Technically, Annette McKinney got her first paid writing job as a young child. Growing up, she and her family de ella moved around all over the world thanks to her father’s military career. Since they could n’t visit with their extended family very often, her mother de ella started their “McKinney Family Journal,” chronicling their adventures around the world with contributions from the kids. Those experiences — traveling, writing, experiencing different cultures — made their mark. McKinney recently published her first children’s book, “On Mama’s Back,” celebrating cultural diversity and commonalities of human connection.
“The story is significant because ‘On Mama’s Back’ explores how we are connected to others around the world in a very simple, but meaningful way. Considering the way events have been playing out across the world over the past three years or so, recognizing our underlying connection as human beings is needed,” she says. “It celebrates the beautiful tradition of baby wearing (the practice of wearing or carrying a baby in a sling or other 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 with a local staffing firm and lives in San Diego’s Mountain View neighborhood with her fiance, and daughter and a son. She took some time to talk about the themes of the book, how her background de ella in early childhood education helped inform the lessons she included in the book, and the time she competed against the state’s best high school high jumpers when she was in middle school.
Q: Tell us about “On Mama’s Back.”
TO: The story came to me a decade ago, almost in its entirety, and it was one of those random urges to just start writing. From the moment I decided to seriously work on it, the process took about two years to get it to final publication.
The main character featured on the cover is my daughter. In the story, she recounts her joy with experiencing the day up on high, “on mama’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 frequently been regarded as less than worth of celebration, or even acknowledgement. My amazing illustrator, Thaoo Aishat Hasati, brought such a refined, intuitive sensibility that she drew on her own shared experiences of her as a baby wearing mother of six, a doula, and traveler to countries that include Russia and Burkina Faso.
Q: What would you say is the purpose of the book?
TO: I would say that the main purposes are to celebrate connection, culture, and reading as a learning tool. I really wanted to help provide a foundation for families and educators to have conversations about culture. Understanding how impactful representation is in early development, the lessons I gained from learning about the “Clark doll experiment” from the 1930s was in 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 already showed deeply rooted self-hatred related to their skin tones. Naturally, I asked myself about ways that I could help tip the scales in favor of underrepresented little children feeling celebrated in positive ways in their world. If ignorance is partly to blame, then surely leaving a path for inquisitive minds to follow is a step in the right direction. As a mother with young children, and my background in early childhood education, I have witnessed how children constantly ask open-ended questions like “Why?” and “What’s that?” in the relentless pursuit of understanding the world around them. I want to leverage those amazing, inquisitive minds and support the creation of neural pathways produced by experiences that value human diversity early in life.
Q: How did your background as a teacher and in early childhood development influence the way you approached telling this particular story?
TO: I think my background in education and my childhood traveling the world greatly influenced my story. I was intentional about bringing representation into the book because true life and nature are the epitome of diversity. I purposely included words that children may not typically encounter because it is in their nature to learn. With each of these new words comes the opportunity to extend conversation outside the confines of the book. Even more confident readers may seek assistance from an adult or a more advanced reader. In this way, the book encourages conversation, which is so important when reading. The goal is to create conversations, stir up questions, and help children be more accepting of the differences they may observe (especially when they can relate 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, in ways that can serve as learning tools without even realizing it .
What I love about San Diego’s Mountain View neighborhood…
It’s close to all of the major freeways. I’m just a hop, skip, and a jump to the beach, hiking, the zoo, Liberty Station, and so many amazing parks. As expensive as it is to live in San Diego, access to amazing scenery and natural beauty helps to make living here more palatable, even with lighter pockets.
Q: You got your start as a storyteller writing for your family’s newsletter?
TO: My father 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 were not able to visit family as often, so creating a family newsletter was an awesome way for us to develop our voices, our writing skills, and to express our thoughts with our family. Our newsletter started around 1995 and I was 8 years old when I began writing stories about our new adventures in a foreign, European land. My stories revolved around my class trips to Vincent van Gogh’s home, learning to speak French, our travels to Italy and ferry boat rides to Canterbury, and a love of eating authentic English fish and chips with tiny forks. Our parent would type what we said, verbatim (age-appropriate errors were not corrected) and scanned copies of our drawings were included in the publication. Our extended family adored it. At one point, they began sending us money in appreciation and support, so I suppose “On Mama’s Back” really isn’t the first time I’ve received compensation for my writing. Maybe I should update my CV.
Q: Can you share a few examples of the extended learning activities you’ve included in the book?
TO: Absolutely. It was crucial to create activities that encourage children to go back to the story and engage with it again. One of the activities instructs the reader to find certain images within 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, recall and critical thinking. There are also pages to support number and color recognition in a way that connects the sight words with colors and the image on the page. For those interested in expanding the story’s reach further, a lesson plan companion pack is available on my website (www.author-annette.com) with a few more fun activities focused on learning outcomes and opportunities.
Q: What informed your selection of the activities that made the cut?
TO: Novel experiences are wonderful ways to stimulate open-ended questions in younger children. The book features different cultures displaying their different baby wearing techniques, the mirrored story from a Western and an African way of participating in the same activity, and slightly advanced words (eg “sous chef,” “turmeric,” and “indigenous”), which are all included to spark conversation and larger 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 determine is right for the child. This allows parents of children 2 to 8 years old to have meaningful conversations from the book, and for the child to grow with the book, gaining more from it as they read it over time.
Q: What has this process of writing your book taught you about yourself?
TO: This work has taught me not to doubt myself and to just let the fear go!
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
TO: Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) said, “An organization which claims to be working for the needs of a community … must work to provide that community with a position of strength from which to make its voice heard.” To me this advice affirms the notion that empowerment and representation are critical tools in uplifting communities.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
TO: As a middle schooler, I competed with the local, high school track team. That year, as a middle school student, I won the state title for the high jump, competing against high school students. Considering my small stature, people were surprised that I was able to jump as high as I did. I could jump higher than my own height.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
TO: It would begin with me waking up at a beautiful, ocean-facing hotel in the late morning, with breakfast ready for me. I’d get ready for the day, and my family and I would bring our skates and lunch to Harbor Island, the marina, or any number of beaches to soak in the sun and water on a perfect, 75-degree day. After getting cleaned up, we would enjoy an amazing vegan meal and play board games for the rest of the evening. The next day, after sleeping in, I’d leisurely read and write on the couch with my children. Then, we’d all cook food together, and they’d play to their hearts’ content.