Faces of Her Studio New York is a series that highlights creatives in our community.
ABOUT HER STUDIO NY
Photography by: Lesley Xiaohan Ma
Produced by: Her Studio New York
Directed by: Stephanie Rommelt
Interviewed by: Shayna Viola
What kind of creative do you identify as?
Writer & Activist
Tell us about you. What inspires you?
I am a multi-hyphenate storyteller, but I’m most proud of my work as a children’s book author. I’m a Black woman, and Black women’s histories, like so many other histories, are often just an asterisk or a sidekick to what people see as larger, more important histories. Or it’s erased and distorted entirely. The great responsibility of writing children’s books is that we get to be part of the beginning of their understanding of the world. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to make a child feel like their life and their world isn’t marginal to everyone else’s. It’s amazing to speak across generations and say “Look, isn’t our history amazing, what do you think is interesting?” I think right now, especially as we see books about marginalized histories being banned, there’s a huge emphasis on representation. But I think that my goal is so much more than showing kids people who look like them, though that’s important. Reading stories that you relate to and reading stories you don’t relate to is a right every child should have because some stories are life-saving. I’ve read books that have saved my life. I want children, especially those who maybe don’t get as much love from the world, to feel so incredibly loved and held. That’s why I share my history and culture. I don’t ever want children to feel like they’re too small to make a difference or not as important as adults, or that their voice doesn’t matter until they get to a certain age. I think kids have so much power, and if we’re trying to build a better world, who better to help us than the group of people with the best imagination ever? I know some people say that kids are too young to learn about the hard parts of the world, but I think if there are kids in the world who are old enough to live something, then other kids are old enough to learn about it, in an age-appropriate way. So I want my books to equip them with the skills to navigate this world and create new ones, whether that’s helping them learn to foster a reciprocal relationship with the environment (in Joy Takes Root) or teaching them how to harness their big feelings to create change (in The Light She Feels Inside). I also want to teach adults how to value children in their own lives and communities. Outside of children’s literature, I’m passionate about environmental justice, Black material culture (I’m a historian by trade!), and gardening.
Do you have any projects you’re working on now or anything you would like to highlight about yourself?
I am working on two more picture books and an anthology, including the first picture book biography of Octavia Butler, the first Black woman science fiction author.
“I’m a young, dark-skinned, kinky-haired Black woman, and I grew up believing I was not beautiful because of it. To this day, women who look like me are so rarely highlighted in creative spaces or positioned as role models or change makers.” What would you say to children who look like you, who may not have as much representation especially in the media they consume?
I just finished reading The Color Purple and this passage struck me: “And I come to myself. I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here.”
I would tell those children (and myself as a child) “No matter who you see around you, you’re here. And because you’re here, you are worthy of the space you take up. And you deserve to take chances on yourself.
Even if you can’t feel it, there’s people who share your identities across space and time who are always rooting for you and holding you and loving you . And that’s why you’re here.”
What is your creative process when writing your children’s books?
My creative process is definitely in flux right now. I don’t think I’ve found the creative rhythm that works for me yet, a pace where I push myself to write but don’t feel so much pressure that putting pen to paper at all feels like a burden. I have to remind myself that I’m just at the beginning of my career, and that it’s a blessing to be able to explore what works for me creatively and emphatically say ‘no’ to what doesn’t. I’m actively trying to find joy in that process this year.
In terms of content, the themes my picture books explore also mirror the themes in my adult writing and personal questions I’m exploring about my own life. Once I have an idea, it can sit in my head for months as I roll it around and flesh it out. The actual drafting process is usually very quick for me though, often just a couple days. All of my books start from the question, “what am I learning now that I wish I started learning 20 years ago?” Writing picture books feels especially meaningful to me because it allows me to have conversations with myself at different ages and remember what I was curious about, how I interpreted the world around me, and the unanswered questions I had. Younger me feels so close and clear to me these days.
Connect with Gwendolyn on Instagram: @g.m.wallace!
February 1, 2024