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The Brown Bookshelf team blogs about children's literature, interviews authors and librarians, new releases in children's literature and several other issues and topics in children's literature.
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Fortunately, we receive books! The following are upcoming or recently published books written by African American authors, or authors of any background, but feature diverse main characters.
If Kids Ran the World
by Leo & Diane Dillon
Scholastic, Blue Sky Press, 2014
From the publisher:
Two-time Caldecott Medalists Leo and Diane Dillon show children playfully creating a more generous, peaceful world where everyone shares with others.
All roads lead to kindness in this powerful final collaboration between Leo and Diane Dillon. In a colorful tree house, a rainbow of children determine the most important needs in our complex world, and following spreads present boys and girls happily helping others. Kids bring abundant food to the hungry; medicine and cheer to the sick; safe housing, education, and religious tolerance to all; and our planet is treated with care. Forgiveness and generosity are seen as essential, because kids know how to share, and they understand the power of love.
The book closes with examples of fun ways to help others–along with FDR’s “Four Freedoms” and “The Second Bill of Rights,” which illuminate these concepts.
A tribute to peace and a celebration of diverse cultures, this last collaboration by the Dillons captures the wondrous joy of all people, and the unique beauty within each one of us shines forth. If kids ran the world, it would be a better place–for grown-ups, too.
Review: Publisher’s Weekly *Starred review*
Little Melba and her Big Trombone
by Katheryn Russell-Brown
illustrated by Frank Morrison
Lee & Low Books, 2014
From the publisher:
Melba Doretta Liston loved the sounds of music from as far back as she could remember. As a child, she daydreamed about beats and lyrics, and hummed along with the music from her family’s Majestic radio.
At age seven, Melba fell in love with a big, shiny trombone, and soon taught herself to play the instrument. By the time she was a teenager, Melba’s extraordinary gift for music led her to the world of jazz. She joined a band led by trumpet player Gerald Wilson and toured the country. Overcoming obstacles of race and gender, Melba went on to become a famed trombone player and arranger, spinning rhythms, harmonies, and melodies into gorgeous songs for all the jazz greats of the twentieth century: Randy Weston, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Quincy Jones, to name just a few.
Brimming with ebullience and the joy of making music,Little Melba and Her Big Trombone is a fitting tribute to a trailblazing musician and a great unsung hero of jazz.
The Zero Degree Zombie Zone
by Patrik Henry Bass, illustrated by Jerry Craft
Scholastic Press, 2014
From the publisher:
In the spirit of Tony Abbott’s UNDERWORLD books, comes the new kid on the block – Barkari Katari Johnson!
Shy fourth-grader Bakari Katari Johnson is having a bad day. He’s always coming up against Tariq Thomas, the most popular kid in their class, and today is no different. On top of that, Bakari has found a strange ring that appears to have magical powers–and the people from the ring’s fantastical other world want it back! Can Bakari and his best friend Wardell stave off the intruders’ attempts, keep the ring safe, and stand up to Tariq and his pal Keisha, all before the school bell rings? Media celebrity and Essence Magazine entertainment producer, Patrik Henry Bass delivers adventure, fun, fantasy and friendship in this illustrated action-packed adventure starring an African American boy hero and his classmates.
Unstoppable Octobia May
by Sharon Flake
Scholastic Press, 2014
From the publisher:
Bestselling and award-winning author, Sharon G. Flake, delivers a mystery set in the 1950s that eerily blends history, race, culture, and family.
Octobia May is girl filled with questions. Her heart condition makes her special – and, some folks would argue, gives this ten-year-old powers that make her a “wise soul.” Thank goodness for Auntie, who convinces Octobia’s parents to let her live in her boarding house that is filled with old folks. That’s when trouble, and excitement, and wonder begin. Auntie is non-traditional. She’s unmarried and has plans to purchase other boarding homes and hotels. At a time when children, and especially girls, are “seen, not heard,” Auntie allows Octobia May the freedom and expression of an adult. When Octobia starts to question the folks in her world, an adventure and a mystery unfold that beg some troubling questions: Who is black and who is “passing” for white? What happens when a vibrant African American community must face its own racism?
And, perhaps most important: Do vampires really exist? In her most and probing novel yet, Sharon G. Flake takes us on a heart-pumping journey.
Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of Katrina
by Rodman Philbrick
Scholastic, Blue Sky Press, 2014
From the publisher:
Newbery Honor author Rodman Philbrick presents a gripping yet poignant novel about a 12-year-old boy and his dog who become trapped in New Orleans during the horrors of Hurricane Katrina.
Zane Dupree is a charismatic 12-year-old boy of mixed race visiting a relative in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hits. Unexpectedly separated from all family, Zane and his dog experience the terror of Katrina’s wind, rain, and horrific flooding. Facing death, they are rescued from an attic air vent by a kind, elderly musician and a scrappy young girl–both African American. The chaos that ensues as storm water drowns the city, shelter and food vanish, and police contribute to a dangerous, frightening atmosphere, creates a page-turning tale that completely engrosses the reader. Based on the facts of the worst hurricane disaster in U.S. history, Philbrick includes the lawlessness and lack of government support during the disaster as well as the generosity and courage of those who risked their lives and safety to help others. Here is an unforgettable novel of heroism in the face of truly challenging circumstances.
Review: Publisher’s Weekly *starred review*
The Madman of Piney Woods
by Christopher Paul Curtis
Scholastic Press, 2014
From the publisher:
Bestselling Newbery Medalist Christopher Paul Curtis delivers a powerful companion to his multiple award-winning ELIJAH OF BUXTON.
Benji and Red couldn’t be more different. They aren’t friends. They don’t even live in the same town. But their fates are entwined. A chance meeting leads the boys to discover that they have more in common than meets the eye. Both of them have encountered a strange presence in the forest, watching them, tracking them. Could the Madman of Piney Woods be real?
In a tale brimming with intrigue and adventure, Christopher Paul Curtis returns to the vibrant world he brought to life in Elijah of Buxton. Here is another novel that will break your heart — and expand it, too.
Review: Publisher’s Weekly
This year, two beautiful picture books about black ballerinas hope to dance their way into children’s hearts and hands. The latest is a gorgeous forthcoming debut by American Ballet Theater soloist Misty Copeland titled Firebird, the name of the classic role she was the first black woman to star in.
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons and illustrated by Caldecott Honor artist Christopher Myers, Copeland’s work is a love letter to a brown girl who dreams of being a dazzling dancer too. To lift the child, who sees a “longer than forever” distance between herself and her idol, Copeland reveals her journey from ballet dream to determined realization. In a stirring marriage of lyrical text and poignant images that affirm and encourage, Copeland and Myers create an evocative landscape in which a new generation of young dreamers and dancers can take flight. The book is available for pre-order now and releases on September 4.
The Buzz on Firebird:
“The language soars into dizzying heights of lyrical fancy… Myers’ artwork… pulsate[s] with kinetic synergy… A starscape filled with visual drama and brilliance.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“An inspirational picture book for children daunted by the gap between their dream and their reality.”—Booklist
In January of this year, another moving ballet story began weaving its magic. A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream (Philomel), written by Kristy Dempsey and illustrated by award-winner Floyd Cooper, tells the story of a 1950s Harlem girl inspired by first black prima ballerina Janet Collins.
Like Firebird, the text and illustrations are lyrical and full of heart and movement. But in this historical fiction tale, a girl whose mother works as a seamstress for a ballet school is immersed in the world of dance and dreams of being a prima ballerina. And seeing groundbreaker Collins perform at the Metropolitan Opera turns her dream into something more – a vision of who she can be.
Available in stores now.
The Buzz on A Dance Like Starlight:
“A warm, inspirational collaboration that will resonate in the hearts of all who dream.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
” . . . Though the narrator is imagined, the inspirational message is real. Cooper’s art incorporates his signature subtractive process and mixed media in tones of brown and pink to achieve illustrations as beautiful and transporting as the text.” —School Library Journal
Janet Collins Animated Film: Karyn Parsons (Hilary on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air) launched a campaign to raise funds for an animated short film called The Janet Collins Story that would be produced by Parsons’ company, Sweet Blackberry. Check out the campaign here. Great news: It was fully funded. Now, we can look forward to a wonderful film for children about Collins.
Wouldn’t it be cool to share Firebird, A Dance Like Starlight and The Janet Collins Story with kids you know?
We are honoured to welcome DuEwa Frazier to the Brown Bookshelf today. Poet, founder of Lit Noire Publishing, author of DEANNE IN THE MIDDLE, and much, much more — DuEwa is a true wonder woman. Grab your notebook and a glass of iced tea, lemonade, or just some cool, clear water…and prepare to be inspired.
If I could describe myself in one word, it would be determined. When I graduated from Hampton University as an English major, a few of my classmates asked me what I planned to do after graduation. I told them, “I’m going to be a writer and children’s author.” I didn’t know how I was going to do it but that was my goal and I was determined. Upon graduation I was chosen to be an editorial intern at a teen publication in Massachusetts, my family did not think it was a good idea for me to move to Massachusetts by myself, being so young and right out of college. So I moved back to the Midwest and became an elementary school teacher, I also started graduate school in Secondary English.
Through the 90’s and into the early 2000’s I wrote poetry and children’s stories. In 1999, I moved to my birthplace of Brooklyn. The internet wasn’t quite as booming as it is now, so when I submitted my work for publishing, I made phone calls to agents and publishers and sent my submissions via mail. I even submitted my children’s stories to Nickelodeon hoping to write for the hit show “Little Bill.” I started hand making children’s picture books, putting pencil sketched illustrations to words, in order to create visuals for the stories I wanted to share with young readers. During this time, I received rejection after rejection. Agents and publishers communicated to me that they couldn’t accept my work because I didn’t have a solid track record in publishing. I met an editor at an event who was seeking to publish poets. My first poem “Son of My Sun” was published in Essence Magazine’s December 1999 issue featuring Samuel Jackson and his wife on the cover. It was my first publishing experience and I was actually paid for it!
Years ago I heard the phrase, “What you put your attention on – grows.” This became true for me in my creative life. My poems were published in Essence several more times, as well as in literary journals, online and anthologies. I also published editorials and interviews online. Still, receiving a “publishing deal” through a book publisher was not something that was offered to me, and after a while I didn’t seek it. I kept writing, networking at author signings, attending conferences, reading, doing research, performing my poetry and saving money. Eventually, I taught myself how to self-publish. There was no one there to hold my hand through the entire process but I did receive support. I took writing workshops with the late, great poet, Louis Reyes Rivera and was mentored by Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets. I attended many of the Center for Black Literature’s National Black Writers Conference’s early panels and workshops. I later took children’s writing and non-fiction workshops at other centers in the city. I became a part of a community of writers who had academics and cultural consciousness in their backgrounds.
When I published my first book, Shedding Light From My Journeys in 2002, publishing became an act of community service for me and an added connection to my being an educator. My company, Lit Noire Publishing was founded in 2002. I became an author, publisher, cultural organizer and consultant all under one umbrella. I hired graphic designers and printers. I shared my book and the books of other authors with my middle school students in Brooklyn. Louis Reyes Rivera helped me edit my first collection. He gave me advice about selecting poems that relate to each other in theme. I had been performing on the poetry circuit in various cafes, arts venues and colleges. I was no different from many other writers and poets who wanted their work heard and read, but I made a conscious decision to publish my books because long after we are all gone, the books will still stand.
I am the author or editor of six books to date: Shedding Light From My Journeys (2002), Stardust Tracks on a Road (2005), Check the Rhyme: Anthology of Female Poets & Emcees (2006), Ten Marbles and Bag to Put Them in: Poems for Children (2010), Goddess Under the Bridge: Poems (2013) and Deanne in the Middle (2014). The anthology I edited, Check the Rhyme features 50 women poets from across the globe and was nominated for three awards: NAACP Image Award in Outstanding Literary Work – Poetry, African American Literary Awards Show – Poetry and Writer’s Digest Publishing Awards – Poetry. If your intent is to produce quality literature and share with a community of readers, your work will land where it is supposed to.
I have many writing projects that are “waiting” to be further worked on or picked up, including a few I am currently editing. Creation never stops when you have a passion for writing, but I am not interested in releasing a book every few months. I think each project should have its own space and time. A possible challenge in self-publishing is that you have to motivate yourself to use both traditional and alternative or creative methods of marketing and promoting your work. I have an entrepreneurial, pull myself “up by the bootstraps” spirit, so self-publishing and managing my work doesn’t frazzle me. But every writer may not be suited for it, because you do not have a publicist, manager and editor at your disposal 24/7 creating plans, representing your ideas and doing your bookings.
When you’re self-published, you become DIY all around and you have to be okay with that, including being okay with spending your money to fuel your ideas. However, I do support writers who have good experiences with traditional houses and I find value in it. It’s all about communities of readers and however you are able to share you work is what is most important.
To date, what I enjoy about publishing my work is that I have a certain amount of creative control and as long as I am here, my books will not go out of print. I have talked with writers who have had experiences with publishers who allow their works to go out of print. I do not know why that happened, but I thought it was unfortunate because we’re living in an age where our children need access to books in print to become literate. And one of our legacies is printed books. As an author, I love participating in programs with my books and interacting with readers – both youth and adults. There is nothing like discussing books and hearing about the interests of readers. I have been fortunate to participate in numerous literacy programs for youth, literary conferences and author signings where it has not mattered that I represent myself as an indie author. I have been a writer for fifteen years and I think I have shown my commitment to the work. But I have humility in knowing I still have much to learn and work to do. As a new children’s author, I believe there is great value in continuing to produce books in print, not just in digital format. When I teach workshops for youth, I bring my books with me as references and students enjoy paging through the books and reading from them. There is relationship that a reader has with a book, which digital reading cannot replace. You can curl up with a book and dog ear your favorite pages. You can make notes and symbols in books on the pages. And there’s nothing like the smell of a book – whether new or worn. I am also a big library geek, and I promote our young people to always have a library card and access books through the local library.
My new book Deanne in the Middle chronicles the experiences of 14-year old Deanne Summers who is starting her first year of high school.
Not unlike many youth, Deanne faces bullying, peer pressure and issues in conflict resolution during her first semester. I wrote the story to have a dialogue with young readers about conflict and having friendships with those who are different from you. So many students are bullied and harassed for being different.
I felt Deanne in the Middle was a worthwhile story to tell. This is a story I began writing in 2007 and I submitted it to agents in the past. I was told there was “no market” for my story. And when I workshopped the story I was told that my characters didn’t “sound black enough.” Well as an educated person who has worked with youth of diverse backgrounds, and whose family is also diverse, I really didn’t know what “black enough” was. How many “yo shortys” and “what ups” can you put in a young adult novel to make it believable? For me, not many. If I were a teen, I would become bored with a book written with lingo just to target me and I would feel that the author is patronizing and stereotyping me. And these are among my reasons for publishing my novel Deanne in the Middle, and not waiting another five years or so for someone else to find the “market” in my work. There is value in my story because I know the youth who I serve and young readers deserve to have a myriad of stories to choose from when selecting books to read.
I suggest to aspiring authors and writers for children to: (1) write often (2) have your work workshopped and critiqued and (3) attend literary events and conferences to network. There are times when I could not devote 100% of my time to publishing due to working and attending graduate school (I earned three Master’s degrees from 2006 to 2013 and have an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from The New School) but I realize that it’s all about the journey. The journey is filled with learning experiences – how I learn from other authors and what I have to teach. I made a market for my work and have felt privileged to share my writing with young readers and connect with like minded authors.
Thank you for this opportunity to tell my publishing story!
For more from DuEwa Frazier, visit her online at duewaworld.com.
What are you waiting on? Go!
I’m so grateful I had the chance to meet Walter Dean Myers, a giant in so many ways. Before seeing him face to face, I met the award-winning author through his words - Brown Angels, Blues Journey, Looking Like Me. His writing embraced me, affirmed me, gave me that I-am-you-you-are-me nod that brothers and sisters exchange around the world. “Why do I love children?” he wrote in Brown Angels. “I think it is because the child in each of us is our most precious part.”
I saw his magic with kids first-hand at the African American Children’s Book Fair in Philadelphia. Children flocked to greet the legend and get their books signed. Brother Walter wore his National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature medal around his neck, not to show them who he was, but to show them who they could be. As each young person talked to him, Brother Walter seemed to see no one else. The child in front of him was who mattered. And each one knew it. Faces shone with grins. They leaned in to hear every word and left clutching their signed book, a treasure.
Brother Walter was a giant, a tall man with a super-sized heart. A man with huge talent who through his words, through his caring, through his commitment, made people of all ages feel like they could soar.
Today, we celebrate the incredible life and contributions of Walter Dean Myers, a literary giant who blessed the world with more than 100 books for children and young adults. Check out his complete bibliography here. We’re honored to feature essays from two of Walter’s friends, author and publisher, Wade Hudson and author Linda Trice. Their posts immediately follow this one. Let’s keep Brother Walter’s family in our prayers and honor his legacy by sharing his beautiful books, some of which were illustrated by his son Christopher.
Please post your memories and reflections about Walter Dean Myers in the comments. Thank you.
Walter Dean Myers, Cheryl Willis Hudson and Wade Hudson sign books at a Toys R Us in NYC. Photo courtesy of Just Us Books.
By Wade Hudson
I was stunned when I heard that Walter Dean Myers had made his transition. During the 25 plus years that my wife Cheryl and I have been involved in publishing, it seemed that Walter was always “there.” We started Just Us Books, Inc. in 1988 to publish more books for children that focused on black experiences. Writers and artists such as Virginia Hamilton and Arnold Adoff, Eloise Greenfield, Patricia and Fred McKissack, Tom Feelings, George Ford, Leo and Diane Dillon, and of course Walter Dean Myers, had already blazed a trail as book creators that we would follow. We were novices, in a way, learning the business of publishing on the fly.
Cheryl and I were somewhat brash, bent on making a difference, determined to correct the injustices we saw in publishing. One would think that Myers and the other trailblazers who had been at the forefront of the struggle to change publishing to be more reflective of who we are as a nation, would have been taken aback by the two new kids on the block. But they were not. They embraced us and welcomed us. When Cheryl and I did a radio interview with Tom Feelings in 1990, Just Us Books had only published three titles. Tom was already an established artist, a celebrity really. But he treated us as equals, applauded our efforts and encouraged us on the airways. We received support and encouragement from the other trailblazers, too.
Tom is gone. Virginia Hamilton is gone. Leo Dillon and Fred McKissack are gone, too. And now we have lost Walter Dean Myers.
I will miss seeing Walter at Book Expo America, ALA, NCTE and the many other conferences where he often held court, sharing, urging, encouraging, directing, advocating…always trying to make things better. When Walter’s article, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” appeared in the March 15, 2014 issue of the New York Times, many welcomed it as timely and much needed. But Walter had written an article that appeared in the New York Times in 1986, addressing the same concerns. He was always at the forefront, involved in many initiatives, some that he organized himself. He was determined to increase diversity in our body of literature for children. He also advocated for the inclusion of people of color in the offices of publishing houses.
In 1991, Walter, Cheryl and I worked together as jurors for a scholarship competition organized to identify talented writers and artists of color and introduce them to the publishing community. The fellowship competition was a part of Multi-colored Mirror: Cultural Substance in Literature for Children and Young Adults, a conference sponsored by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Walter also supported literacy programs offered by the Children’s Defense Fund, sometimes donating his own money. I watched as he connected effortlessly with the young people who attended the summer sessions there. Whenever a speaking engagement was set up for him, Walter made sure that juvenile detention centers, prisons and other programs for youth were included.
“I know what falling off the cliff means,” he once said. “I know from being considered a very bright kid to being considered like a moron and dropping out of school.”
Yes, Walter Dean Myers was a prolific, multi award-winning writer. As stated on his web site he“touched so many with his eloquent and unflinching portrayal of young African-American lives.” Walter visualized a better world. In the tradition of Frederick Douglass, he used words to encourage, empower, challenge, advocate and agitate for the change that would bring that world about. In that regard, for me, at least, he was a freedom fighter, too.
Reprinted with permission of Just Us Books.
By Linda Trice
Linda Trice and Walter Dean Myers at the annual African American Children’s Book Fair in Philadelphia.
Tributes have been posted mourning the passing of Walter Dean Myers’s unexpected death on July 1, 2014. Many heartfelt ones are from readers who believed that Walter’s work spoke directly to them, reflected their life, understood their pain and guided them towards a hopeful future. People ask what they can do in remembrance of him. Knowing Walter and having read his books, or heard him speak many know the answer–inspire kids to read. We must remind young people and the adults who guide them of the importance of reading.
Walter Dean Myers was the first African American chosen by the Library of Congress as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a two year appointment. He was also only the third person to receive this honor. His motto as ambassador for adults and kids was “Reading is not an option.” He told School Library Journal:
“As a young man, I saw families prosper without reading, because there were always sufficient opportunities for willing workers who could follow simple instructions. This is no longer the case. Children who don’t read are, in the main, destined for lesser lives. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to change this.” Publishers Weekly wrote that Walter believed that reading saved his life.
Walter was raised by two good Harlem people, Florence and Herbert Dean. Walter gave them copies of his books and sadly learned that his beloved dad hadn’t read them. He later discovered why. His father, like many Black men of his generation had never learned how to read.
Walter visited men and children in prisons while doing research for his award winning novel MONSTER. He realized that a huge percentage of them couldn’t read past an elementary school level. Some of them could barely read at all. He wondered how they could get a job when they were released. This knowledge resulted in prison literacy becoming one of his passions. Seeing the limitations of his father and those of kids in prisons helped shape Walter’s belief that the ability to read gives us power.
We should praise Walter and enjoy his books. Hopefully though many of us will reflect on Walter’s message and tell others: “Reading is not an option.” It is how we get power and a better future because in life reading is truly not optional.
Linda Trice is the author of Kenya’s Song (Charlesbridge Publishing). Visit her at www.LindaTrice.com.
Walter Dean Myers, in his own words and what he hoped his legacy would be.
“I hope that my legacy is that I was useful for young people…”
“…I want to make people of color human beings, and I want to make poor people human beings. I want to include them in my books so that they can look at my books and say that could be me, and this guy understands who I am as a poor person.”
The Making Our Own Market series has been about empowering children’s book creators of color with new ways to tell our stories and get them into children’s hands. Luckily, we don’t have to do that last part alone. Wonderful organizations like Reading is Fundamental (RIF), First Book, Teaching for Change and others support our work in important and enduring ways. We’re blessed to wrap up this series by hearing from RIF which sends, with the support of Macy’s, thousands of copies of its annual multicultural collection of children’s books to schools and libraries around the country. A big thank you to Carol Rasco, Judy Blankenship Cheatham and the RIF team for their support of The Brown Bookshelf and books that celebrate the beautiful diversity of our world.
Here’s the message from RIF:
Greetings friends of The Brown Bookshelf! Reading Is Fundamental is honored to connect with you. RIF is the largest children’s literacy nonprofit in the Unites States. We’ve been in this critical business for a long time. Forty-seven years working to inspire a love of reading and provide ownership of books among children least likely to have access to this essential resource and providing families and educators with the knowledge and materials to support children in their journey towards literacy.
But we realized that we had to do more. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has shown us our nation’s African American, Latino, and American Indian children lag far behind those of white children. This disparity, known as the achievement gap, is the core reason we introduced our Multicultural Literacy Campaign in 2007, a multi-year effort in partnership with Macy’s to promote and support early childhood literacy in African American, Hispanic, and American Indian communities. The centerpiece of the campaign is the release of our annual Multicultural Book Collection for grade K-5. Each year, our team of literacy experts selects books with engaging stories and enriching themes for children, that also offer them windows into the lives of people unlike themselves and mirrors in which they’ll see their own experiences reflected. As Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop wrote over two decades ago, “When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what make us all human.” The sentiment is no less true than it was when it was written, and the charge to bring that full spectrum of stories to all children no less important.
Selecting good multicultural children’s books begins with the same criteria as that for selecting any good children’s books – the literary elements of plot, characterization, setting, style, theme and point of view must be interwoven to provide an interesting story. In addition, good multicultural children’s books will challenge stereotypes and promote an accurate, realistic glimpse into the lives of diverse groups of people.
Here are some guidelines for choosing multicultural books:
· Look for stories that include a variety of cultures and different family compositions – for example, single parents, families that involve grandparents, and extended families
· Look for accuracy in modern-day stories, historical fiction, and all non-fiction
· Choose books with minority characters who are good role models, independent thinkers, and problem solvers
· Illustrations should suitably convey skin color and facial details, rather than using stereotypical caricatures
· Books should have photographs that accurately portray present-day events, and any and all captions should be specific and correct (e.g. “Harare, Zimbabwe,” rather than the general “Africa”).
You can check out our full library of Multicultural Book Collections online. In the spirit it of “it takes a village”, we have also developed free, downloaded activity sheets for each book in the collection to help parents, educators, and volunteers deepen children’s understanding of the multicultural themes.
Surely, we all agree that every child is a precious resource. With an educated mind and without ignorance and prejudices inhibiting them, there is no limit to what they can accomplish. Let’s continue this dialogue until everyone gets this message. Book People Unite.
Earlier this year at a reading conference, I signed my picture book, The Cart That Carried Martin, written by Eve Bunting. The book was published by Charlesbridge Publishing. Before my signing, I nervously wandered around the Charlesbridge booth. Signings can be a scary thing, especially as a book creator of color, in an exhibit hall filled with people who don’t look like you. Would anyone come to my signing? Would anyone want my book featuring mostly people who look like me? To pass time, I flipped through the Charlesbridge catalog. I was put at ease with what I saw—many brown faces looking back at me. I saw the names of authors and illustrators who I knew to be people of color, or whose names suggested they might be. Charlesbridge—not really marketed as a multicultural publisher—has a nicely diverse list. I felt proud. And my signing went great!
I asked the marketing department at Charlesbridge to contribute to our discussion on marketing titles by and about people of color.
Donna Spurlock, Director of Marketing, Charlesbridge Publishing
Recently there was an online campaign called #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Everyone—publishers, authors, illustrators, librarians, teachers, readers, etc.—were joining in with pictures of themselves with their favorite books or with signs that said “We need diverse books because. . . .” People filled in the blank with responses, such as “. . . because people are not the same;” “. . . so that someday all good “multicultural” stories can just be called good stories;” “. . . because I want to be the hero, too;” and so many more.
As a marketer, I love these opportunities to join the conversation. I think this would be my number one piece of advice to any author or illustrator just starting out in the industry: Join the conversation!
At Charlesbridge we publish a very diverse list of books. Our trade book publishing program started twenty-five years ago with five nature books by Jerry Pallotta and we have continued introducing the natural world to young readers ever since, including books about a strange little species known as Human. What those critters get up to is strange, hilarious, inspiring, sometimes shocking, and always interesting.
At Charlesbridge we are privileged and proud to publish books by authors and illustrators of all stripes—established authors and illustrators, new voices, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers. Many of the people we work with are people of color including the awesome Don Tate, the wonderful Grace Lin, the incomparable Mitali Perkins, and so many more. One of the best reasons to work in publishing is to bring stories to people—ALL people. And all people are different. Stories aren’t about a race or a gender or a religion. And while stories may be born in a particular culture, aren’t they all really about being human and living in the world?
When I read The Cart That Carried Martin by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Don Tate, I didn’t feel that this was an African American story that I couldn’t relate to. Nor was it a piece of history that I’ll need to know about for an upcoming test. This was a story about a man, about the people his life touched, and also about the world we live in today. I didn’t need to approach this book differently than I do any other book as a marketer. I had a beautiful book on my hands with a story that still touches everyone’s lives. All I had to do was join the conversation.
In this day and age we have so many opportunities to talk to people about books: via a slew of social networks, at conferences and trade shows, through the media, and one-on-one with our friends and neighbors. The main purpose of marketing is to gain word of mouth for your book. How do you do that? By telling people, not so much about the book, but about the story. And by listening to their stories and telling someone else about the story you just heard. It’s like that old shampoo commercial: You tell two friends and they’ll tell two friends and so on and so on. When you join the conversation in a campaign like #WeNeedDiverseBooks you are telling thousands of people that you hear them and you are interested in what they have to tell you. And they are telling you the same thing.
Don Tate asked me to contribute to this blog as a marketer to speak about how I approach marketing books by and about people of color. I don’t think I do anything differently than I do for a book about life under the sea or man’s journey to the Moon. I find my audience and I tell them about the story I have to share. Authors and illustrators can do this with a minimal of effort: have a Twitter account and follow the authors and illustrators who interest and inspire you, have a Facebook page and like booksellers and libraries, visit schools and share the passion you have for your subject with students who have the potential to be passionate about everything, or whatever else you can think to do. Do what you can conceivably keep up with. Many authors and illustrators have a hard time putting themselves out in the world as a marketer, but you don’t have to. You don’t have to be a salesperson. Just be yourself, tell your story, share your passion and people will join your conversation.
Facebook can be what you make it. Want to reconnect with family and friends? Got you covered. Want to use it as a way to unite with other kidlit folks? Got your back there too. That latter reason brought writer Jackie Wellington and publisher Leila Monaghan together. Rallying around the cause of pushing for more diverse books, they found each other. They’ve come up with inventive ideas including a Read Same Read Different campaign and an initiative to promote wonderful middle-grade novels like The Laura Line by our own Crystal Allen. Here’s an inspiring conversation between these two FB friends and advocates dedicated to helping writers of color and multicultural children’s books succeed:
Reaching the World through Facebook
By Jackie Wellington and Leila Monaghan
Jackie: I write books for 4 -12 year olds. For years, I struggled to find books for my students. I taught in four different states and worked with students with disabilities. When the states adopted alternative assessments for these students, I was forced to create reading materials. My students had one request, “Miss, make sure that it is not boring. And make sure they (the characters) look like us.” So I started writing stories and assigning my students’ names to the characters based on their personalities. It was then that I developed a love for writing. Especially since my students would say, “Miss, you should write books.” So now I am on a writing journey.
I read the Walter Dean Myers article in the New York Times and smiled. “Finally,” I thought. “Someone is seeing what I am seeing and they are talking about it.”
So when I was finished reading the article, I left a comment. A few days later, Leila Monaghan contacted me via Facebook. We chatted about the need to see all children represented in books. I joined Kids of Color Children Books. And since then we have been brainstorming different ways to get the word out about our mission. And that is to promote books written by people of color. To advocate for more books with children of color. And equal marketing strategies for authors of color.
Leila: Just like Jackie, I was very excited to see Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Meyers talking about the lack of books for children of color. I used to teach second grade in West Philadelphia and there were no middle grade books I could find that reflected my students’ experiences. I was excited that a lot of them read Harry Potter but really frustrated that there was nothing like the Potter books set in West Philly or a similar urban neighborhood. It led me to write stories set in West Philly under the name of Lee Mullins. As I am a PhD in linguistic anthropology, I left grade school teaching to go back to college teaching but the importance of diverse children’s literature stuck with me. Since then, I have also started a small publishing company, Elm Books.
The articles by Myers and Myers and comments like Jackie’s inspired me start a children’s division and to reach out to others who also cared deeply about diverse children’s books. I feel it is a civil rights issue. Children need books with which to identify so they may develop a love of reading, which will eventually lead to strong literacy skills. Without solid skills in reading and writing, so much of the world is closed off to young people, particularly in today’s high tech age. But the social media of today also allows people who share a vision to get together in ways that just weren’t possible before.
Jackie: At this time, we are still brainstorming networking strategies. However, we cannot deny that we are blessed to be in an era where social media speaks volumes. Facebook, Tumbler, Twitter, and blogs have the potential to reach thousands even millions. Within the next few months, we will be using these medium to get our message out. One campaign we will be promoting is “Read Same Read Different” (#ReadSameReadDifferent). The idea is to get all children to read books that reflect their experiences (Read Same) and those quite different from their experiences (Read Different). Michelle Obama recently spoke about the resegregation of America and we all need to reach across lines including the lines of the publishing industry. For example, even if libraries have diverse books on their shelves, people are not necessarily taking them out so they get taken off shelves. Our goal is to reach out to the publishing industry, libraries, schools, music industry and Hollywood. I know it seem like a stretch, but we can do it. It is about reaching the right people at the right time and making sure diverse books get a fair chance at being read.
Leila: For me, this is a time for experimenting in networking, for trying to build bridges that support diverse children’s books. We are still trying to understand how it works ourselves. Some of the ways that we have been working on this have been launching the #ReadSameReadDifferent campaign, building the Kids of Color Children’s Books group on Facebook, and promoting specific diverse children’s books such as Crystal Allen’s lovely The Laura Line. We now have almost 400 members in the KoCCB group and 400 likes for the Facebook page we set up for The Laura Line. This is just a small first step but at least it is a step in the right direction.
Some ways we came up with to support diversity in children’s books:
–Write diverse children’s books
–Read diverse children’s books
–Get everyone you know to read and buy diverse children’s books
–Support the diverse books you love like The Laura Line on social media including Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter.
–Go to Facebook, like the author’s page, and encourage friends and families to do the same.
–Write reviews and give stars to books on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and other sites.
–Tweet about what you are reading. Take a picture of it and tweet why you like it.
–Blog about diverse books and review the books you read.
–Start a book club and emphasize diverse books.
–Make connections in the media or at conferences and workshops with other people who care about diversity.
A Few Media Starting Places:
Kids of Color Children’s Books https://www.facebook.com/groups/598139093596498/
The Laura Line on Facebook
The Laura Line on Goodreads
Read Same Read Different Blog
Don Tate, Kirsten Cappy
For our series, MAKING OUR OWN MARKET, Kirsten Cappy of Curious City, a book consulting company, tackles the subject of marketing books created by or about African Americans.
Taking Book Marketing Off the Page, Out of the Park
by Kirsten Cappy of Curious City
For me, children’s book marketing on the Brown Bookshelf or off has never been about social media, press, coverage, or other perils of “self-promotion.” For me, marketing has always been about storytelling and discovery. The best marketing finds ways to:
- retell a story beyond the framework of the book
- engage readers deeper in the story
- create partners for the book by finding commonalities
- exhibit the book in unlikely locations
A bulleted list is meaningless, of course, without stories. Let me tell you a few. Let’s go out of the park and off the page to show how my small firm, Curious City used these marketing methods on a group of exceptional African American titles.
Beyond the Framework: Book Trailers
A book trailer is not a must in releasing a book. Yet, when we look at the challenges of getting a book stocked by a bookseller or the challenges of a reader walking into a store and saying, “that book is for me,” book trailers can be a way to bring the book to where readers are. A book trailer can “retell a story beyond the framework of the book” to a targeted online community, classroom, or a lone librarian or book buyer—all outside the confines of the traditional browsing experience.
How could I not want to open Don Tate’s illustrations for She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story (HarperCollins) by Audrey Vernick to a wide audience? The day Don sent us the original scans of the art (complete with splashes of paint on the edges) was more than memorable. We choose to weave Don’s work with the narration of actor Dion Graham. Graham is known for TV roles including regular spots on The Wire and Law & Order, but for those in the book world, he is known as the voice of Kadir Nelson’s audio for We Are the Ship. Dion Graham’s is the kidlit voice of the Negro Leagues.
By sharing the trailer with bloggers who cared about female sports leaders or the Negro Leagues, we were able to “create partners for the book by finding commonalities.” Their blog posts would have been decent coverage for the book, but NJ author Audrey Vernick thought an additional partner might be the city of Newark where Effa Manley is still known. Audrey took the book and trailer to the firm that does publicity for Newark. Before we knew it, the city and minor league team based in Newark decided to honor Effa Manley with a special day at the ballpark that Effa and her husband had founded.
On a summer afternoon, cases and cases of the book were given away at the gate (courtesy of HarperCollins) and the book trailer played on the jumbotron. Dion Graham’s voice filled the stadium and Don Tate’s illustrations filled the screens. The team management liked the trailer so much, they played it in a free advertising jumbotron slot for the rest of the season, exposing the book to 1000’s of baseball fans. This was indeed an “unlikely location for an exhibit” of Don Tate’s work.
The book trailer can also be used to give voice to an African American character or subject when the author wants to be back stage, especially when the author of an African American title is White. We used the trailer for Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (FSG) to allow author Phillip Hoose to introduce Civil Rights heroine Claudette Colvin. After the intro, however, Phillip takes a step back (both in the visuals and the audio), clearly indicating that this is Claudette’s story, not his book.
Deep Reader Engagement: Reader Expression
Author Terry Farish had the privilege of becoming close to an extended family of Sudanese refugee girls and women in Portland, Maine. The mothers, worried about their daughters, welcomed Terry to write about their daughter’s struggle of being African and trying too quickly to become American. The Good Braider (Amazon Children’s Publishing) was vetted and blessed by the community before publication. After publication, however, Terry was hyper-aware of her whiteness. “Please, please do not put me behind an author table,” she said in our first meeting, “I do not want to be the face of this book. It is not my story.”
In “creating partners for the book by finding commonalities,” I reached out to a young Sudanese hip hop artist and shared a galley of the book with him. A few months later OD Bonny told me the book reminded him of his flight out of South Sudan alongside his brothers. I asked if we could pay to use one of his songs as the audio for a book trailer. He responded, “Why wouldn’t you want a song of your own? I’ll write it. Tonight.”
When I heard his song, “Girl From Juba,” I realized that it was not just marketing, but a reader’s genuine tribute to a work of fiction. An author can have no greater gift. I also realized that I did not need to be the one to produce this trailer. I transferred the book trailer funds to OD and the music video/book trailer was created with an all Sudanese American cast (save one Irish kid), crew, and director. The video had 1000 hits within a week, not of book professionals, but of Sudanese and African American young adults that follow OD’s music.
Getting a reader or a small group of readers deeply engaged can lead to a product which can become an incredible discovery tool for your book. A group of middle school students were the first ones to read Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice. Using photocopied galleys, librarian Kelley McDaniel led students in a discussion of Claudette’s life.
While Kelley was doing this, I was reading the book with a group of college Art Education majors. Together we designed a way for the middle school students to express their thoughts about Claudette in art. Because 14-year-old Claudette refused to give up her bus seat nine months before Rosa Parks became famous for doing the same, and because Claudette testified as a teenager in the court case that rang the death knell for transportation segregation, I proposed we exhibit the student’s art on a public bus.
Imagine the conversation I had with the bus company! They listened carefully and responded, “You want to talk about the abuse of African Americans onboard buses…on my bus system??” The NAACP representative who had planned to attend with me could not come at the last minute, so I had to figure out how to answer on my own. By the time I left, the bus company had not only said “yes,” but had given me old bus advertising signs to use as our canvasses.
Using a combination of small grant funds, school partnerships, and community sponsors like the NAACP, we launched the exhibit by flying Claudette Colvin in for a preview. After a lifetime of silence and before publication would make Claudette’s story national, this was the first time she had seen her words in print. The effect was breathtaking. This exhibit in an “unlikely location” toured the city for a month, introducing riders to a story they had never heard. You can read more about the reproducible Understanding Courage Project here and see more photos here.
Create Partners: Interns, Education, & WordPress
I have buckets of examples of how blogging on WordPress about the content of your title leads to discovery. When you take the non-fiction elements of your book (yes, even your novel) and explore them deeper in blog posts, you are creating delicious fodder for the search engines.
Working again with the local arts college, I designed a semester-long course of study on Bill Traylor, the outside artist brilliantly profiled in Don Tate’s book It Jes’ Happened (Lee & Low). An intern, Morgan Cremins, studied not only Taylor, but the illustration of Don Tate and R. Gregory Christie. Together Morgan and I built a website in support of the book where she blogged about all she had studied.
Paired with that site was an art curriculum created out of the same college’s Art Education department. The curriculum allows children to recognize, experience, and create with Bill Traylor’s visual lexicon. That curriculum served as an opening for Don Tate, R. Gregory Christie, the art educator Kelly McConnell, and myself to be the first outside educators to work at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Tate and Christie appeared at the museum in conjunction with a Traylor exhibit. You can see photos of the appearance and art project here.
At the event, children created amazing art inspired by Bill Traylor. One of the most powerful moments came when Don Tate stepped forward to talk with kids about the depiction of African Americans in Bill Traylor’s work and in R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations. When a white 9-year-old raised his hand and asked the white staff educator why the Bill Traylor figure’s had the “bump on their back,” the educator became flustered and tried to move on. Don stood and explained that Bill Traylor emphasized the large “backends” of African Americans seen from his street corner in Montgomery, AL.
“As an African American man,” Tate said, “I am proud to have bigger lips, a bigger nose, and yes, maybe a bigger butt than my white friends. It is what makes me unique and I am proud of it.” The children, wide-eyed and smiling, accepted this as an uncomplicated and intriguing truth. And the program rolled on.
Books on the Brown Bookshelf share the same marketing challenges as any children’s book published, but they offer more opportunities to retell stories that break out of the framework of the book, pull children of all races deeper into the story, build crucial partnerships between different sides of the race equation, and have the freedom to exhibit themselves beyond the traditional confines of children’s publishing outlets. Let’s go off page, out of the park. and show kids the essential stories they have been missing.
Irene Smalls is an award winning children’s book author with publishers like Scholastic, Simon and Schuster, and Little Brown. Not only that, she has presented programs at the White House Easter Egg Hunt, toured internationally and most impressively taken her career into her own hand. Study her website and you’ll realize that her motto must be “I am the master of my fate.”
Determining My Fate Two books, My Nana and Me and Pop Pop and Me and A Recipe, from a major publisher went out of print. The publisher gave the books no real support or marketing. They ignored my suggestions on how to promote the books. I suggested ebook and Spanish versions, but they did not agree. I feel strongly that I don’t want someone else determining my level of income. I decided to put the books back into print. My first thought was as a self-publisher but the inherent credibility issues and lack of marketing muscle behind self-publishing made that a last choice. Luckily I was able to find a small ebook/print on demand publisher who was interested in republishing my titles. I negotiated a contract that gave very limited rights to the publisher.
That is the major reason I am exhibiting at the world’s largest book fair in Frankfurt, Germany in October of 2014. At the Frankfurt Book Fair I can present my books to publishers from 120 countries to sell translation rights, etc. When I went to the Bologna International Children’s Book Fair I negotiated two international contracts for two of my titles.
Marketing My Books Authors have much more flexibility now than they did in the past. I have signed up for Apple’s ebook publishing program and a few others. The key element is the marketing effort you put into your products. Make contact with any celebrities you know. The celebrity angle helps. The challenges are time and money to support your book. You have to make marketing your books a semi-full time job. You have to allocate the money to support your books either to hire someone to help or to design, print and promote yourself. Some authors are not salespeople. To be effective you must sell, sell, sell. Authors have to wear a character, if necessary, to sell their books.
Rewarding Myself The rewards are clear. It is better to be “captain of your fate” versus letting people who really don’t care about you or your books determine what happens. When you are successful you maximize income from your efforts. But, it is not an easy thing to do. Authors must look at their books through market lenses. I recast Pop Pop and Me and A Recipe as a cookbook for kids and grandparents. I wrote an etiquette guide for kids to accompany My Nana and Me. The illustrator and I put together Spanish versions of the titles. Grandparents are very important in Latino culture. What is important is not what the books mean to me but what they mean to the market.
Also, as people of color, we have to go global. United States publishing as Walter Dean Myers http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/opinion/sunday/where-are-the-people-of-color-in-childrens-books.html and his son, Christopher Myers http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/opinion/sunday/the-apartheid-of-childrens-literature.html?_r=0 noted in the NYT has such a limited and narrow view of books by authors of color for children of color. We have to move beyond the US. Technology can save us if we learn how to use it effectively. The market is not good or bad, it just is. We have to learn how to use the market and market forces to our advantage.
Irene Smalls and the Frankfurt Book Fair: Join us at the Frankfurt Bookfair, the world’s largest, in October of 2014 Details at http://www.frankfurt2014.com See our Frankfurt video
Click on http://www.irenesmalls.com for more about Irene Smalls’ fascinating career.
Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks
Why I chose Kickstarter to fund my Children’s Picture Book
by JQ Sirls
There are many reasons why I decided to go in the route of Kickstarter, all of which stem from a common idea about people in my generation (millennials). People of my parent’s generation often claim that we are lazy, entitled, ungrateful, selfish, the list goes on. The truth is that we are a highly observant and instinctual group of people, who have watched how the effects of following certain traditions harmed our parents, grandparents and families in general.
I witnessed my parents and grandparents endure jobs that they hated, while missing special moments with their families, only to be laid off later on down the line, for someone younger who will accept less pay. I chose to honor their sacrifice, by using it as a trampoline to aim higher, so that no one in my family will ever have to endure that pain again. I took control of my own destiny by starting my own multimedia company that also publishes books. I would not only publish my own books, but in time, merge multimedia with physical product development to potentially create a whole new market for children’s storytellers.
JQ paces the story, inks final touches to NO MONSTER NO!
Yes, I could have published traditionally, and done exactly what history’s insanity cycle said was the correct path to comfort and happiness. But I witnessed too many others get burned from following that path. Many authors and illustrators of color follow the traditional path of publishing. They publish to critical acclaim, they win many awards, only to end up wondering why their books aren’t given the same marketing support as fair skinned creators. I did not want to become another goldfish in the same ocean. These are just a few of the many reasons why I chose Kickstarter over traditional publishing. It was my goal to shift history’s insanity cycle, and to create a better path for tomorrow’s children’s book creators. For the children’s book creators who came before me, I want to make them proud.
In 2007, my company, Moodi Studios, wrote and successfully funded our first picture book, No Monster No. The story is about a bold little girl who takes the monster under her bed to school and teaches him manners. I’d heard about Kickstarter through friends whose projects had been successfully funded. I was raised on two core principals: do better than the best you can with what you have and no matter what, keep moving forward because motion itself is a professor. So, without any extra marketing funds or heavy marketing experience, I started a campaign. However, the first campaign failed, and boy-oh-boy, was that an emotionally heavy learning experience. But without that failure, I wouldn’t have learned the steps that allowed my second campaign to soar beyond expectations.
Here’s what I learned:
1. Focus your fundraising on professional colleagues and social networks. And don’t rule out total strangers who are meeting you and your work for the first time. Imagine going to a department store and being exposed to something really cool. You talk about it, share it, and support it with a purchase. Then after you make that purchase, it’s like you justify it by getting others to agree with how cool it is and have them get one too. It’s kind of like that. They don’t necessarily know you, just the work you represent. Close friends and family will likely be the last to support you — if at all. Keep them informed, though. When they see your success, they may want to join in at a later time.
2. No one is too little or insignificant. You will need to promote your Kickstarter campaign in various ways — but for now, lets focus on blogs and social networking (Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest etc). When you create a crowd-funding campaign, you are asking hundreds of people to be somewhat tech-savvy and pay for something they can not interact with. That requires trust. Social Media and blog articles create that trust, and trust is equivalent to the rarest stone on earth. Blogs allow you to communicate who you are, what you do and what you are trying to say. Much like what’s happening with myself and this very article. Social media, on the other hand, is like cable television where everyday people are searching for new channels to ‘follow’ for new content. Like television, many people do not want to think. You have to think for them. Your job is to create specific content that cater to the specific needs of a specific audience. You then have to remove the bells and whistles of distraction and communicate your topic simply and effectively. I am still learning this. Once you do that, your following that will come to see you as the foremost authority of a certain topic or product (think Apple and a new iPhone or Oprah and practically anything). Your following will buy whatever you sell and pledge on your crowd-funding campaign through trust. However, If you focus only on big blogs, like Huffington Post, or Buzzfeed, and promote on social media with no clear niche definition, you could miss the golden opportunity to grow outrageously. Smaller blogs (blogs with very little following) should never be counted out as they need content as bad as you need crowd-funding pledges. If the blog grows, you grow. Social media is crowded with millions of people who do millions of things. You will stand out through consistency of posts, clarity of topic, and discipline of work-ethic. If you plan on crowd-funding your book, Trust is your best friend.
JQ sought and received the support of various music and media stars, such as Da Internz and Timbaland, pictured here.
3. Define it as it is—crowd-funding is pre-ordering. Never look at your campaign as soliciting for donations. You are selling a product and getting pre-orders for that product. Market or sell it as anything else and you destroy the cool-factor and lose the magic, as you look like your are begging. Your product is amazing and one of kind. When people make a pledge, they are securing a copy of your first edition. I can’t stress this one more.
4. Don’t assume that everyone knows about Kickstarter and what it is. Even though Kickstarter has had millions of dollars pledged from millions of users, you have to assume and act as though NO ONE has ever heard of it or crowd-funding before. Then, you must assume that more than half of your potential pledges are people who think the internet is out to get them and steal all their money. Go with that assumption from the beginning and have a clear, holding-of-the-hand method to address it.
JQ documents his journey
- 5. Create an amazing video. Luckily for us, we had a cinematographer, video editor, audio engineer, and motion graphic artist on hand to create a nice video. However, with the first campaign, I failed in not having a great shot of me reading the book to kids. I added these features just days before the campaign ended, only reached half of my goal, making it unsuccessful. But I did use the same video for the second campaign that I started just two weeks later that eventually became funded.
Here is what I learned from the second campaign (that succeeded).
1. There is power in happiness and a positive mind. Basic laws of attraction work here. You have to believe and be happy. It’s infectious and people are drawn to it like a magnet. They want what you have. The first campaign I let lack of support and struggle turn me into a stressed out bitter guy — totally the opposite of my own message with Moodi Studios. The second campaign, I approached it with peace and tried to remain childlike and optimistic. My faith changed for the better and I noticed other people noticing it.
2. People tend to help those who help themselves. Many people were moved by my determination to get back up and try again just weeks after the first project failed. If you believe in it this much, then it’s worth pledging in to find out why.
3. Don’t just post, become social. Don’t get on social media and talk at people like a club promoter. Engage in things with them and build a conversation. Let your profile or page say all that is needed to bring them to Kickstarter, with a post or two a day. But engage with people on their topics and ideas. Post a comment and retweet. Being self-centered will not create a following. I highly recommend the book Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, by Gary Vaynerchuk. Whether or not you choose crowd funding, it’s a must read if you have a product or service you are selling.
4. “Thank you” goes a long way. There is nothing else more to write on that.
5. Like-ability is golden. You have to be likable and charming. If you aren’t, then let your campaign be led by someone who is. Be completely honest with yourself and set your ego aside for the success of the project. No one should want to punch you in the face after watching your video.
Launching NO MONSTER NO with friends and family.
And the biggest step of all:
6. Trust your instincts and embrace failure. I cannot stress that more. If you allow it, your instincts will tell you step-by-step what works and what doesn’t work. They already know what you want to do as they are the compass to how you will get there. Kickstarter success is primarily instinctual. It’s entire model is to grab and touch the hearts (and wallets) of people. But you have to embrace fear and failure to hear your instincts clearly. My biggest fear during my first campaign, was failure and the embarrassment of everyone seeing that failure. My ego, pride and hinge of doubt caused me to become deaf to my instincts and walk with panic. Following your instincts involve further risk, and when you are already in the midst of a larger risk, taking another is scary. However, when I eventually saw failure and embarrassment from the first campaign, my greatest fears came to pass and they didn’t kill me. I was just fine. The book didn’t explode and life as I know it didn’t end. I jumped off a cliff, expecting wings, but fell on my face instead. From there I learned that as long as you trust your instincts and jump, you can survive the fall. So keep jumping and embrace the fall. Embrace failure.
Life after the kickstarter is fantastic! The books were printed and families absolutely love No Monster No! Honestly, many adults who don’t have kids at all have purchased the book for themselves as a coffee table book and one teacher called us, “The dawn of a new Seuss.” Not one that gets giddy’ over accolades, but that one felt pretty awesome.
Celebrating with young fans at a school visit
Any time a new book enters the world is a great day. But it’s even more thrilling when the book comes from one of our own. The Brown Bookshelf co-founder Varian Johnson celebrated the birthday of his new stand-out middle-grade novel, The Great Greene Heist (Arthur Levine Books), on Tuesday. It’s already winning raves.
Today, Varian is featured in Kirkus. You can read the article here. Elizabeth Bird wrote this review in SLJ. And check out this inspiring movement: Bookstores are taking The Great Greene Heist Challenge where they work to make Varian’s book a New York Times bestseller. A big thank you to author Kate Messner for championing Varian’s book and issuing the first challenge to readers. The contest runs through June 30.
We’re proud of Varian and so excited about his success. Learn more about him and his books at his site. And get your copy of The Great Greene Heist, named a Publishers Weekly Best Summer Book of 2014, today. Here’s are links to two wonderful indies to make it easy: Buy The Great Greene Heist at Book People.
Buy The Great Greene Heist at The Book Spot.
Thank you for supporting our brother and showing that diversity matters.
“The Great Greene Heist is one crazy cool caper!”
– Rita Williams-Garcia
“A smart, charming, and hilarious novel featuring one of my favorite protagonists in years. I’d follow Jackson Greene anywhere, and The Great Greene Heist is a fantastic ride.”
– Matt de la Peña
“The elaborate bait and switch of this fast-paced, funny caper novel will surprise its readers as much as the victims.”
– Kirkus, starred review
Carole Boston Weatherford starting writing poems in childhood and never looked back. Her first picture book, Juneteenth Jamboree, about a summer celebration in memory of the Texas Emancipation, was published in 1995 by Lee & Low Books She’s written numerous picture books, board books, poetry collections, chapter books, and more, including the award-winning The Sound That Jazz Makes, a poem that traces the history of African-American music. It’s our great pleasure to re-introduce Carole Boston Weatherford and her exciting latest ventures!
A year ago, my son Jeff Weatherford and I partnered in establishing Great Brain Entertainment, a digital media company that produces books, video, and graphic T-shirts. The company’s has released two books: Africa, an ebook for preschoolers; A Bat Cave: An Abecedarian Bedtime Chronicle (for Pre-K-1). Princeville: The 500-Year Flood, a new chapter book edition of an out of print picture book title, is coming soon.
Here’s why Jeff and I became publishers.
- Printing and publishing have been the family business since the 1950s. My father was a printing teacher, I have been an author, editor, publicist and professor, and my son Jeff is a digital and fine artist. I may have ink in my blood, but Jeff has microchips in his. Ebooks and print-on-demand publishing are a natural evolution for both of us.
- For years, self-publishing was synonymous with vanity publishing. Then, services like Amazon CreateSpace provided a model that skipped the middleman and gave author-publishers higher royalties. Granted, few self-published books or ebooks become bestsellers. Fortunately, self-publisher don’t need blockbuster sales to make a profit.
- I had seen other upstarts succeed. I figured I could too—with my son’s help. I watched with awe as professor/blogger Sylvia Vardell and poet/ex-lawyer Janet Wong launched Pomelo Books. Using the print-on-demand model, the new press published the Poetry Tag ebook series and several Poetry Friday anthologies for K-12 classrooms. I am proud to have contributed to their projects.
- I want to meet my readers where they are. Today’s children are practically born with tablets in their hands. Reading Rainbow is even an app.
- Ebooks are the fastest growing segment of book sales, especially for children and young adults. I want a stake in that digital future.
- At a time when unemployment rates are high among young men, the publishing business is my son’s way of making a job for himself. Through his digital media company, Great Brain Entertainment, Jeff is putting his degree in computer graphics and animation to work.
- I couldn’t wait to show off my son’s mad design and illustration skills. We’re pitching collaborations to major publishers. While we await acquisition decisions, we are publishing on our own.
- Although I have 40-plus books and several projects in the pipeline at major houses, the wheels are turning slower in the publishing industry. The intervals between my new releases grew longer. I did not want to fall off the radar. Self-publishing gave me more control over the timing of my new releases.
- There is a market, and need for, more multicultural books and ebooks. The number of multicultural children’s books being released each year has plateaued at fewer than 100 titles a year. This at a time when the U.S. population is increasingly diverse.
- The reason I became an author in the first place was for my words to reach readers. I have built up a backlist of out-of-print and never-published titles, which editors say have promise but are too “niche.” For an ebook or on-demand publisher, the so-called niche doesn’t need to be as large as that of an established press facing higher overhead and lower profit margins.
This has been an adventure. Not that we have worked out some of the kinks in production, marketing is the next frontier. I had hoped to trade on the name recognition that I have as an award-winning children’s book author. To promote the books, Jeff plans to use social media more aggressively.
Carole Boston Weatherford, the author of more than 40 books, is a professor at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina.
This week, we’ve shared books by three stand-out children’s book creators who have chosen to publish their own work, Zetta Elliott, Jerry Craft and Kathleen M. Wainwright. We know there are more great authors and illustrators our readers should check out. Please post your self-published titles, link and a one or two line summary in the comments. We can’t promise a future feature or review, but we hope showcasing them here will get them on more people’s radars. Thank you for using your talent to create books for kids.
When I read Summer in the City written by teacher and blogger Kathleen M. Wainwright, I was taken back in time. I remembered playing hide-and-seek and freeze tag with my neighbors and cousins, sailing on the swing at the playground, chasing fireflies under a quilt of stars. With illustrations by Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor winner Nancy Devard, Summer in the City delivers something magic. We’re happy to feature Kathie in our Making Our Own Market series.
Here’s her story on choosing to be an independent publisher:
I decided to self-publish because I had a story I wanted to share with the world and I wanted to share it on my terms. Initially, my plan was to use a vanity publishing company but after following the advice of Jerry Craft, I decided to put my goal on pause and really research what it would take to start my own publishing company. That is when my role shifted from a “self-published” author to an “independent publisher/entrepreneur.” In 2013, I started my publishing company, Willa’s Tree Studios, LLC. Summer in the City was my first publication and a year later I published my newest book, Ziggie Tales: Ziggie’s Big Adventure. Going the traditional publishing route would have been ideal at the start of my journey as a writer, and it is something I would consider if the opportunity presented itself. However, I truly enjoy the publishing process, the creative control and the opportunities that come along with working as an indie author.
Why did I initially choose to self-publish?
I first wrote Summer in the City in 2006, did a search on the internet, and sent my manuscript out. I never heard anything back from the two or three places I sent it. This could be for several reasons, but it was most likely due to my story being underdeveloped at the time. I had a vision – I knew exactly how I wanted to transform my readers when they read my book. I knew the type of illustrations I needed to make this possible. I just didn’t know where to start so I stopped. I put my publishing goal to the side and wasn’t really sure at the time what would happen. Over the years I would tweak it here and there changing a sentence or two. But Summer in the City didn’t truly come full circle until I sat down with my illustrator in 2011 and added my final revisions as we mapped out the illustrations and layout of the book.
I actually think waiting to publish on my own was the best thing I did. During the time between writing Summer in the City and actually publishing the book I made great leaps as an educator. I earned my Master’s degree, a certificate as a reading specialist, began my second Master’s while pursuing a certificate in special education, and successfully completed National Board Certification for Professional Teachers. I also participated in several organizations, developed lasting relationships with other professional leaders. I created a teacher’s blog, The Diary of a Not So Wimpy Teacher, which now has a following of over 6,000 readers. All of these experiences have helped to position me for making my presence known as a new up and coming children’s author.
Once I decided to start a career as an independent publisher I did a great deal of research. I attacked this process as if it were another program or certificate that I wanted to complete. Only this time my instructors were established authors, illustrator, publishers, bloggers, marketing professionals, and content specialist. I read whatever I could get my hands on, I asked hard questions, and I hired a consultant. I used my network and I soaked up any bit of information that I could get my hands on. I took a few writing courses and I bought a ton of books. I even flew out to New Mexico (to visit my mother at the time) and had the opportunity to schedule a meeting with someone who had established their own publishing company and was willing to let me sit down and pick his brain.
I founded Willa’s Tree Studios, LLC in February 2013. Willa is my grandmother, my mother’s mother who passed when I just a few months old. My grandmother represents the foundation/ roots of our family and my mother, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and I represent her branches. Collectively we are Willa’s Tree and she lives on through us and the legacies we leave behind – for me, my books.
In 2010, the plan to independently publish was intentional. It was something that I wanted to do and knew I would find success with. I wanted the control over what my book would look like. I wanted to choose my own illustrator and I wanted to control my timeline. Although the process came with a hefty price tag, I looked at it as an investment and knew that it would take work if I wanted a return. I was told by several people in the industry not to pursue publishing on my own and to wait for a publishing company to pick me up. But at this stage in my career, I didn’t want to. I wasn’t concerned with not putting out quality work. I am an avid children’s book collector and have over 1,000 children’s books. I know what quality looks like. I wasn’t concerned with the amount of work I would have to put in to marketing and promoting- the consensus was it doesn’t matter, independent or traditional, you have to be willing to market your own book. In fact, that is one of the aspects I enjoy most about being an author. I wasn’t afraid of failing- because it has been instilled in me that “if at first you don’t succeed, try again.”
I don’t want to paint a picture that independently publishing a book is easy- it is not! It is a lot of work and I am still learning. There are so many things that I would like to do but because I am not a full-time writer it is challenging. Additionally, I don’t have the backing of a large distributor just yet so that is also a major bridge I have to cross. I take advantage of any opportunity to share my book (i.e. teacher conferences, school visits, career fairs, flea markets and bazaars, speaking engagements, etc). Because I wear all of the hats, I am responsible for seeking out those opportunities and making those connections- and this can be overwhelming at times, too. Despite all of this, I love this process and I am looking forward to what this journey shall bring.
Currently, I am drafting book two in my new Ziggie Tales series- Ziggie Tales: Ziggie’s Trick or Treat. My goal is to release this book by October 1, 2014.
Kathleen Wainwright is a dedicated teacher in the School District of Philadelphia. She is also an adjunct instructor at her college alma mater, Temple University, where she teaches foundational literacy courses to pre-service teachers. Kathleen is the writer of the teacher’s blog, The Diary of a Not So Wimpy Teacher. She is also the creator of Not So Wimpy Teacher Resources, specializing in Common Core Aligned reader’s companions for a variety of children’s books. For more information about Kathleen Wainwright, visit www.kathleenwainwright.com.
Syndicated cartoonist, illustrator, author, nice guy. That’s the tagline for Jerry Craft’s website. Love that last part. Jerry is one of those special people who makes a difference wherever he goes.
With more than a dozen books to his credit, he has made the dreams of many self-published authors come true. From alphabet book A is for Anacostia by Dr. Courtney Davis to empowering middle-grade novel Khalil’s Way by David Miller, Craft brings characters to life with his expressive and engaging art.
Jerry is busy making his own literary dreams come true too as the author with his sons, Aren and Jaylen, of The Offenders, an inventive mash up of superheroes, friendship and bully prevention and his first book with Scholastic, The Zero Degree Zombie Zone! written by Patrik Henry Bass. We welcome Jerry back to BBS as he shares his publishing journey and his mission to make his own market:
It was back in 1997 when I first came up with the idea that I should do a book. I had been drawing my Mama’s Boyz comic strip for a few years and had enough material to put one together. I grew up reading both comic books and comic strips and was a big fan of both. I also loved the collections of comics such as Peanuts and For Better or For Worse. The one thing that was missing was that I almost never came across collections of the strips by African-American cartoonists. People such as Ray Billingsley, who did Curtis, Robb Armstrong (Jump Start) and Barbara Brandon (Where I’m Coming From) had had loyal followers for years, but still no books. Meanwhile the shelves of Barnes and Noble were full of collections of comic strips that had only been around for a year or two without having nearly the readership of the comics by black cartoonists. So I thought, “why not Mama’s Boyz?”
Over the next few weeks, I put together a book featuring my best reprinted work along with brand new stories. Then proudly mailed off my submission to the publishers who specialized in that type of book. After a few weeks, I got my first reply. A rejection letter. Nothing at all personal. Nothing hopeful. Just rejection. A few weeks later, I got my second reply. Same thing. Well, they always say the third time’s a charm, so I excitedly opened the next letter. And it was … a rejection letter. BUT this one had a hand-written note. Finally, someone had taken the time to give me some feedback that I could use to get published. Although it was 17 years ago, I still remember reading, “We’re not interested in this ‘Good Times’ style of humor.” My smile turned to a frown, and then to whatever look you have when you’re a combination of angry and offended. The only thing that Mama’s Boyz had in common the TV sitcom Good Times was that it was about a Black family. While the TV Evans family lived in the projects and struggled to make ends meet, the Porter family in Mama’s Boyz owned their own bookstore. The mother loved to read. Tyrell and Yusuf are two brothers who did well in school and actually LIKE each other. Unlike the siblings on Good Times who did nothing but insult each other. Would this editor have also compared someone else’s comic strip to Gilligan’s Island just because the characters were white? I doubt it. That’s when I realized that whoever sent that letter, just did not get what I was trying to do. Nor did they want to. Nor did they care.
So, instead of giving up, I used that note much the way athletes use things their opponents say about them, to get motivated. I went to the library to pick up a book on self-publishing, and six weeks later I sent off a digital file of Mama’s Boyz: As American as Sweet Potato Pie! to be printed. 2,500 copies to be exact. During the wait, I was able to use some great connections to get all kinds of press in some pretty big mainstream comic publications. I sat back and waited for the sales to come in. Then I got tired of sitting, so I laid down to wait. Then I went to sleep. I didn’t get a single order from ANY of that press. That was when I realized that the mainstream audience did not embrace my book, because I am not a mainstream cartoonist. Neither was Ray Billingsley, Morrie Turner, Brumsic Brandon, Stephen Bentley and the other black cartoonist who either didn’t have a book, or had one that was black and white and fit inside your pocket, as opposed to some of the full color books, in large format, and on glossy paper, that filled the shelves at bookstores.
From that moment on, I never tried to reach out to an audience that wanted no part of me. Instead, I began going to local book fairs. At one of these fairs, I had a man ask if Mama’s Boyz was for kids. “Well, I guess it can be,” I remember answering. Although I didn’t do it for kids, there was nothing that was inappropriate. I still remember the kid going off to a corner of the fair and reading my book cover-to-cover and laughing hysterically. I had not made my market, my market made ME!
During this time, I also had a full-time job, so I didn’t do nearly the amount of fairs that I do today. And before I knew it, 10 years had gone by. It was time to do another. So in 2007, I published Mama’s Boyz: Home Schoolin’. But this time I knew my audience was going to be kids and teens. I didn’t change the humor at all, but what I DID do to make it more kid friendly was add things like a flipbook, and a section on how to draw. This book sold even better than the first. Partly because I was better at selling, but also because I was able to get my first schools and libraries to buy them. One library bought 50 copies and gave to their kids. And not just African-American boys either. So for the first time I had girl readers as well as kids from various nationalities. Kids whose parents would have NEVER bought them my book. But luckily since the library GAVE them out, we were able to bypass the parents. And this new crop of readers LOVED the book. So much so, that when I did my third book a few years later, I added a few new characters to reflect my growing audience. In fact, I didn’t realize until after Mama’s Boyz: The Big Picture had been printed, that all of the blurbs on the back cover were from female fans. Something I never had before. In fact, I’m currently redrawing the first book as a graphic novel that will feature some of the newer characters that weren’t in the first two books.
It hasn’t been all fun and games though. More than 15 years later, I still need to find innovative ways to sell my book. For example, I know that my Mama’s Boyz books still will not sell outside of the African-American community UNLESS it’s a book fair where the kids have their own money. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to watch Billy’s mom take one of my books out of his hand, stroke his blonde hair and tell him that they, “needed to walk around first to see what else was there.” Then they spend the rest of the fair trying to redirect Billy’s desire to buy one of my books. They’ll spend $50 on cotton candy to keep from buying my $10 book. Mama’s Boyz will not turn your kids into gangstas! I’ve done studies!
Art by M’Shindo Kuumba
The other big hurdle is not having a close network of supporters. Meaning people I know. For example, if I could get 10% of my 4,000 followers on Facebook, Twitter and every other social media site to order one of my books in the first month of its release, I could immediately make back my print cost. It would also allow me to have to confidence to release more books that I think are necessary for our kids. For example, one of the next books I hope to release is Positive Force, the story of a 16 year old superhero who fights crime in Harlem with the help of his father. Yes, a black teenage boy and his Father as crime fighters! But since this one is geared mainly towards black boys, I would need more than 200 people hitting the “like” button on Facebook, or telling me how important I am to the community but not actually purchasing a copy. So I’m still a little nervous. People forget that this is also a business. And like any business, if you don’t support it, it goes away. If you want your kids to read, and you think the books I do are important, than it seems like a natural fit. But often it doesn’t work out that way.
That was also why I moved up production of The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention! which is the first of my books that I’m also shopping to publishers. It’s the story of five middle-grade kids who are the bullies of their school and are given superpowers. But instead of turning into really cool heroes, they take the characteristics of the kids that they pick on. So one gains 50 pounds, one gets super skinny, one get big metallic buck teeth (he teases kids with braces), one gets super smart but physically uncoordinated, and the last girl (who is always calling kids mousey) literally shrinks down to the size of a mouse. And the multicultural cast features three boys, (one black, one Korean and one Puerto Rican) and two girls as superheroes who have to save the school, even though they’re too embarrassed to go outside. Because now they’re the ones getting teased.
I’m really proud of this book because of its anti-bullying message, multicultural cast AND boy and girl superheroes. And I did an enormous amount of research to write both the Korean and Puerto Rican characters. In addition, my two teenage sons, Jaylen and Aren are my co-writers! How cool is that. But again, one of the biggest problems I face is that instead of people writing about the book along with other books on bullying, I often have to wait until February to be featured in an article on Black History Month.
And last but not least, I recently illustrated my first book for Scholastic called The Zero Degree Zombie Zone! written by Patrik Henry Bass that will be out this August. It’s one of the first books I’ve done that I have not published through Mama’s Boyz, Inc or helped an author to publish themselves. Thank you, Scholastic.
So I guess I’ll see if people really DO want diverse books. If not, make sure to wave to me when you go to your local Wal-Mart. I’ll be the guy in the blue vest.
To see samples of my work and see the books I’ve authored and or illustrated, check out my website at http://jerrycraft.net/.
Since writing can be compared to a recipe, clearly debut author S.A.M. Posey has something cooking. She mixed three cups of teenage characters, one cup of terrorist, seasoned her pages perfectly with African American history, and added just enough trouble to bake us one of the best drama cakes ever, The Last Station Master.
Raised in Alabama, S.A.M. Posey has always loved reading. Like most readers, books were a window for her that opened a view to the world. She now resides in Florida with her family and pets. For more information about S.A.M. Posey, (including her real name) visit her website at http://www.samposey.com.
On this the 27th day of February, The Brown Bookshelf is honored to highlight young adult author:
The Journey: I never imagined ever writing a book, but I have always loved reading. I grew up in a small, isolated Alabama town, but thanks to books, I had a window on the world. I loved all the places books took me, and the fascinating characters I met along the way. I jokingly tell people I have read the library of every school I have ever attended. I LOVE TO READ. Consequently, I couldn’t imagine being the mother of a child who did not love reading. So, when my son was born, mission make-baby-a-reader was launched. Eventually I noticed that baby wasn’t taking naps because I was constantly reading to him. Sadly, reading had to be cut back to mainly bedtime hours. But even with the mission slightly curtailed, my wonderful boy grew into a happy reader. Then one day the happy reader read no more. The problem? Not enough books on the market that piqued his interest. My voracious reader discovered that boy-centric books were hard to find and books geared toward African-American boys were harder still. Naturally, I did what moms do best. Promised to fix things. I can remember my exact words. “I’ll write you a book, sweetie.” In that moment, S.A.M. Posey the storywriter was born. It would take another five years to get a publishing contract, and another two years for the book to be published, but that most definitely was the moment that sparked my writing adventure. Who knew writing could become addicting? Once I started, I couldn’t stop.
I hear voices. You know, the imaginary kind. Characters come to me with these killer elevator pitches and they just won’t go away until I tell their stories. They are constantly whispering into my ear. Wait, did that sound crazy? Uh, then I mean, I do a great deal of academic research into a particular period in history and then try to outline the most effective means of turning this information into a modern-day, kid-friendly story. Yeah, that’s it. I plan, I outline, I do a rough draft and eventually the story blossoms into a full manuscript. There is, of course, no figment of my imagination shadowing my every move, intruding into my thoughts, pulling me from my slumber to write the next chapter and throwing tantrums if it feels ignored. Ahem, no, that’s just silly. So, let’s move on.
I love many writers, but all of my favorites authors write for kids. I love Jacqueline Woodson. She had me with Locomotion, Miracle’s Boys, Feathers … I’m crying halfway through her books. I love the way she pulls the reader into a character’s world so that you care what happens to them. A couple of years ago, my publisher asked me to set up a Facebook page, which I did. I somehow saw Jacqueline Woodson’s name as someone I could friend so I sent her a friend request. I was thrilled beyond words that this social media allows me to stalk, I mean follow, such a talented lady.
I also love Angela Johnson. I believe First Part Last was the first book I read by her. Such a powerful story and so masterfully told. I became and instant fan and had to read more of her stuff. I loved Bird, and Haven. I just love her.
Lois Lowry may have been the first children’s writer I read as an adult. I read The Giver, then found Number the Stars and then made sure to read everything she wrote. The Giver remains my favorite book of all times.
I can’t say that I write like any of these ladies, only that I have learned lessons about writing from them. Lesson one, a character doesn’t have to be likable to make a reader care about what will happen to them. The reader just has to be able to relate to the character. Characters who have flaws and doubts are interesting people; so write well-rounded characters, with all their flaws intact. Lesson two, there doesn’t have to be a dire emergency or immediate danger around every corner for the main character to have to deal with in order for a book to be interesting. The writing should be compelling enough to capture the reader’s curiosity and then hold that curiosity to the end.
The Last Station Master is my debut novel, but it is not the first book I wrote. The first book I wrote is unsalvageable. The second story I wrote is a sci-fi with so many plot twists that I’m still reworking it. The Last Station Master would be book number three in this writer’s arsenal of words. All of my stories involve me taking some unsuspecting kid just minding his own business and dropping him into an extraordinary situation. Pity the kid who doesn’t know enough history to work his way out of that situation. What can I say? I love history. All of my stories merge the present with the past, because really, least we forget, the past is always with us.
*A Royal Palm Literary Award Winner: “An intriguing story with an unusual twist.”
*School Library Journal
Reviewed on JUNE 1, 2013 | Grades 5-up
Gr 6–9—In this fast-moving story, African American Nate Daniels expects to be bored when he’s
sent to spend the summer with his grandparents in rural North Carolina, but he quickly learns his vacation will be anything but dull. In her debut novel, Posey successfully juggles multiple story lines while developing appealing characters. Posey vividly depicts the rural setting and conjures images of the Old South as Nate’s sleuthing solves his ancestors’ mystery. Information on influential African Americans of the era is provided in the author’s notes, which could encourage further exploration.—M. Kozikowski, Sachem Public Library, Holbrook, NY
The State of the Industry:
The Industry is changing with the times, me thinks. It is so good to see that the publishing world is becoming more diverse and boy-oriented. I have two books on preorder. They’ll both be coming out later this year. Boys of Blur - N. D. Wilson and The Great Greene Heist - Varian Johnson. Both sound like a fascinating read. Can’t wait to get my hands on them!
Thank you, S.A.M. Posey, for your wonderful debut, and we look forward to reading more from you in the future.
Kadir Nelson is an award-winning American artist whose works have been exhibited in major national and international publications, institutions, art galleries, and museums. Born in Washington, D.C., Nelson earned a Bachelor’s degree from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Nelson illustrated several New York Times best-selling picture books and his authorial debut, WE ARE THE SHIP: The Story of Negro League Baseball was winner of the Coretta Scott King and Robert F. Sibert Awards, as well as the 2008 CASEY Award for best baseball book.
Nelson is a two-time Caldecott Honor winner, and received an NAACP Image Award for the book JUST THE TWO OF US. His book NELSON MANDELA was a Coretta Scott King honor book in 2014.
Visit with Kadir Nelson at his website, and this video interview from Scholastic.
Sources: Wikipedia, Author’s web site.
Photo Source: Author site.
Higgins Bond is a trailblazer. She has been a freelance illustrator and fine artist for almost forty years. She has received many awards, including a medal of honor from Governor Bill Clinton, the Ashley Bryan Award for outstanding contributions to children’s literature. She has exhibited her work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, and the DuSable Museum of African-American Art in Chicago, Illinois. In addition, she is the illustrator of three Black Heritage stamps for the United States Postal Service and four stamps for the United Nations Postal Administration on endangered species. Many of her original images have been published by some of this country’s largest collectible plate companies.
Higgins Bond has illustrated 39 books for both children and adults. Her lists of accolades are long. Here is Higgins Bond in her own words:
A PLACE FOR TURTLES, written by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Higgins Bond, published by Peachtree Publishers
When I was young, I never knew anyone personally who actually made a living as an artist. So drawing and painting was just a hobby for me that I truly loved. My family and I believed it would always be just that. So inevitably, when I told my parents that I wanted to attend the Memphis College of Art, the only thing they wanted to know was “how will you really make a living?” As if a career in art was merely a fantasy. However, I grew to have faith in myself as an artist. It took a while before my family also believed.
After graduating with a BFA in Advertising Design, I was fortunate enough to get a job at a Park Avenue advertising agency in New York City. All through art school, I signed my work with my maiden name “Higgins”, because “Barbara” (my first name) was one of the most popular names at the time. Using last names was less confusing. But when I got married in my final year of college, I went back and added my new name to all my work. The professional name of “Higgins Bond” has stuck with me ever since. Hardly a year after graduation, my son was born. At this point I made the decision to become a freelance illustrator, so I could stay at home with him for a while. It was very slow and difficult at first. My son is now 39 years old and I have illustrated 39 books. That is about one for every year of his life. In between, I have worked for such clients as Anheuser-Busch, The Franklin Mint, Hennessy Cognac, The Bradford Exchange and NBC TV. I have even been a footnote in history, as the first African-American woman to illustrate a stamp for the United States Postal Service.
The Great Kings and Queens of Africa collection, Commissioned by Anheuser-Busch. Illustrated by Higgins Bond
At first my only concern was just to make a living and pay the bills. An illustrator’s job is to interpret what is written and paint or draw whatever the art director asks them to. But as I grow older, my priorities have changed and I need more urgently to express my own creative passions about nature and wildlife. However, as a widow now, the practical matter of just paying the bills doesn’t allow for much creativity like a fine artist. But this passion has given me the honor of working with many wonderful authors over the years such as: Joan Banks, Mary Batten, Melvin and Gilda Berger and most of all Melissa Stewart.
Black Heritage stamps for the US Postal Service, Higgins Bond
For most of my career when asked, I would always say that my specialty was limited edition collector’s plates. I have illustrated many plate series about kittens, tropical fish, butterflies, dogs and children. Unfortunately, when the economy crashed and some people could not afford to put food on a regular plate, collector’s plates were a luxury. That market has all but dried up for the moment. Thankfully however, people will always read. A few years ago, I was honored to illustrate the 30th anniversary edition of Alex Haley’s Roots, The Saga of An American Family ©2010. It was a special collectible edition for Easton Press. This was particularly gratifying because, in addition to being passionate about wildlife, I am also passionate about African American history. Throughout my career my most successful work has involved the history and struggles of African Americans such as the three paintings I did for Anheuser-Busch’s Great Kings and Queens of Africa series and three Black Heritage stamps for the US Postal Service. It’s very important to me to continue to honor my heritage with more historical painting and drawings.
I recently published my 39th book, A Place For Turtles, by Melissa Stewart. Artwork like this is considered commercial art, but when I began my career, that didn’t matter. I just didn’t want to become one of those starving artist you hear jokes about. At least I can still say that I make my living from my art. Something I did not believe was possible when I was young. Things are getting better and the economy is coming back. I’m older and more patient. I don’t seek just to document nature and wildlife like Audubon, but rather to illuminate God’s creations and my history in a way that crosses that difficult but arbitrary barrier between fine art and commercial art.
I adopted a logo many years ago that I think is symbolic of my ideas about illustration. My logo is a self-portrait that is composed of black-and- white puzzle pieces with the focus on the eyes. Illustration is all about vision. I adopted this as a symbol on my cards and stationary because I began to see illustration as putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The average illustration that I do is composed of at least 10 different images. My style might be considered photo-realistic, but I’m not trying to compete with a photograph. If that were the case, the art director would just hire a photographer. An illustrator is often needed when something just can’t be photographed, or to show an idea that goes much farther than a photograph. That’s illustration. That also means that these works of art don’t always have to be painted or drawn traditionally. There are many illustrators that use only computer generated images. And that’s fine, whatever works. As long as you think of it this way: illustration is language. It’s the language an artist uses to communicate what the author has written in a book an ad or poster. A good illustrator tells a story with images.
But I still prefer the traditional way with pencils paint and brushes. All my black-and-white illustrations are done with pencil. And all my color illustrations are done with acrylic paint on illustration board or canvas. I like to use watercolor brushes because I can get more detail with them. Pencil is my favorite medium, but these days I seldom get to use it. I do all of my sketches in pencil however, and once the art director, editor, and the author approve them; I then proceed to paint the final art.
Non-fiction children’s books today require many hours of research to find all the “puzzle pieces” needed to put together an illustration. The books that I have done about animals had to be scientifically correct and accurate. You can’t just make things up. Some time ago I illustrated a book about the former slave and the Native American woman that traveled with the explorers Lewis and Clark. It was called I Am Sacajawea, I Am York. This one had to be historically accurate as well.
When I was a child, art was just a hobby for me along with stamp collecting and playing the piano. I stopped collecting stamps and playing the piano as a teen, but stamps continued to interest and fascinate me. One day I was reading the newspaper and I saw Thomas Blackshear’s beautiful black heritage stamp of John Baptist Du Sable. Blackshear was one of the most highly talented illustrators I have ever known. But his Du Sable stamp was stunning! I was already familiar with the beautiful stamps in the series that were done by Jerry Pinkney, such as the Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman stamps. I said to myself, “I would give anything to get to do one of those stamps”. Well it never hurts to dream. You see I had already met Pinkney and Blackshear because we are all part of the earliest groups of artist hired by Anheuser-Busch for their Great Kings and Queens’s series of posters. We also worked on the same jazz calendar for Smirnoff liquors and we were all members of the Society of Illustrators. I had met them both at various events and unveiling ceremonies. So I felt comfortable enough to write to Jerry, who for those of you who don’t know is the winner several time over of the Caldecott Award, most recently in 2010. The Caldecott is the highest honor there is for a children’s book illustrator. Anyway, I wrote to Jerry and asked him how do you go about getting a job like this? It turned out that Jerry was now the art director for the Black Heritage Series, and was no longer painting the stamps. Blackshear was now working on the next two stamps in the series. I told Jerry of my interest in the project, so he took samples of my work to Washington DC and showed them to the Stamp Advisory Committee (they make all the decisions about stamps). And as a result I was commissioned to do the Jan Matzeliger Stamp in 1991, the W.E.B. Du Bois stamp in 1992 and the Percy L. Julian stamp in 1993. I will be forever grateful to both Pinkney and Blackshear for the inspiration and Pinkney especially for opening this door for me.
I Am Sacajawea, I Am York: Our Journey West With Lewis and Clark, written by Claire Rudolf Murphy and illustrated by Higgins Bond, Walker Childrens (October 1, 2005)
I don’t know about you, but I’m blown away by Higgins Bond — Don Tate
For a few years now, The Brown Bookshelf has talked about the need for more diversity in children’s and YA books. Our focus here has been books by and/or about African Americans. Our voices are strongest during the month of February, when we host our 28 Days Later campaign. We get excited! We post consistently. The campaign ends, and we begin to question if anyone is even listening. We get busy writing and illustrating our own books, and the blog goes dormant. Sigh.
Thankfully within recent months — and particularly this week — others have begun to discuss some of these same issues. Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers wrote stellar pieces in the New York Times. The issue has also been talked about on CNN, EW and others. But it was probably BookCon’s all-white lineup (and poor response to the outcry), that really inspired a grassroots effort to bring attention to the issue.
Twenty-two authors, publishers, and bloggers launched a three-day, visual social media campaign called “We Need Diverse Books.” It began on May 1 and runs through today. The campaign called for participants to tweet, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook or blog photos that addressed the question “ We need diverse books because . . .” And the campaign went viral.
Please see the “We Need Diverse Books” website for more information about the campaign, which ends with a call for people to put their money where their mouths are and purchase diverse books.
Several of us here at the Brown Bookshelf contributed to the campaign. The following are some of our contributions to the cause:
#WeNeedDiverseBooks to remind us that *other* people exist and matter too.
Observations about books for children and teens from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center
School Library Journal: Culturally Diverse Books Selected by SLJ’s Editors
Publisher’s Weekly: Diversity Social Media Campaign Goes Viral
The kidlit world is currently abuzz with many loud, strong, and unified voices crying out, “WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS!” The cry has been made before, but this time there appears to be an organized activism accompanying the noise.
In that same activist spirit, we at The Brown Bookshelf reached out to a variety of experienced individuals involved in the creation of children’s books written and/or illustrated by African Americans and asked them to share the wisdom they have attained as they’ve worked to make sure these books not only make it to publication, but also reach the widest audience possible.
Today, on the first day of Children’s Book Week, The Brown Bookshelf adds our contribution to the movement via a series called MAKING OUR OWN MARKET. We begin with the voices of Wade and Cheryl Hudson, founders and publishers of Just Us Books, in a guest post entitled, Making A Difference Through Publishing.
Making a Difference Through Publishing
by Wade Hudson & Cheryl Willis Hudson
From May1-3, 2014 in response to the #WENEEDDIVERSEBOOKS campaign, Wade Hudson posted this:
“The lack of diversity in children’s books is a problem that has been around for decades. Every few years or so, someone issues a clarion call for change. But too often, very little happens other than a few weeks of heated discussions and written exchanges. Then it’s back to business as usual. Perhaps now, we will REALLY do something about the problem. Not only does the industry need to publish more children’s books that reflect our nation’s diversity, the diverse books that ARE being published need to be supported. We all must be involved in this important cause—book creators, educators, librarians, booksellers, reviewers, and of course, parents.”
We founded Just Us Books, Inc., in 1988 because we recognized how crucial it was to have books in the body of literature for children that reflected our nation’s diversity. We had already begun to address this need by writing stories and working as an art editor and art director for educational publishers. But this need became more personal when we became parents.
Just Us Books really began as a self-publishing effort. We were the authors of the first few titles. But early on we began to be recognized as a viable children’s publishing company and important to institution building in the Black community. Not only could we tell and share our own stories, but we owned and operated an institution, a business that would bring more diverse titles to the marketplace—from acquiring manuscripts, publishing them as books, getting the books to the marketplace to lifting up the importance reading.
In 2004, we started the imprint SANKOFA Books to bring classic Black-interest children’s books back into print. In 2009, with our children, Katura and Stephan, we introduced MARIMBA Books, a multicultural press.
After more than 25 years of operating Just Us Books, we remain resolute in continuing our mission to publish books for children that are more representative of who we are as a nation. But it is also clear that after 25 years of publishing (along with the efforts of other independent publishers such as Lee & Low, Arte Publico, Cinco Puntos Press, Polychrome Press and others which are no longer in operation, as well as larger publishers) that much more still needs to be done.
From a publisher’s perspective, we know how important these books are! We have seen the faces of African-American children light up when they see the African-American children on the cover of Bright Eyes, Brown Skin. We know that there are black youngsters who have become more interested in reading after having been introduced to books in the Kid Caramel series or the NEATE series. Many children have been engaged by the relatable story and characters in The Secret Olivia Told Me.
Children of color need books that offer them the opportunity to see themselves reflected in books. White children—all children really—need to be exposed to books that help them see the world as it really is, peopled by different ethnic, gendered, cultural and racial groups, people with whom they must interact. Children’s books are great vehicles for helping children understand their communities and their world. And they can be fun and entertaining.
Here are a few other reasons why diverse books are important:
1. A more diverse body of children’s literature confirms that we live in a global village and that the world is pluralistic and made up of many different kinds of people.
2. They help to develop self-esteem in all children through inclusion rather than exclusion.
3. They provide knowledge and information about people from all parts of the world.
4. Diverse books can change the way children and young people look at their own particular society and the world by offering varying perspectives or different ways of viewing the same situations.
5. They can promote/develop an appreciation for diversity in all of its facets.
6. They can help children think critically and to ask questions.
7. Like all literature, multicultural titles can provide enjoyment and appreciation for unity and variety in the human experience.
8. They can reflect the cultural diversity within the classroom and community
9. They can provide positive role models.
10. They can create a bridge between student’s real-life experiences and intellectual learning.
The #WENEEDMOREDIVERSEBOOKS social media buzz has been great for creating awareness. But creating awareness has happened before. In a September 11, 1965 edition of the Saturday Review, librarian Nancy Larrick highlighted the issue in an article titled “The All-White World of Children’s Books.” Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, a professor emeritus at The Ohio State University, addressed it in “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” originally published in Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom. Vol. 6, no. 3. Summer 1990. Walter Dean Myers, whose recent article in the New York Times has generated heated discussion, wrote about the lack of diversity in children’s books in a November 9, 1986 article titled, “I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry,” also published in the New York Times. Many others have added their voices to the clarion call for more books that reflect our diversity.
It is crucial that these discussions translate into concrete actions that really make a difference in advancing the cause of a more diverse offering of books for children and young adults. We believe this time that will happen.
We would like to share a few things that all of us can do to help advance the cause of equity and inclusion in our body of children’s literature.
“Imagine if we all made a year-round commitment to:
1. Each year, introduce 10 different children’s books that reflect our nation’s diversity to educators, librarians, bookstore managers, and parents—anyone who has the influence and/or power to help increase the number of these diverse books within the body of children’s literature.
2. Purchase at least 5 of these books to share with children other than our own— whether they are our neighbors’, friends’ or co-workers’ children; children at our places of worship or local youth organizations; or for donation to other organizations in our communities.
3. Give at least 2 or 3 of these books to children who might not normally have diverse books in their homes.
4. Make a special effort to buy some of these books from independent publishers, bookstores and vendors—particularly those operated by people of color.
5. Lift up the importance of having books that reflect our nation’s diversity at every opportunity we have—not just within our circles but outside our ‘diverse circles’ too.”
Together, we can produce and get more diverse books into the hands of as many people as possible. They are sorely needed in a country that has become more polarized and whose schools, in too many cities and towns, remain extremely segregated.
Honoured to welcome Cake Literary to The Brown Bookshelf today! Writers, activists and entrepreneurs who “believe that crafting a good read is like baking a great cake — rich, fresh, delectable flavor with a healthy dose of heart”, the founders of Cake have already transformed the publishing landscape with a mission to engage readers and writers from all walks of life. From their Web site: “Co-founded by New School MFA grads Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, Cake Literary is a creative kitchen whipping up decadent literary confections for middle grade, young adult, and women’s fiction readers.”
These women are awesome. Let me just get out of the way:
Guest Post: Making Our Own Recipe – CAKE Literary on Writing Diversity and Spicing Up High Concept Fiction
Black people don’t often view writing as a viable career path.
A professor in my first MA program told me this during an advisory meeting. He said it so casually, as if he was talking about the sky being blue or water being wet. He waited for me to affirm his conclusion: to shake my head up and down, acknowledging that he’d made an astute social observation, or to start crying while launching into my story of overcoming adversity to get into college, and now, against all odds, into a specialized graduate program in children’s and young adult literature.
I gnawed at my bottom lip, kneading my hands in my lap, and waited anxiously for him to hand me back my paper on religious programming in children’s fantasy fiction, so I could leave. There was no story to be told to validate his belief. I grew up a spoiled nerd in the suburbs of Washington, DC, with my nuclear family (minus the dog), and an endless pile of books.
I said nothing.
My professor wasn’t a racist who had a closet full of white KKK robes. Instead, he was a deeply intellectual widower with a quiet, almost granola, hippy-ish energy, and this made the whole thing even worse. He was kind and supportive. He was smart and well-read. Yet his observation of me (and my people) was so limited and reductive.
I should’ve corrected him. I should’ve told him that I stand on the words and pages and books of others who paved a road for me: Alice Walker, Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, Virginia Hamilton, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Andrea Pinkney, and many more. That I wouldn’t be knee-deep in unsubsidized federal school loans if I didn’t see being a writer as a viable career path.
To make sure I didn’t come off as the aggressive/overly-spirited/feisty/sassy/angry black woman, and to make sure he didn’t feel uncomfortable around me (or with my blackness), I stayed silent. I smiled, sipped a cup of tea, and I let his statement stand. I stayed in the safe-zone.
I should’ve said something.
The phrase still replays in my head.
I failed those who had taken the risk to put pen to page, who had fought to get published. Over the last six years, this moment became a little suitcase of shame that I carried around, where his words and the way I felt were neatly packed inside like layers of folded shirts and matching socks and starched dresses.
I should’ve said something.
When I met Sona Charaipotra, a super smart and savvy woman who I connected with on the first day of class at The New School, I knew she was going to become a major part of my life. Over endless chats and shared stories of invisibility (and not the kind that comes with a cloak) and being TV/film junkies and a collective well-spring of great ideas that we wish were on the shelves, we knew we’d stumbled upon something that was missing from the books we read as kids and teens, and the books and media circulating now.
We discussed the books we wanted to write, those that we thought would be awesome, and tinkered around with starting a venture that used diversity as a spring-board to great story-telling in a fun, sexy, page-turning, un-put-downable way. And CAKE Literary was born.
CAKE Literary is a literary development company that focuses on high concept fiction with a strong commitment to diversity.
What exactly does that mean? We’re not a literary agency, or a publisher. We’re a packager cooking up decidedly diverse book ideas, manuscripts, and proposals, and providing work-for-hire opportunities to authors in order to bring those books into reality.
What’s high concept? That book or movie or TV show you can describe in one-line. An orphaned boy discovers he’s a wizard and must destroy the evil warlock who murdered his parents. A feisty girl takes her sister’s place in a televised death game in a dystopian America. Two sick teens fall in love and confront the fault in their respective stars. Sound familiar? These are the kind of books we’re aiming to create. Big stories with heart, delicious concepts, a compulsive energy, and a healthy dose of diversity. We have a secret recipe that you’ll have to stay tuned to learn more about.
Our first project, formerly called DARK POINTE, now TINY PRETTY THINGS, follows the journey of three ballerinas at a cutthroat ballet academy. Each girl has a different background, mirroring the natural (and sadly, often hidden) diversity in the ballet world. But it’s not the primary focus of the book. It’s about ambition and dance and what one is willing to do to be the best. But these diverse characters are not tokens either – with just their skin color or hairstyle described one or twice to remind the reader of their “otherness.” Their otherness is innate, integral. Readers won’t forget how their backgrounds inform parts of their everyday experiences – the very way it shapes both Sona and I as we navigate our realities.
What’s cooking in CAKE’s kitchen? We’re working on several projects, and busy trying to find talented writers to join us on this mission. We hope to have more news to share soon.
We’re hopeful that, with the recent articles being written about the dearth of diversity in YA and children’s book publishing, and Ellen Oh’s fabulous #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, our colorful world will start to be reflected in the books written for children and teens, and that more authors of color realize that their voices are needed.
I am lucky because CAKE Literary is helping me finally say something.
Interested in learning more? We’ll be looking to hire writers beginning this summer, so connect with us on CAKELiterary.com or via CakeLiterarySubmissions@gmail.com. You can also follow us on Twitter @CAKELiterary.
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An important part of the conversation of Making Our Own Market is opening the door to quality, independently-created books. Self-publishing has long empowered African-American children’s book authors to tell our stories and blaze a new path.
Wade and Cheryl Hudson self-published their AFRO-BETS ABC Book when they found few children’s books that reflected African-American culture and history. Their success led to them creating their award-winning publishing company Just Us Books. Acclaimed author and poet Kwame Alexander, self-published his first picture book, Indigo Blume and the Garden City. It was nominated for a 2013 NAACP Image Award.
But self-publishing still brings a stigma. The books are less likely to be reviewed, considered for school and library collections and seen as on par with traditionally-published titles. At The Brown Bookshelf, we grapple with covering them too. We receive a range of work from outstanding to less than professional. But if we want to change the face of publishing, we need to welcome self-published treasures too.
This week, we put three amazing children’s book creators who have independently published front and center. First up is Dr. Zetta Elliott, a professor, children’s literature scholar and award-winning author. Even with accolades for her traditionally-published picture book, Bird (illustrated by Shadra Strickland, published by Lee & Low), and acclaimed speculative fiction YA novels A Wish After Midnight, Ship of Souls and The Deep, she has struggled to find homes for her work. But rather than keep her stories out of children’s hands, Dr. Elliott is bringing them to kids herself. Check out her powerful post, It’s Not Me, It’s You: Letting Go of the Status Quo, on The Huffington Post. We’re honored to have her share her journey and insightful thoughts on publishing for kids.
Objectives over Illusions
By Zetta Elliott
I started working with kids when I was sixteen—25 years ago—but many people in my life were surprised when I began to write for children in 2000. I clearly recall the stunned look on the face of my graduate school advisor when I shared my ambition of becoming a children’s book author. For five years he had guided my evolution as a scholar, and the only writing of mine he had read focused on representations of terror and trauma in African American literature.
Earning my PhD should have prepared me for the years of rejection I was to face as an aspiring author. I entered the publishing arena fully aware of “the myth of meritocracy,” and I knew all about the long history of racist stereotypes and deliberate distortions of the Black image in US popular culture. A decade of studying lynching taught me a lot about white supremacy and so I knew, as Mychal Denzel Smith recently explained, that “the ‘real’ racists” have no need to hide behind burning crosses and white hoods. I understood how institutional racism operates invisibly so that certain people are privileged while disadvantaged individuals are blamed for their lack of success. Yet it still took me a long time to relinquish my illusions about the industry and embrace self-publishing—why?
Like most lovers of literature, I bought into the popular perception that people who self-publish are devoid of talent and lack the commitment it takes to win a legitimate publishing contract. I was certain that my storytelling skills were so extraordinary that eventually I would be recognized by the very best agent who would then introduce me to the most discerning editors. I never imagined I would become an award-winning author and still be left with more than twenty unpublished manuscripts. If publishers were so desperate for multicultural material, why weren’t they knocking down my door? What did I do wrong?
Well, I naively believed that an industry dominated by women would welcome a feminist writer with a commitment to social justice. I wrongly assumed that the people who work in publishing care about children of color as much as I do. I made the mistake of thinking that publishers would be eager to woo African American consumers who have a collective buying power of over one trillion dollars. I met with white female editors who spoke passionately in public about their commitment to diversity but then manufactured reasons to reject my work. As my eyes opened to the ugly reality of racism in children’s publishing, I let go of my illusions and spoke out. I rocked the boat and, no doubt, burned some bridges. I also began to reassess my priorities and search for alternatives.
At this point in my career, self-publishing is probably the only way I can put my books in the hands of the urban kids I serve. I published four chapter books this month and plan to publish four more books in the fall. That will still leave me with fifteen unpublished manuscripts, but at least eight more books will exist that reflect the realities—and fantasies—of kids and teens of color. The publishing industry has barred me from entry and the bias against self-published authors ensures that my books won’t compete for any major awards; they won’t be reviewed in any of the major outlets and bookstores probably won’t stock any of my titles. But some child somewhere may open one of my books and find a mesmerizing mirror that makes him or her want to read more.
For the past three years I have taught at a community college in Manhattan; most of my students come from low-income communities, many are immigrants, and the vast majority are people of color. Very few of my students love to read, which makes college-level work challenging for them. As a professor I often leave the classroom feeling frustrated and demoralized; in one sixteen-week semester I can’t reverse years of inadequate public schooling, poor study habits, and a general disinterest in literature. I have decided instead to focus my energy on making an intervention in the lives of younger students. Armed with twenty-five years of experience and (eventually) twenty-five self-published books, I believe I can get—and keep—kids excited about reading.
So have I given up on traditional publishing? Yes and no. The overwhelming whiteness of the children’s publishing community has led many to plead for greater diversity in the ranks of editors, reviewers, agents, and conference organizers. My voice used to be part of that chorus but I no longer think simple inclusion is the solution. As Jelani Cobb points out, “To speak of diversity, in light of this country’s history of racial recidivism, is to focus on bringing ethnic variety to largely white institutions, rather than dismantling the structures that made them so white to begin with.” I think what’s needed now is innovation—entirely new ways of connecting kids with books. And so I’m willing to collaborate with anyone who shares my core objectives:
- To generate culturally relevant stories that center children who have been marginalized, misrepresented, and/or rendered invisible in children’s literature.
- To produce affordable, high-quality books so that families—regardless of income—can build home libraries that will enhance their children’s academic success.
- To produce a steady supply of compelling, diverse stories that will nourish the imagination and excite even reluctant readers.
If you, too, are willing to trade the publishing industry’s illusion of equity for these basic objectives, I hope you’ll keep an open mind when a self-published author offers you a book. My four new titles are available online now and will be available through the major distributors (Baker & Taylor and Ingram) in the coming weeks, which means bookstores, schools, and public libraries can add my books to their collection. I hope you’ll give one a chance!
Find out more about Dr. Zetta Elliott’s wonderful books and scholarship on diversity in children’s literature on her website and her blog.