Finding your “value magic”: Black Girl Magic Book Club connects elementary school students with protagonists of color


Photo courtesy of Alecia Wartowski

District 65 teachers Jennifer Tertulien and Jenna Arceneaux started a Black Girl Magic book club after noticing a lack of representation in children’s books. Their book of the month is “Sulwe and Her Stories” by Lupita Nyong’o and Vashti Harrison.

Avani Kalra, Assistant City Editor

When Evanston/Skokie School District 65 teachers Jennifer Tertulien and Jenna Arceneaux interviewed elementary school students in 2018, they asked participants to name a book character that resembled them. The two educators said what they saw was striking: girls and boys of color struggled to identify someone they could relate to.

Tertulien and Arceneaux created the Black Girl Magic Book Club to change those answers.  Students read picture books and collections such as “My Hair is a Garden,” “Her Stories” and “Freedom Soup” — all of which feature Black female protagonists. 

“When I was their age, I can only recall two books that really represented who I was and where there were characters that looked like me,” Tertulien said. “We’re kind of living vicariously through the book club as well.” 

The Black Girl Magic Book Club started at Walker Elementary during the 2018-19 school year, and hosted about 12 to 15 participants. When Tertulien moved to Lincolnwood Elementary, she started a second chapter. Now, the facilitators said they are both hosting conversations with groups of about 20 at each school. The partners are looking to start a third group at Willard Elementary within the year. 

Tertulien and Arceneaux center each book club session around a theme. Students complete a self-guided activity to supplement their reading; for their “self image” meeting, students each shared a board with pictures, words and colors that represent them before moving into discussion. Before presenting, students share a snack, usually one relating to an assigned book or its culture. They tried jambalaya, for example, after reading Bayou Magic. 

“We start by asking ‘How does the main character show Black Girl Magic,’ and allow for answer and conversation. Then we go into the Black Lives Matter guiding principles. We ask, ‘How did Black villages show up? How did empathy show up?” Arceneaux said.

Arceneaux said they are trying to teach “value magic” through these exercises. Students learn to value characters who look like themselves and their classmates while reflecting on their own “magic.”

The club is open to any student in grades three through five, regardless of identity. Tertulien said open registration is important and intentional, since every student should be exposed to Black female role models.

“Regardless of gender or race, we want to start by humanizing Black girls to everyone,” Tertulien said.

Ruth Young is a facilitator for the Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity Program at District 65, a monthly seminar that works to build a stronger and more equitable community. Arceneaux and Tertulien completed the interviews that inspired Black Girl Magic book club through the program.

Young said that clubs like Black Girl Magic are exactly what she wants to come out of the Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity Program.

“It really helps students feel a sense of belonging and feel seen,” Young said. “In many of the classrooms that they’re in they have to put on a mask. In Black Girl Magic, they were able to celebrate themselves and be celebrated.” 

Arceneaux and Tertulien added that children of many identities, not just Black girls, have not seen themselves represented in children’s books.  

In a recent discussion, Arceneaux said the group talked about a version of “Cinderella,” featuring a Black main character and an Asian prince. That conversation particularly impacted a Filipino student in Arceneaux’s class. 

“We talked about how powerful that was, because those two groups are often cast aside and told that they aren’t beautiful,” Arceneaux said. “I saw how his face lit up. He was like ‘I’ve never seen that version. I want to watch it now.’ Through these stories, I’m able to reach children and hear more about their own stories.” 

Arceneaux and Tertulien have utilized the book club to facilitate other conversations around identity, as well. Though they said it has been a challenge, the facilitators have tried to find trans affirming and clarifying books, in particular.

Arceneaux said that students recently read “When Aidan Became a Brother,” a picture book about a trans boy named Aidan who was assigned female at birth. During the discussion, she asked her students whether they consider Aidan to embody “Black Girl Magic.”

“They said that’s actually for Aidan to tell,” she said. “We all realized how icky it felt to have those conversations with Aidan’s voice missing from the story. That’s one of the best things that has come up for me –– the kids’ recognizing when a voice isn’t being heard.”

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Twitter: @avanidkalra

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