A New Portland Book Publisher Wants to Teach Kids About Tough Subjects, from Depression to Racism

“We really genuinely do want these to be the most important books that kids ever read,” says A Kids Book About founder Jelani Memory.

IMAGE: Courtesy of A Kids Book About.

Jelani Memory has a strict policy for how he raises his six children: unwavering honesty.

The Portland entrepreneur is upfront with tough topics that tend to make other parents squirm. He had the "Where do babies come from?" talk with his daughter when she was 5—and he used pictures. He says his kids appreciate him being straight-up with them, and for believing that they can handle the conversation.

"I found the power in being honest," Memory says from a Southeast Portland business incubator. "It's remarkable when you open up those conversations with them how thoughtful they are in return."

That kind of trust is reflected in his latest venture, A Kids Book About, a publishing company focusing on children's books addressing complicated subjects such as depression, body image and feminism.

The first book, though, is about racism.

Memory, who is half-black and half-white, is always talking to his kids—who are also mixed—about race, culture and discrimination, but he wanted a tangible record of his experience for his kids to read and interact with.

Jelani Memory. iMAGE: Courtesy of A Kids Book About.

His ambition, at first, was to make one book—with just one copy for himself and his kids—detailing how racism plays a role in people's lives. A Kids Book About Racism is light on illustrations, but big on ideas. The book doesn't shy away from the cruel realities of being a person of color.

"I'm proud of who I am and the color of my skin," reads one passage. "But, because of my skin color, people aren't always nice to me. Sometimes I get called names. Other times it's worse."

Memory's kids treated his book differently from others in their collection because, he says, it treated them differently.

"It treats them like they're smart," Memory says. "It talks up to them, not down to them. It gives them space to be thoughtful with big ideas."

They began asking him to make another one. When Memory showed the book to other parents, they offered other topics, and suggested people they thought could tackle the subjects with the thoughtfulness that Memory took on racism.

In his mind, the effectiveness of the first book lay in the fact that it came from a place of personal experience. Memory understands he isn't the best person to write a book on feminism, for example, so he enlisted Emma McIlroy, founder of feminist clothing brand Wildfang, to write A Kids Book About Feminism.

All subsequent books will be written with that same ethos: Ross Szabo, an award-winning mental health speaker, is writing A Kids Book About Anxiety; Rebecca Alexander, creator of the AllGo app, is helming A Kids Book About Body Image. Elizabeth Tom, a teen with ataxic cerebral palsy, might be the closest author to her subject. She's been the victim of bullying in the past, and she's honest enough to admit she's been a bully herself. Memory says he turned down bullying experts because he knew Tom had to be the one to write A Kids Book About Bullying.

"I think she might be the only person in the world that can do this book in the way that we do books," Memory says.

When A Kids Book About launches, six books will be ready to ship and another six will be available for pre-order on the website, with more available in the future. They're direct to the consumer, so you won't find them at Powell's or Annie Bloom's. The first batch will include A Kids Book About Change, Forgiveness, Anxiety, Community and Death.

"We really genuinely do want these to be the most important books that kids ever read," Memory says. "We won't stop until we make sure that these books are that."

FIND IT: The first series of A Kids Book About books are available for pre-order at akidsbookabout.com.

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