The Dominican Illustrator Behind Will Smith’s New Children’s Book


Longtime fans of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air will be excited to learn they’ll soon be chillin’ out maxin’ relaxin’ all cool while reading Will Smith’s new children’s book series about the Fresh Princess, Destiny, inspired by Smith’s iconic character on the ‘90s sitcom. Smith has partnered with HarperCollins Children’s Book for a three-book deal that will launch with its first book, Fresh Princess, written by author Denene Millner. I must admit, that as ecstatic as I was when I first heard about the new book series, I was even more hyped when I learned that the illustrator behind it all is a Dominicana named Gladys Jose!

The first book in the series is Fresh Princess and it’s about a young, smart, and strong-willed Black girl learning who she is while navigating new challenges, including moving to a brand-new neighborhood. It only made sense to hire two strong and talented women of color to write and illustrate the book. Jose claims that the collaboration of this book felt like a result of the stars aligning “in a really bizarre and perfect way.”

“My amazingly incredible agent, Christy Ewers, at The Cat Agency Inc. sent out an email announcement to all of her industry contacts a couple of weeks after signing me,” Jose tells HipLatina. “An editor at HarperCollins liked my work and asked Christy for samples from me. Initially, I didn’t even know what the samples were for but only that it was for HarperCollins, who was one of my dream publishers. So I didn’t ask any questions. I just went straight to work!”

When Jose learned she landed the gig, she was so excited she was barely able to feel her legs and even wobbled to the floor. Who could blame her? A collaboration this big is a career-changing experience.

“Christy called me to give me the news. I remember one minute I was standing in the middle of the kitchen and then I was sitting down on the floor — I was speechless, which is odd for me,” she says. “I felt a rush of excitement followed by a wave of nervousness because — hello — With Smith! [But] no pressure, right?”

The series follows Destiny as she learns to navigate and adjust to recent life changes. The theme of the series is one Jose can probably relate to herself. “Fresh Princess is all about staying true to yourself,” she says. “Believing in all you are capable of even when doubt creeps in.”

Like many of us who grew up in the ‘90s, Jose was a big-time Fresh Prince fan herself which made the news of her landing the project that much more exciting.

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Seriously, I CANNOT wait for you guys to meet Destiny! As a 90s kid I grew up with the Fresh Prince, who was always himself no matter the situation. I'm so excited for a new generation to grow up and learn with Destiny! "She's a cool, energetic, and strong-willed young girl who approaches every day with her own signature style!" Inspired by The Fresh Prince @willsmith Written by the very talented Denene Millner @denenemillnerbooks Illustrated by yours truly 😏 🙋🏽‍♀️ #Repost @the_cat_agency (@get_repost) ・・・ We are totally cool…definitely not COMPLETELY FREAKING OUT that this is finally out in the world! 🤥 #Repost @harperkid ・・・ So beyond excited to finally introduce ✨Destiny✨—the FRESH PRINCESS!! 💁🏾‍♀️👑💕 . 👑Meet Destiny: a cool, energetic, and strong-willed young girl who approaches every day with her own signature style! That is, until she moves to a brand-new neighborhood, where nothing looks quite the same as it did at her old house. 👟Even with new challenges and new friends to make, Destiny always has a plan. With a few reminders from her loving family and after remembering what being the Fresh Princess is all about, she may just take the leap and jump right in! 💘Written by celebrated author, blogger, and editor Denene Millner (@Denenemillnerbooks) and illustrated by Gladys Jose (@gladysjoseillustrates), Fresh Princess is the perfect book to encourage kids to proudly stand out and be themselves! . Do you love THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL AIR? 🏀✈️🌴 _________________________ #freshprince #freshprinceofbelair #freshprincess #willsmith #picturebook #picturebooks #childrensbookillustration #childrensbooks #kidlit #kidlitart #homeschoolmom #90skid #90sfashion #nostalgic #raisingreaders #littlebookworm @entertainmentweekly @willsmith

A post shared by GLADYS JOSE • Illustrator (@gladysjoseillustrates) on

“I don’t think I’m allowed to be a ‘90s kid and NOT have watched The Fresh Prince [and] each episode at least five times! When I learned that book was the Fresh Princess, I had goosebumps,” she says. “Will Smith’s character had so much growth and truth to him, while still staying true to himself. What better messages for Black girls today? You can be you, not have to conform to who society wants you to be, and still, be amazing.”

Smith’s decision to make his main character a female version of his The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air character was an important one, largely inspired by his own daughter, Willow Smith. It was important for him to see that kind of strength depicted in a young girl. When Jose first approached how she was going to create the illustrations for Fresh Princess, bright colors instantly came to mind.

“It was hard to imagine Fresh Princess without thinking of the bright colors from Fresh Prince and from the ‘90s,” she says. “I also wanted to include visual elements to show [how] kids might imagine the world around them — that was a little tricky. But I think I figured out a fun way to show that. One of my goals was to have a diverse cast. That’s something that I’ve tried to be very mindful of in any project I’m working on. I think it’s important to show kids having a diverse group of friends.”

In fact, diversity seemed to be a key element for everyone involved. For many of us, growing up finding books with Black or Brown girls as the lead character was rare. I can barely count in one hand the number of children’s books available when I was little, that featured girls of color as the protagonist. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized how much that impacted my identity and how I viewed the world. Jose agrees that more than ever “Black and Brown kids today need to see themselves in books in normal everyday scenarios.”

“Destiny is just a normal kid, who also has beautiful brown skin and I hope little girls see this, embrace it, and know that they are recognized and loved too,” she says.

Jose, a beautiful brown-skinned Dominican American with naturally curly hair admits that the lack of diversity in books growing up, even impacted how she perceived her own beauty.

“Yes, I had such a hard time finding books I could relate to. It was so bad to the point where I think I became desensitized and found it normal,” she says. “When I was little, I actually believed I wasn’t pretty enough, light enough, and my hair not straight enough for me to be worth drawing. And that’s a horrific thought — I know! What’ sad is that no one was telling me these things, but kids are smart. They do pick up on these things and they might come up with harmful conclusions, as I did.”

This is further proof that the images kids see do impact how they see themselves and the world around them. If they don’t see themselves reflected in books, film, or television, they begin to feel invisible and not enough.

“I think it’s crucial to have these strong-willed Black girls in books today,” Jose adds. “As adults, it’s our responsibility to be proactive for this next generation of girls. We’re a long way to go but at least we’re heading in the right direction now.”

The project has even motivated Jose to eventually work on her own children’s book in the near future inspired by her own experience as a first-generation Latina who grew up in the states.

“I have a couple of ideas and manuscripts on the drawing board. I especially want to work on a few stories about first generation Americans like myself,” she says. “There’s a whole set of struggles when dealing with language and culture barriers, colorism, and don’t even get me started on the natural hair being straightened to have “pelo lindo” [or “pelo bueno”]. The subject of bad hair versus good hair is, unfortunately, something a lot of Black and Latina girls with naturally curly hair often face. 

As for what she wants kids to take away from this book, it’s to put fear behind them.

“In the words of Will Smith himself: ‘God put the best things on the other side of fear.’ In life, you’re going to feel nervous and afraid,” she says. “You’ll feel like you can’t do something or that you might mess up. That’s fear and you need to push through it and be the Fresh Princess you’re meant to be.”

Fresh Princess comes out April 2 and is currently available for pre-order wherever books are sold.

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