As a Boston Public Schools teacher, Brianna Perkins has always taken her own books to the classroom.
In 2020, after the killing of George Floyd sparked racial justice protests and ignited a global reckoning with racism, she said she noticed Black children’s books selling out, but only those that focused on antiracism and historic figures. So she decided to create an Instagram account, Lit for Black Kids, in June of that year to share children’s books that portrayed Black kids just being kids — playing, laughing, and going to school.
“It’s really crucial that we highlight Black joy,” Perkins said. “Sharing Black stories, sharing Black literature, sharing everything 365 days of the year and not just because it’s a trending topic or holiday.”
Now, the page has more than 18,000 followers. It has grown into a website, litforblackkids.com, where Perkins shares and sells the work of Black authors and illustrators who portray Black children’s joy.
“[Having this business] feels amazing,” she said. “It’s just something that I am really passionate about, something that I really needed when I was younger, and something that I didn’t get while I was in school.”
Out of more than 3,000 American and Canadian books published in 2020, about 7.6 percent were created by a Black author or illustrator, according to 2021 data by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And about 12 percent have a Black character that is the main subject or is featured significantly in the story.
Kim C. Lee, a Baltimore-based author of children’s books, found Lit for Black Kids at the start of her own author journey on Instagram. She said she decided to write a book for her son to have a story with characters that looked like him because she didn’t know many other diverse works out there.
“Prior to going online and seeing a page like [Perkins’s], I would have never known that there were so many books out there,” she said. “You can go to the bookstore, to the library, but the grasp of books that have a focus on Black characters is lacking, is not the same.”
Lee has since then been featured on Perkins’s Instagram and website. She is one of the more than 150 writers on the site’s author directory. The site also includes a Black illustrator directory, an online store, and a list of reading and writing resources for children.
Combining a full-time job with a business has been a challenge. Last year, Perkins had to cancel a Christmas event associated with the site because she couldn’t plan everything on time. She said she gets some help from family and friends, but does most of the work on her own.
“It seems like a lot, but it’s not,” she said. “I love what I do, so it’s not work, it’s something I am really passionate about.”
Perkins said she’s been asked why she focuses on getting the books into the hands of Black children and not all children, because, people ask, shouldn’t everyone learn through Black stories? In an interview, she addressed the question, saying, “I want [the page] to be a mirror first, before it’s anything else,” she said. “I am not saying that other people can’t read Black books, but I want it to be for us first.”
Her next project is a book truck to get books into the hands and homes of students faster. She said many BPS students don’t have easy access to books in their day-to-day lives.
About 40 percent of students in the BPS system don’t have access to a functioning library, and about 45 percent don’t have access to a librarian, according to a 2021 survey by the BuildBPS Stakeholders Coalition.
Lea Serena, one of the page’s followers, said she didn’t have a story with Black characters she loved growing up. Neither did she have much contact with reading at home.
“It’s important that we [as a society] are seeing and giving families access to also know where to find the books,” she said. “I am always ordering stories from [Lit for Black Kids] for my godkids, my nieces and nephews, whoever it might be.”
Perkins said she dreams of making Lit for Black Kids her full-time job, with the goal of getting more diverse books into schools. She also plans to start a kids’ book club, do in-person events, and host pop-up shops around Boston.
“Representation matters always, all ways,” Perkins said. “I want Black children to be able to see themselves in regular stories, in all the ways they can be, not just us reading about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.”