Breanna J. McDaniel hopes black girls will recognize themselves in her debut picture book Hands Up!. Even before they flip to the first page, they’ll see a smiling black girl jumping on the cover.
“Unfortunately, you still don’t see a ton of that. And not just black girls. Girls of color, period,” says McDaniel.
McDaniel’s story is about Viv, a lively, responsible, and talented black girl. As readers flip through the vibrant illustrations, Viv grows older and raises her hands in different contexts. She plays peek-a-boo with her parents, participates in class, and practices fifth position, like her favorite ballerina Misty Copeland.
The examples are common, joyful, and in sharp contrast to the violent, painful images typically associated with the title phrase. “Hands up, don’t shoot” became a rallying cry at the Ferguson protests, which started after a white police officer killed Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old black teenager. McDaniel drew inspiration from Black Lives Matter, a movement to end violence against black people, and wrote the first draft of her book immediately after Brown’s death.
Amid the violence and discrimination black kids face today, McDaniel’s interpretation of “hands up” sets out to remind the world that black kids are just kids. “You matter. Your joy will be celebrated,” she writes in her author’s note.
McDaniel’s book is impressive because it uses one hand gesture to showcase a wide range of feelings and scenarios. It humanizes the black girl experience, a rare thing for children’s literature. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a research library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, found that only 340 of the 3,700 books it received in 2017 from U.S. publishers had “significant African or African American content/characters.” (The library notes the statistic only reflects how many books it received.)
“[T]he opposite of despair, for me, I think is joy.”
“When I think about [the phrase] ‘hands up!’ in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and the social justice movement, my despair is rooted in the systems that have created the necessity for people to protest against these injustices” says McDaniel. “My despair is rooted in that, and the opposite of despair, for me, I think is joy.”
McDaniel tried to move out of “a place of hopelessness.” She reflected on her experiences, as well as those of her niece and nephew, to develop her book. She also thought of her cousin, who played basketball and always heard “hands up” on the court. At one point in the book, McDaniel’s protagonist Viv raises her hands to win a jump ball. She ultimately carries her team’s winning trophy.
“It was just bringing out moments that maybe have never been tagged as extraordinary for them and saying, ‘This is amazing and you deserve to revel in it and you deserve to be celebrated for it,'” McDaniel says about the hashtag. She shares the same message in her book.
Such depictions of happiness are revolutionary because black girls are often denied the opportunity to express themselves. Black girls, for example, are perceived as “less innocent” than white girls and may be punished at school for how they wear their hair.
McDaniel believes the book presents an opportunity for black girls and women to connect with joyful moments while recognizing their experiences in the pages.
“If they look at the book and they see celebration, and they see joy, and they see themselves, no matter what age they are, I’m hoping that is the point,” says McDaniel.
Other examples of celebration in the book include Viv swinging from her parents’ arms and Viv reaching for the highest bookshelf to pick an adventure book. She also races on her bike, though unfortunately with her hands up. Viv falls to the ground and is comforted by her coach, who helps her get back up. Hands Up! is about joyful family moments and celebration. It’s also about vulnerability, pain, and growth.
The most powerful image in McDaniels’ book is the final illustration, in which an older Viv marches in a protest. It’s profound but just as colorful and heartwarming as the rest of the book. Viv leads a crowd of community members carrying signs that say “Black Lives Matter,” “Love Your Neighbor,” and “Water = Life,”
“Even though it’s so few words at the very end of the book, we [McDaniel and her editor] wanted to be able to capture resilience and hope and grace and community and unity all within that last spread,” says McDaniel.
McDaniel’s greatest feat is her ability to convey so much with such few words. For that reason, among many others, children and adults alike will be able to appreciate this empowering book.