Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Book Review & Author Interview: "Oh, Oh, Baby Boy!"

artwork copyright 2013 by Janine Macbeth
by Sharon H Chang

In a world that can seem so crazy scary, in the midst of all the school violence that I know is on every parents' mind right now, in the frantic feeling I often get that I don't know how to protect my son in this place -- I find myself searching. Searching for hope, strength, courage. Something, anything that can reinstate my belief in humanity and a conviction that we can rise above our limitations to become better as a people. Something that will make me feel good about the future my son is growing into. There are days I think I can't or won't find it. But then, I do. And it's not in academia. Not in the (so-called) news. Not on the Net or social media. Maybe sometimes not even in justice movements or fights for equity and change. But in the smaller places and spaces of our lives. In the profound and inspired everyday acts of individuals and the caring, kind, and loving relationships we are so so capable of having with each other.

This Father's Day I have a really special children's book and author to share with you.

Oh, Oh, Baby Boy! by Janine Macbeth
Oh, Oh, Baby Boy! is a stunning and profound picture book by author, artist-illustrator and publisher Janine Macbeth who identifies as a "multiracial artist and woman of color with Asian American, African American, white, and Native American heritage." She is mom to two boys, and wife/life-partner to their loving father. Her masterful work is not only a love song to her family, but a tribute to ALL engaged fathers of color. It follows a beautiful brown baby boy and the loving, tender, close relationship he grows with his father all the way until he one day has a baby boy of his own. What's so magnificent here is that Oh, Oh, Baby Boy! is about those important larger things -- life cycles, love, depicting diversity in a life-giving way, uplifting men of color and celebrating all people -- but it also brings the focus into those places I talked about where we can maybe always go to find belief in ourselves again. The frozen space in time when we kiss our sleeping newborn, everything disappears, and nothing else seems to matter. How the fullness of our hearts fills the silence as we hold our children against us, resting our cheeks atop their heads, breathing them in. Or the day he tells us he's a superhero and we know he believes it; that he's superhuman strong, can do and defend anything, and can save lives. And we want him to have that forever.

artwork copyright 2013 by Janine Macbeth
 Oh, Oh, Baby Boy! was funded through the support of over 260 people on and off Kickstarter in 2011. The book's release also simultaneously birthed Janine's radical independent publishing company Blood Orange Press. If you want to feel seriously good about something today read the Home and Mission & Vision pages of her press's website. In my mind this one enormous act spearheaded by one person (and then supported by many) carries with it all kinds of tremendous hope and promise for peace. It's the kind of thing we can hold solidly in our hands and share confidently with our families when the world overwhelms us and feels like it's closing in.

It's not just about "fixing" what's wrong with the world, it's also
 about lifting up a vision for the better place we want to create...We spread solutions and reaffirm positive growth and development. We are about joy. 
We are about sustaining people, and sustaining positive change.

- Blood Orange Press

I had the great privilege to interview powerhouse innovator Janine Macbeth on the many layers of meaning and depth in her project. I hope you enjoy this glimpse into her mind, find your inspiration too, and appreciate her willingness to share with forthright honesty as much as I did:

How do you and your family identify racially-ethnically?

We’re a multiracial family. I identify as a multiracial woman of color; my mom is Chinese American (born here, but whose first language is Cantonese), and my dad is black, white, and Native. On my dad’s side, for generations and generations back, everyone was mixed, black, white, and Native, so I also identify as being ancestrally mixed.

My husband is mixed, too. His mom is white, and his dad is half Chinese, and half Filipino, but born and raised in Panama, and Spanish-speaking. For all these reasons, my husband identifies as a mixed person of color with API and Latino cultural traditions and reference points. (When I met my husband, I was used to people being perplexed by my racial identity, but not used to being perplexed myself. The cultural complexity of my husband’s identity stretched my brain; I wasn’t used to that. It was refreshing.)

Raising our children, we’ve had conversations about how we will frame our identities for them, at least until they choose their own. It’s important to me that they understand that we are all of these things. As our boys grow up and meet new people, I hope they continue to connect with people as if they are our relations, our relatives - with respect and a full heart. 

I was very struck by the use of an earthy, caramel brown throughout your book as a backdrop and monochromatic non-white skin tone for all characters. Can you tell us about this and how you made this choice?

Brown is my favorite color. In skin tones, there are many shades of brown. Many shades of brown, and yet no one shade can be uniformly assigned to any particular race. Skin tone is very much based in these sometimes fluid, sometimes “solid,” unflinching interactions between perception (eg. who’s perceiving, and who’s being perceived) and context (eg. What tensions/connections are happening in the moment? Where and when is it happening? What is the larger social, historical, and political moment?). As mixed folks, the ways we come across, are perceived, and perceive ourselves can shift or change in a moment or a situation. And it’s all genuine, it’s all real. We’re always ourselves.

Essentially, with a multiracial lens, I wanted to depict people in a way that allows them to be mixed, or not mixed - to be who they are, and to play with this idea of perception (1) without cookie cutter depictions of race, and (2) in a way that doesn’t centralize whiteness, or take whiteness for granted as a departure point.
Why was it so important here for you to represent engaged fathers of color?

Boys and men of color are on the receiving end of a great deal of negativity and limitation. The larger societal narrative reads: Black/Brown + Male = Bad, Criminal, Dangerous. This is wrong. Boys should have positive role models and images for their future. Loving, community and family-oriented men should be celebrated, and all men should be encouraged to be more loving and more community and family-oriented. This book is lifting up a vision of what already is, and making space for more boys and more men to fulfill this potential.
There are very strong depictions of non-normative hair in your book especially across the book's inside front/back covers. Can you talk on this a bit?

artwork copyright 2013 by Janine Macbeth
As an artist, depicting hair has always been very important to me. It’s like a superpower, being able to say, “Our hair is beautiful, in all its textures, shapes, and variations.” It’s a superpower because as a child of color, I never heard or saw that; the messages I received were just the opposite.
In a nutshell, my hair and the different types of hair in my family has played a large role in my consciousness as a mixed woman. My hair embodies my experience as someone who has black heritage, but does not fit the typical appearance of what people expect African American to look like.

As an artist, depicting hair has always been very important to me. It’s like a superpower, being able to say, “Our hair is beautiful, in all its textures, shapes, and variations.” It’s a superpower because as a child of color, I never heard or saw that; the messages I received were just the opposite. But as an artist, I can show it, I can prove it. I can say it visually in a way that cannot be contested - and if it is, it doesn’t matter, because I’ve already proven our beauty to myself.

When someone’s beauty or value is measured against a racially white ruler, it’s a form of oppression. As a young woman, I had to re-educate myself to understand my own beauty, and the beauty of the women around me within their own contexts. My work reaffirms our own reference point as diverse women of color. A reference point that recognizes our value, our dignity, our beauty.

Because our hair is beautiful, in all its textures, shapes, and variations. 

Even though the importance of engaged fatherhood is obviously centered in your book, it's clear that race, inter-race and multiraciality are important themes as well. Can you talk about this a little?

This is the first of what I hope will be many books, and in all of my books, I want to spread a vision of a world that honors its diversity. I want to ground readers in a non-Eurocentric experience. One reader might see a book full of people of color; another might see a book full of mixed people; another might see a book depicting a diverse community of non-mixed folk, or a mix of all these. I hope that readers can see what they need to see in this book. Ultimately, I wanted to ground us in an “of color” reference point.

I found this a beautiful reflection on life cycles but surprising because it's one I don't usually see in picture books. What motivated this choice versus maybe something that focused on what I typically see in children's literature - a snapshot or moment in time?

For me the themes of boys and men of color, masculinity, and gender equity are far bigger than a moment, or a phase of our lives. When we had our second boy, I really began to realize the power, the potential, and the possibility that young boys present. Books can be powerful tools to inform and guiding our young ones - and our grown ones. I wanted young boys and girls to see a full cycle, a multigenerational trajectory. My wish is that these images can be seeds for positive expectations and guidance for themselves and their peers through their lives. If we acknowledge that ours is a patriarchal society, and if can nurture strong, compassionate, and conscious boys, in a matter of a generation or two we can begin to correct one of the underlying injustices of our society: gender oppression. 

Tell me about Blood Orange Press? Other titles?
As a kid, I’d scour the shelves of the school library looking for brown-seeming names of authors and illustrators, or photos of authors of color on book jackets. When I couldn’t find any, I came to the conclusion that people like me didn’t make children’s books; that it was a pointless aspiration.
I’ve wanted to create children’s books since I was seven years old. As a kid, I’d scour the shelves of the school library looking for brown-seeming names of authors and illustrators, or photos of authors of color on book jackets. When I couldn’t find any, I came to the conclusion that people like me didn’t make children’s books; that it was a pointless aspiration. Even though my friends and classmates kept telling me that I’d be an author and illustrator when I grew up (because they knew it’s what I loved), I didn’t believe them.

Finally, as an undergrad in college studying race and racism, I allowed myself to dream the dream again. But by now the dream had evolved. Beyond creating books myself, I wanted to create an institution, because we deserve publishing institutions that understand and value diverse stories, and I decided to one day start a publishing company.

Flash forward 10 years, after working in publishing, some disillusionment about exorbitant start up funds, and two unpublished children’s book projects later, I self-produced Oh, Oh, Baby Boy! As I was laying out the book design files preparing them for the printer, I realized the book needed a publisher, and I realized that I was that publisher.

Blood Orange Press is an independent publishing house that spreads dignity, diversity, and joy. My goal is that one day it’s a go-to house for diverse readers. Right now we’re one-title strong! 

What can we expect from you next? Are you working on another book and/or project?

Yes! I’m working on a few of my own books, and a couple projects with writer friends, some that I may illustrate. I’m very excited about an illustrated chapter book for ages 8-10 that I’m working on. I’m also figuring out the financial aspects of a publishing company. I may do another Kickstarter campaign in the next year or two, and/or may be looking for investors. Right now I’m balancing business development with book creation (with work, with kids and family). It’s definitely a journey!


Janine Macbeth
Please support transformative and affirming children's literature, writers of color, and stories about marginalized peoples. Your single act of support can make a difference. Oh, Oh, Baby Boy! is available for purchase here. You can follow Blood Orange Press on Facebook and Twitter @BloodOrangePres.
Love and Peace, 
Happy Father's Day

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