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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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1. Day 13: Jessixa Bagley

Jessixa Bagley_headshot_small2Jessixa Bagley burst onto the children’s literature stage last year with the debut of her beautiful picture book “Boats For Papa,” a gentle story of loss, healing, and ultimately persevering. Bagley is both author and illustrator. The book has received numerous starred reviews, and it has been widely praised by children, the children’s literature community, and beyond.
Her gentle watercolors are richly detailed, and her characters–a loving family of anthropomorphic beavers–will delight young readers.
I appreciate the generosity Bagley put in to participating in this interview:
Don: Tell us about your path to publishing. How did you get that first trade contract?
Jessixa: It’s been a long road for me to get where I am today, but every step has held a lot of value. I pretty much always wanted to make picture books. Ever since I was a small child, I was writing and drawing my own stories, books, and comics, creating characters and their worlds. Right after graduating college in 2004, I started writing picture books and submitting them to publishers left and right. I had been published for comics already at that point, so I figured I could finally get my real dream going and jump into children’s publishing. I think I made every wrong mistake possible with submitting my work for about 6-7 years. I just really didn’t know what I was doing and I thought I could go it on my own and I had a nice big stack of rejection letters to prove it. I was at a loss for what to do.
Then I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in 2010. I was an Boats-for-Papa-jacket_sminactive member still for a while- thinking arrogantly that I didn’t need to be part of a club to get published (and just not knowing what SCBWI had to offer). And, shocker, I still wasn’t getting published and didn’t understand why. Then one year I made the leap and decided to go to their annual summer conference in Los Angeles having never attended any previous SCBWI events at all. And that’s when things started to make more sense. I got to see first hand what my portfolio needed to look like and I got to hear about how the business of books worked-the real ins and outs of submitting work and what editors and art directors really cared about.
After some  tears, I went home and started over. It still took me some time, and lots more tears, but I finally started to find my voice as an illustrator and then as a writer. That’s when things began to click inside of me and that’s when things started to change. Once I found this “voice” inside of me that people would always talk about, the awards and opportunities started to show up. Then I did another Hail Mary in 2013 and went to the SCBWI NY Winter Conference and I was runner up for the portfolio showcase and that is where I attended a workshop by Alexandra Penfold (my soon to be future agent). Alex believed in my work, offered me representation shortly thereafter and then went to work submitting my book dummy for Boats for Papa (then called Drift). She put the book in front of Neal Porter- one of the most loveable men on Earth- and then rest is history.
Don: What primary medium do you use in your work?
Jessixa: I use very fine waterproof black pens and watercolor for my illustrations. I use pretty inexpensive watercolor paper to help create my pooling affect in my paintings (pooling is what I call when the watercolor builds up in areas to create unique textures). I also use an eyedropper to help me spread my paint- a technique I created for myself so I can paint large areas fairly evenly with small brushes to retain the right look I want for my pooling. I like to do everything by hand and prefer not to work digitally, except for small touch-ups.
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Don: Tell us about your most recent book

Jessixa: My most recent book, “Before I Leave,” is about a little hedgehog named Zelda that finds out that she has to move away from her best friend (Aaron the anteater) and instead of being sad about leaving, they decided to cherish those last moments they have together. It’s a story pulled from my own experiences having to move when I was young and how hard it is to leave your friends. I wanted to use a style of writing that was very different than Boats for Papa so I wrote it in more of a letter format, like one friend writing a letter to the other. I was trying to approach it with a more open and poetic quality.
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Don: Talk about the research process for the book
Jessixa: This was so much different than my research for “Boats for Papa”-which was much more technical because of the boats and the nautical elements. For “Before I Leave” I looked at tons and tons of photos of hedgehogs and anteaters to familiarize myself with them for the book. (By the way, researching pictures of hedgehogs is probably the CUTEST research anyone could ever have to do.) I read a lot of facts about both animals, where they live, their everyday habits. They are both very fascinating animals. Fun fact: Both hedgehogs and anteaters have very poor eyesight. I thought that was a weird coincidence that I learned after I picked the animals. It seems like a good basis of a friendship, being able to relate to one another!
Don: Any important things you learned about the subject while researching the book?
Jessixa: I got very interested in the idea of having a hedgehog for a pet when working on my book! Once again, they are the cutest animals and you sort of can’t help falling in love with them when you are staring at photographs of them all day. But I found out that like reptiles they have salmonella on their bodies, which because I was about to have a baby, didn’t seem like a good idea. That and they are nocturnal and poop when they run. I figured we should only have one animal in the house that is awake all night and poops while it’s running.
Don: If you could spend one day in a studio, working with any artist — past or present — who would that be, and why?
Jessixa: I have a really hard time with choosing a favorite anything (except for food- hamburgers are my favorite food). For dream artists will have to be a current top five list:
Pieter Bruegel the Elder– He was a master painter and the intricacies of his work are amazing. I’d love to see his traditional painting process. Heck, I’d take the Younger Bruegel too!
Beatrix Potter– She is magic and I think she would be a kindred spirit. I’d love to see how she worked in nature and how her environment shaped her relationship with her characters.
Richard Scarry– He would be SO fun to see work. I imagine he talks to his characters when he draws (like I do). I’d love to hear the backstories he created for his characters and why he thinks pigs would be such terrible drivers.
Mary Blair– She was an amazing painter and I’d love to see her design approach and how that graphic eye influenced her art decisions.
Frances Glessner Lee– She was an aristocrat in the 1940’s who made all of those dioramas of crime scenes that police used for forensic training. I love miniatures and it would be incredible to see how she worked (And just a little creepy).
Don: What would be your dream manuscript? Your dream author to work with?24140_669[1].jpg
Jessixa: I’d love the chance to get to illustrate “The Wind in the Willows.” Those characters speak to my soul as an artist and feel like a part of me lives in that world that Kenneth Grahame wrote. I don’t know how I could do it justice, but I’d love to try! One of my favorite authors right now is Matt de la Peña. I thought the writing in Last Stop on Market Street was simply exquisite. I was really moved by the poetic quality to his work. It did more than just tell a story, it really made you feel. I’d love to see what stories he could create for my little woodland animal world!
Don: Can you talk a bit about your process of illustrating a book?
Jessixa: Because I am a VERY unorganized person, I try to set myself up for success with my books by being very organized in my process. I start off by making a list of how many and what kind of illustrations I have to do and how long I have to do them all. Also because I have a full time job and am a mother to a burgeoning toddler, my time is very limited so knowing how long a painting will take me and knowing how much time I have to paint it is a huge help for time management. I pretty much have a standard process for my illustrations:  thumbnails, dummy, final sketches, transfer sketches to watercolor paper, pen over the pencil art, then watercolor. I also end up doing a lot of paint tests and color tests before I start working on the final art so I know I have my palette right where I want it.
I work at actual size of the final book so I know exactly how fine the details will end up being (and also because I have a hard time using math to figure out percentages for scaling up and down). I usually work on one piece at a time but if I have several pieces that have similar backgrounds- like they are in the same room or it’s the same day- I’ll mix up a huge batch of the watercolor wash and paint the larger areas (like the sky) at the same time to maintain consistency. I also have a really great rhythm with my AMAZING book designer Jennifer Browne and my editor Neal Porter, so once I have a little chunk of final work to show, I scan it and email it into them so we can all make sure everything is looking good. It’s so great that they are willing to work this way because it saves me from illustrating an entire book, then having to turn around and make a ton of changes in the end. Altering as I go is much more efficient and less stressful for me- plus I get to talk to them more frequently which I love because they are just the best people!
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Creating thumbnail sketches

Creating character sketches Before I go_anteater1
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Final painting for BEFORE I LEAVE

Don: Who are your cheerleaders, those who encourage you?
Jessixa: I am lucky that I feel like I have too many cheerleaders to count within my friends and family! My husband though is my biggest fan and supporter and he’s really helped me keep up the will power to keep going when things were (and are) really challenging. And my amazing picture book friends are just the best. My community of my crit groups, writer friends, and SCBWI partners in crime has really given me so much love and encouragement that I can’t imagine this journey being possible without them. I’ve made incredible friends by getting involved in the community of the picture book world. You think you can do this alone, but I’ve found that making books is an extremely collaborative process and the more people you have to support you, the better- and the work is better for it as well.
Don: What’s on the horizon, what can your fans expect to see from you?
Jessixa: I’ve got two great projects on the horizon! Next winter (2017) my third picture book, Laundry Day comes out and it’s such a fun and silly book and I’m really looking forward to its release! It’s about two twin badger brothers named Tic and Tac who are bored one late summer day and they decide to help their mother with the laundry and of course some wackiness ensues-as of course it always does with laundry. It’s very different in tone than my first two books which I hope readers will enjoy. And my next project-which is very dear to my heart-is a picture book collaboration with my husband, Aaron Bagley. We’ve always collaborated on art and this will be our first picture book together. We both wrote the story and are both painting the illustrations. The book is called Vincent Comes Home and is about a cat that lives on a cargo ship. It’s a very sweet story and that much sweeter to get to work on it with my best friend! It comes out winter 2018.

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2. Day 12: “Trombone Shorty”

trombone shorty by Jonathan Mannion

Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews was a child prodigy who began playing the trombone at the age of four, a discarded trombone that was twice as long as he was tall. By age six he was leading his own money-earning band, and by ten he was a bona fide touring musician. Today, at 30 years old, he is a Grammy-nominated multi-instrumentalist, playing not only trombone, but trumpet, drums, organ and tuba with his current band, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue.

Andrews credits his singer-songwriter grandfather, Jessie Hill, and especially his bandleader brother, James Andrews, as significant influences. Of his brother James (also a trumpeter) he often asserts, “He taught me everything I know.” Young “Shawty” performed with many heavy hitters, including Bo Diddley, Wynton Marsalis, and Wycliffe Gordon, and he learned much about the craft of making music through their mentorship. Over the years, however, Andrews has blazed a distinctive path in the jazz world, fusing elements of modern rock and hip-hop to formulate a sound he calls “SupaFunkRock”.

At the same time he’s been forging innovative sounds, Andrews has also maintained his dedication to New Orleans, the city he says “raised him”, by working to preserve its musical traditions. He has established the Trombone Shorty Foundation “to preserve and perpetuate the unique musical culture of New Orleans by passing down its traditions to future generations of musicians.” The foundation sponsors two intiatives in particular: The Fredman Music Business Institute (providing top-level music industry training to high school students) and Trombone Shorty Academy (a partnership with Tulane University to provide musically gifted high schoolers with mentorship in various areas including reading and writing music, and performance).

In line with his mission to perpetuate New Orleans’ unique musical culture, Andrews has written an autobiographical picture book: Trombone Shorty. It’s the story of how a young Troy Andrews became Trombone Shorty, and how practice and persistence transformed a dream into the reality of being an internationally celebrated artist.

trombone shorty cover

Trombone Shorty—illustrated by Bryan Collier and published by Abrams Books for Young Readers—is a 2016 Caldecott Honor Book and winner of the 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award.

 

The Buzz on Trombone Shorty:

“Where y’at?” Troy Andrews, aka Trombone Shorty, opens his book with this phrase, letting readers know that it’s New Orleans parlance for hello. In this stunning picture book autobiography, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Andrews shares the story of his early years growing up in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans. Andrews desperately wished to emulate the musicians in his family and those he saw performing all over his city, so he and his friends made their own instruments out of found materials, played in the streets, and marched with bands. When one day he found a battered, discarded trombone bigger than he was, Andrews finally had a real instrument to play, and he practiced day and night, acquiring the nickname Trombone Shorty from his older brother. The moment Bo Diddley pulled Andrews on stage to play with him during the New Orleans jazz festival was a turning point, and he hasn’t stopped performing since. Collier’s beautiful watercolor, pen-and-ink, and collage artwork picks up the rhythm and pace of Andrew’s storytelling, creating an accompaniment full of motion and color. Each spread offers a visual panoply of texture, perspective, and angles, highlighting the people and the instruments. Andrews’s career is still on the rise, his music gaining an ever wider audience, and this title will be an inspiration to many. VERDICT Coupled with a selection of Trombone Shorty’s music, this work will make for fun and thoughtful story sharing. A must-have.”— School Library Journal

 

“This well-told and exquisitely illustrated story of a musician with a steep career trajectory will inspire young readers to pursue their passions, despite the challenges.”— Kirkus, Starred Review

 

“If a fairy tale were set in New Orleans, this is how it would read.”—Publisher’s Weekly, Starred Review

 

Learn more about Trombone Shorty:

His Website

An Interview with Vibe Magazine

 

 

 

 


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3. DAY 11: RONALD SMITH

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How can you not like a character named Hoodoo, who can’t cast a spell? Now that’s what I call creative!  Our spotlight is on an amazing writer, who has written a debut novel that awarded him the 2016 Coretta Scott King, John Steptoe Award for new Talent!  We not only applaud you, but The Brown Bookshelf is honored to spotlight , on this 11th Day of February,

Ronald Smith

 

Please tell us about “The Journey.”
I’ve wanted to be an author since I was a child. I grew up reading fantasy and sci-fi stories, and loved creating imaginary worlds. As an adult, I found my way into advertising, and became a writer of TV commercials. It was a lot of fun for a long time, and writing fiction fell by the wayside. “At least I’m getting paid for writing,” I often told myself.

Then one day, my younger brother, who was working at a Barnes & Noble at the time, turned me on to some great books for young readers: The His Dark Materials books by Philip Pullman, The Sabriel Trilogy by Garth Nix. Harry Potter, of course. That’s when I realized I wanted to write stories again. There was a period of a few years where I was writing very literary short stories, but seeing these great kid’s books inspired me to write what I loved to read as a kid: tales of adventure and other worlds.

Once I decided to focus on children’s lit, I found my voice. Several years later, I was signed by an agent and got a book deal

How about “The Back Story?”
I was fortunate in that I queried an agent who liked Hoodoo, but felt it needed some work. She told me what she thought wasn’t working, and asked if I’d be open to revise and resubmit. She didn’t have to do this, and most agents don’t. I agreed with her advice, and when I sent the manuscript back months later she signed me.

A few days after going on submission, I had offers from several publishers and the book went to auction, which, well, was pretty awesome, to say the least. I signed with Clarion, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

What does your Writing Process look like?
I write organically, without an outline or scene-by-scene plan. Only once I get a few chapters down, can I really see where the story is going. It takes shape as I write. It’s fun, because I am discovering it along the way, just as a reader would. I’ve tried writing programs like Scrivener but they just confuse me. I do outline a little, once I know where the story is going, but mostly it is all part of what John Gardner called “The Fictive Dream,” that place you go in your subconscious when you are really in the zone. It is a type of fugue-state.

I no longer work in advertising, and write every day in my favorite coffee shop. Some days I write at home, but I like having some background white noise, so the ambience in a coffee shop fuels the creative process. Plus…caffeine.

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The Buzz on “Hoodoo.”

2016 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award

A Junior Library Guild Selection

Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s 2015 Choices List

“The authenticity of Hoodoo’s voice and this distinctive mashup of genres make Smith one to watch. Seekers of the scary and “something different” need look no further.”
Kirkus

“The chilling supernatural Southern Gothic plot action is enhanced by atmospheric description of rural life in Depression-era Alabama…Readers will particularly enjoy Hoodoo’s authentic and engaging narrative voice.”
School Library Journal

“Hoodoo’s first-person narrative, which flows beautifully, has an appealing and natural cadence…Through his protagonist, Smith demonstrates an eye for detail and a knack for evocative imagery as well as for telling a riveting story with a dollop of southern gothic appeal.”
Booklist

“Filled with folk and religious symbols, this creepy Southern Gothic ghost story is steeped in time and place. Hoodoo’s earnest first-person narrative reveals a believable innocent who can ’cause deeds great and powerful.'”
Horn Book Magazine

“What a splendid novel. Reader, be prepared to have your foundations shaken: this is a world that is deeper, more wondrous, more spiritually charged than you may have ever imagined.”
Gary D. Schmidt, two-time Newbery Honor medalist and author of The Wednesday Wars

“Oh, wow! Hoodoo may just be the perfect book for a rainy day. Find a dog that will sit with you . . . and read on to your heart’s content. What a fun discovery!”
Nikki Giovanni, poet and award-winning author of Rosa

What are your thoughts on the State of the Industry

Shortly after Hoodoo was accepted by my publisher, the We Need Diverse Books movement took off. I think this is an exciting time to be writing children’s books, especially if you are writing about characters that fall outside the mainstream. I think publishers want these books, and are eager to find those that tell a great story. Has it come too late? Perhaps. But change takes time, and thanks to the voices of a few tireless advocates—booksellers, librarians, authors—diverse books are beginning to really be noticed. Every kid needs to see him or herself reflected in books. It’s simple. Seeing yourself, or someone who looks like you or talks like you or lives where you live, makes reading relatable to kids.

My website is http://www.strangeblackflowers.com
Twitter: @ronsmithbooks

Thank you, Ronald Smith, for your contributions to children’s literature!


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4. Day 10: Mo’ne Davis

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At 13-years-old, Mo’ne Davis became the first African American girl to play in a Little League World Series. She was the first African American girl to earn a win and to pitch a shutout in the 2014 Little League World Series. She can throw a 70 miles per hour fastball. And her curve ball is positively scary. Baseball isn’t even her favorite sport. Basketball is number one. Now she has written a book about her miraculous achievements, Mo’NE DAVIS REMEMBER MY NAME. Girls (and boys) will be inspired by her achievements and will definitely remember her name.

From the Back Cover
This inspiring memoir from a girl who learned to play baseball with the boys and rose to national stardom before beginning eighth grade will encourage young readers to reach for their dreams no matter the odds.
At the age of thirteen, Mo’ne Davis became the first female pitcher to win a game in the Little League World Series. She was the first Little Leaguer to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the magazine’s sixty-year history. And as she began eighth grade in the fall of 2014, Mo’ne earned a place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame—her shutout jersey now hangs in the museum in Cooperstown, New York.

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Mo’ne’s story is one of determination, hard work, and an incredible fastball. From growing up in Philadelphia to throwing out the ceremonial first pitch—a perfect strike—at Game 4 of the 2014 Major League World Series, her groundbreaking achievements are changing the game for women in athletics and putting a positive new spin on the phrase “throw like a girl.” (HarperCollins Publishers)

Watch these interviews for more about Mo’ne.

Face to Face: Mo’ne Davis

Mo’ne Davis: Throw Like A Girl – Chevy Baseball | Chevrolet

 

 

 

 

 

 


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5. Day 9: Marguerite Abouet

akissi On Day 9, we welcome back Marguerite Abouet, whose revolutionary YA graphic series AYA was a global hit in 2007; she’s returned with a delightful series for younger readers, featuring the adventures of the mischievous and resourceful Akissi. In the first book, Akissi: Feline Invasion

,released in the U.S. in 2013, Abouet “dishes out bursts of simultaneous hilarity and horror in African vignettes aimed at a younger audience,” according to Kirkus, where it received a starred review.

“It isn’t often when I see something in a children’s book that shocks me, but the final story was a glorious jaw dropper.”

School Library Journal review of Akissi.

Marguerite Abouet

The adventures and shenanigans of Akissi, her brother Fofana, and friends’ “are both universal and absolutely particular to her milieu,” continues Cory Doctorow over at Boing Boing. “It’s the perfect combination of gross-out humour, authority clashes, and general mischief to capture a kid’s interest.” Comprised of seven humorous and sometimes outrageous short stories featuring kid-friendly ups and downs with West African flavor, Akissi is pure fun, and with Books 1-6 already published in Europe, we hope to see more of her stateside very soon.


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6. Day 8: Guy A. Sims

GsimsAdapting a book by Walter Dean Myers –  award-winning children’s book creator and former national ambassador for young people’s literature  – is a tough job. Monster, his acclaimed novel, won the first ever Michael L. Printz Award and countless other honors. But Guy A. Sims is used to challenges. In 1990, he, his brother Dawud Anyabwile and Brian McGee debuted Brotherman, a ground-breaking comic that helped fill a void in the industry.

With Emmy Award-winning Anyabwile as illustrator, Sims plunged into writing. His hard work paid off. Monster: A Graphic Novel (HarperCollins, 2015), a stirring black-and-white adaptation, has already won accolades and a starred review. We are proud to celebrate Guy’s great work on Day 8:

The Journey:

Writing has always been a natural extension of myself. From my early years in elementary school through today, writing (and my other loves; theater, forensics, film, songwriting, etc.) has provided the outlet for how I see myself, my place in the world, and perspectives for what could be. I discovered early the power that comes from the written word and the realization that the power could be mine. My father cautioned me to take care in what I write, to fully own what I write because others will take your words to heart and apply them to their lives. A powerful lesson for a powerful medium.

When I was in eighth grade, I had my first short story published in my elementary school newspaper. I cannot recall what the story was about, but I do know the feeling of excitement and anxiety when I heard other kids reading my words. That experience probably solidified my passion for writing. In 1984, I wrote the first children’s book on African American cultural celebration Kwanzaa. The book, The Kwanzaa Kids Learn the Seven Principles, was a collaborative effort with my brother Dawud Anyabwile as the illustrator.

Many people are familiar with street artists and performers, but I don’t know if there is a category called a street writer. During my high school days, I would write on the bus, the subway, different places downtown, at my local playground, wherever. I would engage all kinds of people into my writing process, asking them questions about what they thought were going on, what they were doing, and eventually, to take a look at what I wrote to see if I captured the essence of the environment. I always found my city, Philadelphia, to be a rich tapestry of tales from which to draw. In fact, the majority of my fiction takes place in and around Philly.

The Back Story:

My brother Dawud had worked with Walter Dean Myers before, illustrating the book monster - graphicSmiffy Blue. When the folks at HarperCollins decided to adapt his award-winning young adult novel Monster into a graphic novel, Dawud was tapped to illustrate. In seeking out a writer, my brother suggested me, sharing that I understood the process for writing in the comic book style, thanks in part to our creation, Brotherman Comics, which we started back in 1990.

When asked if I would work on the project, I jumped in head first, unfamiliar with the source material or about Walter Dean Myers. In the end, I am glad that I didn’t because after learning about him as an author, I surely would have been intimidated. In fact, I didn’t get my first taste of his “artistic celebrity” until I visited several of my family members who lived in the NY/NJ area. When I told them, I was working on the Monster book they were more than excited and began sharing with me his importance to the literary world. At that point, I knew I had to do my very best on the project.

During the book development process, I didn’t communicate with Mr. Myers directly, but I would receive positive responses after pages were submitted. Unfortunately, just before the final press, Walter Dean Myers passed away without seeing the final product, although he did see it completed. I understand he was very pleased with how we translated his work. I look forward to similar opportunities to translate popular works into graphic novels.

The Inspiration:

I owe a great deal of credit to really wanting to be a writer to my father who set me on the path. One day he shared with me a recording of Richard Wright’s Black Boy, narrated by Brock Peters. I was mesmerized both by Wright’s words and Peters’ presentation. When I finished listening to the record, I picked up the book from the library and read it. This is who I want to write like is what I told myself. There are numerous writers, theater actors, and pieces of music that have influenced my writing and writing style, but the ignitor was Richard Wright.

The Process:

Writing projects come to me in various ways. Often it is a concept or even a draft of a title that sets the wheels in motion. I begin with the key player or protagonist and let the story build itself from there. Although I have a desktop and laptop, I still draft out my writing in longhand. I tried carrying my laptop around but found I had to concern myself with finding power, the sun glare, etc. The old pen and paper never fail. I save the editing until the end so that I don’t bog myself down with the rules of writing. I write on my lunch hour and for about an hour during the week and use the weekend to transfer what I wrote from paper to the computer. I also usually have two to three projects going on at the same time which requires a high level of time management on my part. When at home, I write in my small office but I still have interruptions thanks to my children, which is okay with me.

Under The Radar

My favorite author currently is Yvvette Edwards, author of A Cupboard Full of Coats and the forthcoming, The Mother. She has a wicked way of keeping her characters in close proximity to each other, maintaining tension, and creates resolutions that take you by surprise. She’s from London, so her UK expressions are also a joy to experience.

The State of the Industry

I have two sons who they are strong readers, whipping through the Harry Potters and Hunger Games with ease. We often talk about the absence of characters that would appear to look like them or come from similar backgrounds. My advice to them is the same my father gave me. If they don’t exist, you must create them.

Guy A. Sims is also the author of the Brotherman graphic novel, Revelation, The Cold Hard Cases of Duke Denim detective series, and the novel, Living Just a Little.

The Buzz About Monster: A Graphic Novel

“The superbly rewarding format serves to powerfully emphasize Myers’s themes of perspective and the quest to see one’s self clearly. A must-have for public and school libraries, and a standout graphic novel.”

— Booklist (starred review)

“It’s not easy for an adaptation to please both old and new readers, but this respectful one pulls off that trick.”

— Kirkus Reviews

“This graphic novel adaptation will introduce this story to a new generation of fans.”

— School Library Journal


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7. Day 7: Ekua Holmes

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Photo credit: Clennon L. King

Before making her debut as a children’s book illustrator, Ekua Holmes was already an accomplished and award-winning fine artist. She was the first African American woman to be appointed a commissioner on the Boston Arts Commission. She was the recipient of a 2013 Brother Thomas Fellowship from The Boston Foundation for her contributions to the Boston arts community. In addition, she was the creator of a 2015 Google Doodle honoring the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday!

 

Last year, Holmes took the children’s book world by storm with her illustrations in Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, written by Carole Boston Weatherford. The book went on to receive numerous awards, including a Silver Medal from the Society of Illustrator’s Original Art exhibition, four starred reviews, a Sibert and Caldecott Honor, and a Coretta Scott King New Voices Award.

Holmes is a painter and collage artist who uses news clippings, photographs, vibrant gunnamed[1].jpgcolor and skillful composition to infuse her work with energy.

Presenting Ekua Holmes:

Tell us about your path to publishing. How did you get that first trade contract?

My path to publishing seemed to appear out of the blue. One day I got a call from a woman who had seen my work at an Open Studios event in my hometown of Roxbury, a neighborhood of Boston, MA. They asked would I be interested in working in Children’s literature. Would I ??? YES! I have always loved Children’s books and in the back of my mind held it as a possible path for my work. At exhibitions of my work people would say, “Have you ever thought about doing Children’s books.” I believe children’s books introduced me to art through the illustrations. Long before I went to museums and galleries, I went to the library. At the time of the call, I didn’t know if anything would come of it but I was pleased that there was interest.

Tell us about your most recent book, “Voice of Freedom.”

Months later the same woman called to say that her company, Candlewick Press, had a manuscript for me to consider—a manuscript about Fannie Lou Hamer. I knew about her role in the Freedom Summer, and her signature statement, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I admired her and was honored to be asked to illustrate her story. I said YES! What a blessing.

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Talk about the research process for the book.

Well first things first—reading the manuscript— again and again! Then images began to come into my mind – colors, patterns, shapes, faces.  After that, I started doing online searches. One search led to another and I was able to find images of Ms. Hamer from the 60s. The manuscript is so rich! It chronicles her life from the age of six to her 70s. Of course there were no early photos. Her family was too poor for that. So for the early years, I had to imagine her as a child. What did she look like? How did she wear her hair? What was her demeanor? Where did she live? I read books and articles about her. I read comments written by people who had worked with her in the movement. I listened to tapes of her speaking and singing. I looked at photos of her hometown. I immersed myself in her world.  Another smart thing I did was engage a college student to help me collect the books and information from various sources. She was so helpful (thank you Chianta).

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Google Doodle by Ekua Holmes

Talk about the medium you use in your work

I primarily use collage techniques with acrylic paint. Collaging is basically glueing things onto a surface – photos, newspapers, lace- whatever helps to tell the story. My work is made of cut and torn paper and paint. I am also a proud and committed thrifter. I am always at the flea markets and thrift stores picking up things that speak to me. Just as I was about to work on the image of the doll Fannie Lou Hamer’s mother bought for her, I ran across these two old handmade dolls at a thrift store in Salem, MA. They seemed to be just the kind of dolls that Fannie Lou Hamer would have received from her Mother. They were so authentic! It was as if the universe had provided just what I needed.

Was there anything especially interesting that you learned about the subject while researching the book?

Fannie Lou Hamer was 45 years old when she started her Voting Rights work. Because of her upbringing, experiences and intellect, she was ready when it was her time to step onto the world stage. She was a devoted mother and daughter, committed wife and staunch believer in the word of God. She knew the battle was bigger than her, bigger than any human being. It was a righteous struggle and right had to win.  She never said, I’m too old, too tired, too poor- I’m inspired by that.

If you could spend one day in a studio, working with any artist — past or present — who would that be, and why?

What I would really enjoy is going thrifting with them, so artists like Whitfield Lovell, Radcliffe Bailey, Rene Stout or Bettye and Alison Saar. Oh and Nick Cave! They have the same affinity for the power of found objects. WE could spend the entire day (or days) driving through the South (or new England) visiting garages and barns, finding just the right items to inspire our work.

What would be your dream manuscript?

 

I like to think it’s on its way to me right now. Stay tuned.

 

 

Your dream author to work with?

 

Its funny, there is not as much communication between author and illustrator as you might think. Generally the publisher selects the illustrator (but does get the writer’s approval, I think). So I feel very fortunate to have worked on this book by Carole Boston Weatherford, who has written over 30 books and won many awards. Now I’m working on a book of poetry created by Kwame Alexander – another powerhouse writer/poet and winner of the 2015 Newberry Award. I couldn’t be happier.

 

 

 

Can you talk a bit about your process of illustrating a book?

 

This was my first time illustrating a book but I think it’s much like working on my personal collages. Research is crucial. I saturate myself in the author’s words (or subject) and allow images to rise to the surface. I sketch and revise, sketch and revise. Each time hoping to get closer to what I feel is the right composition. There is a lot of looking, thinking and moving things around.

 

 

 

Who are your cheerleaders, those who encourage you?

 

My partner and I are both artists (he’s a filmmaker). We give each other a lot of high fives. He is very proud of me right now.  Also my 8-year old granddaughter introduces me by saying “…and this is Nana, my artist.” Once she patted me on the head while saying this. I couldn’t have been more amused or flattered. If I can work on books that she and her generation will cherish, I will have everything I need in this world as an artist.

 

 

 

What’s on the horizon, what can your fans expect to see from you?

 

Winning a Caldecott Honor, a Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award and a Robert F. Sibert Award for “Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement” is a hearty and magical welcome into the world of Children’s literature. I look forward to illustrating many more books. Folks can expect me to do my absolute best on each story, striving for creative excellence so that the illustrations I make will complement, illuminate and enhance the texts —it’s a collaboration. And after all—my granddaughter is watching.

–Don Tate


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8. Day 6: Renée Watson

Watson Headshot cropped

In 2011, The Brown Bookshelf celebrated Renée Watson as an up-and-coming voice in the world of children’s literature, with two titles debuting the previous year: A Place Where Hurricanes Happen, a picture book illustrated by Shadra Strickland and published by Random House; and What Momma Left Me, a middle grade novel published by Bloomsbury. Since that time, she has become a celebrated author who has gone on to produce other stellar titles, including the picture book Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills (illustrated by Christian Robinson, Random House 2012) and her first YA novel – which happens to be today’s featured title – This Side of Home (Bloomsbury 2015).

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In This Side of Home, high school seniors Maya and her twin sister Nikki, find themselves in the unusual predicament of being at odds over the gentrification of their neighborhood. Nikki is excited about the new changes—pretty shops and boutiques replacing abandoned storefronts—while Maya is disturbed by all the “upgrades” that seem to be only for the benefit of the new people coming in, as opposed to the residents who have been there all along. For the first time, the sisters must, as the publisher puts it, “confront their dissenting feelings on the importance of their ethnic and cultural identities and, in the process, learn to separate themselves from the long shadow of their identity as twins.” Complicating matters even more, Maya finds herself becoming attracted to the new white boy who has moved in across the street, which understandably creates a sense of internal conflict.

Watson’s timely and conversation-provoking young adult novel has been well received, garnering starred reviews by Booklist and The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (BCCB). Please join us in celebrating This Side of Home on Day 6 of 28 Days later!

 

Read what Renée Watson has to say about This Side of Home:

Home is a Complicated Place 

Book Page Interview on This Side of Home

 

Listen to Renée Watson speak about This Side of Home and writing for children:

Black Book Talk

Schomburg Live: Renée Watson and Tracey Baptiste on Diversity in Literature

NPR Interview & Jacqueline Woodson and Renée Watson, Photographed in Brooklyn

 

 

 


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9. Day 5: Johnny Ray Moore

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Johnny Ray Moore realized at an early age that writing was in his future. Thank goodness for his readers, he followed his passion. Share his literary journey and if you haven’t read his work, February is the perfect month to add his books to your collection.

The Journey

As a child, I was shy, and I spent a lot of time daydreaming. When I got into school, I loved reading, especially, reading poetry. I wrote my first poem while in the third grade. I don’t recall the name of the poem. In high school, I took creative writing classes. Years later, while in the

Army, I received two checks from Aim Magazine for two poems I had written. Getting paid to write felt good. Because I had studied and written so much poetry, to eventually write children’s books became my destiny. Thanks to poetry, I can say what I want to say with

very few words. And, my books, A LEAF, only 88 words; and, HOWIE HAS A STOMACHACHE, only 100 words, are both proof that I can communicate with very few words.
The Inspiration

As for writers and illustrators who inspire me, I am inspired by all writers and illustrators who are true to their profession. Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Alex Haley, Eleanora Tate, Kelly Starling Lyons, Don Tate, Carole Weatherford, and Tameka Fryer, to name a few, are blessed and creative people who inspire me. What I know of the few authors and the one illustrator that I have listed is that they were and are committed to their work. And, that is inspiration enough for me.

 

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The Back Story

One of my children’s books that was a blessing for me and a struggle was THE STORY OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., a 200-word board book biography. My former agent, Etta Wilson, informed me that Ideals Publication wanted someone to write a board book about Martin Luther King, Jr., in about 300 words, that would speak to young children. I thought about what I was being asked to consider, for a day or two. I struggled with what I could say about Dr. King that would be of interest to young children. Well, after musing over the opportunity at hand, then praying, I started to write. After about 10 rewrites, I emailed the manuscript to my agent. And, it was accepted.

 

HowieThe Buzz

As for the good things THE STORY OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. has caused, I have gotten a few emails from teachers expressing how their young students could not get enough of it. I have gotten similar responses from parents.

The mentioned board book has gotten pretty good reviews, in general. And, in December of 2015, I was informed by the publisher, Worthy Kids/Ideas, that THE  STORY OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. has sold well over 100,000 copies, is still selling well. Furthermore, the book has been reformatted to a slightly larger size. I am elated and blessed, to say the least.

The State of the Industry

As time goes on, I want to see more African-American children’s book publishers come on

the scene. I want to see more African-Americans write for children, period.

Why? Because, our children must be prepared to shine for us in the future as we have done and

are doing for them.

A LeafWe must make sure that WE TELL OUR OWN STORIES. If

you are not African-American, you cannot write about the black experience, convincingly. GOD

knows we are intelligent, creative and gifted enough to inspire, teach and support our very own,

first. So, let’s continue to INSPIRE; TEACH; and SUPPORT our children by writing and creating

the very best children books that we can.

Read more about Johnny’s fascinating journey here.


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10. Day 4: Daniel José Older

DJO PhotoDaniel José Older is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, composer, and author fiction for adults as well as teens. He facilitates workshops on storytelling, music, and anti-oppression organizing at public schools, religious houses, and universities. He co-edited the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, and his short stories and essays have appeared in Tor.com, Salon, BuzzFeed, Gawker, New Haven Review, PANK, and Strange Horizons.

Older’s YA debut, Shadowshaper, was named a Junior Library Guild selection, New York Times Notable Book, and named to numerous “Best Of” lists of 2015. “In the best urban fantasy,” writes reviewer Holly Black in the Times, “The city is not just a backdrop, but functions as a character in its own right, offering up parallels between personal histories and histories of place. That is certainly true in Daniel José Older’s magnificent “Shadow­shaper,” which gives us a Brooklyn that is vital, authentic and under attack.” We’re honoured to welcome Daniel José Older to the Brown Bookshelf on Day Four:

Shadowshaper_cover

Like most books, Shadowshaper began with just a vague notion, a few scraps of character and magic and a sense that whatever this story was going to shape up to be, it wasn’t one that’s told enough in the world. I had grown up like many sci-fi/fantasy dorks, wondering where I fit into all those wild worlds of monsters and space battles. I was working with black and brown kids in Bushwick and Bed-Stuy and they were wondering the same thing.

Sierra Santiago showed up fully formed in my imagination – she was mischievous and hardheaded, determined and loyal and confused and shy and confident, all at the same time. The next step was building a world around her: family, friends, and the whole ever-changing universe of Brooklyn. When I say ever-changing, I mean that very literally: gentrification caused blocks I’d written about in the early stages of Shadowshaper to be totally different in look and feel by the time I was finishing edits, several years later. This drastic, devastating change on the face of the city became a part of the worldbuilding – how could it not be? And Sierra responds to it as she crisscrosses the volatile landscape of her home.

The story of Shadowshaper changed many, many times throughout the process – more times than any other project I’ve worked on. There were always certain elements and moments at the heart of it that remained though: the importance of art and culture as tools of survival, the power of friendship, the frustration of someone else trying to define you and take over your heritage. The night out with Robbie at Club Kalfour, when the murals dance sultry two-steps amidst the revelers, has been there since very early on, as has the attack on the party at Sully’s, but so much changed around them. For years, I had the story pinned to my office wall and little cartoon sketches on Post-It notes that I would take down, rearrange, scrap entirely.

At times it felt like the process would never end, that it’d just become this ongoing, forever morphing creature living on my office wall and in my mind – but of course, that moment finally came when final decisions had to be made as Shadowshaper the process became Shadowshaper the book. Agents and editors rejected it over forty times in the course of it finding its home at Arthur A. Levine Books. It went on to be named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, as well as to multiple other best of 2015 lists, and was shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize in Young People’s Literature.

The most important response to Shadowshaper has always been the feedback from young people who see themselves in Sierra and have never had the experience of seeing themselves, their problems and triumphs, their hair and skin, reflected in a YA fantasy hero before. That’s why I sat down to write the book in the first place, and why I’m still writing today.


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11. Day 3: Mélina Mangal

MélinaMangalMedia specialist, mother and author, Mélina Mangal writes to fill a void and inspire. Her books include biographies on award-winning authors like Virginia Hamilton, Mildred D. Taylor and Rita Williams-Garcia. They’re stories she didn’t see in bookstores or on library shelves, so she created them herself.

Her writing ranges from celebrating unsung trailblazers to giving voice to the experiences of African-American children. On her SCBWI page, she says, “My writing focuses on youth in nature, especially those whose voices are rarely heard, and the people and places that inspire them to explore their world.”

We are proud to feature Mélina on Day 3. Here’s her story:

The Journey

My writing began with letters: to my father in Vietnam, my grandmother in France, my pen pal in Jamaica. Around sixth grade, I discovered Langston Hughes and shifted my attention to diary writing. That’s when I first thought of becoming a writer.

It wasn’t until after college, working as a textbook production editor, that I tried to publish my work. My first published piece was a journal entry in an anthology. When the beautiful book arrived featuring luminaries like Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, I was both inspired and humbled. How could my unpolished debut appear alongside their work? I didn’t submit anything for five years after that. I couldn’t. I had to become a better writer.

Through a move across the country, graduate school, and a new career as a school librarian, I kept writing and reading and attending workshops. When my short story “Georgia’s View” (inspired by a Jonathan Green painting) was published in a literary journal, I was hooked. Writing short stories was addictive. So was children’s literature. My short stories began to feature children, and were published in anthologies such as Milkweed’s Stories From Where We Live series. After a writing retreat with editor Patricia Gauch, and a week with Rita Willgarciabioiams-Garcia at the Highlights Writing Workshop at Chautauqua, I was inspired to craft longer works. I moved back to Minnesota, got married, and started writing biographies of the inspiring people lacking from my library shelves, like the trailblazing author Virginia Hamilton, which became my first book. Rita Williams-Garcia and Classic Storytellers: Mildred Taylor came next. I wished their books had been available to me when I was a kid.

After the birth of my daughter, I became even more engrossed in picture books, and in delving deeper into my stories. I’m now spending more time exploring the visual images conjured by my words, after studying with Maya Cristina Gonzalez. My poem “Black Is” will be published in a collection by Reflection Press this spring.

taylorbioI spent the last couple of years researching and writing a picture book about the groundbreaking scientist Ernest Everett Just, which is due out in 2017. I can’t wait for young readers to learn about this inspirational man and his contributions to science.

The Inspiration

Although I had no problem reading, I became a Reader the summer before sixth grade when my family moved from a small town in Wisconsin to the ‘big city’ of St. Paul, Minnesota. I could walk to the library, and there I found books featuring all kinds of people—including people who looked like me. That’s where I discovered Langston and Maya Angelou. I read poetry, biographies, mysteries, and historical fiction, all of which I still turn to for inspiration.

Books by Jacqueline Woodson, Vaunda Michaux Nelson, and Tonya Bolden open my mind, while Tracey Baptiste and Jewell Parker-Rhodes fuel my love of nature, magic, culture, and spirit.

The Process

Ideas come easily to me. I don’t experience writer’s block, but I do suffer from what I call ‘dreamer’s deluge.’ I often have too many thoughts competing for attention. I typically have at least three projects of varying stages in the works. An idea starts with an image, or maybe a voice. I keep a notebook with me and jot it down. I write first by hand, capturing everything I can. I continue fleshing out details of characters by creating a character sketch. Poetry pops up when I try to get inside a character’s head. Later, I revise on the computer, then write by hand again when adding or changing scenes. Full-fledged stories take a long time to percolate.

The Industry: Under The Radar

It’s encouraging to see the work of writers and illustrators like Zetta Elliott, Kathleen Wainwright, Janine Macbeth, and Jerry Craft, who are paving a new way with Rosetta Press, Willa’s Tree Studios, Blood Orange Press, and Mama’s Boyz. Illustrators like Keturah Ariel Nailah Boo, Melodie Strong, and Peter Ambush are creating fresh, vibrant work, highlighting the significance of images in young readers’ lives.

Learn more about Mélina Mangal here.


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12. Day 2: Damian Ward

damian profile picAs the lone illustrator on the Brown Bookshelf, I especially look forward to hosting the artists during our 28 Days Later campaign. Today I interview Damian Ward, who is a critically acclaimed illustrator of both trade and educational books for children. Some of the books he’s illustrated include “Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat,” (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2008), written by Nikki Giovanni, and “Bottle Cap Boys Dancing On Royal Street,” (Marimba Books, 2015), written by Rita Williams-Garcia. His digital artwork is lively and vibrant, and successfully brings to life the books that he’s illustrated. Ward studied illustration at the Columbus College of Art and Design.

Don: Tell us about your path to publishing. How did you get that first trade contract?

Damian: Craigslist, believe it or not. I got lucky to work with some talented people who 51n2WNzf5+L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpghad experience writing for film, and they wanted to try something different. There was one particular picture in my portfolio that got their attention and after some emails, I was off to New York city to get things moving. It was a great first book experience for me because it was so open for me to interpret while also being on a very tight deadline. I could do just about whatever I wanted so long as I got it done super fast.

Don: Tell us about your most recent book.

Damian: “Bottle Cap Boys Dancing On Royal Street” was a joy. I had so much fun with the challenge of depicting such a distinct place and the people there. I got good guidance from the author and publishers, and that helped to make it feel like it had a real local New Orleans flavor.

Don: Can you talk about the research process for the book?

Damian: I live on the other side of the planet from New Orleans, so I used lots and lots of Google Street view. It wasn’t all high tech new-fangled intel gathering though, I was able to rustle up a few old books from various sources. New Orleans is un-aging in many respects so having a few older images to reference and read about helped to reinforce the classic feel of the locale, at least I hope so.

Don: What primary medium do you use in your work?

11a151dd73b9543a42c9ae35f0a1bf50[1].jpgDamian: I work digitally, primarily using the oil pastel brushes in Corel Painter.

Don: If you could spend one day in a studio, working with any artist — past or present — who would that be, and why?

Damian: I’ve always had a soft spot for Kandinsky. I liked that he seemed to be trying to develop a specific visual language in abstract colors and shapes.

Don: What would be your dream manuscript? Your dream author to work with?

Damian: Hmm, a dream manuscript for me would probably involve insects and or fish. I just like getting up close and drawing the little critters. I also like for there to be a message in there too though, almost hidden away, not beating anyone over the head.
An author I’d like to work with would be someone venturing way out of their comfort zone. I think if Ta-Nehisi Coates wanted to write a children’s book I’d love to take that challenge on.

Don: Can you talk a bit about your process of illustrating a book?

Damian: I start off with lots of thumbnail sketches. Many times I read something and think, I have to draw it this way. I know just how I want this to look, but if I can patiently explore a few options with thumbnail sketches I usually stumble across a better angle or depiction I can try. Sometime it is that first instinct in the end but it pays give yourself options. After that, I start tightening up the line drawings and doing some color studies before finalizing the illustration.

Don: Who are your cheerleaders, those who encourage you?

Damian: My wife and family have been there at every step to try and keep my head on straight (not always an easy task). They keep the orange juice refills and apple pies coming.

Don: What’s on the horizon, what can your fans expect to see from you in the future?

Damian: It’s time for me to start pushing myself to be an author/illustrator. I’ve been my own worst enemy in this regard but hopefully the next couple projects will feature the coveted ‘written and illustrated by…’ line on the cover.

–Don Tate

 


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13. Day 1: Maya Angelou

WMaya-Angelou crope commence this year’s 28 Days Later Celebration with Vanguard Honoree, Dr. Marguerite “Maya” Angelou (1928-2014).

Maya Angelou is one of our nation’s most important literary voices. From I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Phenomenal Woman, to And Still I Rise and On the Pulse of Morning, the collective writings of Dr. Angelou reflect some of the most horrible and praiseworthy aspects of human nature and American culture.

But did you know she also wrote books for young children?

Here are four titles perfect for introducing young readers to the work of one of our country’s most treasured authors:

 

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1993) life doesnt frighten me

A unique book that combines the words of a renowned African-American poet laureate and the primitive, modern paintings of a young Haitian-American artist. With lines of verse that shout exuberantly from each page, a young voice rails against any and all things that mean to do her harm. Whether they are “Shadows on the wall/ Noises down the hall” or even “Mean old Mother Goose/Lions on the loose”-to one and all she responds- “they don’t frighten me at all”…A powerful exploration of emotion and its expression through the careful blend of words and art. — School Library Journal

 

my-painted-house-my-friendly-chicken-and-meMy Painted House, My Friendly Chicken and Me (1994; Crown Books for Young Readers, Reprint ed. 2003)

A superb portrayal of Ndebele village life and art for young children. “Hello Stranger-friend” begins eight-year-old Thandi as she stands in front of a brightly painted house. In a thoroughly child-true voice, she tells about her beloved chicken, her people’s ideas of “good” (which is as close as they come to saying “beautiful”), their ways of making designs in paint or beads, her brother, and going to town. Courtney-Clarke’s full-color photographs are stunning…A unique book that honors Africa by projecting images that are true and honors American children by giving them the very best.—School Library Journal

 

kofi and his magic

Kofi and His Magic (Knopf, 1996)

A young Ashanti boy invites readers to visit his West African village, famous for fine kente cloth, and to share his “magic”—a masterful imagination. Artistic typesetting composition is accompanied by appealing color photos that bring the lyrical text into sharp focus…will speak to children everywhere and present them with a clear vision of [Kofi’s] beloved West African world.—School Library Journal

 

 

 

poetry for young people

Poetry for Young People: Maya Angelou (2007; Sterling Children’s Books, Reprint ed. 2013)

A collection of 25 poems written by Maya Angelou, including the inspirational Still I Rise and Me and My Work.

 

 

 

 

To learn more about Maya Angelou, visit her website here.


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14. 24th Annual African American Children’s Book Fair

martin regusters 0336 webEach year, the African American Children’s Book Fair in Philadelphia celebrates the beauty of literature by black children’s book creators. Founded by literary publicist and advocate Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, it is known as “one of the oldest and largest single-day events for children’s books in the country.” Thousands of parents, children, teachers, librarians and book lovers come to see an all-star line-up of award-winning black authors and illustrators. It’s a moving testament to the power of affirming images and good books. We welcome Vanesse back to The Brown Bookshelf and thank her for her vision, commitment and incredible work:

Congratulations on the 24th anniversary of the African American Children’s Book Fair! Please share how the annual event has grown over the years and why it has staying power.

The event started as a Black History Month event at a major department store with 10 authors/illustrators. EB Lewis, Tonya Bolden and Jacqueline Woodson participated in that first event. Over 250 people attended. Today, on average, over 3,500 people pass through our doors for the book fair. People don’t come to browse — they come to buy. We sell more books on the first Saturday in February than any other African-American retailer in the country.

Our Literary Row is legendary. This is a great promotional tool to get them in the door. Once I’ve got them in the door, they buy. Seeing a long line of consumers buying books is such a beautiful sight. I set up the room in the same manner as traditional retailers.

Yet, even with all of our success every year, I still have to convince some in the publishing industry what we are doing is valid.

Why does the event have staying power? THE NEED.

Who are you featuring this year? Why is it important for children to meet black authors 2016Poster - African American Children's Book Fairand illustrators?  

The best and the brightest. It sounds a like a cliché, but it is truly a talented group of African-American authors and illustrators who have produced some of the best books of our generation.

To participate is highly competitive. From September to the closing date of December 31, I got over 150 requests. When I preview the books, I look to find the right mix for the book fair. I’m like a child in a toy store. The added value is the participants are really nice people who share my passion about books and know how to interact with their fans. Yes, these are the book stars of the industry.

We’ve got the best group of illustrators on the planet — Eric Velasquez, Shadra Strickland, Floyd Cooper, Nancy Devard, James Ransome, Theodore Taylor and EB. Lewis — who all just so happen to be American Library Association (ALA) past winners of various awards from Caldecott Honors to The Coretta Scott King.

The 2016 ALA Coretta Scott King best book winner, Rita Williams-Garcia, author of Gone Crazy In Alabama, will showcase the third book in her winning series. Ekua Holmes, who won the ALA John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator award, will be in the house. Ekua’s bold and vivid strokes in Voices of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer Spirit of The Civil Rights Movement shines with Carole Boston Weatherford prose, which won a Randolph Caldecott book honor. The book also won The Robert Sibert Informational Book.

Representing non-fiction are two of the best children’s historians from the literary community — Tonya Bolden and Carole Boston Weatherford — who both have won awards up and the down the literary landscape. 

When describing these groups, I didn’t use the word African American because these books have African-American themes or protagonists but are designed to include all readers.

Rounding out the group are my fiction divas — Crystal Allen, Sundee Frazier, Renée Watson, and Denise Lewis Patrick.

In the African-American publishing community, it is a family affair. James Ransome, Lesa Cline-Ransome, Wade and Cheryl Hudson, G. Todd Taylor and his wife Tiffany who owns the imprint are bring it strong in the fiction lane.

Picture books always take center stage at this event — Pamela Tuck never disappoints her audience with her storytelling skills.

Linda Trice, Tiffany D. Taylor and Veronica Chambers remind us in their picture books that in every problem there is a solution that brings happiness.

David Miller, whose first chapter book was about bullying, takes a spin in the picture book lane.

One of the hallmarks of this event is the support of corporate America. They show up in a big way at the event.

NBC10-TELEMUNDO62 is the sponsor of the Reading Circle. Our Educators Book-Give is sponsored by Wells Fargo, Tierney, Always Best Care Senior Service, Health Partners Plans, Health Partners Foundation and Universal Companies. PECO, which is the local electric company, sponsors a Literary Salon, which features our workshops.

All of these things set the stage to opening up the doors to a life-long love of reading.

What do you want people to take away from the experience of attending?

That a “BOOK OPENS UP A WORLD OF OPPORTUNITES.”

We are selling the joy of reading. People who read for pleasure use it as a coping skill. I have heard over and over again of people who read to relax. I believe the love of reading starts early. Every time I read, I learn something more about the past, present and future of who I am.

We have signs posted around the room that say, “PRESERVE A LEGACY, BUY A BOOK.” 

What’s next for the book fair? What’s your dream?

The book fair will continue to grow here in Philadelphia (tristate region). I have adults who attended as children bringing their children. My son just had a daughter Giuliana Isabella Sgambati so I’ve got to make sure she never says these words “There Are No African American Books In My Community.”

Also to expand nationally. I’m developing plans to take the book fair on a nationwide tour. I’m in conversation with national corporate partners. So if anyone in this radar has an interest please reach us at http://www.africanamericanchildrensbookproject.org.

We are a resource center – use us.

I’m also planning the children’s platform at BookExpo.

As always, my dream is to have the President of The United States host African American authors/illustrators in the White House. Having the president acknowledge the talent from the African American Children’s Book Community would be the icing on the cake. He knows best that “A Book Opens Up A World Of Opportunities.”

ABOUT THE FAIR:

Saturday, February 6, 2015, 1-3 p.m.

Community College of Philadelphia (Gymnasium)

17th & Spring Garden Streets

Free and open to the public.

Details here: http://theafricanamericanchildrensbookproject.org/

FEATURED AUTHORS AND ILLUSTRATORS:

CRYSTAL ALLEN

TONYA BOLDEN

VERONICA N. CHAPMAN

LESA CLINE-RANSOME

FLOYD COOPER

NANCY DEVARD

SUNDEE FRAZIER

EKUA HOLMES

CHERYL WILLIS HUDSON

WADE HUDSON

EB LEWIS

DAVID MILLER

DENISE LEWIS PATRICK

JAMES RANSOME

SHADRA STRICKLAND

THEODORE TAYLOR 111

TIFFANY TAYLOR

G. TODD TAYLOR

LINDA TRICE

PAMELA TUCK

ERIC VELASQUEZ

RENEE WATSON

CAROLE BOSTON
WEATHERFORD

RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Contact Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati at vlloydsgam@aol.com or call (215) 878-BOOK.

 


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15. Kenya’s Art

Kenyasart - coverWhen I think about picture book series starring black characters, Linda Trice’s proud and creative Kenya immediately comes to mind. Trice, a 2014 28 Days Later honoree, released the first two books – Kenya’s Word and Kenya’s Song – to critical acclaim. Now, she’s back with another winner – Kenya’s Art (illustrated by Hazel Mitchell, published by Charlesbridge) – a celebration of ingenuity, recycling and family.

Like in earlier titles, Kenya is showcased here as a smart, confident girl whose discoveries empower not just herself but also her friends in Mrs. Garcia’s class. Kenya’s Art was inspired by an assignment Trice, a former Black Studies professor and elementary school teacher, gave her first grade students at PS 80 in Queens, NY (pictured with Trice below). kenyasart - classphotoThe story follows Kenya’s quest to find something special to share about her spring vacation.

A hallmark of Trice’s Kenya books is their focus on family togetherness and love. That shines in Kenya’s Art too as she longs for a cool vacation experience and Daddy suggests touring a museum. There, they see an exhibit called “Recycle! Reuse! Make Art!” featuring every-day items turned into colorful displays that get Kenya’s imagination spinning. In a sweet scene, Daddy holds her hand, chants the recycling slogan and shares her excitement. Then back at home, the whole family gets in on the fun inspired by what Kenya saw.

Trice’s depiction of a close-knit, supportive family and Hazel Mitchell’s warm, inviting illustrations leave you with a smile. Kenya’s triumph at the end is a victory for her and each child who read her story.

Learn more about Linda at http://www.lindatrice.com.


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16. Happy Book Birthday, Crystal Allen!

Oh Mylanta…She’s back!

We are pleased as peanut brittle to celebrate the latest, greatest release from author and BBS contributor, Crystal Allen, also known as The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown (Balzer and Bray).

 

We asked Crystal for some inside scoop on the creation of her new chapter book series. Our conversation went as follows:

 

BBS: You are known as a phenomenally talented MG author. What made you decide to write a chapter book?

Crystal: I was asked by my publisher. It was very difficult at first to change my writing from middle grade to chapter book, but as the voice of this sassy new character came alive, the writing took on a life of itself. It’s been so much fun!

BBS: What was the biggest difference craft-wise in writing a chapter book? Was it more difficult than you anticipated? If so, how so?

Crystal: Oh Mylanta…

Plot. There is such a big difference in the plot of a middle grade novel versus the same in a chapter book. With Middle Grade, it’s okay if things don’t tie together in a nice, neat, little bow. It’s alright if the characters don’t live happily ever after! But that’s not the case with chapter books.

Also, the plot must be simpler. As much as I loved creating MG plots, they are too elaborate for the young chapter book reader. That was one of my biggest adjustments. Also, the main characters in my two middle grade novels, Lamar, and Laura, talked lots of trash, and had a language identifiable to the reader as fun, and sometimes hilarious. Mya and her friends have a few created words, but not many!

BBS: How did the idea for this specific series come to be? Did you set out to write a series initially, or did that idea evolve along with the manuscript?

Crystal: My publisher had an idea for a type of character, but didn’t have a look or a voice for her. After writing How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won A Bubba-Sized Trophy and The Laura Line, my publisher believed that I might have the voice they were looking for. It turned out that I did! The Magnificent Mya Tibbs was always billed as a series.

BBS: Tell us about your main character, Mya. How do you think she’s different (or similar) from other well-known series MC’s?

Crystal: If we’re going to talk about well-known series MC’s, we would have to talk about Ramona Quimby and Clementine. Neither Ramona nor Clementine were “cookie-cutter” characters. By that, I mean they were not stereotypical ‘girlie’ girls. Ramona and Clementine were allowed to do things wrong, make bad decisions, say what was on their minds, and figure out how they were going to fix their own problems. They were so relatable, and because of that, there books are still relevant today!

Mya doesn’t always make the right decision, and her personality isn’t always ‘girlie’ but she’s a good friend, and very comfortable with her love for everything country and western! Hopefully Mya will be relatable to today’s young girl!

Both of those chapter book heavy-weights were strongly considered as I created Mya. However, the biggest influence for me came from Fern Arable of Charlotte’s Web.

 

BBS: Tell us more about Fern Arable’s influence? Also, what’s your overall goal in writing this series? What need are you hoping Maya fills among the contemporary works of today? Is there something specific you hope readers experience after reading Maya’s stories?

Crystal: To me, there’s a difference in creating a character, and providing a friend. Back in the day, when I read Charlotte’s Web, I had just moved to a farm, and was the new kid at school. I was friendless, bullied, and on the verge of hating everything and everybody. When the librarian gave me Charlotte’s Web, I realized Fern was just like me. She lived on a farm, loved animals, and didn’t seem to have many friends. I needed her. She looked like me, in ways other than skin color. That’s what I’m hoping Mya does for someone else.

BBS: What’s the next title in the series? When is the pub date?

Crystal: The next title is called The Wall of Fame Game. It’s pub date will be 2017!

BBS: Any other projects you want to share?

Crystal: Nope. I’m just having fun with Mya!

 

YOUR FRIENDS AT THE BROWN BOOKSHELF WISH YOU AND MAYA A VERY HAPPY BOOK BIRTHDAY, CRYSTAL!  

To learn more about Mya, Crystal, and her other books, please visit Crystal’s  website: CrystalAllenBooks.com


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17. Congratulations to the Honorees!

28dayslogoToday, we are proud to announce the honorees for our ninth annual 28 Days Later campaign, a Black History Month celebration of emerging and established children’s book creators of color. Throughout February, we will showcase outstanding authors and illustrators through guest posts, Q&As and features on their latest book. We invite you to come along on our journey and spread the news to your friends.

The submissions window for our campaign opened on November 15 and closed on December 1. We are grateful for the wonderful suggestions from librarians, teachers, publishers and kidlit lovers that came in. Our team considered those names along with internal nominations and nominees from past years, keeping focused on our mission to raise awareness of the many African-American voices writing for young readers.

The celebration will begin on Monday, February 1, 2015, and we will honor 28 children’s book creators – 24 authors and four illustrators. This year – a leap year – we’re honoring a  phenomenal children’s literature scholar who is dedicated to raising awareness of children’s book creators of color too.

The honorees and the day they will be featured are as follows:

(Vanguard authors/illustrators in bold.)

Day 1 – Maya Angelou 

Day 2 – Damian Ward

Day 3 – Mélina Mangal

Day 4 – Daniel José Older

Day 5 – Johnny Ray Moore

Day 6 – Renée Watson

Day 7 – Ekua Holmes

Day 8 – Lorenzo Pace

Day 9 – Marguerite Abouet

Day 10 – Mo’Ne Davis

Day 11 – Ronald L. Smith

Day 12 – Troy Andrews

Day 13 – Jessixa Bagley

Day 14 – Guy A. Sims

Day 15 – Sharee Miller

Day 16 – Trevor Pryce

Day 17 – Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Day 18 – Tom Feelings

Day 19 – Aaron Phillip

Day 20 – Cheryl Wills

Day 21 – Shannon Gibney

Day 22 – Edwidge Danticat

Day 23 – Christopher S. Ledbetter

Day 24 – Danielle Paige

Day 25 – John Lewis

Day 26 – Nnedi Okorafor

Day 27 – Lynda Blackmon Lowery

Day 28 – Nicola Yoon

Day 29 – Edith (Edi) Campbell

Congratulations!

 


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18. Brown Bookshelf Favorite Books of 2015

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Don Tate and Christine Taylor-Butler (The Lost Tribes, Move Books) at ALA.

In 2015,  I logged a lot of miles on the exhibit floors of children’s book conferences—ALA, BEA, TLA, NCTE, NCSS, many more, acronyms abound.

As I walked, my eyes stayed peeled for treasures that featured Black characters, books that reflect my African American experience, history, culture, or any book on any topic written and/or illustrated by a Black creator. It was often a frustrating and humbling experience. But I’m a persistent guy, I mined exhibit halls for gems until my feet hurt.

My hunt paid off, too. I discovered books illustrated by Christian Robinson, Ekua Holmes, London Ladd, and books written by Carole Boston Weatherford, Charles R. Smith, Nikki Grimes (I’m a picture book guy).

I decided to create my own end-of-year list, based upon the books I’d read throughout the year (which, admittedly, was not a lot due to my own busy schedule).

I also elicited help from a few other The Brown Bookshelf team members. Here is a list of our  favorite books of 2015:

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Ira’s Shakesphere Dream, written by Glenda Armand, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, Lee & Low Books

Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, written by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Shane W. Evans

Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass, written by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by London Ladd, Jump at the Sun

Boats For Papa, written and illustrated by Jessixa Bagley, Roaring Brook Press

Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, written by Laurie Ann Thompson, illustrated by Sean Qualls, Schwartz & Wade

my-three-best-friends-and-me-zulay[1].jpgTAMEKA FRYER BROWN

Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, written and illustrated by Don Tate, Peachtree Publishers

My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay, written by Cari Best, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Bottle Cap Boys Dancing On Royal Street, written by Rita Williams-Garcia, illustrated by Damian Ward, Marimba Books

Trombone Shorty, written by Troy Andrews, illustrated by Bryan Collier, Harry N. Abrams

Sunday Shopping, written by Sally Derby, illustrated by Shadra Strickland, Lee & Low Books

KELLY STARLING LYONS

The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore, written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, Carolrhoda Picture Books

Last Stop on Market Street , written by Matt De La Pena, illustrated by Christian Robinson, G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers

51kmdyImfZL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jamey Christoph, Albert Whitman & Company

Poems in the Attic, written by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, Lee & Low Books

Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation, written by Edwidge Danticat, illustrated by Leslie Staub, Dial Books

OLUGBEMISOLA AMUSASHONUBI-PERKOVICH

Dayshaun’s Gift, written by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Alex Portal, 51tMj-mqwSL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpgCreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

Let The Faithful Come, written by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Charity Russell, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

Show and Prove, written by Sofia Quintero, Knopf Books for Young Readers

Love From Anna Hibiscus, written by Atinuke, illustrated by  Lauren Tobia, Walker Books

This Side of Home, written by Renée Watson, Bloomsbury USA Childrens

51SwtkpyLlL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpgVoice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Ekua Holmes

My Pen, written and illustrated by Christopher Myers, Disney-Hyperion

Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, written by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López, HMH Books for Young Readers


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19. Sneak Peek: Bottle Cap Boys Dancing on Royal Street

Award-winning author Rita Williams-Garcia

Award-winning author Rita Williams-Garcia

One of the pleasures of The Brown Bookshelf is getting a sneak peek at outstanding new work by black children’s book creators. Thank you to Marimba Books for sending us the latest treasure by award-winner Rita Williams-Garcia, The Bottle Cap Boys Dancing on Royal Street. Illustrated by Damian Ward and distributed by Just Us Books, Rita’s second picture book (officially debuts on October 15) is a lyrical celebration of young performers in New Orleans who grind bottle caps into the bottom of their sneakers and tap to applause and tips. The story, a thrilling competition between two brothers who are “bottle-cap kings,” pulses with meaning as you learn how their tapping helps realize their dreams. With finger-snapping rhythm, just-right pacing and loads of cool, Rita’s talented brothers dance their way into our hearts.

We’re proud to share an interview with Rita that gives you an inside look at Bottle Cap Boys, explores her inspirations and generously passes on advice to aspiring authors.

Hi Rita! Welcome back to The Brown Bookshelf. It’s an honor to celebrate your beautiful new picture book, Bottle Cap Boys Dancing on Royal Street.

Yay, Brown Bookshelf! I must tell you, I was on a panel at Bookcon with Cheryl Hudson this past spring, where a teen attendee recommended the Brown Bookshelf for finding books of diversity. Leave it to teens to be in the know.

 We featured you in our 2008 28 Days Later campaign. Since then, you’ve created even more outstanding work. How has the racial landscape of the children’s book industry changed since you’ve been in the field? Do you feel like there are more or fewer opportunities for black children’s book creators than when you started? What is your advice to those who want to break in? What do you hope the future brings?

What landscape? It was a desert back then. You could count the number of books for children and teens published per year featuring black characters on one hand. I almostCOVER_Bottle Cap Boys_Dancing on Royal Street_200 pixels wide don’t want to go back there. It depresses me. In the 1980s there were so few contemporary stories, or stories beyond the Civil Rights Era. In the meantime, our kids and teens were crying out for more relatable, contemporary stories. And yes, I’m speaking of teen novels primarily. Walter Dean Myers was leading the fight, especially for male teens, but contemporary female protagonists were hard to find. Jackie Woodson and I had been around since the late 80s, but it wasn’t until the mid-90s with authors like Sharon Draper, Sharon Flake, Nikki Grimes, Angela Johnson, that the presence of contemporary black female protagonists began to come to the forefront. (Please, people. I know there were more in the 80s and 90s. The point is, they were still countable, which is the problem.) You could find the 90s titles in libraries but also in big chains and independent book stores. The mid-90s also rang in the heralded the success of Christopher Paul Curtis’s groundbreaking The Watsons Go to Birmingham and Bud, Not Buddy. Even so, we’re still talking relatively small numbers of books about children and teens of color being published annually, twenty years ago.

However, the picture book market was picking up. The more colorful, the better! Parents and grandparents demanded these books at festivals, fairs, stores and at the library for their home libraries and for bedtime reading. Illustrators of color or those who illustrated books of diverse characters were on the rise. They brought to the page a warmth of diversity within diverse people like no one else could. It makes a difference to the child viewing the art and wanting to find connection with the characters.

In those early days you had a fledgling group of industry professionals of color, looking for books that featured people of color. Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Jump at the Sun (Disney) brought us Sharon Flake’s The Skin I’m In—over a million copies sold. Scholastic editors Bernette Ford and Kevin Lewis—who later moved to Simon and Schuster were always actively seeking books of diversity in the 90s. While there are more editors of diversity in publishing for children, there is room for more.

onecrazysummerYears ago, I counted the number of books being published annually. Getting to the heart of diversity today must go much further than that. Publishing includes not only the author and her book, but the world that produces the book, presents and critiques the book, markets the book, distributes the book, heralds the book, shelves the books, and makes buying decisions about the book. It helps to have diversity in areas of publishing to scout emerging talent, and to steer or encourage, even if their book isn’t ready for publication—more the case than not. It helps to have that strong and diverse coalition of librarians looking for books to serve their communities. It helps to have agents who can see the literary and commercial potential in their client’s career and fight for that author or illustrator. Yes, an agent does that and more in general, but an agent must understand the value of the book they are fighting for. An agent must have vision.

What would I like to see? Simple. I want to see so many books that we lose count of how many books of diversity are being published. I want to see a wealth of books of all subjects and representations for every reader.   Today, although you have more of a book count, and more of an author and illustrator count, and certainly more industry professionals of color, we still need diverse books! The numbers are still unrepresentative of the readers in our communities. Let me just say what Walter has always said: “There is still work to do.”

The road for those who are trying to break in is tricky, often arduous, but well worth it. I was having a conversation with Jackie a few years ago about where this next generation of black writers will come from. Things looked bleak. But that was a few years ago. The ground is opening up and a new generation of authors and illustrators are producing phenomenal stuff, covering a diverse field of subjects and characters! I see them enrolling in MFA programs like Vermont College of Fine Arts, Hamline, Simmons College, and Rollins, but we need more candidates. It isn’t that an MFA is essential, but the understanding of craft gives the writer a leg up in this highly competitive industry. Gone are the days when you can write from the heart and be clueless about notable books in the industry that are being published. My first novel was full of promise, but I had a lot to learn. Having to start all over was nothing but painful, but I had to decide if would be angry or published. I chose being published. I learned as much as I could about the craft of writing and then got an MA in Creative Writing. Financial hardship keeps many applicants of color away from pursuing an MFA. Even for people of the majority, it takes tremendous sacrifice to make that commitment. MFA programs like VCFA are offering diversity scholarships, but it is still a challenge.

psbeelevenIn the meantime, read widely. Read what’s out there across the board. Write every day. Keep a writing schedule and stick to it. Embrace revision. There’s no writing without rewriting and rewriting. [Full disclosure: I hate it, but I’m generally grateful for the process.] Know your craft, but don’t let craft knowledge make you crazy. Find one good craft book. Maybe two. And let that be that. Annie LaMott’s Bird by Bird is a good start, along with Marion Dane Bauer’s What’s Your Story—especially if you’re truly beginning.   Get an agent. Having an agent is the best indication that your work is marketable. Listen to your agent. They get paid by selling your book. They want to get paid, but they are also as good as their reputation. They must believe your book is of fine quality and beyond.  [Full disclosure: I don’t have an agent, but I am a relic of a bygone era. Get an agent.] When you finish your novel, start on a new one. Let your book get cold before you come back to it—but you must stay hot. Get to writing your next project!

You’re known best for your award-winning novels like P.S. Be Eleven and One Crazy Summer. But you also have an acclaimed picture book, Catching The Wild Waiyuuzee (2000). Had you always intended to return to that genre? Why or why not?

Believe me. I would publish a picture book every other year if someone wanted them! I write and rewrite, but, alas—I meet up with more rejections than a few! Does that stop me? Nah. I imagine, write, rewrite them and rewrite them and put them away when I get stuck. But when I have a breather in between novels or when I’m stuckcatchingthewildpb during the course of writing a novel, I work on a picture book. I absolutely love the shorter form. I love the colors, rhythm and humor of picture books and read a lot when I get a chance. I keep trying. Wish me luck!  

What inspired  Bottle Cap Boys? Why did you want to tell that story as a picture book instead of in a longer form? What were the challenges and rewards?

I’d been to New Orleans twice before the devastation of 2005. During those visits I couldn’t hit a corner without seeing kids with tip boxes, bottle cap dancing on street corners or in the French Quarter. I never left the hotel without change for tip boxes. It was hard to pass these dancers by without showing them a little love. I had even picked up a print by artist Margaret Slade Kelly of two boys bottle cap dancing and hung it over my desk. Those hard dancing kids just stayed with me.

There were so many levels of devastation and sorrow in the wake of the gulf storm. All we could do was pray and donate whatever we had to the displaced and marooned. Later, I began to think about the children I used to see dancing on street corners.  Many stories come to mind. After all, even while those kids danced, they also dealt with the dangers and realities of being on the street. A grittier story about children in survival mode is straightforward enough to plot itself in a longer form. I know I could tell that story. The problem was, my heart was never in telling it, so I’m leaving that to another writer. Instead, let me work on much younger hearts and minds. If you read about bottle cap dancers when you’re five or six, then you might want to try bottle cap dancing. If you read about bottle cap dancers on Royal Street, you might feel the magic. If you see tasty food falling out of the sky on these colorful pages when you’re five or six, you might taste the flavors of New Orleans without having been to Dooky Chase or any of the other fine New Orleans restaurants. The very young will have more than enough time to read those more complex and grittier stories a little later.

On your site, you say, “I’m a writer, an observer, a daydreamer. I look at people or a situation and simply imagine.” I love that statement. Can you tell us about the impact seeing the young bottle cap tappers had on you?

bluetightsI’m often asked if my stories are autobiographical, and I have to say, no—although, like my protagonist in Blue Tights, I wanted to dance, but didn’t have a dancer’s body. For the most part, I deeply imagine my characters until I can hear them. Understand them. This happens when I’m still. In the daydream zone! I’ll go out spot something or someone interesting, and fixate on what I find intriguing. From there, possibilities of story might bloom. I like to take a quick glance at a person or object and build a small story in my mind. Maybe a woman’s outerwear is too neat. I then imagine she’s living in chaos. I see a boy with a bump on the side of his head. The story I imagine entertains me more than the story he’d tell me. Very little of what I observe daily goes into my writing, but it trains my brain to think about my characters deeply.

The thing I observed about the bottle cap dancers years ago was that they didn’t smile much but danced energetically. When they did smile, there was a plea in their eyes, or sometimes the smiles were so hard, I could feel the dancers wearing their masks and willing their souls elsewhere. I could also see that many of these kids were hungry. If you look at the world like a writer, you’ll always see a little more than you expect or want to see. But your mind “goes there.” You can’t un-see. In this case I thought of how a young soul could be both sad and triumphant.  

On the Just Us Books home page, there’s a lovely note welcoming you as a new addition to their publishing family. The note ends with “welcome home,” because you’re longtime friends of the Hudsons. Do you feel like working with them is a homecoming? Why were they the right publisher for Bottle Cap Boys?

Having my book published by Team Hudson is indeed a homecoming. When my children were growing up in the 80s and early 90s, my husband, Peter Garcia and I felt strongly about surrounding them with books whose characters looked like them. We wanted our daughters to see the accomplishments and history of people of color in the U.S., Africa, the Caribbean and Latino countries. Just Us Books was our “go to” source for fun and educational books. I recall Cheryl’s Bright Eyes, Brown Skin, [co-written with Bernette Ford] drawn lovingly by George Ford was a big favorite at the Garcia home. I had to get two copies because the covers got dogged from constant page turning.

My association with the Hudsons is more than a typical author and publishing pairing. I wanted to pay tribute to the children who were part of the street performer scene in New Orleans, and at the same time I was “going through it.” I’d quit my long-time job in the software industry and was living lean as I wrote Jumped and worked part time for Vermont College of Fine Arts. The Hudsons showed immediate interest and enthusiasm in Bottle Cap Boys when I queried. We began a partnership of creating a picture book that would be a celebration, in spite of the hard realities these young dancers face. Not only was my book in good hands but I was in good hands. The Hudsons understand about hard times, the storm and the rainbow.

On the bio page of your web site, you say, “Writing stories for young people is my passion and my mission.” Please tell us why it’s so central to who you are. What do you hope your writing gives to children and adults?

In truth, I had to develop a passion for writing for young people. I’d been grooming myself to write the “Great American Novel” for adults since I was a kid. I probably read more adult novels, plays and poetry than I read children’s literature back then. But when I needed a novel for contemporary urban girls and couldn’t find one I began to shift gears. And then actually meeting readers changed everything! I could see the need for stories with connection in readers and especially in non-readers, I had the joy of storytelling, fiction (lying), and reading in me for as long as I can remember. I know that my people were forbidden to learn to read, so they memorized parts of the Bible. I know my father was denied entrance to his local library because he lived in the Jim Crow south. I know that people need story. Can you imagine a generation that learns to turn off the necessary act of reading because for them it holds little connection? The thought of an elective illiterate society frightens and depresses me. I hope to simply write a story someone’s dying to read. I want to include and not exclude. I hope to tell both truthful stories and wildly imaginative stories. I hope these stories made connections and foster possibilities for readers of all ages.

What’s next for you?

I’m definitely pitching a pb to Just Us Books when I’m ready. Cross your fingers for me! I’m finishing up a short middle grade novel, CLAYTON BYRD GOES UNDERGROUND, aimed at a reader in need of a shorter book, high content. Think the blues meets hip-hop.  Again, wish me luck!

Learn more about Rita Williams-Garcia here.  Buy a copy of Bottle Cap Boys Dancing on Royal Street here.


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20. R. Gregory Christi and Mousetropolis

hshtLet me re-introduce you to R. Gregory Christi along with his picture book, Mousetropolis. Christi visited the Brown Bookshelf during our 28 Days Later campaign on February 4, 2015. During that interview, I was struck by his phrase, “… artist who can alter the human form with an eloquence and rhythm.” I interpreted artist as writers and well as illustrators and applied it to mice. It’s very appropriate for his updated and unique version of an Aesop fable.
Mousetropolis is both eloquent and rhythmic. The concept of writing as well as illustrating his own work intrigued me. I asked Christi to share his experience with the Brown Bookshelf’s readers and he accepted my invitation despite his super busy schedule.SQ-Mousetropolis

Is Mousetropolis your first author/illustrator project?
Yes and I was really happy to have the fine folks at Holiday House Books patiently support this new territory for me, it’s really an amazing company. It’s the first American publishing house to solely publish books for children and I’m honored to be a part of their list.

Did it feel odd to illustrate your writing?
Absolutely! As I child I would spend hours developing as a visual artist. Once I felt proficient with sketching I focused on tonal drawings, as that developed I moved on to pen and ink and eventually paints. On and on, decades of study that kept me up many nights. I loved growing creatively because it built my self-esteem and helped me to connect to people. For most of my life, I never personally considered words as my medium and looking back I must say that my focus on the visual arts was pretty absolute. So even after years of people telling me that I should write books, figuring out Mousetropolis’ written voice was a terror. I got over it by stepping outside of my own head and giving what was written a visual voice (and vice versa).

As you wrote, did you visualize the illustrations?
No, it was wasn’t terribly difficult to illustrate right away because of it being a well-known story. So I really found the project’s written voice during the sketch phase. Additionally I’m not such a fan of doing anything in a linear way, so the two grew in tandem. However, I did have to visualize the main characters. Initially I was thinking of a style based on Mars Blackmon for the city mouse (Spike Lee’s fictional character in the film “She’s Gotta Have It”). I was going to do a mouse with 1980’s Gazelles and a cap turned to the side and then decided to go another route. I was concerned about stereotypes, worried that I’d be insulting aspects of American culture and regions by being too heavy handed with clichés. So I left out the straw hats, “gold grillz” or bucked teeth chomping on straw but kept the overalls and oversize tee shirts.

inside 2

What obstacles did you encounter?
I was respectful of representations from both regions and the biggest change was from a night time city view with many lights into a multitude of brownstones and two story buildings when the mice first see the city. Another big change comes from an equal opportunity conversation. One of my interns from, the autographed children’s book store and art school, GAS-ART GIFTS, that I run in Decatur, Georgia, stated ‘How come there are no girl mice”?! I figured that the mice could be whichever gender the reader’s heart desired but that didn’t seem to fly. So if you look for it you’ll see a purple miniskirt wearing mouse with a pink purse and striped tights, that was something I never saw coming but, there you go—gender equality.

How would you describe the art medium?
It’s acrylic gouache, an opaque acrylic watercolor that has the properties of both acrylic and gouache. It’s perfect for laying in tones, details and then drawing on top of them with lines. inside 1

Congratulations! Mousetropolis is a wonderful book that will mesmerize children and inspire authors-illustrators. Thank you for sharing your creative process with the readers of The Brown Bookshelf.

Christi’s latest projects are The Book Itch (November 2015)and Freedom in Congo Square (January 2016).

Visit him on his website, gas-art.com.


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21. Call for Nominations: 28 Days Later

28dayslogoGet your minds in gear. It’s that time. Today, we open nominations for our ninth annual 28 Days Later campaign, a Black History Month showcase honoring emerging and established children’s book creators and their amazing literary contributions.

With your help, we’ve celebrated more than 220 black authors and illustrators. But there are so many more who deserve to be saluted.

Please nominate outstanding authors, illustrators or books in any of the following categories:

  • new children’s or young adult releases by black children’s book creators
  • unsung children’s or young adult books by black children’s book creators
  • “under the radar” black authors or illustrators
  • vanguard black authors or illustrators

Nominations will be accepted beginning today, November 15, through December 1, 2015. To make a nomination, simply post a comment. Feel free to suggest as many individuals and books as you like.

To avoid nominating children’s book creators who have already been honored, please check out our previous honorees at the following links:

28 DAYS LATER – 2014

28 DAYS LATER – 2013

28 DAYS LATER – 2012

28 DAYS LATER – 2011

28 DAYS LATER – 2010

28 DAYS LATER – 2009

28 DAYS LATER – 2008

We’ll consider your suggestions, our internal nominations and recommendations from past campaigns. Then, we’ll announce the new class of 28 Days Later honorees on January 18, 2016. The celebration kicks off February 1.

Our mission is to raise awareness of the many African Americans creating books for young readers. With 28 Days Later, we put these talents in front of the folks who can get their books into the hands of kids – librarians, teachers, parents and booksellers among others.

Thank you for your continued support.

 


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22. Writing Enslaved Narratives, by Don Tate

Don-Tate-Media-Photos-2I have two books out this year, POET: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF GEORGE MOSES HORTON (authored and illustrated), and THE AMAZING AGE OF JOHN ROY LYNCH (illustrated). Both books deal with the subject of African Americans who overcame great adversities in the backdrop of slavery and/or Reconstruction. Collectively the books have garnered 5 starred reviews from major book review journals, and have been praised widely elsewhere.

In general, with stories dealing with the topic of slavery—or history in general—I strive to be honest with children and not sugarcoat. History is not always sweet. I believe that children are smart, resilient, and can handle the truth. As one librarian recently said to me about the topic, “Children have no problem with getting down in the mud.” I owe it to children to tell the truth.

In POET, I portray the anger of enslaved African Americans during a slave rebellion scene, several enslaved people brandishing weapons. A white slave owner has been killed. A white mother reaches out to shield her child from the violence. It was a difficult scene and a lot of thought went into it. When I was a kid, I always wondered why enslaved people didn’t fight back. I’d say things like, “No one would have made me a slave, I’d have fought back!” Well, guess what, many times, enslaved people did fight back! Take Nat Turner, whose rebellion caused fear in slaveowners all over the South.

But as a kid, I never saw that depicted in books, so I didn’t know. Had I known, I might not have felt so ashamed every time the topic of slavery came up in sixth-grade history class.

In THE AMAZING AGE OF JOHN ROY LYNCH, I show the fear in an enslaved child’s face, before a relative is about to be whipped by a white man, an angry mob looks on. This is what happened, it was real life for the children who lived through it. I owe it to my ancestors to portray their stories accurately, with empathy, sensitivity, with consideration to my young audience.

Broaching the subject of slavery can be a tricky one, though. Should an enslaved person ever be pictured smiling? Well, it depends upon what is happening in a story. In POET, I pictured Horton on the cover of the book with a glowing smile, although he is enslaved and not freed until later in life. On the first page of the book, I also pictured him with a (slight) smile, all the while, the text on the page reads that “George was enslaved.” That was a tough call, and I revised that spread many times. I worried about what young Horton’s expression might communicate to young readers (and reviewers) about Horton’s condition.

In the end, I stayed true to Horton’s story, based upon reading his autobiographical sketch in THE POETICAL WORKS. Horton’s life was full of sadness, tragedy, disappointment, anger, misery. He had to perform daylong, backbreaking work, without pay. At seventeen, he was given away to the family member of his master, separated from his family. I made sure to include these sad realities in my text. But do you think Horton, still enslaved, did not smile as he held a copy of his published books in his hands? It’s all about context. What is happening in a story when the smile occurs?


As book creators, we need to be careful not to portray enslaved people as happy in their condition as slaves, but we also have to remember that smiles humanize, they offer hope.

(x-posted at We Need Diverse Books)


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23. Writing About Family and Freedom, by Kelly Starling Lyons

KSL - headshot
As a kid, I remember seeing a textbook illustration of enslaved people picking cotton. They were expressionless, nameless. When I write a story that explores slavery, I want to show the opposite.

I want to create fully-developed characters that hit you in the heart. I want kids to connect with their feelings. I want children to have a new understanding of familiar objects like a conch shell or a broom and their meaning in enslaved people’s lives.

I want to crush the myths of the “happy slave,” “helpless slave,” “hopeless slave” and honor the unbreakable spirit of children, women and men who survived the unthinkable through intelligence, creativity, resilience, faith and love.

It’s said that buying a book is a political act. Writing one is too. I try to show unsung parts of history to take kids on important journeys and celebrate how much family and freedom matter. I work hard and pray that I do the stories of my ancestors justice. Slavery was twisted, brutal, horrifying. How do you share the truth in a way that young children can understand?

Three of my picture books delve into slavery –Hope’s Gift, Ellen’s Broom and Tea Cakes for Tosh. Hope’s Gift, illustrated by Don Tate, is set during the Civil War. My editor Stacey invited me to submit a story about a child growing up at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. Humbled and honored, I plunged into research. I visited a North Carolina plantation site, spoke to curators, read slave narratives and books about the experiences of enslaved children and antebellum Christmas traditions. I studied Harper’s Weekly articles and illustrations, learned about the significance of conch shells during slavery and the formation of U.S. Colored Troops.

I did so much digging that at first my story was weighed down by details. The history was there, but it didn’t come to life. My editor told me to put my notes aside for a while and feel. That’s when the real story took flight.

Hope is an enslaved girl, but bondage cannot break the love that holds her family together. One Christmas night, Hope’s father makes a heartbreaking decision: He runs away to join the war and help bring freedom to his family and others. Hope, her mother and brother experience overwhelming loss.

But like her name suggests, Hope feels something else too. She holds the conch shell Papa gave her to her ear, hears the swooshing and remembers his reassuring words: “Nothing can keep freedom from coming. Nothing.”

When the plantation owner discovers that Papa has run away, Hope hears him holler a chilling warning: “Said when he finds him, Papa gonna wish he never got that fool notion to run.” Don, the artist, pictures the overseer with a whip in his hands. Mama protectively hovers over her children. The threat of brutality is right there in your face. In picture books about slavery, showing reality is important.

What we write and illustrate helps shape what children understand. Later in the story, Hope goes from minding Henry and other kids to working in the fields with Mama from “pink light to purple dark.” Mama nurses Hope’s cotton bur-pricked hands at night. There’s fleeting joy when they hear in the fields that President Lincoln is going to free enslaved people on New Year’s. But when the day comes and they’re still in bondage, Hope holds back her tears, soothes her brother and reminds him of Papa’s words.

That scene was important to me. I remember thinking as a child that the Emancipation Proclamation liberated enslaved people all at once. I wanted to show that gaining freedom was an arduous process. And enslaved men, women and children were agents of change.

Rather than helplessly wait to be freed, enslaved people became Union spies, scouts, sailors and soldiers like Papa. Others waged their own acts of opposition right where they were. It empowers children to know that enslaved people fought for freedom. Don did a beautiful job displaying the full range of emotions in the story from the agony of being enslaved and the heartbreak of Papa being gone to joy when he returns.

It was crucial to show context in Ellen’s Broom too. Set during Reconstruction, the story celebrates the right of freedmen and women to have their marriages legally recognized. It wasn’t enough to show Ellen’s pride at her parents finally having the law honor their sacred bond. I had to reveal why it means so much.

Mama and Papa talk about the broom hanging above the fireplace in their cabin and explain how things used to be: “Husband and wives could be ripped apart, sold away at any time. It didn’t matter if they cried or even begged to stay together. Master had the final say.”

Artist Daniel Minter, who won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for our book, shows a wrenching scene of a husband and wife being separated.

The husband, in chains, looks back at his wife who is screaming for him as the plantation owner yanks her away. Why is having their marriages made legal so important? Because no one can ever forcibly tear them apart again.

In another spread, Daniel shows the thrill of Mama and Papa jumping the broom together. Their open-mouthed smiles display their commitment to a life together and spiritual victory over an institution bent on breaking them.

Ellen is charged with carrying their wedding broom on their walk to the courthouse. Now that she understands the pain of what they’ve come through, Ellen helps make their triumphant journey even sweeter.

My last book that touches on slavery is Tea Cakes for Tosh. I grew up making delicious, golden cookies called tea cakes with my grandma just like my character Tosh. Each time his grandma Honey makes them, she tells Tosh the story of their great-great-great-great Grandma Ida and he feels like he’s flying back in time. Tosh sees Grandma Ida, an enslaved cook, creating tea cakes for the plantation owner and his family. Honey tells him that Grandma Ida tasting or sharing them would be considered stealing.

But one day, she slips tea cakes into her apron pocket as an act of resistance. Honey reveals the danger: “She risked being whipped to give her children a taste of sweet freedom. Grandma Ida would give each child a tea cake, a promise of days to come.”

Artist E.B. Lewis gives Grandma Ida a somber expression as she carries tea cakes on a tray. It shows that making the cookies is not something she’s doing for fun. She’s enslaved and doesn’t have a choice. As the book shifts to present, E.B.’s gorgeous illustrations make you feel the closeness between Honey and Tosh and how much the story of Grandma Ida and the tea cakes mean. Near the end of the book, E.B. shows Grandma Ida again.

This time, she smiles as she gives tea cakes to enslaved children – an act of bravery and love. The last page is Honey and Tosh hugging as Grandma Ida’s promise has been realized through them.

Writing about slavery and freedom is not easy. But I think about the kids I serve and the girl I used to be and try my best to get it right. For children’s book creators of color writing and illustrating these books is a way to be an agent of change too. Instead of leaving it to others to tell our stories, we’re giving a piece of who we are back to ourselves.

(x-posted at We Need Diverse Books)


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24. Writing About Family and Freedom, by Kelly Starling Lyons

KSL - headshot
As a kid, I remember seeing a textbook illustration of enslaved people picking cotton. They were expressionless, nameless. When I write a story that explores slavery, I want to show the opposite.

I want to create fully-developed characters that hit you in the heart. I want kids to connect with their feelings. I want children to have a new understanding of familiar objects like a conch shell or a broom and their meaning in enslaved people’s lives.

I want to crush the myths of the “happy slave,” “helpless slave,” “hopeless slave” and honor the unbreakable spirit of children, women and men who survived the unthinkable through intelligence, creativity, resilience, faith and love.

It’s said that buying a book is a political act. Writing one is too. I try to show unsung parts of history to take kids on important journeys and celebrate how much family and freedom matter. I work hard and pray that I do the stories of my ancestors justice. Slavery was twisted, brutal, horrifying. How do you share the truth in a way that young children can understand?

Three of my picture books delve into slavery –Hope’s Gift, Ellen’s Broom and Tea Cakes for Tosh. Hope’s Gift, illustrated by Don Tate, is set during the Civil War. My editor Stacey invited me to submit a story about a child growing up at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. Humbled and honored, I plunged into research. I visited a North Carolina plantation site, spoke to curators, read slave narratives and books about the experiences of enslaved children and antebellum Christmas traditions. I studied Harper’s Weekly articles and illustrations, learned about the significance of conch shells during slavery and the formation of U.S. Colored Troops.

I did so much digging that at first my story was weighed down by details. The history was there, but it didn’t come to life. My editor told me to put my notes aside for a while and feel. That’s when the real story took flight.

Hope is an enslaved girl, but bondage cannot break the love that holds her family together. One Christmas night, Hope’s father makes a heartbreaking decision: He runs away to join the war and help bring freedom to his family and others. Hope, her mother and brother experience overwhelming loss.

But like her name suggests, Hope feels something else too. She holds the conch shell Papa gave her to her ear, hears the swooshing and remembers his reassuring words: “Nothing can keep freedom from coming. Nothing.”

When the plantation owner discovers that Papa has run away, Hope hears him holler a chilling warning: “Said when he finds him, Papa gonna wish he never got that fool notion to run.” Don, the artist, pictures the overseer with a whip in his hands. Mama protectively hovers over her children. The threat of brutality is right there in your face. In picture books about slavery, showing reality is important.

What we write and illustrate helps shape what children understand. Later in the story, Hope goes from minding Henry and other kids to working in the fields with Mama from “pink light to purple dark.” Mama nurses Hope’s cotton bur-pricked hands at night. There’s fleeting joy when they hear in the fields that President Lincoln is going to free enslaved people on New Year’s. But when the day comes and they’re still in bondage, Hope holds back her tears, soothes her brother and reminds him of Papa’s words.

That scene was important to me. I remember thinking as a child that the Emancipation Proclamation liberated enslaved people all at once. I wanted to show that gaining freedom was an arduous process. And enslaved men, women and children were agents of change.

Rather than helplessly wait to be freed, enslaved people became Union spies, scouts, sailors and soldiers like Papa. Others waged their own acts of opposition right where they were. It empowers children to know that enslaved people fought for freedom. Don did a beautiful job displaying the full range of emotions in the story from the agony of being enslaved and the heartbreak of Papa being gone to joy when he returns.

It was crucial to show context in Ellen’s Broom too. Set during Reconstruction, the story celebrates the right of freedmen and women to have their marriages legally recognized. It wasn’t enough to show Ellen’s pride at her parents finally having the law honor their sacred bond. I had to reveal why it means so much.

Mama and Papa talk about the broom hanging above the fireplace in their cabin and explain how things used to be: “Husband and wives could be ripped apart, sold away at any time. It didn’t matter if they cried or even begged to stay together. Master had the final say.”

Artist Daniel Minter, who won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for our book, shows a wrenching scene of a husband and wife being separated.

The husband, in chains, looks back at his wife who is screaming for him as the plantation owner yanks her away. Why is having their marriages made legal so important? Because no one can ever forcibly tear them apart again.

In another spread, Daniel shows the thrill of Mama and Papa jumping the broom together. Their open-mouthed smiles display their commitment to a life together and spiritual victory over an institution bent on breaking them.

Ellen is charged with carrying their wedding broom on their walk to the courthouse. Now that she understands the pain of what they’ve come through, Ellen helps make their triumphant journey even sweeter.

My last book that touches on slavery is Tea Cakes for Tosh. I grew up making delicious, golden cookies called tea cakes with my grandma just like my character Tosh. Each time his grandma Honey makes them, she tells Tosh the story of their great-great-great-great Grandma Ida and he feels like he’s flying back in time. Tosh sees Grandma Ida, an enslaved cook, creating tea cakes for the plantation owner and his family. Honey tells him that Grandma Ida tasting or sharing them would be considered stealing.

But one day, she slips tea cakes into her apron pocket as an act of resistance. Honey reveals the danger: “She risked being whipped to give her children a taste of sweet freedom. Grandma Ida would give each child a tea cake, a promise of days to come.”

Artist E.B. Lewis gives Grandma Ida a somber expression as she carries tea cakes on a tray. It shows that making the cookies is not something she’s doing for fun. She’s enslaved and doesn’t have a choice. As the book shifts to present, E.B.’s gorgeous illustrations make you feel the closeness between Honey and Tosh and how much the story of Grandma Ida and the tea cakes mean. Near the end of the book, E.B. shows Grandma Ida again.

This time, she smiles as she gives tea cakes to enslaved children – an act of bravery and love. The last page is Honey and Tosh hugging as Grandma Ida’s promise has been realized through them.

Writing about slavery and freedom is not easy. But I think about the kids I serve and the girl I used to be and try my best to get it right. For children’s book creators of color writing and illustrating these books is a way to be an agent of change too. Instead of leaving it to others to tell our stories, we’re giving a piece of who we are back to ourselves.

(x-posted at We Need Diverse Books)


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25. Guest Post: Don’t Stop Believing

DSC01797.jpgAt this time of year, people search for inspiring holiday books to share with children. Finding one that celebrates the beauty of the season and showcases our world’s diversity is a treasure. We are proud to feature a stunning addition to this collection.

Award-winning author, scholar and activist Zetta Elliott’s new picture book, Let the Faithful Come, is a lyrical nativity story with imagery inspired by the plight of Syrian refugees. A celebration of faith and a call for social justice, Zetta’s book reminds us of our duty to show love to each other not just at the holidays but every day.

Please join us in welcoming Zetta back to The Brown Bookshelf. Here, she shares with us the splendor of Let The Faithful Come.

When a bright star shines

on a dark, silent night,

let the faithful come.

I recently spent five days as a guest of the Arkansas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts (ACTELA). For the first four days, I led writing workshops and gave book talks to students and educators in the northern part of the state. Then I was taken to Little Rock for the Afaithfulcoverkansas Curriculum Conference where I gave the luncheon keynote address to an audience of about a hundred English teachers. I concluded my presentation with a reading of my latest picture book, Let the Faithful Come. I read the 300-word nativity story with calm confidence, knowing I was “preaching to the choir” in the so-called Bible Belt.

 

I come from a family of preachers and teachers. Though he considered becoming a minister while attending Bible College, my father instead became a high school teacher. My mother taught kindergarten for over 30 years, and I was one of the many students who benefited from her expertise. I met a veteran educator recently and we talked for a long while about the importance of including diversity in teacher training. Before we parted she narrowed her eyes at me and asked, “What do your parents do?” I didn’t have to tell her they were teachers—it shows! I’ve worked with kids for over 25 years, and I’ve taught at the college level for close to a decade. I inherited a love of learning from my parents but my storytelling skills come from my grandparents.

 

From places high and low,

across deserts and over seas,

let the faithful follow that glorious star.

Let them come.

 

Both of my mother’s parents were preachers in the Pilgrim Holiness Church, though my File0001grandfather was later ordained in the United Church. My grandmother stopped preaching once she got married, but proudly shared with anyone who would listen that her great-grandfather was the nephew of Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the AME Church. Together my grandparents had nine children; four of the five sons became United Church ministers, two of the four daughters married ministers, and one went on to become a United Church minister herself. Unlike most of my twenty-five cousins, I didn’t grow up as a PK (preacher’s kid) but I belonged to a large, devout family and religion played a big role in our frequent gatherings and holiday celebrations.

 

Christmas was—and remains—my favorite time of year. And though stockings and Santa had their place in our home, it was always impressed upon me that we were really celebrating the Page6birth of a very special child. For years I helped my mother to decorate her classroom for Christmas and though she always had a tree, the most prominent display was a nativity scene that covered the entire blackboard. I don’t recall if any of her students’ parents complained, but I doubt my mother would have cared. She saw it as her duty to share the story of Jesus’ birth, and what an amazing story it was—a bright star guiding weary travelers across the desert, wise men on camels bearing precious gifts, and a poor couple welcoming their first child as an assortment of farm animals looked on.

 

And when they enter that lowly place,

let them bow their heads with humble hearts.

Let them gaze upon the child with adoration,

and know that God is alive in this world.

 

I don’t often talk about religion because it no longer plays such a big role in my life. My mother forced me to attend church every Sunday morning (“So long as you live under my roof…”), and I vowed I would never again go to church once I moved out of her house, which is pretty much how things worked out. Once in a while I accompanied my father to Brooklyn Tabernacle, but the megachurch experience wasn’t for me and mostly I just hoped he would take me to Junior’s for lunch once church let out. I still pray every morning and night, and at funerals can usually remember the hymns I sang as a child. But at 43, I find that many of my friends are atheists or prefer to think of themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious” (according to the Pew Research Center, nearly a quarter of adults in the US identify as “nones” – a term for people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, or who say their religion is “nothing in particular”). I do have some friends who identify as Christian but they tend to be radical social justice activists and are nothing like those conservatives who think their time and energy is best spent complaining about the design of a coffee cup.

 

For on this night a child is born,

and within this child—in every child—

God has planted a seed.

 

I don’t think I’ve ever called myself a Christian, so why did I choose to publish an explicitly religious picture book for the holidays? I’ve self-published over a dozen books for young readers but Let the Faithful Come is special to me, partly because I wrote it four days after 9/11. Some say faith is all that sustains us in times of crisis, and I suppose the seed my parents and grandparents planted within me was not so easily uprooted. On September 15, 2001 I was living on the campus of Ohio University where I had moved to accept a dissertation fellowship. Earlier that month I had flown to Nova Scotia to attend my friend’s wedding and then I returned to Athens, OH days later to watch my beloved city come undone. I don’t remember much about the days immediately following the attack, but I do recall needing to turn the TV off so that I could write something—anything—that would prevent loneliness and despair from overwhelming me. I wrote two other stories at that time, The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun and The Boy in the Bubble, and found that writing magical stories for children made me feel less hopeless and less helpless.

 

When London-based illustrator Charity Russell completed A Wave Came Through Our Window, TruckI knew she was perfect for Let the Faithful Come. We talked about drawing inspiration from the courageous refugees fleeing Syria in search of sanctuary in Europe, and soon my simple nativity narrative took on a sense of immediacy. After 14 years of holding out hope that I would find an editor who could see the story’s significance, I suddenly wanted this book out now. We tried to make sure the migrants in the illustrations were diverse, and the camels from the original Bible story were replaced by contemporary modes of conveyance—boats, trains, and pick-up trucks.

 

When this night has passed

and the brilliant star fades before the soft dawn,

let the faithful return to their homes

with hearts cleansed and uplifted.

 

I considered dedicating the book to Aylan Kurdi, the little Syrian boy whose lifeless body was photographed on a beach in Turkey, sparking outrage across the world. Aylan’s family had been denied asylum in my country of birth, and part of me wanted to implicate Canada in his death; in the 21 years since I left, Canada has become a country I no longer recognize. But then I remembered that my adopted country has also closed its doors to those in need—how many children have died trying to reach the US from Central America, and how many still languish in detention?

 

I don’t know the names of all the children we have lost, but I hope that the smiling faces of the travelers in this book remind readers that there is another way. And that, for me, is the true message of Christmas: we can be better tomorrow than we are today (look at Scrooge!). No weary traveler seeking sanctuary should be turned away, and we must remember that every migrant child has the potential to transform our society. I don’t remember many of the Bible verses I was made to memorize as a child, but this one still appeals to me: “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

 

Let them rejoice!

Let their songs ring golden like bells in the sun,

so that all who still slumber will wake and rise.

Let the faithful come!           

Learn more about Zetta’s wonderful books for kids at http://www.zettaelliott.com.


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