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'I didn't see books like this:' Peoria author publishes children's collection focused on representation and bravery

Cover of author Alexus McNally's favorite book in the collection, "Hair Scare"
Alexus McNally
The cover of author Alexus McNally's favorite book in the collection, "Hair Scare."

After growing up without seeing or reading many children’s books that featured characters who looked like her, a local author decided to write those stories herself, and she didn’t have to wait until she was an adult to do it.

Alexus McNally’s children’s book series entitled, “The Ladybug Collection” features three books, all following a little girl named Ladybug, a character based on McNally.

“Ladybug was a nickname given to me by my dad. I was very energetic as a child. Like other kids, I loved to climb trees and play at the park and go on adventures. And he says that the way that I would fly around from one activity to another reminded him of a ladybug,” explained McNally.

Author and Illustrator Alexus McNally
Jody Holtz
Author and Illustrator Alexus McNally

McNally serves as both the author and illustrator of all three books. She said she fell in love with creating stories and writing poetry at a young age. Her family didn’t have much, and she said these were activities she could do that wouldn’t cost her family any money.

“I had started writing children's books when I was in middle school and high school," she said. "My teachers carved out the time in their curriculum for us to be creative and to explore our passions. And actually, two of the books that I've published, ‘I'm Not Afraid’ and ‘The Tree Monster,' those were written while I was in middle school and in high school as part of classroom assignments. And so, it really just goes to show how teachers are so important in guiding individuals towards becoming the individuals we are meant to be.”

The books were published in September and cover a wide range of themes, including some spooky, paranormal elements in honor of the Halloween season

“In ‘I’m Not Afraid’, Ladybug finds herself in a bit of a predicament as her house is overcome with monsters and she devises a plan to get rid of them, in one instance even using her dust buster to suck up a goblin in her closet. In 'The Tree Monster,’ Ladybug takes on the school bully. After he fills her and her teacher's desk with worms, she comes up with a plan to essentially scare him straight on Halloween night,” McNally said.

The cover of one of McNally's books in "The Ladybug Collection"
Alexus McNally
The cover of one of McNally's books in "The Ladybug Collection"

However, although it includes no paranormal elements, McNally said the most frightening book and her favorite out of the “Ladybug Collection” is “Hair Scare."

“Everyone knows what it's like to wake up with a very bad hair day and the trauma and the horror and the nervousness that can come when you're not sure if you'll be able to get it together before the time that you need to go,” said McNally.

“Hair Scare” shows Ladybug in a vulnerable moment. After playing out in the sprinklers the day before, she wakes up with unruly hair right before she has to catch the bus for school. Panicked, embarrassed, and teased by her little brother, Ladybug’s mama comes and saves the day just in time.

“African American women and girls with thick, kinky, coily hair know best that water can really make or break a hairstyle…I took the time to share the vocabulary and illustrate the actions of African American hair being done, and I even included some quick tips for caring for kinky, coily hair," said McNally.

" Hair is so important to our identities. It's so important for your self-esteem and for your confidence. And it's so important for African American girls and African American boys to see their hair and appreciate their hair, especially from a very, very young age…and seeing it natural and not, you know, processed or anything like that, and so that was important for me to showcase in this book.”

The cover of one of McNally's books in "The Ladybug Collection"
Alexus McNally
The cover of one of McNally's books in "The Ladybug Collection"

McNally said a driving reason behind wanting to create and publish these books is so Black boys and girls could see themselves and their experiences within literature, something McNally expressed she didn’t see enough of as a child.

“When I was growing up, I would have loved to have read a book about a girl taking down monsters that were over running her house and how she would navigate that situation," she said. "I would have loved to have seen a story about a girl who looked like me who was dealing with a class bully. I would have loved to been able to pick up a book and see someone with unruly, kinky, coily hair and have an appreciation for that and see other children having an appreciation for that.”

She said that while she does see an increased, concerted effort around creating stories that represent Black individuals, there’s a lot of time to make up.

“We've got so many decades, centuries to catch up on in terms of our literature and our representation and so definitely there's been an uptick, but I think that we've got so many more stories to tell.

As children and parents begin to pick up these books and get to know Ladybug, McNally hopes they laugh and understand what it means to be brave.

“The bravery to get up and navigate, you know, these unknowns, these monsters that are in her house. The bravery to stand up to her class bully. The bravery to get out of bed and face her bad hair day. And so, I'm hoping that my readers take away a sense of strength, a sense of humor, and some creativity towards tackling their problems.”

The books are available to purchase now on Amazon.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant development director, assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.