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Arts & Life

Kansas Congresswoman Sharice Davids' New Book Tells Kids: Your Voice Is Important

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Joshua Pawis-Steckley
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One of Joshua Pawis-Steckley's illustrations from "Sharice's Big Voice" prior to the addition of dialogue.

U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids' children's book will be released June 1.

Representative Sharice Davids has a message for children: Everyone’s voice is important and everyone’s path is different.

“I think a lot of us know what it’s like to feel like our voice isn’t heard, to feel like maybe our experience isn’t valid, or to just want to see other people who understand,” the U.S. Congresswoman from Kansas' 3rd District says.

So, Davids and a friend, Kansas City writer Nancy Mays, wrote a children’s book called Sharice’s Big Voice. It is scheduled for publication June 1. The book tells the story of Davids, who is Native American, growing up and eventually finding the path that led her to Congress.

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Mays and Davids decided to show Davids getting in trouble at school for talking too much; Davids being questioned by people who were uncertain about her ethnicity; and Davids working service industry jobs to put herself through community college and later Cornell Law School.

“Sometimes children look at adults and they think that we have all the answers or that someone who maybe is serving in Congress or doing something like that never made any mistakes or was the class valedictorian, and that wasn’t my path at all,” Davids says.

Mays met Davids in the early days of Davids' 2018 campaign for Congress and had heard her story many times. Still, she says, finding the right way to write the book was a challenge. She spoke to Davids’ mother Crystal Herriage a lot and went through old photo albums.

“After speaking to her mom, the narrative arc fell into place,” Mays says.

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Keith Mays
Nancy Mays (left) with Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Zoe Mays, and Sharice Davids at a campaign event in 2018.

She and Davids decided to conclude the story after the 2018 election win, “because it’s not about being in Congress, right, it’s about following your path,” Mays explains.

Their publisher, Harper-Collins, worked with them to find an illustrator that would represent Davids’ Native American heritage.

They found indigenous artist Joshua Maneshig Pawis-Steckley, a member of the Wasauksing, First Nation, in Ontario.

“I feel like even though I’m Anishinaabe and Sharice is Ho-chunk, our people were very closely related back in the day. They were on the same land, or right beside each other in Michigan in the Great Lakes area, so we shared a lot of culture,” Pawis-Steckley says.

He began illustrating children’s books — this is his second — after Google contracted him to create the homepage doodle celebrating the First Nation Jingle Dress Dance in June of 2019.

Pawis-Steckley says his work is important in helping to revive and rebuild indigenous culture; illustrations for children are vital.

“For me it’s about strengthening the culture and getting the culture in the mainstream and having it be recognized,” he says.

Even so, the entire project of the book involved some give and take. Mays and Davids worked to create the best and most effective storyline, then handed off the draft to Pawis-Steckley, who proposed visual representations.

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Joshua Pawis-Steckley

One scene in particular took some work.

Davids’ Congressional campaign had begun very small — in Mays’ kitchen, in fact — and its growth and tenacity deserved a spot in the narrative. Initially, Pawis-Steckley drew Davids leading a group of people down a street as if they were all in a line behind her.

The page reads: “In the beginning, the campaign team was small enough to fit around a kitchen table. But as we walked through neighborhoods, more people joined us. Our campaign made room for everyone.”

But Davids asked for a redo, saying that she didn’t want to be depicted at the head of the group.

“I really wanted to make sure that we thought about and talked about the process and the journey of running for office as a collective effort," Davids says. "It wasn’t me going out into the community and saying, ‘Come on guys, follow me.”

She says it was more that she had put her name on the ballot because she wanted what was most important to her constituents to be heard in Washington, D.C.

“From my perspective, so much of being in that decision-making position or leading from anywhere means that you have to be a part of the group, not standing outside of it looking in,” she says.

Pawis-Steckley illustrated the scene again, this time with Davids at the center of the action.

Davids didn’t grow up with book characters she could identify with; they didn’t look like her, and their backgrounds were unlike hers. The result was that she wasn’t sure if her voice could be heard, or deserved to be heard, and she sometimes wasn’t even sure if her experiences were valid.

She wants everyone to know that their voices are important and their experiences absolutely are valid.

Davids says, “I just hope that this book can be a little piece of that journey for folks.”

The virtual launch of Sharice’s Big Voice Sharice Davids and Jonathan Van Ness takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 1 online. The event is sponsored by Birchbark Books, an independent, indigenous bookstore in Minnesota, owned by writer Louise Erdrich. Free with registration.

A conversation with Sharice Davids will take place at 7 p.m. Saturday June 5 at Wise Blood Booksellers at 4045 Broadway Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111. Free.

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