Interview: 16 year old Activist Surayyah writes her first children’s book about finding one’s roots

Surayyyah Fofana RayRay Paints a Self-Portrait

Meet Surayyah “RayRay” Fofana, the16 year old high school student and activist from Hillsborough, NJ that self-published her own children’s book and is making impacts in classrooms across the U.S.

Surayyah is an activist, dancer, and writer with a full head of phenomenally curly hair. RayRay Paints a Self-Portrait is her first ever children’s book. The book is based on her own experience as well experiences of families and children with varied racial, ethnic, and/or religious backgrounds. Surayyah is of Senegal and American descent (her father is from Senegal, her mother is American and the family lives in NJ).

I had the chance to read the inspirational story and chat with Surayyah about her experiences, inspirations and involvement with social activism. I really enjoyed this children’s book and think it’s a great way to have conversations with children about diversity, self- acceptance, individuality and self-love. The thoughtful story about inclusivity is paired with bright and colorful playful illustrations by illustrator Eliana Rodgers.

Ultimately, I was inspired to write  RayRay Paints a Self-Portrait  because I wanted to create a safe space to celebrate those who don’t fit into society’s “box.” – Surayyah

RayRay Paints a Self Portrait

A book about finding one’s roots

When RayRay gets a class assignment to do a self-portrait, she’s excited. That is, until she gets to her hair.

Suddenly, RayRay realizes that her hair isn’t like anyone else’s she knows . . . not even her family’s.

Determined to find out whose hair she has, Ray Ray sets off on a quest to learn who she really is.

RayRay Paints a Self-Portrait 
Written by: Surayyah Fofana
Illustrated by: Eliana Rodgers
https://www.rayrayseries.com

On November 9th, RayRay Paints a Self Portrait  was featured on KindCotton.com, a company focused on promoting childhood literacy. Kind Cotton will not be selling the book, but will allow teachers to request copies for free until supplies last. The book is also being sold on Amazon and Barnes & Noble but all proceeds go towards donating additional books to Kind Cotton.

“I’m proud to make an impact in classrooms and in the minds of young readers. Although I’m still growing up, having the opportunity to tell my story has allowed me to relive some of the most memorable and vulnerable moments of my elementary school days.  Through sharing this book with young kids,  I hope it can help them navigate their own experience and maybe even provide some comfort and understanding.”,” said Ms. Fofana. “Ultimately, it’s a book about self-acceptance, self-love, and understanding. It’s an important message I hope to pass on to young people everywhere.”

  1. RayRay Paints a Self-Portrait is your first ever children’s book. Can you tell us about what inspired you and why you decided to write your story as a children’s book? 

    As a young woman of color, I’ve often found it hard to feel seen. For so much of my life, race and diversity have been viewed as supplemental topics by those around me but in my world, they are  urgent, crucial to my daily existence. Coming from a family that is so diverse,  black, white, Muslim, Jewish, American and Senegalese, I’ve never ever checked a singular box. I’ve come to realize that multicultural backgrounds are often viewed as unconventional, and even abnormal. I know what it feels like to be an outsider and to feel alone. The weird part is that I also know so many American families are as diverse as mine but it’s just not widely reflected in pop culture or the media. In reflecting upon my childhood, I realized that the thing I wanted most was to see families like mine represented in a way that depicted them as the norm, and worth celebrating. I wanted to help other young kids, especially those who’ve felt ostracized for simply being themselves celebrate what makes them different. Ultimately, I was inspired to write  RayRay Paints a Self-Portrait  because I wanted to create a safe space to celebrate those who don’t fit into society’s “box.”
  2. You mentioned writing the book stemming from your own personal experiences, as well as experiences of families and children with different racial and/or religious backgrounds. How much of this book is your own story and did you interview other people or children to get some inspiration for writing RayRay?

    The book is actually a compilation of my experiences in elementary school and how I personally grappled with my race and identity. In the process of writing the book I pulled from my own experiences and things my family shared with me. But in talking to my friends from diverse backgrounds, I also used some of their insights to try to make the book as inclusive and culturally aware as possible.
  1. Can you tell us about how you became an activist, and how others can get involved in ways of giving back and contributing to important causes?

    I think being an activist is about speaking up for what you believe in. I try and do that everyday in small ways and bigger ways. I started a club in my school focused on social activism and brought in speakers to educate on diversity and inclusivity. I have attended rally’s and demonstrations and voiced concerns at town Board of Education meetings. I also consider myself an activist because of how I exist in everyday life. Activism doesn’t always have to be bold. It can be consistent with smaller actions that over time change behavior.
  1. The book is illustrated by Eliana Rodgers, How did you find an artist to work with on this project? Was it your decision and did you previously know of her work?

    Eliana Rodgers is an amazing multiracial artist who had an experience very similar to mine growing up. I really admired her work and a family friend connected us. Luckily, she was super interested in collaborating. In  a way, I think the details of the book represent my story but also likely Elly’s as well.
  1. The book is featured on KindCotton.com, a company focused on promoting childhood literacy. Kind Cotton is not selling the book, but they are allowing teachers to request copies for classrooms for free. This is such a beautiful way to give back to the community. How did you partner with KindCotton?

    Through working with KindCotton, I was able to donate hundreds of copies across the United States. Additionally, I was able to go into classrooms and read personally to students, with Q and A sessions afterward.
  1. We’ve all met very talented newcomers who are trying to get their first professional projects. At such a young age you have already been self-published. What’s the best advice you’ve ever heard given to a promising new creator? What advice do you have for other young writers?  

    Although you may feel like your  experiences aren’t valuable enough to “make a difference,” think about the millions of others whose voices are being marginalized and overlooked and how your story might give them comfort. My feeling is that the more stories that are shared and the more that pop culture and media are inundated with diversity in every sense of the word, the more normalized it becomes. Also, ignore that imposter syndrome voice in your head! The minute you start writing you are an author! Despite what others may think, your work is extremely valued and meaningful. Continue experimenting and creating until you find what works for you! Your voice is needed.
  1. Do you plan on continuing to write children’s books and to tell these kinds of stories?

    I definitely plan to continue writing children’s books centered around diversity, inclusivity, and culture. These topics were so central to my childhood I hope that sharing my story might give someone with a similar experience a sense of belonging or open the eyes to anyone that may not realize that my story is the story of so many. 
  2. Who will love this book?

Any young person who is interested in a story centered around those typically viewed as “unconventional” or “outsiders” in the eyes of mainstream society.

  1.  Who has had the biggest influence on you professionally and how did they affect your life?

    My family in Senegal and America have had a great impact on the person I am today. Growing up with these two cultures made me very passionate about advocacy and cultural awareness.

10. At only 16 years old, you have already made some great accomplishments. Do you plan on getting more involved in activism, is this something you would consider continuing an education in and possibly a career? Anything else you would like to share with us?  

It is my hope that I can continue my activism and social justice work and pursue a career in law and or politics. Writing has always been  my  passion and a way of raising awareness about these topics. In the future, I hope to continue all three of these things.

About Surayyah Fofana:

Surayyah “RayRay” Fofana is a 16-year-old high school student, activist, dancer, and writer with a full head of phenomenally curly hair. RayRay Paints a Self-Portrait is her first-ever children’s book. It’s based on her own experience as well experiences of families and children with varied racial, ethnic, and/or religious backgrounds. Surayyah is interested in raising awareness around all things tied to race, culture, and diversity and creating a better, more inclusive world. She hopes this book can give readers an honest, warm, and welcoming idea of a diverse home, much like the one she has grown up in.  www.rayrayseries.com, Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/rayraytellsstories

About Kind Cotton – www.kindcotton.com

Since 2017, Kind Cotton has been working to bring the magic of books to children globally. With a one-for-one business model, every Kind Cotton purchase made means a book is donated directly to a child or classroom. To date, the company has provided over 35,000 books to children. The company makes a lasting impact on childhood literacy by working directly with children and educators to develop and enhance reading skills as well as cultivate a passion for reading through engaging literacy opportunities.

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