Post by guest author Nathalie Morrissey from the International School of Amsterdam.
When Mylo Freeman’s father was an 8-year-old boy living in America, his school held a drawing competition sponsored by Disney. Although his drawing was selected as the winning piece, as soon as the Disney representative came to the school and discovered the favored artist was a black boy, they refused to award him the prize. Freeman shares how this personal story cradles her quest to make books in which everyone can see themselves. In a Guardian interview, she further emphasizes her mission:
Through diverse picture books children will have an opportunity to learn on an unconscious level to feel empathy and identify with others from a different ethnic background to their own. Children need both mirrors and windows. Many children of colour see the world only through windows but they also need mirrors. Other children only see mirrors and they need to see the world through windows.– Mylo Freeman
Through her story-telling, Freeman provides mirrors and windows for children of all ages, including our youngest book lovers. The author-illustrator of the colorful and playful Zaza toddler book series, Freeman is an artist with a vision for social justice through diversity in children’s books. Born in The Hague to an American father and Dutch mother, she has lived a life centered on art. She studied visual arts at the renowned Rietveld Academy in The Netherlands, had a short musical career, worked in the fashion industry, and finally grounded her feet in authoring and illustrating picture books. Freeman has been awarded multiple literary awards for her books, including the Kiekeboeprijs in 1998 for her first book for toddlers called Potty. In 2020, she was the celebrated picture book author for the Netherlands’ Children’s Book Week and her book Tweeling, or Twins, was the published picture book for the national event.
Freeman is open about her mission to create books with greater ethnic diversity. The diverse representation in children’s literature is a thing of beauty when done with respect, thoughtfulness, and playfulness as her 60+ works have shown us. Freeman is a true queen of her craft and brings this to the forefront of young children’s literature.
Pick up a picture book today, and you will notice a more diverse set of characters compared to those that were available to you as a child. In contrast, books for toddlers have a lot to catch up on, but with Freeman at the helm, they actually have a chance. Her Zaza books about a toddler’s daily rituals is a refreshing evolution from the anthropomorphic animal or white protagonist toddler books that we read to our youngest children. With her deep brown skin and natural hair, Zaza provides a mirror to the large part of the population that has been underrepresented in children’s literature, and in particular toddler books.
Freeman is a wizard with color and shape, not only dazzling the eyes of the young reader but also the adult, who will easily escape into Zaza’s world together with their child as they read her books. Freeman’s signature checkered blocks, seen on the end papers and carefully placed in key scenes of each book, are a delight to the eye. They are a constant reminder of the artistic thoughtfulness she puts in each of her books, as she takes us on a stunning journey through a beautiful kaleidoscope of colors and shapes that complement each moment in the story.
The simple story about Zaza going to daycare for the first time, provides the perfect backdrop for the profound dive into the mind of the young, emerging, and playful character that is Zaza. Throughout the Zaza series, you learn what really matters to our youngest children, worries about making friends and finding the courage to try new experiences, as well as important guidance on how to help little ones feel safe and cared for. The Zaza books help caregivers, teachers, parents, and older siblings encourage preschoolers’ curiosity, empathy, and generosity.
Interestingly, although Freeman’s Zaza books have been translated into more than ten languages, finding the name of their English translator has proven to be a little more complicated than one would expect. The Clavis publishing company as a whole takes credit for the English translation. What we do know, however, is that Laura Watkinson translated Freeman’s popular Princess Arabella series (also under the Clavis publishing company). I reached out to Freeman and Watkinson to find out who could be the mysterious translator of these books. Surprisingly, neither of them know who translated the Zaza books. It would be wonderful to have the translator of the Zaza books recognized, here’s hoping that the #NameTheTranslator social media campaign can help with this in the future!
The Zaza books are wonderfully diverse, child-centered bedtime, dinnertime, and anytime stories for toddlers, and all their favorite stuffed animals, ages 2 to 4.
New Friends for Zaza
Written by Mylo Freeman
Illustrated by Mylo Freeman
Translated from the original Dutch by Clavis Publishing Inc, New York
Published by Clavis Publishing Inc, 2019
Originally published as Zaza maakt vriendjes by Clavis Publishing, 2012
You can buy all six of the books from the Zaza series here
Would you like to see Freeman illustrating in action? Watch the Dutch clip, How do you make a picture book with Mylo Freeman, here.
Sneak peeks of Freeman reading from the Zaza series can be found here.
“As effectively as Good Night Moon and Grandfather Twilight, this book will help children get ready for sleep.”
–– Kirkus Reviews for Sweet Dreams Zaza
“The illustrations are adorable and the colors are vibrant. The children at the daycare are diverse and the book has a positive message… if you face your uncertainties wonderful adventures can ensue. This book is highly recommended.” – Storywraps Review of New Friends For Zaza
“Make room, Doc McStuffins! Another young brown-skinned physician has arrived to attend to every ailment.”
— Kirkus Reviews for Calling Dr. Zaza