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This mother is helping parents discuss police brutality in new book ‘Momma, Did You Hear the News?’

Sanya Gragg is inspired to help children work through their feelings

Sanya Gragg sat in front of a group of second-graders in late April, a bit startled by what she’d just heard. It was the first time the social worker and new author had brought her new book into a classroom to discuss its lessons.

Gragg had just asked the children, 7- and 8-year-olds, about police officers. What is it their job to do?

“To protects us,” a white girl replied. “To get the bad guys.”

“To shoot us,” her black classmate, a boy, chimed in.

Not that she needed any further validation that her children’s book, Momma, Did You Hear the News?, was necessary and timely, but the disparity in the children’s answers and the matter-of-factness with which the young black student had replied convinced her she was doing what she was meant to do.

Using rhymes and illustrations modeled after her own family, Gragg in Momma, Did You Hear the News? guides young readers through the story of a young man who comes home with questions for his parents after hearing the news of police shootings of young black men.

Gragg, 46, had never written a book before, but she had often thought about writing something about how black children interact with law enforcement. As an African-American mother of two sons and a young daughter — Avery, 20, Phillip-Raymond, 16, and Saniyah, 3 — for years she has prayed every time the men in her life — the boys and her husband, Derrick — would leave home: “Father, protect them, keep them calm, don’t let them be seen in a way that is not characteristic of who they are.”

Courtesy of Sanya Gragg

She and Derrick, athletic director at the University of Tulsa, had “the talk” with their sons many times before, preparing them to defuse any potentially tense interactions with police officers.

When she left her job as a school social worker last year and had extra time on her hands, Gragg turned to God for guidance. It was then that Terence Crutcher was senselessly shot and killed by a Tulsa, Oklahoma, police officer, not too far from the Graggs’ church. Once again, the Graggs sat down their sons, at that point teenagers both standing over 6 feet tall, for the talk.

As they concluded their conversation, Gragg knew she had to make her idea a reality. It was time to write a book to help other families dealing with the same fears. And although her sons are now grown, she believed the book needed to be written for much younger children: preteens who are exposed to the news of the day, no matter how violent and disturbing, through television and social media. It’s never too early, she believes, to begin these conversations.

“As I sat on the couch with our children, I knew other parents around the country were having the same conversation,” Gragg said. “I wanted to write something that would help them get the message across in a way that their children would remember.”

Calling on her experience as a social worker, she knew that kids respond well to poems and rhymes. So she spent more than six months envisioning and writing a colorful picture book built around the rhyme “A to the L to the I-V-E, come home alive, that is the key.” The parents in the story sit down with their sons for “the talk,” using each of the five letters in ALIVE to represent a step to remember when dealing with police:

Always use your manners
Listen and comply
In control of emotions
Visible hands always
Explain everything (as in, “Sir, may I get my wallet, please?”)

Momma, Did You Hear the News? is beautifully illustrated by Washington, D.C., artist Kim Holt. Gragg hopes the book will be well-received by police departments, and she envisions collaborating with them to build community relationships. She’s also working with nonprofits across the country that work to keep young black men safe, such as Moms Of Black Boys United, Inc (MOBB United). She launched the Memorize the 5 movement and has created Twitter and Facebook pages based on the theme. All that she does is motivated by nothing more complicated, or more important, than a mother’s love for her child.

Law enforcement officers have a difficult and dangerous job, Gragg said, and if a family member were a police officer, she’d say a prayer every time they left the house, too.

“My greatest hope is for kids to memorize the five rules and remember them if they are ever in an encounter with a police officer,” she said. “We all just want our children to come home alive.”

Momma, Did You Hear the News? is available on Amazon.com.

Andrew Maraniss is the author of the bestseller "Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South," which received the Lillian Smith Book Award and RFK Book Awards’ Special Recognition prize.