Technically, Annette McKinney got her first paid writing job as a young child. Growing up, she and her family moved all over the world thanks to her father’s military career. Since they couldn’t visit their extended family very often, his mother started their “McKinney Family Journal”, chronicling their adventures around the world with the children’s contributions. These experiences – traveling, writing, discovering different cultures – have made their mark. McKinney recently released her first children’s book, “On Mama’s Back,” celebrating cultural diversity and the commonalities of human connection.
“The story is important because ‘On Mama’s Back’ explores how we are connected to others around the world in a very simple, yet meaningful way. Considering how events have unfolded across the world over the past three years or so, there is a need to recognize our underlying bond as human beings,” she says. “It celebrates the beautiful tradition of babywearing (the practice of carrying or carrying a baby in a sling or another carrier) by exploring the world through the perspective of young children and demonstrating that they are co-creators in their learning and socialization.”
McKinney, 35, is an operations manager at a local recruiting firm and lives in the Mountain View neighborhood of San Diego with her fiancé, daughter and son. She took the time to talk about the themes of the book, how her early childhood education background helped inform the lessons she included in the book, and her time competing against top jumpers. from state high school when she was in college.
Q: Tell us about “On Mama’s Back”.
A: The story came to me ten years ago, almost in its entirety, and it was one of those random urges to start writing. From the moment I decided to seriously work on it, the process took about two years to bring it to final publication.
The main character featured on the cover is my daughter. In the story, she recounts her joy of living the day high up, “on mum’s back”. As the story begins to unfold, you see the same narrative from the perspective of a mother and child in West Africa. The story seeks to truly humanize and create a sense of connection with a part of the world that has often been seen as undeserving of celebration, or even recognition. My amazing illustrator, ThaooAishat Hasati, brought such a refined and intuitive sensibility that drew on her own shared experiences as a mother carrying a baby of six, a doula, and a traveler to countries like Russia and Burkina Faso.
Q: What do you think is the purpose of the book?
A: I would say the main goals are to celebrate connection, culture and reading as a tool for learning. I really wanted to help provide a foundation for families and educators to have conversations about culture. Understanding how representation impacts early development, the lessons I learned from learning the “Clark Doll Experiment” 1930s was at the forefront of my process [psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark conducted an experiment presenting identical White and Black dolls to Black schoolchildren, asking the children which dolls were “nice,” “bad,” and “most like you”; the Black schoolchildren selected the White dolls as “nice” and the Black dolls as “bad” and most like them; the results of the experiment were used in the arguments of “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka,” the U.S. Supreme Court case on school segregation].
Children as young as 6 years old were already showing deep-rooted self-hatred linked to their skin color. Naturally, I wondered how I could help tip the scales in favor of underrepresented little kids who feel positively celebrated in their world. If ignorance is partly to blame, then leaving a path for curious minds to follow is certainly a step in the right direction. As a mother of young children, and my experience in early childhood education, I have witnessed how children constantly ask open-ended questions like “Why?” and “What is it?” in their relentless quest to understand the world around them. I want to tap into these amazing and curious minds and support the creation of neural pathways produced by experiences that value human diversity early in life.
Q: How did your experience as a teacher and in early childhood development influence your approach to telling this particular story?
A: I think my background in education and my childhood traveling the world greatly influenced my story. I intended to bring representation into the book because real life and nature are the embodiment of diversity. I’ve deliberately included words that children don’t usually come across because it’s in their nature to learn. With each of these new words comes the opportunity to extend the conversation beyond the confines of the book. Even more confident readers can seek help from an adult or more advanced reader. In this way, the book encourages conversation, which is so important when reading. The goal is to create conversations, prompt questions, and help children become more accepting of the differences they may observe (especially when they can identify themselves in some way). As a teacher, I learned that entire lesson plans can be created from a single book. So I made sure to incorporate opportunities for basic concepts, such as counting, colors and geography, so that they could serve as learning tools without me even realizing it. .
What I love about the Mountain View neighborhood of San Diego…
It is close to all major highways. I’m just a hop, hop, and hop to the beach, hiking, zoo, Liberty Station, and so many amazing parks. As expensive as living in San Diego is, access to incredible scenery and natural beauty helps make life here more enjoyable, even with lighter pockets.
Q: Did you start out as a storyteller writing for your family’s newsletter?
A: My dad served in the military for 20 years and our family was stationed in Belgium for a few of those years. If I’m not mistaken, the initial idea for the “McKinney Family Journal” came from my mother, who was also an early childhood educator. I think she recognized the importance of connection since we couldn’t visit family as often, so creating a family newsletter was a great way for us to develop our voices, writing skills and to express our thoughts with our family. Our newsletter started around 1995 and I was 8 years old when I started writing stories about our new adventures in a foreign, European country. My stories revolved around my class trips to Vincent van Gogh, learning French, our trips to Italy and ferry rides to Canterbury, and the love of eating authentic English fish and chips with small forks. Our parent typed what we said, verbatim (age-appropriate errors were not corrected) and scanned copies of our drawings were included in the post. Our extended family loved it. At some point, they started sending us money as appreciation and support, so I guess “On Mama’s Back” really isn’t the first time I’ve received compensation for my writing. Maybe I should update my resume.
Q: Can you share some examples of extended learning activities that you have included in the book?
A: Absoutely. It was crucial to create activities that encourage children to return to the story and re-engage with it. One of the activities asks the reader to find certain images in the pages of the story. As a traveling family, one of our favorite games was “I Spy”, so I wanted to include a nostalgic nod to my own childhood. This activity can help young readers work on awareness, memory and critical thinking. There are also pages to support number and color recognition in a way that relates visual words to colors and the image on the page. For those who wish to extend the scope of the story further, a companion lesson plan pack is available on my website (www.auteur-annette.com) with some additional fun activities focused on outcomes and learning opportunities.
Q: What influenced your selection of activities that made the cut?
A: New experiences are wonderful ways to stimulate open-ended questions in young children. The book features different cultures showing their different babywearing techniques, the mirrored story of a Western and African way of participating in the same activity, and slightly advanced words (e.g. “sous chef”, “turmeric” and “indigenous”), all of which are included to spark conversation and broader discussions around culture. I wanted to start the conversation and then leave it open to allow each family member or teacher to provide more context based on what they felt was good for the child. This allows parents of children ages 2-8 to have meaningful conversations from the book, and the child to grow with the book, enjoying it more the more they read it.
Q: What has this process of writing your book taught you about yourself?
A: This work taught me not to doubt myself and to let go of fear!
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) said: “An organization that claims to work for the needs of a community…must work to provide that community with a position of strength from which to make their voice heard. For me, this advice confirms the idea that empowerment and representation are essential tools in uplifting communities.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: As a middle schooler, I competed with the local high school track team. That year, as a middle school student, I won the state high jump title, competing with high school students. Considering my small size, people were surprised that I could jump as high as I could. I could jump higher than my own height.
Q: Please describe your ideal weekend in San Diego.
A: It would start with waking up in a beautiful hotel facing the ocean in the late morning, with breakfast ready for me. I was getting ready for the day, and my family and I would bring our skates and lunch to Harbor Island, the marina, or a number of beaches to soak up the sun and water on a perfect 75 degree day. After cleaning up, we enjoyed an amazing vegan meal and played board games for the rest of the evening. The next day, after sleeping, I read and wrote quietly on the sofa with my children. Then we all cooked together and they played as they pleased.