Our Balanced Learning® curriculum includes many books that encourage children to feel a sense of belongingness and possibility. One of those books is Astro Girl by Ken Wilson-Max. He is a London-based author and illustrator who has created more than 70 children’s books. We spoke to him over Zoom about incorporating the notion of inclusivity into his work for preschoolers. Read on for the author’s insight into how children learn.
How did you end up writing and illustrating children’s books?
I have been working in design since my teens. I grew up in Zimbabwe, but I spent holidays during high school in Boston working for the graphic designer Chaz Maviyane-Davies. Then I came to England to study and eventually made my way to publishing and working on illustrations for other people’s books. After more than a decade of this, in the mid-1990s, I started to realize there was a gap in books for boys being published in the United Kingdom. I decided to pitch some ideas on books for boys, but then I thought to myself, why not make books for all children? Preschoolers all care about relationships. That turned into my books about a day in the life of certain vehicles children might see every day, such as Big Yellow Taxi and Little Red Plane. These books became a big success, and I began to see how effective good books could be in influencing young children and their families.
What influence do you hope your books have on children?
I hope children finish my books and they’re uplifted. I hope they’re left with exciting questions of possibility and that the book confirms they can keep being who they are. I’m trying to keep children as open to the world as possible, for as long as possible. To help them see the fun and energy in life. Somehow, this all changes when you become a teenager, but what if we can hold onto that?
How did Astro Girl and its hero, Astrid, come to be?
I was thinking a lot about STEM subjects at the time, and I decided it would be interesting to try to do a story about a character who has an ambition like that. [Astrid dreams of being an astronaut.] It started to form that it should be a girl, because I didn’t see as many girls in science at that time. [Astro Girl was published in 2019 but had been in development for nearly a decade.] It flips all the stereotypes on their head, because Astrid is the hero, her friend Jake is the “damsel,” because he wants her to bring something back from space, her dad is looking after her and her mom is away working. I wanted the love and affection between Astrid and her dad to be infused through the whole story. Let’s challenge the whole maleness of science, and people going into space, and remember that anyone can have this dream or ambition. What happens next is, will they keep it as they grow up?
What was the process for drawing Astrid?
I needed to have a picture of her in my head to write, and that took a very long time. I wanted her to look brown-skinned but not necessarily African, though she could be. She could also be Latin American or Southeast Asian or from anywhere in the southern hemisphere. Sometimes she looks a bit like my daughter, which was not intentional, but it just happened. And sometimes she acts like I did as a child!
Why was it important to you that Astrid have brown skin?
It’s another switch on a stereotype. When I was young, I wanted to be a movie star when I grew up. But then, by the time I was a teenager, I thought I’d never leave Zimbabwe. My hope had been squashed. Getting to the world stage seemed so far away, growing up as a child in southern Africa. It’s important for people to see that even if they have humble beginnings, they can still achieve their dreams.
Is it important to you that children see themselves in your books?
Representation is wholly important; it’s probably the main thing. Your understanding is better when you can relate to what you’re looking at. It’s kind of like learning by osmosis. And it doesn’t have to be a visual thing; it can be feeling and experiencing something with someone, a character, who does things the way you do.
Your books have such a sense of joy. Where does that come from?
If you’re going to make a happy children’s book, you sort of have to be happy at that time. You can’t really fake the joy of it. I like to celebrate the joy because I think it’s children’s best superpower. They know how to embrace joy, even in the toughest of times. I’m constantly watching little moments between parents and children to try to find those moments—the affection, the pureness of the love and the joy. For the very young ones, life is pretty much full of that.
Belongingness Discussion Questions
At Primrose, the books in our classrooms help teach children that everyone belongs and that differences are to be celebrated. After you read Astro Girl with your child, ask them these questions to reinforce these important concepts.
- What is your big dream?
- Why should we all dream big?
For more interviews with authors of books in Primrose classrooms, check out:
- Eileen Spinelli Discusses the Importance of Togetherness
- Kerascoët Shows the Power of a Simple Act of Kindness
- Markette Sheppard Writes Her Own Story as a Working Parent
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