Alumna Tiyahna Ridley-Padmore (MPPAL ’19) writes Canada’s history of Black pioneers in new children’s book

Alumna Tiyahna Ridley-Padmore (MPPAL ’19) writes Canada’s history of Black pioneers in new children’s book

Growing up in Montreal, author Tiyahna Ridley-Padmore (MPPAL ’19) was always drawn to storytelling – from reading her favourite nursery rhymes to eventually creating her own. “I started writing children’s books when I was six or seven years old,” she says about her early efforts to mimic the musical style of her favourite author, beloved children’s writer Robert Munsch.

Tiyahna Ridley-Padmore stands in a a bookstore, surrounded by shelves of books, smiling at the camera.

That style of repetition and rhyming is infused in her new book, Trailblazers: The Black Pioneers Who Have Shaped Canada. The illustrated children’s book tells the under-told stories of over 40 Black pioneers who have been left out of Canadian history.

The idea for this research first came to Ridley-Padmore after she had learned about the history of 17th-century explorer Mathieu da Costa as a young adult. “Here’s this Black translator who was instrumental in maintaining peaceful relations between French explorers and Indigenous peoples, and yet his name had never come up once [in school],” says Ridley-Padmore, a lifelong learner who was shocked by the obvious gap in her education. “I think that was the catalyst that challenged me to do a lot of learning—and unlearning— and to really intentionally seek out information that was so important but had been essentially erased from our mainstream narrative.”

Ridley-Padmore started this project while working full-time as a policy advisor in the international development sector and completing her Master of Public Policy, Administration and Law (MPPAL) at York. She credits MPPAL Graduate Program Director and Professor Naomi Couto with supporting her throughout the editing and review process. “Professor Couto even helped come up with a couple of rhymes for the very, very early rough draft,” says Ridley-Padmore. “She was such a big champion.”

“Books send a powerful, implicit message about whose stories are worth telling,” says Ridley-Padmore. “I think it’s really important that all children know that Canada’s Black stories are worth telling.”

Tiyahna Ridley's new book, Trailblazers: The Black Pioneers Who Have Shaped Canada, sits on top of a pile of other books by Black authors.

Ridley-Padmore worked with Ottawa illustrator Merryl-Royce Ndema-Moussa to bring the stories to life, and submitted the manuscript to eight Canadian publishers. “Only one got back to us,” she recalls. But after substantial revisions to the draft, the final book would have been drastically different from the version Ridley-Padmore submitted. At the same time, the murder of George Floyd in the U.S. and reckoning of anti-racist protests around the world inspired Ridley-Padmore to seek community support instead and self-publish the book. Within hours of launching a Kickstarter campaign, they had reached their $10,000 goal to fund the project and raised a total of $47, 713.

“It was such an affirming experience, especially after navigating the publishing industry, and a lifetime of receiving the implied messages that Black stories didn’t matter.”

The community support generated from the campaign helped Ridley-Padmore to ultimately enter into a supportive and empowering publishing agreement. The funds raised from Kickstarter will be going toward maximizing the impact of the book, including translating the book to French, marketing to a wider audience and enabling more community initiatives, such as donating copies of the book and giving live readings.

“Books send a powerful, implicit message about whose stories are worth telling,” says Ridley-Padmore. “I think it’s really important that all children know that Canada’s Black stories are worth telling.”

Trailblazers: The Black Pioneers Who Have Shaped Canada is available for pre-order here, and books will be shipped out in November.

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