Widely known for her appearances on In Living Color with her famous brothers, actress Kim Wayans has ventured into the world of children’s books within the past few years. Her series, Amy Hodgepodge, focuses on the trials and tribulations of an ethnically-diverse 10-year old, Amy. Damian Johnson spoke with Wayans and husband Kevin Knotts, who co-writes the series with her.
Kim, I read you wrote short stories in grade school and read them to younger students.
My teacher had such faith in my little stories. It was Mrs. Clark, Sylvia Clark—she’s my favorite teacher ever. We actually dedicated Amy Hodgepodge to her, because she was so instrumental in building my confidence about my writing. I have a lot of gratitude to her.
What were some of those stories about?
Most of them were about fairy tales. I had one called “The Wash Cloth of Youth.” It was about a little old lady who found a washcloth that whenever she used it it would make her young again. [Laughs] It sounds preposterous, but I was all of ten. The kids loved that story. Unfortunately, my dad threw out all of my stories. My mom still hasn’t gotten over that.
You wanted to be in show business from a very young age. How did you know from a young age you wanted to do this?
I was really lucky that way. Some people come into the world knowing what they want to do, and I was just one of those people. It was natural to me; it was what I wanted to do.
Kevin, was it true you were raised on a ranch in Oklahoma? Can you describe some of your fondest memories growing up there?
Yes, I was. I did a lot of fishing. I had a clear, spring-fed creek in my backyard. We had rainbow trout, large-mouth bass, and albino squirrels. It was a pretty wonderful place. I got to be myself a lot of times, use my imagination, and just appreciate nature.
Kim and Kevin, can you tell me a little bit about the background of Amy Hodgepodge, and how you developed the story and it came into being.
Kim: Amy was really inspired by our nieces and nephews. We have tons of nieces and nephews, and some are multi-racial children. We thought it was very important for them to see positive images of themselves reflected in mainstream children’s literature. We thought, wouldn’t it be great to create a series surrounded on a multi-racial child? [Nowadays] the cultural lines have blurred to a great extent, and it’s really hard to categorize this generation growing up. Part of the process was to sit down with an illustrator, and we had really specific ideas of what we wanted the characters to look like. We gave her pictures of our nieces … to get a jumping-off point for her to create the illustration. And then we pitched the project to Penguin and they loved it.
The first book in the series was published in 2008. How far prior to that were you and Kevin thinking about Amy Hodgepodge?
Kim: I would say about two years before that. It took a year-long process to get a treatment and pitch it, and then a year after we pitched it to Penguin.
Kevin: It seemed like it went about as fast as it could go.
The main themes of the books are acceptance, tolerance, and kids working together. Do you see the kids reading the books understand these themes? Have these themes been put into practice
Kim: Children do understand the themes. We’ve done a lot of work with children in libraries and schools, and we’ve dedicated much of our time to going to the children, reading the books, and discussing the themes. We don’t give children all the credit they deserve; they are very aware.
Kevin: We think it’s most effective to not hit them over the head with these things. We try to tell entertaining stories, but we feel like they learn and retain it better if you don’t spell out the lesson. And we see teachers use it for analysis and so on.
There are six books out. When is number seven coming?
As we know, the economy has affected publishers to a great degree. They’re just letting the six books we have out there sell. Kevin and I just got a deal with a wonderful production company, and they want to try to do animation with Amy Hodgepodge. That could really be huge.
Who as writers do you most admire?
Kevin: I love Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. When I was four I liked Dr. Seuss. [Laughs]
Kim: There are authors I admire. When I was a kid, my all-time favorite book was Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. I loved Pippy Longstocking. I related to her wackiness, her sense of adventure, and she was just herself. I had so much admiration for Pippy. Now, I love Alice Walker, she’s a wonderful writer; it’s so many it’s hard to narrow it down.
Was there one particular adventure that Amy Hodgepodge went on that you liked writing about the most?
Kevin: I enjoyed the camping adventure the most, because I could use my ranch background.
Kim: I think the Happy Birthday to Me was my favorite Amy Hodgepodge book so far to write. It’s based on the truth of something very similar that happened to me, without the happy ending. I had my first big party, a Hawaiian luau, and none of my friends showed up. [Laughs]
For more information, to schedule meetings, or order books, please visit amyhodgepodge.com.