Derrick Barnes’ books King of the Classroom and Queen of the Classroom, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, are favourites with Books for Keeps. These empowering stories are perfect to share with any child starting nursery or school and will give them a reassuring confidence boost. Author Derrick Barnes answered our questions about the books.
Can you tell us a bit about you and specifically how you got into writing for children?
I am originally from Kansas City, MO, but I currently reside in Charlotte, NC with my college sweetheart (Jackson State University alums). We have four amazing sons (The Mighty Barnes Brothers) ages 21, 17, 15 and 11.
I’ve been writing since I was ten years old; almost forty years now! But professionally as a published author, since 2004. I was hired as a greeting card copywriter at Hallmark Cards immediately after graduating from college in 1999. After acquiring a literary agent in 2003, my very first book deal was for two early-reader/primary books. I just never changed genres. We kept having children, and before I knew it, I had a built-in focus group. An in home target audience.
What do you like most about writing picture books ie writing for the very young?
It is a blessing to be able to hopefully pen a book that could be the first one that a child ever reads, or it could be the book that introduces them to literature. I have the honor of knowing so many ultra-talented illustrators, and their work in picturebooks, just like the text, is the child’s first exposure to fine art. It is a privilege to be able to do what we do for a living; leaving an indelible, colorful, joyous, creative piece of collective art that will stay with them forever.
Do you have vivid memories of your own first days at school (it would seem so)?
I am so old…not so much. But what I do remember is how much I loved to read, how much I loved to learn to read, and going to the library with my mother on the weekends. We took home as many books as we could carry.
What inspired you to write Queen of the Classroom?
While on tour for King of Kindergarten (King of the Classroom in the UK) in 2019, we were bombarded (pleasantly of course) by many mothers who asked when a counterpart would be written for their daughters, and we had to oblige. King of the Classroom was written in the second person, but I wanted the protagonist in Queen of the Classroom to have a little more personality, so I tried it in the first person. The book, similar to King, features a child with a ton of confidence on her first day of school, and comes from a brilliant, beautiful family that prepares her to begin school, using her regal personality to spread kindness. And isn’t that what we’re all hoping to do? Send really good, considerate, joyous, and kind people out into the world? I hope so.
How important is it to you to write about Black children?
I think it’s imperative that 1) all children are able to step foot in a bookstore or library and see a multitude of characters that remind them of themselves. 2) It’s equally important for white children to see Black protagonists, Black leads, and heroes. These images help to teach tolerance, empathy, and that there is enough space in the center of the universe for everyone to matter, and to be treated with the utmost humanity.