The Daily Heller: Black Words Matter (Illustrated)

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Law professor Shani Mahiri King wrote Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter (Tilbury House Publishers) for his two young children as 'inspirational voices' grounded in their own history. “My goal is for all kids to see themselves in these pages,” he says. The book is a celebration of black role models from culture, politics, law and science, typographically illustrated with quotations, messages and word portraits. The book represents many black men and women whose lives have made and continue to make a difference . Their words will inspire. Their short biographies will inform.

Bobby C. Martin Jr., co-founder of Champions Design, a branding and design agency based in New York City, created the illustrations. (He also designed the February 2020 cover of The Atlantic honoring Martin Luther King Jr.) The birth of Martin’s own son in 2019 motivated him to take on this project. I asked Martin to speak about the story behind the book.

How did you and the author, Prof. Shani Mahiri King, meet and decide to do the book together?

Debbie Millman. Debbie recommended that publisher Jonathan Eaton of Tilbury House reach out to me. Eaton publishes books about social justice and cultural diversity. This is his second book with University of Florida Law Professor Shani Mahiri King. Eaton liked the work I did for The New York Times Magazine and The Atlantic. And, my son had just been born when I first read the manuscript, so the opportunity to work on a children's book seemed important and fun.

This is so much about verbal language—what is the underpinning for your graphic language?

During 2020, so many of us grabbed a marker and a piece of cardboard to scrawl the words “Black Lives Matter” before heading to the streets in protest. The bigger, bolder, and louder the writing, the better. That same urgency is what inspired the graphic language for Have I Ever Told You Black Lives Matter. Each page is designed with a life-or-death need to be heard and understood.

Is the book intended to be read aloud to children (and adults)?

It’s a picture book and it’s a reference book, and, I think, it’s a lyrical poem. It sounds great when it’s read out loud, but the [biographical] index is long and dense and there are so many names on each page that it cannot be fully shared in one sitting. There are a lot of ways into this one.

How do you want it to be received?

I want it to be inspiring. I want it to help canonize these groundbreaking Black Americans, and at the same time I want it to help introduce the power of design. I want children, as well as adults, to read this and feel optimism and joy and pride.