The power of words

English professor releases new children’s book


Ben Bolstrum, Managing Editor

Not every journey ends the same way it begins. This is especially true for Brynne Barnes, who ended up as an English professor at Schoolcraft College, as well as a children’s author after originally pursuing a career in medicine.

English professor, Brynne Barnes, reads from her children’s book she authored during an author reading and discussion event on November 1, 2022 in the VisTaTech Center. (Jen Harmon)

“I think I do some of my best living when I’m writing and teaching. Words are my way into people; words are my way of connecting. When I’m doing those two things, that’s when I feel the most connected, the most in tune with other people and myself,” said Barnes.

Barnes’ catalog started with “Colors of Me” in 2011, a story from the perspective of a child who discovers that color makes up the entire world. Through rhymes from Barnes, and illustrations from Annika M. Nelson, this story preaches the importance of diversity.

Her first outing in the world of children’s literature was not in vain, because not only did this story net her the 2012 Gelett Burgess Award for First Published Book and the 2012 Friends of American Writers Award Winner for Juvenile Literature, but she was also an Award-Winning Finalist in the Hardcover Fiction Category of the USA “Best Books 2011” Awards.

After the success of her first book, she released a followup in 2016 titled “Books do Not Have Wings.” This is another story of rhymes that explores creativity and the ever expanding definition of what a book can be. With another work published, she gained another commendation: the 2016 ABC Best Books for Young Readers.

This year, has seen the launch of her newest book “Black Girl Rising.” This book, illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, is all about identity and is meant to empower the reader with the challenges and triumphs of being who they are and following their dreams. The book also features references to several famous Black writers who have influenced Barnes throughout her journey including Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, Mari Evans, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and more.

“This book is actually a poem that the illustrator created a visual story for,” said Barnes. “Or rather, visual scenes that tie the black female experience altogether.  I had a hand in the illustrations, and that was a very cool process. It’s important because it shows diversity in the Black experience which is what I wanted; yet, at the same time, we can all see ourselves in this work.”

With a prior bachelor’s degree in Biopsychology and Cognitive Science from the University of Michigan, as well as an interest in becoming a physician, this was an unexpected path for Barnes, but one that came naturally. 

When it became time to start applying to medical schools, she was worried that the commitment would exhaust all her writing time. So she shelved her plans for medical school and chose to pursue her passion instead. With the advice of a mentor, she earned a master of arts in Creative Writing with a concentration in poetry. From the start she knew she would write for children.

English professor, Brynne Barnes, poses with the children’s book she authored, “Black Girl Rising.” (Jen Harmon)

It was actually the community service that I did via The Detroit Project while I was a student at the University of Michigan,” said Barnes. “This is what put me in schools, working with children, writing for them, and helping them write their own stories. As college students, we put together creative writing workshops for kids as an after school program and helped them write books to fill their classroom libraries. It was that experience that opened me up to children’s literature.”

This enthusiasm for writing extends to the classroom as well. Barnes uses her experience in the industry to guide not only her students, but herself as well. Her process has evolved over time, and when she struggles with her own work, she discusses ways to navigate a writing block with her students.

“I show them how I do it, and then I have my students try their hand at it in order to give them the strategies they need in order to create something great on the page. It makes writing real life, something that happens outside of the classroom, too.  I think that’s important because it helps my students take ownership of their own writing process which is unique for each person,” said Barnes.

Barnes hopes that children are able to see themselves in her books. To see the characters and scenarios that encapsulate her stories, and be able to have role models and heroes that look like them. Barnes hopes to accomplish this in her work because it is something she herself lacked as a child.

There weren’t any toys or dolls or books that reflected me as I saw myself in the world,” said Barnes. “So when I decided to write for children, that’s something that I knew I wanted to do. Create mirrors for children so that they could see themselves in mainstream media and literature, and I wanted to create windows for children so they could see what’s possible. There’s empowerment in that.” 

Barnes has no plans to stop her journey of empowerment anytime soon. She is working on her first novel alongside her fourth book “When I See You,” which will come out in 2023.  After that, she will release her fifth book, a companion text for “Black Girl Rising” entitled “Black Boy Rising” written for her son.

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