Jelani Memory is a fellow Portlander and hardware entrepreneur (Circle). Today, Jelani and his team produce beautiful books for kids tackling important conversations in an engaging format. With this cultural moment of grief, anger, and introspection about racism in America, we asked Jelani a few questions about how parents can think about this vital topic.
Jelani, thanks for taking a few minutes today to speak with us! Can you tell us a little bit about your early life as a Portland native?
I love this city. It's the place I've always called home. I've lived in maybe every part of the city, but grew up mostly in SW Portland. So as a black kid I was usually one of a handful in middle school and high school. You just sort of grow up learning how to navigate. How to stand out and just fit in. How to explain your blackness ya know.
What lead you to want to write books for kids?
My kids! We've been reading before bedtime every night for as long as I can remember. It's a big part of our lives. When I sat down to try my hand at a kids book for my own kids, it was really about trying to make a book that they would like, but also would level up the conversation a bit. That book turned into now 19 with dozens more to come.
Racism is one of those painful and often avoided topics. It can perhaps be a natural thing to discuss it with your older children as they are assigned topics about it in middle or high school, but what about younger kids?
I think we have this idea that we need to wait till kids are older to talk to them about things. Especially challenging topics like racism. I think that belief is where we get off track. We teach kids not to lie, steal, hit, etc. But we can't talk to them about sex? Mental health? Racism? I think it makes "us" uncomfortable as adults, so we don't do it. Then our kids get older and they force the issue so we reluctantly oblige. Racism isn't easy to talk about because it's painful. But that doesn't mean all the conversations are going to be painful. I encourage parents to just try.
What has surprised you most as you’ve built a business around talking about difficult topics?
What's surprised me most is that parents agreed that kids were ready. Every time someone buys one of our books they're saying that their 5, 6, 7, and 8 year old kid is ready.
What’s your vision for how books (and thoughtful media) can have an impact on a generation?
I think books, especially children's books, are this remarkable vehicle to teach, shape, and guide the next generation. Think about it. A kid might watch their favorite movie 5 times, 10 times, 20 times at the most. My kids read books they don't even like 100 times! And children's books are often read together. It's this great form of media that enables grownups and kids to share, chat, inquire, and learn together.