Meet The Author of Sell-Out Kid’s Book The ABC’s of Black History
While Writer & Author, Rio Cortez’s, daughter may have been the inspiration behind the new must-read children’s book, The ABCs of Black History, motherhood wasn’t always on the cards for this Harlem-based poet. Learn more about her path to publication and reflections of becoming & being Mama.
Toni Morrison once gave the advice: write what you want to read.
And that’s exactly what Writer & NYT Best-Selling Author, Rio Cortez is doing.
While pregnant with her daughter, Santi (2.5), Rio found herself thinking about what types of books they would read together. Since she was simultaneously working at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, she started writing a manuscript that would provide kids, just like her own daughter, a book that celebrates Black history, culture, race, and justice and thus, The ABCs of Black History was born.
Rio credits her incredible editor, Traci Todd, and wonderfully talented illustrator, Lauren Semmer, for helping bring this timely book to life.
ABOUT THE BOOK
‘Beginning with Anthem—an introduction to James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”—and ending with Zenith, a tribute to the mountaintop Dr. King spoke about before his death, readers will travel across continents and centuries, navigate triumph and heartbreak, and celebrate creativity and joy.’
Examining the intersection of the past and the present, THE ABCs of BLACK HISTORY highlights more contemporary moments and people. M is for march and message, exploring a culmination of movements that have changed the course of history, from the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965 to the Black Lives Matter movement today. Q is for queens, acquainting readers with powerful women like Leontyne Price, Queen Nandi, Toni Morrison, Michelle Obama, and many more.’
Released in December 2020, Rio says that Santi was the inspiration behind her debut children’s book.
‘I’ve spent a lot of my life writing poems, and my children’s book is also a poem. It’s a poem told in rhyming verse that attempts to address the vast and glorious story of Black history in America. I wanted to talk about Black history in a truthful and joyful way for children, and I think that’s what this book does.’
What’s interesting is that Rio hadn’t always seen herself as a mother.
‘Having kids was a thought I allowed to creep into my mind sometime after I met my partner, Brian, but it was never something I imagined for myself.’
Rio met Brian at a week-long retreat, part of a poetry fellowship for Black writers, called Cave Canem, in 2011.
‘We didn’t really talk during that retreat but we connected afterward, back in NYC. We like to say that we met at “Black poetry camp.”
Fast forward seven years, and the couple found themselves expecting. To prepare, Rio says she took A LOT of classes!
‘I also talked to a lot of people who have given birth. And I read mercilessly. That is not a recommended action plan, by the way! But it’s what worked for me. Information and data soothed me.’
What didn’t soothe Rio was her OBGYN. For years, she had gone to the same OBGYN for routine annual exams. However, pregnancy changed something.
‘I became very uncomfortable in their care. The Black maternal health crisis was front of my mind and the practice I had gone to suddenly didn’t feel gentle or considerate of my identity. I feel so lucky to have been referred to the obstetrician who eventually delivered our daughter, also a Black woman. She prepared me for a lot of potential labor and delivery scenarios and quite literally preserved my life because I did indeed stray very far from my birth plan when after two days of induced labor, I needed an emergency C-section.’
Arguably one of the most transformative experiences someone can go through, we asked Rio how she thinks pregnancy changed her.
‘I think I’m still discovering exactly how pregnancy changed me, and motherhood. It feels like I am tethered to my heart somewhere on earth at all times. And sometimes that tethering makes me feel twice the joy, and affection, and love, and other times it makes me feel twice the fear. There really is no hyperbole about motherhood. What I do know is that I am in awe of motherhood, in service to it, and very much in love.’
Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, Rio attended Sarah Lawrence for undergrad and then NYU where she received her MFA in poetry. For nearly five years, she has written and lived with her family in her husband’s hometown of Harlem, New York.
Wildly in love with her geographical location, Rio used to joke that their plan was to never leave the neighborhood. Of course, that’s taken on a whole new meaning since the pandemic began.
‘In March 2020, we made a Hail Mary decision to drive to Utah from NYC. This was when the public schools first closed in the city. We just had no idea what this was, or what it was going to be, and we weren’t sure when we’d be able to travel to see my family out west, and I knew that we’d have a lot more space there…so we did it! We found a friend to take our cat and we hopped in the car and took what was an extremely spooky road trip with closures all across state lines and tons of uncertainty and fear surrounding us. But we ended up being really happy with that decision. Shanti was young enough that she was still in diapers, which made traveling by car a little simpler, actually, and she thankfully was entertained by Sesame Street, naps, and a few books for hours on the road.
After a few months in Utah, things were looking better in terms of public health over the summer and we thought we might be called back to our respective offices soon… turned out that still hasn’t happened.’
While Rio is happy to be back in New York and is busy promoting The ABCs of Black History, just like parents around the world, she’s also navigating the new (not) normal of raising a toddler during a global pandemic.
‘We have the option of sending Shanti to 3-K in NYC this fall, however, we don’t quite know what to do yet. We have been attending some virtual open houses at schools. I wish we could have a concrete plan, but, we’ve learned to be pretty fluid in the last year.’