Queen Titilé Keskessa didn’t originally identify as an author. Originally from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and now as a Memphian, Keskessa hasn’t just stepped into the profession–she’s made a splash! Her first book, Nubian Mermaid Adventures: Maka Makes New Friends is the first out of a series to come and isn’t just full of beautiful art and a touching story. It’s allowed Black children to see themselves in one of today’s most popular forms: mermaids.
Her daughter’s obsession with today’s mermaid trend kicked off Keskessa’s journey to becoming an author and creating Maka’s story. After purchasing a mermaid tail for her daughter, which she absolutely loved, and looking to buy more mermaid merch for her, Keskessa realized that there weren’t any mermaid books that not only reflected her daughter’s image but that of other Black children.
In today’s market, mermaids are everywhere. From tails and dolls to playsets and tv shows, it’s a little difficult to escape the mermaid craze. Which made it even more surprising that Keskessa couldn’t find any books that accurately depicted Black children, no matter where she looked. She discussed her findings (or lack thereof) with a friend who then suggested “why don’t you just make it yourself?” She took some time and, when the pandemic put the world on pause, Keskessa finally accepted the challenge. She shared her story with those around her and then an editor put the red pen to the page. Finally, Maka’s story was born.
When writing her story and taking note of other books made for Black children in the market, there were some common themes. So many of the stories focused on equality, hair, and other issues within the Black community. With so many great books centered around these issues, Keskessa decided to go in another direction. “I didn’t want it to be a story about fear,” Keskessa says. “A lot of the books for our children are about bullying, or race, or hair and, there is absolutely nothing wrong with those things, but I just wanted it to come from a place of whimsy.”
The book is absolutely full of magic, just as she hoped! The story doesn’t just feature an adventure perfect for young minds, but it also teaches lessons around responsibility, geography, and, of course, friendship. Without giving too much away, we can tell you that Maka’s friends and family come from waters across Africa and Keskessa describes their homes in such a way that encourages young readers to explore countries beyond the ones they may already know. She has incorporated so many of her own cultural influences into the story and it’s such a great way to introduce children to new cultures and ways of life.
Of course, a great story is crucial for any children’s book but the illustrations and artwork really bring the entire book to life! Keskessa went on a search to find the perfect illustrator for her story. She primarily limited her search to illustrators of color with the hopes that they would be able to create a character of color inspired by her daughter, but there were a couple of roadblocks that she attributes to society’s lack of inclusion of Black characters in general. “I had one artist tell me that Black mermaids don’t exist, but mermaids don’t exist!” Keskessa says. “I wasn’t mad at them, but it just proved to me how deep-rooted the issues are.” She was then connected with a Russian refugee who lives in Italy whose work blew her away from the first draft. The artist, Valerie, brought her idea to life and she’s so grateful to have found her.
Once the story was created, Keskessa didn’t know how many copies she would sell. She created a goal to sell 300 copies and, with her contacts, family, and friends, she thought it would be totally attainable. As you may have guessed, the reception was overwhelmingly positive. “When the story hit the world, I realized that I wasn’t the only one looking for this book,” Keskessa remembers. Everyone from little girls to adult women fell in love with Maka’s story. Some of her older readers have described the book as being exactly what they wished for when they were little and have bought copies to share as well as keep for themselves. “The level of joy that it brings to people…I’m still not used to the idea,” Keskessa shares. “When I do festivals, I have this big poster with the mermaids and people want to stand next to it and take pictures. It makes me think, this is all real!”
Nubian Mermaid Adventures: Maka Makes New Friends is just the first book out of what Keskessa plans to turn into a series. From coloring books to more stories featuring Maka’s family and friends, she’s ready to create a world for children (and many adults) to explore.
You might also be interested in: Literacy Mid-South: A Lifelong Learning Resource for Memphis