It’s back-to-school season. For most adults, that doesn’t mean much, but for kids and their parents, there is a certain excitement and trepidation about the start of a new school year. Remember all of the preparation you put into the first day of school as a kid? Having the right backpack, the right lunchbox, and the right outfit set you up for success.
Keah Brown, author of the memoir The Pretty One is back with her first foray into writing picture books for children. In Sam’s Super Seats, she tells the story of a young Black girl who goes back-to-school shopping with her mom and best friends. Sam has cerebral palsy, so sometimes she has to take a break from all that walking. At home, she has super seats — her favorite and most comfortable places to sit. There’s Misty, her pink couch at home, and Laney, the backseat of her mom’s car. During her time at the mall, she meets a seat who isn’t quite super, but it gets the job done.
Rest is important for Sam because of her cerebral palsy, but seeing her take a break is an important lesson for all of us, not just kids. It’s easy to push yourself to keep going, even when your body is giving you signals to slow down. Not knowing when to rest is an unfortunate side effect of our capitalistic society. Sam’s disability forces her to slow down, and while some kids would be upset, her friends happily sit next to her and take a rest, too. They understand how important it is for their bestie to rest, and even if they don’t say it, they’re likely happy to rest too. And sitting on the bench, adorably named Maya, allows them to do the best mall activity with ease: people watching.
Sam’s Super Seats is a sweet story that has disability rep wherein the disability is just one part of the story. Sam is a little girl who loves her parents, her best friends, and clothes. She lives in a bright, colorful world where she takes dance classes, plays dress up, and knows how to accessorize. If you’re looking for a new picture book to get for the kids in your life, look no further.
Sa’iyda: This story is just so sweet, and it has so much heart, and I really love that. And I’d like to know a little bit more about where the idea came from.
Keah Brown: Absolutely. So I actually wrote The Pretty One, which if people don’t know is my memoir of essays. I got asked by my editor, Sydnee Monday, if I was ever interested in writing for children. Because Sydnee loved my essay in that book on chairs, and why I give my chairs names and personalities and back stories. And I was like, “Absolutely, I’m a Virgo. So I have a 10-year plan.” Always.
We love to see it. We love a Virgo.
I always have a 10-year plan. So basically it came about because Sydnee had read The Pretty One and really liked what I had to say about the importance of rest. And then Sam came to me very quickly. I was like, “What about this little girl named Sam? And she has super seats.” Because I liked the idea of bringing in the element of what I actually do in my real life, which is give my chairs names and personalities. One of the things that I loved the most about going to school was getting back to school supplies, and I love the school supplies.
Oh my gosh. Same.
We love a school supply. And going to the mall to get clothes. And I was like, “Kids don’t go to the mall anymore. She’s going to.” And so basically what I did was, “Okay, it’s going to be at a mall. And she’s going to go shopping with her friends and her mom.” And then I started to build the story out. What are the seats that she’s comfortable in at home? Like her living room couch, and her mom’s car back seat. And what comfort do those bring? The couch in her living room is named after Misty Copeland. I just liked the idea of giving her a hero to name one of the chairs after. There’s another chair that makes jokes that always make her laugh.
And then, the idea of there being a super seat in training, a chair that’s not all the way there yet. Because we live in a world where not everything is comfortable. To me, there was something about making sure that she could talk through the discomfort like, “Hey, I know this is not comfortable for me. And I know exactly what I need, but thank you for providing me with the comfort that you can.” I just really like the idea of teaching kids it’s okay to be comfortable, and it’s okay to take a break. And so, that’s how it came about — just me being obsessed with the conversation around rest, and the idea of productivity, and how even I fall into that cycle of needing to be productive even if constantly moving, so that I hold “value.” And it really came about because I was excited to talk about rest for children, to talk about how even rest can be an adventure.
How did you come up with the names for the seats? I’d love to know if that’s something that you do in real life, I’d love to know how you do that in real life as well.
Oh, I’m so glad you asked. One, yes, it is a thing that I do in real life. My living room chair in my mom’s home is named Vivian. It looks like a Vivian to me. It’s a big brown couch. My office chair, it’s a big, black office chair that’s very comfortable. I’ve named it Owen. Owen feels like a really strong name. Sometimes he wears flannel. He’s like a security guard vibe. So I do name every chair that I’m in long term.
With these chairs though, I wanted them to be full and light and exciting, because she is a kid. If she spent a lot of time in her living room chair at home with her friends, I wanted it to be somebody that could bring her comfort. And I don’t know why, but the first person I thought of was Misty Copeland. This little girl, Sam, she loves to do pirouettes, and she loves her dance classes, and she would love Misty Copeland. She would freak out if she met her. And the chair was pink and very cute. And I was like Misty Copeland, immediately. Her mom’s back seat — which is named Laney — I named it after my cousin because she’s very funny.
You have cerebral palsy. And how important for you was it that your main character would share your disability?
Oh, it was imperative. I think I couldn’t have written this without it being that way, because I was really writing the book that I would have loved to write at her age. I just wanted somebody to share my disability, because I think it would have helped me get to a place where I accepted myself much faster than I did. I’m thinking, what other little Black girl is waiting for a book like this? What other little Black girl with this sort of visible disability? There aren’t that many of them.
I know that disability advocacy is something that’s really important to you, but what I loved is that Sam’s disability isn’t the whole story.
I was very conscious that I didn’t want it to sound like an after school special. Sam is who you want your kids to be friends with, and also she has a disability. Because I think oftentimes when we tell stories about disabilities, it becomes all they are. They don’t have thoughts or feelings or ideas outside of their disability. And in every ounce of the work that I do, I try my best to make sure whatever character I’m creating, or whatever thing I’m doing, is not just about disabilities. I know that my life is more than that. I do have cerebral palsy. It’s a big part of my life, but it is not the only thing about me. Somebody said this to me a couple of years ago, and it’s the idea like, “My disability is the lens through which I see the world, but not the subject.” That’s why it’s so important for me to have, in the book, her best friends laugh with her, and play with her, and try on jewelry, and help her when she needs it. It was really important for me to make Sam a fully realized child. And not have to be designated to just being a disability and nothing else.
So let’s chat about disability rep in children’s books.
I mean, listen, I think that writing books is very hard. But I’m very tired of seeing books in general — but especially I’ve seen quite a few children’s books — where it’s like the parent of, or the caretaker of a disabled person, right? I was so desperate to tell my own story, not have it be told to me. I think Sam’s Super Seats is a great stepping stone in the direction of giving disabled authors the chance to tell the stories they want to tell. So it’s not a “from the outside looking in” thing. It’s like, “No, this is literally my life. And these are characters that I created, and characters that I want to see.
And I think oftentimes, children’s books speak to children almost like they infantilize them where it’s like, “Oh no, they couldn’t possibly understand disability. And they couldn’t possibly understand race or gender or a lack of gender.” You know, I think there’s always conventions about what kids can handle and what they can’t. And for me, I wanted to make sure that Sam was very fun, very bright, very bold. But also could teach a child, who might not know something, something along the way. I wanted it to be like a spoonful of education. I just wanted people to have fun while they’re reading it. And then also be able to learn without it being so ham-fisted.
Oftentimes children’s books about disability, or any sort of marginalization, can be ham-fisted because people are like, “We just want kids to obviously treat everybody equally.” I think sometimes when you go in with that mind frame of like, “this has to be super-educational,” You lose the joy, you lose the fun, you don’t think about fun. You don’t think about character or the way something is illustrated — working with my illustrator was the same practice. Because I wanted her to be very bright and bold and fun. I want people to be able to look at her and smile.
People feel like they need to teach kids, whereas if they just read a book about a character with a marginalization, that light bulb goes on in a very different kind of way. Sometimes it feels like do people know kids at all?
Right. I feel like what we have to learn to do is give kids more credit. To allow kids to be like, “Oh, okay. This thing I don’t understand, please tell me about it.” That’s why they’re asking you. They’re not asking you to tell them something that dismisses their thoughts and ideas. They’re asking you to tell them things that they can know for the future. I don’t understand where that disconnect often comes from. Do you know the children that you are with every day, or the children that you know — do you actually know them? Do you think that it’s fair to be like, “Oh no, they can’t learn about disability. They’re too young. It’s too much.” No, you have to give them a chance. You have to give kids the chance to show you what’s too much for them. It’s just frustrating. I’m really glad to have this conversation, because I feel like people don’t think about the way that they baby children.
You said that you love backto-school time, because you like buying office supplies and getting ready. So what is your favorite office supply to buy during back to school time, and also what was your favorite part of back to school as a kid?
So back then, my favorite was a notebook, or a binder of some sort. I was obsessed with the three ring binders. I just liked the idea of putting my little loose leaf paper in the binder — it was so exciting. And I love the notebook. I loved handwriting things. So notebook and folders where I could put the things that I had handwritten.
Now as an adult, I love to buy planners. I was buying them, but I didn’t really actually start using them until 2017. They were just collecting dust. I’d be really into it for a month or two, and then I would just stop. But since I got busy, they actually helped. So I have so many at this point. I saw a bigger desk planner that I used just at home, and then I have a wall planner, and then I have one that I take with me on the go. But sometimes I switch that one out for just a regular notebook. There’s something so satisfying about planning ahead for the things that I have. It’s very much a Virgo thing. Writing it down, and like, “Okay, this is what I have to do this week or this month, or these are the big things.” And I do little encouraging notes in the corner, like, “You got this girl.”
Lastly, you set the bulk of Sam’s Super Seats in a mall. Why? What do you love about malls?
One, I love a mall. Like, I love a store. I love shopping. I love malls because there’s so many stores, and there’s so many cheap clothes. And as a kid, my favorite thing to do was go to Borders bookstore. I miss Borders. So we would go back-to-school shopping with my mom, me and my sister. We would get clothes, whatever. And there would be like a couple more stores I want to look in. I would be like, “Mom, can I go in the Borders while you and Leah go into these other two stores?” She’d be like, “Fine, but you can only get one book.” Or “You can only get two books.” And so, I combine both things that I love so much at the mall. That’s why I was like, let me set this children’s book in a mall.
Sam’s Super Seats by Keah Brown is out now.
brb ordering this! I love the idea of super seats and am def now brainstorming names for my spots
I love the answer about the idea that kids are too young to learn about disability because??? disabled kids certainly are not! And it’s so true that simply showing kids that disabled people exist is enough to get the gears turning; it doesn’t have to be a Very Special Episode. One of my books growing up was Mercer Mayer’s “A Very Special Critter” and reading it with my preschool class showed me that it didn’t age super well. It says things like “Alex needs help sometimes, but so do I” and my kids were like “Yeah obviously? Can we please go outside now” whereas stories that have pictures of different types of bodies and accessibility tools get them to ask questions
Whenever I have to use a new type of mobility aid or device at work it’s really anxiety-inducing but my students are always totally fine. They ask what that thing is, I explain “Oh, this is my cane, it helps me balance” or whatever, and they file that information away and go on with their business. Coworkers, on the other hand, struggle
I can’t wait to read this! Thank you!
I’m so happy this book exists! 💜
So excited to read this book!
This book is very nostalgic. Great work.
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AHHHHH this is wonderfulllllll <3 thank you Sa'iyda. excited to get for the niblings :)