The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This woman combats a White-dominated book industry by printing her own

Kelsea Johnson co-founded a publishing house that tells stories about people of color being exceptional just by living “normal lives”

Kelsea Johnson is the co-founder of Stirred Stories, a company that specializes in publishing books that feature diverse stories. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
9 min

A story of a Black girl loving her hair. A Jewish family celebrating Shabbat. A Black grandmother using grocery shopping as a way to talk to her granddaughter about the importance of diversity. A child learning his mom is transgender.

These are the stories native Washingtonian Kelsea Johnson has published through the company she co-founded with a goal of promoting and sharing narratives that reflect the kind of diversity that she said is too often ignored by mainstream publishing companies and on television screens.

She realized many of the stories she was exposed to through books, TV shows and movies did not resonate with her lived experiences. When a story did center a person from a marginalized community, she said, it often included that person overcoming a feat. She wondered: Where were the stories about people of color being exceptional just by living “normal lives?”

These questions were part of a conversation with her college friend, Kyle Porro, in 2019 that inspired them to found their company, Stirred Stories. Since launching in 2020, Stirred Stories has published four books, with another five in the works. The books have reached 22 states and some are available on shelves at two local vendors, including the Outrage, a social justice store, and Little District Books, an independent bookstore sharing LGBTQIA authors and stories, Johnson said. The slogan is “publishing for a better tomorrow.”

“The intersection of being a Black person, and a woman really gives me an investment in marginalized communities and having our voices heard at mainstream levels,” said Johnson, 27, who lives in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, but grew up in Hillcrest. “We’re really excited to not just tell these marginalized stories, but to make them as authentic as possible.”

There’s been growing awareness and demands for the industry to rectify these decades-long shortcomings, including from the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement and #PublishingPaidMe calls for authors to disclose advances to show disparities between White authors and authors of color.

Hachette, one of the largest publishing houses, reported that 34 percent of contracts with new contributors and illustrators were with authors who identified as Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) in 2021, compared to 29 percent in 2020, and 22 percent in 2019, according to a March 2022 report, the third annual report on the company’s efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusion. Its workforce remained 64.6 percent White. Penguin Random House, another publishing giant, released an audit of its published programs that found nearly 75 percent of its U.S. contributors were White.

Johnson, who had joined the thousands of people protesting the 2020 police killing of George Floyd and demanding an end to police brutality and racism, said those public campaigns were a “long overdue” spotlight on pay gaps. She said they reinforced the frustration she already had about whose stories were being told and “lit a fire” under her to move forward with her plans.

Sharing their stories

At Stirred Stories, Johnson said, they prioritize diversity and representation in every step of turning their authors’ stories into books.

Every project’s team is comprised of people with similar lived experiences. The illustrator for “The Grocery Game” children’s book, where a Black grandmother and her granddaughter talk about the importance of diversity while grocery shopping, was also a Black woman. For the children’s book “My Mommy is a He,” a story about a child learning about what transgender means as his mom begins his gender affirming transition, included a transgender illustrator and a nonbinary editor. “The Butcher, the Baker, and the Candlestick Maker,” a children’s book about a Jewish child shopping for what his family needs to observe Shabbat while his mom has a cold, also included a Jewish editor and illustrator.

A curriculum is available for each of those books to guide children, families and educators through conversations about these topics in hopes that the potential “newness or lack of familiarity” of a given topic would not end up being “a barrier to someone picking up a book,” Johnson said.

Zina Fattah, 26, of Arlington, Va., is the visual strategist for Stirred Stories and also helps create the curriculums. As an Arab American from a Muslim faith background, Fattah said she does not see much representation of her life in mainstream stories. She hopes one day to help publish a story about Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims, that she said could teach meaningful lessons about discipline, generosity and charity.

“If I could at least help one person elevate their voice and share their story, there would be no greater reward than just that,” Fattah said.

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Johnson, whose mom is a high school English teacher in D.C., looks to the matriarchs of her family for her inspiration.

Her maternal grandmother, Carolyn Boone Lewis, who died in 2002 at 65 years old, had the ear of then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry through her work supporting the city. Lewis was also among the first Black women to be hired at the Securities and Exchange Commission, where she specialized in finance and mutual fund regulation and worked for more than three decades.

Then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly proclaimed Oct. 21, 1993, Carolyn Boone Lewis Day in the city.

Johnson’s great-godmother, Barbara Evon Whiting-Wright, who died at 83, mentored “legions” of Black female attorneys during her decades-long legal career.

In early adulthood, Johnson said she had a “lightbulb moment” and realized: “Oh, my goodness, I’ve been surrounded by exceptional women.”

“They very intentionally didn’t point out their exceptionalism because they wanted me to grow up viewing that as normal. They wanted me to feel naturally empowered to strive for what they had achieved, or even more. Or to feel like of course, I belong in certain spaces that typically women, especially women of color, are told they don’t belong,” said Johnson, who graduated from Elon University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. “Stories like theirs weren’t told.”

Resisting ‘assault and erasure’

Katherine Rosenblatt, 41, Montclair, N.J., wrote her book because it was one she needed — and could not find.

As a social worker who primarily works in early-childhood education, and a former teacher, she often turns to children’s books to help explain the world to her two sons, who call her Mama and her partner Mommy. But when their Mommy began his transition about five years ago, she could not find any book that could help her eldest son, then about 4, understand what was happening and why.

She wrote about this experience, taking notes on the questions her eldest son asked them, observations around how he processed it, and how she and her partner tried to explain gender identity. In June 2021, Stirred Stories published the story, “My Mommy is a He!” told through the perspective of Rosenblatt’s eldest son.

“When I was three and a half, my Mommy told me he had always felt like his body didn’t quite fit,” the boy says in the book. Another line reads, which Rosenblatt said was a direct quote from her eldest son: “I felt special knowing that I was grown in a transgender body.”

The child in the book also talks about learning there are more than two genders. “Some people are boys and some are girls, and some aren’t either and some are both! I also learned that some people’s gender changes as they learn more about who they are.”

Rosenblatt worries about the “assault and erasure” of transgender stories, which school systems have banned from classrooms and libraries. She hopes to find a way to get her book into the hands of people who need it. On Stirred Stories’ website, people can opt to donate a copy of “My Mommy is a He!” to a library or school affected by anti-transgender legislation or a nonprofit that supports transgender youth.

“I just really hope that the people that need to see themselves in the book see themselves in the book,” Rosenblatt said. “And that folks who have never thought about gender can challenge those ideas and assumptions that they believe to be fact or truth and really open their minds and hearts to thinking about gender differently.”

He came out as trans. Then Texas had him investigate parents of trans kids.

At first, Kai-ama Mootoo-Hamer, 47, who lives in the Bronx, wrote a poem for herself, or more specifically, for the little Black girl inside of her who needed to still hear she was beautiful.

Hamer found self-love and acceptance for her natural hair in adulthood. As a child, she wanted straight hair and started relaxing her hair when she was 11 years old — and continued to do so for 30 years. At 41, she shaved her hair and grew out her natural hair.

Hamer read her poem to Rosenblatt, her co-worker, and Rosenblatt encouraged her to seek out Stirred Stories to turn it into a book. “Cornrows, Box Braids, and Little Afro Puffs,” her book about a little Black girl visiting a hair salon with her supportive mother and learning to love herself, was published in June 2022.

“Your eyes are brown and big and bright. Your nose is round and sits just right. Your lips are full and fit your face. Your smile, my love, is perfectly placed,” the mother tells her daughter in the book. “And your hair is soft and big and free. It’s just the way that it should be.”

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Hamer hopes all children reading this book come away feeling that they are beautiful. And she hopes it teaches them to recognize the beauty in others.

“I wrote the book for everyone but particularly for little Black girls to see themselves in books and know that they could be the cover of a book and can be the main character,” she said. “But I want any children of any race or culture to look at it and say: ‘This character is beautiful, but so am I. And she’s different than me, but we’re both beautiful.’”