Finding & Creating Joy in Children’s Books

Alumnus and staff member Jonathan Marshall creates space for representation

Words have power, grace, and the ability to change and represent perspectives. Nobody knows this better than Jonathan Marshall ’05, a current MEd in Multicultural Education student, Academic Outreach Manager for the College of Education, successful children’s book author, and father.

Jonathan was not always an author, but he was always creative. His roots started in urban hip-hop culture. When he joined the Eastern community, he enjoyed performing Christian rap. However, his growing family responsibilities necessitated his decision to take a step back from performing.

Every night, Jonathan would read to his kids. Over time, he noticed a few issues with the books he read aloud: there was a lack of representation of fathers of color, characters were often animals (not actual people), and the stories lacked the presence of family dynamics.

As a former social worker, Jonathan understood that animal characters were used to universalize the message of the stories, but he believed children and families should see characters who look like them and share their experiences.

This inspired Jonathan to write his own children's books, with themes that were influenced by moments in his daily life. His book I’ll Be Right There was inspired by experiences with his own son— it was about his choice to be a father, and therefore his responsibility to be there for his son.

“As a father, you have to be vulnerable so your children will be vulnerable,” Jonathan shares.

Some of Jonathan’s other children’s books include: Riri and Me, Bears at Work, Me and My Kazoo at the Zoo, Does it Rain Food?, and If Dad Can Do it, So Can I.

Jonathan admits his process is quirky, but intentional. Each of his books is written in poetry form so children can read, retain, and enjoy. To this day, Jonathan’s kids still remember his books by heart; reading helps to savor time and joy together. Each book intentionally showcases a different illustrator to give each story its own unique life. Images with people of color tend to need more vibrant colors so the characters stand out – something Jonathan cares deeply about.

“Every night, I set aside an hour to write, or anything to do with the creative process. I make that investment everyday,” Jonathan explains.

Two of the courses in Jonathan’s MEd program, Multicultural Literature and Child and Adolescent Literature, also inspired him to write a Middle Level and Young Adult novel. As children grow, Jonathan is thinking about how he can continue to build reading bridges for them. Every story he writes has a human aspect that he wants people to enjoy.

“Children should be children and experience joy. I want them to look at the books I write and think creatively about where they can go.”

This article was originally featured in the Spring 2023 Edition of Eastern Magazine. View the full magazine here.