This month, TVOkids brings tween viewers Ainara’s Bookshelf, a new kids’ series by Turtlebox Productions that spotlights middle-grade books written by diverse creators.
The series, first launched on marbleKids’ YouTube channel on January 10, 2023, is hosted by 13-year-old co-creator, co-writer, and executive producer Ainara Alleyne of Hamilton, Ontario. Each 11-minute episode, which will air Thursdays at 6 p.m. ET on TVOkids starting February 2, will feature Ainara reviewing the week’s book from her book loft. Most episodes will also include an interview with the author. Among those interviewed in the first season are Clarible A. Ortega, Lawrence Hill, and Rosena Fung.
Known for her Instagram feed @ainarasbookshelf, which has amassed 8,000 followers since 2020, Ainara is also Hamilton Public Library’s First Junior Librarian in Residence.
Ainara spoke to Q&Q about how Ainara’s Bookshelf came to be, what she’s learned, and what she hopes viewers will take away from the series.
What inspired Ainara’s Bookshelf?
There are a few reasons I started Ainara’s Bookshelf, but the biggest reason is that I want kids of colour to see themselves represented. I never saw a character that looked like me on the cover of a book in my school’s library, and it felt awful. I don’t want other kids to feel like that. I also want all kids to experience different cultures and points of view that aren’t a stereotypical version they might see on TV.
When deciding on a book to feature on Ainara’s Bookshelf, is there anything specific you’re looking for?
Diversity! All the books I share on Ainara’s Bookshelf are diverse. That doesn’t just mean race or ethnicity, but people with disabilities, LGBTQIA stories, stories set in countries you don’t read about often, books about a unique hobby, things that kids might be looking for that they can’t find. Sharing authentic own-voice stories is especially important to me. You get the hidden details, descriptions, and experiences when the story is told by someone who has lived and seen these things in some way. Other than that, I really just look for genres or themes that I find interesting and things I think kids my age will connect with. All kids will read if the book is about something they enjoy, so I try to cover things I see my classmates interested in.
What’s the process of shooting an episode of Ainara’s Bookshelf?
Well, first we filmed all of the interviews. We filmed some in Canada and then flew out to L.A., Connecticut, and New York for the others. Once we were back home, we filmed all of the book reviews and outros on set. Sometimes we would have to change the script on set, but that was okay, and it was really fun. The crew was amazing and super kind, so everything went very smoothly.
What is it like interviewing the authors?
It’s fantastic! I always get really nervous before an interview, but everyone I spoke to was so kind and inspiring that I felt calm soon after our conversations began. No two authors were the same. It was fascinating to hear the origins of the idea for the book and the path they took to make it a reality. Something that kept coming up in my talks with the authors was that they either wrote the book for their younger selves or wished they had their own book when they were a kid. It makes me happy to promote these books to kids who need them now that they exist in the world.
Two of the episodes were celebrity interviews as well. I spoke to Peter Ramsey, the director of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse who is the first Black man to win an Oscar for an animated movie. I really enjoyed talking to him about the impact of representation and why it breathes new life into stories and enhances them.
What has surprised you the most about doing Ainara’s Bookshelf? And what has been the most fun?
It was surprising to see how many people wanted to see it happen. Turtlebox Productions, the authors, locations we filmed at like The Knead Bakery in Connecticut, Dolby Vine Theatre in L.A., and even my local library – Hamilton Public Library. Everyone was accommodating, encouraging, and willing to work with us to make this show happen. My teacher, Mrs. A, and my principal were great as well. You hear a lot of bad news out there; some of the books we talk about this season have been banned in certain parts of the United States. One of the titles was even banned in Canada for a short time, so it was encouraging and refreshing to see the positive reactions to the show and its mission.
I think the most fun was writing the book reviews and interview questions for the episodes with my dad. It was fun brainstorming ideas, trying to cut down the more extended versions into the shorter intro versions we used, and just talking about the books and themes with him. We laughed a lot, and I got to experience the books again and see new things I missed even as I was explaining things from my point of view to him. I also enjoyed travelling with Turtlebox Productions and meeting the authors in person. During the pandemic, I could only do online interviews for my Instagram, so I’m incredibly grateful that I got the chance to actually meet the authors in person.
What do you hope viewers will take away from Ainara’s Bookshelf?
I hope that kids will pick up one of the books and enjoy it. Most of the books are the first in a series or a duology. I did that on purpose so that if they get that spark from the first book, they can continue and develop a love of reading for themselves, not because it is for their school work or because their parents want them to read, but for their own enjoyment. I hope parents and teachers take away the value of reading and the importance of representation. Reading isn’t just a chore. It benefits you in so many ways, and it can be enjoyable. All of the books featured in the first season have essential themes – mental health, the foster care system, being true to yourself, or being the new kid – and will spark discussions that I think will really benefit middle-grade readers. I hope that everyone will come away with some empathy for others and have some meaningful conversations.
This interview has been edited and condensed.