While many of us faced the challenges of an unpredictable, difficult, and interruptive last few years, some people were able to take advantage of this time by starting new businesses or taking on exciting new career paths. Enter Ainara's Bookshelf.
I was drawn to Instagram during the pandemic, tuning into Ainara Alleyne’s account, as it featured diverse representation in books for young people with colourful posts, videos, exuberant book talks, and diverse titles and authors. Ainara brings fun and energy to her reels, like when she celebrated Carnival season by dancing to Alison Hinds' “Togetherness” while holding children’s books about Carnival by Caribbean and local creators.
Based in Hamilton, Ainara is enthusiastic, thoughtful, and passionate about books. An actress turned book tuber of AfroLatina and Canadian descent, the 13-year-old Ainara’s Instagram platform has grown to 9, 000 followers. You can see her speaking to educators and librarians, hosting literary festivals (she virtually interviewed me in 2021), panels, and red carpets like the CBC Legacy Awards where she interviewed Kardinal Offishall. She has even flown to New York City to host New York Times bestselling author Kwame Alexander.
Ainara is going to greater lengths to get us reading. She’s taking her social media platform, Ainara’s Bookshelf, to the screen with her internet series and television show. Produced by Hamilton-based Turtle Box Productions and TVO, this 10-episode series follows Ainara as she talks about her book by diverse authors of colour, and interviews some of my favourite award-winning African-Americans middle-grade authors like Janae Marks and Jerry Craft and Canadian literary giants like Lawrence Hill and David A. Robertson.
Ainara’s Bookshelf made its official TVO debut on February 2, 2023 and can also be viewed on Marble Media Kids’ YouTube Channel.
I had the chance to catch up with Ainara recently.
When did you first notice the lack of diverse representation in books for young people?
I first noticed the lack of diverse books, or lack of books with characters that looked like me, around 4th grade, so at about nine years old. I noticed it when looking around my school library and when all of my white friends could point out characters in books that looked like them, but I couldn’t. The only time I saw any Black people at all in books was during the 28 days of Black History Month, and they were only in books about slavery or civil rights.
After speaking to my teacher and my dad, I started a club at school called Beauty in Culture, which was an opportunity for all kids to share traditions from their culture that aren’t usually featured in the books in our library. However, I wanted to do more, so I spoke to my dad, and he suggested making a video for his social media sharing some of my favourite books with Black characters that I had at home. So I did, and after a positive response, my dad helped me create my own page, Ainara’s Bookshelf, where I have now been reading, reviewing and sharing diverse books for the past three years!
Tell me about Ainara’s Bookshelf, your new show. How’d it get started?
After running Ainara’s Bookshelf on Instagram for around a year and after it was shared on places like CBC, and The National, I thought about possibly doing a show, but I wasn’t quite sure if it was possible.
I had experience being an actor and connections to production companies so my dad and agent said it might actually be a possibility! Then Kat from Turtlebox reached out to me, and it was perfect. They were based in Hamilton, had experience with children's TV and were very enthusiastic about this project. So we worked together to create a teaser and the rest is history. Now, Ainaras Bookshelf is being shared on MarbleKids and soon TVO Kids.
What’s your favourite part about working on Ainara’s Bookshelf?
I don't have just one favourite part because the experience was so surreal. I enjoyed the process of writing on the show with my dad. We got to work together to mould my regular Instagram reviews into reviews fit for a 3-minute segment of a TV series, and although at some points it was challenging, it was overall really fun. I loved travelling with the Turtlebox crew to places like New York and LA to meet the authors in person for our interviews! Starting Ainara’s Bookshelf on an online platform during a pandemic, I never imagined I would have the chance to do that. Mostly, I am so grateful that I have been given a chance to spread diversity and my love of books to more kids and an even larger audience.
How do you decide you’ve found a good book?
If I read it all the way through, then it's usually a great book. ( I can't count the number of books I've started but haven't finished). The other two signs I'm reading a good book is if I can relate to the character on a deep level or if it brings out an emotion while I'm reading it. I'm invested in the story if a book can make me cry, laugh or get angry. It varies from book to book; a great book is a book you need at that particular time; maybe you need to escape from reality, perhaps you need something emotional because you are going through a hard time, or maybe you need to learn something. It's about timing.
In addition to and even before Ainara’s Bookshelf, you had a career as a stage and on-screen actress. What was your favourite role to play?
I love every role I've played, but my favourite has to be my first stage role, Little Timoune, in the musical Once on this Island. After that, I performed in Toronto every weekend for three months with an incredible cast and crew. That experience is one that I will cherish forever.
What are you reading now?
Right now, I'm doing a little book club with one of my best friends, and we are reading A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin. We were drawn to the beautiful cover art, and we both love fantasy, so we decided to read this one! So far, we are enjoying it.
What message do you have for readers (of all ages) who notice a lack of diversity in books at their libraries, schools, or classrooms?
My message would be to keep looking! More and more diverse stories are coming out every week, and if you look a little further, there will be so many books with characters that look like you in different genres. If you need any help, let me know because I know how you might be feeling, and I know that with the right character, genre and author, there will be a book that speaks to you!
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