In a world filled with Barbie's and American Girl Dolls, there is a clear picture that is engrained in every young girl's mind of what they are 'supposed' to aspire to look like. The damage that could come with these impossible societal standards is infinite.
Even when diverse dolls and figures come out, they are not often on the forefront of displays at Toys R Us, Target or any other kid stores. The literal white space and lack of inclusion in children's media is glaringly obvious the moment one walks down a toy aisle or looks at the covers of children's series' in bookstores.
Representation is so important in this ever-changing society and gone are the days where one-dimensional are all girls have to look up to. Ylleya Fields knows this well. As a mother of four girls and two boys, Fields sees first hand the lack of representation of black figures in television, books, toys, and media. That is why she set out to make a change and took it into her own hands to give her daughters the role-model they deserve by writing a series of books called "Princess Cupcake Jones". The protagonist is based on her girls' so a lot of the traits and scenarios have real-life inspiration. The books all have messages and lessons for young girls, and the illustrations each contain the word 'love' hidden inside to show Cupcake Jones fans how loved they are. SWAAY sat down with Fields and got all the details on what's to come for the future of her books.
Photo Courtesy of Princess Cupcake Jones
1. What was the inspiration for "Princess Cupcake Jones"?
The inspiration for the "Princess Cupcake Jones" series is my daughters. Every story is based on something they've done or a feeling they've had. Luckily, I have four daughters, so there's plenty of material to work it.
2. Why is it so important for kids to have characters that represent them?
Representation is important because it helps kids define who they are and even more important who they want to be. When they see strong images of people that they can identify with (through race, gender, etc) they are getting affirmation that they can be and do anything they want.
3. What is the most challenging part of writing children's stories?
I think the challenge of writing any story is making sure that the plot is engaging to your audience from start to finish. Children stories arent as long as novels so you have to get your storyline across pretty quickly. And of course when you write in rhyme that can be even more tricky.
4. Why is the word 'love' hidden in every illustration?
Love is actually my eldest daughters' middle name. So it was my way of acknowledging her yet again in the series. But I think the word LOVE is so powerful and meaningful to people that by finding it with their children it keeps what is most important at the forefront of our readers' minds.
Ylleya Fields. Photo Courtesy of Princess Cupcake Jones
5. You've won a few awards for Princess Cupcake Jones, including the 2013 Mom's Choice Award and 2013 Winner of the Family Choice Awards. What does it feel like to be recognized for your work?
It feels amazing! I never set out to win awards but the fact that our series has been recognized as a great body of work is so fulfilling!
6. What do you think kids will learn from reading your books?
That depends on the book! Each book has an underlying message or value that children reading can apply to their everyday lives. In “Princess Cupcake Jones and the Missing Tutu", children learn that by cleaning up and staying organized, they can find things that are important to them easier. In “Princess Cupcake Jones and the Dance Recital", children learn that practice makes perfect, and doing your best is all that really matters.
Photo Courtesy of Airplanes and Dragonflies
7. Why do you think the number of African American characters is so limited in children's books?
I've touched on this before but the answer remains the same. It comes down to the fact that there are publishers that don't believe that books that feature African American characters sell or worse; doubt that there is even a market for them. Clearly, they're incorrect. The fact that Princess Cupcake Jones is popular and we are even doing this interview counters that notion.
8. What advice do you have for moms who want to help add more representation of black figures?
My advice is to diversify, diversify, diversify. Make sure your children have different kinds of characters in books, music, movies, etc. By diversifying their surroundings, you're actually helping them with representation by simply doing. It sounds cliche but it's really as simple as that.
9. What is the most rewarding part of writing books?
The most rewarding part is having other parents and their children tell me how much they love the series. Even going as far as thanking me for writing/creating her. I never thought that this could be as inspirational as it has become. My original mission was just to create something my own daughters' would be proud of, and in the process, I've created a character that empowers all little girls.
10. What do you see for the future of "Princess Cupcake Jones"?
The sky is definitely the limit! We have a new book coming out any day, “Princess Cupcake Jones Saddles Up", a brand new clothing line, and I just finished writing a new book (as yet untitled).
11. Is there anything you would like to add?
Just a thank you to all of our Cupcakettes for the love and support they've given over the years!
"Sh*t!" my daughter exclaimed as she dropped her iPad to the floor. A little bit of context; my daughter Victoria absolutely loves her iPad. And as I watched her bemoan the possible destruction of her favorite device, I thought to myself, "If I were in her position, I'd probably say the exact same thing."
In the Rastegar family, a word is only a bad word if used improperly. This is a concept that has almost become a family motto. Because in our household, we do things a little differently. To put it frankly, our practices are a little unconventional. Completely safe, one hundred percent responsible- but sure, a little unconventional.
And that's because my husband Ari and I have always felt akin in one major life philosophy; we want to live our lives our way. We have dedicated ourselves to a lifetime of questioning the world around us. And it's that philosophy that has led us to some unbelievable discoveries, especially when it comes to parenting.
Ari was an English major. And if there's one thing that can be said about English majors, it's that they can be big-time sticklers for the rules. But Ari also thinks outside of the box. And here's where these two characteristics meet. Ari was always allowed to curse as a child, but only if the word fit an appropriate and relevant context. This idea came from Ari's father (his mother would have never taken to this concept), and I think this strange practice really molded him into the person he is today.
But it wasn't long after we met that I discovered this fun piece of Ari Rastegar history, and I got to drop a pretty awesome truth bomb on Ari. My parents let me do the same exact thing…
Not only was I allowed to curse as a child, but I was also given a fair amount of freedom to do as I wanted. And the results of this may surprise you. You see, despite the lack of heavy regulating and disciplining from my parents, I was the model child. Straight A's, always came home for curfew, really never got into any significant trouble- that was me. Not trying to toot my own horn here, but it's important for the argument. And don't get the wrong impression, it's not like I walked around cursing like a sailor.
Perhaps I was allowed to curse whenever I wanted, but that didn't mean I did.
And this is where we get to the amazing power of this parenting philosophy. In my experience, by allowing my own children to curse, I have found that their ability to self-regulate has developed in an outstanding fashion. Over the past few years, Victoria and Kingston have built an unbelievable amount of discipline. And that's because our decision to allow them to curse does not come without significant ground rules. Cursing must occur under a precise and suitable context, it must be done around appropriate company, and the privilege cannot be overused. By following these guidelines, Victoria and Kingston are cultivating an understanding of moderation, and at a very early age are building a social awareness about when and where certain types of language are appropriate. And ultimately, Victoria and Kingston are displaying the same phenomenon present during my childhood. Their actual instances of cursing are extremely low.
And beneath this parenting strategy is a deeper philosophy. Ari and I first and foremost look at parenting as educators. It is not our job to dictate who our children will be, how they shall behave, and what their future should look like.
We are not dictators; we are not imposing our will on them. They are autonomous beings. Their future is in their hands, and theirs alone.
Rather, we view it as our mission to show our children what the many possibilities of the world are and prepare them for the litany of experiences and challenges they will face as they develop into adulthood. Now, when Victoria and Kingston come across any roadblocks, they have not only the tools but the confidence to handle these tensions with pride, independence, and knowledge.
And we have found that cursing is an amazing place to begin this relationship as educators. By allowing our children to curse, and gently guiding them towards the appropriate use of this privilege, we are setting a groundwork of communication that will eventually pay dividends as our children grow curious of less benign temptations; sex, drugs, alcohol. There is no fear, no need to slink behind our backs, but rather an open door where any and all communication is rewarded with gentle attention and helpful wisdom.
The home is a sacred place, and honesty and communication must be its foundation. Children often lack an ability to communicate their exact feelings. Whether out of discomfort, fear, or the emotional messiness of adolescence, children can often be less than transparent. Building a place of refuge where our children feel safe enough to disclose their innermost feelings and troubles is, therefore, an utmost priority in shepherding their future. Ari and I have come across instances where our children may have been less than truthful with a teacher, or authority figure simply because they did not feel comfortable disclosing what was really going on. But with us, they know that honesty is not only appreciated but rewarded and incentivized. This allows us to protect them at every turn, guard them against destructive situations, and help guide and problem solve, fully equipped with the facts of their situation.
And as crazy as it all sounds- I really believe in my heart that the catalogue of positive outcomes described above truly does stem from our decision to allow Victoria and Kingston to curse freely.
I know this won't sit well with every parent out there. And like so many things in life, I don't advocate this approach for all situations. In our context, this decision has more than paid itself off. In another, it may exacerbate pre-existing challenges and prove to be only a detriment to your own family's goals.
As the leader of your household, this is something that you and you alone must decide upon with intentionality and wisdom.
Ultimately, Ari and I want to be the kind of people our children genuinely want to be around. Were we not their parents, I would hope that Victoria and Kingston would organically find us interesting, warm, kind, funny, all the things we aspire to be for them each and every day.
We've let our children fly free, and fly they have. They are amazing people. One day, when they leave the confines of our home, they will become amazing adults. And hopefully, some of the little life lessons and eccentric parenting practices we imparted upon them will serve as a support for their future happiness and success.