For young girls who don’t look like blonde, blue-eyed Barbie dolls, it can be difficult to find representation and relevance in mainstream books and toys. Oladoyin Oladapo ’14 first became acutely aware of this problem while working with children in Middletown for her sociology research during her junior year. Oladapo then decided to create her own content with multicultural narratives.
“I actually began by building toys and animations and later [rewound] and decided to start with books that could really hook readers and teach the concepts I found important first,” Oladapo said.
With a team of five other girls, Cindy Horng ’17, Ibironke Otusile ’15, Maimouna Siby ’16, Lynn Ma ’16, and Olayinka Lawal ’15, Oladapo created the children’s book series “Girl to the World.”
“Girl to the World” features four picture books and four chapter books revolving around four different protagonists, Estefany, Shivani, Akua, and Chazelle. The chapter books focus on the girls’ lives as teenagers, while the picture books appeal to a younger audience. The characters hail from various cultural backgrounds, including Colombia, India, and Ghana, and have a wide range of interests so readers can choose which girl fits them best. Each character also serves as an “alter ego” for one of the series’ creators.
While Oladapo may not be Indian like her alter ego, Shivani, a “perfectly imperfect” overachiever from New Delhi, they have more qualities in common than she initially thought.
“[Shivani] is a student leader who is very involved and driven but needs to learn how to not be so structured all the time; to be spontaneous and embrace the imperfect. Much like me during my Wesleyan years,” Oladapo said. “I didn’t actually realize how similar she was to me until after I finished writing, though!”
Team member Lynn Ma ’16 signed onto the project after Oladapo solicited from multiple listservs. Ma cited her childhood obsession with American Girl dolls as one of the reasons she decided to join.
“When I looked back on my obsession, I was disappointed at how much I idealized white beauty during that time in my life,” Ma said. “If you open one of those American Girl doll catalogues—I’m not sure if it has changed—but the ‘Girl of the Year’ was always white. The dolls whose characters were people of color always got the smallest space in the catalogues.”
Ma helped co-write “Chazelle’s Inquisitive Life,” a story about a budding scientist and foodie from Trinidad and Tobago. Although Ma admits she may not have much in common with her alter ego, Chazelle, she greatly admires Chazelle’s self-proclaimed nerdiness.
“The biggest difference [between us] is [Chazelle’s] love for science. I successfully avoided science courses at Wes—it’s definitely not my thing,” Ma said. “Nonetheless, I’m inspired by Chazelle’s passion for it, and her stories can encourage people who fear science to give it a try and see the fun in it.”
Above all, Ma wanted to help tell the stories of women around the world and introduce others to cultures different from their own.
“I think it’s so necessary for children growing up now to think beyond the neighborhood [and] country that they live in, and [believe that] it is not just impressive but also normal for girls to succeed in fields that are traditionally male-dominated,” Ma said.
Looking to produce a promotional video for the series, Oladapo contacted Cardinal Pictures, and Noah Dirks ’18 sent in his demo reel. Dirks shot the video over spring break and has been working on it for the past few months. He finished the video in October once he received the printed copies of the books.
“Although it’s pretty long for a promotional video, [Oladapo] wanted to introduce people to not only the product but also the concept and the team behind it,” Dirks said. “While I don’t have any personal connections to the issues, I felt like it’s a valuable thing to work on.”
The video begins with a quote from children’s book author and illustrator Grace Lin, which reads; “As much as kids need books to be mirrors, kids also need books to be windows. Kids who always see themselves in books need to be able to see things from another point of view. How can we expect kids to get along with others in the world, to empathize and to share, if they never see outside of themselves?”
This idea is at the core of the “Girl to the World” series, which Oladapo hopes will benefit children of all backgrounds.
Oladapo self-funded the entire project and self-published it with the help of a book consultant. The editors, designers, and illustrators came from freelance websites as well as Oladapo’s own connections. The series is now available on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble.
Since beginning “Girl to the World,” Oladapo has received nothing but support and is especially thankful for Wesleyan’s role in its popularity.
“It’s been spreading way faster than I ever imagined at this early stage, and I am so grateful,” Oladapo said. “I knew this was something the world needed; I just wasn’t sure if they would want it. I know for sure now that they do.”