“ALL SHE EVER WANTED to do was read under her grandmother’s dining room table,” my dad always says when asked about my childhood. “But she went to Wake to be a doctor.”
I grew up in the Maryland suburbs outside of Washington, D.C. As a small reader, I used to gather provisions — my favorite blanket, a glass of lemonade, a handful of pink-frosted animal cookies — then hide under my grandmother’s mahogany dining room table draped with a lace tablecloth. The sun would trickle in through the pattern, warm the space and scatter the perfect amount of light over the pages of my book. The nook transformed into my own private cave — a refuge from a hyperactive little brother — where I could find quiet, disappear into stories and experience the magic of reading. I would sniff each book, stack them in order by length and write reviews in my trusty journal. I preferred fantastical stories where characters went through wardrobes into alternate worlds or took spaceships to faraway planets or found wrinkles in time that allowed them to travel through dimensions. These books became part of my tiny life force.
THE MOMENT I STEPPED on Wake Forest’s campus I knew I was supposed to be there. One of my first memories is of the magnolia trees and imagining how a clever person might tuck herself inside them with a book. It made Wake Forest feel magical. When I moved into Johnson Residence Hall as a freshman, I was adamant that I would be pre-med, the first doctor in the family. Both my parents were math and computer geeks. I imagined myself with a stethoscope and a slew of patients. Then, Chemistry 101 happened. I struggled. Despite all the effort and stress, I failed the class. The only reprieve I had from balancing chemical equations and talk of valence electrons occurred during my freshman literature seminar.
I fell in love with reading again. In high school, books had become things to be quizzed on and written about for grades rather than portals to other worlds and experiences. While under the duress of Chemistry 101, I returned to books as a place of comfort. I proudly became an English major.
But it wasn’t until I studied abroad with Professor of English Mary DeShazer at the Worrell House in London that I homed in on my passion. Her syllabus contained children’s literature. Reading fiction for children filled me with a sense of purpose. That sheer wonder led me to London’s beautiful children’s bookstores and inspired me to write creatively that semester, drafting stories for the child version of myself who had been unable to see her little brown self as the heroine in the books I treasured as a young reader.
This set me on the path to becoming a published children’s book author, a children’s librarian and the vice president for librarian services for We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit focused on making sure every child can see themselves in the pages of books. The organization aims to increase a broad spectrum of diverse representation in children’s and young adult literature through initiatives to increase the hiring of diverse publishing staff, the acquisition of diverse manuscripts by diverse authors, the discovery of published books with diverse content and the collaboration between publishers and the public to promote books that reflect the vast and diverse world for children.
Gene Luen Yang, a California writer, former high school teacher and advocate for children’s literature, says, “Reading breaks down the walls that divide us. … We get to know people outside of our own communities. We gain knowledge others don’t expect us to have. We discover new and surprising passions. Reading is critical to our growth, both as individuals and as a society.”
My work with We Need Diverse Books aims to make his words tangible and produce librarian initiatives that can help children find mirrors of their own diverse experiences as well as windows into others’ experiences. Wake Forest ignited this flame, helping me find my spirit as a writer, reconnecting me to my love of books and reminding me of the wonder I found underneath my grandmother’s table.
—— Dhonielle Clayton (’05) is a librarian at Harlem Village Academies in New York City and co-founder of CAKE Literary, a literary think tank whipping up packaged books for children, teens and women fiction readers with a decidedly diverse bent. She is the co-author, with Sona Charaipotra, of “Tiny Pretty Things” and “Shiny Broken Pieces” and author of the forthcoming series “The Belles.”