Alumnus’ children’s book captures joy of black urban childhood
Growing up in West Haven in an apartment complex not far from the University of New Haven, part of a low-income, Muslim family, Abdul-Razak Zachariah ’17 B.A. says he rarely saw children’s books that reflected his world — ones starring Black and brown characters set in urban environments full of joy and community.
Now, he has authored his own, called “The Night Is Yours,” centered around a young Black girl, Amani (Arabic for “wishes”), who plays hide-and-seek by the light of the moon in her apartment building’s courtyard as adults look on from the windows. Zachariah says the courtyard of his childhood was not unlike the one at Timothy Dwight (TD), his residential college at Yale. “I remember my mom keeping watch while I was playing in the courtyard,” he says. “And when I was older, I kept watch over my sister in the same way.”
The main character was inspired by his sister, Aisha, who is 10 years younger. Illustrations by New York Times bestselling illustrator Keturah A. Bobo capture the child’s world coming to life at night. “We grew up with a lot of stereotypes,” Zachariah says. “Apartment complexes were assumed to be dangerous spaces. Nighttime was thought of as a dangerous time. I wanted to present apartments and the night as beautiful — the community watching over each other.”
In one scene from the book, illustrated with children’s hands in different shades of brown, Zachariah writes: “It is the moon that always wins a game of hide-and-seek because it gleams off of your skin and points out the different browns and tans of your friends who blend into the night when light disappears.”
Zachariah says he ultimately chose to attend Yale because of the strong sense of campus community and belonging. “I decided to go to Yale because of the residential college system and the Afro-American Cultural Center,” Zachariah says. “The other colleges didn’t have that.” As soon as he came to campus, Zachariah became involved, joining Shades of Yale, an a cappella group dedicated to African and African-American music, and becoming both a Cultural Connections counselor, helping incoming first-year students from under-represented backgrounds find a home at Yale, and a “FroCo,” or first-year counselor, in TD.
Zachariah majored in sociology and was accepted into the Yale Education Studies Program, where he focused on the topics of Black male mentors and characters of color in children’s books. Although the publishing industry is working to increase diversity in its products, a study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children's Book Center School of Education found that in 2018, only 5% of children’s books were by African American authors and just 11% were about Black characters.
In his capstone project for the Education Studies Program, Zachariah describes how the children’s book “A Pocket for Corduroy” by Don Freeman resonated with him as a child because it featured non-white characters in an urban setting — a mother who wears hoop earrings and takes her child to the local laundromat to wash their clothes. “When I smile about Corduroy and his antics, I jump into a world with features and characteristics like my own, even if I did not see my exact image on the faces of the characters,” Zachariah writes. “Finding a space for myself in a children’s book helped me remember that I exist because I was shown children or adults just like me; something about my life was understood and cherished.”
Writing his own children’s book was originally designed as a creative exercise to complement his capstone project. But when he gave a presentation during a Mellon Forum at TD, where seniors share their research with classmates and receive feedback, a fellow student connected Zachariah with a family member who works in children’s book publishing to set up a research interview. That connection led to a publishing deal with Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
“Having the book published was a surprise to me,” Zachariah says. “It was a very Yale thing to happen.”
In addition to promoting his book, Zachariah is working full time at New Haven’s LEAP (Leadership, Education and Athletics Partnership) program for youth from communities of color in New Haven. LEAP is focused on literacy development, youth development, and mentorship. “It was serendipitous,” he says. “It’s very much an organization that puts together the ideas that I studied.” Wherever he goes, Zachariah says, “I look for ways to be of service to Black communities and communities of color.”
There will be be two local author readings and book signings of “The Night Is Yours: On Saturday, July 13, at 10 a.m. at RJ Julia Booksellers, 768 Boston Post Rd., Madison; register here to attend the reading at RJ Julia. And on Sunday, July 14, at 2 p.m. at Yale Bookstore, 77 Broadway, New Haven; register to attend the reading at the Yale Bookstore here.