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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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By Kirsten Cappy, Curious City
Yes, #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #BlackLivesMatter. These hashtags and sentiments are integrated into my many literacy projects and into our ongoing commentary on this troubled nation. Yet, the more I hashtag, the more I wonder if the book industry’s endearing and infuriatingly slow pace can create a place where black lives matter simply by producing more diverse books.
Authors and illustrators will do their groundbreaking and childhood-lifesaving work and the publishers will publish them. But, are the consumers, educators and libraries buying enough books? Are they buying at a pace that will expose a child to enough books to show him or her that their lives matter—matter to all of us?
Into the middle of these thoughts, a picture book New Shoes by Susan Lynn Meyer and illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Holiday House) landed on my desk. In the book, young Ella Mae is forced to wait for a white girl who came in the shoe store after her and then denied the right to try on the saddle shoes she and her mother have come to buy. Jim Crow sends Ella Mae’s mother to her knees to trace her daughter’s feet on paper.
The next day at school, Ella Mae has on her new shoes but “feels bad most of the day.”
“That’s happened to me too,” her friend Charlotte whispers when Ella Mae tells her about the store. What makes this story a marvel is that Ella Mae and Charlotte counter this Jim Crow discrimination with entrepreneurship.
Doing chores for neighbors, the girls ask to be paid in nickels and old shoes. After rounds and rounds of chores, they go into an old neighborhood barn. There they do not just play store, but create a store. With their nickels and their careful attention, they transform the old shoes into shelves of refurbished footwear.
When they post their “open” sign, the lines form and “anyone who walks in the door can try on all the shoes they want.”
We all strive to have children try out all the books they want. I want young readers to experience the tenacity and creativity of Ella Mae and Charlotte! But how many will? How many families will buy this acclaimed picture book from a bookstore shelf? How many libraries will have the funds to buy it for kids to check out or for teachers to pull from the shelves for a lesson?
If books and stories change lives, if diverse books allow children of color to be seen and validated, then why is book purchasing not a major charitable action?
For example, if the message of empowerment through entrepreneurship speaks to you and you have the means, why are you not buying New Shoes by the caseload for schools, libraries, and after school programs? Books have meaning and mission, but the industry has always been designed for single purchase use. The bulk sale is rare. If #WeNeedDiverseBooks, can we not find an entrepreneurial solution like Ella Mae and Charlotte?
We certainly can match a person or organization’s mission – to instill a feeling or lesson in children’s minds – to a children’s book that imparts that mission.
Public funds for schools, libraries, and many non-profits serving children continue to diminish. These institutions would welcome donated materials. For example, I recently posted an offer on the American Library Services for Children email listserv offering 500 individually-donated paperback chapter books by Polly Holyoke. That offer brought 1,000 grateful schools and libraries to our site in less than 48 hours. They would say a resounding “yes” for books that reflect their community.
The statement in New Shoes, “That’s happened to me,” is such a simple and searing statement of subtle and daily discrimination. Those subtle experiences of discrimination remain long after the end of Jim Crow.
Can we give kids of all races the tools to believe and act like #BlackLivesMatter by driving charitable donations of books? Is it as easy as setting up in the barn and painting a sign? It might be. Who wants to do the chores and gather the nickels with me?
NEW SHOES Text copyright © 2015 by Susan Lynn Meyer, Illustrations © 2015 by Eric Velasquez, Used by permission of Holiday House.
Kirsten Cappy of Curious City and Curious City DPW is an advocate for children’s literature and its creators and for schools and libraries. Through creative marketing projects, she seeks to create places where kids and books meet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 207-420-1126.
I interviewed Tracey for the Brown Bookshelf in 2012. As she shared Angel’s Grace with me, I quickly became a member of the Tracey admiration club. She writes. She edits. She encourages and she shares her knowledge with young people. Today, Tracey is giving the Brown Bookshelf and its readers the inside scoop on her latest book, The Jumbies. Welcome back, Tracey!
As a kid I could not get enough of fairytales. Princes, princesses, helpful fairies, vindictive witches, magical mishaps, and cleverly-hatched plans that led to happy endings were all I dreamt of all day long as I flipped through the pages of my beautifully illustrated Grimm’s fairytales, a book almost too large and heavy for my three year-old hands. But fairytales were something that happened in places far away from my native Trinidad, in lands where children could leave footprints in the snow, and you needed a large red cloak to keep the cold off your back. Besides, none of the characters looked anything like me with their golden hair and pale skin. So I had no hope of being chosen to marry a prince, or encountering a witch with architectural baking skills, or meeting an opinionated fairy (this being the greatest disappointment of all). But on warm island nights when the books were closed, and the ships at port bellowed out mournful horns, the stories were different. They came with warnings from the adults in my life such as “Never answer if you hear your name called at night. That is how the douens will get you,” they said.
Then I would listen to stories about how douens roamed naked through the forests of Trinidad with their feet on backwards to fool anyone who might follow them. They were small like children, but with the strength of grown men, and wore cone-shaped hats and not one stitch of other clothes. The douens would learn the names of children so that they could lure them into the forest, where the children would never be heard from again. “Just ask ‘did you call me?’ and wait for us to answer,” the grownups said. If they hadn’t called, I could be sure it was a douen trying to get me, and I would pull the covers more tightly under my chin. But the douens were not the only creatures to be feared at night in Trinidad.
There were also soucouyant, who were old ladies who shed their skin at night, burst into flame and came flying through your window to suck your blood. And there were La Diablesse, who had one regular foot and one cow hoof that they covered under long skirts. The lagahoo was a wolf-man who might help you as often as he might eat you. Papa Bois protected the animals in the forest, and sometimes punished the hunters who were after them. The water was a worry too, with Mama D’Lo, a half-woman, half snake who was as beautiful as she was vindictive. All of these creatures were called jumbies, a group of malevolent creatures who were hell bent on harming or at least tricking any human who dared to cross their path.
Jumbies were fascinating, but they didn’t come in beautifully illustrated books like my Grimm’s. Jumbie stories were very much alive. My uncles might meet a La Diablesse on their walk home at night. The red itchy bites that showed up on my legs in the morning might not be from mosquitoes, they might be from a soucouyant. And always, there was the threat of voices calling at night. I was living my own dangerous fairytale. Every person who encountered a jumbie and lived to tell the tale was brown-skinned like me, some even wore their hair in plaits like mine. But they were never in books. Why didn’t the children who looked like me have their own fairytales? We were just as clever. We had to be just as brave. Our foes were just as treacherous. Didn’t our stories deserve to be written down?
A young Tracey in the days before books had her name emblazoned on them.
At the very mature age of three, I declared that I would grow up and be a writer. I would have my own stories with beautiful pictures that I could hold and flip through and read over and over again. I had just learned how to write my name. So the next step, of course, was a book.
Years later, I was in New York, between classes at NYU, and browsing through the shelves at Barnes and Noble when I came across a book of fairytales from around the world. I scanned the table of contents looking for Trinidad. Were there douens in here? Papa Bois? A soucouyant? No. But there was a story called “The Magic Orange Tree” from Haiti. “Close enough,” I thought and I flipped to the page. It was a Cinderella-type story about a clever girl, a magical tree, and an evil stepmother. I knew instantly that I could somehow take this story and make it my own. I would give my three-year-old self the fairytale she had been waiting for. I reread The Magic Orange Tree for years but it was only after my first novel had been published that I started working on the story that would become The Jumbies. Early titles were: The Green Woman, The White Witch, and the Magic Orange Tree; The Orange Tree Girl; and Growing Magic. And jumbies being the tricky, malevolent creatures that they are, didn’t make it easy for me to get them down on the page.
Tracey discussing her writing process with students.
I worked on the story off and on for almost nine years. Over the course of that time, several people in the industry told me to just give up on the story and move on. “Some stories belong in the desk drawer,” one editor said. But there was something about this story that compelled me to keep pulling it out of the drawer even if it had been sitting there for years at a time. It wasn’t working. It was always missing something. But I kept slogging. My three-year-old self, it turns out, is quite the taskmaster. I lost an agent along the way, but found another with the manuscript for this story. Marie Lamba and I worked on it a little longer before she approached just the right editor—Elise Howard—who had also worked on another creepy tale, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. The Jumbies was just her kind of story, and even then there were a few rounds of changes before it was final.
In just a few weeks, the three-year-old me will get the book she has been waiting for. Maybe not beautifully illustrated as she would have liked (though the jacket art is amazing), but this time the book will fit easily in her hands, and the hero will look like her, with plaits falling down her back. There is even a nod to the fairytale stories she used to love, with a little frog providing comic relief. But this story is all Caribbean. All Trini. All sun-kissed brown-skinned, and still, all fairytale.
Tracey and her fans.
Douen = dwen
Soucouyant = SOO coo yah
La diablesse = LAH jah bless
Lagahoo = LAH gah hoo
Papa Bois = Papa BWAH
Mama D’lo = Mama Juhlo
Jumbie = JUHM bee
Early reviews for The Jumbies:
“Her fantastic cast of characters and lush, vibrant setting make you feel immersed in her Caribbean island.”
–Valerie R. Lawson’s Blog, Barbies on Fire
“Endlessly addictive and hypnotic.”
“A well-written tale full of action.”
–School Library Journal
“Tracey Baptiste knows just how to seize kids’ attention.”
“It’s refreshing to see a fantasy with its roots outside Europe.”
About The Jumbies
Caribbean island lore melds with adventure and touches of horror in The Jumbies, a tale about Corinne La Mer, a girl who on All Hallow’s Eve accidentally draws a monstrous jumbie out of the forest, sparking a very personal war that only she can stop – a war made even more difficult once she discovers her own dark truth.
Jumbies (pronounced JUM bees) are trickster creatures from Caribbean stories, like the pint-sized douen with its backward feet, the soucouyant who turns into a ball of flame, or the man/wolf lagahoo.
Can Corinne save herself, her father, her friends, and her entire island from the jumbies? Preorder now to find out!
Barnes and Noble
Join me for the launch of The Jumbies at
Watchung Booksellers, Montclair, NJ on April 28, 4-6pm
La Casa Azul Bookstore, Harlem, NY on April 30, 6-8pm
Enjoy the trailer!
Tracey is also the author of the young adult novel “Angel’s Grace” which was named one of the 100 best books for reading and sharing by New York City librarians. Tracey is also an editor at Rosen Publishing.
You can find out more about Tracey on her website Tracey Baptiste or by following her on Twitter @TraceyBaptiste, or on Facebook and Instagram at TraceyBaptisteWrites.
The Jumbies will be in stores on April 28th.
Join her for the launch of “The Jumbies” at
Watchung Booksellers, Montclair, NJ on April 28, 4-6pm
La Casa Azul Bookstore, Harlem, NY on April 30, 6-8pm
If you can’t attend the launch, it is available at
Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indie Bound.
Brian O. Jordan
On March 21, 2015, I had the pleasure to share the gift of reading with the “Birdy Book Club.” What a wonderful group of young men. I am proud of their parents and grandparents for beginning to instill the love of reading at such a young age. My parents did the same with me.
I read them my book titled, I Told You I Can Play (illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, published by Just Us Books). This was the first time I ever did a children’s reading leveraging FaceTime on my computer and it turned out to be a good experience for the young men. This book captures a story about my own youth and speaks to being a small child who was always told I was too young to play. The book goes on and shows how I proved to my family and others that I could play, but it took focus, determination, and dedication for me to do this. These are characteristics I like to instill in young children. I invite others to reach out and read my book I Told You I Can Play. I also have two other books that youth may enjoy and others I am working on:
Birdy Book Club members show Brian via FaceTime one of their favorite pictures from his book.
- Overcoming the Fear of the Baseball details a childhood experience when I was hit in the face with a fastball. Instead of calling it quits, I was forced to face my fear and return to the baseball field where I went on to play 15 years of Major League Baseball.
- Time-Out For Bullies discusses how my mother taught me first-hand what bullying was and how it negatively impacts children. I then reveal how I used my athletic ability to help those dealing with bullies in my school.
Some ask why I decided to write children’s books. It came from my wanting to find ways to educate youth, get them to read, and have others learn from my experiences. I thought if I could engage youth at a young age then maybe I could capture their minds to read and to learn to believe in themselves to reach their future goals. Mr. Wade Hudson from Just Us Books, Inc. in New Jersey published my first book. He heard my story and wanted to help me get started. He taught me the process of publishing a book and leveraged his best creative people to illustrate my book. I was blessed to have met Mr. Wade Hudson and what he is trying to do through Just Us Books, Inc. to get youth to read.
I went on to write and self-publish other books and at the end of the day I just really want youth to read and believe in themselves to reach their dreams. The hardest part for me about being a children’s book author is my transition. Most of the world sees me as an athlete, and yes I did play Major League Baseball and in the NFL, but I also received my education while I was in college. With that education, I knew that after sports I could transition and do multiple items. So many athletes just see themselves as that, but I knew that at some point my body would not be able to compete at those professional levels and my education from University of Richmond would take me further. Getting others to take a retired professional athlete seriously as an author has been challenging. But as people see my love for writing and reading about children and my publishing new books, this makes people realize I am serious and they are respecting me as an author.
Thank you to Kelly Starling Lyons for reaching out to me to do this children’s reading virtually. I welcome others to leverage my books to help youth develop the love of reading and to find that confidence in themselves to reach their goals.
Brian O. Jordan
Former MLB Player and NFL Player
Illustration by Don Tate
We didn’t want to let the day end without wishing our brother Don Tate congratulations on his new picture book with Chris Barton, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans). What makes this collaboration even more special? Chris and Don are friends.
Chris suggested Don, his critique partner, as the illustrator of his story that had been years in the making. “I don’t know that I could articulate then why he would be a great artistic choice,” Chris said in this interview, ” but his style turned out to be just right both for making John Roy Lynch accessible as a person and for conveying acts of violence and terrorism in a vivid but not overwhelming way.”
The collaboration is paying off. Their book earned starred reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly. We’re proud of Don and Chris and look forward to seeing many more accolades. Learn more about The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch on their sites: http://www.dontate.com and http://www.chrisbarton.info.
Check out the buzz here:
“The fascinating story of John Roy Lynch’s life from slavery to his election to the U.S. House of Representatives at age 25, gets a stirring treatment here . . . Tate’s often expansive illustrations emphasize important incidents in the text. A reference to harsh laws passed by whites is coupled with a dramatic two-page spread of a whipping, a potential lynching and lots of angry white faces in the foreground, fists clenched. A small African American boy covers his eyes at the scene. The horrors of a school burning shows praying figures overshadowed by masked attackers with burning torches. The emphasis in other illustrations is on faces, full of emotion add to the power of the telling and the rich soft tones of Tate’s palette welcome the eye to linger.”
- Booklist, starred review
“Barton offers an immersive, engaging, and unflinching portrait of the difficulties of the Reconstruction era, while Tate’s cartoonlike artwork softens moments of cruelty and prejudice without diminishing them.”
- Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A picture book worth reading about a historical figure worth remembering.”
He’s far more awesome than I realized.
When I went to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s website to get a little background info on him for this post, I discovered a man that has contributed more to our society than I believe most people are aware of. While I don’t have the space to recount all of his accomplishments here, I’ll bullet-point a fraction of them:
- NBA All-Time Leading Scorer
- US Cultural Ambassador, 2012
- California’s STEAM Education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Mathematics) Afterschool Ambassador, 2012
- Cancer Research Advocate
- Columnist for TIME Magazine and LA & OC Registers
- Award-winning Filmaker
- New York Times Best Selling Author of 9 Titles (including 3 children’s books)
- Two-time NAACP Image Award Winner (What Color Is My World & On the Shoulders of Giants)
It is his for work as a children’s book author that we celebrate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on this final day of 28 Days Later. The three, well-reviewed children’s titles he has co-authored with Raymond Obstfeld (thus far) are:
Streetball Crew Series, Book Two: Stealing the Game
“Abdul-Jabbar and Obstfeld…team up for another exploration of the intersection of sports and life conduct. Chris is a good, quiet kid who likes to keep his head down. As he says, ‘I was friendly to everyone but friends with no one.’ Still, if the machinery of thought made much noise, Chris would be a one-man band. For a 13-year-old, he does considerable shrewd, high-ground thinking, as do his friends (‘You know,’ one says, ‘not talking about things doesn’t actually make them disappear’). Where it really shows itself is on the basketball court, where he plays a savvy, court-wise game. Enter his brother, Jax, a golden boy who appears to have fallen from the pedestal upon which his well-intentioned parents have placed him, and Chris’ still waters are about to feel a hefty stone break their surface. Add his classmate Brooke, a sharp girl with plenty of her own baggage, and a waterspout is in the making. The authors’ light hand allows readers to inhabit the characters; to taste the value of respect, dignity and vulnerability; and to embrace the elemental joy of sports-all without ever feeling like they are being tube fed. The shifting structure of the story and a clever series of blind alleys keep readers on tenterhooks. A deft, understated sports thriller with a solid moral compass.” —Kirkus
“In another exemplary mix of issues and action both on and off the court, the middle-school cast of Sasquatch in the Paint (2013) returns to take on a team of older, bigger, thuggish rivals amidst a rash of local burglaries. Thirteen-year-old Chris is stunned when his golden-boy big brother, Jax, suddenly shows up at home with gambling debts after (he claims) dropping out of law school. With extreme reluctance, Chris agrees to help Jax get out from under-both by enlisting his street-ball buddies against a club team to settle a bet and by helping his brother break into a pawnshop. At the same time, Chris asks his Sherlockian friend Theo to check out Jax’s story, and he also definitely beats the odds by finding common ground with brilliant, acid-tongued classmate Brooke. Along with vividly drawn characters, the coauthors craft a mystery with artfully placed clues that Jax might not be the loser he seems to be, and also inject plenty of exciting, hard-fought basketball in which speed, strategy, and heart play equally strong roles. Flashbacks crank up the tale-s suspense, flashes of humor brighten it, and the end brings both surprise twists and just deserts all round.” —Booklist Online
Streetball Crew Series, Book One: Sasquatch in the Paint
“The author team behind What Color Is My World? opens the Streetball Crew series with the story of Theo Rollins who, though only an eighth grader, is already more than six feet tall. A self-proclaimed nerd, Theo gets recruited for the school basketball team, even though he’s terrible at the sport. Additionally, Theo is puzzled by new girl Rain, who’s smart but being threatened by a guy on a motorcycle; his widowed father is unexpectedly interested in dating; and he might be kicked off the school’s Aca-lympics team if he can’t balance his responsibilities. The depth and realism Abdul-Jabbar and Obstfeld bring to the novel keep it from being a run-of-the-mill sports story. Rain, for instance, is Muslim, while Theo is one of only a few black kids at his school; their ostracism doesn’t overshadow the action, but it isn’t ignored, either. Perhaps most refreshing is the fact that the authors allow Theo to gain confidence in basketball without the predictable game-winning shot. Readers will feel a kinship with Theo as he maneuvers through tough but realistic choices.” —Publishers Weekly
“A crisp tale of sports, smarts and what it means to be your own man or woman-or boy or girl, if you happen to be 13. It seems to be an embarrassment of riches to be, say, one of the best basketball players in history and also write tightly entertaining novels for kids, but there you have Abdul-Jabbar. Surely Obstfeld added polish and framing, but this obviously is a work of someone intimate with sports and, by extension, how sports can serve as metaphor for a way of being in the world. Here, newly tall eighth-grader Theo Rollins is trying to find his way between the brainiacs and the basketball players. Along the way, he meets Rain-aka Crazy Girl-a sort of ‘girl with the dragon tattoo’ minus the heaviest baggage. Characters, both friend and foe, feel real; there is talk of abandonment as well as serious comments about the skewed vision Americans have of Islam. The deepest running narrative pivots around sports, but the story has much to give. Theo’s cousin’s taxonomy of basketball players is broadly applicable: There are the happy-go-lucky, the self-conscious and ‘those who never want the game to be over, because each minute is like living on some planet where you got no problems….[They are], for that brief time, in a place where everything they thought or did mattered.’ Fearless, caring sports fiction.” —Kirkus
What Color Is My World?: The Lost History of African-American Inventors
“Making use of an unusual format, former NBA star Abdul-Jabbar and his On the Shoulders of Giants coauthor Obstfeld offer an upbeat history lesson set within a fictional narrative framework. Siblings the Shoulders of Giants coauthor Obstfeld offer an upbeat history lesson set within a fictional narrative framework. Siblings Ella and Herbie, whose story unfolds in typeset chapter booklike pages surrounded by warmly lit paintings of their adventures, are less than enthusiastic about their fixer-upper of a new house. But as eccentric handyman Mr. Mital unveils the house’s potential, he also teaches them about contributions made by African-American inventors (‘There’s more to our history than slavery, jazz, sports, and civil rights marches,’ he says). Flaps show lifelike portraits of individuals like Dr. Mark Dean, a v-p at IBM; Dr. Charles Drew, who developed the concept of blood banks; and nuclear engineer Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker squirt gun. Ella’s off-the-cuff notes appear inside the flaps, while several spreads provide detailed profiles of other inventors and graphic novel–style passages. The banter between the siblings and, in particular, Ella’s snarky zingers keep things from feeling didactic—it’s an entertaining and often surprising exploration of lesser-known innovators, past and present.” —Publishers Weekly
“A fictional story lies at the heart of this unusually formatted collective biography. Twins Herbie and Ella and their parents have just moved into a run-down older home; while they work to fix it up, Mr. R. E. Mital, an eccentric handyman hired by their parents, recounts the contributions of African American scientists and inventors. As the figures are introduced, foldouts on the sides of the pages contain Ella’s notes (full of humor, as well as facts) about each one. More detailed profiles of other inventors fill the spreads, and some are introduced in graphic-novel-style pages. Instead of famous inventors such as George Washington Carver and Benjamin Banneker, readers are introduced to lesser-known individuals, including Alfred L. Cralle (inventor of the ice-cream scoop), Dr. Henry T. Sampson (gamma electric cell), and nuclear engineer Lonnie Johnson (Super Soaker). Information about the subjects’ home, lives, and avocations is a welcome addition…the large trim size, numerous illustrations, and unusual format (not to mention the celebrity author) will certainly attract browsers. And a surprise discovery about Mr. Mital’s identity at the end will leave readers with something to ponder.” —School Library Journal
For more information on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his work, please visit his website.
In his twenty-year career, Mr. Steptoe illustrated sixteen picture books, twelve of which he also wrote. The American Library Association named two of his books Caldecott Honor Books, a prestigious award for children’s book illustration: THE STORY OF JUMPING MOUSE in 1985 and MUFARO’S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTERS in 1988. Mr. Steptoe twice received the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration, for MOTHER CROCODILE (text by Rosa Guy) in 1982, and for MUFARO’S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTERS in 1988.
While all of Mr. Steptoe’s work deals with aspects of the African American experience, MUFARO’S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTERS was acknowledged by reviewers and critics as a breakthrough. Based on an African tale recorded in the 19th century, it required Mr. Steptoe for the first time to research African history and culture, awakening his pride in his African ancestry. Mr. Steptoe hoped that his books would lead children, especially African American children, to feel pride in their origins and in who they are. “I am not an exception to the rule among my race of people,” he said, accepting the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Illustration, “I am the rule. By that I mean there are a great many others like me where I come from.”
Mr. Steptoe frequently spoke to audiences of children and adults about his work. He was the 1989 winner of the Milner Award, voted by Atlanta schoolchildren for their favorite author.
John Steptoe died on August 28, 1989 at Saint Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan, following a long illness. He was 38 years old and lived in Brooklyn. Mr. Steptoe was among the handful of African American artists who have made a career in children’s books.
Pointe may be Brandy’s first published novel, but it is not her first attempt at writing. She is a magazine journalist. Add that to her tap and jazz dance training and you have the perfect person to write about ballet. Her life story is riveting and so is Pointe. After learning about Brandy, you will not be able to resist the urge to read her first novel. The Brown Bookshelf is honored to feature Brandy on 28 Days Later 2015.
I’ve wanted to be an author since I was seven years old (at least that’s the first time I documented my aspiration), and have been writing stories since then. I took a bit of a break in college and afterward, while I earned a journalism degree and moved out to Los Angeles to start my career in magazine publishing. Of course I never stopped reading, and I would write sporadically, but I had a hard time finishing projects that I’d started. At the time, I also found it hard to come home and work on my own manuscripts after writing and editing all day at my full-time job.
In 2006, I decided to get serious about pursuing publication. I completed a novel during NaNoWriMo and also signed up for a writing class, as I realized I’d have to start sharing my work with others and get feedback (terrifying!) if I wanted to get published. That project was the first book I’d finished writing since I was a child. It started out as an adult book, but I soon realized the voice wasn’t right. After I switched to teenage characters, I felt like I was on the right track—exploring the issues and lives of teens, as well as writing in their voice.
I think inspiration can (and should) come from various and unexpected sources. I’m inspired by honest writers, those who aren’t afraid to tackle messy subjects (and even messier characters). Some of my favorites are Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Courtney Summers, Colson Whitehead, Aimee Bender, Sarah McCarry, ZZ Packer, and Toni Morrison.
The Back Story
Pointe is the fourth book I’d written since I began actively working toward publication, and it’s strange to look back on this now, but I was just about ready to give up if I hadn’t found representation with that book. It was easily the most honest book I’d written to date, and the one I’d put the most work into. I ended up working on it with an agent who was interested in signing me, but unfortunately, once I turned in the final book, we saw that our visions for it were quite different. After that, I queried a few other agents at the top of my list, not expecting to get very far. But much to my surprise, Tina Wexler of ICM requested a full manuscript just a few hours after I’d queried her! She asked for a fairly big revision, which I turned in around six weeks later. She offered representation shortly after that, and just three days after I’d been laid off from my job as a business writer in Chicago.
After three books and four years of rejection from agents, I also didn’t anticipate interest from editors, though I believed in the book and finally had someone else in my corner who did, too. I’d decided to move back to Los Angeles after being laid off, and at the end of my first day driving cross-country, I stopped in Missouri to see my parents and recharge for a few days. And the morning after arriving in my hometown, Tina called to tell me we had an offer from Ari Lewin at Putnam! I was happy to have an offer, but more important, I was thrilled that Ari believed in my book and had some wonderful ideas on how to improve it while staying true to my vision.
Pointe received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start, is a Cybils Awards finalist, and was named a best book of 2014 by Publishers Weekly, Book Riot, BuzzFeed, the Los Angeles Public Library, and the Chicago Public Library.
The State of the Industry
I think 2014 was a turning point for the children’s books industry in that the conversation on diversity really began to make waves. Many people had noted prior to last year that diversity was an important (and often overlooked) initiative in children’s books, but We Need Diverse Books catapulted it to the forefront, turning a hashtag campaign into a pledge into a nonprofit. I’m so impressed by the group’s commitment to implementing change in the industry, including the provision of publishing internships and grants and awards to writers and authors of color.
When I was growing up, I didn’t need two hands to count the number of black kids in contemporary stories, and it’s sad to me that things aren’t much better so many years later. But I believe the conversation is a great start. And in addition to books that reflect the world around us, we also need diverse authors and agents and editors and publicists and marketing departments—people of color, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQ. I truly believe that if diversity is championed from within the industry, there will be a greater chance of seeing these stories published. And they are stories that desperately need to be told.
For more about Brandy, please check out her website Brandy Colbert. Brandy’s twitter handle is @BrandyColbert.
Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks
Georgia McBride is founder of Georgia McBride Media Group, home of Month9Books, Swoon Romance, and Tantrum Books. She develops content for film and TV, and is also a speculative fiction writer. Georgia founded the #YAlitchat hashtag and weekly chat on Twitter in 2009.
Georgia is one of Publishers Marketplace’s most prolific publishers and has spent most of 2014 atop the editors lists in Young Adult, Digital New Adult and Digital deals. She’s completed over 120 publishing deals on behalf of three imprints in the past 24 months.
Georgia McBride Media Group imprints publish debut authors as well as USA Today and NY Times bestselling author Diane Alberts, Bram Stoker Award nominated author Janice Gable Bashman, Amason #1 Dystopian authors Abi Ketner and Missy Kalicicki, Amazon US #1 erotica author Kenya Wright, Amazon #1 Children’s Fantasy author Nicole Conway, Amazon UK #1Teen Mythology and Legends author Jen McConnel, and renowned Young Adult authors such as Jackie Morse Kessler, Michelle Zink and Cindy Pon.
On the film and TV side, The Undertakers series has been optioned for film by Moderncine Films with the creator of the Final Destination films attached. Dead Jed: Adventures of a Middle School Zombie has been optioned to Nickelodeon, and Nameless has been optioned to Benderspink.
But wait, there’s more! Ms. McBride’s list of credits is extraordinarily impressive — she is no joke. And we are honoured to share her words here on The Brown Bookshelf.
As the effort to increase diversity in the book community grows with new initiatives such as We Need Diverse Books, Diversity in YA and of course, this very site, I am struck by how many “discussions” are being had about Diversity without anyone addressing the sweeping changes that need to happen in order for that dream to be fully realized.
Talking about the need is a fantastic first step. We have come a long way from ignoring the lack of diversity and refusing to admit there is a problem, to now to freely discussing the need for diversity and challenging those in a position of power to act upon it.
When I first started writing young adult material in 2008, I took a lot of heat from people for a statement I made on Twitter about being afraid my book would be stocked in the back of the bookstore because it is written by an African American writer and features a diverse cast of characters.
Many shouted from behind their screens about how if the book was “good enough,” it would certainly receive the same placement as any other book of its kind. It was a heated discussion that ensued and one that I will never forget. I wondered whether those same folks were naïve, blind, ignorant or just plain crazy. Where they living in the same publishing world I was living in?
I started writing around the time a major publisher took a hit for putting a white teen girl on the cover of a book about a black girl. Shortly thereafter, readers of the Hunger Games went crazy over the possibility that Katniss Everdeen may be cast as other than a white in the film adaptation, despite the author’s own description of the character as having olive-toned skin. Readers, fans and others took to social media to voice their concern, and some even said they would boycott the film if Katniss was not cast as white. Even the author refused to officially define the character’s ethnicity.
Flash forward to today. It’s 2015, and we have only just begun to accept the need for diversity in books for young readers. This is a major step in the right direction, but we need to do more. We need to make sure the images being put into the market are not the same tired stereotypes of non-white youths. We need to make sure that tokenism, in all its forms, is rejected as a response to the need for diversity, and dare I say, we need more people in a position to acquire and publish diverse books to make doing so a priority.
And finally, when we come across an amazing book with diverse characters, we need to simply call it an amazing book, not an amazing “diverse” book. Because by doing so, it is nearly the same as calling me a “black writer” or “black publisher.” After all, it’s not the color of my skin that defines me, but the content of my character. And if we want readers and trade to stop judging books by the color or ethnicity of the characters in them, we must stop calling attention to it ourselves. I would love to hear what you think. Please feel free to comment and I will do my best to respond. Thanks for allowing me to share my opinion and experience with you.
You can find more about Georgia McBride at her web site, and connect with her on Twitter.
What is a purveyor of awesomeness? If you saw one walking down the street would you know? Let me help you out. Just look at the picture to the left. When you write novels about butt-kicking females with a Greek mythology backdrop, you can put “Purveyor of Awesomeness” on your website next to your name because you’re bound to turn heads! She turned ours, and that’s why on this 24th day of February, 2015, The Brown Bookshelf is honored, and excited to spotlight:
How do you work? Do you start with a character, a concept, an idea? Do you outline first or just go? Is there a technique or routine for drafting or revising that you find particularly helpful? Do you have an office or other location that works best for you?
I am a complete and utter pantser (meaning I don’t outline). So my writing process is deceptively simple and completely insane:
- I come up with the basic idea (not a plot, just a general idea). Example: Dexter meets Greek Mythology.
- I write the first 30,000 words or so. Generally the entire first act heading into the second (my books are generally between 80,000 and 90,000 words).
- I write the ending so I have a direction. Otherwise I would just keep writing with no end in sight.
- I fill in the gaps.
- Revisions! Smoothing out the plotholes, making sure plot threads make it the entire way through the book, etc.
If the process sounds disorganized, that’s because it is. I see writing as a kind of archeology. The process of uncovering the story is just as important as the story for me, which sounds a lot prettier than it is in reality. There is usually swearing. And lots of swearing. To be honest my process has been different for each story, but there is always swearing.
I think that’s what makes it fun, the spontaneity of it all! Or maddening. Sometimes it is both fun and maddening, which explains the swearing.
I mostly write at home, in the evenings and in the mornings before I head to work (I have a day job that is not writing related). My writing locations are the office I share with my husband within my home and the dining room table. Not sure why I like writing at the dining room table. Maybe because it’s right next to the kitchen and therefore close to the food.
I actually write a lot of my stories based on music, which sounds weird. But sometimes hearing just the right song will inspire a feeling that drives my story.
Vengeance Bound, my first published story, was sparked by the album American Idiot by Green Day.
Promise of Shadows was pretty much entirely written to three albums: What to Do When You are Dead by Armor for Sleep, Juturna by Circa Survive and On Letting Go by Circa Survive.
My most recent story was inspired by Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire, so you can pretty much imagine what that is like. For me, music is a huge part of my process. I listen to music when I write, and I actually find it pretty hard to write without it.
As for writers who inspire me, I love Courtney Summers, Jenny Han, Justina Chen, Nova Ren Suma, and Alaya Dawn Johnson.
Under The Radar
Brandy Colbert’s Pointe is a book that I think has not gotten nearly enough love. Theo’s journey is just plain heartbreaking, and I hope lots of good things happen for that book in 2015.
I’m also a huge fan of LR Giles, Stephanie Kuehn, Elsie Chapman, Lydia Kang, and Maurene Goo. I hope all of them continue to write fantastic books. And I hope people continue to read them.
The State of the Industry
I honestly think that the industry is really at a pretty important decision point. The We Need Diverse Books campaign has done a good job of shining a light on the challenges within the publishing industry with regards to diversity and how we can all do better. There’s a lot of talk about increasing diversity, not just with regards to the books being published but also with regards to the staff at the publishing houses. But right now I feel it’s more lip service than reality. Everyone thinks diversity is important, but it seems like few people are actually challenging themselves to make it a reality. If the big publishing houses want to cater to people of color they need to make a commitment to doing just that. And they need to publish books that reflect diversity across the board, not just a couple of issue books every season or diverse books ghettoized under a specific imprint. Where are my black Katnisses? Or my Latino Harry Potters? I’d love to see more books that really push the envelope and break out of the old models, books like Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Love is the Drug, which is a book that talks about race and class but also has a pretty amazing storyline as well.
Of course, there are publishers like Lee and Low that have always been committed to diversity and that probably don’t get nearly enough credit for what they do. But in an ideal world I’d really like to see publishers like Lee and Low rendered obsolete. I’d like it to be easier to find a book with a character of color than a talking animal or some mythological creature, but I think right now we’re a few years away from that goal.
Thank you, Justina, for your contributions to Young Adult books!
Learn more about Justina Ireland by visiting her website: http://justinaireland.com
Follow Justina Ireland on Twitter: https://twitter.com/tehawesomersace
By Jerry Craft
I published my first book back in 1997. Since then I have written and / or illustrated more than a dozen others. I think the reason why I’ve dedicated my life to get kids to read is because I went through most of my life not enjoying reading whatsoever. In fact, whoever coined the term “reluctant reader” must have known me as a kid. And as a teen. And even as a young adult. To be honest, I was a grown man before I ever read a book on my own for enjoyment. It’s not that I couldn’t read, I was an “A” student who made Honor Roll every semester. It was that reading was never anything that was fun. Actually, it was a chore, like mowing the lawn. (Even though there were no lawns in the Washington Heights section of NYC, where I grew up.) And for a kid with a very active imagination, I needed something to grab my attention. I know my parents read to me as a kid, but once the Dr. Seuss stage passed, I was on my own. Sure, I’d see them read newspapers and magazines, but have few memories of them with books.
In school, reading was always something I HAD to do, there was no getting around it. And believe me, I tried. Books being boring. For one thing, even though I attended schools that were 99% African American, I don’t ever remember having to read a book that featured characters that looked like any of us. Unless you count runaway slaves. So if it wasn’t for Marvel Comics, my reading enjoyment would have been close to zero! As a kid I was a huge comic book fan. Each week, I’d anxiously run to the corner candy store in order to buy the latest issues of Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four. But even then, if the plots had too many non-fighting pages, I’d kind of gloss over all that boring dialogue in order to get to the good stuff. Ka-Blam! But even though I, and many of my classmates, were reading, having a teacher catch you with a comic book was only slightly better than being caught with some kind of illegal contraband. Apparently, they didn’t want any of those “foul things” rotting our fragile little brains. It wasn’t until I reached the 7th grade that I had my first, and probably only, teacher who was a comic book fan. That was refreshing.
And then … as if books didn’t have enough competition with things like stickball, and touch football (way back when kids used to go outside to play) they invented the Atari 2600! That was one of the very first video game systems, for those of you who may not know. And reading for enjoyment went the way of the dinosaur.
In high school, there were a bunch of us who read comics, but unfortunately as I got older, the books that we were supposed to read for got bigger. And more boring. And even less reflective of my life. The memory of having to read William Faulkner’s, “As I Lay Dying,” still haunts me to this day!
Fast forward to college where I attended The School of Visual Arts. Most people who know that I went there, think that I was a cartooning major. But the cartooning classes were so popular that I was never able to actually sign up for one. Instead I majored in advertising copywriting where I wrote headlines for newspaper ads, radio commercials and TV commercials. This was right up my alley. What I wrote could be funny, it could be serious, but whatever it was, it had to be short. Fast forward about 10 years, when I left the struggling advertising world to get a job at King Features
Syndicate and later at Sports Illustrated for Kids. It was during this time that I had created my Mama’s Boyz comic strip. Again, the writing was funny and short! This was way back when personal computers just started taking off. And for the first time in my life, I found something that I actually ENJOYED reading other than comic books. Software manuals! Really! I could actually sit down for hours and read a book on how to use Photoshop or Flash. The books were not only huge, nor were they the least bit exciting. But for some reason, I LOVED them!!! Then one day I got an email from a fan of my Mama’s Boyz comic strip. I used to have a page on my website where I showed how slang had changed from my father’s era, to mine, to the current group of teens. After exchanging a few emails, he told me that he was an author and wanted to know if I wanted to swap books with him. Why not? I sent him a copy of Mama’s Boyz: As American as Sweet Potato Pie! (which I had published myself), and a few days later I got a package in the mail with not only one book, but two! And they were long. “Aw crap, I remember thinking, now I HAVE to read both of these books, ‘cause he’s gonna want to know what I think of them.” And so I started the task. By now, I was married and living in Connecticut, so I had a few hours commuting on MetroNorth each day that I could devote to reading them. And you know what, I liked them. In fact, I LOVED them!!! When I was done, I was proud to write my new author friend, Mr. Eric Jerome Dickey and tell him what I thought of Sister, Sister and Friends and Lovers. From that point on, I felt like a superhero who had gotten super powers as a result of some freak accident. I LIKED TO READ! Now it was a matter of catching up on books that I had always heard about, but had never actually read. Classics like The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Invisible Man.
A few years later I had kids. Not wanting them to be reluctant readers like their dad, I literally read to them every single night forthe first six years of their lives. Maybe longer. And then they’d read to me. Or we’d do it together. Short books. Long books. Everything we could get our hands on. I even did voices for the characters. Plus I made sure that they saw characters who looked like them. Their bookshelves were filled with names like Eric Velazquez, Bryan Collier, Shadra Strickland, Don Tate, E.B. Lewis, R. Gregory Christie, and anyone whose last name is Pinkney. Then when I decided to write chapter books, there was no better sounding board than the two of them. They were my own private focus group. A few years ago, I was reading them a story that I was working on about 5 middle school bullies who get superpowers. And this time, instead of just sitting back and listening, they (now teenagers) were critical. Very critical. “Dad, no kid would say that,” I remember one of them saying. “Well what would he say?” And they told me. And it was good. After a few sessions of them setting me straight, I decided to make them co-writers. Luckily they accepted. And after about a year of writing, we were overjoyed to see, “The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention!” published. I had not only come full circle, from reluctant reader, to reader. Then to father of readers. Now that they had actually helped to write a book, they had broken through the circle. And that’s something that even a little boy from Washington Heights with an active imagination would have NEVER imagined possible.
Jerry Craft has illustrated and / or written more than two dozen children’s books, comic books and board games. Most recent is a middle grade novel co-written with his two teenage sons, Jaylen and Aren called: “The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention!” — an adventure story that teaches kids about the effects of bullying. He is the creator of Mama’s Boyz, a comic strip that won four African American Literary Awards and was distributed by King Features from 1995 – 2013. He also illustrated “The Zero Degree Zombie Zone,” for Scholastic. For more info email him at email@example.com or visit http://www.jerrycraft.net
“Poetry is a matter of life, not just a matter of language”
- Lucille Clifton
Every year, people create lists of classic children’s titles. A celebrated poet who wrote more than 20 books for kids, Lucille Clifton’s work should be included. Her eight book Everett Anderson picture book series broke ground for its portrayal of an African-American boy in the city sharing memorable moments like the arrival of Christmas and the birth of a sibling to coping with tough problems like the death of a parent and trying to help a hurting friend. Clifton’s Everett, kind, authentic and sensitive, was a reflection of kids around the country who didn’t see themselves in books until him.
“Mom wrote children’s books to fill an obvious void,” wrote her daughters Sidney, Gillian and Alexia Clifton. “Prior to the publishing of Some of the Days of Everett Anderson, there were very few children’s books depicting the lives of black and other children of color. And of those few; even fewer were written by black or ethnic authors. Creating characters whose lives, language and experience were a mirror to the lives, languages and experiences of thousands of underserved children across the country was important to her, and her pioneering contributions lit the way for the many prolific authors and illustrators of color whose works endure in the marketplace today.”
Clifton’s writing journey began in the adult world of poetry. Her early work was published in the anthology The Poetry of the Negro 1746-1970 edited by Langton Hughes and Arna Bontemps. She released her first book of verse, Good Times, in 1969. It was named one of the 10 best books of the year by the New York Times.
Just a short time later, in 1970, Clifton made her children’s book debut. Horn Book described Some of the Days of Everett Anderson (illustrated by Evaline Ness) like this: “The simple, short verses…celebrate the boy’s joie de vivre….Excellent for reading aloud as well as for viewing.” And so a new children’s book star began to fill homes and schools with her light.
Her acclaimed release, Everett Anderson’s Goodbye (illustrated by Ann Grifalconi), won the 1984 Coretta Scott King Author Award and was a Reading Rainbow title. Along with her beloved Everett titles, Clifton wrote gems including All of Us Come ‘Cross the Water (illustrated by John Steptoe), Three Wishes (illustrated by Stephanie Douglas) and The Lucky Stone (illustrated by Dale Payson). The Poetry Foundation wrote: “Her books for children were designed to help them understand their world and facilitate an understanding of black heritage specifically, which in turn fosters an important link with the past.”
Clifton, mother of six children, made writing part of daily life.
(L to R): Gillian, Fredrica (deceased 2000), Lucille (deceased 2010), Alexia, Sidney, Channing (deceased 2004), Graham. Shared with permission of the Clifton family.
“As children, we watched our mother type on her old-fashioned typewriter at the dining room table. For us, this is what mothers did; and where they did it; create worlds, play games, and share meals in the same place. Her creating space was her sanctuary, and ours. So it is with her every word.”
– Sidney, Gillian, and Alexia Clifton
She drew from the past and the triumphs and trials she saw around her every day and gave that back to us. A National Book Award winner, Pulitzer Prize nominee and the first black woman to win the distinguished Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, Lucille Clifton deserves a place of honor and remembrance for her children’s books too. Her stories, woven with the love of black culture and history and filled with the magical stuff of life, are lyrical tributes to children whose experiences she wanted the world to see. Clifton died in 2010, but her beautiful work lives on.
Her website-in-development, http://www.lucilleclifton.com, has wonderful photos and book covers of some of her treasured titles. Bookmark it and check back for the official launch.
Special thanks to Sidney, Gillian and Alexia Clifton for providing quotes and a family photo and to author Miranda Paul for connecting The Brown Bookshelf with the Clifton family.
When I get older, I will be stronger,
They’ll call me freedom, just like a Waving Flag…
Born to a throne, stronger than Rome
But violent prone, poor people zone,
But it’s my home, all I have known,
Where I got grown, streets we would roam.
But out of the darkness, I came the farthest,
Among the hardest survival.
Learn from these streets, it can be bleak,
Except no defeat, surrender retreat
So we struggling, fighting to eat and
We wondering when we’ll be free,
So we patiently wait, for that fateful day,
It’s not far away, so for now we say
When I get older, I will be stronger,
They’ll call me freedom, just like a Waving Flag,
And then it goes back, and then it goes back,
And then it goes back…
These are lyrics from Wavin’ Flag, the hit song by Somali-born music artist, K’naan. Born Keinan Abdi Warsame, K’naan (along with his mother and his two siblings) fled war-torn Mogadishu when he was 12 years old; the family ultimately settled in Toronto, Canada along with his father.
Hip-hop music was one of the vehicles through which K’naan learned to speak English, listening to artists such as Nas and Rakim. He cites, however, Somali music as being among his primary creative influences. One would also imagine that his grandfather (a famous Somali poet), his aunt (a well-known Somali singer), and his first hand experience with atrocity and survival have also had a significant impact on his music. Writing for MP3.com, Jim Welte described K’naan’s sound as one that “fuses Bob Marley, conscious American hip-hop, and brilliant protest poetry.”
Wavin’ Flag, K’naan’s most famous song to date, was not only chosen as the anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, it also inspired his first children’s picture book: When I Get Older: The Story Behind “Wavin’ Flag” (Tundra Books, 2012). It relates the story of K’naan’s life before leaving Somalia and after, and is described as “a tribute to growing up, and believing in the future,” a concept certainly worth reinforcing to youth everywhere. It is because of this literary value that we celebrate the book and its author, K’naan, on Day 21 of 28 Days Later.
“There is an elegant simplicity in … K’naan’s telling of his story. It is an immigrant story many, many Canadian children will know personally…. Rudy Gutierrez, whose work is sometimes described as ‘musical’, provides lively, flowing illustrations to complement K’naan’s text. The emotional highs and lows of K’naan’s tale are captured in Gutierrez’s colour and composition…. And one last brilliant feature to this attractive book are the endpapers filled with images of countries’ flags. Hopefully every child reading this book will find the waving flag of his or her homeland.”
—Canadian Children’s Book News
“Somali-Canadian musician K’naan’s first children’s book tells the inspirational story of [K’naan’s] immigration to Canada…. K’naan uses accessible yet poetic language to draw in young readers, exploring his adjustment to Canada and how music kept him connected to his family. Gutierrez’s artwork powerfully conveys a new immigrant’s sense of alienation.”
To learn more about K’naan, visit his website here.
To purchase When I Get Older: The Story Behind “Wavin’ Flag”, click here.
“We are an oral people. We are innately oral people. That is why we are such great storytellers.” Mildred Pitts Walter
Have you ever met someone who you know has the ability to provide real answers to history through their life experiences instead of what’s been relayed in history books? And, if you had an opportunity to sit at that person’s feet, and just listen, you’d have a better understanding of who you are, and what you can become? If not, today is your lucky day.
Born on September 9, 1922, in DeRidder, Louisiana, to a log cutter and a beautician, Mildred Pitts Walter has seen, and experienced, many of the things we’ve only read about. Ironically, books were something scarce to her since segregation not only infiltrated her church and school, but even visiting the public library was against the law for African Americans. But the opportunity to bring a change presented itself, and, as we all know, in order to have something we’ve never had before, we must do things we’ve never done before. We’re so glad she took a leap of faith.
A speaker, a frontline author of diverse books, and a teacher who also trained Freedom Fighters, this is her story.
In her words. At 92 years old.
On this 20th day of February, 2015, it is an honor for The Brown Bookshelf to present a vanguard in children’s literature.
MILDRED PITTS WALTER
When I began writing in the 60’s, there were very few books by and about Africans American for children. The most positive one that was widely read by all children, was a Snowy Day by Ezra Keats. I was at the time an elementary teacher in an all black school in Los Angeles. I felt very strongly that if my children were to become aware of themselves, and develop self-esteem, they need books that told their experiences.
There was a publishing company, Ward Ritchie Press in Los Angeles, and I knew one of the board members. I spoke to him about the need of books for my children and that he should find African American authors to write them. There were very few: Dubois, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, Lorenz Graham and Arna Botemps. The Crisis Magazine, whose main editor was W.E.B. Dubois published most of these artists. When I asked for books by the Los Angeles publisher, he said,” Write them.”
I was not a writer, I knew about writers, only. I felt I could not write. He insisted. I wrote Lillie of Watts, A Birthday Discovery. The book received good reviews and I became a writer. During the sixties, President John put fort efforts to bring about diversity. He gave money to publishers to reprint famous African Americans authors and find new writers. Therefore, publishing books for our children became profitable; I became a successful children’s book writer.
I begin a manuscript with an idea. I realized early that to mirror real life was not enough. To challenge the reader and go beyond entertainment the writer has not only to tell what is, but what can possibly be. Therefore my task is to summon characters willing to reveal their past, present and a strong indication of what was ahead for them in the future. I had to know every detail that set in motion the actions and reactions that led to the moment of crisis or decision. I spend time with the idea and without an outline I begin, keeping in mind that I must listen to the characters and stay in tune with them with just enough control so that there will be creative results. I have a room set aside for creation. My revisions come with an editor.
The people whose works inspire me are: Writers: Coffee Awooner ( Ghanaian poet) Mary and Franklin Folsom, Eloise Greenfield, Patricia Mckissick, James Baldwin; Actors: Ossie Davis Ruby Dee Davis, S Pearl Sharp; Van Tile Whitfield; Musicians: Beethoven, The Black Mozart, Randy Western, Bobby Blue Bland.
Many of my books have been honored with awards. The Christopher Award; National Council of Social Studies Carter G. Woodson Award; Jane Adams Honor Book Award; and for the books we have buzzed here, including Justin and the Best Biscuits In the World, that received the American Library Association Coretta Scott Award in 1987.
Publisher’s Weekly’s review of Justin and the Best Biscuits In the World: …Refreshing, likable characters, an exciting rodeo and a history of the black cowboys combine to create a very special story.”
Publisher’s Weekly review of SUITCASE: …Readers will cheer for Xander as he develops his talents, manages to please both his father and himself, and sends his self-doubt packing. Ages 8-up
Publisher’s Weekly review of MISSISSIPPI CHALLENGE: Walter, said PW, “painstakingly documents the courageous struggle of African Americans in Mississippi to overcome pervasive racism and win their economic and political rights.” Ages 12-up. (Jan.)
Publisher’s Weekly review of THE SECOND DAUGHTER: Walter (Mississippi Challenge) treats fiction as the handmaiden of history and politics in this fact-based story, drawing from research about Mum Bett, a Massachusetts slave who successfully sued for her freedom shortly after the Revolutionary War. Ages 12-up. (Feb.)
BOOKS BY MILDRED PITTS WALTER
Brother to the Wind; Have A Happy; My Mama Needs Me; Ray and the Best Family Reunion Ever; Suitcase; Justin and the Best Biscuits in the World;
Kwanzaa, A family Affair; Darkness; Two and Two Much
Mariah Loves Rock; Mariah Keeps Cool*; Mississippi Challenge*; Ty’s One-Man-Band; Trouble’s Child; Because We Are; Lillie Of Watts, A Birthday Discovery; Lillie of Watts Takes a Giant Step
Second Daughter; Girl On The Outside *; Liquid Trap*; Alec’s Primer;
*Out of print
Foreign print: Ma Maman a Besoin de Moi (My Mama Needs Me) (Korean publication)
In spite of the fact that African Americans buy books that have meaning to their experiences, less than 1`% of books by and about African Americans is printed.
There is a serious need for diversity, books for all people of color.
As an extra bonus, watch this incredible video of Mildred Pitts Walter, inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame :
The Power of Perseverance, by C. Taylor-Butler
The Inspiration for the Story
I’m a child of science fiction.I grew up on Star Trek, Lost in Space, The Twilight Zone, and Outer Limits. I buried my head in Alfred Hitchcock anthologies and Ray Bradbury stories. I was the weird nerd kid who loved math, science and puzzles, but grew up in a neighborhood where I had to hide being smart. Then I went to MIT to study engineering and found myself surrounded by nerds who were Big Bang Theory decades before there was a television show. I still meet children who, years later, think they are outliers. So I was inspired to write a book about a kid who dreams of playing basketball and sees it as his ticket out of his monotonous suburban neighborhood, until he is given a challenge by his uncle and finds himself at the center of a larger mystery. My file cabinet and hard drives are filled with real-life mysteries scientists have yet to solve. I’m intrigued by unbreakable codes and puzzles. I love conspiracy theories about why there are odd monuments scattered across the globe. In a sense, in writing Tribes I was telling myself a story and letting the characters take me on an adventure. I wrote it for children who are left out of the inner circles of many popular books and have no real characters to call their own. I knew ancient civilizations such as the Maya and Sumerians were doing complex math and science long before the Europeans. One one day I stumbled on to a book about hieroglyphics and that became the beginnings of my character’s journey.
I’m not a fan of simple stories with neat and tidy resolutions. While in the throes of writing Tribes I told one of my editors at Scholastic Magazine how much my family had loved Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials Trilogy. The editor, Dara Sharif, introduced me to the works of L.A. Banks whose adult paranormal series at St. Martin’s Press was addictive. She was a gloriously detailed researcher who drew vivid scenes set in real places and based many of her character’s belief systems on real world religions. Her books are definitely not for kids, but I found in her a kindred spirit and she was a very gracious person to talk to. She passed away and I think it’s a loss for the world. Her advice on craft should have been recorded for those who follow in her footsteps. What works for me about Pullman’s and Bank’s works are the multiple “tribes” they write about and how adept both are at maintaining distinct voices and behavioral patterns for each one. I also took class with Tess Gerritsen one year and realized her method of creating voice was a good template for me to follow. To give myself permission to write scenes out of order and explore character motivations without worrying about where it all fit. That allowed me to explore each of my characters – even the adult ones – in more depth even if those passages might not make it into the book. Like the rhythms in music, I included a variety of voices in the ensemble cast to allow each reader to find someone they could identify with on an emotional level.
It took a village to raise this author. My journey started with the Highlights Foundation. In 2001, I attended their week long writing conference in Chautauqua, NY. I was assigned to work with James Cross Giblin who had written a nonfiction book, “The Riddle Of The Rosetta Stone.” Poor guy. I arrived with a huge binder of science facts and twenty chapters of my fantastical adventure. I regaled him with stories about all the interesting things the characters would do and how they got from point A to point B. He said, “This is fascinating. But what is the story about?”
I was confused by that question. As a new author I thought I’d had a handle on the plot, but I needed a deeper understanding of my character’s conflicts and motivations. Still, he told a colleague, Patti Gauch, that I was on to something.
My second “victim” was Jerry Spinelli, Newbery Award winning author of Maniac Magee and amazingly patient guy. During the course of the week he gave me advice that turned out to be prophetic. I worried that no one would buy a book featuring children of various ethnic backgrounds. He told me to stop worrying about the market and write the book I truly cared about. He said “That’s the only book that matters.”
That year, I enrolled in “The Heart of the Novel”, a Highlights workshop with Patti Gauch who has mentored a number of award winning authors. After editing several chapters and giving me writing challenges to ponder, she asked. “What’s the book about?” I told her about the fantastical adventures and how my character solved the mysteries that unfolded and she looked “perplexed. “No,” she said. “That’s what happens to the character, but it’s not what the book is about. It’s about a boy who wants his uncle’s approval and is never going to get it.”
I stopped cold. In such a simple summary she had nailed the emotional arc of my book. It was right there on the page. But I didn’t have the language to describe it. From there I made the edits to refine the trajectory. Patti called the writing “skilled and confident.”
Still, year after year I had no takers. I had a lot of compliments including “very well written,” and “fun and exciting.” I also had a lot of detractors that included, “The character isn’t likeable,” or “No market for a book like this.” One editor was honest enough to admit that such a book would be housed in the African American section of a bookstore which would kill its sales.
Bernette Ford, CEO of ColorBridge Books acquired five of my books for very young readers for various clients. When she heard of my distress regarding Tribes and its lack of acceptance in publishing she said, “Keep going until you find the editor who understands what you are doing.” Dara Sharif said the same thing. And so did many teachers and librarians I’d encountered – so many in fact – that I needed a page to acknowledge them. One year, a librarian, Anitra Steele, ran a list of books in print and mailed it to me with a note that said, “I can’t find anything like what you are doing. Keep going.”
I met my current editor, Eileen Robinson, when she was at Children’s Press. She asked me to write nonfiction for her beginner reader series and I declined. I wasn’t skilled in that market. But if you’ve ever met Eileen she’s a feisty spitfire of a person and she doesn’t take no for an answer. That “push” proved to be prophetic as non-fiction became a career boost for me. I went on to publish almost eighty books, most nonfiction, but every editor I’ve ever worked with knew that Tribes was “my one true love.”
Years later, Eileen left Scholastic. She read the manuscript and suggested colleagues who acquired middle grade works. But by then I was burnt out on rejections. Honestly, the sometimes snarky comments from editors can be soul crushing. As was their the constant underlying reminder that white children won’t read a book that features kids of color so what was the point of taking it to acquisitions? So I thanked Eileen but declined her offer of help and put the series in a drawer. I took it out only to do a workshop with Jane Yolen. Over the course of a weekend Jane and two librarian’s from Chicago asked, “Why isn’t this sold yet?” The librarians said “We have boys looking for books like this right now.” And I said, “I’m now writing this book for me.” and told them most major publishers reiterated that there was no market for a book like this. Jane offered her assistance, my agents (plural) didn’t follow up. So I left them. It was liberating.
A few more years passed and Eileen started Move Books. She called and said “Send me that middle grade manuscript.” In fact, she was emphatic about it. And as I said, when Eileen wants something she doesn’t back down until she gets it. She didn’t strike me as the science fiction sort but I said, “Okay.” She said she still remembered it after all these years and felt passionate about it. She sent it out to beta readers for a second opinion – middle grade librarians. I put a fake name on the book so no one could research my publication background. I wanted an unbiased opinion. The assessments came back positive. One librarian even line edited the book and pointed out things she loved about it, places where she laughed, and places where students would have questions. And so the book was acquired. In fact, Move Books took the entire series.
Here’s how I knew Move was “the one” in terms of publishers. When it came time to edit, Eileen asked “What does this mean?” and “Is this important?” She was careful to understand what something meant, or what breadcrumbs I was dropping for the next books. She understood every joke, every change in speech pattern and every nuance. And when asked to cut pages I used advice I’d gotten from seasoned authors like Gregory Maguire and Linda Sue Park and let go of my affection for the scenes and decided to be ruthless. Eileen put some of the cuts back in and said “You can’t cut that. It’s too important to the story.” or “That eliminates the set up for the next mystery.” She said “just tighten so that every word matters.” My edits at Patti’s workshop had gone the same way. I’d cut or change something and she’d ponder it and sometimes she’d say, “No. I think I liked it better the way you had it.” (Not all the time, mind you, but occasionally she would hand me a “win” and I’m better for the tutoring because I was able to submit a tight draft.)
Move Books did me the honor of selecting Patrick Arrasmith as the illustrator. He is just as passionate about the series and he’s a genius with scratchboard. We let him play with the imagery and I’ve been blown away with how the art expands my ideas. The full cover reveal is beyond beautiful.
After almost 14 years of hard work, endless submissions and rejections, I found the editor who understood me and realized that the book mattered in the greater scheme of things for a child of color wanting a book that let them see themselves as heroes.
Kirkus Reviews said, “Well-written and well-paced: a promising start to what should be an exciting and unusual sci-fi series.” (Science fiction. 10-14)
It’s getting better for mainstream books about children of color. But the industry is still not there yet. I take solace in the fact that there are more mainstream television shows being celebrated and they are leading the way. I hope that success model extends to publishing. One where we can eschew the race based angst and stop assuming every child of color lives in impoverished crime filled areas in favor of a broader definition of their lives. They live and dance to multiple rhythms. Their lives and environments are not ubiquitous. Shouldn’t those children be reflected in the upper bandwidth of life’s journeys?
can be found here and
The Lost Tribes online.
Life in Motion Photo Credit Gregg Delman
Children’s literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop says that books have the power to be mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. Firebird (Putnam, 2014), the award-winning picture book written by American Ballet Theater soloist Misty Copeland and illustrated by Christopher Myers, is a beautiful celebration of that truth. In her children’s book debut, Misty shares the touching story of a girl whose faith in her dancing dreams falters until she meets a reflection of who she can be.
Entering the world of ballet at 13, Misty looked for images of herself too. Through her talent, commitment and passion, she became the third African American soloist in the history of the American Ballet Theater. The previous black soloist had danced two decades before. Where was her mirror? Misty found it in pioneering ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a soloist of the 1950s Ballet Russe.
Firebird, the title role Misty played in the ballet of the same name, is a love letter to kids who see a “longer than forever” distance between where they are and the soaring heights they can reach. Misty’s poetic story soothes and inspires, affirms and applauds.
We are honored to spotlight Misty Copeland on Day 18:
How did your beautiful picture book, Firebird, come to be? Please share your path to publication. What were the toughest and most rewarding moments?
The children’s book was actually the first idea. I love working with kids and mentoring young people so the children’s book was going to be an extension of my desire to bring the performing arts and classical ballet to kids. My amazing editor, Stacey Barney, who’d been talking about a children’s book with my manager, happened to be meeting with Christopher Myers who mentioned that he’d wanted to find a way for us to work together. I think it was meant to be, this wonderful collaboration. Chris and I got to know one another throughout my writing process and the creation of his illustrations. I came to know more about him as an illustrator and he grew to know me as a ballerina and emerging writer. He even came to some of my performances and got to know my mentor, the legendary ballerina Raven Wilkinson. It was out of the beautiful mentoring relationship between Raven and me that the story throughout the pages of FIREBIRD was written and evolved.
Your lyrical style and voice, full of emotion and authenticity, draws readers in right away. How did your life journey inform and shape your book? Why was it important to tell that story?
From the time that I started taking ballet classes at the age of 13, there has been interest in my story. I understand because I am considered an “unlikely ballerina.” But rather than allow my differences to be an obstacle, I decided to stand up and be an example of what can happen when you’re committed to doing something that you love. So many young girls and women of color before and since me have been told that ballet isn’t for them. By telling my story and being on the stage, I hope that ballet will be seen as a possibility and a world in which they can exist and thrive, both on the stage and behind the scenes.
Your letter to the reader is lovely and meaningful. There’s a lot of buzz right now about diversity in children’s books. Your book shows why it matters. Could you expand on this quote: “But when I opened up ballet books, I didn’t see myself. I saw an image of what a ballerina should be, and she wasn’t me, brown with tendrils sweeping her face. I need to find ME. This book is you and me . . .” How does your book expand “the idea of beauty and art”? How does it empower ballerinas with big dreams?
I think that our life choices often reflect how we see ourselves and if we see ourselves. It’s important to see a living, breathing person who is on a path that may be similar to your own. I remember when I discovered Raven Wilkinson, I felt as if I’d found a missing piece of myself. I identified with her as a black woman and a ballerina. Today, it makes a difference to have her and so many other strong, successful, black women in my life who lift me up when I feel like I can’t do it on my own. It’s their encouragement and support that often keeps me going. That’s what I hope FIREBIRD might do for little girls who need to see a reflection of themselves in such a beautiful, inspiring way.
Your book has won many accolades including starred reviews and landing on best lists. How do you measure literary success? What achievements and experiences have made you most proud?
I measure literary success by young people and/or their parents telling me that the book really spoke to them or they were able to take something from it and use it within their own lives. Or better yet, they’ve started or returned to taking ballet classes. And even better, they bought a ticket to see a ballet. All of that says success to me because in the end, this has never been about me, rather raising awareness about the beauty of ballet.
What do you hope young people take away from your story?
Hope. Perseverance. I hope that they take away that all things are possible when you give it your all.
What’s next for you as a children’s book author?
I’ve enjoyed this journey so much and working with Chris has been truly amazing. Right now, I’m incredibly busy with my ballet career, learning several new roles, but I’d love to do another children’s book. In the meantime, I’m still focused on spreading the word about FIREBIRD.
What’s your greatest joy?
Dancing is my greatest joy. Being on the stage or in the rehearsal studio is where I release.
The Buzz on Firebird:
2015 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award
2015 Ezra Jack Keats Honor Award for Writing
Essence Magazine Best Children’s Book of 2014
“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
“Ballet dancer Misty Copeland makes her children’s book debut with this inspiring love letter to young people, containing breathtaking illustrations of airborne dancers by Caldecott Honor artist Christopher Myers… Brava!”
—Shelf Awareness, starred review
Learn more about Misty Copeland here.
Betty K. Bynum is a woman who dreams big. Plans big. Achieves big. Her dreams of acting resulted in parts in ER, Law & Order, and Death At A Funeral. She is also a journalist, a screenwriter, and a playwright. One day, Betty recognized the lack of diverse books featuring children of color. So she turned her dreams toward writing children’s books.
“The I’m A Girl Collection” is the result of her efforts. When she could not find a publisher who was on board with her vision, Betty stepped up and published the first book herself. Most authors who venture into publishing face the almost insurmountable task of distribution. Betty found the Target Corporation. Now her book, I’m a Pretty Little
Black Girl is sold in Target stores nationwide and online. It features Mia, an African American girl. Betty is the consummate entrepreneur. She designed tee shirts for little girls. But shirts didn’t satisfy Betty.
What does every little girl wish for? A gorgeous doll of course. That was Betty’s next step. She collaborated with doll maker Madame Alexander, who has licensing deals with Disney, Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Fancy Nancy, Pinkalicious, and Angelina Ballerina.
An 18-inch Mia debuted at the North American International Toy Fair in NY yesterday. The Toy Fair is a national event with over 26,000 toy professional attendees in 2014. Of course, Betty traveled to New York to introduce Mia to the masses.
Her message is simple. The I’m A Girl Collection celebrates——YOU!
You can read more about Betty and her projects at The I’m A Girl Collection.
Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks
When we put out the nominations call for this year’s 28 Days Later Campaign, there was one name that flooded the comments section more than any other: Tonya Cherie Hegamin.
Hegamin began life as a resident of Westchester, PA, but later relocated to Rochester, NY. She earned her MFA in Writing for Children from the New School University in 2003. As an Assistant Professor at the City University of New York, Medgar Evers College, Hegamin currently teaches Children’s Literature, Fiction Writing, and Composition. In 2010, her picture book, Most Loved in All the World, won the NYPL’s Ezra Jack Keats award. She is also the author of three young adult novels: M+O 4EVR, Pemba’s Song, and her most recent, Willow (Candlewick Press, 2014).
Hegamin’s passion for young people extends beyond the literary; she has served thousands of young people as a crisis counselor, rights advocate, and sexual health educator as well. On day 16, The Brown Bookshelf shines its spotlight on author Tonya Cherie Hegamin.
I’ve always been inspired by Virginia Hamilton—she was the model for successful black women in the publishing world for a big chunk of time and I think she will always be a writer who I strive to emulate in terms of depth and breadth of work. Her husband, Arnold Adoff has been another mentor/inspiration to me since my first picture book, Most Loved In All the World. He’s the one I’ve turned to again and again not just for his experience the industry, but for his commitment to the expression of language. His ear for word craft is impeccable, and he is still the best person to talk to when I question being a writer. My other inspiration is E.B. Lewis. He would listen to me read drafts of Willow for hours on the phone while he was painting. He was the first person to believe in that book when it was only twenty five pages and he wouldn’t let me quit. I am so grateful to him for that! My other inspiration is Tove Jansson. Although she is completely different from me as a writer, I’ve read almost all of her work (Moomins and her adult writing) and I am in awe in how she constructs story in such a care-free way. She and her partner, graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä were out and proud before lesbianism was acceptable in public; they both were courageous and powerful artistic humans who never let anyone change them.
Willow sprouted from a lot of my research for M+O 4Evr and Pemba’s Song. I found books (like Slaves Without Masters by Ira Berlin) about those who “managed themselves” while the master was gone, and even those who feared leaving their sheltered lives in the South. I also read a great book called Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad by Betty DeRamus. I researched historical figures like Mary A. Shadd who wrote A Plea for Emigration (she grew up and was educated in Delaware and Pennsylvania, but led a campaign urging former slaves to Canada for freedom). Then I researched accounts of freed men and women who would travel south to help others over the Mason Dixon line and escape enslavement. Finally, in my own family history we have more than one account of my enslaved ancestors being related to their owners. One great-great-grandmother even sued her white father after the Civil War! The question of what would make someone stay and willingly subjugate themselves and what would motivate one to leave a seemingly ‘comfortable’ life that rendered you powerless was always in my mind. It became a perfect storm of “what if” that all writers chase for a good book.
Under The Radar
I’d have to say that even more than people who are being “traditionally” published, I believe my students’ writing is the best undiscovered talent I know. Many of my students are writing amazing fiction and creative non-fiction that is so raw and fresh. They are living the world that others are being paid gobs of money to write about. I had a student who wrote a children’s book about a boy with Autism who makes a friend who doesn’t care what other people say. She wrote it so she could share it with the kids she teaches. Another student wrote about a dystopia where kids who are dynamic because of their differences were the only ones who could survive. They write for the joy of it and the need to set their hearts free. I hope they all continue to hone their craft, if simply to create stories that aren’t being told, and sharing it with kids who aren’t being remembered by the industry.
State of the Industry
Perhaps you detect the cynicism in my tone? I do believe that the children’s book industry is saturated with people who churn out the same stuff (I might also be one of them). I don’t think it’s because we writers can’t think of anything new, it’s just that what is marketable and what we really need are two different things. Although I see the merit of the intentions of the Common Core pedagogy, I also know that there will be another educational evolution in the next few years and our ideas about literacy and books for young people will shift yet again, hopefully ever for the better. I think that the future of diversity is inclusion; diversity is quantitative, inclusion is qualitative. We have to take personal steps to stop labeling people as different and embrace them for who they are. The industry is concerned with numbers, not hugs. Companies only shift marketing practices for new demographics when there’s a profit. The more we each demand to be recognized and included there is always possibility for positive change.
For more information on Tonya Cherie Hegamin, please visit her website.
Ms. Ringgold is a painter, writer, speaker, mixed media sculptor and performance artist. She lives and works in Englewood, New Jersey.
By Faith Ringgold
I always wanted to be a writer, but never knew I would be. I was an artist, even as a child I knew that. Could I be two things? I don’t think most people think of pursuing two professions simultaneously, but they could. People are constantly asking me, now that they know I am a published author, if I have given up painting. And when I began to make paintings in the quilt format they wanted to know if I had given up painting and even before that when I had made masks and sculptures and did performances they wanted to know if I had given up painting. Why do we have to give up something to have something more? We don’t is the answer. We can have all our dreams and often times all we have to do is reach up and grab them, and hold on while we work hard to make them our own.
Kids often want to know about Faith Ringgold’s writing process:
About the Writing Process:
The first step is the idea for the story. When Ms. Ringgold has an idea for a story, she writes it down and practices telling it to her husband, daughters, friends and everyone that may want to hear it. She becomes comfortable with the story and makes it her own by telling and retelling it many times. Ms. Ringgold’s story changes a little during each telling until it’s just right. When the story is finished it’s divided up to fit onto a designated number of pages. There could be anywhere from 1 to 40 pages (there would need to be 1 – 40 sections of text) depending on the project.
The sections of text are placed at the bottom of new blank pieces of textured paper. A practice drawing is made (in a seperate sketchbook) to illustrate each section of text. The paintings are made on the textured pages and are based on the practice drawings. The finished drawings and story are sent to the publisher for printing and distribution to book stores, libraries and young students like you.
About the Book: The Harlem Renaissance Party (Amistad, 2015)
Caldecott Honor artist Faith Ringgold takes readers on an unforgettable journey through the Harlem Renaissance when Lonnie and his uncle Bates go back to Harlem in the 1920s. Along the way, they meet famous writers, musicians, artists, and athletes, from Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois to Josephine Baker and Zora Neale Hurston and many more, who created this incredible period. And after an exciting day of walking with giants, Lonnie fully understands why the Harlem Renaissance is so important.
Faith Ringgold’s bold and vibrant illustrations capture the song and dance of the Harlem Renaissance while her story will captivate young readers, teaching them all about this significant time in our history. A glossary and further reading list are included in the back of the book, making this perfect for Common Core.
“Black Pride is Strong in this homage.” -Kirkus
Read her blog at: http://faithringgold.blogspot.com/
Katheryn and Little Melba (top shelf) at Barnes & Noble in Emeryville, CA (Dec. 2014)
As a child, Katheryn Russell-Brown remembers enjoying books like The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats and cherishing the coloring book, Color Me Brown. Her mother made sure she saw affirming images of herself. When Katheryn became a mom, she wanted the same for her twins. “I was determined that they were going to have realistic and interesting images of themselves reflected in our home library, ” she wrote in this Brown Bookshelf post. As she collected books featuring brown children, she began dreaming about writing them herself.
Katheryn’s debut picture book about pioneering trombonist and arranger Melba Liston, Little Melba and Her Big Trombone (illustrated by Frank Morrison, published by Lee & Low) was inspired by listening to Nancy Wilson rave about her work on a radio program. For Katheryn, professor of law and director of the Center for Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida, raising awareness of Melba’s work became a mission. She used her expert research skills and gift of writing to create a winning story that has been featured on many best lists and has received multiple honors and starred reviews.
Here Katheryn shares her inspiration, children’s writing journey and creative process:
The Journey & Backstory
Patience and perseverance. I had to rely on both of these throughout the years-long process of finding an agent and publisher for my first children’s book. Patience is the key to getting through the process. What was particularly unnerving was the wait after sending out query letters. Most times the response was by snail mail—a form letter that basically said thanks but no thanks. Sometimes the rejection came in e-mail form. A few responses came quickly, but sometimes I didn’t hear back for months. Then there are those agents and publishers who never, ever responded to my query letter. With each rejection I dusted off my bruised feelings and kept going—believing that someone would “get” my story and see its potential. It also helped that I had a mentor, a published children’s book writer, who kept encouraging me to send out my manuscript. After a few months of mostly silence, I started hearing back from agents who expressed a little interest. Ultimately I went with Adriana Dominguez at Full Circle Literary. She was very knowledgeable about the business of children’s book publishing and she expressed sincere interest in working with me as I develop and grow as a writer of children’s books. She has been fantastic to work with.
Here are a few things that fill me with inspiration to write for children (and make me feel good):
- Any song on Earth Wind & Fire’s “Spirit” album (1976)
- Dinah Washington’s voice
- An amazing art exhibit, such as Kara Walker’s “Sugar Sphinx”
- An incredibly blue sky with translucent clouds
- Seeing a young child hold and read a book
- Listening to “Sketches of Spain” by Miles Davis
- Reading a beautiful and touching book, such as Bebe Moore Campbell’s Sweet Summer
- Picture book art. Frank Morrison somehow managed to bring Little Melba to life in ways that I could not have imagined. Simply divine.
I’ve only published one children’s book. So, I can’t say that I have my process down to a science. I have, however, written non-fiction books for adults (on race and the criminal justice system). Also, I’ve written a few other children’s stories that have not been published.
I keep different journals. One is for story ideas. Another is for expressions, words, phrases, etc., that I’ve come across—maybe from a newspaper article or from a story I’ve heard on the radio—something I might use in a future story. Once I select a topic, I start gathering information. I always keep a journal for the book I’m working on. In this journal I write and clip any information or research on my topic area. Also, any books or other resources that I can use, or people who I may want to contact to ask some questions about the topic or person I am writing about.
When I finally begin to write the story, I will have a general outline of how the book should go, from beginning to middle, to end. However, I don’t limit myself to a set number of words. I just write! I save the editing for later. This is my “big pot” approach. I put all my words into the pot (onto the page) and then, after the pot is full, I start to take things out that don’t (or can’t fit) the story I’m telling.
After I have a solid draft—a completed story—I take it to my local Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) group for feedback. Then I edit some more. And, I edit, edit, edit, edit, edit…..
Little Melba has been welcomed with open arms. I’m thrilled that it has
Six-time Tony Award winner Audra MacDonald holding Little Melba (September 2014).
found a home on several Best-of-2014 book lists, including Kirkus Reviews, the School Library Journal, the Huffington Post, and the Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature. The book also received a 2014 Eureka Honor Book Award (California Reading Association). And, Little Melba has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award for “Outstanding Literary Work, Children.” This nomination is particularly meaningful to me because my dad, Charlie L. Russell, won an NAACP Image Award in 1973 for writing the screenplay for his movie, “Five on the Black Hand Side.”
Find out more about Katheryn Russell-Brown on her website.
Jan Spivey Gilchrist is an award-winning author, illustrator, fine artist, and lecturer. She is the illustrator of numerous children’s books including, THE GREAT MIGRATION: JOURNEY TO THE NORTH, written by Eloise Greenfield; NATHANIEL TALKING, written by Eloise Greenfield; and MY AMERICA, written by herself with illustrations by Ashley Bryan.
Outstanding features and reviews of her work have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Defender, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, L.A Times and US Today, Chicago Sun-times (Kup’s Column) and Ebony Magazine, etc. as well as television and radio.
Her awards include the Coretta Scott King Award for Nathaniel Talking, and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book forNight on Neighborhood Street.
This year, The Brown Bookshelf would like to introduce a new profile — the “Up and Comer.” In this space, we recognize a children’s book creator “who has made a significant contribution to the world of children books before publication.” We’re delighted to welcome educator, activist, and author Jackie Wellington as our first Up-and-Comer honoree, and as you’ll see below, significant doesn’t even begin to describe it.
How did your teaching lead to your writing of fiction?
I am a writer who was raised in a Jamaican family. If you know anything about the culture, you’d know education is important and writing is not a “worshipped” profession. Doctors, Lawyers, teachers are notable aspirations for a child growing up on a small Caribbean island. Chef, writer, and artist, not so much. So I did what was expected. I graduated high school, joined the Army, and attended college.
For years I taught. Math was my specialty, but I was great in reading and language arts. I worked with students with disabilities. Most of them, if not all, were reluctant readers. Bribing them to pick up a book was my secret weapon. My students never had books. So whatever skill I taught, I wrote stories to supplement the curriculum. Then I had an idea.
One day, I watched my students in the cafeteria. They were loud as usual, trying to figure out who did what. Who was responsible for something? Eavesdropping, I already solved the problem, but they were still baffled. At that moment, I decided they would be the characters in a lesson on logical reasoning.
I wrote a story, each of them had a role to play. I had to allow their personna to shine. My class clown had to be the funny one which was difficult for someone like me to write since I do not consider myself a humorist. They had to work together to solve the problem. It was a hit! They all wanted to be the star of the story. So I created my own curriculum and integrated stories in Math, Language Arts, and Social Studies. Then one of my student said, “Miss, you are good at this…you should write books!” That was years ago.
Why and where did you see the need?
There is a need for diverse books – picture books, middle grade, and young adult. I would like to see more children being represented in picture books. There are many animal characters. Children need to see themselves early on as they embark on the journey of reading. I have to admit, I never paid attention to the characters until I taught. In Jamaica, we got books from America and England. When I was seven, I read every Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Bobsie Twins. While Nancy was traveling to Arizona to solve mysteries on a ranch, I was going to the beach, sipping coconut water, and eating Jerk Chicken from the side of the road. The fact that Nancy did not look like me did not bother me at all. But in America, your race enable people to form opinions about you. On my island, race is second nature. We are Jamaicans, a mixture of people from all over the world.
What was the response from your students?
My students like to see themselves in books. Whether they are solving mysteries, jumping through obstacles, or slaying dragons, each of them want to be the victor. The hero. The problem solver. The adventurer.
Tell us a bit about the #ReadSameReadDifferent campaign.
The purpose of #ReadSameReadDiffernt campaign is to expose readers to the creativity of underrepresented authors in the Kidlit industry. This is not about Blacks, Whites, Latinas/Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, or any other ethnic groups. This is about books. Children. Reading. And exposing. One goal – to get great books into the hands of children of all races, cultures, and socio-economic groups. This is embracing #DIVERSITY and #MULTICULTURALISM.
This campaign is not complex. I love it because it gives me the opportunity to do what I love – READ BOOKS! I read a lot of books and then I pair them with books written by diverse authors. For instance, one of the books I loved last year was A DANCE LIKE STARLIGHT written by Kristy Dempsey and illustrated by Floyd Cooper. This book is a picture book about a little girl who dreams of becoming a ballerina. I can take this book and pair it with MY FRIEND MAYA LOVES TO DANCE by Cheryl Willis Hudson or MOON OVER STAR by Dianna Hutts Aston. I can take HARRY POTTER and pair it with HOW LAMAR’S BAD PRANK WON A BUBBA-SIZED TROPHY.
People say, “Those books don’t go together.” I beg to differ. They are related in many ways beneath the surface. So my job is to convince others why these books are wonderful pairings. I am loving reading new books.By the way, it is time to update the list.
I hope this campaign will enable the industry to extinguish the myth that Black folks don’t read. Books are ways to escape. And everyone deserve the opportunity to escape into a world far from his own. A world where mysteries need to be evaluated, adventures need to be explored, and fantasies need to be encountered.
Tell us about your journey to publication so far.
I am new in the writing game. I have been taking some writing classes, honing my craft. I am paired with some awesome mentors. I did find an agent. I have some stories in revision mode. I guess I am at the point where I am paying my dues, but I have time. I’ve only been writing for one year. So I have time.
What stories do you most want to tell?
I most want to tell stories that expose readers to unknown African-American heroes. The heroes you do not read about in history books. Heroes such as Walter Morris, the first African-American paratrooper in the Army who forced the Army to integrate. Or Valaida Snow, the musical prodigy who was captured and placed in a Concentration Camp. And what about Mary Ellen Pleasant who went from living in slave shack in the south to a millionaire mansion. Children need to know why these people risk their lives for the betterment of their race.
I also want to write stories and correct history. Correct what we have been taught. I want people to know that the Civil Rights Movement went all the way back to the 1800s. And that the “Mother of the Civil Rights” is not Rosa Parks. These are the stories I want to tell.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I am working on a bunch of projects, mostly picture books. However, I do have a middle grade nonfiction project in the works. I am constantly bonding with librarians and pushing books written by authors of color or books about people of color. I am realizing that being the “Book Advocate” takes time away from writing. I have to find a balance between being an activist and a writer. I want to go on record to say, “Activism is hard work, but writing is harder.”
What are your goals for your writing career?
My goals are to publish stories that will reach a wide audience. I want to write screenplays. And I want to publish a book in all the genres of kidlit. Am I a “Brown Girl Dreaming?”
What are some things that you hope to see happen in the industry?
I want to see a more diverse industry. I want to see the inclusion and representation of all children. And I want to see them in a positive light.
What do you wish editors and publishers knew?
I wish editors and publishers knew what diversity looks like. If you do not sit and mingle with people who do not look like you, then how do you know what our characters are supposed to do and say?
Where the Line Bleeds.
Salvage the Bones.
Men We Reaped: A Memoir.
If you have not been previously acquainted with the work of author Jesmyn Ward, consider today your lucky day.
Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi, a small rural community with which she had a “love-hate relationship”. These hometown experiences have informed each of her three novels to date. While not technically published under the banner of children’s literature, Ward’s novels are particularly suited to the older YA audience due to the ages of the characters and the relevancy of their themes. Her pre-publication literary accomplishments are substantial: an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan (where she received five Hopwood Awards); a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University(2008-2010); a John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at The University of Mississippi (2010-2011). She currently serves as Associate Professor of English at Tulane University.
Shortly after receiving her MFA, Ward and her family were forced to flee their flooding home by Hurricane Katrina. Where the Line Bleeds (Agate Publishing, 2008), Ward’s first published novel, is the story of twin brothers who grow increasingly estranged after one of them begins to sell drugs to assuage the family’s post-Katrina financial burdens. It endured three years of rejection before finding a home at Agate.
The devastation Ward encountered day to day—driving back and forth through ravaged neighborhoods on her way to work at the University of New Orleans—rendered her mentally and emotionally unable to write anything new during the three years it took her first novel to sell. Landing her first book deal, however, inspired Ward to pick up the proverbial pen again. Her renewed efforts produced Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury USA, 2011) which, although roundly ignored by the literary community upon publication, ended up winning the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction. Post-nomination, it was suddenly and profusely well-reviewed. Another rich tale centered around Katrina, Salvage the Bones chronicles twelve days in the lives of a pregnant teen, Esch, her three brothers and her father—the ten days leading up to the storm, the day it hits, and the day after. According to the book’s copy, it is “[a] big-hearted novel about familial love and community against all odds, and a wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty…muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real.”
Men We Reaped: A Memoir (Bloomsbury USA, 2013) is Ward’s most recent book. It is a reflection on her personal experience with the death of five young men in her life (including her brother), the causes ranging from suicide to drugs to accidents to the plain old “bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men.” In a starred review, Kirkus called it “[a]n assured yet scarifying memoir by young, supremely gifted novelist Ward… A modern rejoinder to Black Like Me, Beloved and other stories of struggle and redemption—beautifully written, if sometimes too sad to bear.”
In her acceptance speech for the National Book Award, Ward said this about the motivation behind her writing: “I understood that I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor, and the black and the rural people of the South…so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal, our lives as fraught and lovely and important, as theirs.” This sensibility makes her novels significant mirror and window books for mature teens of all ethnicities and backgrounds.
If you had not been previously acquainted with the work of author Jesmyn Ward, I trust that you will consider today your lucky day. I certainly do.
For the buzz on Men We Reaped: A Memoir, click here.
For the buzz on Salvage the Bones, click here.
For the buzz on Where the Line Bleeds, click here.
For more extensive information on Jesmyn Ward and her books, please visit these article sources:
Author Photo Credit: Adam Johnson
In the summer of 2005, I had the pleasure of meeting Fredrick McKissack. He and his wife, author Patricia McKissack, were teaching and sharing their experiences on how to write for children at a Highlights workshop. He had a fascinating personality and was a gracious host. His work as a researcher was outstanding and informative.
Mr. McKissack discussed his research for Black Hands, White Sails.
He was meticulous, checking and rechecking the finest detail, and traveling to the east coast from their home in St. Louis to visit whaling museums. That book written by his wife won a Coretta Scott King Honor award. It told the story of black sailors on whaling ships. And it showed me the possibilities of writing nonfiction. It remains one of my favorites.
The writing and researching duo published over 100 books. Many won awards including the Coretta Scott King Award, the NAACP Image Award, the Newbery, the C.S. Lewis Medal, the Caldecott Award, the Jane Addams Peace Award, and the Regina Medal.
Mr. McKissack died on April 28, 2013.
Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks
You see his name and picture every month in Essence magazine. Patrik Henry Bass is our trusted voice about African-American books. We count on him for insightful reviews and beautifully-written features.
He has been on the other side of the industry too, writing and editing several acclaimed titles for adults. Lucky us, he has expanded his reach to creating books for kids. The Zero Degree Zombie Zone (Scholastic, 2014), his debut middle-grade adventure novel, debuted in August. Illustrated by Jerry Craft, Publishers Weekly called it “action-packed” and “fast-moving.” The story features friends on a mission to save the world.
We are honored to celebrate Patrik Henry Bass on Day 13. Here he shares his incredible work:
ABOUT PATRIK HENRY BASS
Patrik Henry Bass is an award-winning writer and editor, with an extensive background in publishing covering books, lifestyle and popular culture. Bass currently serves as editorial projects director at Essence Magazine. He has written and edited for a number of publications including The New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, The Washington Post, Time Out New York, Brooklyn Bridge, Entertainment Weekly, Black Enterprise and BET Weekend, where he was a founding editor. Bass is a former board member of The New York Association of Black Journalists (NYABJ) and a member of The National Association of Black Journalists.
Bass, a former adjunct professor at the Arthur Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, is a contributor to The Takeaway with John Hockenberry, a nationally syndicated radio program produced by Public Radio International. He has lectured widely on magazine writing and editing. Bass and photographer and artist Karen Pugh coauthored In Our Own Image: Treasured African-American Traditions, Journeys and Icons (Running Press, 2001). He is also the author of Like A Mighty Stream, The March on Washington, August 28, 1963 (Running Press, 2002).
Bass is also the editor of several books for ESSENCE and Time Inc. Home Entertainment including A Salute to Michelle Obama (2013); LEDISI Better Than Alright: Finding Peace, Love & Power (2013); The Obamas in The White House (2010); and The Obamas: Portrait of America’s New First Family (2009).
The Zero Degree Zombie Zone (Scholastic Press), his first book for middle-grade students was released on August 26, 2014. The book has garnered praise for spotlighting African-American boys as heroes in the fantasy genre.
“I didn’t have a plan. I just wanted to have a life and career that was interesting.”
Bass began his writing career as a reporter for The Carolina Peacemaker in Greensboro in the early 90s. After working there for about six months, Bass knew that being a newspaper reporter was not for him. Covering zoning meetings was uninteresting. Yet, he was intrigued by a reliable source, a woman who worked in city planning who demystified zoning ordinances. Bass said it looked like she was having fun in her job and he liked the interaction with the media so he enrolled at Pratt’s School of Architecture for city planning. Once he started classes at Pratt, he realized he had made a monumental mistake. “I was like a fish on a bicycle,” he said.
One day on campus someone overheard Bass giving a commentary during the American Music Awards and asked if he could write like he talked. He quickly became a columnist for the Prattler newspaper. That opportunity led to a publishing job with The Big Idea, a magazine for UPS Corporation. There Bass learned about deadlines, attention to detail. Best of all, he was able to meet people in the publishing industry.
Many writers lived in his Brooklyn neighborhood at the time, working in publishing by day and writing at night. Bigger things started to happen. Bass began to write about books and publishing on a freelance basis for alternative presses. In late 1999, he came to the attention of editors at Essence Magazine. He landed the job that had played a significant role in the careers of previous books editors for the magazine such as Paula Giddings, Elsie Washington, Benilde Little, and Martha Southgate.
When he took the job at Essence, he had been asked by Running Press to write a book about his family memories and then a book on the historic March on Washington, a topic that also interested the magazine. “My goal for the book was to give the readers an idea of the diversity of race and age of those who attended the march,” said Bass. “The March on Washington was our evolution of the spirit of the country.”
THE ZERO DEGREE ZOMBIE ZONE
Although it took nearly seven years to bear fruit, a lunch meeting in 2007 between Andrea Davis Pinkney, a vice president and executive editor at Scholastic Press, and Patrik Bass, an editorial projects editor at Essence, eventually led to the publication of The Zero Degree Zombie Zone, an adventure story featuring four African American middle-school friends. As they had chatted over their meal, Andrea and Patrik realized that the solution to the sense of frustration they both felt at the lack of children’s books with protagonists of color was right in front of them: Patrik would write a story and Andrea would publish it. They later agreed that Jerry Craft would be the perfect artist to create the book’s illustrations. The Zero Degree Zombie Zone, published in August 2014, tells the story of a day in the life of Bakari Katari Johnson, a shy boy who is coping with everyday bullies when the school is suddenly overrun with zombies. Fortunately, he has three good friends to inspire and assist him, and through some resourcefulness and steadfast courage at a crucial moment, Bakari manages to save the day.
For more extensive information on Patrik Henry Bass and his books, please visit these article sources:
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Wynton Marsalis is a world-renowned trumpeter, composer, and tireless champion of jazz,the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and the winner of nine Grammy Awards. The artistic director
of Jazz at Lincoln Center, he is also the author or two children’s books, SQUEAK, RUMBLE, WHOMP!, WHOMP! WHOMP! (2012) and JAZZ ABZ: An A to Z Collection of Jazz Portraits (2005). Says Marsalis, “When I read books to my kids I always animate the stories with sounds. So I started thinking about how everyday sounds we hear in our homes or on the street relate to the sounds of musical instruments. In this book each sound has two real-life examples, and then the third example is an instrument that makes that same sound.”
Our back door squeeeaks.
A nosy mouse
It’s also how my sister’s
“I hope children will realize that sounds are all around us, they just have to
stop and listen. They are fun. Hopefully they will be inspired to start playing an
instrument, because then they get to make and hear the different sounds and turn it into something beautiful.”
Activities for SQUEAK, RUMBLE, WHOMP!, WHOMP!, WHOMP! can be found here
Booklist, starred review:
“Warm up those vocal chops and get ready for the swingingest read-aloud of the year. The creators of Jazz A B Z (2005) offer here an inventive and inspiring ode to the melodies and rhythms of everyday life. Using juiced-up onomatopoeia and spare rhymes that don’t miss a beat, a young trumpeter (bearing a strong resemblance to the author) catalogs the musical sounds, from traditional instruments to neighborhood noise, of his life in New Orleans: the squeeeak of a screen door, the GRrruMBle of a cookie-craving stomach, the nervy brrrawmp of a jazz trombone slide. With sly nods to the city’s musical heritage as well as jazz greats, Rogers’ pitch-perfect, retro-cool illustrations pop against the white backgrounds and give the text—which highlights the sounds in a red, varyingly sized, often undulating typeface—plenty of room to groove. A spirited entrée into poetry, artistic inspiration, or the improvisational nature of jazz, this needs a little practice to get the cadence just right, but then it will be music to everyone’s ears.”
Kirkus, starred review:
“Onomatopoeic words will challenge readers and delight listeners . . . Rogers’ hip, playfully cartoonish spreads pop with clever visual allusions to jazz tunes and players. Loud and clear, the creators show how tuning into everyday sounds can inspire music. Clap, clap, CLAP!”
School Library Journal, starred review:
This exuberant articulation of sounds both subtle and grandiose is sure to inspire closer listening and creative responses.
Publishers Weekly, starred review:
Electric….This is a must for anyone who has ever been drawn to a scat by Ella or a riff from Miles or who has whirled around the dance floor courtesy of Count Basie. The passion for jazz shared by this book’s creators emanates from every page.”
The New York Times Book Review:
“A witty, stunningly designed alphabet catalog of jazz’s great talents and a demonstration of how visual art has interpreted this interpretive music….A wonderful way to introduce classic jazz and American design to children.”
“Jazz ABZ never ceases to swing. Rogers, who did the gorgeous and lyrical illustrations, is an artist of talent and invention, and the book luxuriates in his taste and skill. The greatest surprise is Marsalis’s smashing poetic verses, which carry the book and describe the immortals so gracefully.”
The New York Post:
“Reads like jazz poetry….Paul Rogers’s illustrations, done in a ’40s
and ’50s jazz-heyday cool style, are worthy of museum walls.”