Veronica Chapman’s new children’s book is about helping black girls dream big
‘I Know I Can!’ stars a confident little girl named Faith
While at Spelman College in Atlanta, Veronica N. Chapman figured out two things: She wanted to help young black girls and she was destined to use words to inspire them. The 35-year-old author and entrepreneur is now doing both. She just finished her second book, I Know I Can!, a powerful children’s book that introduces a young dreamer, thinker and doer named Faith.
“Faith is this super courageous pro who has these vivid dreams of traveling the world and meeting historical figures,” Chapman said. “She is basically the high school valedictorian and she’s talking about the places she wants to go, like Cuba and South Africa and France, and the historical figures she dreams of having the chance to meet. For one example, she had a classical piano lesson with Nina Simone, who tells her that she’s young, gifted and black.”
Troubled by the insidious messages that young black girls are assaulted with, Chapman decided to take a stand by creating the counternarrative in I Know I Can! She is no stranger to the worlds of art and activism. She is the founder of Boxxout, an organization that provides educational workshops for teens. Her first book was titled The Advent of Planet Martyr, and she can add playwright to her resume for Ancestors Inc., in which she reflects themes that showcase her commitment to the community and youth.
The New Jersey native earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Spelman and a master of business administration degree from Babson College in Massachusetts. Chapman, who now lives in Boston, spoke with The Undefeated about her new book, giving back to the community, her experience attending a historically black college and empowering young girls.
How did you come up with Faith?
The initial idea for the story came my graduation week. I do educational programming for teenagers, and so while doing the programming around self-esteem, I kind of think about ways to empower young children, especially girls, so that by the time I work with them they’re feeling empowered and confident in what they can accomplish.
How did writing I Know I Can! differ from writing your first book?
The first one, I was right out of college and I had just come from traveling in Spain and France. I was a bit culture-shocked and it was just a lot going on, so it was more of like a social commentary. It was a way for me to track all the experiences I had traveling out of the country and in the country and just kind of like, in a creative way, explained my experiences and the way I was feeling. That was a definitely … it was definitely a totally different book, because it was a social commentary, it had some poems in it, a short story, and it had a play in it that I produced, called Ancestors Inc., which is a motivational play for teenagers. That was a different thing, but the same thing [in finding] a creative way to address social justice issues.
I would say that the children’s book is the same, actually. She meets Dr. King and he tells her to continue to fight for economic justice, so there’s still a social justice component but it’s colorful, it is motivating and empowering. When people finish reading, they’re just like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ They feel really great, which is what I really wanted to do.
How was your experience at Spelman as a Spanish major?
I had a really great teacher for my first class. She recommended that I go to a place called Middlebury College in Vermont, where they have an immersion for foreign languages, so I went there one summer after my freshman year. You have to sign up, as you only speak the language that you had to learn; even if you don’t have a vocabulary, you have to figure it out. By the time I left there, I came back and I was in junior-level Spanish because it was that effective as a teaching mechanism. … I studied in France and Mexico, and I got to go to Cuba right after graduation. Learning languages really opened up my world. Then, the following summer, I went back to Middlebury to study French.
After college, did you go straight into entrepreneurship?
No. I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so my father owned a car dealership in Staten Island and he wanted me to kind of come and see if it was something I was interested in doing. I went through, like, a car dealer training program to learn every aspect of the business, and then I realized that I was not interested in it. Right around that time is when I came out with my first book, and I decided that I wanted to go to business school this time while finding creative ways to empower, especially young people.
What inspired you to really dive into helping young people?
Spelman College, again. When I was at Spelman, I founded a chapter of an organization that would define creative ways to teach the principles … let’s just say, like, teach entrepreneurship principles to children in the West End of Atlanta and any schoolchildren. So I created a team, and we would spend hours and hours finding creative ways to go into schools, host events on campus, teaching young people principles of entrepreneurship, and as part of this organization you have competitions.
That was the first time I got exposed to finding creative ways to educate and empower, because of my founding that chapter on campus. Ever since then, I’m just like, ‘Oh, this is so much fun.’ You know? Let me figure out how to do this, keep doing it. That’s how the first book came along, and the play in particular, because I produced that once as a fundraiser for my local Urban League chapter in New Jersey.
Where did your love for storytelling come from?
I like to spread joy. I compliment strangers. It just makes people’s day. It’s something so small that you can do to make people’s day. Just wanting to educate and empower young people so that they feel confident in themselves, so that their contributions to the world can be even greater. That’s something that I really am committed to.
What cultural value do you see in your writing?
One cultural value is that there’s so many messages that are negative, especially when it comes to black kids. This is multilayered because, even though I wrote for children, I get a lot of feedback from adults. Adults have pride in front of you reading it, and you never really know why. For me, it’s a book, it’s happy.
There’s value of just writing something that’s empowering and educational and which broadens the awareness of the reader. That’s something that’s intended. Then, there’s the unintended. I didn’t realize that an adult would be as impacted by the children’s book.
What was the hardest part of the book?
I would even say the actual first page, even though it was written over 10 years ago. I was actually in the kitchen cooking … and then just the first page came to my mind and I wrote it down. I was like, ‘You know, one day I’m gonna use this. It’s gotta be a good book. It’s gotta be a good story.’ All these years later I was on Instagram, and I saw the illustrations of an artist, her name is Daveia Odoi, she is the illustrator. I looked at her work and I said, ‘You know what? Daveia is the one who can really bring this story to life.’ Her work is joyful, it’s all smiles, and is really awesome and playful and joyful.
What inspires you?
I really love music, and I really love to see people using their talents for the betterment of society. Every day I ask myself, ‘OK. Let me check in with what I’m here to do, and if I’m doing it,’ like what I’m on earth to do and if I’m doing it. I love to be around people who are in that same mindset, like how to use our talents and gifts for the betterment of the world. I’m inspired by people who do that well.
What are your favorite songs right now?
There’s a young artist out of Toronto named Daniel Caesar, I think he’s supertalented. I’m listening to him. I love anything Jazmine Sullivan, ’cause she’s awesome. Anything she’s on is great. I’m really into Motown. My mom is from Detroit, so anything Motown.
What do you think the future is for black writers of children’s stories?
I self-published my children’s book, so that means I had to find an illustrator, find a book designer and hire all these people to make sure it was professionally done. There are so many more awesome authors now focusing on creating children’s books with characters of color, which is really great to see. It’s also great that people aren’t only relying on the publishing houses to try to get their work out; they’re not being stopped by like rejection letters anymore. Obviously, there are some that have had to go through a publishing house, but if you have a message and if you have the right people in place, you can create a work of art that is a book that is exceptionally done. A lot people are taking those steps, and because of that there are more books available for especially black kids, black children, that were not available even like four or five years ago. That’s wonderful, I think.
How do you feel about e-books versus print books?
Kids are born brilliant now, so if they can use an iPad by the time they’re 3, I think it’s great to have that option. If they’re in the car or something, they tend to be on these devices anywhere, so that’s good to have that option. From what I hear, from parents, the preference is still physical books. They want to create a library for their children. It’s good to have it as available because it’s usually the cheapest option, in terms of price.
What are your plans for future projects?
When you do something that people love, they’re always like, more, more. You know? ‘We want more.’ Right now, just two weeks ago I had a photo shoot because I got some ‘Dream big’ T-shirts with the characters’ faces that say the key messages: ‘Dream big’ and ‘I know I can.’ The young girls modeling them were so excited between having this book and having this shirt that reinforced the message, that was really exciting for them. I’m also in the process of developing a doll of the character and just exploring other themes.
I had I Know I Can! translated into Spanish, Portuguese, to reach the young people that asked for it. Every country I’ve been to, I’ve seen we face similar experiences within a nation, and just exploring additional languages to publish it in. I’m looking forward to, in the next couple years, doing some readings in like Panama, Cuba or Brazil. So just trying out different ways of reaching other people. I’m really looking forward to that part.