You are enough — This is a quote by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Angelou. All you have to be is you. You do not have to learn to be anyone else. That is the best part. It is actually quite freeing.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tiffany Obeng.
Tiffany is the owner and principal author of Sugar Cookie Books, publishing imprint. Tiffany creates children’s books to educate and inspire children, especially children of color, to aspire to be anything they want to be. Strongly believing that if they can see it, they can be it, all of the career books feature diverse professionals and small black history lessons. Tiffany’s children’s books also feature Black children, particularly Black boys, in universal situations. In this way, all children are humanized. As an independent publisher, Tiffany identifies gaps in children’s literature (particularly in the picture book space), fill those gaps and fill them quickly. With a diverse collection of children’s books, there is always something for everyone. From career exploration books to SEL books to seasons books and even Spanish books. Additionally, as a literacy advocate, Tiffany through Sugar Cookies Books creates and offers companion activity kits for many of the books. Recently, Sugar Cookie Books expanded to include inspirational puzzles, clothing, stickers, notebooks, and more.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Houston. I am the youngest of three children, and the only girl. Growing up I loved to read and write. At school, Drop Everything and Read was a good time, and journal time was the cherry on top. Even as a child, I was often praised for my writing and reading level. I have always been more comfortable communicating in writing than verbally, and still am.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
I was introduced to Dr. Maya Angelou at a young age and was drawn to her as a writer. I recall having to learn a poem to recite before a class, so I learned Phenomenal Woman. As I have grown older, I now realize how significant that poem was for all women and Black women particularly. Like Dr. Maya Angelou, I strive to create impactful content for marginalized people.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
A mistake I made when starting out is a common one, I believe, for new business owners. I made the mistake of not defining my target audience. Instead, I attempted to rely on friends and family for support and success. With my first book, I was satisfied with the support from my limited circle. Everyone was buying a book or announcing it on their social media to support. My sales were good for the first couple of days and then tanked. I tried to the same thing when I released my second book, but found that these friends and family were, perhaps, tapped out. The first week’s sales from the second book did not compare to the first week’s sales of the second book. This is when I realized if I was going to publish more books, I had to be strategic. I learned that in order to have any sustainable business, it is imperative to create a market plan and define my avatar. Doing so has saved me a lot of money, energy, and heartbreak. Now, before each book release, I develop a marketing plan that includes a clearly defined target audience. I have seen much more success and steady success. Books have topped “bestseller” lists, been requested in bulk by strangers of large organizations, and been recommended on blogs and in magazines. None of this would have happened if I just stayed within my circle.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your books?
Still today, in 2023, Black characters account for less than 13 percent of children’s literature. Certain professions have the same issue: lack of diversity. So, I publish books like Andrew Learns about Lawyers and Andrew Learns about Engineers, that intentionally showcase characters that look like our children in that workspace. This is so important because there was a time when Black children (and Black people generally) could only aspire to become the best domestic or field worker. I want children to know that the possibilities are now endless. So I write these books to educate children about various career options that they may not otherwise come to know. Additionally, I hope that introducing careers to Black children will have the long-term effect of diversifying professions, such as lawyer and engineer.
Equally important, my books feature relatable Black child characters, especially Black boys, in normal everyday situations. In this way, our Black children are normalized, they are humanized, and the world can be made a safer place for them.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
In easy-to-read chapter book, Two Houses Down: A Children’s Story about Divorce and Friendship, I share with the reader that the storybook was actually inspired by my own childhood. I authored Two Houses Down from the perspective of my best friend whom I had lived two houses down from before my parents divorced. Though my best friend and I were able to reconnect a few times over our childhood years, I often wondered as an adult, how my parents’ divorce might have made my best friend feel. I wondered what questions my best friend asked her parents when she learned of my parents’ divorce and my subsequent move. There are plenty of kids’ books about divorce, but none like Two Houses Down. I wrote this book with the hopes that it can be used as a universal tool to talk to all kids about divorce, in order to raise understanding as well as empathy for those who become children of divorced parents.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
In 2020, I decided to embark on the journey of becoming an author as a bucket-list item. After some research, I quickly realized that the traditional publishing route was not readily available to me as a no-name, first-time, minority author. So, I turned my research efforts to creating my own publishing imprint and going at authorship and publication independently. I published my first children’s picture book Andrew Learns about Actors in August 2020. Six months later, I published my second picture book, Andrew Learns about Teachers. I was an author, and I was happy.
However, as I would scroll through social media, I would see peer authors post daunting statistics related to diversity (or lack of diversity) in children’s literature. It bothered me that Black main characters only accounted for about 13 percent of children’s literature, far behind children’s literature that featured animals! On top of that, the children’s literature that feature Black characters are overwhelmingly biographies of prominent historical figures or another historical context or written by non-Black authors. This was a turning point for me as I stared at my son’s bookshelves and recalled my own childhood bookshelves that were dearth of diverse children’s books. I decided that I was no longer writing just to fulfil a bucket list item. I was now writing for so much more.
Determined to make a significant impact in the children’s picture book space, I kicked my efforts into high gear. I was no longer just an author; I was now a publisher with a clear mission. Since October 2020, I have published 14 more children’s picture books (16 books total), all with the goal of educating, inspiring and normalizing our Black children. I am considered a “rapid publisher,” being that I have published so many books within such a short period. People always ask me: how do I find the time as a wife, mother, and full-time employee. At the time of this interview, I just released the fifth book in the career books series, Andrew Learns about Scientists, and I am actively in production on three more books to be released early 2023.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
As a children’s book publisher, I, of course, advocate for literacy among our children. One of the major benefits of participating in vendor events is the ability to meet these children. I was vending at a local library festival when an elementary-aged Black boy (who I will name “Xavier” for the sake of readability) and his mom walked by my booth. I greeted Xavier and Mom and invited them over to learn more about my books. Mom shared that Xavier does not like to read, he does not like books, he just will not read them. The revelation was heartbreaking.
I asked Xavier why he did not like books. He shrugged. I asked if it were because he could not relate to the books. He shrugged. I asked if it were because the books did not have characters that look like him. He shrugged again. I picked up Black Boy Hair Joy, a rhyming book that celebrates Black boys and their hair. I engaged Xavier as I flipped through the book’s pages and read some of the lines. Xavier started talking to me. After a few pages I said, “Okay, I do not want to hold you any longer. Have a great rest of your day.” Mom replied solemnly, “Yeah, he just does not like books.” They left.
A few seconds later, Xavier returned. He said, “My mom asked me to ask you how much your books are?” I said, “Oh sure! Black Boy Hair Joy is $10.99.” He left. A few seconds later, Xavier and Mom both returned. Mom beamed, “He said he wants the book!” The news caused an immediate celebration between Mom and me. Xavier, the boy who does not like books or to read, liked MY book and wanted to read MY book! We completed the transaction, I gleefully signed his book, and mom took a photo of me and Xavier before leaving, this time, for good. This customer moment solidified how important representation is. Representation in literature and media has so much power, and this is why Sugar Cookie Books publishing imprint exists.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Yep! To clarify, one of the major problems that I aim to solve is lack of diversity in literature. Here are three things the community/society/politicians can do to help with this cause:
1. Stop the attacks on books. Book banning targets certain books; often times books featuring BIPOC characters. This silences diverse voices and hides truths. Our voices must be amplified if we are going to move the needle on diversity in literature.
2. Large publishers must utilize more Black authors and writers to tell Black stories. Books are published bearing our Black children or faces, but the voice (the writer and creators) behind the book do not match. If publishers really believe in diversity, then they have to amplify our voices as well.
3. Customers can support diverse literature by buying our work, leaving positive reviews on known retailer sites, requesting our books in chain bookstores and libraries, supporting indie bookstores, and by simple word of mouth.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is taking creating a path or lane alone or together with others. I have not only set up a publishing imprint that only publishes books featuring Black children and families. I have also published 20 books in less than three years. An author-peer recently told me that I will “single handedly” change the book industry. That proclamation initially scared me because I did not get in the industry to change it. But I stayed in the industry to change it. I, and other underrepresented authors, are making a difference in children’s picture literature, one book at a time, so our children’s bookshelves and our grandchildren’s bookshelves and our great grandchildren’s bookshelves will not look like our bookshelves growing up. Their bookshelves will be much more diverse and inclusive.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
1. You never know who is watching. — I sometimes receive from “friends” on social media “random” messages congratulating me on being an author or expressing being inspired by me. Just when I think my posts go into a “black hole” and have not been seen by anyone, someone reminds me that they do see them and me.
2. When you stay in your lane, there is no traffic. — This is a quote by Ava DuVernay, and it reminds me of the quote, “comparison is the thief of joy.” It does not matter if we do it differently or reach milestones at different rates, we are all doing our thing. Stay focused.
3. Define your mission because that is the only thing you have. — I did not start seeing financial “success” until my third book. However, I already felt successful because I had accomplished what I had set out to do.
4. Success is what you make it. –You know what you are trying to accomplish. You know your goals. Always remember that.
5. You are enough. — This is a quote by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Angelou. All you have to be is you. You do not have to learn to be anyone else. That is the best part. It is actually quite freeing.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It might have been done before, but not by you.” There are so many authors, writers, and publishers. Independent publishing is accessible and booming in 2023. So, the book market is saturated. It is rare that an author, or I specifically, will write a story about a topic or idea that has not been written before. But none of this matters because I am the only me.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I feel this is a bit cliché, but Oprah Winfrey because she was so close to Dr. Maya Angelou. Also, Ava DuVernay because she is so inspirational and an advocate for women and minorities in media. She is using her creative space and skills to provide opportunities for others, and I absolutely adore that. Following her example, I plan to use my platform(s) and skills to provide opportunities and support to my peers, in whatever way I can.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Teachers Pay Teachers: https://www.teacherspayteachers/store/sugar-cookie-books
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Tiffany Obeng Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.