The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A girl changed how we see crayons and skin color. Now, she’s an author.

As Bellen Woodard has grown, so has the movement she started at 8

The cover of 11-year-old Bellen Woodard's book. (Courtesy of Scholastic)

To see how a moment turned into a movement you just have to flip through the pages of Bellen Woodard’s new book.

Written against colorful illustrations, the story takes readers back to when the Northern Virginia girl was 8 and a classmate asked if she could hand him the “skin-colored crayon.”

“Some call it the skin-color crayon,” reads a page in the book. “I’ve heard it many times before. But this time when I pass the peach-colored crayon to him, something in me feels different.”

Flip a few pages: “Can someone pass me the skin-color crayon?” another friend asks later. The question rings through the room.

Flip again: “This question didn’t seem to bother my teacher. Or my friends.”

Flip again: “Why was I the only one feeling confused?”

Bellen is an 11-year-old straight-A student who loves the color pink, playing with her dogs and spending time with friends. She is also the CEO of her own company, an activist and, now, an author. In July, Scholastic will publish a children’s book written by Bellen and illustrated by Fanny Liem.

Titled “More than Peach,” the book details how Bellen became an industry transformer, getting people to think differently about the crayons and colored pencils that children are handed. It also encourages readers to think about what they want to change in the world.

“Did you know that the peach crayon was actually named ‘flesh’?” reads a section toward the end of the book, touching on how Crayola initially gave the crayon that name. “I found it pretty strange that there was just one crayon with that name and that even today only one was being called ‘skin-color’ crayon. So with More than Peach, I want every single person to know I value them and that their spaces (and businesses) really should, too!”

If you find yourself shopping for crayons on Target’s website now or in stores this summer, you will see Crayola now has a “Colors of the World” line. You will also see More than Peach crayons, the brand Bellen has pioneered. Here’s what you should know about those crayons that come in a wide spectrum of skin-tone colors: They were the innovation of a Black girl who knew her skin wasn’t the color of peaches and wanted to find a way for all children to feel seen.

Bellen’s book shows her talking to her mom about what happened in class and deciding that the next time someone asked for the skin-colored crayon, she would say: “Which one? Skin can be any number of beautiful colors.” In the book, she answers that way again and again. Then one day, she hears those words coming from someone else. “My teacher replies just the way I did” the book reads.

Bellen will tell you that she realized at that moment that language and perspectives could be changed.

I first told you about Bellen when she was 9 and had just created the “More than Peach” project, which aimed to get multicultural-colored crayons and colored pencils into more classrooms. At the time, her effort was focused on Loudoun County, where her family lives.

A 9-year-old girl got people to finally stop thinking of the peach-colored crayon as the ‘skin-color’ crayon

Since then, as she has grown, so has her effort. She has spoken with stars and national leaders, including Michelle Obama and Simone Biles, learned to become a public speaker and created a company that has an international reach.

Each week, she receives dozens and sometimes hundreds of drawings from children who want to show her their colorful creations. A recent package included a letter from a teacher in California that read: “Dear Bellen, Thank you for all your hard work to help make every kid feel included! We drew you some pictures to show our appreciation. You’re making a BIG difference!”

“She has so many letters and drawings from kids that say, ‘Bellen, we don’t use that language anymore,’” her mom, Tosha Woodard, said. By “that language,” those children mean they no longer call the peach crayon the skin-colored crayon.

“Many are not even from America,” Bellen said. They have come from Japan, Angola and many other countries. “They’re really cute. They’re really thoughtful. Some have rainbows. Some have drawings the kids made of themselves. It makes me feel really happy to see that the younger kids are getting it. Hopefully when they’re older, they can talk to their kids about it, and it just keeps getting better.”

On Sunday, Bellen is scheduled to speak to Girl Scouts who live overseas and in the nation’s capital for a virtual event that has been billed as “an exceptional Juneteenth celebration.”

“Be you. Brilliant,” she will tell them.

She will also tell them much more, but she hasn’t had a chance to write down her words.

When I spoke to Bellen on a recent evening, the sixth-grader (she skipped a grade) was focused on getting through a week filled with dance classes, a trip to Kings Dominion and her final days of school. She planned to choose her words for the Sunday event later. But she knew what message she hoped to convey to those girls: They should trust in themselves and the quality of their ideas.

These past few years have shown Bellen the power that an idea backed by conviction and hard work can hold.

“If I was doing something and saw no one really cared, that would probably lower my confidence and lower how much I want to keep doing this,” Bellen said. “But if I see it’s working and something is changing, it makes me want to keep going. And I definitely have seen the impact.”

I asked how she felt knowing people would soon be reading a book that tells her story.

“It’s really cool,” she said. “It just reminds me that I’m doing the right thing and that people all around the world are getting this message and that they understand it. It just makes me happy because all this hard work and everything with my schedule, it does good.”

One of the people Bellen has met through her work is Mae Jemison, who was the first Black woman from the United States to travel to space.

“Don’t shrink,” Bellen said Jameson told her.

That detail appears in the book.

So does this advice, attributed to Bellen: “Instead of asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, ask them what they want to change.”