Mar 24, 2022
tells PEOPLE ‘It's important to see children of colour in books where kids are just having fun’
When Clothilde Ewing was pregnant with her first baby eight years ago, like most moms-to-be she had a checklist to complete: "Get the crib, get the car seat, decorate the nursery, get books."
That last item on the list, however, proved the most challenging of all. "It wasn't easy to find books with leading Black characters that were just books about kids being kids," Ewing, who is mom to daughter Stella, 7, and son Jackson, 5, tells PEOPLE.
There were the classics, like Corduroy and The Snowy Day — and there were plenty of kids' books about inspiring Black historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Ida B. Wells, but filling out a bookshelf with stories of Black children's joy became a surprisingly difficult task.
For Ewing, vice president of strategic communications at The Chicago Community Trust, a non-profit that works to close the racial and ethnic wealth gap, it was also a deeply meaningful mission. "My kids are imaginative, they are joyful. They're like any other kids. It's as important that they see books with kids that look like them outside playing hopscotch or enjoying a popsicle," says Ewing, 43, who worked in communications for President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign and, previously, as a producer for The Oprah Winfrey Show.
"As important as books are that talk about the civil rights movement and people who have achieved amazing things, they need that and the other. In order to have a more complete portrait of who we are and who we can be, we need all of it."
Then, in 2018, Ewing came across an opinion column in the New York Times by writer and editor Denene Millner titled "Black Kids Don't Want to Read About Harriet Tubman All the Time" that gave voice to her personal struggle.
She cut out the column, pinned it to her vision board and vowed to take on the problem herself. "I realized that I was meant to try and do something about it and be part of the change," she says. She sent an email to family and friends telling them that she planned to write her own children's book — the kind she wanted to read to her own children.
Stella Keeps the Sun Up, published this month by Millner's own imprint at Simon & Schuster, is just that. With a title character named after her daughter, the book introduces readers to 6-year-old Stella and her attempts to push back bedtime by stopping the sun from setting. "The sleep challenges are real in our house and always have been," Ewing says of the genesis of the idea.
The heroine, whose spunky spirit is inspired by both of Ewing's kids, is a rainbow-clad bundle of energy and positivity who is certain she and her BFF, a blue stuffed hippo named Roger, can trick or charm the sun into staying awake by eating cereal all day ("The sun will think it's still morning," Stella explains) or delivering it a cup of coffee (a suggestion from Ewing's own kids).
Ewing says she had a very clear vision for how she saw Stella that illustrator Lynn Gaines helped bring to life. "I wanted to make sure that Stella was a little black girl — complexion-wise, I wanted to make sure there wasn't any ambiguity," she says.
"I wanted Stella to have a beautiful brown skin tone and I wanted to make sure her hair looked like my daughter's hair, that it had texture. And that she was colorful and exuded joy." When she first saw Gaines's drawings, "I almost cried," she says. "It was so spot-on."
Simon & Schuster has already contracted with Ewing for a second Stella book (about Stella and Roger's hunt for a lost tooth), and Ewing is developing ideas for future stories in the series. And she hopes Stella will be a character in the vein of Ramona Quimby or Fancy Nancy — both favorites in her own household – who can speak to Black families and non-Black families alike.
"Each page celebrates this little girl and her family. For my children, I wanted them to see a character that reflected their joy and their image," Ewing says. "But for children who didn't look like mine, I wanted them to see a peer, a friend, a co-conspirator to figure out how to have ice cream for breakfast. It's important to see children of color in books where the kids are just having fun, where they're relatable. There has been improvement over the last several years, and that's great, but we can do more — and it benefits us all when we do."