The book features pages with different ethnicities, abilities, family structures and more.
Few smells stir up nostalgia as quickly as a box of crayons. But for some, a box of crayons stirs up emotions.
Until Crayola released its “Colors of the World” collection in 1992, many children would reach into a box only to discover there was no color to match their skin tone, not to mention a coloring page that represented their ethnicity or family structure.
However, a coloring book — titled “Finding Joy in our Differences” created by local organizations and Ringling College of Art and Design students — is hoping to change that narrative.
Sheila Birnbaum, a volunteer project manager for JFCS of the Suncoast, has helped facilitate community projects since 2015. She said that because diversity has become a pressing issue in the U.S., she knew she needed to do something, and she got the idea to create a children’s coloring book to teach lessons in a way that is easy to understand.
“Just learning about diversity is important because children need to learn about and respect all people, so they understand that everyone has differences, but we’re all alike,” Birnbaum said. “By teaching children to respect differences, it’s a beginning in the prevention of aggression and violent behavior.”
Karen Pharo, JFCS’s director of community outreach, said the project was perfect for the mission of JFCS.
“Not only are we working to eradicate illiteracy, [but also] we can now help in the fight against hate and prejudice within our local community and start it at a young age,” Pharo said.
So with permission from JFCS, Birnbaum approached Ringling College to talk about the development of a coloring and activity book for children.
Through a semesterlong internship at the college’s design center, illustrator Emily Murphy and writer Courtney Jones were assigned to the project. They were given a brief and about $90 to order other children’s books for inspiration.
Murphy said she acquired books that featured a variety of family structures, ethnicities and races to get ideas on how to broach those topics in a kid-friendly way.
Before she began, Murphy made a large list of things she noticed as a kid that were different about people and the world around her, such as food choices, body types and family structures. She also asked others in the internship to contribute to the list.
Then came the challenging part: how to share the message that everyone is different, but we should recognize and embrace it.
Murphy created a list of all the lessons she wanted to include and then filled a few spreads in her sketchbook with thumbnail drawings of what the illustration would look like.
“Kids aren’t stupid. They notice they’re different from each other, but we shouldn’t choose to ignore it,” Murphy said. “I think that it’s culturally important right now, especially with movements like Black Lives Matter. We should embrace the things that are different and treat each other accordingly, so that we’re all being given the same amount of love.”
As Murphy worked through the illustrations, she shared her ideas with Jones to begin writing text for the book. Like Murphy, Jones researched many children’s books to find kid-friendly ways to approach topics of diversity and inclusion.
She too drew from experiences she’d had as a child.
“Growing up as a young Black girl with curly hair, I went through a phase of wanting my hair to be straight and seeing that I was different,” Jones said. “When you search diverse children’s books, not much comes up, but I wanted to try and find books that I would have read when I was young, and now I’ve come full circle in helping to create one.”
Murphy and Jones worked on the book for the entire fall semester before it was ready to print. Birnbaum then had the challenge of finding the money to print the books, which is when she approached Embracing Our Differences.
Around 1,500 books were ordered in the first run for distribution to first grade students at Alta Vista Elementary, Gocio Elementary, Tuttle Elementary and Emma E. Booker Elementary.
“Our mission is to use the arts to create a better and kinder world, and that’s exactly what this book will help accomplish,” EOD Executive Director Sarah Wertheimer said. “Once students are aware that people are different than them, and that’s a good thing, they will treat others with more respect and kindness.”
JFCS is looking for ways to fund the printing of more books on its way to a goal of giving a book to every first grader in Sarasota and Manatee counties.
Murphy said that although it’s cool to be a small part in helping students where she went to school learn about inclusion, she hopes it’s a lesson that children all over the world will learn.
“At the end of the day, we’re all people, and it’s our differences that bring us together,” Murphy said. “We always want better for the world, and the way to do that is to start with children because they are the future generation.”
Those hoping to purchase a copy of the book can do so by visiting JFCS-Cares.org. All proceeds will go toward printing more books for donation.
Join the Neighborhood! Our 100% local content helps strengthen our communities by delivering news and information that is relevant to our readers. Support independent local journalism by joining the Observer's new membership program — The Newsies — a group of like-minded community citizens, like you. Be a Newsie.