Lakeland Author Celebrates Racial, Cultural Differences in Children’s Book
Juleya (Tucker) Woodson ’13 remembers a time she did not feel beautiful.
Growing up as a Black child in Evanston, Ill., she wondered why her skin wasn’t lighter, or why she didn’t have long, straight hair, as she began to understand racial difference and the media’s portrayal of beauty.
Woodson, motivated in part by her work as Family Support Specialist with the Childcare Network of Evanston and the lack of diversity of children’s literature, has published a children’s book, “I Hope They Understand,” to educate and celebrate racial and cultural dissimilarities, while reminding Black children of their beauty.
“It is vital adults assist children in developing healthy racial and cultural identities so that racial and cultural differences are seen as beautiful and not distasteful,” said Woodson, who received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Lakeland. “A children’s book is a great way to create healthy development and start conversations about racial difference.
“Adults can’t be afraid to talk about racial difference. When a child asks, ‘Why is her skin darker than mine?’ we need to ensure the child feels comfortable enough to ask those difficult questions and not shame them.”
“I Hope They Understand” can be purchased online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Woodson started writing last summer when the nation was rocked by protests following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The media’s perception of beauty also encouraged her to create a children’s book.
“Media reports were reducing confidence among Black people, making us feel less secure,” said Woodson, who married 2012 Lakeland graduate Keith Woodson in May of 2015. “I remember feeling afraid myself and thinking ‘I can’t imagine how children are feeling when they see their parents are insecure.’
“At a time when children are starting to understand racial difference, superiority, and internalize racism, we need to remind little Black girls and boys of their beauty and educate all kids about racial and cultural differences.”
The paperback book is for children ages 0-5 and will help them understand people come in different shapes, sizes and colors, and that is what makes everyone beautiful.
Helping bring Woodson’s words to life are illustrations by 2014 Lakeland graduate Michelle (Fromm) Wang. Wang and Woodson were Lakeland classmates and have kept in touch on social media.
“When I learned that Juleya was working on a children's book and needed an illustrator, I was excited to work with her to make her dream a reality,” said Wang, who owns Michelle Wang LLC, which offers a wide range of graphic design services for businesses and individuals, including illustrations.
“In my business, I enjoy creating logos, designing documents, editing manuscripts and creating designs for printing on apparel and other products. I had always wanted to illustrate children's books, and I was in the midst of working on my own children's book when Juleya contacted me.”
Wang said Woodson had a specific vision for certain parts of the book, and she helped fill out that vision to create the completed illustrations.
“I believe this book fills a role that many parents need for their sons and daughters,” Wang said. “It is my hope and prayer that the children who read this book will be filled with self-confidence. I hope they understand that they are special, unique and beautiful just the way God made them. This is a message that every child needs to hear, and we need to share it in a way that is easy for even the youngest child to internalize.”
One page reads,
“I hope they understand,
even though my eyes are
a little rounder than my friends,
my eyes are beautiful.
“Whisper it with me,
‘My eyes are beautiful.’”
“My goal is to help create a world that is more culturally competent,” Woodson said. “To build successful relationships and work effectively with others, we need to understand cultural difference and get to know people from different backgrounds.”
Juleya and Keith are the parents of 3-year-old Kayden, and she has found a lack of diversity in children’s books.
“It is important all children see themselves in the books they read,” Woodson said. “It helps them thrive and feel connected to their environment and community. We need more diverse books in our schools and our communities.
“Dr. Rosemarie Allen says teach empathy, not sympathy. We need to teach empathy through the books our children read so that all children feel comfortable and acknowledged, while understanding their differences are beautiful and not shameful.”
Woodson is working with schools and bookstores in the Evanston area to provide access to the book and its message, which has been well received.
“So many people have written how much they love the book, its images, and affirmations,” Woodson said. “Kids can repeat words of affirmation, which is something they can do with their parents.”
In her role with the Childcare Network of Evanston, Woodson provides family support to Early Head Start and Head Start families in the Evanston area. She offers a comprehensive approach, connecting families to relevant resources, including housing, finances and/or education. She also works with teachers to develop strategies that benefit the children she serves.
Becoming an author is a natural for Woodson, as education is a centerpiece in her life, and not just through her work. She has a master of social work with a mental health specialization from Loyola University Chicago, and this May she will receive a master of arts in organizational leadership from Judson University.
She has her eye on a doctoral program, and eventually wants to shift her career into higher education while focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion work for students. She also plans to continue writing.
“I want to create a series,” Woodson said. “I want to create a movement similar to Black Lives Matter, but centered on educating and inspiring. I plan to create a website where people can find articles, blogs and other resources. I also want to fundraise for a specialist to work with schools and the broader community to help build wealth. The wealth gap is real.”
She looks back on her time at Lakeland fondly, especially learning from Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Stroot and then-Lakeland faculty member Alicia Helion. She was named Lakeland’s Outstanding Student in Psychology as a senior, a sign of her work and the good things to come.
“Professor Stroot and Professor Helion were amazing,” said Woodson, who minored in writing at Lakeland. “They pushed me to be a better student and person. They recommended I tutor a few students, and while I was helping others, I grew, too.”
Stroot was especially instrumental in Woodson’s career path, as she pointed her down a path of social work that equipped her with the knowledge to effectively assist individuals, which followed Woodson’s interest. Woodson was also a member of the Alpha Psi Alpha sorority at Lakeland, another important part of her experience.
“That pushed me,” she said. “It was something different from what I was used to, and it gave me people I’m still connected to today. I did feel a sense of culture at Lakeland. I did feel represented.”