‘Full Lips & Afro Puffs’ Atlanta Author Celebrates Diversity with Unapologetically Black Children’s Books

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Fed up with the underrepresentation of Black and brown characters in children’s literature, an Atlanta-based author knew it was time she took matters into her own hands.

Best-selling author Crystal Swain-Bates has made it her mission to fill the “diversity gap” in children’s books and in 2013, launched her very own publishing company with the hopes of doing just that. Since then, she has written over 100 books featuring Black characters of all shades and hues, shapes and sizes who exude positive and empowering images of African-Americans.

Crystal Swain-Bates
Crystal Swain-Bates has has had her books featured on shows like BET’s “Being Mary Jane” and “The Game.” (Image courtesy of Crystal Swain-Bates)

It was through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) that Swain-Bates said she was able to freely create the characters she wanted, whether they were dark-skinned, had gapped teeth, or grew up in a single-parent household. Fueling her passion for writing, the author said wanted to pen stories for Black children that helped boost self-esteem and celebrated people’s differences, no matter how unique they are.

“Big Hair, Don’t Care” and “I’m a Pretty Princess” are her best-selling titles to date and have even been featured on popular television shows like “Being Mary Jane” and “The Game.” Going forward, Swain-Bates said she’ll continue tackling the invisibility of Black characters one children’s book at a time.

Swain-Bates recently caught up with Atlanta Black Star to tell us more about her journey:

TK: Tell me a little about what prompted you to start your own publishing company, Goldest Karat Publishing.

CSB: When I recognized that so few books were on the market and readily available to black children, I decided that, instead of complaining about it, I would be the person to change it. I wanted to have the freedom to publish my books under my own terms. Working with a publishing company meant that I would lose some of my creative freedom.

Publishing companies choose who illustrates their books, how the characters look, the character’s names, and the content of your story — to a certain extent. I wanted the freedom to make my characters as dark or as light brown as I wanted them to be, with names like Makayla, with full lips and noses, and with hairstyles like braids and afro puffs. I didn’t want a watered-down version of my books on the market, so I decided to start my own publishing company so I could publish them myself.

TK: As an African-American author, why was creating diversity in children’s books so important to you?

CSB: I have always loved to read and write. I remember rarely seeing books with characters that looked like me when I was growing up in the ’80s. Even now, in 2018, it is still really hard to find children’s books with black characters.

I was inspired to publish children’s books, including a line of black coloring and activity

Crystal Swain-Bates
Photo courtesy of Crystal Swain-Bates.

books, to fill the untapped needs of young African-American boys and girls who need to see positive characters that look like them. I strongly believe that when children never see characters in books that look like them, they start to think that they are inferior — not pretty enough, not smart enough, not good enough. They think they can’t be a princess because they’ve never seen a black princess. They think they can’t be a superhero because they’ve never seen a black superhero. They think their skin color, facial features, and hair texture are ugly or undesirable because none of the characters they see in books look like that.

Print and broadcast media has traditionally underrepresented Black children, so now I am committed to filling the diversity gap in children’s literature and doing my part to normalize black girl magic and black boy joy. I write books where the main character is black. The center of my work is set on filling the massive diversity gaps in children’s literature. My goal is to create a lasting legacy of empowerment within the black community by changing the invisibility of black characters in children’s books.

TK: What has been the biggest challenge for you since you began self-publishing (in 2013)? How did you overcome it?

CSB: I published my very first book in 2013 using Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and I have continued using KDP to this day. When I was searching for information about self-publishing, I discovered KDP and I was blown away by what the program offered. It really made the book publishing process look easy, especially for a new author. The hardest part was simply writing the book. Using KDP was as simple as uploading my book for free, and a few days later it was available for sale on Amazon. The best part is that with KDP, I can write the book without worrying about how it will get to customers.  I don’t have to worry about buying inventory, packing, shipping, or customer service when my readers order my books from Amazon. All of that is taken care of when you’re a KDP author. Since I don’t have to worry about the logistics of printing and shipping my books, I have more time to continue writing new books, and that has been a real life-saver for me because I still have a full-time job.

As a small business owner with a limited budget, marketing has always been a challenge for me. There are a lot of children’s books on the market, and it can be hard to reach readers, although so many parents are desperate to find books featuring black characters. For one thing, it can be very expensive. However, social media, YouTube, and the ability for shoppers to leave reviews on Amazon have helped me overcome the prohibitive costs of traditional marketing. Social proof is really important in the book business, so I rely heavily on word of mouth, online reviews, and positive social media posts by everyday parents who have discovered my books.

TK:What’s been your biggest success so far?

CSB: My books have been featured in Essence magazine, CNN, and The Huffington Post, but my biggest success was when my books were used as props on BET’s “The Game” and “Being Mary Jane” television shows. In both cases, people were calling me and sending me messages on social media saying that they saw my books on television and it was a really monumental moment for me. The coolest part is that I was invited on set to drop off my books and I had a chance to sit behind the scenes and watch the filming of the show. It was a unique experience and one that I’m really proud of because it validated that my books are good enough to be featured on hit television shows. It throws the idea that self-published books are inferior in looks and content completely out the window.

Crystal Swain-Bates
Image courtesy of Crystal-Swain Bates.

TK: Of all your books, which one speaks to you the most? Which one do you most relate to?

CSB: My book “Supermommy” speaks to me the most, simply because it’s based on my own life. It’s a dedication to my mom. I was raised in a single-parent household and it always felt like my mom had superpowers. How else could she have done all of the stuff she did, right? Even as an adult, I still don’t know how she raised two kids on her own with such grace, while still preparing homemade meals and working full-time.

I completely relate to my book “Big Hair, Don’t Care.” The main character Lola has a head of big gorgeous natural hair and so do I! Her hair often blocks people’s view and, like her, I promise you wouldn’t want to sit behind me at the movies when I’m wearing my hair natural. I had fun with that book, just thinking of all the ways big hair can make you stand out and look different from everyone else.

TK: What message do you hope young readers walk away with after reading one of your books?

CSB: I want readers to walk away feeling empowered by seeing a reflection of themselves in a book. I want them to walk away feeling comfortable and confident in the skin they’re in, no matter how different they may look from other kids. I want kids to finish reading one of my books and have a newfound pep in their step, holding their head a little higher than the day before.

TK: What’s next for Crystal Swain-Bates? Can readers expect any new books?

CSB: I’m always working on new books. I’m very passionate about writing, and I plan to publish 100 books, so I have a lot more to go!  My next book, “Fro with a Bow,” will be released fall 2018.

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