This Hamilton teen brings her love of representation in books to the small screen

Hamiltonian Ainara Alleyne, 13, is bringing her Instagram project, Ainara's Bookshelf, to the small screen with a new series. She interviews her favourite authors and some celebrities, from local author Lawrence Hill to film director Peter Ramsey.

Ainara Alleyne helped write and produce a new video series that premieres on TVOkids on Feb. 2

A girl standing with her arms spread out in front of a full bookshelf.
Ainara Alleyne started her project, Ainara's Bookshelf, on Instagram a couple of years ago. Now she's hosting her own series, which is set to air on TVOkids. (Submitted by Susan Stafford)

After a few years of sharing her favourite books featuring Black, Indigenous and other racialized characters with other kids on Instagram, 13-year-old Ainara Alleyne is bringing her bookshelf to the small screen.

"I really want kids to see that reading isn't just a chore," said Alleyne, who lives in Hamilton.

"There are so many great skills that can come out of it, and it's also really fun."

Ainara's Bookshelf, her new video series, started releasing episodes on the marbleKids YouTube channel on Jan. 10 and premieres on TVOkids on Feb. 2.

Alleyne's Instagram page, which shares the same name, was the project that kicked everything off, when Alleyne was 11.

She was motivated by the lack of representation in the books she came across, and the social media account became a place for her to post reviews, recommendations and interviews featuring diverse characters and people.

Since then, Alleyne has acted as a reporter for CBC Kids News, reviewed books for the New York Times, collected a few acting credits and more.

Her new series has 10 episodes, each 11 minutes long, in which Alleyne reviews a book and then interviews the book's author or a celebrity about it.

A woman and a girl smiling while looking at each other.
Alleyne met Claribel A. Ortega at her hometown in Peekskill, N.Y., which inspired the town where Witchlings, Ortega's book, takes place. (Submitted by Susan Stafford)

The list includes authors like American Jerry Craft, author and illustrator of New Kid, and Hamilton-based author Lawrence Hill as well as celebrities like Peter Ramsey, director of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

To celebrate the launch, Turtlebox Productions, the company that produced the series, is hosting a private screening Thursday evening for production crew, friends and family at Hamilton's Playhouse Cinema.

Stepping into someone else's shoes 

As an Afro-Latina girl, Alleyne said she hopes kids who look like her are able to enjoy the series and discover new books that represent them.

"And for other kids who might not be of colour to be able to experience these cultures … these books can be those doorways into experiencing and stepping into another person's shoes, so I think that's really important," she said.

During filming, she got to visit Los Angeles and Toronto, but one of her favourite places was Peekskill, N.Y., which inspired the town where Witchlings — the subject of her first episode — is set.

Witchlings is a book by Claribel A. Ortega about three young witches teaming up to earn their full powers. 

"It was really fun to go to all these places that were in the book," said Alleyne.

The interview with Hill was also a favourite, she said.

"I think he's one of the kindest and just warm person that I've ever met in my life," she said.

A young girl and a man standing in a forest, smiling and looking to the side.
Alleyne said one of her favourite people to speak to for the series was Lawrence Hill. “I think he's one of the kindest and just warm person that I've ever met in my life," she said. (Submitted by Susan Stafford)

In the episode, Alleyne jumps on her bike and meets Hill out in a forest path to talk about his book for young readers, Beatrice and Croc Harry

"I'm a huge fan," she says when they meet. "I'm a fan of yours. We're on the same page," Hill says in return. 

Host turned writer, series creator

The show's producers, Kat Kelly Hayduk and Cam Hayduk initially found Alleyne through her Instagram page.

"We just DMed her on Instagram and started talking about the show that we were imagining. And it turned into this collaborative relationship between her and us and her father," said Cam.

The pair, a Hamilton-based married couple who co-founded Turtlebox Productions, said it was clear to them from day one that the project should be done as a partnership with Alleyne.

A girl, smiling at the camera while laying on the floor with a book in her hands.
Producers Kat Kelly Hayduk and Cam Hayduk said it was clear to them since day one that the project should be done as a partnership with Alleyne. (Submitted by Susan Stafford/Cleopatra's Canvas Photography)

"Almost almost every [guest] said almost the exact same thing, 'I never saw myself represented in media or in books.'"

"As middle-aged white people, it seems a bit disingenuous for us to be touting representation in literature," said Cam. "We felt like it's more appropriate to help amplify [Alleyne's] voice."

Alleyne is credited as creator in the series, a writer alongside her father, Shani Alleyne, and Cam, as well as an executive producer with the Hayduks and her father.

Producers won over by 'impressive' interview skills

Kat said one of her favourite parts about working with Alleyne was seeing her interview skills.

"She would start these interviews with these authors [as] the typical 13-year-old fangirl," she said.

"And then she would hit them with a really thoughtful question and we'd see them all go, 'oh, so we're doing this.'"

The producers said they were left impressed with her presence.

"I've worked in the business for over 30 years and and I've seen adults not be able to do what [Alleyne] does," said Cam. "When she switches it on, it's impressive."

Alleyne said her message for kids who are struggling to find representation in books is to "not give up."

"Keep looking. They are there. If you ever need help finding a specific kind of book if you want, a video game, fantasy that has Asian representation. I'm here for you."

She said now she's focusing on her own words.

"After reading so many great [books], I kind of want to come out and do my own. So I'm working on my writing skills," she said.

 For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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Aura Carreño Rosas

Freelance reporter, CBC Hamilton

Aura Carreño Rosas is a Hamilton-based freelance journalist from Venezuela, with a passion for pop culture and unique people with diverse journeys.

With files from Christine Rankin