© 2024 Peoria Public Radio
A joint service of Bradley University and Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Peoria native returns home to present her new children’s book to students

Mason Klemm
Dr. Tristen Brenaé Johnson reading her book to a room of Whittier Primary School students

When Dr. Tristen Brenaé Johnson left the Peoria area, she knew she’d be back. She didn’t think it’d be as a children’s author.

Johnson read her book, Black History Explorer: My Name, Our Power!, to a group of third and fourth graders at Whittier Primary School on Tuesday. The children’s book is meant to encourage young Black children to learn the history and power behind their names.

The book follows DeWayne, nicknamed Peanut, as his family teaches him about the origins of his name and how Black Americans got their names. Based on Johnson’s son, who is also nicknamed Peanut, it touches on how Black people got their names taken away from them during slavery and encourages children to embrace their names.

“I don’t care if your name is the hardest name to pronounce,” Johnson said. “Practice it. Tell people to practice saying your name.”

Johnson attended Thomas Jefferson Primary School in the Peoria Public School district, eventually graduating from Richwoods High School in 2008. She reached out to the district to present her book, as she felt she needed to come back and show the students how far Peoria can take them.

“There is an opportunity to go bigger outside of Peoria and go do great things in other communities, and then come back to the community that raised you,” Johnson said. “I think it’s so important to make sure that you come back and set those roots and foundation within the community.”

Johnson’s experience as a Black woman growing up in Peoria led to her wanting to approach this topic, and her current experience living in Texas led to her writing the book. Recent Texas laws have banned books like Johnson’s, leading to Black history being untruthfully taught.

“Black history is American history,” Johnson said. “We built this country, really, so to be able to say that the work that we do and the contributions that we’ve made to this country is why this country is flourishing. I really wanted to make sure that that message came across in this book and when I’m teaching my son at home.”

She was also glad to be back in the place that helped her fit into her own skin.

“District 150 and Peoria really shaped me into the person I am now,” Johnson said. “I can’t credit anything to my success without mentioning the 309.”

Author is not the only hat Johnson wears. Her business, The Tristen Johnson LLC, is focused on teaching diversity and inclusion initiatives through curriculum design, consulting, trainings and workshops. She also deals with leadership development and team building.

After graduating from Western Illinois in 2012 with a journalism degree, Johnson got her master’s from Southern Illinois and her Doctorate of Philosophy in Education from Illinois State. She currently works as the Senior Diversity and Inclusion Specialist at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL, while also consulting and giving speeches through her business.

Johnson began writing when she was six, winning multiple Young Authors awards during her time at Thomas Jefferson. She wrote the book in two hours and says it made her feel like a kid again, as she rarely had the ability to write creatively while traversing through a career in academia.

“I’m like, ‘no one else can critique this book.’ This is my book, I’m publishing this, I don’t have to have it peer reviewed because it’s mine,” Johnson said. “To be able to have that freedom, it feels beautiful.”

This is her first children’s book, but she intends to turn it into a series, which she plans to begin writing later this year. With all the proceeds going to her son, she wants him and other Black children to know that they can do whatever they put their minds to – something she had to tell herself to finish the book.

“When you have a vision, when you have a dream, go for it,” Johnson said. “There’s no stopping you in this world, there’s no limits in this space, so I wanted to write something that was gonna leave a legacy for him [her son].”

Mason Klemm is a reporting intern for WCBU. He is studying sports communication at Bradley University and is expected to graduate in May 2024.