Lawyer, voting rights activist, and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate for the state of Georgia Stacey Abrams is a prolific author. Last year she published her first children’s book, Stacey’s Extraordinary Words, which is based in part on her own childhood. Her second book for kids, Stacey’s Remarkable Books, came out on Dec. 13 and tells the story of Abrams and her childhood friend Julie. Below, Abrams shares her process, as well as the seven books she thinks all kids should read. As told to Romper staff writer Jamie Kenney.
Writing a book for children is very different than for adults. In an adult novel, you can take all the time you want. In the children's novel, you've got 32 pages. Picture books in particular require an economy of language paired with a depth of meaning that you have to constantly balance without being patronizing or taking yourself too seriously. There’s a responsibility to tell a story that is sufficiently real and accessible but that also needs to be a fun journey for the children to be on with you. I appreciate the craft of taking those stories and shaping them in a way that is respectful of the intellect and the capacity of young readers. It's a fun exercise, but it is absolutely exercise.
You don't want to be the sadness at the end of a parent's day.
You also know that more than likely someone's going to be reading it to the child, and so I try my best to think about all of those levels. It's not for the parent, but I don't want the parent to think, “Oh God, they want this book again!” You don't want to be the sadness at the end of a parent's day.
Many people’s stories went into Stacey’s Remarkable Books. My childhood relationship with the real Julie, who moved to Mississippi from Vietnam in the 1970s; my father, who grew up Black and dyslexic in segregated schools; my mother, a librarian for whom books were and are just this living, breathing part of how we experience the world; and me, who learned that friendship demands sometimes that you put yourself in a vulnerable position because it creates space for the other person to find their bravery. I try to make sure that that's also a part of how I live.
Growing up, my mom would take us through the library. The rule was if you could reach it, you could read it. She understood that my five siblings and I were all going to find different ways for books to influence us. One of the first books I remember reading was Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life, not only because I could read it myself at five, but for how important it was to Helen Keller, despite all of those challenges, to be able to read. You can't claim that your life is too difficult when you know the story of Helen Keller.
In Stacey’s Remarkable Books, I describe the titular character as a child who finds a rich and exciting life in books “but in real life she was just Stacey.” That’s absolutely reflective of how I felt as a child, like I was insufficient for the person I wanted to be. When you read, you read these extraordinary stories and these fascinating people and then you come out of the book and you're still just you. You don't come out with superpowers. You're not suddenly more clever than you were when you went in.
Still, I loved to read — all of these extraordinary stories were and are a part of who I am — and despite being outside of her comfort zone, Julie was willing to join me in order to learn. In turn, I learned something from her.
When we were kids, working together on reading and language, of course it would never occur to me that she should stop trying to do this because it may not be perfect, and if I wouldn't let her stop, why should I let myself? And still today, as an adult, what can keep me going, even though vulnerability doesn't get easier, are the consequences of inaction. My responsibility is that when you weigh your vulnerability against the potential outcome for others, people always win.
And so even as a child, I understood the power of books. The seven I’ve chosen to recommend — four from my childhood and three that I've come to love since I started writing children's books — are emblematic of why they matter so much, especially in this moment.
I always list The Phantom Tollbooth first because it is the best encapsulation of what I love about knowledge — the battle between words and numbers is this epic story. It was always so important to me that at the end, without giving the story away, they both had their place. And I love that it all comes from a kid being bored.
It's a good thing that Verna was a really good writer because my mom had to read this book all the time. My parents were very intentional about us understanding our heritage and while it wasn't a story necessarily about Blackness, it was a story that was set in this space, in African folklore. It meant something to me that this came from a cultural space that most of the books I looked at didn’t.
It would tickle us when my mom read Make Way for Ducklings to us — there were six of us siblings and six ducklings, so it was a shared connection. I also remember how much fun it was to read it to my younger siblings, too. Even as a haughty 11- or 12-year-old, I’d still giggle when I read Make Way for Ducklings to my 4- or 5-year-old sister or brother.
I love Dr. Seuss — I think he’s amazing and wonderful — and this book is a profound treatise on society. Horton is my guy. If you look at my current life, it's about seeing those who are often in the margins and disadvantaged and understanding it’s your responsibility to speak up, your responsibility to ignore the naysayers. Sometimes you're going to make a mistake trying to do what’s right, but you still have to try to do it.
Fry Bread is this fantastic story about culture and community, but also the universality of wanting your grandmother to make you something good to eat. Being Southern and being African-American, food is such a core convening power for our communities. The story resonates for me because it could be about how you make biscuits or how you make cornbread. There is a universality to the story, but it's so very specific and wonderfully emblematic of a Native American cultural moment. It's also just a lovely story and the illustrations are gorgeous.
This is about a little boy who just loves words and tries to find new and fun words. My sister actually got this book for my nephews and I was reading it to them one day and because I love words just for themselves, this one stuck with me. When I'm reading it to my nephews, it’s watching them see someone who looks like them, who loves words and who is thinking about how words fit together. For them to know that they have the right and the space to love words and to make them part of how they identify who they are is important, because that's how it’s been for me.
It pretty much speaks for itself. I think for kids, especially in this moment, it is the most profoundly important statement that you can make. You’re enough. You’re different and odd and interesting, and no matter what it is, you're enough. You build from there and you want to grow from it, but you start out being enough.
Stacey’s Remarkable Books is available wherever books are sold and, of course, your local library.