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Rhymes With Reason

When Lawyer and TV Personality Craig Thompson Couldn’t Find the Right Role Models for his Baby Daughter in a Book, He decided to Arrange His Own Introduction

Christopher Myers
READING IS FUNDAMENTAL: (from left) Deborah, Delaney, and Craig Thompson share his The ABCs of Black History.

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 11/17/2004

In a quiet corner of Howard County, there is a peaceful room in a suburban house where a dad reads to his 7-month-old girl. The room is perfectly still, except for the thoughtful intonations with which he emphasizes the rhymes from his book. In the center of the floor lies a baby rug emblazoned with pictures of baby blocks bearing the pastel letters a-b-c. As the father reads to his child, with his wife looking on, it seems clear that the girl will get the message this couple has been trying to convey to their daughter from day one—reading is a building block of life.

But this father isn’t reading a book of nursery rhymes. Instead, Craig Thompson has managed to squeeze time from his schedule as a husband, father, and busy civil litigator for law giant Peter Angelos to write a book for his daughter Delaney called The ABCs of Black History. Five months after Delaney was born in April 2004, Thompson says he looked around for culturally diverse books to read to her that also reflected a love of African-American history and culture. When he wasn’t happy with what he found, he took up a pen and wrote his own.

“Africa is where/ the first people were born/ it has many resources/ from diamonds to corn,” Thompson, 35, reads to his baby. As he reads on, he takes Delaney on a journey through the lives of history-makers, as painted with his rhymes: billionaire businessman Reginald Lewis, Harlem Renaissance novelist Zora Neale Hurston, entertainment powerhouse Oprah Winfrey, and others leap from the pages, along with places, events, and inventions significant to the black experience. Thompson manages to tell their stories in kid-speak, with carefully chosen words that summarize their contributions. And the backdrop for his words are the toasty hues and primary-color masterpieces of Prince George’s County-based book illustrator Roger James.

Perhaps it’s the lull of the rhythm or the easiness of the rhyme, but whatever the cause, Delaney lets out a celebratory coo, and then leans into the vibrant hues of yellow sand, and a red, black, and green Africa on the page in front of her.

This seeming stamp of approval means a lot to Thompson. He was raised by a single mother, and today he only wants to talk about his own fatherhood, not the fatherhood that he lacked when growing up.

“Not having a father in the household was a strong motivation for me to be present, involved, and accountable to my daughter,” he says.

But Thompson is not the only powerhouse in this room. His pages were meticulously proofed by his wife, Deborah—who in addition to Mommy goes by the title of Chief Solicitor of Labor, Employment, and Personnel for the Baltimore City Law Department in City Hall. As she looks on while her husband reads to their daughter, she can’t hide her fondness at the sight.

“I know that he wrote [the book] out of pure love for our daughter, and love for our history,” she says. “He was also motivated by a need to convey that love for Delaney and for this history for years to come.”

Thompson wrote the book piecemeal through the spring and summer, during late-night sessions sometimes lasting until 2 or 3 a.m. Much of the time was spent researching, poring over dozens of historic books and online sources in order to identify, and find the perfect mix of, his subjects. “I wanted to have a fair balance of contemporary and historical figures,” he says, “both male and female, and from various areas of expertise.”

Life met art when Thompson profiled Silver Spring publisher Barry Beckham on his public affairs television show on UPN 24 (Sundays at 6 a.m.), Profiles With Craig Thompson, in 2003. After the birth of Delaney, and the dearth he found of books to read to her, he went to Beckham with his idea for what would become The ABCs of Black History.

“I called Barry in June of 2004 and told him that I had an idea for a children’s book,” Thompson reports. “He asked me to pitch the idea, and he loved it.

“Through his network he was able to send out a request for proposal to freelance illustrators across the globe,” he continues. “The only thing he identified was the potential subject matter for the book, and he received over 30 responses in 24 hours from artists who wanted to illustrate these historical legends.” This is how Roger James became Thompson’s artistic eye.

“And the rest is ABC history.” The book is being published under the imprint of the Beckham Publications Group, with a target release date of Jan. 10, 2005. But Thompson says he has already had dozens of presales and “has received an overwhelmingly positive response to the book.”

And it all stems back to Thompson’s memories of his own childhood. His mother lived on Central Avenue in East Baltimore when he was born and moved out to Reisterstown, where Thompson attended Glyndon Elementary School. It was then that Brenda Thompson, a nurse, armed her son with a key to early literacy.

“I remember my mother taking me to the library very early and stressing the need for a library card. Since elementary school I always carried one,” Thompson says, adding that he always saw the library as the place where he could get “cool stuff” like tapes and albums he couldn’t afford to buy.

But even by the time he reached high school, he says, there weren’t that many books to choose from with images of people that looked like him. “I do remember reading a book in ninth grade about black Hollywood,” he recalls. “The book was tucked away on one of the shelves at Franklin High School. But I pulled it out and learned of so many people I had never heard of before—Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, the Nicholas Brothers, Paul Robeson, and a host of other figures.

“That book really opened my eyes,” he goes on. “The one thing that I want Delaney and other kids and parents to get when they read the book is that there are many people who look like them and who have done great things.”

That’s why one book that Thompson keeps on his own reading list is The Autobiography of Malcolm X. “It really spoke to me as a black male, probably more than any [other book] I had read,” he says. Malcolm X’s “experiences were unique but somehow universal. And his transformation from criminal to hero was phenomenal.”

His fondness for Malcolm X translates in his own book, albeit in a much shorter, more colorful history lesson. “X was the last name/ of Malcolm the leader,” The ABCs of Black History reads. “He always had books/ Because he was a reader.”

Now, Thompson hopes that The ABCs will inspire other children, though at a much younger age than when he was finally exposed to Malcolm X.

“I hope that children who read this book will get the fact that a kid born in Baltimore to a single parent and who was an only child could look beyond reality to see something more—and try to get it,” he says. “That’s one of the things I hope to do with the book—to develop self-esteem in all children, but black children in particular.

“Children need to see themselves as part of something bigger than themselves, even at an early age,” Thompson adds.

So in addition to reading alphabet rhymes to Delaney, Thompson declares, he will also be whispering a short but powerful mantra to her through his book.

“My mother always told me that I could do anything, and I believed her,” he says. “Unfortunately, there are too many children who are being told what they can’t do, and they believe that. We need to get more children believing that they can do anything, too.”

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