I don't get small ideas. A bit of mania usually follows a low period each year, as predictable as Hollywood splits. I get a buzzy feeling in my stomach, my thoughts are quick, and all the answers to the problems click into place like the numbers on my kids' school locker padlocks that they keep forgetting.
It happened that way about a year ago when I was cautiously climbing out of a pretty good funk over how slow my home is to change. Mississippi often mimics the mud we associate with the river, and she laughs at small-time change agents like me. I'd been put in my place regally by my community over demanding that we look at health and wellness as it relates to academic performance in our schools. I pushed too hard and forgot to be pleasant. The backlash was fierce; the administrators were too tired from being hammered over test scores and sucked dry of resources by legislators who send their kids to academies and never believed in public schools to begin with.
I retreated to lick my wounds by serving in a community center as the Health and Wellness Coordinator. I tried to teach healthy cooking to people who shopped at a dollar store because it was the only business within walking distance. Incredibly, rather than depressing me further, this community inspired me. I found hope, laughter, grit, and a resolute ability to let shit roll off without caving under it. I wouldn't have lasted a week in the situations my clients spent generations unable to escape. This job reminded me what I care about. It reminded me of what we are called to do in this world.
At the same time, I took a trip with a friend from college. In 1994, Jo was the coolest girl in my dorm at The University of Southern Mississippi. All the black girls wanted to be her - and half of the white girls, too. She told me, "Girl, you can save money on clothes as long as you have a good pair of shoes." We ended up rooming together for a little while until she married her college sweetheart, a giant member of Southern's football team.
I gave them both a hug, cap in hand, still wearing our gowns from graduation, and we promised to keep in touch. That was in the prehistory before Facebook or cell phones. I went off to grad school in Arizona and the next time Lenora found me, we had five kids between us. Time is funny like that. So many births, tears, triumphs, marriages, divorces, and hours at work spent apart, and still a return to college friendship in an instant on a hike through the Rocky Mountains.
Jo and I are kindred spirits. She's the one person I called after the election, alone in my car parked downtown. I sat in the dark, waiting to go to a play with some friends. "I feel like an alien. I don't have anything in common with anyone in my own country. I voted for someone who got 3% of the vote."
Her voice came through like a lifeline, like a down comforter, like a mirror. "You are so crazy! I voted for the same person!"
While we struggled over rocks, sucking air, or while we were hiding under a bush during a thunderstorm at 11,000 feet, somewhere along our hiking journey, Lenora had the idea of a book featuring black characters and language for developing readers.
"You're right," I remembered my days as an inner-city teacher. "Where is the Junie B. Jones, Magic Tree House, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid for black kids? We should write it. Together."
"I'm not a writer," she laughed.
"You are a storyteller. You've got voice, and you're funny. And, I know story structure."
"You think we could do it? You think we could write a book that every black kid could see themselves in?"
"I bet we could. I bet we could write a book that increases test scores all over Mississippi!"
And that's how we conceived a book series that was designed to change the world. Stay tuned and see how we did it! Sign up to follow our progress here and be the solution.