PITTSFIELD — Local author Ty Allan Jackson is having a moment.
The month of January isn't even over, and he's already been featured in a Disney+ episode of "Marvel's Hero Project," a Martin Luther King Jr. Day segment of "Good Morning America," and got to see the public debut of a song composed for the musical version of superhero book he's written right here in the city.
In between, he's regularly traveling for author appearances, as a motivational speaker, as an educator for inmates, as a financial literacy and entrepreneurship coach and for other events in Berkshire County and across America.
Jackson serves on various committees in the community, including the Greylock Board of Directors. In 2017, he took out papers to run for Pittsfield City Council, but then bowed out of the race, he said, to spend time focusing on developing his business.
Accolades for Jackson's work extend beyond Berkshire County. He's the 2017 recipient of New England Public Radio's Arts & Humanities Award. Last winter, he and another Pittsfield educator and youth empowerment advocate, Shirley Edgerton, were honored by a Black Excellence on the Hill Award presented in Boston by the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus.
Not bad for a self-proclaimed "shy kid" and "mama's boy" who grew up in Bronx, N.Y., and never obtained a college degree. Not bad for a black man, a father of three, who worked in corporate sales for Allied Waste Industries Inc., and didn't start writing his first children's book until age 40. Not bad for anyone at all.
Now, at age 52, the author, literacy advocate and entrepreneur, has produced work and gained exposure at a level some of us could only dream about experiencing in a lifetime. It seems like he's hovering on the cusp of greatness, inches away from hitting that stride of commercial success. But he hasn't, yet.
Walking the walk
On Thursday, Jackson walked into the Berkshire Athenaeum from a sunny but frosty Berkshire morning, holding the door for several other patrons before following in behind them. He took out his wireless Apple AirPods earbuds, took off his red puffy Old Navy jacket and made himself at home in a seat at a low table in the Children's Library. Like many days, he's wearing his signature black hooded sweatshirt with white block lettering forming the provocative phrase, " Read or else." He coined the attention-getting phrase, co-founded and co-designed the philanthropic literacy campaign behind it.
"I think what I'm doing is unprecedented," Jackson said during an interview at one of his favorite places, the Berkshire Athenaeum. "With what I do, there isn't a blueprint to follow. The hardest thing I have to do to sustain my business is to prove the value of what I do."
For Jackson, finding the value in his work is easy.
He said it happens every time he walks into a school that's shared his book and a child meets him, looks at him with wonder and says, "Wow, you're real."
It happened when he was visiting an elementary school last year in Troy, N.Y., and a boy seated at a lunch table gently pulled him aside. "He simply said, 'I didn't like reading till I read your book,'" the author said, recalling his brief conversation with the boy.
"That means so much to me because that pretty much sums up why I'm here," Jackson said.
The author sees his role as not only being responsible for putting a book on a shelf, but being a vehicle for the characters and values his books contain. His readers and audience members see this too.
Jackson's first book, "Danny Dollar Millionaire Extraordinaire: The Lemonade Escapade," published in 2011, is probably his biggest testament to this. The title character is an 11-year-old entrepreneur who wants to learn how to invest and be responsible with his hard-earned money from selling lemonade, walking neighbors dogs, doing yard work and other tasks. The book has since been adapted as a musical play by Berkshire Theatre Group, and is the basis for Danny Dollar Academy, a financial education collaboration with Northern Kentucky University Center for Economic Education and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
Some 50,000 copies of the book have been sold and distributed across the country, Jackson said, in large part due to United Way organizations, banks and other organizations purchasing it as a teaching tool.
With a cover illustration (by Adams-born and raise Jonathan Shears) of a smiling Danny Dollar pictured on the front of a dollar bill, it's the book Sidney Keys III first gravitated to a few years ago when his mother, Winnie Caldwell, took him on their first visit to the EyeSeeMe bookstore of African American children's literature, located in University City, Mo. Danny "looks like me," said Keys, who is African American and was 10 years old at the time.
Black boys read, too
Caldwell captures a Facebook Live video of her son sitting on the store's carpet with the book, devouring every word. The video has since received more than 66,000 views, and the book inspired Keys to seek out more books with black characters and more friends like him who wanted to read them. The once shy and lonely Keys got inspired to start his club, Books N Bros, which now has chapters across the country, as well as some international groups.
"Black boys do read and the stereotype is that we don't, or we don't know how, or maybe we don't like it, but that's not necessarily true," Keys, now 13, says in the Marvel segment.
The segment features Jackson's testimony to the club, crediting the bros for "... being part of, honestly, a revolution of showing children of color that not only is it OK to read and it's necessary to read, it's fun to read."
After receiving nearly 150 rejection letters from shopping "Danny Dollar" and its characters around at various publishing companies, the author founded his own publishing company, Big Head Books LLC.
Over past decade, diversity has increased among the backgrounds of children's books authors and the characters they're writing about. While about 77 percent of children's books tend to feature either white people or animals as their central characters, the portrayal of African and African American characters has increased from 7.16 percent in 2015 to 10 percent in 2018, according to data compiled by the Cooperative Children's Book Center in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Because there's still marginal representation of diverse characters, Jackson is deliberate about the fact that the black kids in his books are not portrayed just as poor kids, or ones struggling with police, or as slaves in a historic period piece or rising sports stars. That's why Jackson said his main characters are African American kids featured alongside other kids of all backgrounds doing everyday things.
"It gives them something that we didn't see that we had as a kid, and that's opportunity," Jackson told The Eagle in his publishing headquarters earlier this month. "When I was 10 years old, I couldn't see myself as an architect or an astronaut or a comic book designer, because the comic books I worshiped, the Captain Americas and the Spider-Mans, were white. You don't see yourself as being able to be these things because that's them and this is you. And so for kids to see that exact same Captain America, that exact same Spider-Man that I grew up with as [being] white now be people of color — Captain America in the comic books today is black, Spider-Man today in the comic books is black-Latino — it gives kids the opportunity to succeed. It showcase to them the possibilities of what they can be."
That's also why, Jackson said, he chooses to be an active spokesman for his books and other ventures. It's not out of pretension, rather it's an expression of confidence, ambition, resilience and, reality.
When Jackson traveled to St. Louis to meet Keys and make a special presentation from Marvel, Keys hugged him and said, "You're like celebrity ... you're really awesome."
"You're really awesome, too," the author reminded the teen.
As a mother watching that moment, Caldwell's eyes couldn't help but well up.
"I normally don't cry on the spot like that," Caldwell said during a phone interview. "But it was literally like watching Sidney meeting a superhero. Ty's allowed my son to truly see himself in a better light. It is one of the best moments I've ever experienced. I just want to thank him for doing the work that needed to be done and giving my son dreams and hopes."
Speaking for himself, Keys said he now feels empowered and more determined to empower other youths like him through literacy.
"The main thing that keeps me going is that Books N Bros makes me realize I'm helping these boys. It warms my heart when there's a boy that doesn't want to leave the meet up because he loves being there," he said.
Even though he's grown, Keys says Jackson continues to play a role in his life. "I kind of see him as family," said Keys of Jackson. "Just from me picking up his book, we've been able to grow a bond that I think authors and readers should have."
Each book Jackson has written has brought the author a new set of similar experiences of bonding with families, communities and schools.
Jackson's 2015 book, " You Are Amazing / I Am Amazing," featured photos of 118 real children from the Pittsfield community exuding confidence and alongside positive messages of self-esteem.
His 2012 novel, "The Supadupa Kid," has had steady acclaim and will be staged outdoors as a musical produced by Barrington Stage Company this summer. Jackson will release the book's sequel in May, and will introduce a new Latina super kid character.
Jackson's 2011 debut picture book, "When I Close My Eyes," about a little girl with a very vivid imagination, became immortalized last February as a mural on the south-facing wall of the Berkshire Athenaeum's Children's Library space.
To continue to sell these books, to help kids read and encourage them to build their own dreams, Jackson himself has become his own character, inspired by both the characters he creates and the people he meets in real life.
John Bissell, an Amherst College English major turned Greylock Federal Credit Union president and CEO, first met Jackson at an informal group gathered to talk about the challenges of literacy and race in the Berkshires. The conversation lasted for hours.
"It opened my eyes," Bissell said in a phone interview. "But we know we can do something about this. We can make improvements. [Jackson's] dedicated his life and his career to doing that."
Jackson attributes to his livelihood to being in the Berkshires.
"Berkshire County, for whatever reason, seems to be the ideal place for a guy who started out with zero experience in publishing. For this community to receive this book and my mission in the way it has is amazing. ... I'm ridiculously grateful. If I lived in New York City, I don't think my books would be turned into a play and a musical," Jackson said.
In terms of his future success, the author said, "Am I waiting for that call from Oprah? Sure. But I don't mind being in the backseat as long as I'm going for the ride. I've never defined success by money. I'm in the 1 percent of happiest people on the planet and to me, that's the pinnacle of success."