A report by Tommy Williams for Forbes. Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.
Delayed literacy development in infants and children is an ongoing concern, compounded by modern society’s obsession with technology. An increasing number of children spend a disproportionate amount of time using applications on smart devices for entertainment, many of which are video or animation oriented. As a result, young children are reading less often than ever before.
Although the issue of child literacy affects all demographics, the problem is more pronounced in black communities, where 55% of Black Caribbean pupils are meeting the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by age 11 are reaching the expected levels of literacy by the time they start secondary school. The delay can lead to significant learning challenges further down the line.
In addition, black children do not have relatable characters portrayed in the books available. A 2017 research paper published by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education showed only 1% of books produced by mainstream publishers featured a black main character and, where it exists, the story lines typically revolve around complex social issues, such as slavery or gang violence. I met with Nicholls, founder of Woke Babies, who is making a change with her monthly discovery story box for young black children, features characters that they can relate to.
Nicholls’s journey to starting her business is an unconventional one. As a student, she excelled in art and design, often getting the top grades. She pursued this further at university, studying Fashion Design With Marketing at the University of East London. During her time there, she entered the Young Designer Fashion Awards and was awarded the Tyler Media Youth Award. As one of the youngest contestants at just 17 years old, she won a grand prize which was an opportunity to present her collection at the Caribbean Fashion Week in New Kingston, Jamaica. The experience opened her eyes to the world of fashion and, most importantly, confirmed that her heart was in the styling aspect of fashion, rather than design. “Whilst I was showcasing my clothes on the runway, it was the stylist’s job that I found most fascinating and really wanted” she recalls.
Nicholls collaborated with a friend to offer stylist services to photographers within her network. Their service was offered free-of-charge, in order to build up a meaningful portfolio of work. As it happens, a handful of these photographers went on to become well known within the industry, and as they their work flourished, so did Nicholls’s reputation. She worked with an agent who would set her up with up-and-coming musicians and, soon enough, she was working on projects with globally renowned celebrity clients, such as Little Mix, Rita Ora and Jourdan Dunn. Nicholls was living a stylist’s dream, which she really enjoyed, however was always open to trying something new that would harness her other artistic abilities.
From Fashion To The Bible
All the way through her styling career, Nicholls maintained her love of artistic expression beyond fashion and, whilst searching for her next project, she attended a children’s party where the attendees each received an illustrated Bible as a thank-you gift. However, as kind as the gesture was, she noticed that the characters were all Caucasian. Knowing the historical and geographical setting of the biblical stories, as well as being a Christian who believes that we are “all created in God’s image,” she figured that she could make a change. She discovered that the only illustrated Bible with ethnically-appropriate characters at the time was available exclusively in the U.S., and at steep prices, as it had not been republished in some time. She recruited her mother to assist with the re-interpretation whilst she worked on the illustrations. After many months of hard work, “My Favourite Bible Stories” was created.
With a limited budget but a big vision, Nicholls once again leveraged the vast network of influencers and celebrities that she had built during her styling days, to gain support in the promotion of the book through social media which went viral. Sales soon skyrocketed and the illustrated Bible went on to be a great success, reaching Bestseller status in the New York Times Children’s Picture Books list. Shortly after this achievement, Nicholls was approached by one of the largest international publishing houses existing, HarperCollins, who bought the rights to the book and will be republishing it in 2020. The strong feedback from her children’s Bible was encouraging and customers were supportive of seeing Nicholls develop other forms of children’s literature, where young black children could see other relatable characters.
Many of the parents who had bought her bible also mentioned that they struggled to find academic, inspirational literature featuring a black or ethnic lead on the market. Nicholls took the opportunity to set up a monthly book subscription service where she curates a collection of the very best children’s books from around the globe, providing parents with a flow of diverse books and characters. Her hope is that the children would fall in love with reading, whilst making the process convenient for parents. She established the company under the name “Woke Babies.”
Woke Babies And The Future
Today, Woke Babies provide a monthly discovery box which includes books, games and educational activities featuring black lead characters. The aim is to create fun and educational material and experiences for black children. Making use of her talents in art and design, all resources are uniquely designed and produced by Nicholls herself. Previous boxes have been focused on themes such as money management which, for example, included a Monopoly-style board game that encourages children to understand the value of money. More recently, Nicholls has expanded her line to include bespoke educational posters which support progressive and inclusive education. One of such products is the “Woke Babies British Sign Language (BSL)” poster, which is beautifully illustrated with Nicholls’ own representative characters. Subscriptions are available for children of all ages, from toddlers all the way up to preteens.
Nicholls is proud that her Woke Babies business gives her a platform to highlight authors who have, historically, struggle to gain the recognition they deserve and reach customers from all corners of the world. Moving forward, Nicholls would like to take her initiative into schools and organise educational events, with the aim to raise the standard of child literacy in black demographics globally. Seeing her enthusiasm for this project, I am confident that Woke Babies will continue to successfully play its part in achieving this important goal.
Kelly-Jade Nicholls is a former fashion stylist, author, and founder of Woke Babies, based in London, UK. She was recently interviewed by Aurie Styla for BBC Radio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFfpTxCcnss