By Mark Kennedy
NEW YORK — In a powerful new book for children, a little girl looks at a crowd of street protesters and asks: Why are those people marching? A few pages later, a child asks her family: Why are buildings burning?
“Why?: A Conversation About Race” by actor Taye Diggs with illustrations by Shane W. Evans is an unvarnished look at social activism from the eyes of Black children as they struggle to understand demands for change. It comes out Feb. 1 from Macmillan’s Feiwel and Friends imprint.
“I needed to be honest,” Diggs says in an interview with his illustrator. “And sometimes being honest and real can be uncomfortable. And I think that that’s OK.”
The book portrays a series of questions from kids posed to adults. One is: Why are people crying near a makeshift memorial? “Our people are crying because we are in pain,” comes the answer. Another question asks why are protestors shouting. An adult explains: “Our people are shouting because we need to be heard.”
Evans’ expressive drawings show each child’s face change from worry to understanding as they digest what they hear from loved ones. His protesters hold banners and signs, but they are blank — a nod to the sad timelessness of the fight for racial justice.
“I think the beauty of the words and the pictures together is that there’s a way to kind of speak above the fray,” says Evans, who was inspired in his drawings by deep talks with his daughter in their car.
While the book ends on a hopeful note, Diggs and Evans do not shy away from discussing that some protests have ended with burning buildings. “Sometimes buildings must burn,” an adult says. “The buildings burn for us. The anger burning those buildings is us.”
Diggs says he wanted to be honest and not instantly declare what was right and what was wrong. He wanted to look at the roots of the issue and start a conversation, something that didn’t happen when he was young.
“If someone had taken the time to sit with me and say, ‘Well, let’s see. Why do you think these people are doing this?’ then that opens up a different conversation,” he says.
“With this book, I wanted to kind of give folks an opportunity to just sit in what was happening and look at it before passing judgment.”
A number of recent picture books take aim at racial injustice, including the upcoming “Goodnight, Racism” from Ibram X. Kendi and “All Because You Matter,” by Tami Charles and Bryan Collier. Many more shine new light on Black history.
“Why?” represents Diggs and Evans’ fifth children’s book together, a collaboration that started with 2011’s “Chocolate Me,” which spotlighted what it feels like to look different and get teased at school.
Their books have explored Blackness, growing up biracial, handling friendship and dealing with separated parents, with titles like “Mixed Me!” and “My Friend!”
“I only write when I feel moved. So, whenever I feel moved, I know it’s coming from a place that I know is real,” says Diggs, the star of “Rent” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.”
“It feels like something I need to do and I have to get off my chest, and it usually comes very easily. And that’s when I know it’s coming from a real place.”
Evans and Diggs first met in the 1980s when they were students at a performing arts high school in Rochester, New York. (Evans recalled the two harmonizing while singing The Police’s “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”) Their bond continued at Syracuse University, where they played together in a band.
“From the moment Shane and I started to work together, we both knew it was something kind of bigger than us,” says Diggs. Evans agrees: “I don’t want to sound corny, but the word kismet comes to mind.”
Diggs says he’s always amazed at what Evans dreams up to illustrate his words, allowing him to see in a different way what the narrative can mean.
“There’s trust and confidence and an excitement that is there. It’s always kind of like a gift — like a present, like a birthday present — after we give Shane the words and then to slowly see the images that come from it. No one is ever disappointed.”
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