Read Woke ™ branches out this season to fiction in the new chapter book series Bo at the Buzz! The series follows Bo, whose life is always buzzing. And not just because he lives upstairs from The Buzz, a barbershop. Young readers will love following Bo’s daily life and adventures in these early chapter books.
Today creators Cicely Lewis, Elliott Smith, and illustrator Subi Bosa share how they crafted the world of the Buzz and the characters who live there.
Creator Cicely Lewis and author Elliot Smith
What was your inspiration for the books?
Cicely Lewis (CL): I love fiction and I wanted to celebrate Black joy. It was important for me to showcase the complexity of Read Woke and Black culture. Yes, our history is full of trauma and pain but it is also full of laughter, joy, beauty, and tradition.
Elliott Smith (ES): I wanted to show that Black children can have fun, go on adventures and learn life lessons – just like the protagonists in many other children’s books. There didn’t have to be any trauma. Instead, it’s just the everyday life of a child in his neighborhood, surrounded by friends, family and those who care about him.
Why a barber shop?
CL: The Barber shop has always been a place where Black people could go and discuss the culture. It is a staple in the Black community and I wanted to highlight that.
ES: The barber shop plays an important role in many Black communities. It’s a place where people can gather, talk, listen, brag and just about everything else! There are so many fascinating people and conversations that take place in a barber shop, so it is a natural place for Bo to learn and get advice from people of all walks of life who pass through.
Are the characters based on real people?
CL: Yes, and when you read the stories, you will recognize some of them from pop culture. Bo and his relationship with his grandpa is very similar to the relationship I had with my grandma growing up in Mississippi. We spent a lot of time together and she taught me so many cool things. I also was inspired by the grandpa from Blackish when I was collaborating with the team about what he should look and the things he would say.
ES: For me, not particularly, though I did want to pay homage to my late father with the Pop-Pop character, which is what my children called him when they were young. My father wasn’t a barber, but he certainly was wise and loved sharing stories and advice with his grandchildren.
What do you hope readers will learn or discover from reading the book?
CL: I hope they learn that our culture is beautiful and full of joy.
ES: I hope readers will simply enjoy the adventures of a young boy who is curious, empathetic and is able to overcome his fears to learn and grow. Most readers just don’t get to see Black boys go through this arc in children’s literature. Exploring his neighborhood and people in it can be both an eye-opener to some and a realization that Bo’s experiences are quite similar to theirs.
Do you envision more stories for Bo?
CL: I hope so. It is a story that needs to be told and I am glad that it is available at the level for readers who are honing their reading skills. And, be on the lookout for more fiction stories like these.
ES: Definitely! I think Bo and his neighborhood are filled with interesting stories and scenarios. I could imagine Bo trying out his first haircut or taking part in the science fair, so I hope readers enjoy this first batch and we can tell some more stories!
An Illustrator’s Perspective with Subi Bosa
How did you choose the style you used to illustrate this book?
Subi Bosa (SB): I looked at similar books and some of my fav cartoon characters (Craig of The Creek) so that I could create a style has texture and feels like it was almost like a cartoon/comic.
What did you most enjoy about illustrating this book?
SB: The guests that stop by the Buzz were really enjoyable, It was like creating episodes for a family tv show.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced illustrating this book?
SB: I come up with all sorts of edits of my own work. I wanted to change the floor tiles of the barber shop to be checkered black and white, but it was too late in the approval process to change.
What is your creative process when working with a manuscript?
SB: I read over and over. Then I play video games or go to gym and let the ideas pop up in my head. After a while I choose a morning where I can sketch all the characters, design them, then plan out the spreads.
Connect with the Creators
Cicely Lewis is a writer and librarian living in Georgia. She is the founder of the #ReadWoke movement and was recognized by School Library Journal as the 2020 School Librarian of the Year.
Elliott Smith is a writer and editor based in Falls Church, Virginia.
Subi Bosa is an illustrator of picture books, comics, and graphic novels currently based in Cape Town, South Africa. In 2020, Subi was awarded a Mo Siewcharran Publisher’s Prize for Illustration.
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