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Coloring a New Future

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Kenny Sims awoke one day a year-and-a-half ago and realized he could do more. He sold his two houses, gave half the profits to a friend in need, and sent another small portion to his daughter in Atlanta. With the roughly $20,000 left over, he made the investment of his life: he bought 2,500 coloring books. 

Now, he's ready for battle.

"To be truthful with you, I'm at war," says Sims, 59, reducing his husky voice to a murmur. "It's a war to get [our] children back. ... I don't care about the money, I don't care about the property, I don't care about the prestige. I care about the lives of [our] children."

Sims, an editor and photographer at KDKA Channel 2 News since the 1970s, has self-published five coloring books in three decades, each a blend of poetic stanzas and colorable illustrations introducing black children to African-American history.

With the help of several artists, he originally created the books to counteract gun violence in Pittsburgh's black communities and compensate for gaps in the public school system. Now, after decades of casually publishing and publicizing his books, Sims is dedicating his whole life -- and most of his possessions -- to reaching as many children as possible, no matter the cost. 

"I sold everything I had to do this," says Sims. "In the words of Wilson Pickett's great song: 'ninety-nine-and-a-half won't do, you got to have a hundred.' [Be]cause it's that one little point, that one little feather you may be missing that tilts the scale and makes it happen."

In 2008, with the money from his two houses and donations from companies like PNC Bank, Sims began his new campaign to revamp Ken Sims Coloring Books, Inc. -- his crusade's official moniker. He published another 500 sets of five coloring books, created a Web site and even purchased 5-by-7-inch postcard advertisements, which he sent to teachers, prominent leaders in Pittsburgh's black community and other potential customers.

Sims even solicited the POISE Foundation, which provides grants to nonprofits or individuals helping African-American youth "develop strong realistic dreams" through various community projects and programs. 

According to Mark Lewis, president of POISE, Sims told him he wanted to start a small business revolving around the publishing and marketing of the coloring books. That business, Sims said, would enlist several black youths who would essentially learn responsibility and communication/business skills -- the major reason Lewis contributed roughly $2,000 dollars to Sims last June. 

And while Sims still hasn't chosen youths for the "business," the books themselves, Lewis says, were a hard project to pass on.

"The coloring books, in my opinion, are very positive [and] create positive role models, positive examples for kids to follow," says Lewis. "Overall, he seems to have a great desire to engage youth ... [to counter] a lot of the negativity they have access to through Internet, television and radio."

Sims began waging "war" in the 1970s, with a short hardback book called Captain Freedom -- 48 pages of illustrations and prose borrowing historical incidents from Elizabeth Donnan's "Documents Illustrative of the Slave Trade to America."

Around 1979, Sims realized that, in popular media and culture, young black children had few heroes or characters to emulate. 

"[A] kid goes to a movie, and doesn't see himself. But he does see himself at the movie as the criminal, the drug-dealer, the bad guy," says Sims. "So, I [wanted] to defeat that. ... I wrote the books so kids can see themselves in any image they want to color it."

So, Sims converted Captain Freedom into coloring-book format -- a logical alternative to hardbacks:  cheaper to produce, cheaper to buy and better for engaging young black children in educational activities. 

Lynne Hayes-Freeland, a general assignment reporter for KDKA who has worked with Sims since the '70s, watched the coloring books evolve. She remembers when he first introduced his brainchild.

"You know how you say, 'Yeah, right,'" says Hayes-Freeland, "[but] then the next day he would bring in a picture, and he'd say, 'This is what I'm talking about.' And the next day he'd bring in things he had written and he'd say, 'Here's what I'm talking about'."

Shortly after finishing the coloring-book version of Captain Freedom, Sims started working on a new coloring book called "The Voice." It summarizes African-American history up to Martin Luther King Jr., mixing short poetry and large, colorable stamps of prominent African Americans.

 Sims conceived and created the other three coloring books over roughly 30 years, enlisting a different local artist to illustrate each book, and pressing each several times.

In the mid-'80s, Sims published "Malcolm the Butterfly" -- which asserts the importance of character over color or physical appearance; in the '90s, he published "Aramanita," the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Eventually, in 2007, Sims published "Litterbug Cowboys," which teaches the importance of living "green."

Although Sims originally created the coloring books for young black children, he hopes to reach all children. Each one remains completely black and white, even the cover, so that children can learn subconsciously that "color" does not encapsulate personal identity. 

"You can see the innocence of the child when they start coloring people orange or green -- all of a sudden they learn, from us, not to color orange or green. And why is that?" says Sims. "Maybe we need to keep that innocence so they can see ... everybody has value, everybody has worth."

The books, Sims thinks, will make reading fun, entertaining children while expanding their vocabularies. 

"The message is powerful," says Hayes-Freeland. "And I probably wish my kids had more coloring books that had such a positive message. Just the idea -- just the vision -- of parents being able to sit down with kids and color with them and then being able to talk about the message ... is great.

The roughly 30,000 coloring books Sims has printed over 30 years have yielded little, if any profit. Throughout, Sims has used part of the proceeds as scholarships for youths who do not have enough money for college, sometimes helping students pay for books and other necessities.

And he often distributes the books at Pittsburgh public and Catholic schools for free, or hands them out on the bus. Since acquiring enough money to fund the latest 2,500 coloring books, Sims has given away about half. So, while Borders Books in East Liberty and Macy's Downtown stock the five coloring books ($3 each and $15 for the set), and buyers can order the books through Amazon.com, Sims expects to earn just enough to finance the next batch of books.

He currently lives in the cellar of his friend's house in Chartiers. And, if he has to, he plans to "sell blood or whatever" to sustain Ken Sims Coloring Books, Inc., as long as he can, until he has completed his mission.

"It may happen today, it may happen tomorrow, it may happen 10 years from now. But guess what: I'm going to still be in there, pushing hard, with all I got," says Sims. "You may see me swinging from the Steel Building ... yelling my message." 

Kenny Sims is trying to use the coloring books he created to help children. - BRIAN KALDORF
  • Brian Kaldorf
  • Kenny Sims is trying to use the coloring books he created to help children.

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