Recognizing we need more diverse books, Liberian-American Wayetu Moore set out to give young children books featuring characters that look like them. Founded in 2011, One Moore Book is a publishing house that provides multicultural children’s literature for children in countries with low literacy rates. Moore, a writer in her own right, recently opened the One Moore Bookstore in her hometown of Monrovia, Liberia. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng talked to the literary maven about how novels and poetry can rehabilitate communities and her mission to expand access to multicultural literature in communities that need it most.
When did you begin writing?
I’m one of those people who has always been an avid writer, so I’ve always dabbled in writing. I started initially in the form of journals, small pieces for school publications and creative assignments. After graduate school, where I studied creative writing, I moved to New York City and realized that as a black African woman writer, there were certain expectations of the larger literary canon regarding what I “should” be writing. From there, while waiting to get representation through an agent, I started writing essays on social politics, focusing on immigrant identity in the United States and race. Right now, I have a novel that is forthcoming. It’s magical realism and historical fiction based in the 19th century. It tells the story of Liberia’s formation and the different groups of people who breathed life into what we now know as Liberia.
Most of One Moore Book’s content is primarily geared towards children. How does writing for children differ from writing for adults?
We strictly publish children’s books for elementary school kids from ages kindergarten to five. When I was fresh out of graduate school in New York suffering from frustration with the larger literary canon, I had the idea to write a children’s book. I come from a family of artists, so I called my younger sister and asked her how she felt about collaborating on a children’s book. Not just any children’s book but one like “J is for Jollof Rice.” She thought it was a great idea, so she illustrated it and I wrote it. Then I thought, “who’s going to publish this?” I knew that they would make a lot of changes that would change the tone of the story, so I did some basic fundamental research on publishing and what it would entail.
From there, the One Moore Book concept evolved from being a publishing company for children of underrepresented groups to something that is now more in the social entrepreneurship vein through selling books, but also donating them to children in the countries we are featuring. We target countries that either have low literacy rates or underrepresented groups and cultures. There is little literature that exists for these kids. If you think about books that are often in Liberia or some developing countries, they’re typically donated and shipped over. There is very little consideration for the cultural relevance or local context. We now have twenty books that represent the children of Liberia, Haiti, Brazil, and Guinea. The Haiti Series included the second children’s book of Edwidge Danticat, who also guest-edited the series. The Brazil book just came out last month. We worked with an Afro-Brazilian writer and illustrator, so I’m very proud of our growing portfolio. We’re working toward getting to more countries and working with a bigger repertoire of writers and illustrators from those countries to produce content for children who are not used to seeing themselves in books.
How do you distribute the books in country?
I mentioned the social entrepreneurship aspect before. One thing I quickly discovered is that our prices are not what a local can afford. For example, $10 to $12 per book can be a person’s salary in Liberia for a week. That’s why I began to partner with non-profits, so every three books we sell in the United States, we donate one to a child in the featured country through a network of established schools and community centers. We typically partner with nonprofits that focus on education and literacy and have networks of children who can really benefit from these books. Secondly, we distribute books through grants and contracts. Last year, one of our writers received the Open Society Initiative of West Africa grant to pilot a book in ten schools in Monrovia. We are still implementing that now because we had a hiccup in the rollout due to Ebola.
How did your Liberian heritage figure into the genesis of One Moore Book? What was it like being away for so long?
I usually include references to my essays and my broader work. Being Liberian is very much a part of me. My parents instilled a sense of national and historical pride that always made me feel connected and invested in Liberia and the well being of its people. It was very different when I went back for the first time. We left when I was five during the war. Because the events were so traumatic, I have a pretty solid memory of Liberia despite being so young when we left. In the two dozen or so memories I have of Liberia, there are considerable highs—beautiful vignettes of family life—but also
considerable lows because we were displaced. Liberia, upon returning, was a totally different country. It was not like anything I could have imagined. Obviously when you’re a child, everything feels bigger and more dramatic, but it seemed like a different country even to my parents who were raised there. My parents moved back in 2012 and they have been pretty adamant that it is a different country now. In Liberia, they have this thing called “no more dey” or “before the war.” Everyone references “no more dey” like it’s this faraway distant country. I think the same thing happened with me upon returning—the stark realization that things have forever changed.
I’m interested in that idea of “before and after” in relation to the Ebola crisis. How has One Moore Book play a role in post-Ebola Liberia?
During Ebola, we had a fundraiser to send over 400 educational packets including books, pencils, and notebooks that we sent to the We Care Foundation, which is run by Michael Weah. They have the only library that exists right now in Liberia. It is a wonderful place that I had the opportunity to visit last year. I love it so much and was so impressed by it. Through We Care, he distributed these educational packets, which included our own books, to kids who were out of school during the epidemic.
When did you open the physical store in Monrovia?
There was a soft opening in June and July to get retailers used to being around books. In September, it more formally opened when I had a chance to work with retailers on cataloging and ensuring they understood what genres were. There is still a lot of work to do. It’s a process; you have to understand that around the world, even in the wealthiest countries, bookstores are closing. People around the world are reading less. They are finding other ways to get information, so the love of words and reading is declining. If you think about a developing country where people are focused on the basics of living, then obviously a love of books will be at the bottom of that list. It will really require a psychological rehabilitation to develop a love and appreciation for the written word. I am certainly up for the challenge, in getting people to read beyond reading just for a means to an end. People read, but often it’s just for school. Reading for pleasure is a bit different.
What books do you stock in the store?
We have a range of books from children’s books to YA to thrillers to magical realism. There’s everything from Twilight to African-American classics to African classics to Shakespeare and American literature. I try to make our selection as diverse as possible, but with a focus on Liberian and African literature.
How do you find the authors for One Moore Book. You mentioned Afro-Brazilians and Haitians—what’s your process?
It ranges. For the Haiti series, I sent out a call for submissions. For the Afro-Brazilian series, the author approached me. I did an interview on ABC, and he saw it and reached out, saying that he was interested in doing something for his country. He’s a samba teacher and a storyteller, but he had never written a story before, so we worked with him to develop the story and then found an illustrator online.
What are the next countries you’re thinking of featuring?
Possibly Ghana. We’re in talks with a Ghanaian publisher regarding a joint venture where we will publish in the US and he publishes in Ghana. We’re also thinking of developing a Mexico or Mexican-American series.
How do you see One Moore Book continuing to grow?
I want to continue to feature one to two countries each year, then also eventually publish for young adults and eventually adults. Right now, though, I hope to maintain the consistency.
Where can readers buy your books?
Either on our website or on Amazon. Depending on what city you live in, we do have a few independent distributors who carry our books, but primarily in New York City and Washington, D.C.