“We just want to empower children.”
Photos by Kara Counard
Miranda and Baptiste Paul | Bellevue, WI
Miranda: I grew up in Green Bay, right near the edge of town. It used to be lots of cornfields and forests, but now it's mostly subdivisions. I was a very early reader; I started reading before kindergarten. I didn't grow up in a house with a lot of books, but we did have one of those complete World Book sets of encyclopedias, so I had access to knowledge from early on.
Books were a big form of independent entertainment, and my teachers definitely encouraged reading. My fifth-grade teacher was pretty creative. I remember we had a bathtub in our classroom that she would fill with pillows. We all loved reading books in that tub. There were only ten other classmates and me—and so every 11 days, I got my chance.
Baptiste: I grew up on the beautiful island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean. We didn't have any books in the classroom, and there were none at home, either. But I loved to read. So, as a child, I used to walk more than 12 miles, round-trip, to the only library on the southern side of the island to get books. The journey was pretty interesting. Most days I walked barefoot because my parents really couldn't afford shoes. I would cross the river, and then I would jump the airport runway fence, cross the runway, then jump another fence to get into town. I would go to the library to get my books, and then repeat the process to get back home again.
For me, books were always important. There's so much you can do on a small island, but sometimes you get bored. And books are one way of traveling to distant places.
My mom was illiterate, but she made sure that every single one of her children knew how to read and write, because she said, “This is the only way you have a fighting chance in this world.” And she encouraged me. You know, I was young and something really bad could have happened to me walking those 12 miles to the library, but she never stopped me. Even when I made the decision to leave home, to move to the United States, she never stopped me. She always pushed me and said, “Go for it. I trust you. I believe in you.”
Baptiste: I left Saint Lucia a few years after I graduated high school. I moved to Philadelphia to be a volunteer. I worked with homeless people on the streets, and I also volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and an after-school center for vulnerable kids. I coached soccer at an inner-city Catholic school, where I introduced soccer to kids who had never played.
Miranda: While he was working to help the homeless, one of the alums from my college was a volunteer on the same project. I was in college in Maryland at the time. I rowed crew, and we were in Philadelphia one weekend, rowing on the Schuylkill River for a regatta. After the race was done, our friend was going to meet us. He brought all the other volunteers from this project. Baptiste was one of them. We all just hung out in Philadelphia. Afterwards, Baptiste asked me for my phone number, and I gave him a fake one.
Baptiste: Tell what number you gave me.
Baptiste: I had no idea she did that.
Miranda: He had only been here, what? A year at that point. So he was like, “Thank you very much.”
I was like, “Oh my gosh, he doesn't know that I just gave him a fake phone number from a pop song.”
I felt bad because he was so polite, so I gave him my real phone number. Needless to say, he called, and here we are, 19 years later. We had a long-distance relationship until we got married, since I was in Maryland and he was in Pennsylvania.
Baptiste: We decided to make Wisconsin a home just before Miranda gave birth to our daughter. It was a great choice because we had a family support network out here. Out east we didn't.
Miranda: Now we have two kids. They’re 14 and 11. Girl first, then boy. And we've had nine teenage exchange students, as well, over the years.
Baptiste: From all over the place.
Miranda: Kenya, Peru, Spain, Germany, China, Korea. We saw an ad in our church bulletin saying that if these students don't find host families, they don't get to come do this program. We've learned since that it's actually very difficult to find enough host families for these students.
Baptiste: We felt that it was really important, because we know what it's like traveling to other places, and you have all those fears and phobias and anxiety. I know when I moved to the States, it was tough trying to figure this thing out! You want these kids to go through the process and learn, but sometimes it can be overwhelming. We want to take a little bit of that pressure off of them. So that's why we open our home to them.
Miranda: I want to show people the way I was raised here in Wisconsin. I was raised to be a good ambassador when someone comes to visit you. You extend that welcoming hand.
Miranda: We’re both children’s book writers. I’ve been writing most of my life, so when I began in children’s books, I had a body of work and experience writing for other kinds of publications.
During my junior year in college, I submitted some of my poetry to Lucille Clifton, and was selected to be in her class on writing for children. What a remarkable mentor. I learned from her that writing for children was the most difficult kind of writing.
After graduation, I went on to teach writing and I wrote for adults; I've written for newspapers and magazines and corporate clients as a freelancer. When we had children, the spark to write for them was born.
Writing for kids is important, because their attention is being grabbed by a lot of different media, and books engage the brain in ways that watching a screen doesn't. I want to be part of that brain development and that character development.
It's challenging, because a kid isn't going to sit through boring writing. They're going to throw it down and go watch something or do something else. So, for me, it's harder. It's more challenging. I like a challenge.
Baptiste: Miranda is the one who pushed me to write my stories down more than nine years ago. For many years, I kept sharing my stories with her and the kids.
Back in Saint Lucia, we have a lot of folktales about witches and monsters. In the village, the stories usually are told at a wake, when someone passes. We'd all sit in a circle under this giant mango tree, and the storytellers would capture your attention, tell you stories about things you've never heard of. And it would be dead silent. They'd have every child hooked. Every adult hooked. Everyone hooked.
I think maybe the whole storytelling thing has been in me for a while, because I grew up with some amazing storytellers.
I kept sharing all those different stories with Miranda and the kids all the time, and she's like, “Dude, you got something good going on here. You got to start writing your stories down, because I think they're really good.” And I listened to her. Not at first, but eventually.
Miranda: I think you’re giving me more credit than I deserve, because you used to write before I even met you. You would bring these poems; you were already a poet.
Baptiste: Yes, I did that. But I didn't really consider myself a writer. I loved it, and I did it. But she gave me the initial big push to go for it and try and get published. The crazy thing is that growing up, I did not know any authors, and none ever came to my school. In a way, you believe that you are incapable of doing these things. Being an author felt like an unattainable goal.
The journey hasn't been easy. You write a story and you think it's great. You tell yourself that this one is going to get published. But after numerous rejections from publishers, you begin to feel like this is impossible. The hardest part for me was finding a way to deal with the rejections. Now I see them as a motivator. If one publisher says no, that does not mean all the publishers will say no.
My first book, The Field, which has 151 words, took me over four years to write. So the journey has been slow, steady, challenging, sometimes frustrating, but well worth it.
Miranda and I have written a few books together now, too. I think we work well together. We often joke that when we write together, we do it from opposite ends of the house. We find it best to email and text each other when we are heavily researching our subjects.
One of our first co-authored, published books was I Am Farmer: Growing an Environmental Movement in Cameroon. We have written stories that did not get published, but the good news is that we enjoy writing together and we don’t give up when the writing gets difficult.
Being on life's journey with my best friend and co-author keeps strengthening our relationship.
Miranda: For quite some time, Baptiste and I had been hosting international potlucks and other sorts of things so we could meet other families who are interracial, like ours. We took our children to a playgroup in Green Bay, and each time we got together the kids would get to learn about a different country or a different culture or holiday.
One of the parents had invited a man from Cameroon, and he did a wonderful program—a story time and music and some jokes. He was really funny. His name was Farmer Tantoh. Afterwards, we went up and asked him why he was visiting Wisconsin. We learned he was a student at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, on a global exchange program. He was here studying organic landscaping and agriculture so that he could take those skills back and apply them in rural parts of Cameroon.
I said, “Wow this is really interesting. I'm writing a book right now about this woman I know, Isatou Ceesay, who lives in Gambia. She started her country's first recycling program. We'd love to keep in touch with you and know more about what you're doing.”
For many years, we kept in touch. We did some interviews with him. We found out he did a project that brought water to 15,000 people. He single-handedly went in and motivated an entire village to provide the materials and labor necessary to capture clean spring water. And now everyone in this village has clean, crisp, safe drinking water.
My book about Isatou Ceesay, One Plastic Bag, came out in 2015 and did well. So we approached the publisher to write a story about Farmer Tantoh. We said, “Here's a story that we've worked on together. It's kind of a rough draft. To finish it, we need the support to go to Cameroon and visit these remote villages where Farmer is doing this incredible work.” They said yes. So in 2017, we went to Cameroon.
It was such a rewarding trip. We talked to people who literally are alive because of Farmer Tantoh. They had food to eat and water to drink because of him.
Baptiste: Clean, safe water.
Miranda: So now, his story is published in our book, I Am Farmer. We went on a 10-week book tour, and we went to a lot of farming communities in multiple states—even Wisconsin. The audiences could completely relate to the idea of being a farmer. That was the thing—even though Farmer Tantoh is from such a faraway place and has a very different life and language, there's always a connection that people can make, no matter where they live in the world.
Baptiste: The kids went wild, because they couldn't believe that Farmer Tantoh came all the way from Africa just to be there to share his story with them. Those kids were telling stories about how they are going to go about making changes in the community. Some said they're going to plant vegetable gardens, and they're going to find the needy people in the community and start distributing the vegetables to them. They talked about cleaning up the parks, the waterways, the streams.
Miranda: It brings us a ton of joy to know that our books are being loved and read, of course, but the fact that they're springing people into action and changing lives is more of the reason we do what we do.
I remember a Wisconsin dad coming up to me at a parent night event, holding up a stapled book and saying, “I don't know what you said to my kid, but he's been in his room making this book for the last 48 hours. He never used to write, and he's so excited about it now.”
Baptiste: I thought when I was younger that authors sat on this pedestal way above everyone else, and it would be such a privilege one day to meet an author. And now, I'm in that position. When I go into schools, I just want the kids to see me as a regular guy, a normal person.
Miranda: Back in 2014, several fellow authors and I helped establish an organization called We Need Diverse Books. Some of us had been having conversations on social media about this really obvious lack of diversity in children's books.
I think it was the last census, ten years ago, that revealed the fastest-growing population in the U.S. is multiracial children. And yet, when Baptiste and I had our children, we had to go looking to find children's picture books that had a mom and dad who weren't the same race. There were definitely books out there, but a lot of them were about the issue of being mixed or about the issue of having an interracial family. Which is great, those can be needed. But for our kids, and most kids growing up, this is normal for them. So when they read a book about it being an issue, they're like, ‘Why is it an issue?’ They wanted to see the kid who is mixed race and having a birthday party, or solving a mystery, or whatever.
So in 2014, I joined a group of authors and librarians to have a conversation about what we could actually do about it. We were like, “Well, we can harness the power of social media and make a campaign hashtag.” The hashtag we ended up deciding on was #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and 24 hours before we launched our campaign on Twitter, it was already trending. We clearly hit a nerve with a lot of people around the world who were thinking or talking about the same thing.
We wanted to keep the conversation alive, so we officially turned We Need Diverse Books into a nonprofit. We started a mentorship program for a diverse group of new writers, and five years later, we’ve sent 50 writers out into the world with a mentor. A lot of them now have their books published, or on the way to coming out, which is really great.
I think we're starting to move the needle in a lot of ways. There is much more representation when you walk into a library or bookstore than there was, and that is promising.
I want all kids to see themselves in books, but I also want all kids to be able to read about a kid who seemingly is different from them and yet find themselves in that person.
And I think that’s the way we’ll foster the kind of empathy we need to move our communities forward in a positive way.
Baptiste: When you don't see yourself in the pages of books, you feel like you don't matter. We just want to empower children. We live in a really interesting world, and the more we embrace diversity, I think the stronger our communities are going to be.
-Miranda and Baptiste Paul | Bellevue, WI