As a child, Crystal Swain-Bates was a voracious reader. She was the type of child who got in trouble for reading long after bedtime with a flashlight under the blanket. But at the time she didn’t realize that most of the books she read didn’t feature characters that looked like her.
“I read so much as a kid but it never crossed my mind that there could be books written by black authors or that featured black characters,” said Swain-Bates, 35 of Atlanta. “I didn’t see any books that showcased black characters in fantasy roles as princesses or superheroes.”
Swain-Bates wanted to make a difference so in 2013 through Amazon KDP, she self-published her first book for children. “The Colorful Adventures of Zoe & Star: An Activity and Coloring Book,” was so well-received it encouraged Swain-Bates to keep going. Her first picture book, “Big Hair, Don’t Care,” is one of Amazon's most highly reviewed black children's books on the market.
Swain-Bates, a cyber analyst for the state, has watched income from her side hustle overtake her salary as her brand has expanded to include themed party supplies and more.
“I had that passion and that desire to be a writer and I ignored it for a long time because I was in such a fabulous career,” Swain-Bates said. “At such a young age I knew what I wanted to be. I just didn’t get there right away.”
As a student at Florida State University, Swain-Bates avoided majoring in English or creative writing. “I think there is a bias toward getting degrees like that. You don’t know if you will be able to get a job,” she said.
She loved science but she wasn’t so great at math and she realized she needed to find something that meshed with her natural abilities. One day she spotted a flyer about careers in international affairs and it sounded like something she would enjoy.
A month after she graduated, she moved to France to teach English. While there she applied for a job at the Defense Intelligence Agency in D.C. where she stayed for two years before returning to school for a master’s degree in the same field.
When a recruiter from the Central Intelligence Agency came to campus, Swain-Bates raced over with her resume in hand. She got the job as a foreign media analyst, a dream job for her, but after a stint in Germany and on the eve of her return to D.C., Swain-Bates decided it was time for a change.
“I woke up one day and I didn’t want to return to D.C.,” she said. “I wanted to start a publishing company and write children’s books.” She resigned and moved home to Atlanta where she scored a job with the state and began working on her books.
“I would get up and go to work from nine-to-five. I would get home, eat dinner and it was back to work. I would quite literally be working at home from about 9 or 10 p.m. to 4 or 5 a.m., then I would start all over again,” she said.
She also had to figure out how to publish her books. She knew she didn’t want to go the traditional route but she also didn’t know anyone who was making a full-time salary as a self-published author.
She learned about Amazon KDP which didn’t require a huge outlay of money and would publish her books on demand. Though she had no idea how her work would be received, she felt it was important. That year, she published six books with “Big Hair, Don’t Care,” -- a rhyming picture book -- earning top ratings on Amazon.
“Around that time so many little black girls in school were being suspended or getting in trouble for wearing their natural hair to school the way it grows out of their heads. I wanted to create a book that would showcase a little girl with huge hair who takes pride in her hair and in her appearance,” Swain-Bates said.
Readers began sharing how much of an impact the book had on the self-esteem of their daughters or young girls they knew. Soon, Swain-Bates was being asked to make appearances at schools and events nationwide. It was the kind of impact she never had working for the federal government.
There are now quite a few books that are written specifically for children of color, and Swain-Bates hopes they keep coming.
“The thing that is important to me is that I am really committed to filling the diversity gap in children’s literature and I encourage any other aspiring authors that want to do the same to just do it,” she said.