ST. LOUIS — “Don’t make excuses, make it happen” is a mantra Aja Owens and Adrienne Draper live by. Collectively, Owens and Draper have published five children’s books that reflect families and children of color. These sisters credit their success as published authors, educators, and civic leaders to their strong family background and community.
“It’s important to live a life like you’re creating a blueprint that somebody can follow and model,” said Owens.
Owens and Draper pride themselves in creating stories that Black and Brown children can identify with. Their goal is for their books to leave a lasting impression on kids who can model the positive messages found in their stories.
It all began for them as young children living in Jennings. Both sisters describe their upbringing as being raised in a village. They remember family fish fries, family trips to Chicago and neighborhood parties.
Their family, extended family and community taught them the value of hard work and giving back. They believe having those kindred ties pushed them to reach their fullest potential.
Owens and Draper believe it is imperative to invest in children, especially Black and Brown children who come from underserved backgrounds. Their books highlight African-American experiences that are sometimes overlooked. They believe by painting a different picture young Black and Brown children can aspire to reach their fullest potential.
As a kid, Draper didn’t see a lot of books written by African Americans in the school library, and she couldn’t relate to the characters she read about.
“It’s important to us for these young people to see themselves in this literature,” Owens said.
Their career as children’s book authors started when Draper created a curriculum for Risen Publishing Camp 4 Kids. Camp officials were amazed with her curriculum and decided to hire her and Owens as mentors for the students attending the camp. They taught campers how to write and self-publish their own book. Then a variety of schools in the region and community members reached out to the dynamic sisters for advice and guidance on self-publishing books.
So, it came quite naturally for Draper to publish her first book, “Missy’s Mouthing Off,” in 2011. The bright pink cover displays a little Black girl with two puff ponytails and her big mouth. Draper said African-American girls love seeing these pigtails on the cover of her book, with that big smile and chocolate face.
In a lighthearted fashion, Draper’s book points out the consequences of mouthing off, an important lesson she believes is needed in all homes.
In 2011, Owen published her first book too, “Refuge,” a poetry book for adults. One poem, “Rock What You Got,” took on a life of its own. After receiving praise on how powerful the message is, Owens thought it would be compelling to expand this poem into a book for kids, teaching self-confidence. She published “Rock What You Got!” in 2018.
Draper said, “Our books focus on character education, because we’re old school.”
This year alone, each author has written two books. Draper’s “Rona, Rona, Go Away!” speaks to the COVID-19 pandemic in a language that children can understand and addresses some of the feelings they might be experiencing. Draper felt it was her responsibility to focus on the mental well-being of kids through her book, as children might be dealing with trauma from the pandemic.
“We have so many things the universe needs right now,” said Owens.
Owens’ book “Jaylon’s Going To Be A Barber!” highlights positive images of African-American men. She wants to help change how Black men are viewed in the community. Her way to be a part of that change is by telling stories that show entrepreneurship, writing stories that show Black men’s involvement in their family and community."
“We are trying to create tangible things that people can pass on,” Owens said.
Their next project is to co-write a children’s book called “Which Shoes Should I Choose?” The creative idea behind this book comes from a man they met who donates shoes to less fortunate kids in the neighborhood.
“One of the unique qualities in our books is that, along with the actual story, at the end there are discussion questions, fun facts, activities and more,” Owens said. “Our books are a great investment for families during this time of virtual learning.”
Being a self-published author comes with its own hurdles. One challenge is finding an illustrator who can create realistic Black characters. They want African-American kids to be able to connect with the hair styles, facial features and complexions of the characters in their books.
Being an author is just one of their many accomplishments. They have worked in education, including in the Jennings and Hazelwood school districts. Owens is Jennings’ 4th Ward councilwoman. She also has taught workshops on childhood trauma and worked as a reading tutor. Draper is an in-school suspension supervisor for Pattonville School District and teaches English as a Second Language. She also has a Teaching Artist Certificate from the Regional Arts Commission and is working towards her certification in Anxiety in Children and Adolescents.
For more information, visit www.ajalastarr.com and www.adriennedraper.com.