How do you follow a multiple-award-winning book called Crown? Why, with a king, of course. Derrick Barnes’ newest picture book, The King of Kindergarten, tells the story in an inviting second-person voice of one confident boy’s first day of school. His journey from home to bus to classroom comes alive with royal hyperbole: “[A] big yellow carriage will deliver you to a grand fortress.” With vibrant illustrations from Vanessa Brantley-Newton, it serves as a primer for young ones embarking, whether in an actual carriage or not, on their own kindergarten adventures, preparing them for what the big day will be like.
This exuberant picture book comes on the heels of what was certainly a very good year for Barnes, during which he won a whole host of awards, including a Newbery Honor and the Kirkus Prize, for the picture book Crown, illustrated by Gordon C. James. Barnes recently answered questions from Chapter 16 via email about that experience and the new book.
Chapter 16: What does it mean to you to have so much awards recognition for Crown, including a Caldecott Honor, Newbery Honor, Coretta Scott King Honor, and the Kirkus Prize? Are you still walking on air?
Derrick Barnes: I’ve been in this business for a while now, and you just never know when or if the “breakthrough” book will ever happen. But I’ve always been the kind of person that has never given up and has always pushed forward. Life is truly about timing — not our timing, but God’s timing. And it was just my time. I’m so grateful for what Crown has done for my career.
Chapter 16: Both Crown and The King of Kindergarten are about building and celebrating confidence in young black boys. Can you talk about how you have seen these books affect children, based on all your experiences with school visits, book festivals, etc.?
Barnes: Crafting stories where black children are the focal point — the protagonists; the smartest, most beautiful ones in the room; regal; balanced; come from great homes; and are covered in nothing but joy — is always intentional in my work. My job as a writer for children, particularly for black children, is to offer them alternative images to either erase or balance out the bombardment of themselves as stereotypes that they receive in pop culture. When I receive emails, and beautiful photos from parents, educators, and caregivers of black and brown children smiling big with copies of Crown and The King of Kindergarten in their arms, I know that I have reached my mark. I love it.
Chapter 16: What is something that illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton brings to this story with her illustrations that surprises and/or pleases you?
Barnes: I love her and her work so much. Her use of bright, brilliant, lively colors always surprises and pleases me. Her personality, which is always positive and hopeful, shines through in her work.
Barnes: Vanessa and I go way back. I consider her a sister. She illustrated my first Scholastic chapter book series, Ruby and the Booker Boys. I’ve been in love with her work ever since. The way she celebrates diversity so wonderfully should inspire her readers and fans to hopefully mimic and create reality as similar to her work as possible.
Chapter 16: Do you remember your own first day of kindergarten?
Barnes: Not at all. I remember the school that I attended: Graceland Elementary in Kansas City, Missouri. I remember, in flashes, what the classroom looked like. But I don’t remember my teacher’s name. That was almost 40 years ago!
Chapter 16: The page on your website about school visits is (invitingly) called “I’ll Come to You.” Do you think that your school visits inform your writing?
Barnes: My entire life has been a testament to service to young people in some shape or form — my school visits, being the father of four sons, being an ex-substitute teacher, working in the outreach department of the Kansas City Public Library, serving as a mentor in my neighborhood growing up. Those experiences have all shaped my work.
Chapter 16: Nashville is looking forward to your visit. Will this be your first time here?
Barnes: I’ve been to Nashville maybe two or three times. My first time was in 1999, my senior year in college at Jackson State University. I attended the annual HBCU Newspaper Awards at Tennessee State University. We won for best newspaper that year. A great start to my writing career launched me out into the world.
Chapter 16: What’s next for you?
Barnes: I have signed a lot of book deals since Crown won all of the awards that it did in 2018. I didn’t turn anything down. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. But you never know when your light will dim, and I have a family to raise and goals as a writer and an activist to see through. Right now, I’m working on three books: a graphic novel, a non-fiction sports series, and a middle-grade novel.
Julie Danielson, co-author of Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, writes about picture books for Kirkus Reviews, BookPage, and The Horn Book. She lives in Murfreesboro and blogs at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.