An Author’s Journey to Getting Back in Print

October 12, 2014

©2014 By Eleanora E. Tate

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Photo Credit: Andy King

After Dial Press published my first book, Just an Overnight Guest, in 1980, I naively assumed that it would be in print forever. After all, Phoenix Films adapted it into a television film in 1983 and it aired on Nickelodeon and PBS’s Wonderworks all over the country. I don’t remember which year the hardcover went out of print, but it did, and without even going into paperback!

Since that time, eleven of my manuscripts have become published books, thanks to Dial, Bantam Books, Random House, Delacorte, Franklin Watts, Pleasant Company, Just Us Books, and others. Of the eleven, Just an Overnight Guest, A Blessing in Disguise, Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School, The Minstrel’s Melody, and Don’t Split the Pole: Tales of Down-Home Folk Wisdom went out of print. The books that went out of print quickest were A Blessing in Disguise and Don’t Split the Pole, though at least they made it into paperback before being kicked to the OOP curb.overnightguest

Hundreds — probably thousands — of books go belly up every year. That’s part of “the writing life.” But when it happens to your baby, it’s a shock.  I’ve heard that some writers take to their beds after suffering such catastrophes. I didn’t do that, but I’m sure that I sulked and fussed to myself for days.

Oh, Eleanora, “don’t you weep, don’t you moan”! Almost as quickly as my books went out of print, Just Us Books, the premiere publisher of books about children of color (but to be read by everybody), came to their rescue. It reprinted Just an Overnight Guest (1997), A Blessing in Disguise (1999), and Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School (2007).

Thank you, Just Us Book Publishers Cheryl and Wade Hudson!

The Minstrel’s Melody, published in 2001 by Pleasant Company in its American Girl History Mysteries series, was printed next by Windmill Press in its Mysteries Through Time series (2009), and is now also available through Open Road Integrated Media as a Mysteries Through History series e-book!

Dont_Split_backinprint-330Don’t Split the Pole: Tales of Down-Home Folk Wisdom (Delacorte 1997) was brought back to life by iUniverse.com in May 2014 as part of the Authors Guild Backinprint.com edition. I’ve been a member of the Authors Guild since 2003 but wasn’t aware that this service was available to its members! Thanks, Liza Ketchum, Hamline University faculty chum, for telling me about it.

In this collection I wrapped stories around impactful sayings I’d heard over the years. The stories/sayings are: You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks; Slow and Steady Wins the Race; A Hard Head Makes a Soft Behind; Never Leave Your Pocketbook on the Floor; Don’t Split the Pole; Big Things Come in Small Packages; and What Goes around Comes Around. These sayings can probably be found anywhere in the world. I set all but one of my stories along the North Carolina coast.

Proverbs and sayings are also known as aphorisms, mottos, Biblical expressions, similes, even rich brief anecdotes. They explain a truth or a moral, offer opinions, summarize an action or thought, or are phrases or tidbits of songs, poems or books repeated so often that they enter the lexicon. Every culture throughout the world has them. A proverb or saying can be applied to many dissimilar events, depending on how different people interpret it.

I hope to target teachers who work with middle-school and high school readers; writers who seek short story writing techniques; and folklorists, storytellers, and, of course, readers of all ages.

Although many sayings go back to the beginnings of language, I place the ones I use in contemporary settings to show young readers that they still have meaning in today’s world. One of my new favorites is today’s very real “It is what it is.”

If you want to reprint one of your OOP books think about these Tate Tips:

  1. Make sure that you, the author, have a reversion of rights letter from the publisher who published it. In fact, when you find out that your book has gone out of print, immediately contact your publisher (or your agent) and request a reversion of rights letter from the publisher. This will speed things up when or if you decide to take that reprint step, especially if your original publisher was a “traditional” publisher like Random House, etc.
  2. After you find a publisher interested in reprinting your old book (good luck!), insist on getting a contract from that publisher spelling out all details, including royalty rates, any revisions that the publisher — or you — desire, publication schedules, etc. It’ll probably be a “boilerplate” contract, with the benefits leaning toward the publisher, but that’s not new.
  3. If you don’t recognize a word or phrase in the contract ask. Never sign anything that you don’t understand or don’t agree with. In light of today’s changing publishing world, words like all rights, now and forever, known and unknown, electronic rights, and digital rights may have meanings different from what you know. Here’s where an agent can be invaluable, but if you don’t have one, or he/she doesn’t want to be bothered, do your homework and educate yourself. Writers groups like the Authors Guild, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the North Carolina Writers Network, and others might be your saviors.
  4. Suppose you DO plan to pay a company to reprint your manuscript. That’s fine, as long as you understand what you’re paying for, and what your and the company’s responsibilities are, including marketing, publicity, distribution, and payments. I met a woman the other day who said she signed such a contract, but didn’t know how or if she’d get royalties, didn’t have someone to edit her manuscript, and didn’t have NO money to pay the company. Don’t be like that woman!
  5. Market your book aggressively. Send out news releases, have blog tours, visit bookstores, make book trailers, and so on, or be willing to pay to have a professional or the company do this for you. Except for the big-name writing stars, most writers these days are expected to do more marketing.
  6. Be aware that certain computer software programs that some publishers may require you to use to format your manuscript – from pdfs to “jumpshare” file sharing, digital signatures, and more complex stuff — might drive you up the wall if you don’t know how to implement them.

No matter how you choose to reprint your book, remember that good writing is still good writing. Rewrite any part that’s weak. Find the best editor (or professional friend) who’ll help you with spelling, punctuation, paragraphing, overall revision, chocolate cake, and wholehearted encouragement.

And now I can give a sigh of relief that all of my books are back in print. Or they were as of this morning. Happy Reading!


Interview with Arnold Adoff

October 3, 2014

By Alice Faye Duncan

Alice_Faye_PortraitAs summer came to a close, there was so much death and sadness around us. The sketchy details of Michael Brown’s murder plagued the news. Actress and activist, Ruby Dee died. Maya Angelou passed away at the top of the summer. And while writing this note, I just received word that J. California Cooper passed away today.

Like never before, we need a visitation of sunshine and good feelings to bolster us. And to this end, I reached out to teacher, poet, activist and lover of music, Arnold Adoff. Arnold is a noted anthologist. He edited the seminal collection of African American poetry, I AM THE DARKER BROTHER. For more than 30 years he was the devoted husband to award-winning children’s author, Virginia Hamilton.

I posed five questions to Arnold a week after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. His wise words offer writers and readers a way to find hope and joy, even in the face of trying times. Hear him with your heart.

dear alice:

virginia once said she wrote long and talked short…and i wrote short and talked long…..

your seemingly straightforward questions all require…. paragraphs and paragraphs of

PoetWatering13.08.14perspectives and details….think of monet setting up several easels in his garden

and going from one to another to continue painting as the day progressed and the light changed…..

but i will try and be short and honest at the same time….so:

What part does music play in my everyday life?

1. my various simultaneous lives have always progressed with musical foreground and background accompaniments….from the eurocentric so-called classical music playing in my home all day….to my discovery at a young age of bird and prez and mingus and much of progressive jazz and blues…their african roots and the myriad aspects of african american cultures and classes and literatures….

i met virginia through my friendship with charles mingus and i play his compositions several times a day at least….many times to be followed by monk piano performances….

each sunday morning there will be a mahalia album on the turntable…sometimes late at night i will kick back and sip some red wine and go from willie nelson to waylon jennings to joni mitchel to leonard cohen to nina simone to the last poets to meshell ndegeocello…

however….unlike many other writers of several generations…it is an absolute longstanding rule of my process that there is  n o  music playing while i read and research and rewrite and write…

What are the top five songs that bring sunshine into your day?

2. mahalia’s   didn’t it rain children….on a rainy day…of course stevie wonder’s you are the sunshine of my life….anything by ray charles….john lee hooker and lightnin hopkins and bessie smith…zep’s stairway to heaven…jeff buckley’s hallelujah….wade in the water….and on and on and on…depending on time of day and the placement of the easel…so to speak….the position of the sun in my life and the passion and yearning… and always the flash of love in  some dark room…in some dark mood….

If Nina Simone were alive today, how would she respond or what would she say about the murder of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown?

3. of course she would speak out and rant in her own powerful voice as she would introduce a piece and she would compose…but perhaps in that  mississippi goddamn approach and overview…..

i know there would be much weary deja vu edges around the words…

how many times…. bobby dylan wrote and sang….and in her time she was challenged and buffeted by countless racist  unspeakables and the drumbeat of murders and injustice and genocide and…to borrow the title from ralph ginzburg’s seminal collection…100 years of lynchings….

If Langston Hughes was alive, what would he say about the rap music playing on the radio?

4. to read langston’s poetry out loud is to sing incipient rap and hiphop foundation rhythms and beats…concerns and struggles…i can only assume given his all-encompassing racial and world view…that he would embrace hiphop nation as he embraced each succeeding generation of african american poets and versifiers…perhaps he might chide now and then….but if you read one of his later collections…the panther and the lash….he was not left behind…inside his soul and within his political and literary times….

When you find yourself missing Virginia, how do you uplift your spirits?

5. i live in this house in yellow springs we built together in 1969 where we raised our two superb  children…and i am surrounded by photos and medals and awards and rooms of floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled to overflowing with copies of her books…of files and speeches and her spirit and sense of pride and her striving for excellence and her unremitting honesty….

the w o r k   is all around me and our values and dreams…realized and unrealized as well….

our intertwined histories…our lives together of course….

it is too simplistic to say i miss  only  h e r…what i miss is being able to walk into her office and sit down and talk about something…some aspect of a book project…some opinion on a family or personal matter…or listen to her read me the latest chapter from her latest book….

and all of that and much more has been internalized…all of our lives together and my life since her passing….i need silence to think and work and poet…(really….one of the many things she taught me is how to take from life experiences of all kinds and use that as food as fuel to make some kind of art)….and within that silence is her voice and her face….

….the struggle continues….

arnold adoff                                                          yellow springs, ohio 

25 august 2014

ALICE FAYE DUNCAN is a school librarian who writes books for children and adults. Her newest book, Hello Sunshine—5 Habits to UNCLOUD Your Day is a happy pill for readers who want to keep themselves motivated and moving as they tackle the challenges of work, family, entrepreneurship and artistic ambitions.  Website: www.uncloudyday.com   Email: HelloAliceFaye@aol.com Twitter:  @HelloAliceFaye


Rita Lorraine Hubbard: Taking Advantage of Writing Opportunities

September 29, 2014

I first heard Rita Lorraine Hubbard’s name several years ago, when she produced her documentary. How impressive! I followed her remarkable career as she wrote book after book and finally asked her to share her writing success with our readers. Here, in her own words is how she has accomplished so much.

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When I was asked to talk about my writing career, I had no clue where to begin. If you’ve been writing since the time you could hold a pencil, telling other people about your journey can be overwhelming.

I’m a southern girl, born and bred in Chattanooga, Tennessee; the product of a public education and fiercely proud of that fact. My degrees are in education and school psychology, but my passion is in writing across genres, depending upon which voice (elementary, middle grade or young adult) is speaking to me loudest at the time.

I have been writing all my life, and since I’ve been on the earth for several decades (I won’t say how many, if you don’t mind), and since my works are only just starting to be recognized, this means it has been a long road to where I am now.

Where am I? Well, I have a nonfiction educational reference book called

African Americans of Chattanooga: A History of Unsung Heroes that has been included

in the Tennessee State Library and Archives and recognized by the State’s Historical Society.Ritas Book2

I have a historical fiction picture book that will debut in 2015, Lee and Low Books. It’s tentatively titled Uncle Billy’s Family Reunion. I have three books published by Rosen Publishing (Getting a Job in the Food Industry; Getting the Most Out of MOOC–Massive Open Online Courses; The Right Degree for Me in Health Care).

HealthCare_Hubbard

And I just received the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) 2014 Letter of Merit for an unpublished young adult novel called The Man Who Saw Everything.

None of these achievements happened overnight. They came about over the process of time. But whether your road is as long as mine or happens at the speed of light, I firmly believe there are things you can do and opportunities you can take advantage of while you’re waiting for your writing career to manifest itself.
So here is my list of five ways to take advantage of opportunities while you’re waiting to become a published author.

1. Keep Writing! Write what’s in your head and heart. Write for the love of writing, even if you don’t have anyone to share your work with at the time. I’ve written 42 books so far (told you I’ve been on the earth a long time!) but only the two are out there. Two more will debut this fall, and one will debut in 2015. Yet I continue to add to my long list because you never know when a storyline you’re working with will suddenly be all the rave. Diversity is in now; take advantage of it by writing something from your own wonderfully unique perspective.

2. Join Something. Hone your craft by joining groups where peers share your interests. Consider…
• ACAIC (Association of Children’s Authors and Illustrators of Color), which will be launching soon
• Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
• Critique group with members who write what you write.
• Funds for Writers (www.FundsForWriters.com), which alerts writers to various competitions and opportunities).
I’m even a member of Stage 32, a free social network filled with writers, screenwriters, actors, directors, etc.

3. Be a daredevil. Find out what’s out there and dare to put yourself in the mix. For example…• Don’t limit yourself to books or articles. You can even try out film! In 2009, I stumbled across a nonprofit looking for original short films that focused on ways to combat poverty. So I wrote and co-produced An Entrepreneur’s Heart  It was the first time I’d ever written a script or tried my hand at filmmaking, and the film became a finalist in the global competition.

• Take on small writing opportunities, even if there’s no prize money. My article, “How to Get Going on a Grant Application” was a first place winner in a For Dummies Online™ competition. There was no prize money but I did get a by-line with a well-known brand.
• Become a writer-for-hire. In 2010, I heard that an educational publisher was looking for writers, and after a year of trying, I finally got an assignment. I now have three titles with Rosen Publications.

• Keep your ears open for state or regional all-calls. A few years ago, two women from the Tennessee American Association of University Women (AAUW) needed volunteers to write about early women who helped shape Tennessee. I jumped on board ensure African American women were represented. My biography on Dr. Emma Rochelle Wheeler made the cut. Every high school in Tennessee now has a copy of the book, and to this day, I’m called upon to speak about Dr. Wheeler and make appearances at book signings.
• Submit to writing competitions. I wrote The Man Who Saw Everything, in 2004, and I’m proud to say it just received the 2014 Letter of Merit in SCBWI’s Work In Progress competition. See what I mean when I say “keep writing?”

4. Share. When you stumble upon something good, don’t hoard. Share writing competitions, fellowships, and all-call’s via Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. People are busy and it’s easy to overlook things. Your colleagues will appreciate your generosity and you’ll soon find them sharing their treasures with you.

5. Pay it Forward. The writing community has always been generous and we should do what we can to keep it that way. I started the Picture Book Depot review website to help get the word out about book debuts, and to breathe life into books that have been all but forgotten.
By the way, I also review for The New York Journal of Books. It’s extra work but I see it as a writing opportunity. FYI, I just reviewed a delightful little book called Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by our talented colleague, Katheryn Russell-Brown. Be sure to check it out at this link  New York Journal of Books – Little Melba and Her Big Trombone. 

Click on Rita Lorraine Hubbard for more information about this creative and enterprising author.

Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks.


Justice on The Lesson Plan

September 22, 2014

By Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

 

we_march_JPG_210x1000_q85In addition to the excitement and apprehension about tests, read alouds, and recess, there was tension as the school year got underway in many cities and educators wondered if and how to address the police killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the civil unrest that followed. Do we have one conversation and then “move on”? Schedule a town meeting and then get on with the business of learning? As a parent and children’s author who regularly visits with children in a variety of school communities, I firmly believe that schools should take on the responsibility of engaging students around this story, and do so on an ongoing basis; it’s necessary, it’s relevant, it’s learning.

 
aroundway
Some might disagree, with understandable concerns about escalating conflict, and fanning flames of prejudice and fear. It was reported that middle and high school educators in Missouri’s Edwardsville school district were initially advised to “change the subject and refocus the students” if Ferguson was brought up. The Superintendent later clarified his position via a letter to parents, as reported by the Edwardsville Intelligencer, writing “It was not our intent to ignore the educational relevance of these events. However, we felt it was important to take the time to calm a potential situation at the high school and to prepare administrators and teachers to approach this critical issue in an objective, fact-based manner.”
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Please, let’s take the time to engage our children in ongoing conversations about race, justice, and power. The reality of the 24-hour news cycle and the ubiquity of social media most likely mean that children and teens know something of these stories. And what we know, we can unpack and discuss. Even if they are not aware of the specific events in Ferguson, what are we educating children for, if not to engage productively with the world they live in? And when that world goes horribly wrong, how do we help them move toward making things right?
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Teachers can play a positive role by helping students gain a better understanding of troubling events, creating a safe environment where students can think critically about difficult issues, engage in respectful conversation, and think about what they can do to address the problems they see in the world,” write Laura McClure and Tom Roderick of the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, via email. The Ferguson story offers “…an opportunity for them to learn history, better understand current political realities, consider multiple points of view, think about possible ways to address problems and injustices, and perhaps become more aware of their own biases. It’s a chance for students to develop the ability to express their views and listen respectfully and open-heartedly while others share theirs. It’s part of educating young people for participating in a democratic society.”
parable sower cover
In a blog post, Dr Shaun Harper wrote “Most school-age children in Ferguson are Black. They and Black youth across the U.S. need supportive spaces in which to process what happened. Likewise, youth from other racial groups (including Whites) deserve opportunities to talk about Ferguson, particularly what the implications of this tragedy are for their lives and our nation. Young people need to know the truth: Ferguson wasn’t an isolated incident, but instead is connected to a longstanding, more systemic set of structural problems and judicial errors.”

Of course we want teachers doing their best to ensure that all students are educated in a welcoming and safe environment. I’d suggest that that includes demonstrating to students that they, and their ideas and opinions matter. “To keep conversations productive, we encourage teachers to work with students to develop some ‘community agreements,’ starting at the very beginning of the year,” add Roderick and McClure. “This can set the stage for a more caring classroom where it is safe to discuss difficult issues, and safe to disagree.” These agreements include a ‘one mic’ policy (speak one at a time), agreeing to disagree, speaking from one’s own experience, and avoiding sweeping generalizations.

“You may not live in Ferguson, but we all must live with what has happened in Ferguson. Let’s find ways to talk about this,” wrote Dr. Marcia Chatelain in an August 20 Twitter post. Dr. Chatelain, a writer, historian and assistant professor of history at Georgetown University created the #FergusonSyllabus hashtag and initiative, and saw immediately that these conversations can happen in all kinds of communities. “It’s never too early or too late to help a student grapple with the issues that also trouble us…At all ages, students will have questions about why people are so tense and why they are so upset,” she points out in an email. “The best way to respond is to be honest that some people are upset, hurt and frustrated and engage them on how they can prevent making others feel this way through being honest and fair to others.  You don’t have to get mired in the murky details of the killing of Michael Brown if you don’t believe you can handle it.  Rather, you can talk about the range of emotions, the societal challenges, and the questions this moment elicits.” #FergusonSyllabus has become a compendium of resources across disciplines for early childhood to college classrooms, with contributions from educators, artists, activists, librarians, parents, writers and more.

And then there are books. Literature one of the richest, most productive ways of all to frame these conversations. By helping our children understand that Black Youth Matter and we need diverse books, we teach and learn in critical and transformative ways. Books like
Rita Williams-Garcia’s ONE CRAZY SUMMER and P.S. BE ELEVEN,
Kekla Magoon’s THE ROCK AND THE RIVER and HOW IT WENT DOWN,
Tanita S. Davis’ MARE’S WAR,
Sharon Dennis Wyeth’s SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL,
Jaqueline Woodson’s BROWN GIRL DREAMING,
Zetta Elliott’s BIRD, and A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT
MARCH: Book One by John Robert Lewis and Andrew Aydin with artist Nate Powell,
Julius Lester’s LET’S TALK ABOUT RACE,
Shane Evans’ WE MARCH,

and our own Crystal Hubbard’s THE LAURA LINE and Don Tate’s IT JES’ HAPPENED share the stories of struggle, triumph, creativity, beauty, and more that make up our past, present, and future. Even when not explicitly focused on “big” events, stories can be a vehicle for examination of our culture, values, and systems.catfood In my own 8th GRADE SUPERZERO, essentially a contemporary ‘school story’ that involves a middle school election, puking, and Dora the Explorer, characters are challenged by the questions of who and what they stand for, and what they will do about it. Resources like Notable Books for A Global Society, RIF, Sarah Park’s Social Justice in Children’s/YA Reading List, Mitali Perkins, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, Just Us Books, The Pirate Tree, and of course The Brown Bookshelf’s 28 Days Later campaigns offer a wealth of ideas and titles to add to classrooms and libraries. Studies suggest that reading fiction can cultivate empathy, helping us to understand and respect each other. By connecting our students with a variety of rich, vibrant stories of and about justice, we can educate to empower and inspire.
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Clearly, these conversations won’t be easy and will likely be, at the very least, uncomfortable. But we don’t educate simply for comfort. Discomfort can mean that there is authentic teaching and learning going on. As students examine not only the events but also the narratives that are presented to them, they can learn to think and act responsibly in many areas of their lives. “One lesson is to beware of misinformation coming through social media about upsetting world events, especially as those events are unfolding,” write Roderick and McClure. “Students need to learn how to evaluate the information they are getting and avoid jumping to conclusions.”

If we claim to be preparing our children for that real world “out there,” let’s recognize that ‘out there’ is our homes, our classrooms, our lives. And these conversations need to continue, need to grow and evolve along with our students during the school year — this is not a “one and done” situation. Let’s give students room to reflect on and navigate many stories in it. Just as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” wove a fascinating narrative of the links between slavery, Jim Crow, and public policies of the past and present, we can use our classrooms to examine how and why Michael Brown is part of the same larger, complex story of race, power, and privilege in America. We can work with our students to look at what we’ve done, and work toward doing better. It’s a matter of life and death.

Additional Resources

“How To Talk To Students About Ferguson” by Dr. Marcia Chatelain

“What Happened in Ferguson and Why” from the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility

“Challenging Stereotypes: Michael Brown and If They Gunned Me Down”, from the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility

#dontshoot, from
Teaching Tolerance

 

Ferguson: Response and Resources compiled by Philip Nelmy teacher cover 2


An Open Letter from Sharon G. Flake

September 17, 2014

sharonflakepicI am writing to you because I believe you are unstoppable.  And that this is a quality you try to instill in the young people you work with or influence.

On September 30, 2014, my new novel, Unstoppable Octobia May, will hit bookstores nationwide.  On that day I would love you and/or the young people you influence to join me in shouting out to the world that they too are unstoppable by holding up the following sign, words, image:

I AM UNSTOPPABLE

#UNSTOPPABLEOCTOBIAMAY

If you and the young people you influence feel as if you’d like to show the world what skills make you/them unstoppable–while unstoppablealso holding up the sign–great!  All this year I will be doing one thing or another as I try to get young people to express what makes them unstoppable.

In my novel Unstoppable Octobia May, a young girl is doggedly chasing down secrets as well as the truth regarding a boarder in her aunt’s boarding home.  She is unstoppable and so are you and the young people you impact.

If you would like to join me in this effort, do let me know. On September 30th post your signs, etc. on Twitter and Facebook, create vines, have fun, all while making sure to include the following:

I Am Unstoppable

#UNSTOPPABLEOCTOBIAMAY

It is time we all let the world know just what we think of young people and what they think of themselves.  Unstoppable!  Determined!  Powerful! That’s who they are.  That’s who we want them to be.

Thanks.  And do let me know if you plan to participate.  And do pass this along!

You can reach Sharon through her website: http://www.sharongflake.com/.


Jerry Craft: From reluctant reader to celebrated cartoonist, author, illustrator, and more!

September 14, 2014

Guest post for the Brown Bookshelf
by syndicated cartoonist, author and illustrator,
Jerry CraftJerry Craft

I published my first book back in 1997. Since then I have written and / or illustrated more than a dozen others. I think the reason why I’ve dedicated my life to get kids to read is because I went through most of my life not enjoying reading whatsoever.  In fact, whoever coined the term “reluctant reader” must have known me as a kid. And as a teen. And even as a young adult. To be honest,  I was a grown man before I ever read a book on my own for enjoyment. It’s not that I couldn’t read, I was an “A” student who made Honor Roll every semester. It was that reading was never anything that was fun. Actually, it was a chore, like mowing the lawn. (Even though there were no lawns in the Washington Heights section of NYC, where I grew up.) And for a kid with a very active imagination, I needed something to grab my attention.  I know my parents read to me as a kid, but once the Dr. Seuss stage passed, I was on my own.Sure, I’d see them read newspapers and magazines, but have few memories of them with books.

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The Zero Degree Zombie Zone, written by Patrick Henry Bass, illustrated by Jerry Craft

In school, reading was always something I HAD to do, there was no getting around it. And believe me, I tried. Books being boring. For one thing, even though I attended schools that were 99% African American, I don’t ever remember having to read a book that featured characters that looked like any of us. Unless you count runaway slaves. So if it wasn’t for Marvel Comics, my reading enjoyment would have been close to zero! As a kid I was a huge comic book fan. Each week, I’d anxiously run to the corner candy store in order to buy the latest issues of Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four. But even then, if the plots had too many non-fighting pages, I’d kind of gloss over all that boring dialogue in order to get to the good stuff. Ka-Blam! But even though I, and many of my classmates, were reading, having a teacher catch you with a comic book was only slightly better than being caught with some kind of illegal contraband. Apparently, they didn’t want any of those “foul things” rotting our fragile little brains. It wasn’t until I reached the 7th grade that I had my first, and probably only, teacher who was a comic book fan. That was refreshing.

And then … as if books didn’t have enough competition with things like stickball, and touch football (way back when kids used to go outside to play) they invented the Atari 2600! That was one of the very first video game systems, for those of you who may not know. And reading for enjoyment went the way of the dinosaur.

In high school, there were a bunch of us who read comics, but unfortunately as I got older, the books that we were supposed to read for got bigger. And more boring. And even less reflective of my life. The memory of having to read William Faulkner’s, “As I Lay Dying,” still haunts me to this day!

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The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention! By Jerry Craft, with Jayden Craft & Aren Craft (his sons)

Fast forward to college where I attended The School of Visual Arts. Most people who know that I went there, think that I was a cartooning major. But the cartooning classes were so popular that I was never able to actually sign up for one. Instead I majored in advertising copywriting where I wrote headlines for newspaper ads, radio commercials and TV commercials. This was right up my alley. What I wrote could be funny, it could be serious, but whatever it was, it had to be short.

Fast forward about 10 years, when I left the struggling advertising world to get a job at King Features Syndicate and later at Sports Illustrated for Kids. It was during this time that I had created my Mama’s Boyz comic strip. Again, the writing was funny and short! This was way back when personal computers just started taking off. And for the first time in my life, I found something that I actually ENJOYED reading other than comic books. Software manuals! Really!  I could actually sit down for hours and read a book on how to use Photoshop or Flash. The books were not only huge, nor were they the least bit exciting. But for some reason, I LOVED them!!!

Then one day I got an email from a fan of my Mama’s Boyz comic strip. I used to have a page on my website where I showed how slang had changed from my father’s era, to mine, to the current group of teens. After exchanging a few emails, he told me that he was an author and wanted to know if I wanted to swap books with him. Why not? I sent him a copy of Mama’s Boyz: As American as Sweet Potato Pie! (which I had published myself), and a few days later I got a package in the mail with not only one book, but two! And they were long. “Aw crap, I remember thinking, now I HAVE to read both of these books, ‘cause he’s gonna want to know what I think of them.” And so I started the task. By now, I was married and living in Connecticut, so I had a few hours commuting on MetroNorth each day that I could devote to reading them. And you know what, I liked them. In fact, I LOVED them!!! When I was done, I was proud to write my new author friend, Mr. Eric Jerome Dickey and tell him what I thought of Sister, Sister and Friends and Lovers. From that point on, I felt like a superhero who had gotten super powers as a result of some freak accident. I LIKED TO READ! Now it was a matter of catching up on books that I had always heard about, but had never actually read. Classics like The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Invisible Man.

HomeSchoolinA few years later I had kids. Not wanting them to be reluctant readers like their dad, I literally read to them every single night for the first six years of their lives. Maybe longer. And then  they’d read to me. Or we’d do it together. Short books. Long books. Everything we could get our hands on. I even did voices for the characters. Plus I made sure that they saw characters who looked like them. Their bookshelves were filled with names like Eric Velazquez, Bryan Collier, Shadra Strickland, Don Tate, E.B. Lewis, R. Gregory Christie, and anyone whose last name is Pinkney.

Then when I decided to write chapter books, there was no better sounding board than the two of them. They were my own private focus group. A few years ago, I was reading them a story that I was working on about 5 middle school bullies who get superpowers. And this time, instead of just sitting back and listening, they (now teenagers) were critical. Very critical. “Dad, no kid would say that,” I remember one of them saying. “Well what would he say?” And they told me. And it was good. After a few sessions of them setting me straight, I decided to make them co-writers. Luckily they accepted. And after about a year of writing, we were overjoyed to see, “The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention!” published.

I had not only come full circle, from reluctant reader, to reader. Then to father of readers. Now that they had actually helped to write a book, they had broken through the circle. And that’s something that even a little boy from Washington Heights with an active imagination would have NEVER imagined possible.

_____________________________________________________________

Jerry Craft has illustrated and / or written more than two dozen children’s books, comic books and board games. Most recent is a middle grade novel co-written with his two teenage sons, Jaylen and Aren called: “The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention!” — an adventure story that teaches kids about the effects of bullying. He is the creator of Mama’s Boyz, a comic strip that won four African American Literary Awards and was distributed by King Features from 1995 – 2013. He also illustrated “The Zero Degree Zombie Zone,” for Scholastic. For more info email him at jerrycraft@aol.com or visit http://www.jerrycraft.net


The Back Story with Katheryn Russell-Brown

September 8, 2014

It’s not often that a debut picture book earns three starred reviews. But that’s just what Katheryn Russell-Brown won for her brand new release, Little Melba and Her Big Trombone (Lee & Low, 2014). A law professor by trade, Katheryn was called to write for kids after she became a mom. Here’s her inspiring story of bringing her first children’s book to life. We look forward to many more.

The Road to Little Melba and Her Big Trombone

katherynIt’s a testament to the power and love of children’s books that so many people want to write them. My yearning to write children’s books only grew after my twins were born. I wanted to do my small part to create a world of reading for them that was different from mine.

When I was little, my mom searched low and high to find books with main characters who were brown like me. I remember being excited to read books by Ezra Jack Keats, including The Snowy Day, Peter’s Chair, and Whistle for Willie. The pages were filled with people who looked like they could be members of my family. I also remember “Color Me Brown,” a coloring book that combined history lessons, art and, race pride. My mother was intent on showing me an alternate, inclusive literary world. It was the late 1960s and change was in the air.

Mom wanted me to read and dream a world more colorful than the one portrayed in the books assigned by P.S. 192, where I attended first grade. It seems the entire year was filled with the activities of Dick, Jane, and Spot.

It was around the time when my twins were the same age—first grade—that I started to seriously consider writing children’s books. I have been a sporadic collector of children’s books for years, with a soft spot for purchasing stories that feature heroines and heroes of color, particularly ones who are African American. My “brown book” mission went into overdrive after I had kids. I was determined that they were going to have realistic and interesting images of themselves reflected in our home library.

melbaThis brings me to Little Melba. One afternoon, in 2010, I was listening to the radio and heard a program narrated by Nancy Wilson. She, along with the people being interviewed, were raving about a woman named Melba Liston. Who? They were talking about how Melba had been playing the trombone since she was a girl of seven, that she had a special talent for arranging lush and complex songs, that she had worked with jazz legends, including Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Quincy Jones, and Randy Weston.

Whoa Melba!

Right then and there I decided to write a children’s picture book on Melba Doretta Liston. I immediately started looking for any information I could find on Melba. I came across her name in a few newspaper articles, blogs, journal articles, and magazines. I also found some links to her music and was able to locate video clips of some performances.

I was in my element. I’m a law professor by day and I’m used to doing research and had already published non-fiction books.

The more I read about Melba, the more convinced I became that the world should hear about her musical sojourn. After several weeks, I had what I thought was a solid draft of a picture book, about 900 words. At this point, I figured I was done with the heavy lifting—the research and the writing.

Little did I know that I was still near the beginning of my children’s book publishing journey. Over the next couple of months, I read my story to my local writers’ group (SCBWI). The feedback was encouraging and I made numerous revisions.

Based on the advice I received at conferences and from members of my book group, I did two things. I started sending out query letters to literary agents and I started sending query letters, unsolicited, to publishers. I was hoping to increase my odds by doing both at the same time. I was constantly on the lookout for publishers and agents who expressed an interest in books on African Americans, women, or musicians. For months, I didn’t get any real bites worth pursuing.

I did finally hear from someone who seemed to be a good match for me. She later became my agent. By this time, almost a year had passed since I’d written my first draft. I knew that by snagging an agent I had cleared another major hurdle. I also knew that there was still a lot more work to do. The good news, though, was now I was part of a team. Team Melba.

Almost another year passed before we found the publisher we wanted to work with. Lee & Low Publishers was the perfect match. My agent had worked with them previously and it was clear, based on Lee & Low’s mission and publication track record that they shared our feeling that Melba Liston’s story was an important one to tell.

Team Melba still needed a homerun hitter—a superb illustrator. The amazing Frank Morrison was more than up to the task. He’s done such a wonderful job not only of bringing Melba to life but also showcasing the geography of her life. Just beautiful.

On the road to Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, two of the things I have most relied upon have been confidence in my story and patience. It’s been 4.5 years since Little Melba was a twinkle in my eyes. She’s finally here, sounding and looking good!

The Buzz on Little Melba:

“Russell-Brown’s debut text has an innate musicality, mixing judicious use of onomatopoeia with often sonorous prose.”

Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“An excellent match of breezy text and dynamic illustrations tells an exhilarating story.”

School Library Journal, starred review

“Staccato rhythms pepper the fluid prose…‘Blues, Jazz, and gospel danced in her head—the plink of a guitar, the hummmmm of a bass, the thrum-thrum of the drum.’”

Publishers Weekly, starred review 

Find out more about Katheryn at www.krbrown.net.


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