagers isn't even related to the end-user. It's related to publishing and the fact that if you look at the entire system and understand that the success of books is largely based on the publishers deciding that the book will be a success. It's based on the amount of money that they decide to put behind a book and how they market that book and how they promote that book and how they distribute that book. And so the challenge for me is that I’m telling stories that publishing hasn't traditionally promoted as the Black experience for the vast majority of my life as a reader.

For the vast majority of my life, the Black experience to publishing is historical fiction based on slavery. We weren’t [expected] to cover any other period except for slavery. And when we are talking about contemporary stories, we are usually talking about an “urban” (their word) story, an inner city story, where the child is trying to overcome some adversity, usually poverty, that's it. Those are the narratives. That's who we are to publishing in a nutshell.

So my challenge is being able to write stories that aren't those things. I'm writing about the suburbs, I'm writing about some of the cultural clashes that we have in our own community: things like being called an "Oreo" or somebody telling two Black people, and [one] telling another that you talk white. I'm talking about those kinds of things, because... that's been my experience. I'm talking about the clash we have between sometimes working class and middle-class Black people. So the challenge for me is that I'm putting stories out there, that for the most part, publishing is like, “oh, okay, so those are your stories too.” And then there are the Black joy stories where it's like not about pain at all. So that's the challenge that I face when it comes to just writing the many different faces of a Black teen.

Now, the challenges I face as an adult, I think it's really interesting that there's a bit of ageism in children's literature that we don't really address, but we don't talk about it. And it's this thing and publishing does it, and consumers do it, where you want the young. It's like, you love hearing the stories about this 14 year old who wrote a book, and that's great. But it’s like we might not want to put your photo on the book because you might look older than the reader expects. So it's so ridiculous. And I don't need to say how old I am or I'm not. I write what I write, I'm the one writing. It comes from me. I'm the age that I am. So there is still this lust for youth where we want to embrace the youngest person telling the story. And it's just frustrating, but I mean, it's never stopped me, but it's definitely one of those things that I've experienced where I've just sort of shook my head at how ridiculous it is.

Ari: That's wild.

Paula: And I don't want to dilute how great it is when a young person writes books. You can't hide the author. I never even thought or cared about the age of the authors that I read as a kid. It was about the story.

Ari: But that's the thing as a child, I feel like having had the face of the author, if they were Black, Brown, disabled or queer, or if their identity reflected mine in any visible or expressive way, I think that would have changed my experience with that text in a positive way because I would have seen myself. I would have been more apt to pick the book up because there is a Black face on it. One that is real that I could touch, you know?

That's really unfortunate that that is the perception, because I feel like as publishers, they're making similar judgments that they're accusing you all of. These are adults making decisions for the interest and readership of young people. We are not young people, you know?

And I think of this past summer, I attended a conference about early childhood education for Black children. And one of the workshops was about the way whiteness is imbued in the education system. One of the things that stood out to me the most was when the presenter put on the screen all of these white historic male faces and we could name all of them. Like, even down to Pythagorus. But we could not name the Black inventors and authors that he was putting on the screen. And the very last one he displayed was a Black female inventor that is now the president of a college and she's alive right now. So that was his final argument: there are Black historians, legacies, and change makers who are alive right now — that we could reach out to and touch, that our kids could send an email to. And we don't know who they are.

And I just feel like if I were to see a book with your face on it and know that this is written in the last five years, as a young child, aspiring to maybe be a writer, to maybe be something in these stories, I could just send you an email. I could follow you on Instagram. You know, like it's a mind blowing the opportunities. We are depriving our children of because of these assumptions around ages and experience.

Paula: You just really reinforced the point. And it’s because the readers ready for it. It's the old antiquated way of doing things that's in the way. And it's changing, but for sure we still have a ways to go.

Ari: And I think back often now when I was able to speak with Varian Johnson (a member of The Brown Bookshelf), he kept reiterating the point that we really have to trust the kids. You have to trust that they can handle this content, that they have the intelligence to navigate it, the emotional intelligence to speak on it. We have to trust the kids. And I feel like there's a lot of mistrust here thinking that because our adult faces are on the book that would be a deterrent.

But next question, Keeping It Real, one of your books, is also a powerful explanation of what happens when parents pick and choose what they shield their children from. Are there things that guardians, parents, adults should keep from their children. Why or why not?

Paula: Obviously that is a really personal and intimate kind of decision. What I was getting at with Keeping It Real was the consequences when we do that. I think when there's something that a parent withholds from a child, they're doing it from a place of concern, they're doing it from a place of love, but they are also probably doing it from a place of fear and whether it's fear of their child judging them, fear that their child may make a similar mistake...

It’s definitely some self-preservation going on when we decide to withhold certain things from our children, but the point of Keeping It Real was to say, look, what happens when you do though — and look what happens when the children have to process what you did, and they're doing it in the dark because only half of them understand what's going on. And only one of them knows one side of the story.

So it’s all of this rolled into one to make this really messy, messy situation. Out of that situation, of course, comes growth. But I think when we talk about withholding information, we do need to think about why we're withholding it and how long you plan to withhold it. That's the other thing, because also in the book there was a discussion about what we were going to tell you, or we did it this way because we thought, you know, X, Y, Z. And so you're not trusting that child to be mature enough to handle the information. And what I'm trying to get across in this story is the irony that you expect children to be mature enough to make certain decisions. Mary is ready to be 14 years old, she's ready to go into high school. So, there are certain things that even Ms. Sadie is saying to her, like, “you need to be able to do better.” “You need to think about other people, the way that you move.” And yet she wasn't trusted with the information that she discovers at the end of the book. So, it's kind of ironic, we're being a little hypocritical because we're picking and choosing when we want them to be mature. And again, I don't think that ends well, regardless.

Ari: We're picking and choosing when they want them to be mature. I do think for Black children in particular, they exist at that intersection between infantilization and adultification. We pick and choose when they're too young and when they’re acting too grown. And then other times, we’re like “you need to grow up. That's life, it's tough.”

And I think we're in the same headspace around fear being the reason that parents, and again, particularly Black parents and caregivers, withhold information. I have this conversation often with younger people in my life around like race and racism. Why is it that some Black parents are not having this “talk”? You know, that so many Black children do go about racism and what to do when you're stopped by the police. And some of the children in my life, they feel like they should be having more conversations on race in their household. And I was telling them, I think that there's a lot of fear that the minute we open this door, their parents will have to admit that they can't keep them safe. And that is something very fearful, very scary for a parent to admit to their child — that I cannot keep you safe. And it's because of your skin color. It's because of how you are being perceived by the world that I have no say in.

Paula: And, that's true there, that admission that I can't keep you safe, is scary for us. And it's scary for the child because the beauty or the supposed beauty of childhood is its innocence, is your ability to not have to take the world's ills on your shoulder so early. But the reality is is that when you're Black, that honeymoon period isn't very long. You're having to have the talk multiple times throughout your child's life when you're raising a Black child, and we haven't even added in if you're raising a Black female child. And how that differs with a Black male child in terms of the police. It's so much. And so that, that curtain, that gauze of innocence that you usually can wrap a child in, we just don't get to have it very long.

So, but it really reinforces the importance of books because books will, to me, always be one of the safest places for a child to learn about the world around them because they get to read a sentence and stop and think about it and they can write a note about it, or they can take it to somebody and point to it and say, what does that mean? Or it's the safest place for you to take information and filter it through your brain and decide how you want to interact with it or engage with it. And for people who are like, “oh, they're not ready for it.” If a child picks up a book, and for some reason they don't vibe with that information, they'll put it back down. So they're ready for it.

Ari: It makes me think of one of my favorite quotes. And I don't know who said it, but the marking of a great teacher is one who can tell a child what direction to look in, but not what to see. And I think you're gesturing towards that. Children being able to pick up a book and pick out quotes, they're going to interpret it how they need to. And I think we have a lot of power as adults to help influence how it speaks to them, what it says to them. Then, at the end of the day, they're going to internalize their own messages. And then we have the opportunity to really kind of mold it.

But at the end, we can't change it. We can't tell them how to internalize it or what to do with it.

Paula: Yeah, people ask me all the time what do you want people to learn from your books? And I'm not a teacher. I'm not setting out to teach a lesson. I'm setting out to reflect an experience. I'm setting out to represent a character who somebody may look like, or a character that might be a window for somebody else. That's all I'm doing. Hats off to educators because they are doing stuff that I can't do. I write because I believe in the process of molding young minds, but I'm not teaching.

Ari: Right. There’s an educational element in the learning experience that comes with books. Like we're always learning from a book, but we're not necessarily being taught a lesson or the knowledge in a book. That is up to the adults, the educators in this space to use in their lesson planning and in conversation, and making teachable moments out of a book. I appreciate that distinction.

So one of the kids on our platform, the Daymaker platform, wrote that if they could change anything about the world, that they would make sure everyone has someone with whom they can share their secrets.

So a little bit more context: every campaign season when we're creating our wishlist, we survey the children at the different non-profits and there's a series of requested that we ask them to answer. And one of them is what would you change about the world? And this young teenager, I believe the child was about 14 years old, said that they would make sure everyone had someone to share their secrets with. And so your books grapple with secret sharing and keeping and shielding, and some of that we've already mentioned intergenerationally, but what do you think of this teen’s wish for the world?

Paula: It warms me because it lets me know that the things that really kind of keep us grounded and keep us going are the most simple things. Imagine getting a wish and you could wish for anything, and all you're wishing for [is] somebody to talk to, somebody that you can confide in. That shows you how important that is. You cannot emphasize, especially for teenagers, how important it is to have somebody that you can go to and be unfiltered with.

We are polite so much of our day. You know, we watch what we say to our colleagues at work. We watch what we say to our spouse, our partners. We watch what we say to our kids. All day we're careful with our language. We want to make sure that we are articulating ourselves so that we're understood. So we don't want to be too angry. We don't want to get too frustrated because any emotion is going to evoke another emotion from the person we're talking to. The ability to have somebody to confide in is also the same as having somebody you can be your realist self with. And I would one hundred percent agree with that teenager because we all deserve it because we need that break. We need that minute to turn ourselves off and not worry about how I said it doesn't matter what my face looks like. Doesn't matter what my tone sounds like. I just get to say what I need to say. I need to say the secret.

And I'm using secret very loosely because sometimes it's really a secret. And sometimes it's just, “I can't say this in any way to anybody else, but you.” And I know I certainly have more than one person who I can turn my filters off with. So, absolutely, for everybody to have at least one person that you can turn to. Imagine how you get to refresh yourself when you get to talk to that one person and you can kinda unload a little bit and then you kind of be “okay, I can go on a little bit longer because I've unburdened myself a bit.”

Ari: I have some texts to send. I call those people that you're referring to my soulmates, I have about three of them in my life. And I feel like they came into my life in my adulthood, like as early as my college years — and even more recently. And I often wonder what my life would have looked like in my teenage years, if I had had that person, I wonder how much less undoing there would be for me [to do now]. If I had had someone to be unfiltered with, to not have to be polite, to not have to worry about my facial expressions and all of that you just mentioned as a child, as a teenager. This is a relatively new experience for me to have friends or soulmates with whom I can be like “Let me tell you...” and be able to just like, go.

Paula: What's interesting is that, and I want to address the element of real secrets in a second, but what I really love about having that one person to confide in or multiple in our cases, is it teaches you how to better grapple with what's going on so that you can prioritize. Like you start to realize that you don’t have to vent over everything — because you also respect that you don't want to transfer your constant anxiety to that person who you get to unload to because they're probably doing it back to you too. You're probably their person. And so, I think when you have that person, over time, you become mindful. Like, okay, I may not want to put this on them because they are going through something or whatever. So, I think it helps to mature you when you have that person. Because we want to be aware of each other's mental health too, right. As we're filtering.

Ari: Speaking to the mental health piece, one of the greatest lessons I've learned from these relationships is that I don't have to be 100% of myself 100% of the time. And what it means to give myself some grace about it. I'm often like, “oh, I've been venting about this for too long. I'm tired of feeling this way about it.” And they'll bring me back into reality and be like, “but we can't shut these feelings off. So you should continue talking about it until you've processed it.” They can also check me in that way; like you said, having this balance between like, “okay, now you are dwelling and we're not going anywhere,” and “actually for your own mental health, for your own self-preservation, be angry.” And so we need more people to tell us, be angry. That's a good thing. That's okay. You know, cry it out, be sad. I'm not going until you’re done. We need more people who are willing to stop and check us in those ways.

Paula: I totally agree. And so what I wanted to talk about, because we are talking about children and secrets though, is the importance of also understanding when a secret shouldn't be a secret anymore. And when, because I am writing upper middle grade, because I am writing about early teenagers, someone who's 13 years old, sometimes those secrets at 13 can get pretty dark. I think that's something that we don't respect is that, very early, kids can have some very dark secrets and we see that in So Done.

So when I was writing that, and having to be very careful with how I handle that material, I wanted to show what it was a like and why the secret was a burden for her. And one of the reasons it was burden for her was because she knew if it got out and her father would handle it. And she was afraid of what her father would do, if he found out. So it's important also for us to put these things out there so that someone who has a secret can understand that it might be time for me to unburden the secret with somebody who can help me handle it. So, I do want to address that because it's good to have someone to share it with, but there are times when obviously that secret needs to come out.

Ari: That is such a, a critical point. How do children, from your perspective, or from my experience even, come into knowing when a secret is one that should come out?

Paula: I think it's a challenge because it's about the signals that are around them. And you'll hear stories about kids who tried to tell adults in their life that something was going on, and they weren't listened to, or it was only half handled. And so then this message is that no one's listening to them, and they're not really sure what to do with it, but I think the kids are very perceptive and how and when they decide to let go of a secret is often based on what's happening around them.

I mean, we see in So Done that she knows it's bad. It's why she wants to move with her aunt. It’s why she doesn't want to live in her neighborhood anymore. She wants to protect her dad. She doesn't want him to go off and get in trouble over it. So it's obvious, she's aware that the secret has to be handled. It's just that she's handling it like a teenager would. Like, let me try to do everything I can so that this doesn't come up. And that just isn't sustainable. And she finds that out. She realizes that it's not sustainable. So I think it's a very intuitive thing. To be honest with you. I think most kids, especially today, because they have access to so much information, I think they do know it's usually that the signals around them end up kinda messing up their ability to get it to the right person sometimes.

Ari: Yes. I also think like that's a message for the guardians who are watching, who are interacting with your book. We got to teach our children young to accept and to acknowledge that intuition. Someone recently said to me that if we stop listening to that voice inside our head, it'll stop talking. And that really just undid me as a new parent. That's something that I'm trying to be conscious of too. Even though he's still technically an infant, I don't want him to ever get the perception that I'm not listening; that I missed the signal; that I missed a cue because it does start so young. We need to teach them to trust their gut, trust the feelings in the body.

Paula: And honestly, I had to wonder if the voice has stopped talking or if the message just begins to turn. And that's scary to me because I do think the voices continue to talk actually, but the message is different. And, I think what we risk is the message becoming darker. It goes from you need to tell somebody because that's a survival instinct. You need to tell somebody to no one is going to listen. I think the problem is when that message becomes working on suppressing it because nobody listened. So I think they just start becoming resigned. That's when it worries us.

Ari: You're right. Because it does go from, you need to tell someone to no one's going to listen. And then from no one's going to listen to you to you don't deserve to be heard. And then from you deserve to be heard to you don't matter.

Paula: Yep. But I think they're always talking because that's part of our self-preservation. It's just that the messages are different sometimes.

Ari: Wow. You're right. It does take a turn. Thank you for that.

And you kind of already gestured toward this, but I'll just ask you more explicitly. What do you hope readers will receive from your books and how do you hope they will see themselves after interacting with the stories you've created and shared?

Paula: I really do just want readers to go on a ride. I just want them to enjoy it. I find that I do a lot of hate watching with television lately, and I'm not embarrassed anymore because I realized that the story is good because it's evoking something from you, even if it's rage.

Like I just finished watching the the Netflix show Inventing Anna. I hate-watched the entire thing. Like, I didn't like any of the characters. I was so frustrated. I thought Shonda Rhimes is so good because she has me watching this thing and raging at the television.

So that's really all that I want, is for a reader to go on that ride love or hate what's happening, love or hate what the characters are doing, but to stay on that ride with them at the end though, because almost all of my stories are friendship stories at the heart of it. In the end, I do want readers to emerge more empathetic. I do want them to have either seen a little bit of themselves in it or somebody else's experience. And I just want them to be able to walk away and just be a more empathetic person to others and to be able to show themselves some grace.

Ari: I'm so excited to read all of your books because I imagine, even in my adult years now that your books are still continuing to speak to me as a Black middle class suburban kid who was the only Black person in a lot of spaces in my upbringing. So I feel like that whole grace conversation is one I'm still learning. I was always in competition or I was always the center of something because I was the only in something. And so I'm already thanking you for the ride.

And so my last question for you is if you could stock every Black child's bookshelf with five books, and this child could be of any age of your choice, what books would they be?

Paula: That's an incredibly unfair question. There are many books out there, but I do have a little list ready. I want one from every genre, from every part of children's literature.

So the first book that I would pick would be Kelly Starling Lyons’ Ty’s Travels. And I get to cheat because it's more than one book because it's a little series, but they're easy readers. And the fact that you would get to see, as perhaps a five-year-old, this character that looks like you having these fun experiences. I think it's very important to see that joy, to see that exploration. And, I read them to my grandbaby, so that she's already getting those stories. So Ty's travels.

The next would be a Ways to Make Sunshine by Renee Watson. And it's because it's one of those early middle grade books that is reminiscent of the Ramona Quimby books. And we deserve to see Ryan Hart as the character in Ways to Make Sunshine. We deserve to see those characters who are exploring the world through some of that rambunctiousness and the little pesky sister kind of bit.

Definitely Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor. She could have come first because she definitely is one of my influences as a writer, but she tells really hard tales in the most honest voice. And I try to do the same. So I know that she influenced me, but the heart that she has for the Logan family, even though they're going through this horrible racism is a way to, very early on, see how Black people have always had to be resilient. So definitely, definitely that.

I picked my own book, So Done, for the upper middle-grade group because we cannot forget our, 13 and 14 year olds. And also it deals with what we've talked a great deal about and that's those secrets and what to do with those.

And finally for my young adult readers, because we want people to read forever, we want them to be lifelong readers. I'm picking Blackout. It's an anthology of Black love stories. And if you have not read this book, you have got to read this book. And that's also a sneaky way for me to get in other authors because it’s an anthology with some of today's best young adult writers: we have Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon.

Ari: So I'm going to run out and go buy it today.

Paula: And you hit me up and you let me know after you read it.

Yeah. If I had had that book as a teenager, how it would've changed my world just to see Black teenagers in love.

Ari: I'm so excited. I'm probably going to buy multiple copies for all the Black teenagers in my life.

I really am excited about the opportunity to send these books out. The ones that you've just recommended and your own will be sent to the children on our platform. We recently expanded to include 14 to 18 year olds. And so that is an area that I'm really invested in growing in terms of our platform and the opportunities we have to create something special for the children and the youth, and not just with the Black children, but all of the children. More people need to read about Black love, and they need to read about the Ramona Quimby — But from this experience.

We need more. I don't know if you watch cartoons, but my 18 year old cousin was telling me about Craig of the Creek. And she's like, “they're just a happy Black family, minding their own business. You can't get any more real than that.” And I was like, I can't wait to watch it. We need more stories like that.

And, Black history is for everybody. And so I'm so excited to have had this opportunity to talk with you not only during Black history month, but just before we get to Black Children's Book Week. And I'm really excited for all the opportunities that I hope we'll continue to have to talk about your work at The Brown Bookshelf, and the work we're doing in Daymaker, and to just grow together in literature, in Black love and Black joy and all of the Blackness. Thank you so much.

Paula: Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.

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