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A new kind of superhero

Victoria's A.A. Riley couldn't find a feisty black heroine in kids' fiction, so she created one
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A.A. Riley's Introducing Sophia Firecracker is about a girl who believes she's a superhero. "I found this story about this little boy in Madison, Wisconsin, who asked his mom, 'Why aren't there any black superheroes? I'm 43. He's 10. And still, to this day, he's feeling what I felt all those years ago."

There was someone absent from the roster of literary heroes A. A. Riley encountered while growing up.

"What was missing in the stories was a little black girl," she wrote on her website. "A mischievous, playful young girl who just wanted to have fun."

So Riley created the character.

Introducing Sophia Firecracker stars a feisty nineyear-old who believes she's a superhero. The Victoria resident is now raising money for a "Superkids" book tour, where she plans to distribute 3,000 free copies of the book to ethnically diverse kids across Canada and the United States who may not see themselves represented in mainstream children's literature. The tentative tour launch date is Oct. 11, but she has already mailed one copy to a boy she read about in the course of her research.

"I was online and I found this story about this little boy in Madison, Wisconsin, who asked his mom, 'Why aren't there any black superheroes,' " she said.

"It's like, ugh. You know? I'm 43. He's 10. And still, to this day, he's feeling what I felt all those years ago."

Of course, the literary landscape has changed since Riley was a child, but she says stories like his remind her that some of the same problems persist.

Riley grew up in one of the few black families in Cambridge, Ont., a town near Kitchener-Waterloo. She never learned Canadian black history in school, she said.

She loved to read, but rarely saw herself in the Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary books she adored. While she counted Malcolm X and Billie Holliday as heroes growing up - in addition to Superwoman and the Bionic Woman - the first strong black character she read about was in Alice Walker's The Colour Purple, when she was 16.

"It was huge for me," she said.

The story of Sophia Firecracker began with a dream 11 years ago. Riley was reading history books at the National Library in Ottawa, where she was living at the time. She was educating herself about black history in Canada - looking for writing inspiration as well as filling in gaps in her own knowledge.

"Sometimes you feel alone," she said. "And I know we're here. So I wanted to know what happened."

She found the story of a former slave named Sophia Pooley, who lived in Waterloo County - the same region as Riley. And she began dreaming about a little girl.

"She was this little firecracker. This feisty little thing who knew who she was and knew what she wanted," she said. "I figure it was a gift."

She began writing about the girl and named her Sophia, after Pooley.

After several years of struggling to find a traditional publisher, Riley selfpublished Introducing Sophia Firecracker, with illustrations by Christine Smolcic, in July 2011. She describes the book as "a first chapter-book for seven-to 10-year-olds."

It's available locally at Tall Tales Books on Cadboro Bay Road and Munro's Books on Government Street, as well as the Greater Victoria Public Library and the Midway Public Library. Buyers can also purchase it online at Amazon.com or by emailing orders@sophiafirecracker. com.

While Introducing Sophia Firecracker may have special value for kids who don't see themselves represented frequently in the mainstream, it's a book for all children.

"Kids of all colours have read it and loved it," she said. "Girls like to giggle, boys like to giggle - that's it. Sophia's any regular kid. She's black. It's not about slavery - It's just about a kid being a kid."

Riley is planning to launch the Superkids book tour to coincide with the United Nations' first International Day of the Girl Child on Oct. 11. Information about the book and fundraising campaign is available at sophiafirecracker.com.

asmart@timescolonist.com