Determined to make a positive change in the world, Nneka Ruiz Montalvo, a banking professional with over two decades of experience in her field, has opened a bookstore.

Ruiz Montalvo believes that black stories matter, and is focused on making these stories more accessible for children through her online bookstore, www.myreflectiontt.com, which sells children’s books with black main characters for newborns and children up to 14 years old.

The killing of George Floyd by police officers in the United States, which fuelled the Black Lives Matter movement, also fuelled a passion in Ruiz Montalvo to do her part to ensure that black boys and girls had representation on the bookshelves.

Ruiz Montalvo said many books with black main characters feature children in leadership or STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) roles, which she said, “...gives children inspiration to believe in themselves and become high achievers. When children see someone who looks like them doing something they never thought of, it makes them think ‘This could be me someday’”.

“Books are meant to be windows, where we can see the world through the eyes of someone different from us and also mirrors, where we can see the world through the eyes of someone just like us. At that point, all of my son’s books were windows, because he didn’t even have one book with a main character who looked like him.

“In the wake of that horrible incident and the Black Lives Matter protests that were taking place, I was disappointed by the many incidents of people in Trinidad and Tobago damaging their reputations, careers and businesses by making hateful, anti-black comments. I was determined to make a positive change in the world. Since I know how powerfully reading can impact a person intellectually, emotionally and psychologically, I wanted to start by first making a change in my son’s bookshelf.

“Upon conducting further research, I was shocked to find out that based on 2019 publishing statistics in the US, 50 per cent of characters in children’s books are caucasian; 27 per cent of characters are animals and 23 per cent of characters are children of all other ethnicities combined. Based on those statistics, a dog, a cat or a goat has a better chance of seeing himself in a children’s book than my son.

These disturbing statistics made me determined to provide children in Trinidad and Tobago with books with black main characters. After weeks of research, I came up with a list of engaging and inspiring books and registered and launched My Reflection Children’s Bookstore.

“While children can learn important values from characters of any colour, black children benefit from books with characters who look like them for the following reasons. Books are mirrors, reflecting an aspect of our own lives, hopes and dreams back at us. Reading is therefore a form of self-affirmation. When children see themselves reflected in their reading material, they feel validated.

“Children of other ethnicities benefit from being exposed to books with black main characters as it encourages empathy, acceptance, and perspective-taking. The ‘window’ experience is very important for children as they can learn about people and families different from themselves. When parents encourage diversity in their children’s books, they facilitate their social skills and guard them from succumbing to harmful, negative stereotypes which could damage their personal and professional lives as they get older,” Ruiz Montalvo said.

She said her books are on demand. “For picture books, I’ve gotten a lot of demand for books that focus on self-esteem such as I Am Every Good Thing, which is a book of positive affirmations for boys and Naturally Me, which is for both boys and girls. For girls, many parents have purchased books that focus on celebrating afro-textured hair such as Big Hair Don’t Care, Hair Love and God Created Me Coily.

“The most demand has been for chapter books for kids who can read on their own. Both reluctant readers and avid readers aged eight to 14 have really gravitated towards the graphic novels, which are novels in the form of a comic book, like Twins, New Kid and Class Act. I’ve also seen a lot of demand for series such as the STEAM Chasers, the President series, the Carver Chronicles and the Sophie Washington series,” Ruiz Montalvo said

Next month, Ruiz Montalvo will open a physical store at Red Edge Shopping Mall on Western Main Road in St James. All the books that are available on the website will be available in the store. “I am expanding the selection of books including colouring books.

Besides managing her online bookstore at www.myreflectiontt.com,

Ruiz Montalvo also blogs. “My website has a blog where I write about the importance of black representation in children’s books, the importance of cultivating a habit of reading in children and the powerful impact reading has on children. My objective is to increase the amount of time children spend reading for pleasure.

The literacy rate in Trinidad and Tobago is only 77 per cent, which is completely unacceptable.

“I also write posts about how to build self-esteem in children, including self-esteem about their hair texture. My objective of these posts is to give parents tools to improve their children’s self-esteem because self-esteem is essential to be successful, achieve goals, enjoy life and show compassion to others,” Ruiz Montalvo said.

Writing books isn’t in the cards for Ruiz Montalvo just yet. “Given that I have a full-time career in banking and am also running this bookstore, writing books isn’t in the cards for me right now. I’ll probably stick to blog posts. Given my love for books, anything is possible, so I won’t rule it out.”

Visit www.myreflectionstt.com to purchase books online. Books will be delivered within three working days by courier to any address in Trinidad and Tobago.Visit My Reflections Bookstore at Red Edge Mall in St James.

The author can be contacted at myreflectiontt@gmail.com.

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