Gloria Respress-Churchwell

PHP Fellow Jori Fortson profiles Gloria Respress-Churchwell to discuss her book, Follow Chester!, microaggression, and the art of public health writing.

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Author Gloria Respress-Churchwell recently spoke at Boston University School of Public Health about how to address challenging topics with children using picture books, like her book Follow Chester! Public Health Post sat down with Gloria Respress-Churchwell to discuss her book, race, and the role of storytelling in children’s health.

Public Health Post: Follow Chester! is based on the experiences of Dr. Chester Pierce while playing football as a student at Harvard in the 1940s. Dr. Pierce coined the term “microaggression.” How did he shape the conversation about race and health?

Gloria Respress-Churchwell: What Dr. Pierce did in such a genius way was that he allowed the conversation on the civil rights movement and changing Jim Crow laws to move forward among African Americans. Instead of just saying, “Well, that’s just subtle. That’s just me imagining” a situation or statement that felt wrong, he put a name to it. He said, “No, this is existing and I’m going to name it.” And that name was microaggression. With that, he then helped to us to say, “Okay. That’s a microaggression. That’s something that’s done subtly that makes me feel different because of my race.” And because of that reason, I feel that he shaped the conversation by giving us the verbiage to move forward in identifying things that were unjust.

What is the biggest takeaway from Follow Chester! for young readers?

It’s a book about life 72 years ago. The takeaway for kids is that even though these events happened to Dr. Pierce long ago, some of these things are still prevalent today and that we need to address them. The takeaway is for them to feel empowered within themselves to say, “I can help to bring about that change.”

What are the challenges for writing about health for children?

I don’t think that there are challenges. I think you just need to make any topic accessible for kids so that they can get into it. You find a story that needs to be told and make it as interesting as possible. And I feel like kids will definitely soak it up and they’ll take more out of it than you expect.

Do you think the underrepresentation of African American, Latinx, Asian and Native American characters in children’s books shapes children’s wellbeing?

I definitely think so. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s concept of children having mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors highlights that children who are underrepresented should especially see themselves in books. And if they don’t see themselves in books, what does that say? The absence speaks volumes. It speaks volumes in their confidence and in their everyday being. I feel that it definitely does shape wellbeing. We need more books like “Follow Chester” because it helps to let kids know that they’re important—all races, all colors, especially children of color.

How can public health messaging leverage storytelling to start a dialogue with kids?

Healthy literacy leads to a healthy child. It all works together. If the child can’t read and they don’t have that sense of pride within themselves, it leads to other things –  maybe they’re not going to go on to college, and maybe that spirals to having low paying jobs and all of the things that are associated: eating incorrectly and subsequently having health issues, for example. But if they have literacy, it can help open doors to other opportunities that will give them a better way of life.

I feel that picture books help children and parents have conversations, and as a children’s book author, I know that picture books can allow us to have weighty conversations not only with children, but the parents.

This conversation was lightly edited for brevity and clarity.  

Photo courtesy of Gloria-Respress Churchwell