Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Q&A with Nina Jablonski and Holly McGee


Nina Jablonski



Dr. Nina Jablonski and Dr. Holly McGee are the authors of the new children's picture book Its Just Skin, Silly!. Jablonski is an anthropologist and paleobiologist whose books include Skin: A Natural History. McGee is a historian at the University of Cincinnati whose work includes the book Radical Antiapartheid Internationalism and Exile.


Q: What inspired you to write It’s Just Skin, Silly!, and how did the two of you collaborate on the book?


Nina: I have been interested in connecting with children in meaningful ways about human physical diversity. Every kid at some point wants to know why they look the way they do, and why some people look different from themselves.


Back in 2018, I had the privilege of writing a book for older children targeted at a South African audience, on this topic. I coauthored the book with an amazing South African novelist and partnered with a wonderful illustrator. I knew that something similar could be done for an American audience.


Jessica Powers, representing Catalyst Press, was the only person and publisher who took me seriously. I will never forget her generous and deeply constructive comments on my earlier book, and her willingness to pursue discussions with me about how we could make a new book together. Jessica seems to know everybody!


After a fervent search, Jessica suggested that I approach Dr. Holly McGee as a co-author. I loved the idea, and loved it even more after we had preliminary conversations. Holly has the natural ability to tell "infectious" stories that you WANT to listen to.


I conveyed the outline of the science to Holly, and she took the ball and ran with it. I knew from our conversations that the story of the evolution and meaning of skin color could be told by her better than anyone else. When I first beheld the “Epi” character, I was smitten!

Holly McGee

Holly: When Nina first conceived of the book, I was lucky enough to be brought onto the project as a historical consultant and storyteller by the editors of Catalyst Press. Nina's expertise in the field of anthropology and paleobiology guided the many conversations, virtual meetings, and correspondence it took to produce Its Just Skin, Silly!


It was just plain fun to bring my own experience as an historian of American and African American History to a project designed to debunk outdated myths associated with skin color.  


Q: What do you think Karen Vermeulen’s illustrations add to the book?


Holly: Without Karen’s meticulous and thoughtful work, It’s Just Skin, Silly! would be a simple narrative. Her illustrations transform the narrative into a fun, interactive, and (most importantly) imaginative tale that is as much a treat for the eyes as it is the mind.


Nina: Karen Vermeulen’s illustrations absolutely MAKE the book. Our star, Epi, is a wondrous shape-shifter, to whom every person can relate. To create Epi, Karen got inside of the narrative and drew them as the embodiment of whatever concept was being conveyed on the page. Epi is always recognizable and relatable, but is never the same from one page to another.


The rest of the illustration program supports the text beautifully and doesn’t crowd the page. I especially love the depictions of our ancestors!


Q: In an introduction to the book, scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes, “So much evil can be combated if our children are exposed to the  beautiful message at the heart of this lovely little book.” What do you think of his assessment, and what do you hope kids take away from the book?


Holly: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is not wrong.  Our book IS lovely, it DOES have a beautiful message, and it CAN help to combat negative ideas and misinformation that inundate children in society.  


Nina: I completely agree with Gates because he knows that distinctions of skin color have brought about so much human suffering to millions of people around the world in the last 500 years. He believes that books like ours that talk about skin color as a beautiful and understandable product of natural variation can prevent the installation of biases about color in children.


I want kids to understand and love their color and everybody else’s color too because it’s just skin, silly!


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


Nina: The book’s title was the natural outcome of many conversations and casual interchanges. Skin is just skin, and its color is just part of its natural package. We want kids to appreciate that the story of skin and skin color is simple, and that it’s just about skin!


Holly: The title is the result of numerous conversations between the authors and publishers wherein we routinely found ourselves laughingly frustrated with the work. We constantly asked ourselves and one another, “Why do people care so much about skin color?” or “Why is it so difficult to just TEACH kids about the natural world?”


In one of our conversations someone cried out, “It’s just skin!” and we knew in an instant that adding the word “silly” could really emphasize just how absurd it is to place so much importance on color.


Q: What are you working on now?


Holly: I’m currently co-editing an anthology on Black women radicals in South Africa in the 20th century, and am working on a new manuscript, King of the Jews: Race, Work, and the Memory of Kivie Kaplan in the NAACP.


Nina: I am continuing my research work on the evolution of skin and hair, and getting ready to write a nonfiction book for general audiences about hair. I am fascinated with everything about hair -- its evolution, its universal importance in human cultures, and our ever-changing obsession with it.


Q: Anything else we should know?


Nina: I love communicating good science effectively to people of all ages. I do basic research on human skin and hair -- topics that are inherently interesting to most people -- and I love explaining the science and culture behind our appearance to people. I also like listening to people speak to me on these topics. Everyone also has their own story to tell!


Holly: I’m looking forward to writing my next children's book with Catalyst Press: Hair Don't Scare. Twenty states have had to enact laws that forbid discrimination based on hair texture and hair styles, and thousands of POC K-12 students have been traumatized by school administrators and policies designed to marginalize and exclude...because of hair. 


Just as It’s Just Skin, Silly! demystifies skin color for children and adults, so too will Hair Don’t Scare for everyone with normative and unspoken assumptions about hair.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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