Familiar Tales

UrbanToons publisher seeks to fill gap for books featuring children of color

(Photo Left) Author Ki’el Ebon Ibrahim with some of his modern takes on classic children’s story characters. Ibrahim photo by Sarah J. Glover. Illustrations courtesy of UrbanToons.

In Ki’el Ebon Ibrahim’s fairytale worlds, Pinocchio encounters lessons in Germantown, Cinderella is a Latina named Isabella, and Peter Pan’s adventure involves lost slave children.

They are the worlds found in the offerings of UrbanToons, a year-old publishing venture that features a series of traditional fairytales whose characters are re-imagined as children of color in urban or historical settings.

“There’s a lack of characters in the market for children of diversity,” said 38-year-old Ibrahim, who grew up in Germantown and now lives near Willow Grove. “People want books that are quality, and that feature children that look like their children. And it’s hard to find that out there. So I figured why not create it? I can fill in the void.”

The unique take his UrbanToons brings to Grimm’s grim fairytales can be seen in the bold, bright and colorful graphics. Some characters have hip-hop styling, and protagonists sport braids or dreadlocks. Ibrahim’s stories are illustrated by a team of artists, that he’s met over the years.

For the setting and plot of UrbanToons’ newest release, “Pinocchio” Ibrahim didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Woodcarver Geppetto becomes the character Sonny, modeled after Ki’el’s grandfather.

“He had the same beard with the white hair,” he notes.

Real life locations remembered from Ibrahim’s childhood, like his grandmother’s Germantown house, are featured in the book. Likewise are his elementary school, John B. Kelly, on Pulaski Street, and one of the city’s last remaining African-American book stores, Black and Nobel, at the corner of N. Broad Street and Olney Avenue.

“Now Pinocchio is alive,” the book’s description says, “and Sonny’s trying to keep him safe and on the right path in these Philly streets.”

Ibrahim offers, “I’m a native of Philadelphia, so I wanted to reach the Philly market, and to give them something.”

That the 38-year-old publisher has already managed to get his products into a number of small, local retail outlets is just one example of his entrepreneurial spirit.

“In the last year I’ve written nine books, although I haven’t published them all,” Ibrahim says. “But I can push the button on their release.”

But he works to make his books as accessible to today’s young readers as possible, promoting them for download onto smart phones. Ibrahim shows off a digital tablet decorated with the UrbanToons logo, a silhouette of his Bengal cat, named Swahilli. The tablet is pre-loaded with five UrbanToon titles, which Ibrahim vows will be “the very first African-American owned and distributed tablet.”

He also contributes $1 from his books towards the World Food Program, which feeds poor children in Africa through Ibrahim’s Food for Art Program.

“Keep me on speed dial,” he urges, “because I have a lot of projects coming up.”



Familiar Tales
Sheila Simmons - Contributor

Sheila Simmons brings many years of writing and communications experience to her work for Liberty City Press. She began her professional writing career at the Philadelphia Daily News, where she covered Business, City Hall and Education.


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