“I am a proud Canadian of African Caribbean origin. I love to engage people, learn their stories, and be a part of the network of Canada, which is multiculturalism,” Valene Campbell introduces herself. Campbell is the author of the Amazing Zoe series, published by Zou Zou Media House Inc. She also has a Master’s Degree in Physical Therapy with over 20 years of experience in the healthcare sector.
With Jamaican parents, Campbell grew up immersed in a Caribbean culture known for its storytelling, poetry, music, and art. As a child, she would write plays or skirts for the church.
“Although I went into healthcare, storytelling was still very much a part of me. It’s creativity and also a way to carry forth Jamaican and Caribbean traditions.”
She continues, “I still love physiotherapy, but there was always a side of me that knew I wanted to tell stories. Many immigrant families don't perceive art as something sustainable, and I want to change that.”
“I grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood and went to a similar school. There was no person of colour in the books I read and the content I watched. I always felt out of place and questioned, who am I, and where do I belong?” Campbell recalls. The only thing that grounded her was her predominantly Caribbean church.
“I don't know anyone here in Canada who was a person of colour and has not experienced some racism,” Campbell says.
“It all starts at home. Are parents teaching and showing children to be tolerant and antiracist? How are they doing it? What are the children watching and reading?” She questions. She adds, “We shouldn't wait for an incident to happen to start initiating anti-racism and anti-bullying efforts,” she adds.
“I'm thankful that we're starting to see change. Corporations are introducing more diversity into their programs and marketing.” But Campbell still feels there is work to do to make sure that Black people are equally represented.
She attests that being a mom gave her a different perspective. “I think everyone has a responsibility. No matter what field you're in or career path you have, everyone has a responsibility to lend their voice when it comes to anti-racism.”
She adds, “It's very important to learn of other people's experiences, and the best way to do that is through literature.”
Book 1, Amazing Zoe Defeats The Germie Germlins
Her first book, The Amazing Zoe Defeats The Germie Germlins, was published in May 2020. The book addressed the importance of personal hygiene, health, and safety regarding COVID-19.
“I never really paid attention to children's literature until I had a daughter of my own. Last year, for her first birthday, we received a lot of books and noticed that most of them did not have a lead Black character. It stuck with me, and I had to make sure that she sees herself in the stories I buy. I was thinking about creating an impact for her initially, but it went on to encompass all the other children who need the same thing.”
Then one day, she was walking with her daughter and saw two little boys that were playing cards through a window. “The window was low, and they were passing cards to each other. I thought social distancing must be really hard for them. It's hard for us as adults, but we can rationalize a little bit better,” she recalls.
Immediately, she thought to create a story helping them understand social distancing. She also spoke to other parents, and most of them were having trouble explaining the pandemic to their kids too. That’s when she decided to write a children’s story about the pandemic with a Black person as the lead character. That way, she got to write a story that her daughter could relate to. The fact that Black communities in the US and Canada are facing disproportionately higher incidences of COVID-19 cases and deaths also informed that decision. “It's important for us to see ourselves reflected in the literature that speaks to our overall well-being,” she says.
In the story, Germie Germlins invade the earth and attack people. As a result, the Mayor of Niceville announces a lockdown, which restricts going outside. But Zoe, the main character, is upset because she doesn’t want to spend the summer away from her friends. Then, she accidentally activates a powerful force field that keeps the Germie Germlins away.
Campbell says that the feedback to her first book has been very positive, and many children and parents were asking when the second book was coming.
Book 2, The Amazing Zoe’ A Queen Like Me
Her second book of the series, The Amazing Zoe, A Queen Like Me, was published in September 2020. The book confronted racial stereotypes and biases while focusing on the discrimination faced by Black girls from a young age.
“I find many little Black girls angling toward the British Monarchy when they want to dress up as princesses and queens and want to change that. I wanted to normalize seeing the faces of queens and kings who actually look like them.”
She specifically incorporated queens or the female warriors from Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, and South Africa using their actual names.
"I focused on Africa because I think it's essential to express that without Africa, there's nobody on the planet. It's important to have that recognition."
In the story, Zoe has a friend called Kaitlyn, and they like to play dress-up. Kaitlyn always feels the need to play a princess based on her perception of what princesses look like and that causes disagreement between the two friends. Zoe’s parents use the opportunity to educate Kaitlyn’s family about prominent African female leaders.
“With book number two, I needed to be careful because I didn't want to vilify white characters. Instead, I wanted to share about female African leaders that we don’t see enough of in history books.”
At the same time, Campbell wanted to be sure that the issue was handled delicately so that readers would be motivated to do more digging regardless of their race or colour. “The overall tone is that both sides need to be educated.”
The third book is expected to be released in March 2021 under Zou Zou Media House Inc. It educates children about Alzheimer's disease, the fifth leading cause of death for females and the ninth for males in Canada. The new addition to the Amazing Zoe series shares Zoe’s visits to her grandmother. After some conversations, Zoe notices something is wrong with her grandmother, and she is confused and forgetful. Zoe’s mom probes her observations and tells her that grandma has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Campbell says, “Unfortunately, my mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My mother and daughter are very close, so I thought about how by the time my daughter could understand who her grandmother is things will have changed quite significantly for my mom.” She continues, “So, I thought of a way to capture their relationship as it is right now.”
According to Campbell, oftentimes children are not aware of this disease because the material available isn’t necessarily geared toward them. However, they’re also affected by it even if they can’t express or verbally notice the change in state.
Also, she believes that the story opens a dialogue about Alzheimer’s in the Black community as well. She argues that it's something that's not discussed often. “It's something I just want to highlight and bring attention to so that families understand it. There's no shame. This isn't something that people can control. It's something that just develops.” She adds that families need to find coping mechanisms and be open to talking about it.
Steadfast in her writing, Campbell says her fourth one is almost done too.
Diversifying Everyone’s Library
Campbell’s stories are for children ages 3 to 9, but she says that her books carry powerful messages that appeal to adults. “I don't think it should be limited to that age because there's a message for everyone. I want to diversify everyone’s library. Especially for book number two, I added additional reading resources to help kids dig deeper into Black history and African history.”
So far, the feedback for her books has been overwhelming, and Campbell has heard wonderful things from teachers, parents, and children.
She is also happy that the books are international and has received messages from children internationally, including in Africa.
What is Next?
Campbell’s dream is to see Amazing Zoe as an animation. She also wants to continue to touch on topics that she feels are necessary for children. Moreover, she wants to embrace the culture that she is connected to.
“Sometimes I get topic suggestions, which is great because there is a demand out there that I can hopefully fulfill.”
She is open to writing for young adults, as well.
Finally, Campbell stresses, “I would like to express that diversity and inclusion remain paramount for people to coexist. We need to continue creating opportunities that promote inclusion and awareness regarding these issues.”
She is hoping that parents embrace their responsibility to create more diverse libraries for their children and engage in conversations about diversity.
“We are preparing our children for the future, and all of us have to do our part,” Campbell concludes.
The Amazing Zoe can be purchased in Kindle eBook, paperback, or hardcopy versions.