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.

We Need NEW SHOES, More Than We May Know

May 22, 2015

By Kirsten Cappy, Curious City

Yes, #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #BlackLivesMatter. These hashtags and sentiments are integrated into my many literacy projects and into our ongoing commentary on this troubled nation. Yet, the more I hashtag, the more I wonder if the book industry’s endearing and infuriatingly slow pace can create a place where black lives matter simply by producing more diverse books.

Authors and illustrators will do their groundbreaking and childhood-lifesaving work and the publishers will publish them. But, are the consumers, educators and libraries buying enough books?  Are they buying at a pace that will expose a child to enough books to show him or her that their lives matter—matter to all of us?

Into the middle of these thoughts, a picture book New Shoes by Susan Lynn Meyer and illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Holiday House) landed on my desk. In the book, young Ella Mae is forced to wait for a white girl who came in the shoe store after her and then denied the right to try on the saddle shoes she and her mother have come to buy. Jim Crow sends Ella Mae’s mother to her knees to trace her daughter’s feet on paper.


The next day at school, Ella Mae has on her new shoes but “feels bad most of the day.”

“That’s happened to me too,” her friend Charlotte whispers when Ella Mae tells her about the store. What makes this story a marvel is that Ella Mae and Charlotte counter this Jim Crow discrimination with entrepreneurship.

Doing chores for neighbors, the girls ask to be paid in nickels and old shoes. After rounds and rounds of chores, they go into an old neighborhood barn. There they do not just play store, but create a store. With their nickels and their careful attention, they transform the old shoes into shelves of refurbished footwear.

When they post their “open” sign, the lines form and “anyone who walks in the door can try on all the shoes they want.”


We all strive to have children try out all the books they want. I want young readers to experience the tenacity and creativity of Ella Mae and Charlotte! But how many will? How many families will buy this acclaimed picture book from a bookstore shelf? How many libraries will have the funds to buy it for kids to check out or for teachers to pull from the shelves for a lesson?

If books and stories change lives, if diverse books allow children of color to be seen and validated, then why is book purchasing not a major charitable action?

For example, if the message of empowerment through entrepreneurship speaks to you and you have the means, why are you not buying New Shoes by the caseload for schools, libraries, and after school programs? Books have meaning and mission, but the industry has always been designed for single purchase use.  The bulk sale is rare.  If #WeNeedDiverseBooks, can we not find an entrepreneurial solution like Ella Mae and Charlotte?


We certainly can match a person or organization’s mission – to instill a feeling or lesson in children’s minds – to a children’s book that imparts that mission.

Public funds for schools, libraries, and many non-profits serving children continue to diminish. These institutions would welcome donated materials.  For example, I recently posted an offer on the American Library Services for Children email listserv offering 500 individually-donated paperback chapter books by Polly Holyoke. That offer brought 1,000 grateful schools and libraries to our site in less than 48 hours.  They would say a resounding “yes” for books that reflect their community.


The statement in New Shoes, “That’s happened to me,” is such a simple and searing statement of subtle and daily discrimination. Those subtle experiences of discrimination remain long after the end of Jim Crow.

Can we give kids of all races the tools to believe and act like #BlackLivesMatter by driving charitable donations of books? Is it as easy as setting up in the barn and painting a sign? It might be. Who wants to do the chores and gather the nickels with me?

NEW SHOES Text copyright © 2015 by Susan Lynn Meyer, Illustrations © 2015 by Eric Velasquez, Used by permission of Holiday House.

Kirsten Cappy of Curious City and Curious City DPW is an advocate for children’s literature and its creators and for schools and libraries. Through creative marketing projects, she seeks to create places where kids and books meet. She can be reached at or 207-420-1126.

Tracey Baptiste and The Story Behind “The Jumbies”

April 28, 2015

Headshot 1 crop


I interviewed Tracey for the Brown Bookshelf in 2012. As she shared Angel’s Grace with me, I quickly became a member of the Tracey admiration club. She writes. She edits. She encourages and she shares her knowledge with young people. Today, Tracey is giving the Brown Bookshelf and its readers the inside scoop on her latest book, The Jumbies. Welcome back, Tracey!


As a kid I could not get enough of fairytales. Princes, princesses, helpful fairies, vindictive witches, magical mishaps, and cleverly-hatched plans that led to happy endings were all I dreamt of all day long as I flipped through the pages of my beautifully illustrated Grimm’s fairytales, a book almost too large and heavy for my three year-old hands. But fairytales were something that happened in places far away from my native Trinidad, in lands where children could leave footprints in the snow, and you needed a large red cloak to keep the cold off your back. Besides, none of the characters looked anything like me with their golden hair and pale skin. So I had no hope of being chosen to marry a prince, or encountering a witch with architectural baking skills, or meeting an opinionated fairy (this being the greatest disappointment of all). But on warm island nights when the books were closed, and the ships at port bellowed out mournful horns, the stories were different. They came with warnings from the adults in my life such as “Never answer if you hear your name called at night. That is how the douens will get you,” they said.

The Jumbies

The Jumbies

Then I would listen to stories about how douens roamed naked through the forests of Trinidad with their feet on backwards to fool anyone who might follow them. They were small like children, but with the strength of grown men, and wore cone-shaped hats and not one stitch of other clothes. The douens would learn the names of children so that they could lure them into the forest, where the children would never be heard from again. “Just ask ‘did you call me?’ and wait for us to answer,” the grownups said. If they hadn’t called, I could be sure it was a douen trying to get me, and I would pull the covers more tightly under my chin. But the douens were not the only creatures to be feared at night in Trinidad.

There were also soucouyant, who were old ladies who shed their skin at night, burst into flame and came flying through your window to suck your blood. And there were La Diablesse, who had one regular foot and one cow hoof that they covered under long skirts. The lagahoo was a wolf-man who might help you as often as he might eat you. Papa Bois protected the animals in the forest, and sometimes punished the hunters who were after them. The water was a worry too, with Mama D’Lo, a half-woman, half snake who was as beautiful as she was vindictive. All of these creatures were called jumbies, a group of malevolent creatures who were hell bent on harming or at least tricking any human who dared to cross their path.

Jumbies were fascinating, but they didn’t come in beautifully illustrated books like my Grimm’s. Jumbie stories were very much alive. My uncles might meet a La Diablesse on their walk home at night. The red itchy bites that showed up on my legs in the morning might not be from mosquitoes, they might be from a soucouyant. And always, there was the threat of voices calling at night. I was living my own dangerous fairytale. Every person who encountered a jumbie and lived to tell the tale was brown-skinned like me, some even wore their hair in plaits like mine. But they were never in books. Why didn’t the children who looked like me have their own fairytales? We were just as clever. We had to be just as brave. Our foes were just as treacherous. Didn’t our stories deserve to be written down?

A young Tracey in the days before books had her name emblazoned on them.

A young Tracey in the days before books had her name emblazoned on them.

At the very mature age of three, I declared that I would grow up and be a writer. I would have my own stories with beautiful pictures that I could hold and flip through and read over and over again. I had just learned how to write my name. So the next step, of course, was a book.
Years later, I was in New York, between classes at NYU, and browsing through the shelves at Barnes and Noble when I came across a book of fairytales from around the world. I scanned the table of contents looking for Trinidad. Were there douens in here? Papa Bois? A soucouyant? No. But there was a story called “The Magic Orange Tree” from Haiti. “Close enough,” I thought and I flipped to the page. It was a Cinderella-type story about a clever girl, a magical tree, and an evil stepmother. I knew instantly that I could somehow take this story and make it my own. I would give my three-year-old self the fairytale she had been waiting for. I reread The Magic Orange Tree for years but it was only after my first novel had been published that I started working on the story that would become The Jumbies. Early titles were: The Green Woman, The White Witch, and the Magic Orange Tree; The Orange Tree Girl; and Growing Magic. And jumbies being the tricky, malevolent creatures that they are, didn’t make it easy for me to get them down on the page.

Tracey discussing her writing process with students.

Tracey discussing her writing process with students.

I worked on the story off and on for almost nine years. Over the course of that time, several people in the industry told me to just give up on the story and move on. “Some stories belong in the desk drawer,” one editor said. But there was something about this story that compelled me to keep pulling it out of the drawer even if it had been sitting there for years at a time. It wasn’t working. It was always missing something. But I kept slogging. My three-year-old self, it turns out, is quite the taskmaster. I lost an agent along the way, but found another with the manuscript for this story. Marie Lamba and I worked on it a little longer before she approached just the right editor—Elise Howard—who had also worked on another creepy tale, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. The Jumbies was just her kind of story, and even then there were a few rounds of changes before it was final.

In just a few weeks, the three-year-old me will get the book she has been waiting for. Maybe not beautifully illustrated as she would have liked (though the jacket art is amazing), but this time the book will fit easily in her hands, and the hero will look like her, with plaits falling down her back. There is even a nod to the fairytale stories she used to love, with a little frog providing comic relief. But this story is all Caribbean. All Trini. All sun-kissed brown-skinned, and still, all fairytale.

Tracey and her fans.

Tracey and her fans.

Pronunciation guide:
Douen = dwen
Soucouyant = SOO coo yah
La diablesse = LAH jah bless
Lagahoo = LAH gah hoo
Papa Bois = Papa BWAH
Mama D’lo = Mama Juhlo
Jumbie = JUHM bee

Early reviews for The Jumbies:

“Her fantastic cast of characters and lush, vibrant setting make you feel immersed in her Caribbean island.”
–Valerie R. Lawson’s Blog, Barbies on Fire

“Endlessly addictive and hypnotic.”
–Essence Magazine

“A well-written tale full of action.”
–School Library Journal

“Tracey Baptiste knows just how to seize kids’ attention.”

“It’s refreshing to see a fantasy with its roots outside Europe.”

More about Tracey’s career The Brown Bookshelf 2012.

About The Jumbies
Caribbean island lore melds with adventure and touches of horror in The Jumbies, a tale about Corinne La Mer, a girl who on All Hallow’s Eve accidentally draws a monstrous jumbie out of the forest, sparking a very personal war that only she can stop – a war made even more difficult once she discovers her own dark truth.

Jumbies (pronounced JUM bees) are trickster creatures from Caribbean stories, like the pint-sized douen with its backward feet, the soucouyant who turns into a ball of flame, or the man/wolf lagahoo.

Can Corinne save herself, her father, her friends, and her entire island from the jumbies? Preorder now to find out!

Barnes and Noble

Join me for the launch of The Jumbies at
Watchung Booksellers, Montclair, NJ on April 28, 4-6pm
La Casa Azul Bookstore, Harlem, NY on April 30, 6-8pm
Enjoy the trailer!

Tracey is also the author of the young adult novel “Angel’s Grace” which was named one of the 100 best books for reading and sharing by New York City librarians. Tracey is also an editor at Rosen Publishing.

You can find out more about Tracey on her website Tracey Baptiste or by following her on Twitter @TraceyBaptiste, or on Facebook and Instagram at TraceyBaptisteWrites.

The Jumbies will be in stores on April 28th.

Join her for the launch of “The Jumbies” at
Watchung Booksellers, Montclair, NJ on April 28, 4-6pm
La Casa Azul Bookstore, Harlem, NY on April 30, 6-8pm

If you can’t attend the launch, it is available at

AmazonBarnes & Noble, and Indie Bound.



The Gift of Reading: An Open Letter

April 1, 2015

Brian O. Jordan

On March 21, 2015, I had the pleasure to share the gift of reading with the “Birdy Book Club.”   What a wonderful group of young men. I am proud of their parents and grandparents for beginning to instill the love of reading at such a young age. My parents did the same with me.

I read them my book titled, I Told You I Can Play (illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, published by Just Us Books). This was the first time I ever did a children’s reading leveraging FaceTime on my computer and it turned out to be a good experience for the young men.  This book captures a story about my own youth and speaks to being a small child who was always told I was too young to play. The book goes on and shows how I proved to my family and others that I could play, but it took focus, determination, and dedication for me to do this. These are characteristics I like to instill in young children. I invite others to reach out and read my book I Told You I Can Play. I also have two other books that youth may enjoy and others I am working on:

Birdy Book Club members show Brian via FaceTime one of their favorite pictures from his book.

Birdy Book Club members show Brian via FaceTime one of their favorite pictures from his book.

  • Overcoming the Fear of the Baseball details a childhood experience when I was hit in the face with a fastball.  Instead of calling it quits, I was forced to face my fear and return to the baseball field where I went on to play 15 years of Major League Baseball.
  • Time-Out For Bullies discusses how my mother taught me first-hand what bullying was and how it negatively impacts children.  I then reveal how I used my athletic ability to help those dealing with bullies in my school.

Some ask why I decided to write children’s books. It came from my wanting to find ways to educate youth, get them to read, and have others learn from my experiences.   I thought I-told-You-I-Can-Play__22529_1405364701_1280_500if I could engage youth at a young age then maybe I could capture their minds to read and to learn to believe in themselves to reach their future goals. Mr. Wade Hudson from Just Us Books, Inc. in New Jersey published my first book. He heard my story and wanted to help me get started. He taught me the process of publishing a book and leveraged his best creative people to illustrate my book. I was blessed to have met Mr. Wade Hudson and what he is trying to do through Just Us Books, Inc. to get youth to read.

I went on to write and self-publish other books and at the end of the day I just really want youth to read and believe in themselves to reach their dreams. The hardest part for me about being a children’s book author is my transition. Most of the world sees me as an athlete, and yes I did play Major League Baseball and in the NFL, but I also received my education while I was in college. With that education, I knew that after sports I could transition and do multiple items. So many athletes just see themselves as that, but I knew that at some point my body would not be able to compete at those professional levels and my education from University of Richmond would take me further. Getting others to take a retired professional athlete seriously as an author has been challenging. But as people see my love for writing and reading about children and my publishing new books, this makes people realize I am serious and they are respecting me as an author.

Thank you to Kelly Starling Lyons for reaching out to me to do this children’s reading virtually. I welcome others to leverage my books to help youth develop the love of reading and to find that confidence in themselves to reach their goals.


Brian O. Jordan

Former MLB Player and NFL Player


Happy Book Birthday!

April 1, 2015



Illustration by Don Tate

We didn’t want to let the day end without wishing our brother Don Tate congratulations on his new picture book with Chris Barton, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans). What makes this collaboration even more special? Chris and Don are friends.

Chris suggested Don, his critique partner, as the illustrator of his story that had been years in the making. “I don’t know that I could articulate then why he would be a great artistic choice,” Chris said in this interview, ” but his style turned out to be just right both for making John Roy Lynch accessible as a person and for conveying acts of violence and terrorism in a vivid but not overwhelming way.”

The collaboration is paying off. Their book earned starred reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly. We’re proud of Don and Chris and look forward to seeing many more accolades. Learn more about The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch on their sites: and

Check out the buzz here:

“The fascinating story of John Roy Lynch’s life from slavery to his election to the U.S. House of Representatives at age 25, gets a stirring treatment here . . . Tate’s often expansive illustrations emphasize important incidents in the text. A reference to harsh laws passed by whites is coupled with a dramatic two-page spread of a whipping, a potential lynching and lots of angry white faces in the foreground, fists clenched. A small African American boy covers his eyes at the scene. The horrors of a school burning shows praying figures overshadowed by masked attackers with burning torches. The emphasis in other illustrations is on faces, full of emotion add to the power of the telling and the rich soft tones of Tate’s palette welcome the eye to linger.”

– Booklist, starred review

“Barton offers an immersive, engaging, and unflinching portrait of the difficulties of the Reconstruction era, while Tate’s cartoonlike artwork softens moments of cruelty and prejudice without diminishing them.”

– Publishers Weekly, starred review

“A picture book worth reading about a historical figure worth remembering.”

– Kirkus

Day 28: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

February 28, 2015

kareem author photoHe’s far more awesome than I realized.

When I went to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s website to get a little background info on him for this post, I discovered a man that has contributed more to our society than I believe most people are aware of. While I don’t have the space to recount all of his accomplishments here, I’ll bullet-point a fraction of them:

  • NBA All-Time Leading Scorer
  • US Cultural Ambassador, 2012
  • California’s STEAM Education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Mathematics) Afterschool Ambassador, 2012
  • Cancer Research Advocate
  • Columnist for TIME Magazine and LA & OC Registers
  • Award-winning Filmaker
  • New York Times Best Selling Author of 9 Titles (including 3 children’s books)
  • Two-time NAACP Image Award Winner (What Color Is My World & On the Shoulders of Giants)

It is his for work as a children’s book author that we celebrate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on this final day of 28 Days Later. The three, well-reviewed children’s titles he has co-authored with Raymond Obstfeld (thus far) are:


Streetball Crew Series, Book Two: Stealing the Game

stealing the game cover


“Abdul-Jabbar and Obstfeld…team up for another exploration of the intersection of sports and life conduct. Chris is a good, quiet kid who likes to keep his head down. As he says, ‘I was friendly to everyone but friends with no one.’ Still, if the machinery of thought made much noise, Chris would be a one-man band. For a 13-year-old, he does considerable shrewd, high-ground thinking, as do his friends (‘You know,’ one says, ‘not talking about things doesn’t actually make them disappear’). Where it really shows itself is on the basketball court, where he plays a savvy, court-wise game. Enter his brother, Jax, a golden boy who appears to have fallen from the pedestal upon which his well-intentioned parents have placed him, and Chris’ still waters are about to feel a hefty stone break their surface. Add his classmate Brooke, a sharp girl with plenty of her own baggage, and a waterspout is in the making. The authors’ light hand allows readers to inhabit the characters; to taste the value of respect, dignity and vulnerability; and to embrace the elemental joy of sports-all without ever feeling like they are being tube fed. The shifting structure of the story and a clever series of blind alleys keep readers on tenterhooks. A deft, understated sports thriller with a solid moral compass.”Kirkus

“In another exemplary mix of issues and action both on and off the court, the middle-school cast of Sasquatch in the Paint (2013) returns to take on a team of older, bigger, thuggish rivals amidst a rash of local burglaries. Thirteen-year-old Chris is stunned when his golden-boy big brother, Jax, suddenly shows up at home with gambling debts after (he claims) dropping out of law school. With extreme reluctance, Chris agrees to help Jax get out from under-both by enlisting his street-ball buddies against a club team to settle a bet and by helping his brother break into a pawnshop. At the same time, Chris asks his Sherlockian friend Theo to check out Jax’s story, and he also definitely beats the odds by finding common ground with brilliant, acid-tongued classmate Brooke. Along with vividly drawn characters, the coauthors craft a mystery with artfully placed clues that Jax might not be the loser he seems to be, and also inject plenty of exciting, hard-fought basketball in which speed, strategy, and heart play equally strong roles. Flashbacks crank up the tale-s suspense, flashes of humor brighten it, and the end brings both surprise twists and just deserts all round.”Booklist Online


Streetball Crew Series, Book One: Sasquatch in the Paint

sasquatch cover bigger


“The author team behind What Color Is My World? opens the Streetball Crew series with the story of Theo Rollins who, though only an eighth grader, is already more than six feet tall. A self-proclaimed nerd, Theo gets recruited for the school basketball team, even though he’s terrible at the sport. Additionally, Theo is puzzled by new girl Rain, who’s smart but being threatened by a guy on a motorcycle; his widowed father is unexpectedly interested in dating; and he might be kicked off the school’s Aca-lympics team if he can’t balance his responsibilities. The depth and realism Abdul-Jabbar and Obstfeld bring to the novel keep it from being a run-of-the-mill sports story. Rain, for instance, is Muslim, while Theo is one of only a few black kids at his school; their ostracism doesn’t overshadow the action, but it isn’t ignored, either. Perhaps most refreshing is the fact that the authors allow Theo to gain confidence in basketball without the predictable game-winning shot. Readers will feel a kinship with Theo as he maneuvers through tough but realistic choices.”Publishers Weekly

“A crisp tale of sports, smarts and what it means to be your own man or woman-or boy or girl, if you happen to be 13. It seems to be an embarrassment of riches to be, say, one of the best basketball players in history and also write tightly entertaining novels for kids, but there you have Abdul-Jabbar. Surely Obstfeld added polish and framing, but this obviously is a work of someone intimate with sports and, by extension, how sports can serve as metaphor for a way of being in the world. Here, newly tall eighth-grader Theo Rollins is trying to find his way between the brainiacs and the basketball players. Along the way, he meets Rain-aka Crazy Girl-a sort of ‘girl with the dragon tattoo’ minus the heaviest baggage. Characters, both friend and foe, feel real; there is talk of abandonment as well as serious comments about the skewed vision Americans have of Islam. The deepest running narrative pivots around sports, but the story has much to give. Theo’s cousin’s taxonomy of basketball players is broadly applicable: There are the happy-go-lucky, the self-conscious and ‘those who never want the game to be over, because each minute is like living on some planet where you got no problems….[They are], for that brief time, in a place where everything they thought or did mattered.’ Fearless, caring sports fiction.” —Kirkus


What Color Is My World?: The Lost History of African-American Inventors

what color is my world


“Making use of an unusual format, former NBA star Abdul-Jabbar and his On the Shoulders of Giants coauthor Obstfeld offer an upbeat history lesson set within a fictional narrative framework. Siblings Ella and Herbie, whose story unfolds in typeset chapter booklike pages surrounded by warmly lit paintings of their adventures, are less than enthusiastic about their fixer-upper of a new house. But as eccentric handyman Mr. Mital unveils the house’s potential, he also teaches them about contributions made by African-American inventors (‘There’s more to our history than slavery, jazz, sports, and civil rights marches,’ he says). Flaps show lifelike portraits of individuals like Dr. Mark Dean, a v-p at IBM; Dr. Charles Drew, who developed the concept of blood banks; and nuclear engineer Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker squirt gun. Ella’s off-the-cuff notes appear inside the flaps, while several spreads provide detailed profiles of other inventors and graphic novel–style passages. The banter between the siblings and, in particular, Ella’s snarky zingers keep things from feeling didactic—it’s an entertaining and often surprising exploration of lesser-known innovators, past and present.” Publishers Weekly

“A fictional story lies at the heart of this unusually formatted collective biography. Twins Herbie and Ella and their parents have just moved into a run-down older home; while they work to fix it up, Mr. R. E. Mital, an eccentric handyman hired by their parents, recounts the contributions of African American scientists and inventors. As the figures are introduced, foldouts on the sides of the pages contain Ella’s notes (full of humor, as well as facts) about each one. More detailed profiles of other inventors fill the spreads, and some are introduced in graphic-novel-style pages. Instead of famous inventors such as George Washington Carver and Benjamin Banneker, readers are introduced to lesser-known individuals, including Alfred L. Cralle (inventor of the ice-cream scoop), Dr. Henry T. Sampson (gamma electric cell), and nuclear engineer Lonnie Johnson (Super Soaker). Information about the subjects’ home, lives, and avocations is a welcome addition…the large trim size, numerous illustrations, and unusual format (not to mention the celebrity author) will certainly attract browsers. And a surprise discovery about Mr. Mital’s identity at the end will leave readers with something to ponder.”School Library Journal


For more information on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his work, please visit his website.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 668 other followers