Creating Characters that Steal Reader’s Hearts

During my author journey I’ve learned many things.

I’ve learned how important it is for kids to see characters in books who look like them and who have similar stories and journeys. Growing up, I didn’t have the luxury of seeing role models who looked like me in the books that I read.

Some of my favorite books to read were the Nancy Drew series. I had them all and I loved picturing that I could solve mysteries and go on my adventures just like she did. Sadly, I never found myself in her books or any books for that matter. As a child, I had more books about animals than I did with any characters that looked like I did.

Lesson #1

When I began to pursue my dream of writing and publishing children’s books, my mission was to make sure multicultural young readers would be able to see characters that represented them and their family.

Books need to not only include characters of color, but a representation of real life struggles, dreams, dilemmas, problem-solving, and courage that kids these days encounter daily.

Lesson #2

Another lesson that I’ve learned throughout my book-writing journey is that kids need to be taught the language of emotions. Students learn about math and language arts in schools, but social skills and behavioral arts are not on the teacher’s schedule. Not that they don’t want to include that in their curriculum—there are not enough hours in the day to add that piece.

Students do not learn how to listen or talk to each other during a school day, which sometimes makes all of the other stuff harder to understand too.

This socio/emotional piece is also something I’ve strived to include in my diverse books for kids…and I know I’ve achieved that in books like Heart, Love Is…, and My Dad’s Job.

Lesson #3

So as I’ve progressed with my book publishing process, I’ve learned of the importance of memorable main characters that not only steal the reader’s hearts but give them the “windows and mirrors.” In other words; the ability for young readers to see themselves (mirrors) while also learning about other traditions, ethnicities, religions, and countries (windows).

The characters in books, main or otherwise, serve as the driving force for all stories and work to reinforce the lesson, moral, or theme of the story itself. Readers want to experience the world that you’ve created through your characters.

Sometimes creating these characters can be just as challenging as writing the story itself, but I’ve been lucky enough to be inspired by those around me to create characters that make my stories stand strong. Here are a few examples:

Creating Main Characters that Steal Reader’s Hearts

Love Is…

I often get asked if the girl in Love Is…is my daughter, Kayla.

No, she is not Kayla, but she is beautiful like Kayla, isn’t she? I wanted this main character in my debut picture book to be a beautiful little girl with a tender little heart, a girl who is not any race or even really age.

I wanted this little girl to represent the spirit, youth, and innocence that I wish we were all able to maintain as we grow through life. She’s just a sweetheart who is trusting and open. She goes through her life with open outreached arms grabbing and giving love. She sees love, where most of us wouldn’t.

Kayla: A Modern Day Princess

In the story, Kayla, Anthony, and Nick and close friends and these characters are inspired by my children and the story is in this series is loosely based on our relationship, specifically Kayla’s upbringing.

It is not 100% true to our story, but our life definitely looked a lot like this. I worked a lot during Kayla’s childhood, which I have always felt guilty about. Throughout her childhood, I always tried to do things to show her how precious she was to me. I wanted her to feel so special, like royalty… like a princess, and to not interpret my absence as anything related to her or my feelings for her. I often bought her items that were similar to things a princess might have.

I think too during all the time I spent away from her I had dreams for how her life should be, how I wanted it to be. I thought about it a lot. She surprised me when she grew up way too fast for me and had a mind all her own. I did not know where her strength and determination came from; she was so very strong. Only in looking back could I see that this is what she learned from me. I was not always there, but she was watching me chase my dreams. And now she’s chasing hers.

I Want to be a Bennett Belle

This book is a tribute to the HBCU (Historically Black College and University) that my mother, Andrea, my Aunt Penny, my sister Amanda, and I all attended. They all graduated from Bennett College, and they each credit the school with changing their lives for the better. I feel the same way.

University Bennett College is special for many reasons and is often referred to as “the Mecca of Black girl magic.”

Bennett College is one of only two HBCU’s for women of color in the country. The other is Spelman College. Many HBCU’s have closed and are in danger of closing, including Bennett, which is a true travesty. Bennett and Spelman together are responsible for over half of all Black women in the country who go on to earn doctorates in scientific fields. This is more than the number produced by all seven of the sister Ivy League schools combined.

Bennett College changed my life in more ways than I can even identify. At a time in my life when I felt lost with no place in the world, Bennett welcomed me and polished me into a bright sparkly diamond. It was like I felt no one could see me– and after I left Bennett– I knew they could. I graduated from Bennett sharp, focused, and ready to change the world.

I think it is cool how the grandmother in the story is so excited about talking about something she loves. Adults often get excited when kids want to hear about their life or some journey they had. This time between the grandmother and granddaughter is extraordinary. I love all the endearing names that the grandmother calls her granddaughter throughout the entire story. The little girl in the book represents my granddaughter (if I’m lucky enough to have one). It is the story I plan to tell her.

My Dad’s Job

The inspiration for this book is my husband Anthony, and our oldest son, Little Anthony.

Though I had them in mind, this is not exactly a memoir of their time together (but it’s close).  I wanted to write about the power of modeling and follow through. You do not always have to yell or repeat yourself a thousand times to be heard as a parent. My husband does happen to be really good at this, and he is a man of few words. He sets the expectation and ensures follow-through. He has a knack for it and makes it look easy, but this book is about the steady guidance, and modeling kids need. In therapy, we call this planting seeds. Sometimes it seems as nothing has changed, mattered, or taken root and then one day you look up, and there’s full bloom!

Parenting is a whole lot of that. I thought that my real life, Anthony, the Dad, is a kind and relatable character although I don’t think he always comes off as kind in the book. The method to his madness comes through in the end.

Think of it Like This

Think of it Like This! is about one of the most common problems we address in therapy– Perspective.

There are so many times in life that we feel defeated all because something did not go the way we expected it to go. Sometimes we can even make things worse instead of just letting life play out the way it is meant to be. All of the kiddos in this book represent real kids with real problems. I think it helps to kind of get inside their head a little bit to hear their thoughts, why they think their situation is the end of the world, and then how it all comes together in the end when they calmly and rationally put their problem in perspective. I have had so many kids read this book and say that one of these stories is about them!

The Story Behind the Story

I have many more characters in my ten books that I would love to go on and on about! However, the bottom line is, whether you are a reader, author, parent, teacher, or caregiver, every character in every book has a “story beyond the story,” and I encourage everyone to learn a little more about the books and the authors they read. I promise it will add depth and enchantment to a picture book beyond the words and illustrations.

Happy Reading!


About Deedee Cummings

As a therapist, attorney, author, and CEO of Make A Way Media, Deedee Cummings has a passion for making the world a better place. All ten of Cummings’ diverse picture, poetry, and workbooks for kids reflect her professional knowledge and love of life. Colorful and vibrant, her children’s books are not only fun for kids and adults to read, they also work to teach coping skills, reinforce the universal message of love, encourage mindfulness, and facilitate inclusion for all. Cummings has spent more than two decades working within the family therapy and support field and much of her writing shares her experiences of working with kids in therapeutic foster care. As a result, her catalogs of published books for kids are filled with positive, hopeful messages. Using therapeutic techniques in her stories to teach coping skills, Cummings also strives to lessen the stigma that some people feel when it comes to receiving mental health assistance.
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