The power of representation in youth literature: with YBL co-founder Krenice Ramsey.
There is a stunning lack of representation in children’s literature. In fact, in 2018, only 10 percent of all children’s books published that year featured Black characters.
Thankfully, the local non-profit Young, Black & Lit. is providing local children the opportunity to see themselves reflected in the books that they read. The organization promotes self-confidence, empathy, and validation among Black children, one book at a time.
Since 2018, YBL has donated over 30,000 books with diverse characters to children and local schools around Evanston and the Chicagoland area.
DE's Melissa Perry recently talked to Krenice Ramsey, a civil rights attorney and co-founder of Young, Black, & Lit. to learn more about YBL’s mission and how we can all help.
DE: How would you describe the mission of Young, Black, and Lit, and what inspired it?
KR: So the mission is pretty simple. We really want to increase access to children's books that center Black children and Black stories.
It started out of my own frustration. I was looking to find books for my niece’s birthday. I was looking for books specifically featuring little Black girls. I went into one of the big bookstores and thought I could quickly go in and out and find a few picture books for her, but it was not easy to find children's books reflecting her experience. I left feeling really frustrated.
So my initial thought was, I'm just going to purchase 50 books that feature Black characters and donate them locally in the community, which I did. I was talking to my then-boyfriend [now-husband] (YBL co-founder Derrick Ramsey) about what I was interested in doing and he's like, “You should do it again.” The first set of books featured little Black girls. So he said, “Well, next time do 50 books featuring little Black boys.”
At that time I posted an Amazon wish list, had people purchase the books, and I donated them. People really responded to it. Parents were like “Wow! Where are you finding these books?” So Derrick was like, “This seems like it could be something more than just these one-off donations.”
DE: How has Young, Black, and Lit grown since then?
KR: We initially started by giving 50 books per month in May of 2018, and now we're up to giving 1,000 books per month. We've given away over 30,000 books since 2018. So we're super excited about that growth and we're hoping to grow the communities that we reach.
We started with Evanston because I'm from Evanston, but then we expanded beyond that to the Chicagoland area. And now we've gotten to the point that our monthly signups are nationwide. One thing we learned from the experience of COVID-19 is how to effectively ship, so we've been able to expand our reach across the nation to schools and organizations serving youth by shipping books monthly.
Ninety percent of donations we receive goes towards purchasing new children's books that we've sourced from publishers we’ve built relationships with. We are really dependent upon and excited about the growth of our supporters and donors.
DE: On your website, I noticed the statistic that only 10 percent of books published in 2018 featured Black characters. Can you speak to the difference that these books are making for the children who see themselves represented in them?
KR: I was an avid reader as a child. I distinctly remember the books I read as a child that had diverse characters–Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, Tar Beach, for example because they were so few and far between. So we think it is really important that every child has an opportunity to see themselves in the stories that they read. When you see yourself reflected, you feel valued.
Our favorite part of what we do, which has been kind of limited due to COVID-19, is going out into the community and having our free books out on the table for children to come and browse and take. We get to see the kids who come up and they're like, “Hey, that girl looks like me,” and it could just be a little girl on the cover with two little puffs in her hair.
DE: How can children who are not Black benefit from reading books with diverse characters and representation?
KR: We believe that it is critically important that children of all races have access to books featuring diverse characters. Many education scholars agree that when books serve as mirrors, allowing children to see themselves, their families, and their communities reflected, children feel valued. When those same books serve as windows, allowing children to see the similarities and differences they have with other cultures, children feel connected.
DE: What goes into picking new books each month?
KR: A lot of it is reading and reviewing on our own, and we try to make sure we are getting new, high quality books that reflect the varied experience of Black people and Black culture.
We definitely like to hear from the kids who receive our books about which ones they're enjoying. They give us the recommendations. We met with some students last night and one student asked about what books we have that deal with intersectionality. So Black children who are queer,Black children who have disabilities. We were super excited to have that conversation because that's where we love to expand our book bank.
DE: Can visitors to the Young, Black and Lit website purchase books there?
KR: Absolutely. That came about as a response to parents who were like, “Hey, my kid doesn't need a free book. You make sure you get those books to the children who may need them most, but we still want to have these books.” So we started the online bookstore and all proceeds from the bookstore go to support the mission—to give away more books for free.
DE: What’s next for Young, Black, and Lit?
KR: Our primary goal is to increase our reach. We want to reach as many children as possible. We're working on getting a bookmobile so that we can make sure we're meeting children where they are. Then we can find them and make the books even more accessible.
But I think the ultimate goal is for us to become more ingrained in the schools, so that they have a consistent pipeline of these types of books. We've been building those partnerships in Evanston and CPS schools, so that there's never an absence of these books in classrooms and libraries where children spend a lot of their time.
DE: How can people help?
KR: Spread the word. If you know teachers or individuals involved in the community that deal directly with children and who are interested in books, let them know to sign up on our website for our free monthly giveaways. Spread the words to partners, people who are doing similar work that is aligned with our mission who can connect with us.
Hopefully, when we are further past COVID-19 and we start doing more community events, we can have more volunteers come out and help distribute books and pack books. We're hoping to have more opportunities for that in the future.
Check out YBL’s website at to learn more, purchase books, and donate.