Four years ago, in a period of frustration and passion, Dorena Williamson started down a path that would lead her into the business of creating windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors — at least, figuratively.
Williamson is a Virginia native who has lived in Middle Tennessee for over two decades. While living in Franklin, she and her husband, Chris, lead Strong Tower Bible Church in South Nashville, and she is the author of three children’s books: “ColorFull,” “ThoughtFull” and most recently, “GraceFull.”
“I write children’s books that adults need, too,” she shares as her tagline.
While her primary audience is children, she shares messages and images through her stories that she hopes impact people from all phases of life — even messages and images she wishes she had as a little girl.
She said that the emotions that led to the eventual creation of these stories grew after the death of Trayvon Martin, a Black high school student who was shot and killed in 2012 while walking in a relative’s neighborhood in Florida. He was unarmed.
“As a mother having a son, his death was especially sad to me because of his age and circumstances and because my son resembles him physically,” she said. “And I began to really get frustrated hearing people talk about colorblindness.”
She said that this was not a new conversation to her, but she felt like teaching children “not to see race” was not the best way. After journaling some of her thoughts, she began forming stories that she realized were stories for children.
The first was “ColorFull,” a story about a Black woman teaching her grandchildren and their white friend about the beautiful colors of the world — pointing out the colors of plants, vegetables, animals, even those reflected in bubbles floating through the air. The grandmother shares how seeing color is a gift and that God created different colors in people, too, as a gift.
Williamson faced many barriers in trying to release her story. Publishers rejected her work, calling it unmarketable. She even had trouble getting her manuscript submitted for review.
“The stats on agents who are welcoming or valuing Black voices — it’s growing, but, boy, we have such a long way to go,” she said, sharing that while there is a rising number of books featuring prominent Black characters, though the number is still low, even lower is the number of Black authors producing content — somewhere around 4% in 2018, according to Data USA and around 5% in the publishing industry altogether, according to a 2019 study by Lee & Low Books.
Williamson said that she eventually connected with a publisher from B&H Publishing, which is owned by LifeWay. She has now sold over 17,000 copies of her debut book and is on her second printing, which showed her that there is indeed a market for this content.
Over the next couple years, she published “ThoughtFull,” which features a boy with Down syndrome and shares a message of celebrating everyone’s giftings and abilities that may be different from one’s own, and “GraceFull,” which follows a family experiencing homelessness and shares that God’s grace falls on everyone and can be shared with others.
As she has read her books in schools, talked about her stories on TV, and met families who have read her writings, she has valued her platform to exemplify a Black woman pursuing and achieving a career as an author.
“It’s so important for all children absolutely to see a Black author because that gives them a file folder that says ‘an author can be Black,’” Williamson said.
She shared an idea from Rudine Sims Bishop, an author and education professor, of providing children — and people in general — with windows into the perspectives of others, mirrors reflecting oneself, and sliding glass doors giving access to opportunities and diversity.
“I started thinking maybe I could speak into that conversation. Now, I did not set out to write a book to speak to the conversation,” Williamson said.
But writing a book is exactly what she did.
Through reading these books, Williamson said she hopes children and adults alike see those windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors. She was intentional not only to include Black characters but also characters representing colors and differences and gifts people will see throughout their lives, including a red-haired and freckle-faced girl, a Syrian family, a Latina teacher, a person in a wheelchair, a Native American boy, a Black preacher and many more.
She also hopes her books show that life isn’t always easy, and it’s not always fair, but everyone has gifts to be celebrated and to be shared.
“Rain comes on all of us and helps things grow,” she said. “God has given us grace, and when we share the things that we have with others, we can all be ‘graceful.’”