By Beth S. Pollak
When author Jesse Byrd Jr. launched his own publishing company in 2017, he aimed to amplify voices that are often excluded in the book industry.
“We wanted to offer diverse storytelling for young audiences,” he said. “We wanted the stories we publish to be a reflection of the world that children have inherited; a reflection of different communities and environments. We want to share the non-dominant culture, including kids who are people of color, immigrants, and differently abled. It’s about adding more colors to the rainbow.”
Byrd is the author of one of this week’s featured books, Sunny Days, the story of a girl named Martine and her family who face a hurricane in their hometown. The book begins with a sunny stroll through the neighborhood, where Martine visits with her favorite shopkeepers and neighbors. When the hurricane arrives, it damages many of Martine’s favorite spots. As the town picks up the pieces, Martine shares an inspirational idea about how to stay positive and rebound from the challenges around them. The neighbors work together to rebuild, and the book concludes on a happy note of community renewal.
Although Byrd grew up in Oakland, Sunny Days reflects his experiences in New Orleans, his “second home” where many family members live. “The inspiration for Sunny Days came hearing the stories of aunts, cousins, uncles, nieces and nephews (lifelong residents of New Orleans) recovering from Hurricane Katrina physically and financially, but also emotionally, spiritually and mentally.”
However, Byrd chose not to name the city in the book. “We intentionally didn’t call the city by name because natural disasters happen in places all over the world, and people have to find their way back, or to a new normal. Additionally, the storm is symbolic of the storms that will come in life, sometimes unexpected. We can at least try to approach them with a positive outlook and productive action, and I thought that was something worth sharing in a story for young readers.”
Sunny Days holds a special place for Byrd, since it is the first picture book that he published after founding his company.
“This story and all of the true stories that inspired it were racing to the page ceaselessly for nearly half a year. I always feel lucky when stories give me a chance to be their gardener. It really is an honor because I believe they have choices in whom they choose to help grow and take care of them.”
Through his work with Jesse B. Creative, Byrd helps authors cultivate their craft. He consults with them to assist with story development, revisions, and publication.
“Remember: Who gets to tell the stories that are published? Part of my mission is to help other authors get their stories out there. If people invest in different types of stories, it will add to everyone’s understanding of the world.”
Byrd says it’s essential for children of color to know that their stories matter. “They need to see themselves as equally valid and equally important, not above or below.”
Facing Down Obstacles
Before becoming a writer, Byrd played basketball for the University of San Francisco and U.C. Santa Barbara. A torn meniscus forced him to sit out part of his junior year, and by senior year, he decided to focus on writing and academics. He majored in sociology and history.
“It was the first time that I could be just a student,” he said. “I dedicated all of my time to learning and studying.”
After graduation, Byrd worked as a Project Manager for Google in Silicon Valley. During his daily commute from Oakland to Google’s Mountainview headquarters, Byrd worked on his creative writing.
“I asked myself; what lit me up? What’s my unique contribution to the world? I stepped out on faith and began to write books.”
Byrd launched a Kickstarter all-or-nothing campaign for the print run of his first book. Unfortunately, the campaign fell short of the goal and received none of the money. Byrd returned to Google for another 1.5 years, but his family and friends insisted that he get back to writing.
“They told me: ‘Don’t let one hard moment stop you from doing this,’” he said.
Byrd gave it another shot using Indiegogo, and this time raised enough funds to publish his first book, King Penguin. The book won multiple awards: it was named one of the “Top 5 Middle Grade Books of the Year” at the 2016 Los Angeles Book Festival, and earned a silver medal at the 2016 Paris Book Festival.
Byrd takes a disciplined approach to his writing, planning plots and characters with care and precision. He studies more than 500 children’s books per year to explore craft and writing techniques. At any given time, he is working on about five different picture book stories, tinkering with story, text, art direction, and design. He currently has 17 picture book stories in his queue.
“There’s a science in storytelling; it’s like building a house that can stand. You have to build a story that’s consistent so it doesn’t have plot holes. It needs a sound structure.”
He divides his time so he can channel his creativity in different ways.
“During the day time, I focus on the macro details: the story, the plot and the scene. At night, I focus on the micro details: the page-to-page events and dialogue. Nighttime is my receptive space; it’s when my muse comes around.”
Byrd says he has three main sources of inspiration: his experiences [“nostalgia, memory, education, podcasts and picture books”], exploration [“travel, food, music and dance, the ways people say things”], and imagination.
“Writing a story is a humbling experience,” he said. “You never really master storytelling. You build a relationship with storytelling. You become a good friend of storytelling.”
He also tries to use humor to grab children’s attention and break down barriers.
“With children’s books, you don’t have the luxury to not be engaging. They are the most brutally honest audience of all. They will let you know real quick if something is not good.”
Opening The Door
Byrd advises parents and teachers to be intentional about book discussions, and to notice if books include voices and characters that reflect non-dominant cultures.
“Pay attention to who is the hero, who is the villain, who is the smart character and who is not the smart character. Notice: Who do you fall in love with and why?”
He encourages everyone to read outside of their comfort zone, and to explore books about people of color and from different communities.
“People of different races need to see ourselves as companions in the world, as brothers and sisters. We need to get to know each other and build relationships. We can’t solve the big issues of the world on our own. You need to invest in learning about what is outside of your experience.”
Byrd’s next children’s picture book, Dream Catcher, releases for presale this week and ships the 3rd week of July.
“We’ve been working on this book and artwork for nearly two years and are excited to share it. This story is set in Thailand and was created in partnership with a Thai toymaker and illustrator. It is Book One of a series that asks the question, ‘What would it look like if dream catcher nets were magical beings who actively protected you from bad dreams?’”
Byrd says that he’s happy that family members can read his books from a distance in a Caribu Video-Call.
“Caribu is a powerful medium: it offers the experience of connection. It’s instrumental that young readers get to read with loved ones.”
He says tools like Caribu are essential to the new generation.
“When I grew up, it was not possible to read together with my father before bed. I would have loved to read a bedtime story together using Caribu. We need to take advantage of these small moments of connection to build reading relationships, and nurture passionate readers.”
You can find Sunny Days in the Caribu app, featured in the category for #CampCaribu’s ‘Summer Reading Challenge Week 3’. You can also find Byrd’s book Real Jungle Tales in the ‘New and Noteworthy’ category. To participate in #CampCaribu, sign up at www.caribu.com/summer.
Beth S. Pollak is a writer and educator based in California. In addition to working with Caribu, she consults with educational organizations and EdTech companies. Beth has worked as a teacher and journalist in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. She holds degrees in journalism, bilingual education, and educational leadership. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, biking, picnics, and dance.