School psychologist and mother Desiree Williams, MA/AC ‘15, got serious about finishing her first children’s book the year her father died. Now, “Brilliant Brown Babies,” which she self-published and put on Amazon at the start of the pandemic, sells about 10 copies a week.
She dedicated the book to her dad, Charles A. Williams, a city health services administrator, “who always made sure all the brown babies in his life knew how brilliant they were.” It aims to get that message out to more children with bright, simply drawn characters inspired by Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, and affirming lines: “Brilliant brown babies… have curly, curly hair … always care and share … are smart, smart, smart!” and “love to make art.”
“I wanted it to be something that was colorful and engaging in rhyming language to build on those early learning skills and,” she said, “so that Black and brown children could read and feel proud of themselves.”
The project was inspired by her search for books when her son Cortland was almost 2. Not many had Black characters.
Children look for role models to see where they could be in life one day,” Williams said. “I think representation is so important. It is essential.”
She works on this concept with students in her regular job at Hamlin Park Claude and Ouida Clapp Academy. “One of the things that I do all the time, as a school psychologist, is make sure the children who come into my office know how brilliant and special they are,” she said.
Williams credits her mother Tonja Williams, an associate superintendent at Buffalo Public Schools, for encouraging her to address racial inequities. This led Williams to GSE and course work about the African American experience. “We discussed things like racial disparities in special education, as well as testing biases, which truly encouraged my activism as a school psychologist and author,” said Williams.
As she started her book by writing it out, like a poem, she included Black culture and history. One page has a line about coming from kings and queens of Africa. A character wears a baseball cap with an X for Malcolm X. Another is dressed in red, black and green, the colors of the Pan-African flag designed by Marcus Garvey.
Cortland, now repeats phrases back to her, saying things like, “I’m a king, Mommy.” “I wanted to create something that would help parents teach their children,” said Williams.
As she’s shared the book, sometimes virtually with students, she’s been heartened by their response. One memorable takeaway from a children’s Zoom book club in Washington, D.C.: As she read the page about beautiful skin, she could see a little girl smile and point to herself, as if to say, “You’re talking about me!”
Reactions like that have been their own reward. “I would write this book, or put another book out, for free,” she said. The experience led her to start a new one about helping children identify their emotions. “If you are able to access your emotions and know what to do with them,” she said, “it really opens up doors for your entire life.”