“Some call it the flesh-colored pencil,” reads one page of the book. “I’ve heard it many times before. But this time, when I pass her the peach-colored pencil, something inside me feels different.
Turn a few pages: “Can someone pass me the flesh-colored pencil?” another friend asks later. The question echoes in the room.
Flip again: “That question didn’t seem to bother my teacher. Or my friends.
Flip again: “Why was I the only one confused?”
Bellen is an 11-year-old straight student who loves the color pink, playing with her dogs, and hanging out with friends. She’s also CEO of her own company, activist and, now, author. In July, Scholastic will publish a children’s book written by Bellen and illustrated by Fanny Liem.
Titled “More than Peach,” the book details how Bellen became an industry transformator, getting people to think differently about the pencils and crayons children receive. It also encourages readers to think about what they want to change in the world.
“Did you know the peach pencil was actually called ‘flesh’?” reads a section near the end of the book, referring to how Crayola originally gave the crayon its name. “I found it rather strange that there was only one pencil with this name and even today only one is called the ‘skin color’ pencil. So with More than Peach, I want everyone to know that I appreciate them and their spaces (and businesses) should too!”
If you find yourself shopping for crayons on Target’s website now or in stores this summer, you’ll see that Crayola now has a “Colors of the World” line. You’ll also see More than Peach pencils, the brand Bellen pioneered. Here’s what you need to know about these pencils that come in a wide range of skin colors: They were the innovation of a black girl who knew her skin wasn’t the color of peaches and wanted to find a way for all children to feel seen.
Bellen’s book shows her talking to her mother about what happened in class and deciding that the next time someone asked her for the flesh-colored pencil, she would say, “Which one?” Skin can have any number of beautiful colors. In the book, she responds this way over and over again. Then one day, she hears those words coming from someone else. “My teacher responds exactly like me,” the book reads.
Bellen will tell you that she realized at that moment that language and perspectives could be changed.
I first told you about Bellen when she was 9 years old and had just created the “More than Peach” project, which aimed to bring multicultural colored pencils and colored pencils into more than classroom. At the time, his efforts focused on Loudoun County, where his family lives.
9-Year-Old Finally Made People Stop Thinking of Peach-Colored Pencil as ‘Skin-Colored’ Pencil
Since then, as she has grown, her efforts have also increased. She’s spoken with stars and national leaders, including Michelle Obama and Simone Biles, learned how to be a speaker, and built a business that has international reach.
Every week, she receives dozens and sometimes hundreds of drawings from children who want to show her their colorful creations. A recent package included a letter from a California teacher that read, “Dear Bellen, Thank you for all your hard work helping to make every child feel included! We made you some pictures to show our appreciation. You make a BIG difference!
“She has so many letters and drawings from kids that say, ‘Bellen, we don’t use that language anymore,'” her mother, Tosha Woodard, said. By “this language”, these children mean that they no longer call the peach pencil the flesh-colored pencil.
“A lot of them aren’t even from America,” Bellen said. They came from Japan, Angola and many other countries. “They are really cute. They are really caring. Some have rainbows. Some have drawings that the children made of themselves. It makes me really happy to see that the younger ones are getting it. Hopefully, when they get older, they can tell their kids about it, and it will only get better.
On Sunday, Bellen is set to speak to Girl Scouts who live overseas and in the nation’s capital for a virtual event that was billed as “an exceptional celebration of June 19.”
” Be you. Brilliant,” she told them.
She will also tell them a lot more, but she didn’t get a chance to write her words.
When I spoke to Bellen one recent evening, the sixth-grader (she skipped a grade) was focused on a busy week of dance lessons, a trip to Kings Dominion, and her last days of school. She planned to choose her words for the Sunday event later. But she knew what message she hoped to convey to these girls: that they have confidence in themselves and in the quality of their ideas.
The past few years have shown Bellen the power that an idea backed by conviction and hard work can hold.
“If I did something and nobody really cared, it would probably lower my confidence and lower how much I want to keep doing this,” Bellen said. “But if I see that it works and something changes, it makes me want to continue. And I’ve definitely seen the impact.
I asked how she felt knowing that people would soon be reading a book that told her story.
“That’s really cool,” she said. “It just reminds me that I’m doing the right thing and people all over the world are getting this message and understanding it. It just makes me happy because all this hard work and stuff with my schedule, it do well.
One of the people Bellen has met through her work is Mae Jemison, who was the first black woman in the United States to travel to space.
“Don’t back down,” Bellen told Jameson.
This detail appears in the book.
So does this advice, attributed to Bellen: “Instead of asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, ask them what they want to change.”