Mississauga author releases two diverse books for children
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone, it has inspired some people to turn an ongoing international tragedy into an opportunity to educate, inform and even entertain some of those most deeply impacted by the virus and related restrictions—children.
Valene Campbell, a Mississauga-based author and health care professional who has always been passionate about storytelling, recently published two books in her brand new Amazing Zoe series.
The series, which chronicles the adventures of a young Black girl named Zoe, provides children of colour with a protagonist who looks more like them—and educates them about germs, viruses and even history in the process.
"In March 2020, I was on a walk with my daughter and I remember seeing two kids playing cards through a window. It was so cute but sad at the same time and I just thought to myself, 'this must be really, really hard for them,'" Campbell says.
"It was hard for me as an adult, so I thought it would be good to give them something to understand why we need to stay home and why we have to wash our hands more. That's where the inspiration came from."
After witnessing the game, Campbell self-published The Amazing Zoe Defeats the Germie Germlins, a children's book that follows Zoe as she fights the Germie Germlins that have attacked her city and forced the mayor to close schools and keep everyone inside.
Campbell says although the book was inspired by COVID, it doesn't name the virus specifically and can be used to teach children about general health and sanitation in the future.
"I didn't name COVID, so there's longevity in the book because it's about safety and cleanliness," she says.
After publishing her first book, Campbell released The Amazing Zoe: A Queen Like Me!, a book that teaches Zoe—and her fans—that you don't have to look a certain way to be a princess.
Campbell, who is the founder and managing director of ReVitahealth Home Health Care & Wellness Services, says she's always been passionate about writing but didn't start publishing fiction until 2020.
"I've been writing skits for many, many years. It started in church and I would write for plays, birthday skits, anniversary skits, etc," Campbell says.
On her website, Campbell says that much of her creativity was informed by her Jamaican heritage and the stories she heard at family functions over the years. On her site, Campbell says that her background is "rich in various art forms, including poetry and storytelling."
"There is never a family gathering without hearing a funny story about a random character (fiction or nonfiction), deriving from that beautiful island," she writes, adding that her appreciation for storytelling has allowed her to stay connected to an important cultural tradition.
Campbell says the protagonist in her Amazing Zoe series is inspired by her toddler, Zuri.
Campbell and her daughter, Zuri
"I remember growing up here and although we're a melting pot and very multicultural as a country and a city, I didn't see very much representation. I wanted to present something to her that was a little different," Campbell says.
"I want children to be able to see diverse characters doing regular things, like learning about nature, learning about space, etc."
Campbell also says that the anti-racism protests held in response to the police-involved killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, which prompted Canadians to more closely examine their own prejudices and history, highlight the need for more diversity in literature.
"A lot of what happens [in the US] spills over, we have a strong relationship and bond and we've had our own issues in our history as well. I wanted [my daughter] to have some sort of representation and see herself in these books."
Campbell says that instead of ignoring race altogether, we should strive to recognize and celebrate cultural differences.
"As a person of colour, we want to get rid of barriers and appreciate each other. We should appreciate colour and culture differences instead of setting them aside," she says.
As far as feedback goes, Campbell says readers have responded well to the brand new series.
"I have been so honoured by the reception. I've received reviews from people who say that stories are so relevant and that they answered questions for their children. Some teachers said they would read them to their class," she says.
"A teacher from England was happy it sparked a conversation he wasn't expecting. I got a lot of encouragement to keep going."
Campbell says that the books, which deal with difficult topics, mix fiction with an educational component.
"I have a third book coming out soon that touches on Alzheimer's and it talks about how that affects children," Campbell says, adding that the book was inspired by her experience with her mother's illness.
"The [books] are going to be a little heavier sometimes because it's hard for me to depart from the health background that I have. It's important to write feel-good and happy stories, but I want to [talk about] things that are real and have real effects on children. It can be difficult to talk about these topics or explain, but kids are so much smarter than a lot of us give them credit for. It helps as a tool for parents to talk about it and give children an opportunity to ask questions."
Campbell says that going forward, she plans to continue writing and hopes to do some virtual (and eventually, in-person) author talks at schools, libraries and other community spaces—especially since Black History Month is fast approaching,
"I'm happy to share these stories around Black History Month," she says, adding that her Queen Like Me! book touches on unconscious biases, African history and friendship.
"Sometimes we don't realize we have these biases among people we're very close to. When people feel free to speak and share, we can come to a solution and normalize what our beautiful differences are."
Campbell says the positive impact of seeing more characters that reflect the diversity of a community is profound.
"I'm glad that 2020 was a pivotal moment for modern history when it comes to starting these conversations and making a difference in children's literature. The more we talk and the more we share, the more we're going to start seeing changes. I'm seeing more diversity in commercials in terms of gender and diversity. We faced two pandemics in 2020 and we're still navigating through both of them," she says.
"I want my daughter to be able to understand that she does have a place in this world, she belongs like everybody else. Being inclusive and diverse could be normal, that's the hope."
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