Interview with Henriette, founder of Mama Let’s Read, about sharing diverse children’s books to eliminate inequities and cultural deficit narratives about BIPOC
By Lee Burgess, President, Natural Resources Board of Directors
Welcome to the “Listen and Learn” Interview Series...part of our “It Takes a Village” Fundraising & Awareness Campaign!
Not all children’s books with BIPOC characters are created equal, and some even perpetuate negative racial stereotypes. So where do you turn when it comes to picking out diverse children’s books for your children?
That’s why we love the amazing resource, Mama Let’s Read, created by Henriette. It started out as a simple way to share ideas with friends on social media for Black history month. But quickly caught interest and turned into a passion project that’s helped to build community — especially during these isolating times of the pandemic.
We’re happy to speak with Henriette today about Mama Let’s Read and her Facebook group of over 1,600 members, focused on supporting Bay Area Moms of Color.
In this episode, we discuss:
- Henriette’s background and work with the Mama Let's Read project and the moms of color parenting group.
- Henriette’s tips for selecting the best children’s books.
- Henriette’s favorite books.
- Changes through COVID and plans for post-pandemic.
- Henriette’s favorite resources about inclusion and antiracist parenting.
- Three things new and expecting families should know.
- How to connect with the Mama Let’s Read project, Moms of Color in SF Bay Area group
Lee Burgess: Welcome to the Natural Resources It Takes a Village interview series. We are speaking to contributing members of the parenting and birth community here in the San Francisco Bay area. Thank you so much for being with us and for supporting Natural Resources as a community, nonprofit, supporting new and expecting families.
Today, we are welcoming Henriette, the founder of Mama Let's Read and the moms of color in the San Francisco Bay area parenting group. Henriette thanks for being here today.
Henriette: Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited.
Henriette’s Background and Work with the Mama Let's Read Project and the Moms of Color Parenting Group
Lee Burgess: Well to get things kicked off. Could you share a little bit about your background, how you started your Mama Let's Read project, as well as organizing the moms of color parenting group?
Henriette: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I will start with a little bit about my background. So my undergrad background is in marketing and then I've always had a passion for education and reading. And I did a lot of tutoring and working with kids basically from high school and beyond. And so I decided to pursue a master's degree.
So I received my master's degree in international multicultural education with an emphasis on human rights education. And with that, I started moving more into working with community based organizations, and then I became a parent.
And as a parent in San Francisco at the time meant we relocated to the east bay, but I felt really alone as a stay at home parent of color in San Francisco. And so right around when my oldest was like a year old, I decided to just create a Facebook group just for moms of color and who were really wanting to create a community space, both virtual and in person.
And that was really important to me. And I didn't really have a vision when I started it. It was more like I feel like I need a safe space where I can talk through some of these specific parenting things that I'm dealing with and that's how it started.
And as far as Mama Let's Read, I love to read. I've always been the book nerd in the library, reading as many books as possible. And I was really intentional when my oldest was born about getting lots of kids books and I'm a really big fan of the concept of having mirrors and windows. I was really focused on finding books where my daughter could see herself. And as I was doing this, I was talking to other parents and they were like, oh that book sounds amazing where'd you find it.
So one black history month, I decided just on my personal Facebook and Instagram to share all of the black baby books that we had, that we loved. And I got so much positive feedback from friends and family that it planted the seed. And then I did it one more year personally. And then I was like, you know what, clearly I keep getting messages from people like, oh, I bought that book that you recommended and it's so great. It's one of our favorites. And so I was like, I should do this more publicly.
I'm already doing the work. And I'm a big believer in supporting others and really building community. And so for me, it was like, I'm already investing the time and effort into finding these books, what's a little more effort to share this with more people. And so that's what made me decide to start Mama Let's Read.
I launched it during black history months last year, 2020. And yeah, it's been a labor of love and I'm excited, it's my passion project and I'm excited to see where it goes in the future.
Henriette’s Tips for Selecting the Best Children’s Books
Lee Burgess: So let's talk more about books, including BIPOC characters. I think most parents, hopefully all parents would agree that it's important to include books with BIPOC characters on our children's bookshelves because representation matters. But you mentioned on your website that not all books that feature BIPOC characters are created equal. So could you share some tips for parents on how you recommend selecting the best books for their children?
Henriette: Absolutely. So there's a couple things that I like to tell parents as they're thinking about books or are getting books. So some of the things about discerning good books from bad books is like, who is the author? I think that's really important.
If you have racially diverse books at home, that's great, but who are those books written by? So there's a hashtag that's called own voices that is specific to authors of color writing their own books.
That's definitely a critical piece that I always remind parents of. If you have books with BIPOC characters, but they're all written by a white author, that's not enough because that's not really telling a personal and own story. So that's one of the things.
I think some of the other things that I look at are cultural authenticity, which goes hand in hand with whether the author is speaking from their own experience. Do they have a reason to be telling the story?
I definitely feel like I'm most attracted or most excited about books, where the author is sharing a piece of them, whether it's a personal story or based on a lived experience. And I feel like my kids kind of do the same, they definitely seek out those books where you can tell that the author puts some of their heart and soul into it.
I think the other big things I think about are what are the messages? What's the takeaway? Is this in any way reinforcing negative messages?
One of the reasons why I decided to share the books that we liked is because I was looking at recommended book lists and I was ordering books. And there was one specific book that really appalled me — it was an accounting book and had all black characters.
It was written by a white author and it was reinforcing negative stereotypes — counting one watermelon, two pieces of fried chicken. And all of these really negative stereotypes of black families. I just couldn't believe that anyone would recommend this book.
All it takes is a quick Google search to see who the author is. This experience really made me want to do that extra work of being sure that I'm not perpetuating negative stereotypes. And I know for some parents they're like, well, I don't know how to do this, or I don't have time to do it. But I think that there's a lot of resources out there to do it. And I think it's worth doing the extra work because I would say it's actually probably more damaging if you have books that are perpetuating negative stereotypes than if you just have books with only white characters, which is also something that I ask or tell parents to look out for, right?
Your bookshelf can be perpetuating white supremacy if all the books that you have only have white characters, or if all of the books you have have diversity, but all the main characters are white.
Lee Burgess: Mm-hmm.
Henriette: One of the other big things that I look for is if the doctors or teachers or any profession in the stories that you're reading, are those characters white or are they BIPOC? Because I think that's another thing that I've seen in a lot of books, especially books that were published 10, 20 years ago that might be great...but are perpetuating these stereotypes that only white people have these professional jobs.
And that's definitely something that I'm really mindful of with my children at home.
I will say there's even books that are written by BIPOC authors that I have read and think “This is not a book that I want to read to my children.” Because I feel like it's perpetuating a negative feeling.
Lots of times books are written about racial trauma and there's certainly a time and a place for that, but I'm definitely mindful with my children who are all five and under about reading books where it's like talking negatively about their skin color.
So I think that for me, I definitely first look at who the author is and then I read the book and ask, “What is this message that my children are going to walk away from this book?” There are some books where I'm like, “Okay, I think this would be a great conversation starter when my children are older.”
But for now it's definitely, like you said, it's a book that's going to be out of rotation or going to disappear until either: A) I feel like we can have a conversation about it; or B) I decide it’s not helpful and it's not going to be the conversation starter that I want. So I'm going to find a better book.
Henriette’s Favorite Books
Lee Burgess: Yeah. So what are some of your favorite books?
Henriette: On my website there's a link to my bookshop, which is where I have books listed by theme. I think the big thing for me is making it easy, right? So I know that as a parent, you have a lot of different things that you're dealing with and doing. And for me, it's kind of the way I look at books.
Oftentimes I want to find a book that relates to something that we're talking about. Whether it's a holiday or a friend or a relative or a wedding — whatever things are happening in our lives. I kind of try to find books that I can pull in to talk about and unpack things or prep for. If we're going to have a trip, something with travel or things like that.
I always feel like it's so hard to pick my favorites because there's just so many. And I think it really also depends on who your children are and who you are.
For example, I have big curly hair and I've always had really big curly hair. And I’ve had a lot of negative experiences with people trying to touch my hair. So for me — I’m really personally attracted to books that talk about hair. And so one of my favorite books is, Don't Touch My Hair by Sharee Miller.
And I read this a lot to my daughter, especially because she also has really big curly hair. And we really worked on coaching her to say “Don't touch my hair,” especially in preschool, where kids are learning about touching and boundaries and things like that. So that's one of my favorites that we've definitely read so many times.
Other books that I really like and that I always recommend are Antiracist Baby by Ibram Kendi. I think it's a great book for adults, for kids of all ages. It just really breaks down what it means to be antiracist and the intentionality that is required to do that.
Let's see, the last book that I'll share is this book called All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color. And I love this book because it really breaks down the science behind skin color and having different skin colors in a scientific way that is easy for kids to understand.
I started reading that to my oldest when she was probably two or three. And I personally shy away from books that talk about skin color and compare it to food because I feel like that can open the gate to teasing and making comparisons that can be negative.
But what I love about that book is that it literally just breaks down the science behind melanin and some people have more melanin, some people have less melanin. I think it just does such a wonderful job of explaining it and making it easy as a parent to have that conversation with your kids. So for me, that's one of my favorites that I recommend a lot.
Changes Through COVID and Plans for Post-pandemic
Lee Burgess: Okay. I want to shift a little bit to your moms of color community that you have built. So as you mentioned at the beginning of our interview, this started pre-pandemic. I'm curious how this community has been important to parents during the pandemic when it had to basically be an online community, I assume probably for most of the pandemic.
Do you think it's going to remain that way? Do you think you're going to move back to in-person? What do you think this community's meant during the pandemic and what do you see kind of coming down the pipe?
Henriette: Yeah, I mean, I would say we're definitely going to be back in-person. Some smaller groups from the moms of color group have been meeting in person outdoors in masks, especially some new moms that had small babies and were really wanting some of that in-person, community.
The intention of the group was always to create community and to have both that option of online as well as in-person. And so we will definitely get back to in-person things hopefully, sooner rather than later.
Lee Burgess: Mm-hmm.
Henriette: I have a baby that just turned one. So I've definitely been extra conservative in doing in-person things right now, but I am really looking forward to doing more in-person stuff as well.
As far as how the community has been during the pandemic and what it's meant, we definitely saw a huge influx of members by June 2020. I think a lot of people throughout the country were really grappling with what it means to be a person of color and go through everything with Trump and all of the racial turmoil that was happening and that happens on some level or another.
But obviously, definitely that climate last year, we definitely had a huge number of members that were coming in that were just looking for a safe space and obviously with the pandemic as well, there was a lot of challenging familial situations where a lot of the members in the group have a white partner and so navigating the political Trump conservative piece with white inlaws, that definitely came up a lot.
And then also with COVID and vaccines, all those types of conversations. And the racial underlying messages and things that happen around the vaccines and the vaccine rollout and things like that. Those are definitely a lot of the conversations that we had in the group.
I think the biggest thing that I have been told and am told about the group is that there's a huge relief in knowing that there's a safe space where parents can ask questions and can seek support. And I think a lot of being a BIPOC person in this country, it can feel like you're second guessing yourself because when you have negative experiences, it can be really challenging sometimes to say “That was racist.”
Because saying something is racist can be loaded for so many people. A lot of white people feel really uncomfortable if they're told that they've done something racist or that their actions have been racist.
I think a lot of BIPOC people feel a lot of hesitancy to say that something is racist or something was racist. A lot of the group has been really supporting and validating people's experiences, where in a lot of other spaces, parents feel like they either can't share or when they do share that they're being gas lit and told you're overly sensitive or that didn't really happen.
Henriette’s Favorite Resources about Inclusion and Antiracist Parenting
Lee Burgess: We have so much we could talk about, but I'm trying to be mindful of our time together. You are such a great advocate and share quality resources. So I wanted to pick your brain about a few of your favorite resources for parents wanting to learn more about inclusion in their bookshelves and also anti-racist parenting.
Henriette: Yeah, definitely. So one of the accounts that I really like is Social Justice Parenting. And they shared a quote a few months ago that I really love. I put it up and read it often. The quote is: “Parenting is activism. What we teach in the privacy of our homes shows up in the public places of society." And that's something that I really hold dear. When people ask me, “Why is reading diverse books important?” That's how I think about it!
I think that reading diverse books is one small step or one small action that you can take every single day to make a difference in your children's lives and how they see the world, right? And so I really appreciate the lens that social justice parenting has as far as books and other antiracist parenting stuff.
The Conscious Kid is a wonderful account. They have a great website with lots of resources as well. And then Asian Lit for Kids is a social media account that also does book recommendations.
They have a strong emphasis on Asian literature and that's been really great. I've had the opportunity of learning a lot about Asian literature. And I feel like that's an area that I personally need to learn more about and know more about because I'm not Asian.
The mirror, windows, and sliding doors concept is so true, right? Especially in the last year, I've been a lot more intentional about not just having the mirrors of books for my kids, but also making sure I have the windows so they can see other cultures.
So those are some of my favorites that I like to follow for resources. And then, yeah I think that there's so many more out there. I think it also depends on what you're specifically looking for. If you're a conscious parent Mr. Chazz on social media is a wonderful parenting resource that is just, he's really great. He's a black man. He's a Montessori teacher and his advice is just phenomenal. And I love seeing him in this space and I love his parenting advice.
3 Things New and Expecting Families Should Know
Lee Burgess: All right. Well, our last couple questions today, one I wanted to pin you down and see if you could share three things that you would wish you could tell all new and expecting families.
Henriette: Yes. I think my number one is read. Definitely. Read more racially diverse books. And I would say not just to your children, but you yourself. iI you're redoing reading, look at who the authors are of those books.
I think for myself last year, January before everything had started, I made a commitment to only read women of color authors for the year. And it was really great. And I think that, especially with all the book recommendations, it's easy to fall into, “Oh, well, this book was recommended.” But it’s another white author, followed by another white author. I think reading more racially diverse books from baby books to adult books, everything, that's probably my number one.
I think my second piece of advice for parents is to be willing to learn. One of the big things that I always tell my kids is that none of us are perfect, we're all a work in progress. For me, that's been so huge as a parent. I would have these preconceived notions from my pre-parenting days thinking, “Oh, I would never da, da, da.” And here I am doing all those things!
So - being willing to learn and acknowledge that you're a work in progress is a huge thing. It really empowers you as a parent to let go of some of the things that maybe you feel really strongly about and take a step back and learn and see how you can grow and be a better parent.
And then the last thing I would say is having important conversations. I think that's such a big one. I know that it's been really critical for me and my kids and in talking to other parents that have kids that are older than mine and younger than mine.
I think just being willing to have hard conversations and important conversations and going back to the first one...reading books about those things is also helpful as a conversation starter, whether it's a death in the family or moving to a new city or there's so many, big life transitions that bring up big conversations. And I love having books to work through some of those things and have those conversations.
How to Connect with the Mama Let’s Read project, Moms of Color in SF Bay Area Group
Lee Burgess: So if people want to learn more about your projects, how do they find you? How do they find out about the work that you're doing?
Henriette: Yeah. So I am at Mama Let's Read on Instagram and Facebook and then my website is mamalet'sread.com and I look forward to seeing you on social media and hopefully interacting with you.
Lee Burgess: Awesome. Well, Henriette, thank you so much for taking time today. I really appreciate it. And thank you to everyone for attending this installment of the It Takes a Village interview series by Natural Resources.
You can find this and additional information on our website at naturalresource-sf.com and we hope you'll learn more and support. We'll see you next time.