A Chat With Author-Illustrator James Ransome

December 9, 2014

 

J RansomeI bet “a new bike” is on plenty of Dear Santa letters. Whether Santa agrees or not, every child should have a copy of New Red Bike. It’s a deceptively simple story of friendship—an even greater gift. Join James in his studio to understand how it evolved. Listen. Isn’t that Get the Funk blasting on his playlist?

In the beginning . . .

As a young child, I recall coloring with my stepsisters, spread out on the living room floor of an apartment building overlooking a park in Passaic, New Jersey. There, I envied their ability to create masterpieces with the crayons they chose. Their talents seemed so natural and effortless.

The Influence of comic books . . .

This, along with television cartoons, was my first exposure to art. Just a few years later, while living in a small home with my grandmother in Rich Square, North Carolina, my own artistic abilities began to blossom. It could have been the quiet, rural setting or maybe it was simply boredom that found me day after day, curled up on a couch with wads of paper, pencils and my favorite comic books. I used these comics as reference to copy again and again, while the television rambled in the background.

In my work as an illustrator creating books, I continue to use a simple technique. The only difference is that now I create in my studio in upstate New York. Instead of a television, I create to the strains of my favorite jazz station or  Parliament Funkadelic music.

 

Dear Santa, please . . .

Bike CoverNew Red Bike is in many ways a throwback to my youth. A simpler, uncomplicated time where summer days were spent outdoors, exploring and playing with friends in the woods behind my home. I feel that many of the books today are geared more toward adult tastes. And often there are few books with African American characters for very young readers. New Red Bike was my attempt to offer a fresh take on children’s classics featuring an African American character.

 

New Red Bike . . .

The first part of story focuses on spatial movement, when Tom, a young boy who receives a bike as gift from his parents, rides, up, down, back and forth, round and round. The second part of the story touches on the importance of sharing. I was striving to create text that could be easily deciphered by a younger child, and, to that end, I owe a good deal of credit to my editor, Mary Cash, who helped me shape this story into one that manages to keep it’s appeal to a younger audience.

Image_023 (3)

 Professor Ransome . . .

sk (3) The act of illustrating and  writing

are very  separate processes that each  require a specialized and individual approach. As a  professor of illustration  students, I often tell my  students that at some point you need to go in a corner with your materials and figure things out. In writing, it is the same. You need the space to tell the story you want to tell in the way you want to tell it. When I complete the writing process, often between other illustration projects I am working on, I then turn my attention to the pictures, and just as if I were illustrating a book submitted by a writer, I comb very carefully through the manuscript to develop a unique way to tell the story with images.

 Why James creates art . . .

Whether it is spread out on a living room floor, curled up on a couch, or at a drawing table in a studio, creating a

James Ransome's Studio at Night

James Ransome’s Studio at Night

book has always provided me a sense of solace and a way to express myself artistically.

James Ransome

Check out James Ransome’s website to learn more about his amazing body of work. You can also find him on Facebook. The New Red Bike is published by Holiday House.


Frankly: The 2014 Frankfurt, Germany International Book Fair by Irene Smalls

November 21, 2014
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Irene Smalls

In the middle ages, Gutenberg invented the printing press not far from where the Frankfurt Book Fair opens every year to about 7,300 exhibitors from more than 100 countries, around 275,000 visitors, more than 3,700 events, 9,000 journalists and over 1,000 bloggers. In October, Irene Smalls was one of those exhibitors. Irene is a multi-publshed author and creater of Literacise.

Why the Frankfurt Book Fair
Think of a foreign country with 230 million children under the age of 16 most of who study English. That is China alone. The International book market is worth $108,000,000,000 and counting. For authors and illustrators interested in expanding their sales and market my advice is to Go Global! The first stop to expanding your book brand globally is The Frankfurt Book Fair located in Frankfurt, Germany. With so many countries represented, it is diversity at its best.

Globe staff photo David L. Ryan

Literacise

 

 

How US Authors and Illustrators Benefit
Frankfurt is the world’s largest and oldest book fair. Frankfurt is a rights fair. Publishers go to Frankfurt largely to buy and sell international translation rights to their titles. For authors and illustrators this is lucrative. With international translations, you can sell your book potentially 120 times and receive royalties from all of your deals. This can be separate and apart from any from US publishing contracts.

 

 

 

 

Her Personal Stake
Seeing this huge book market opportunity, I had asked my publisher many times if my books were being presented for international rights sales. Repeatedly, my editors at a major publishing house, told me that there was no interest in my books globally. I decided to find out for myself. Indeed, in Frankfurt, I found the major American Publishers do not bring diverse books. An editor from a large trade publisher in the US when asked about the lack of diverse books represented, responded in very huffy tones. “We never bring those books to Frankfurt.” When asked why, the editor said, “All they ever write about is slavery, civil rights or struggling. Nobody is interested in reading about that.” It is ironic at the most diverse book fair in the world American publishers showcase their lack of diversity.

2GoGlobalMarketing
In 2014, I formed 2GoGlobalMarketing. Its motto is “Take Your Message to the World.” With the assistance of two book professionals, publicity guru Ayanna Najuma and Art Director/illustrator Cathy Ann Johnson we showcased 35 books in our booth for five days. It was a whirlwind experience. We met thousands of people from all over the world. Ten countries expressed interest in our titles: Saudi Arabia, Brazil, South Africa, Italy, UK, Taiwan, Poland, Nigeria, Finland, and Sweden. I am in talks with a UK educational publisher about creating a UK school version of one of my books. I am also in talks with another publisher about creating songs based on my books. My work is not finished. I will follow up with two contacts. For the authors and illustrators we represented one author/illustrator had three publishers interested in her title, another author had a publisher interested in expanding her book and her creating a teacher’s editions for his Arabian country. Cathy Ann Johnson found a business partner in Italy. She is preparing the European launch of her Soul Amazing children’s books starting in Italy.

My Nana and Me

My Nana and Me

The Take Away
There were lessons learned. Frankfurt is an appointment driven fair. Frankfurt is different from others book fairs where buyers browse through booths. At those fairs, it is important to have a booth to display titles. A booth is not essential in Frankfurt. What is essential is having appointments. The first three days of the Frankfurt Book Fair is to the trade only. The last two days are open to the public. Frankfurt Book Fair appointments are set up starting in August for the October fair with the book scouts, agents and book buyers from all over the world.

African-American authors and illustrators are not taking advantage of the Frankfurt Book Fair opportunity. In 2014, I was the first African-American female to ever exhibit in the 66 years of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Go Global. The world is diverse whether American publishers like it or not. The diversity that is embraced is high quality story telling with fully rounded characters. Most countries of the world are not interested in American history. These countries are interested in their own history and their own historical figures that tell a universal story. Authors must tell a great story of love, hate, and passion filled laughter and the world will want to read your words.

Who Qualifies
You need to have foreign translations rights to your book at a minimum. But, it is best in negotiating your original contract to retain as many rights as possible such as audio rights, video rights, etc. Also, try to limit the time a publisher has control of those rights. For an example, I had no idea when I went to Frankfurt that I would meet a publisher who was interested in creating songs of my books. Since I control the audio rights, it was not a problem. In addition, if a publisher has not sold any of your rights within a few years it is highly unlikely they will ever sell those rights. By limiting the time a publisher controls your rights once those rights revert back you can sell them yourself.

Ir

What Happens Next

Our first time at the fair we do initial follow-up with the publishers expressing interest in one of the books we showcased. After that, it is up to the author to follow-up and seal the deal.

Not an Easy Sell
It is difficult to make appointments. Most are long standing relationships. Rights buyers set appointments with familiar people and companies. However, in the course of meeting people and chatting, 2GoGlobalMarketing was able to make appointments during the fair. I do not recommend this approach. It worked but we were not able to meet with the top buyers whose calendars were completely booked. The appointments are set up in 30-minute increments. If you miss your appointment, you have to wait until next year.

Lesson Learned
I do plan to return next year. We will start recruiting authors in March. I will not get a booth. This time I will focus just on getting appointments with key people.
Knowing Irene, her appointment book will be filled. She constantly pushes and champions other authors and illustrators. If you want your book represented in 2015, contact 2GoGlobal Marketing. Her schedule will fill fast.
Keep up with Irene on Facebook , follow her on Twitter @ismalls107, and email: info@2GoGlobalMarketing.com.

Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks


Please support #WeNeedDiverseBooks!

November 10, 2014

We Need Diverse Books™ (WNDB)  is a grassroots organization created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature. They are committed to the ideal that embracing diversity will lead to acceptance, empathy, and ultimately equality. Being that WNDB shares many of the goals we’ve set here at the Brown Bookshelf, I want to encourage you to support the fundraising initiative, happening right now at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/we-need-diverse-books.

As of this date, WNDB is at  90% of their fundraising goals, with two weeks left to contribute. Many perks are being offered to contributors that include “query passes” that allow contributors to jump to the front of the line of an agent’s inbox for a MG or YA manuscript; portfolio reviews and phone calls with agents for illustrators and author-illustrators; and opportunities to co-sponsor a 2016 Walter Dean Myers Grant for an up-and-coming diverse author!

Obviously, as a founding member of the Brown Bookshelf, I’m supporter of diversity in children’s literature myself. Therefore I think it’s important to support this very important initiative with our dollars. I hope you will, too.

Don Tate


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.

RitaLHubbard
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.

 
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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?
B.B.coverandsketch
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.”
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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, American Indians in Children’s Literature, 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


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