A Q&A with Peoria lawyer and children’s book author Alexus McNally
Peoria Magazine (PM): First off, tell us about your background.
Alexus McNally (AM): I am a first/second generation — depending on your definition — Haitian American. My dad was born and raised in Haiti, and he lives there now. He came to the United States when he was 18 and met my mom, an African American woman. I was born in southern California in 1995. I am 27.
My older sister went to Bradley University in 2005, and every summer, I would visit her here in Peoria. In 2012, my whole family moved to Peoria so that we could all be together. I completed my last two years of high school at Richwoods High School. I currently live in Peoria with my mom. My sister still lives here, as well.
PM: Where did you attend law school? What type of law do you practice? How did you make the jump from law to children’s literature?
AM: I attended law school at Indiana University Maurer School of Law in Bloomington, Indiana, from 2017 to 2020. I spent my last year of law school abroad in Paris, earning a dual-degree in European Law (2019-2020). I am a human rights lawyer. I advocate for people who are poor and vulnerable in transitional countries and work to ensure that they have access to high-quality legal aid.
I have always loved reading, writing stories and poetry, and being creative. I come from a big family. I have six siblings. My family did not have a lot while I was growing up, and these were all things that I could do that didn’t cost any money.
Two of the books that I recently published, I’m Not Afraid and The Tree Monster were actually written while I was a freshman and sophomore in high school. I wrote Hair Scare this May. My teachers carved out time in their curricula for students to be creative. Without this time to explore my voice, I may have never found it or found confidence in it. Teachers play such an important role in shaping children’s lives. My mom is a preschool teacher, and I spent a lot of time in her class reading books to children and sharing with them the joy of books. I hope to continue to spread that joy on a larger scale by publishing stories of my own.
PM: What are your favorite things to write about?
AM: My favorite things to write about are my personal experiences after doing a lot of introspection, and expressing these experiences in an entertaining way, often as a poem. All of the books that I have published have a rhyme scheme in some way or another.
PM: You said in an earlier television interview that the character in your books is based on you as a child. In what ways are you and the character similar?
AM: The main character in the books shares my name (Alexus) and nickname (Ladybug). My nickname was 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 around my house and in my neighborhood. He says that the way that I would fly around from one activity to another reminded him of a ladybug. Like Ladybug in The Tree Monster, I was also bullied in school. … I had experiences similar to Ladybug’s in Hair Scare throughout my childhood, and I’ve certainly had my fair share of bad hair days as an adult. Like Ladybug, I am also a problem solver … I also drew Ladybug using my own photographs.
PM: Representation is so important in children’s literature. It’s important for children to see themselves reflected in books so they realize they are not alone. It’s also important for children to see people who are very different from themselves, to build empathy for others. Growing up, did you see yourself reflected in any books?
AM: I don’t recall seeing myself represented in any of the books that I read growing up, and I am a big book reader. My family moved around a lot. Whenever we moved to a new place, I would find the local library and try to read every book in it.
PM: Do you think children’s literature has improved over the years?
AM: I think that children’s literature has become more inclusive in recent years, but we have a long way to go and hundreds of years to make up for. Black people were prevented from being able to read and write for the majority of our history in America. Underfunded schools, a lack of opportunity and structural racism in this country continue to be barriers for black people to share their stories and be represented in the media.
PM: Black authors and illustrators remain underrepresented in the publishing world. Have you found it difficult to find a foothold in publishing?
AM: I self-published my books to circumvent some of these issues and to take full ownership over my work.
PM: Who are your favorite authors?
AM: My favorite authors growing up were Roald Dahl and Judy Blume. Black authors such as Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have inspired me as an adult.
PM: How long did you work on your books? What did you learn in the process?
AM: It took no more than a day to come up with the words for each of my books at various periods in the past 10 years. It took about three and half weeks for me to illustrate the books this summer. I have become more aware than ever before about the true void that exists in literature, especially for African American children … Representation really does matter. African American boys and girls need to see themselves in all of our shapes and colors, especially in the stories that we read and have read to us as children.
PM: Do you think that you and your books will serve as an inspiration to young kids who still don’t see themselves represented enough in literature?
AM: I hope that my books will serve as a source of inspiration for kids young and old, and also that they inspire others to get their stories published. I hope my readers laugh out loud and get a lot of joy out of my books, and that they find that every problem has a solution, just like Ladybug does.