When speaking to international school librarians at the ECIS Libraries Week in 2021, author-illustrator Mylo Freeman shared the story that inspired her first Princess Arabella book. Freeman had heard from a friend who worked with a children’s theater group about a little girl who was offered the role of a princess and turned it down. The little girl believed she couldn’t play a princess in a play because she was Black and princesses are white with blue eyes and long blonde hair. Struck and shocked by this story, Freeman realized that she also could not visualize a princess with Black skin and dark, naturally curly hair. She had a lightbulb moment: “I thought, well I’m Black, and how come I had never thought of a Black princess or had the image of a Black princess?” Growing up biracial in a predominantly white world, Freeman had never seen Black characters in books, on TV or in the movies. Freeman remembers thinking, “This is something I have to fix. Now.”
Freeman decided to write and illustrate a picture book about a Black princess, a mischievous and precocious character inspired by a photo from a newspaper article about a girl adopted from the Congo. This child’s traditional Congolese hair style and lovely face provided a model for Princess Arabella and her natural African hair in what the Congolese call “helicopter style.” Eschewing the pastels and gentle lines of children’s books that Freeman found when looking for books for her own children, she dressed Arabella in vividly colored, patterned dresses, created circular stylized natural hair, and placed the royal family of characters in an imaginary African setting. Freeman purposefully created a princess that was adorable and friendly, but was not going to be a “goody-goody”: “I wanted Arabella to be like a normal child. Also a bit spoiled, but also sweet and very inquisitive. She’s very curious…she’s very active, she always wants to discover things.”
Princess Arabella’s first story is about her birthday, and her doting parents the King and Queen ask her what she would like for a present. Arabella is offered many expensive, sparkling options like a pair of roller skates with rubies on them or a golden bike.
The thing is, Arabella already has everything, so she asks for something extraordinary: an elephant. The King and Queen naturally have reservations, but Arabella is determined to have what she wants, so the King sends out footmen to find and bring back an elephant. As Freeman says, be careful what you wish for! Turns out the elephant is not a toy and does not want to play with Arabella no matter how much she insists. To stop her elephant from crying and making huge puddles of tears, Arabella decides to return the elephant to the elephant’s home on the savanna. What Arabella doesn’t realize is that the elephant has a surprise in store for Arabella when they get there!
Freeman marketed her first Princess Arabella book herself, bringing her books directly to Surinamese women at Black hair events in the Amsterdam area after some bookstore owners wondered if Black Dutch customers would actually buy her books. Starting with the Black communities in the Netherlands was just the beginning, because Freeman, then and now, continues to join the global conversation demanding that children’s book publishing fundamentally change and increase representation for all children through diverse authors, characters, stories, and settings. During her ECIS presentation, she discussed a well-known infographic Diversity in Children’s Books 2018 published by David Huyck and Sarah Park Dahlen in 2019 which is based on “statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison”:
“The majority of picture book characters are still white. And then there is this big chunk of bears and rabbits. And then there’s the African-American and Asian-Americans…and you can see that there is a lot of work to do…I mean, this is an American graphic but here in Holland you could say that the numbers are even lower when it comes to diversity in books.”– Mylo Freeman author presentation, ECIS Libraries Week 2021
Freeman also quoted the work of Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita at Ohio State University, who is a source of inspiration for Freeman illustrating “how diversity in books can work.” Sims Bishop is a global leader in multicultural children’s literature, asserting that while children of color “see the world mainly through windows” and need more mirrors, other children “just see themselves in mirrors and need to learn to see the world through windows.” Freeman has taken Sims Bishop’s call to view children’s stories through the lens of windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, prioritizing diversity, honoring multiple cultures, and promoting empathy. In the spirit of Sims Bishop, Freeman has changed the landscape of #DutchKidLit in the Netherlands providing mirrors for Black Dutch children to see themselves in picture books, and encouraging children everywhere learn to see their worlds through windows that include and center Black characters in stories.
Freeman has become an ambassador for the New Dutch Writing project by the Dutch Foundation for Literature working to “promote Dutch writing in translation in the UK and Ireland and to nurture the next generation of translators,” appearing most recently at the Edinburgh International Book Festival promoting the first book in her new series, Macy’s World, with Hair It’s a Family Affair:
Meanwhile, the Princess Arabella series is now fifteen years old, and there is a new Arabella book almost every year. The books have enthusiastic readers growing up with Arabella throughout the Netherlands and the Dutch-speaking world, as well as in translation in multiple languages. Six books in the Princess Arabella series are available so far in English translations by Laura Watkinson:
Princess Arabella inspires children all over the world to imagine themselves as princesses and princes full of ideas and creativity, whether they are learning to mix colors to paint their bedrooms, bringing their favorite elephants to school, building the biggest and yummiest cake, wishing for a sibling to play with, or visiting an art gallery in your own home full of inspired riffs on famous paintings. Mylo Freeman has proven that Black girls can be princesses, too, and now we all can clearly imagine a world where a Black child is offered the role of princess in a school play, and they smile and accept.
The Princess Arabella series is a delightful collection of vividly illustrated, lovingly detailed picture books where Black royal family life and an irrepressible child full of #BlackGirlMagic takes center stage for young readers ages 3 – 7. Here’s hoping that more of Mylo Freeman’s Princess Arabella books are in process of being translated into English and other languages!
Princess Arabella’s Birthday
Written and illustrated by Mylo Freeman
Translated by Laura Watkinson
Originally published as Prinses Arabella is jarig by De Eenhoorn, 2006
Published by Cassava Republic Press, 2017
You can buy Princess Arabella’s Birthday and the other Princess Arabella books here.
You can buy Hair, It’s a Family Affair and pre-order the next book in the Macy’s World series, Smile with African Style here.
“Art appreciation from the lens of royal Black childhood—beautiful!” — Kirkus review for Princess Arabella at the Museum
“Using bright colors and brilliant prints, Freeman encourages young readers to be themselves.” — Kirkus Reviews for Princess Arabella Goes to School
“A chuckleworthy royal roller coaster.” — Kirkus Reviews for Princess Arabella is a Big Sister
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