Guest Post: Don’t Stop Believing

November 28, 2015

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

Writing About Family and Freedom, by Kelly Starling Lyons

November 19, 2015

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)

Writing Enslaved Narratives, by Don Tate

November 17, 2015

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)

Call for Nominations: 28 Days Later

November 15, 2015

28dayslogoIt’s that time. Nominations are now being accepted 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 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 – 2015

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.


R. Gregory Christie and Mousetropolis

October 26, 2015

hshtLet me re-introduce you to R. Gregory Christie along with his picture book, Mousetropolis. Christie 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 Christie 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.

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

Visit him on his website,

Sneak Peek: Bottle Cap Boys Dancing on Royal Street

September 23, 2015
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.

Nurturing the Next Generation of Writers

June 12, 2015

Morgan Billingsley

When I visit schools, one question kids ask is: “Do you have to be a grown-up to have a published book?” I tell them about trailblazer John Steptoe who started writing and illustrating his acclaimed book Stevie when he was 16. I mention Christopher Paolini who was a teen when his parents self-published his novel Eragon. A couple years later, it became a bestselling book for Knopf and inspired a feature film. It takes talent, hard work, resilience, commitment. But yes, kids can be published authors too.

I’m excited to add three more to my list of examples.

Jackie Lee1

Jackie Lee

Brown Girls Publishing, a boutique company founded by best-selling authors Victoria Christopher Murray and ReShonda Tate Billingsley, has an imprint that brings “fresh voices for children, written by children.” Three of those voices are tweens, Jackie Lee, Morgan Billingsley and Gabrielle Simone. Their first book was a collection of three Christmas stories titled The Perfect Present. Their second book, The Perfect Summer, debuted last month.

Gabrielle_Simone (1)

Gabrielle Simone

“It’s summertime! That means it’s time to sit back, relax and just have fun, right? Wrong! For Marlena Fernandez, Gloria and Valerie James and Max and Mickey Martin . . . summer is all about life lessons in these three page-turning tales about kids in search of The Perfect Summer.”

The girls count writing as just one of their many talents. Jackie is an actress who has starred in regional productions of The Wiz, The Christmas Present and One Night with a King. Morgan loves swimming and volleyball and serves as the secretary for the teen group of her Jack & Jill chapter. Gabrielle loves to learn. She’s student council representative for fifth grade and enjoys basketball, playing with dolls and soccer.

Here Jackie and Morgan talk about their latest book and share why they write:

What inspired you to be an author?
The Perfect Summer Front Cover-2Jackie: First, thank you for interviewing me. My mom interviews a lot of authors on her radio show. She also creates events for authors. Therefore, I always thought writing stories were cool.
Morgan: My mom is an author, so I guess you can say it’s in my blood. But I love telling stories and being able to make the characters do what I want them to do.
How did your story evolve?
Jackie: I look to ready funny books and books with good messages. I just thought of a few things and put them in my notebook.
Morgan: I wrote a simple 500 word paper and I wanted more of my own story. So I went back added details and the story grew.
Please tell us about your publication journey. How did your book project develop? What did you learn from the editorial process? What were the challenges? What were the rewards?
Jackie: This is my second book with Little Brown Girls Publishing. Editing is not easy for me. You have to pay attention to everything. I had Sol Testing during my deadline. That was not fun.
Morgan: I think I’m doing pretty well for an author. I made it to my second book not that far behind my first one. Of course, as with any author, I had some bumps and scratches along the way but I got up, dusted myself off, and kept going. At the beginning of my first story, I was struggling but then I got the hang of it. My second book was a tough one. The way it all came together was very original. It wasn’t as easy as it looked. My editor sent my first draft back because I kinda typed my whole book like I text :-). So it made me become much more professional. That probably was the biggest challenge. Some people may say I got this chance because my mom is an author, and I may have gotten in the door because of that, but I stayed because I’m a good writer.
How did you feel when your book was published?
Jackie: I was excited! I want to share my hard work with other kids.
Morgan: It’s a wonderful feeling to see something I wrote, I created come alive.
What advice would you offer other teens who dream of being authors?
Jackie: Believe in your dreams. Don’t let other people stop you from ding what is in your heart. You can accomplish your goals.
Morgan: Age is nothing but a number. You can write (or pursue any dream you have). Just never stop trying. Even if you don’t have someone there for you like I do, it doesn’t mean you can’t write amazing books or stories. And if God has blessed you with the gift of being able to write, you need to use it. I would consider it God’s gift that you can write and not everyone can write so take it as the greatest gift you can receive. I love writing and it’s a way I can let out my emotions.
What is your vision for the future?
Jackie: I want to continue writing. I have a lot more stories to tell. I also want to be a scientist.
Morgan: I want to just keep writing. I dont know that I want to be an author when I grow up because I’ve accomplished that goal. In the future, there may be other great things for me to conquer. Whatever I do, I’ll give it my best.
Find out more about Brown Girls Publishing and buy a copy of The Perfect Summer here.


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