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Publishing Books For Young Black Readers

  • Leah Krakinowski

Cheryl and Wade Hudson are the driving force behind Just Us Books, a company that publishes books for young black readers. The mission of the family-owned business is to chronicle the African-American experience and build black children's self-esteem.

As a young boy growing up in the segregated South, the only black faces Wade Hudson saw in his elementary school textbooks were slaves. Cheryl Willis Hudson says she went through school in her small southern Virginia town without having any black role models in the countless books she read, or on the television programs she watched.

She says, "I was a reader, I loved school, but growing up at that time I was not aware of bookstores. There was the library and there was school. If there was a bookstore, I didn't know about it. We had books in our home. We got books at Christmas, but none of those books were necessarily African-American stories because there were very few stories that were being published during the 1950's that reflected us."

Years later, married and living in northeastern New Jersey, the Hudsons set out to change that for their own children. In 1988, they founded Just Us Books, so named because the two of them were the only employees. Since then, the publishing duo has sold more than seven million books and has earned national recognition for many of their 70 book titles.

Now several other family members, including their son Stephan, a 21-year-old college student, and 28-year-old daughter, Katura, have joined the team. Wade Hudson, president of the company, says their most popular book series is called "Afro-Bets." The series features characters that offer a positive view of African-Americans, something he never had as a child.

He says, "I knew growing up there was a big void, there was no way that any group of people could live on this earth for hundreds and thousands of years and not making any important contributions or not have good stories to tell about their existence. It just did not make sense to me. All of the history, all of the wonderful literature I read was about white people and about the European culture. And so what they really says to those who are left out, and we were certainly left out, that your people really have not done anything or they would be included."

This childhood frustration prompted Mr. Hudson to write letters to prominent figures like then-United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and Walt Disney, the famed creator of the Mickey Mouse Club television show. In his letter to Walt Disney, Mr. Hudson remembers asking why there were no black kids on the television show, and suggested that a black character he created join the program.

He says, "I recognized that there was a void and that in order for you to really feel good about who you are, you have to know that you've done, and the people you know have done something important, that you have value, that you have worth. How do you know that? From the books you read, from the movies that you see, from stories that are passed down. And that wasn't really happening with us. I could not go to a bookstore and pick up a book about the African-American experience, about anything that would inspire me."

Inspiration is what many of the books published by Just Us provide. Little-known stories of African-American heroes like the Buffalo Soldiers, who helped settle the American West, will be published this fall. They will be published under a new imprint called Sankofa, an African symbol that means "Go Back and Fetch It."

Cheryl Hudson, the company's vice president and editorial director, says many of these out-of-print books by forgotten black authors and illustrators are being brought back to life.

She says, "Sankofa is a mythical bird, not a real bird, who flies forward with his head looking backward and literally means 'Go back and fetch it.' It is kind of a proverb that means you can learn from the past to build the future."

Over the years, the 1970's books of once celebrated black authors like Camille Yarbrough and Rosa Gui disappeared from mainstream bookshelves - if they were carried at all. The Hudson's daughter, Katura, who is responsible for marketing the company's books, says authors like Edith Jackson should be part of every Black child's library.

She says, "That series is one that I read growing up so it is really interesting that we are going to bring that back. She is one of my favorite writers."

Wade Hudson says that the secret to the success of Just Us Books is the understanding of what black readers need and want.

He says, "We are a part of the community. We go to church with other black people, there are black folks in our neighborhood, black folks in the organizations that we go to, so we are in constant contact with those that we are producing the books for."

That is why one of Just Us Books' top-selling titles, "Bright Eyes, Brown Skin" has become a staple for young African-American children, says Cheryl Hudson. The picture book does not portray Black children looking exactly alike, but shows their individual differences in skin tone, hair, and eye color.

She says, "The kids identify with the children in the books, they look like them. The dialogue, the language, there is something familiar about the children in the book, and children come up to us at book fairs and say, 'Oh, I love this book, I had this book when I was three years old, and I still read it."

Married for 32 years, the Hudsons have seen the book business - and American society - change. When they began the company, the bulk of their sales were from individual mail orders. Today 30 percent of their sales are to schools and libraries, 10 percent is through direct mail, and the rest are sold through bookstores, conferences and the Internet. And now, mass retailers like Toys R Us and Wal-Mart stock and sell multi-cultural books across the United States.

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