An interview with Shani Mahiri King
The Children’s Book Review
Shani Mahiri King is a law professor at the University of Florida, where he is director of the Center on Children and Families and an Associate Director of the Center on Race and Race Relations. King received a B.A. from Brown University, a J.D. from Harvard Law School, and a Mst. in International Human Rights Law from Oxford University, and he is an active writer and scholar in the area of children’s rights and family law. King is the father of a nine-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son, for whom he wrote Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter (2021), as well as the picture book, Have I Ever Told You? (2019).
Bianca Schulze: Which five words best describe Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter?
Shani Mahiri King: Only five?!?!? OK. Empowering, fun, Black history, unique, informative — did I cheat? Is that five?
It’s close enough to five that we’ll count it. Ha! Can you share a highlight from the book? Or maybe your thoughts on, or an excerpt of, your favorite sentence, paragraph, or page?
There are so many! It’s impossible for me to choose a favorite, but if you insist. There is a great James Baldwin quote in the book, “The place in which I’ll fit won’t exist until I make it.” I love that quote; it’s is one of those quotes that can be empowering to everyone because everyone is unique; it empowers everyone to be who they are. This is something that every kid needs to hear over and over.
One of my favorite aspects of the book, is after the first part of the book, which is an inspirational narrative of Black history, achievement and successs, there are more than 100 biographies of prominent Black people and there are quotes from each of these people — from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Kendrick Lamar. So children are introduced to these people in their own words. This collection of quotations, something I’ve never seen presented in this way before, is designed to allow kids of all ages to be inspired by these amazing people, from every field and endeavor, in their own words. I love that.
What has been the most rewarding reaction from a reader, so far?
When I was writing the book I read a first draft to my daughter, Soraya. Honestly, I had no idea how she was going to react to the book because I had just written it and I hadn’t read it to anyone. At that point, it didn’t even have Bobby Martin’s wonderful graphic art. Soraya was engaged with me and with the words from the very beginning and stayed with me until the end. It was amazing and so rewarding. It was pretty special.
You wrote this book for your children and for all children who need an inspirational voice grounded in their own history. Please share your thoughts on the importance of all kids being able to see themselves in the pages of books.
It is so, so important. There is a lot of science suggesting that kids see race as early as three months old. I’ve seen studies that suggest that kids as young at three years old associate some racial groups with negative characteristics.
It is so important that kids of a very young age see themselves in children’s literature so they do not feel marginalized or invisible. This mindset can begin very, very early. I remember a colleague of mine, a professor of African-American history, implored me to read diverse books to my kids as early as possible because they start to understand and internalize things way before they can speak.
Literature is one of the ways that people learn about their cultures and their roles in society. Often black kids are not given an opportunity to learn about themselves, their past, or — what can be — their future. It is important that we, as parents, teachers, and educators, validate the place of all people in society, including black people. This is true, in my view, whether we have Black children or not and whether or not teachers have Black children in their class.
It’s really, really important for kids to be able to see themselves in the pages of books. It really helps kids become who they are.
Why do you think biographies should be an important part of a child’s reading material?
Biographies are fantastic because they help give kids role models and often role models that aren’t perfect; role models that help kids think about what they really can accomplish in life. I also think biographies provide kids a great way to be introduced to history.
For your writing energy: sugar or salt, tea or coffee?
Writing tools: computer, pen and paper, or all of the above?
All of the above. It just depends what I have in front of me. Sometimes it’s a napkin and sometimes it’s an iPhone.
What’s on your nightstand? Any books?
Oh yes. I always have bunch of children’s books that I read with my children the night before on my nightstand. Let’s see, today it looks like I have Library Lion (by Michelle Knudsen), Last Stop on Market Street (by Matt De La Peña and Christian Robinson), Nadia, The Girl Who Couldn’t Sit Still (by Karlin Gray and Cristine Davenier), I Am George Washington (one of the Ordinary People of the World, series), and My Pen by Chris Meyers (I love his books!). As you can see I love reading biographical books to my kids!
Can you tell us something that even your most loyal fans may not know about you?
I have fans?
Of course you do! Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Just that I really appreciate them doing everything that they do for children, whether their own or others. Just the fact that they are reading this is very cool. Oh, and maybe check out my book…
Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter
Written by Shani Mahiri King
Illustrated by Bobby C. Martin Jr.
Ages 9-12 | 80 Pages
Publisher: Tilbury House Publishers | ISBN-13: 978-0884488897
Publisher’s Synopsis: A tender and powerful affirmation that Black lives have always mattered.
Black lives matter. That message would be self-evident in a just world, but in this world and this America, all children need to hear it again and again, and not just to hear it but to feel and know it.
This book affirms the message repeatedly, tenderly, with cumulative power and shared pride. Celebrating Black accomplishments in music, art, literature, journalism, politics, law, science, medicine, entertainment, and sports, Shani King summons a magnificent historical and contemporary context for honoring the fortitude of Black role models, women and men, who have achieved greatness despite the grinding political and social constraints on Black life. Frederick Douglass, Toni Morrison, Sojourner Truth, John Lewis, Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, Maya Angelou, Aretha Franklin, and many more pass through these pages. An America without their struggles, aspirations, and contributions would be a shadow of the country we know. A hundred life sketches augment the narrative, opening a hundred doors to lives and thinking that aren’t included in many history books. James Baldwin’s challenge is here: “We are responsible for the world in which we find ourselves, if only because we are the only sentient force which can change it.” Actress Viola Davis’s words are here, too: “When I was younger, I did not exert my voice because I did not feel worthy of having a voice. I was taught so many things that didn’t include me. Where was I? What were people like me doing?”
This book tells children what people like Viola were and are doing, and it assures Black children that they are, indisputably, worthy of having a voice.
Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter? is a book for this time and always. It is time for all children to live and breathe the certainty that Black lives matter. Color throughout.
Buy the Book
This speed interview with Shani Mahiri King, author of Have I Ever Told You That Black Lives Matter, was conducted by Bianca Schulze. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Biographies, Black History Month, and History. Be sure to follow along with our Speed Interview series, too.
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