Students author intersectional feminist children’s book

Chelsea Johnson (left), Carolyn Choi (right) and LaToya Council were inspired to write a children’s book about intersectional feminism after attending an intersectionality-themed conference two years ago. (Dylan Levene/Daily Trojan)

At the Sociologists for Women in Society’s Conference two years ago, three Ph.D. students were so inspired by the conference’s theme of intersectionality that they decided to write a children’s book about the concept. On July 16, their idea will come to life when “IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All” is released nationally through feminist publisher Dottir Press. 

Carolyn Choi, LaToya Council and Chelsea Johnson, three USC students studying sociology, wrote the book to explore intersectionality. The book examines the overlap in race, gender and sexuality, and how it impacts different social structures.

“IntersectionAllies” breaks down intersectionality for young, everyday audiences to help them understand their own and others’ identities better.

“The book is about empathy,” Johnson said. “It’s about inspiring empathy and seeing similarities across difference and ways to help your friends using the skills that you have that they might not, or the privileges you have that they may not have access to.” 

The book tells the stories of eight girls and one gender nonconforming child as each navigates the social challenges. 

“What we do is we demonstrate how children’s safety is concerned by their intersectional identities, such as their gender, their class, their ability, their race, their religion, culture, citizenship and more,” Council said. “For example, we have Nia, who does Black Lives Matter protests, helping out her friend … Dakota, who’s engaged with … having access to clean water with the Dakota Access Pipeline.” 

In the book, Johnson also highlighted a young Korean girl who acts as a language broker for her immigrant mother. 

“The character that I’m most proud of is Heejung’s character,” Johnson said. “I think it’s just such a beautiful character because it shows the power that kids have that you might not think to celebrate, but that are really transformative and important for people’s families.”

The authors felt that given the current divisive political climate, it was important to get their message of inclusion out to children.  According to statistics released by the FBI in 2018, reports of hate crime incidents have risen in the U.S. over the past three years. 

Choi said one of their goals in writing the book was to teach children to understand and respect other peoples’ identities as well as the challenges they may face as a result. 

“In these trying political times, there’s increased bullying at school because of identity-based issues and tensions, so what spoke to us, is [the book] introduces very early issues of intersecting or different identities to children,” Choi said. 

Choi, Council and Johnson all use intersectionality in their dissertations, and the book is rooted in academic research. Johnson said the characters are all based on research by USC sociologists. However, the book attempts to expand the applications of intersectionality outside of the academic world. 

“We were talking about how a lot of scholars are engaging in ways of how to do intersectionality on this empirical, research-based perspective, but we don’t talk much about how to put intersectionality into practice,” Council said. “How do we do intersectional, social justice, public work? And so, we said, ‘What about a children’s book?’” 

At the SWS annual conference in February 2017, the authors said they wanted to find a way to explain intersectionality in simpler terms, so that any person, regardless of age or education, could understand it. 

“We thought that the perfect solution to do that was a children’s book because it forces you to simplify your language, and it’s a way to educate entire households,” Johnson said. 

Johnson said the book was written for children to not only understand intersectionality and create change but also to help parents and teachers educate children about social issues. 

“Parents and educators who have the desire to make the world better but don’t have the tools to do so … may be afraid to ask because they think it’s something they should know,” Johnson said. 

She also said that academics such as her and her co-authors will see their research and work presented in a new way that could appeal to and inform larger audiences. 

Johnson said the trio wrote the manuscript together during dinners over the course of three to four months and enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate.

“We would get together, we would block out a couple of hours of time to talk over a meal and just discuss,” Johnson said. “A lot of the times, for Ph.D. students, you’re doing work by yourself in a room. It’s so individual, and it can be really lonely. I think we all really came alive in that process.” 

They emailed artist Ashley Seil Smith after seeing her illustrations in one of Lena Dunham’s “Lenny” Letters. Smith agreed to illustrate “IntersectionAllies,” and worked with the trio to produce a book dummy to send to publishers focused on progressive works. They shipped out their dummy, then started the waiting game. In the end, a USC connection turned their dream into a reality.

Johnson was working on USC’s Beyond the Ph.D. Conference as an intern for the Career Center when one of the speakers connected her with Jennifer Baumgardner, editor-in-chief of Women’s Review of Books. Baumgardner had just started her own feminist publishing house, Dottir Press, and agreed to pick-up “IntersectionAllies.” 

“After we settled on Dottir, which we chose because they really loved the scholarly gist of the book, things moved a lot faster,” Johnson said. “From beginning to end, it took about two years.”

“IntersectionAllies” will feature a forward written by critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who coined the term intersectionality. Political science and gender studies professor Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro wrote a letter to parents that will also be printed in “IntersectionAllies.”

Council said Hancock Alfaro’s class in feminist theory was the first course in her doctoral studies that delved into intersectionality and how to apply intersectional research. 

In the future, the authors plan to publish more children’s books as part of a series rooted in intersectionality, as well as produce tools and curriculum for classrooms.

“This is supposed to be a series,” Choi said. “These books will be also based on the concept of intersectionality and talking about different types of family forms to celebrate and honor them, as well as different types of bodies across skin color and body shapes.”