Georgia author-illustrator Cara Reese didn’t start out her career intending to be an educator or a children’s book writer; she initially planned to become a child psychology professor. But when she took a position at a Montessori school, she saw how the research she’d been working on could be applied in the classroom. In her many years teaching, she’s now taught at all grade levels, from pre-K through high school seniors, and was named the Georgia Teacher of the Year for 2023.

Reese saw that in the classroom, there were very few traditionally published resources by and for children of color. Initially, “it felt like becoming a children’s book author was like saying I wanted to be an astronaut,” she confesses. But as she continued teaching and reading, she saw how the landscape was changing. She began to think, Oh, you can actually do this.

When the pandemic hit, she decided to give it her best shot. She formed Bea and Jo Press with the goal of producing one book for every Black History month, for five years. The first, Black Artists Rock! The Cool Kids’ Guide AZ brings a syncopated ABC book to young readers. Each two-page spread focuses on an artist, with a boldly stylized representation of who that artist is and what their work represents. For example, Duke Ellington (for the letter “E”), is surrounded by a cacophony of music notes:

E is for Duke Ellington, / A symphonic master composer / Big band notes booming bright / Dazzling audiences around the globe.


E is for Duke Ellington, / A Jazz innovator deluxe / Dripping with Mood-indigo elegance, / Uncontested jazz royalty.

With three different stanzas for each artist, Reese uses vocabulary and rhythms that highlight the music, visual art, or writing of the creators. She introduces young readers to people like the filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, the photographer James Vanderzee, and the Nicholas Brothers dancers (cleverly used for letter “X,” as they are x2 the talent). The art features cartoon or digital faces, abstract shapes, and silhouettes. As Kirkus Reviews describes, “The book’s vivid illustrations mix abstract art, cartoons, line drawings, and other representational styles with images of objects and designs (books, a paint palette, pencils, and so on) that reflect the practices and spirits of those profiled.”

When Reese started planning Black Artists Rock!, she drew on childhood inspirations, growing up in a house with a lot of jazz and soul. Her mother, a frustrated artist at heart, would take the children to art shows. “I realized as I got older,” she confesses, “a lot of the people that I was excited about [were unknown to] some people.” So she made a list of all the artists she wanted readers to learn about. Her goal was to expand beyond the Black historical figures children normally encounter in a public school setting. Using the outline for the alphabet book also gave Reese a concrete set of goals—one artist for each letter—and helped to hold herself accountable for finishing her first independent book project.

Reese intentionally blended famous figures with artists she considers “overlooked pioneers,” and she focused on offering a gender balance since many of those lesser-known artists tended to be women. That kind of representation was important to her, especially in a storybook, because for children, seeing themselves on the pages makes a thing become real. “John Coltrane is a titan in the jazz world, but in my mind and heart, so is his wife, Alice,” Reese says. “The two really go together if you understand his story and the direction that his career followed. I wanted to give [Alice] her flowers, too.” She also wanted young readers to experience the idea that being an artist was attainable. “There might be somebody out there who realizes, Oh, I can become a poet or an architect or a harpist.

With only three paragraphs discussing each artist, Reese had to distill all her research—a process on which she spent two to three years—into a short word count. As a teacher, she was familiar with really dialing in to the central idea. “You can’t tell the kids all the things!” she says. “You have to pick and choose and decide what are the most important parts of this person’s story. Quincy Jones has done a thousand things….Where do you begin? But I think it’s important for the kids to know he was instrumental in the We Are the World project.”

She used that same skill to hone her artwork. She asked herself, What are the most important parts of this person’s story, and how do I translate that in a representation? Prior to teaching herself to illustrate digitally, Reese was a photographer, and her husband is a photographer and multimedia artist. For Black Artists Rock!, she began to experiment with digital collage and other styles. “At the end of the day, it had to feel right, it had to feel complete, and it had to feel like the picture was telling the story,” she explains, noting the importance of putting the stage in the background of her illustration of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, or the newsprint in the background of journalist Ida B. Wells. The illustrations give clues to youngsters who aren’t yet reading on their own; lap readers can investigate the pictures as Reese’s words are read aloud.

The word choice in the stanzas offers challenging vocabulary words as well, building the skills of older, independent readers with some stretch words. “The words are probably for a higher-age reader, or even an adult, but the pictures are accessible to anyone,” she explains. “When you’re teaching children how to read, you always want to expose them to new words. I didn’t want to oversimplify; I wanted there to be some words that felt a little bit aspirational, and [readers] have to use the context clues to figure [them] out.”

Reese’s Bea and Jo Press—named after her two grandmothers—is looking ahead to the next four titles, especially in the face of traditional publishers continuing to release a small proportion of titles highlighting Black figures. “I think the assault on Black history in public schools in certain states has also been a huge motivator to stay the course,” she notes. Her 2024 title, Dr. King Goes to India, explores the relationship between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership and a trip that he took to India with his wife, Coretta Scott King, when they were young international figures in the Civil Rights Movement. “Dr. King is so ubiquitous, and so important, but I came across this story about how he and [Coretta] took a huge trip to India,” she explains. “In all the years I’ve taught about Dr. King, I’ve never seen that story told.” It’s a cross-cultural connection: Dr. King is learning from being in India, and he and his wife are celebrated everywhere they go on their travels. It’s a joyful story in a moment in history that is often treated without levity.

Those hidden stories continue to be the focus of Reese’s upcoming works, including a title about a Black fashion designer and a story about two siblings surfing in Ghana in the 1800s. “When you teach history, it can feel heavy. It can feel hard and tedious. But if you make it fun, if you make it immersive…[students] forget that they are learning,” she says. That’s why Reese approaches her books with joy, giving her readers and her students a window into more.


Alana Joli Abbott writes about pop culture, fantasy and science fiction, and children’s books, which she reviews with the help of her kids.