“I’m jumping in with both feet,” said Kamau “Maui” Jones, talking to the Review about “Everyday with Ella,” the series of characters and books – and so much more – that’s he’s launching. “I was working on it in the margins of my life for years. I don’t want to do that anymore.”
“Everyday with Ella” is described as a “conceptualized world” on the Kickstarter page at kickstarter.com/projects/reflectmedia/hi-im-ella-an-everyday-with-ella-book.
Ella, the central character, is a four-year-old biracial Black girl with a “multi-identity crew of friends,” that are all based on people in Jones’ real life.
There’s Clark, who was inspired by a high school friend of Jones’. Clark loves superheroes, is on the autism spectrum, and is guided by the primary motivator of fairness.
All the characters have a primary motivator. For Dani, a Latinx character who’s nonbinary, it’s curiosity. For the character Mars, who has cerebral palsy, it’s love. Mars is Black, and Jones said that love as the motiving factor behind Mars has significance.
“I wanted to have a Black male character who is loving, because we’re often told not to show emotion,” Jones said.
When Jones developed the character of Dani, who uses the pronouns they/them, he realized he wanted the other characters to choose their pronouns too, so each is introduced with their current pronouns. But those pronouns could change as the characters develop.
“I want to give them the space to have questions and to grow,” said Jones.
Other characters are Fatima (based on real-life Oak Parker Dima Ali), who loves to nurture those around her and Priya, who is motivated and inspired by art and beauty.
Jones is introducing the world to “Everyday with Ella” first through a series of books, though he has plans for a lot more. The first three books feature Ella herself and are called “Hi, I’m Ella,” “Hey Night Sky,” and “Experience with Ella.” Jones has more Ella books planned, plus books that feature the other characters too. The books will be available through the Kickstarter, and after that through Amazon and at local libraries. If the Kickstarter raises at least $25,000, Jones said he’s planning to print and donate 500 books to local children’s organizations like Hephzibah.
A digital live action puppet show is also in the works. Jones said the characters of the parents will be played by real people, but Ella and her friends will be represented with puppets, an expensive undertaking. The Ella puppet is being made now and hopefully will be finished by the end of the month. The puppet shows, which will require a professional puppeteer, will eventually be available on YouTube.
Down the line, Jones is thinking of penning books for older kids and holding live theater events too, using Theatre of the Oppressed techniques to practice anti-racism. Facilitators would describe a scenario, and the actors would make it happen. Then the audience of kids would be asked, “What could we do better here?” And, based on children’s suggestions, the actors would recreate the scene, showing how different choices lead to better outcomes.
The idea for “Everyday with Ella” has been something Jones has kicked around for years, but recently he decided to commit to it fully, stepping away from his full-time job to find time for Ella. Between his day job, his work at Echo Theater, and his engagement in volunteer work in the community, he was putting in 80 to 100 hours a week, which didn’t leave time for him to dive into the Ella’s world.
The origins of Ella go back a few years, and not all of it is a happy story.
In 2018, Jones did a TEDx talk in which he talked about generational trauma, something that impacted him throughout his life. He said that seeing his mother turn her life around was a huge inspiration to Jones, who dropped out of high school and had found himself “floating through life without aim or purpose.”
Jones talks about echoes often, the reverberations in our lives, how one thing can impact another.
“My metamorphosis is a reverberation of hers,” Jones said of his mother, and in 2018 during his talk, he said that in the past few years, he made big changes in his life, getting a better job and starting Echo Theater Collective, as well as engaging with the community.
But, said Jones, the biggest change he talked about during the TEDx talk, the biggest change he’d made, was that he finally felt ready to be a father, overcoming decades of trauma and fear. “I realized that I was scared to have a kid,” he said. “I was scared to pass on that trauma.”
He said he ended his TEDx talk by reading a letter he’d written to his future child, a wrenching but hopeful letter filled with apology (“my first act as a father will be to traumatize you with the burden of being Black in a white world”) and regret that he’d let his fear stop him from having a child. The letter ends with hope: “I can’t wait to see the person you become. I can’t wait to see how you find ways to be free in a world that would shackle you. I can’t wait to see what will you leave behind and what kind of echo you will be.”
His girlfriend, in the audience, didn’t know he was planning to read the letter. Jones said she was sobbing, and so was his mother, who was also there.
A month later, he and his girlfriend found out they were pregnant. They were elated.
But at the 20-week ultrasound, there was no heartbeat. No signs of life. They had lost their baby.
“I got really mad at God,” Jones said. “I’d been so good. I’d been trying so hard.” He sank into depression, turning to food and forgoing exercise. His weight crept up to 467 pounds, and he had trouble walking. Lying down induced coughing, and he had bleeding lesions on his legs and stomach from what turned out to be congestive heart failure because he was carrying around about 80 pounds of extra fluid. But for a long time, he ignored the warning signs.
Finally, he went to the doctor.
“I hadn’t been [to the doctor] in about 20 years,” Jones said. The doctor told him to immediately go the emergency room, where he was told, “It’s a miracle you haven’t had a stroke yet.” He was admitted for about five days, and lost 60 pounds just from fluid in that time.
“I felt like the world was saying ‘no’ to me,” Jones said.
Changing was hard. Walking was difficult. He’d go the distance of a house or two and be exhausted. Gradually, he increased his distance, until he could go around the block. Then a mile. Then a few. Now, he walks about 15 miles a day.
And while he was recovering his health, he’d started writing stories about the child he and his partner lost.
“I wrote about a dad and his kid just doing stuff,” said Jones. It was a healing exercise that grew into something more, into the idea that he had lessons and ideas he wanted to share.
A joy-based perspective
“As I started getting healthier, I realized that a big part of my issues was that I wasn’t raised to believe in my abilities and self-worth,” Jones said. “When you’re a person of color, you don’t see yourself represented. The hero’s journey in media, going back to Joseph Campbell and the way that heroism is presented, is always the white man’s journey.”
Jones said he realized he’d grown up seeing other people’s journeys, not his. And today, though there is more representation in television and movies, much of it is trauma-based.
“In a lot of current media,” said Jones, “we see trans people, for example. But they’re presented as people going through traumatic situations and being saved from those situations. But what if we just showed them living life?”
And that, he said, is the aim of the world of Ella and her friends. He wants to show his characters and their unique qualities through a joy-based perspective, to present people of different backgrounds and races and abilities, living and learning and being human.
“Everyday with Ella,” reads the Kickstarted page, “closely examines [the characters’] social and emotional learning through a racial equity lens as they play, talk, and learn about the world. The series is designed to bring “compassion, empathy, respect, curiosity and imagination to conversations about race, gender identity, fear, love and more.”
The books, said Jones, are designed not only for kids but for adults too, who can learn to foster an environment of creativity, curiosity, community and cultural pride. The books can provide parents who want to engage in important conversations a starting-off place.
The bottom line, said Jones, is fostering inclusion, and that is Ella’s central message: We all belong.