It's hard to find children's books with Black characters, so a coach's family wrote its own
Children's book reinforces that Black people can be successful in any career
By EMILY GIAMBALVO | The Washington Post | Published: February 18, 2021
Years ago, when two of Tierra Haynes' three children were still toddlers and the family lived in Toledo, she shuttled her kids around in a minivan with a DVD player in the back seat. The youngest two boys, Devon and Dallas, loved "Mr. Peabody & Sherman," repeatedly watching the movie that follows a boy and a dog as they time travel to visit historical figures. One day, Haynes thought to herself: Why do these characters rarely meet anybody Black?
Around the same time, Haynes' oldest son, DeAndre Jr., realized he was one of the only Black kids in his class. Conversations during Black History Month felt uncomfortable when the other third graders looked toward him. That planted the idea in Haynes' mind. Her kids — and all kids —needed to know more about important Black figures in American history. She imagined writing a children's book to help fill the void. But her life was busy, raising three boys and investing in dozens of others who played basketball for her husband's teams, so the thought remained nothing more than an unfinished idea.
DeAndre Haynes' job took the family from Toledo to Michigan and now to the University of Maryland, where he's an assistant basketball coach. His family's life orbits sports. Little Dre, 13, plays AAU basketball, and 7-year-old Devon loves football. Their childhood has been packed with role models by way of their dad's basketball teams. They consider former Michigan player Jordan Poole a brother, and when Devon recently gave his mom a list of people to invite to his virtual birthday party, he included former Terps Anthony Cowan Jr. and Jalen Smith. Ask Little Dre what he wants to be when he grows up, and he will say an NBA player. If not that, maybe he would coach like his dad.
Tierra Haynes half-hoped she would pass a bookstore and see somebody else had written the books she envisioned, but the void remained. And then this spring, following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and too many others, she realized she couldn't wait.
"It became painfully clear to me that these were stories that needed to be told," Haynes said. "It became very important to me for my boys to not only have the news or the NBA to see images of other Black men."
While at home during the pandemic, Haynes wrote for months. She long ago landed on Guion Bluford Jr., the first African American to go to space, as an ideal character. By the fall, Haynes had finished a manuscript for a book that follows her three sons on a trip to space, where they meet and learn about Bluford. A couple of weeks ago, she finally held a hardback copy of her book, "The Adventures of Us: Getting to Know Guion Bluford Jr.," and now it's landing in the hands of other children.
Tierra and DeAndre Haynes want their boys to see an array of career paths. Little Dre has lately become interested in videography, and his parents have pointed out the member of Maryland basketball's staff who does that work. Devon enjoys art, and 6-year-old Dallas loves animals.
"We try to tell them that: Your life doesn't have to be just sports," DeAndre Haynes said. "You look at it out here, man, there are so many successful people who are not doing something with a basketball, with a ball, on a field, on a court. And we want them to know that."
When Haynes was a kid in Detroit, he watched the Pistons and their rival Michael Jordan.
"I didn't see other successful Black people," he said, and basketball launched Haynes to the life he has now. He was a standout point guard for Kent State before playing overseas. But even decades later, during team conversations about racial injustice last summer, Haynes realized some of his players were unaware of important Black individuals in American history.
As parents, Haynes and his wife found books with diverse characters for their kids to read, "but it had to be intentional," Tierra said. "It wasn't typically something that you would just stumble upon." In the room where they now attend virtual school, she hung posters of Thurgood Marshall and Bessie Coleman. It's all part of the effort to reinforce that they can do anything. That's the purpose of the book, which Haynes hopes is the first in a series.
After Haynes had the idea while living in Ohio, then settled on Bluford as the character while living in Michigan, her husband found an illustrator because of his ties at the University of Maryland. Nearly two years ago, an assistant coach for the Terrapins' women's basketball team posted a digital drawing of her staff, noting that her friend Morgan Jennings had created the image. DeAndre, who had long believed in his wife's idea for a book, immediately contacted Jennings and Kaitlynn Fratz, the Maryland assistant. The first question he asked Jennings: "Can you draw Black people?" Realistic illustrations were nonnegotiable.
Jennings played college basketball at California University of Pennsylvania, where she became close friends with Fratz. During college, Jennings gravitated toward art and incorporated Black characters and culture into her work — "all I had ever wanted to do was work for Disney so that I could see myself as a character," she said.
When working on this book, Haynes wanted the three boys to undoubtedly look like her sons. Jennings said she drew the spacesuits specifically so they would not cover the boys' hair. When Dallas dreams of being an astronaut on the final page, Jennings didn't want the thought bubble to show a silhouette or the back of a head. It needed to be "him as a Black man on the moon," she said. "That's important. They need to see that. It's little details that we really focused on to make sure the idea of representation is definitely there."
Haynes' children had a role in the design process, offering feedback to Jennings. Little Dre wanted his character to also wear glasses, and they made sure Devon had the gap between his front teeth. Dallas said he wants to learn how to do a backflip soon, so Jennings drew him upside-down while floating through space.
Haynes chose Bluford as the subject of her first book a few years ago because, at the time, her boys were interested in space. She knew that would be a visually appealing topic to make learning fun. She wants her boys to become even more involved moving forward, letting them chose possible topics to explore. Little Dre suggested the next book be about an important woman in Black history "so that it could be equal," the 13-year-old said, explaining how a young Black girl could see herself in these books, too.
Basketball will always be an integral piece of their lives. And if Little Dre wants to be a professional basketball player, his parents are going to help him get there. Subtle reminders of the sport appear in the book: Little Dre is holding a ball on one page, and later, Dallas calls Bluford "the Michael Jordan of astronauts." But basketball —and dreams of becoming an astronaut, an architect or a doctor — can intersect.
At some of her husband's previous coaching stops, the team's players have read books at local schools. That's one of the visions she has with the book — to have the Jordan Pooles and Jalen Smiths of the world read to kids, highlighting these paths of possibility.
"That would be such a full-circle moment," Haynes said, "for all the pieces of our lives to be able to come together in that way."