Through A Child’s Eyes

November 29, 2007

When my daughter was born, I experienced my greatest blessing. I received another gift as I started reading to her. Through her eyes, I got a chance to relive the wonder of discovering toes, the many hues of skin, the magic of music. As we listened to the cadence of words and soaked in the sweetness of pictures created for the very young, I watched her glow. I was entranced too. 

A friend reminded me that sometimes board books get forgotten on reading lists (Thanks, Johnny :). So here are some of my sweet girl’s favorite baby-to-preschool books. Please share your favorites by black authors and/or illustrators too: 


Whose Toes Are Those? by Jabari Asim and illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Whose Knees Are These? by Jabari Asim and illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Bright Eyes, Brown Skin by Cheryl Willis Hudson and Bernette Ford and illustrated by George Ford 

Jamal’s Busy Day by Wade Hudson and illustrated by George Ford

Joshua by the Sea by Angela Johnson and illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell

Rain Feet by Angela Johnson and illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell

Jazz Baby by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Laura Freeman

So Much by Trish Cooke and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

My Aunt Came Back by Pat Cummings

Baby Says by John Steptoe

The Story of Martin Luther King, Jr., by Johnny Ray Moore and illustrated by Amy Wummer

Christmas memories

November 28, 2007

As an 8-year-old, the story of Santa Claus didn’t jibe with me: A rotund white man in a silvery beard and red suit delivering gifts to children around the world, while driving a sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer. All in one night! I wasn’t the sharpest tack in the box, but I wasn’t a complete idiot either. “There’s no such thing as Santa Claus,” I announced to my dad one evening near Christmas.

Armed with a few scientific facts I’d gleaned from other non-believing 2nd graders, I continued my argument. “Reindeer don’t have wings.” I said. “And to make a trip around the world, everyone knows it takes 80 days.” I leveraged my arguments like a baseball bat, ready to knock my dad’s responses out of the park.

“You’re absolutely right,” he said, turning from his football game long enough to douse my storm. “There is no such thing as Santa Claus.”

That was it! I was prepared for a fight, but he offered no resistance. I’d hoped, at least, he’d explain those things about Santa Claus that didn’t make sense, the way grandpa always explained those things about God that didn’t make sense — things like creating the world in six days simply by speaking the words. “Don’t spoil it for your brothers,” was his only additional comment.

I was crushed, and I wanted to cry. I knew a Santa Claus didn’t exist, but I really wanted him to.

On that night, I resolved to protect my three younger brothers from the painful truth. I appointed myself Santa’s personal marshal. My mission: To preserve the sanctity of Santa Claus and to retain the magic of Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, in our tiny bedroom, my brothers became my prisoners while I, the Marshal, established the rules. Rule #1: Everyone had to be in bed by 8 o-clock p.m., no exceptions. That gave dad plenty of time to assemble our toys and to eat the frosted cookies we’d left out for Santa. It gave mom enough time to wrap our gifts and to drink Santa’s milk, while still having time to finalize any Christmas decorations. Rule #2: No one was allowed to leave the bedroom, not even to use the bathroom.

“But I gotta go pee,” my brothers pleaded. Made no difference to me. No matter how much they begged — legs crossed, jumping around the room like Christmas jitterbugs — no one was allowed past the bedroom door. We would enjoy the magic of Christmas together, even if it meant soiling our beds.

“No!” I barked. “Santa Claus might be out there, and if he sees you, he’ll move on to the next house without leaving you any presents.”

“But why’s mom and dad still out there?” one of my brothers asked.

“Because we don’t have a fireplace, and if you want any gifts, somebody’s got to let the man in!” For the next few hours, my lies multiplied like Easter bunnies.

After my brothers finally fell asleep, I laid awake, staring at the ceiling. I thought about the story, The Night Before Christmas, wondering about St. Nicholas, wishing for visions of sugar plumbs, still hoping for flying reindeer.

Quietly, I slipped out from under my blankets, careful not to wake my brothers, and I tiptoed to the bedroom door. All sorts of curious sounds punctuated the night — the rumble of an engine coming from a toy motorcycle, wrapping paper being ripped from a roll, metal scissors snipping at delicate ribbon, muffled voices. The Christmas music had stopped playing, and it sounded like someone was watching Hitchcock on TV. Slowly I turned the doorknob until it unlatched, and then I forced the weight of the door into it’s setting to prevent it from creaking. I peered out, hoping that no one would see me. Maybe dad had lied. Maybe Santa Claus really did exist.

My hopes for Santa were quickly squelched. There was no such thing after all, unless Santa Claus was a dark-skinned black man who smoked Kool cigarettes and drank Jim Beam whisky, while wearing nothing but his tighty-whitie Fruit of the Looms. Dad sat there in his drunken glory beneath our silver-aluminum Christmas tree, in a tangled mess of orange and black Hot Wheel tracks. Bummer. Though Hot Wheel tracks were exactly what I wanted.

Early in the morning, my brothers and I gathered at the bedroom door, our ears glued to the surface, listening for that familiar Christmas morning sound: the toilet flushing and the bathroom door unlocking. Mom was up! It was time to see what Santa had left. I released my prisoners, all of whom, including myself, practically knocked mom aside in a beeline for the bathroom.

Click here to read how other authors celebrate the holidays and what their celebrations mean to them. Share your story here!

– Don

A Measure of Success

November 26, 2007

paula_thumb2.jpgThere are two measures of success.  You know you’ve made it when Saturday Night Live parodies you in a skit or when dissenting opinions go out over the blogosphere.

The Brown Bookshelf has “arrived”!

No, neither Beyonce or Justin Timberlake has sang a hilarious ode to our venture, but there has been quite a bit of lively (healthy) discussion over at Finding Wonderland.

In my optimistic edging toward naive outlook, I never gave thought to there being any issues surrounding an initiative whose sole goal is to spotlight books.

I forgot that anything revolved around race will always draw scrutiny. In this case, at the heart of the discussion is the name “Brown” bookshelf.

I think, had we named this group, The Black Bookshelf, race would have still be an issue, but probably from another angle.  However, by choosing “Brown” the issue has become that we’re excluding. 

A few questions, at hand, are:

How does someone qualify to be featured? Are they still up for consideration if they’re bi-racial – African American and some other race? How about if they’re among the other definitions of brown – which basically includes any ethnicity except white? Oh and by the way how is white defined?

There’s some great discussion about “what is white?” at the Finding Neverland site. 

As to the other questions – I won’t speak on behalf of the group on the point of how brown is brown. We all have our thoughts. But for me, each of those questions go deeper into race than I ever intended the initiative to.

Nonetheless, they’re legit questions. The very real issue of claiming the descriptor of Brown, while primarily focusing on African American authors does bring up valid and worrisome points.

However, I see a chance to make lemonade out of these lemons. Allow me to break it down, the way it was initially conceived:

The point of The Brown Bookshelf is to highlight 28 African American children authors under the radar.  Why? Because there’s a need to give these books a higher profile among parents, teachers, librarians and booksellers, so they can help readers find them.

This is our way adding our shoulder to the solution grindstone.

Why only African American?

Because our membership is African American and we’ve all felt the pinch of flying under the radar.

As to how “brown” is brown? Well, we’re not going to ask the selected authors for a DNA test or a “Black” card as proof of their racial identity. Most of these authors are easily identified by their book’s content and primary research of a bio and photo.

But, we narrowed our focus to African Americans (be they interracial or not) because, for good, bad or indifferent, the playing field is not yet level.  Children books by black authors isn’t even 10% of the whole. Which means books by other brown authors is likely even less.

In my eyes, that means the Brown Bookshelf has potential to evolve and expand.  Ta-daaa, lemonade!

One day maybe our membership may expand to include  Latino, Indian or Middle Eastern authors, thus expanding our focus. Or we may choose to increase the books spotlighted, to include those with a culturally-relevant theme, no matter the race of the author.

The prospect of doing that, one day, is real and based on the stats, necessary.

One last thing – one of the comments within the Finding Wonderland discussion stated that it was scary to think that The Brown Bookshelf may become a go-to source for purchasing for libraries and schools.

Why? Why is that scary?

The alternative is that the books go undiscovered and either don’t end up in the libraries or schools at all or end up there in much lower quantities than “mainstream” books. In other words, our current state.

Schools and libraries often look to ALA award winners to purchase. But, there’s only one Coretta Scott King award a year. One.

Tell me, outside of that, what source should they rely on (besides the publisher) to deem which books they’d like to carry?

BBS has solicited submissions from the public, we’ve partnered with other groups with literary initiatives and our membership is scouring the shelves for candiates. We’re not in the pocket of any publisher. We’re focused on traditionally published books to cut down on the question of quality. It’s an open process with no strings attached.

Gatekeepers use multiple sources to determine a book’s acquisition worthiness. If BBS can become one of those sources, I see no downside to that at all.

We could continue to talk about what The Brown Bookshelf is lacking. What we could have done better this first time out. But as we do, publishing will remain the same. Children authors of color will continue to be under represented and gatekeepers seeking our books will continue to lean towards the higher profile, more noticeable award-winning books.

It’s up to us, the readers and writers, to press on.  So, please continue to submit names. The submission window closes December 1st.

Booked for the Holidays

November 23, 2007

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!  Around us we see decorations, holiday sales, and traditional holiday food and drink like egg nog and candy canes.  Turn on the radio and you can hear Donny Hathaway croon “This Christmas” as well as Michael Jackson and his brothers let us know that “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”  It’s a magical, highly anticipated time of the year.  There are hundreds of cartoons and movies to commemorate the occasion from the iconic A Charlie Brown Christmas to the modern classic A Christmas Story and everything in between.  In recent years, I’ve become partial to The Proud Family’s Christmas/Kwanzaa episode and it is heartwarming in my adult years to see Fat Albert’s Christmas episode.

Last week I began thinking about traditional Christmas stories like the infamous T’was the Night Before Christmas that many of us have heard as a kid or read to a child as an adult.  But then I thought, what holidays stories are told for us, by us?  The Literary FUBU if you will.

Librarian and book collector Arthur Schomburg once said, “We need a collection or list of books written by our men and women.” So true, so very true.  Does the name Schomburg sound familiar?  It should.  As in the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture part of the New York Public Library in Harlem.

I present to you some of the books that I was able to find that revolve around the winter holidays of Christmas and Kwanzaa that either have been written or illustrated by a Black person.  Their names have been bolded below.  It is my hope that if you know of other holiday books that fit the criteria, you will share them with The Brown Bookshelf family so we can all add to our bookshelves and add to that list that Arthur Schomburg dreamed of many years ago.

A Child is Born by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

An Angel Just Like Me by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu

Carol of the Brown King: Nativity Poems by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Ashley Bryan

Christmas Gif': An Anthology of Christmas Poems, Songs, and Stories Written by and About African-Americans by Charlemae Hill Rollins and illustrated by Ashley Bryan

Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack

Christmas Soul: African American Holiday Stories as told to Allison Samuels

Hallelujah: A Christmas Celebration by W. Nikola-lisa, illustrated by Synthia Saint James

Hold Christmas in Your Heart: African American Songs, Poems and Stories for the Holidays by Cheryl Willis Hudson

K Is For Kwanzaa by Juwanda Ford, illustrated by Ken Wilson Max

Kwanzaa by Deborah M. Newton Chocolate and Melody Rosales

My First Kwanzaa Book by Deborah Chocolate, illustrated by Cal Massey

Poppa’s Itchy Christmas by Angela Shelf Medearis, illustrated by John Ward

Santa’s Kwanzaa by Garen Thomas, illustrated by Guy Francis

Seven Candles for Kwanzaa by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Seven Spools of Thread by Angela Shelf Medearis, illustrated by Daniel Minter

The Gifts of Kwanzaa by Synthia Saint James

The Most Precious Gift by Marty Crisp, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Twas the Night B’fore Christmas by Melodye Rosales

Giving Thanks

November 23, 2007

I struggled with what to share today. I have so much to be thankful for. Thanksgiving has always held a special place in my heart. It’s a time for celebrating family and community, breaking bread, counting blessings and giving praise. Where would I start? But then I thought about why I write for children, how books make me feel, what it means to see kids inspired, challenged and affirmed by literature and I knew what to say: I’m thankful for being here.

I feel so lucky to be a children’s book author. What an honor to be part of a field full of people who dream and create. I think of the wonder I see in children’s faces at story times and festivals as they’re transported through the words of stories to other worlds. That’s magic. And I’m so thankful to be part of that.

I remember the spell books cast on me as a child. My heart would pound as I started reading a new story. My stomach would drop at tense moments and my eyes would tear at tender ones. My mind would fly across time and space. 

Back then, I saw just one book that featured an African-American child as a main character — Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Even though it was set in Depression-era Mississippi, that story resonated with me in a special way. I was reading a story through the eyes of a girl whose skin color was the same as mine.

I’m thankful that my daughter’s bookshelf reflects the beauty of black culture and the world around her — books by Jacqueline Woodson stand side by side with ones by Maurice Sendak and Uma Krishnaswami. Patricia McKissack’s classics nestle against wonderful tales by Amy Hest, Cynthia Leitich Smith and Jerdine Nolen. It’s a place where all voices are appreciated and respected.

I give thanks for that gift and hope one day our world will be the same. 

My thoughts about our name, The Brown Bookshelf

November 21, 2007

“In Which She Espouses Dissenting Opinions,” a post at Finding Wonderland: The Writing YA Weblog, they supported our efforts here at the Brown Bookshelf, and I thank them for that. They also had some concerns about our name. I’d like to express my thoughts.

9 times out of 10, when I type the name ‘The Brown Bookshelf,’ it flows off my fingers as ‘The Black Bookshelf.’ I have to backspace and retype it. I’m old-school. I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, the ‘black power,’ and ‘black is beautiful’ generation. I’ve never been uncomfortable with the use of the word ‘black’ when referring to my race. African-American as a label came later, popularized, I think, by the Cosby Show.

When I was invited to be a part of this initiative, the name had already been chosen. Good thing, too. Have you ever tried to make an important decision committee style? It’s not easy.

Somewhere along the line, I must have failed to pass along my pride for the use of the word black. It offends my six-year-old son. He corrects me, “Daddy, I’m not black; I’m brown.” When my daughter was a child, it offended her, too. And it offends some grown folk’s I know, too.

Labels are a sensitive topic in the Black community. In 100-plus years, we’ve worn many — some given to us, other’s we’ve given to ourselves. We’ve been called N-ggers. Then is was Negro. Later, Black and African-American. An elderly white guy I know once used the word “Afro-Ameri-black-man.” Poor thing, he was confused.

Black is a powerful word, sometimes polarizing in the black community. Although I wasn’t in on the discussion, I knew right away why ‘Black’ didn’t make the cut. I think it was a good call.

Just my thoughts.


November 21, 2007

Brown Gold: Milestones of African American Children’s Picture Books, 1845-2002, by Michelle H. Martin is a compelling history and analysis of African-American children’s picture books from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. The book above was published by McLoughlin Brothers, 1875.

Read a sample of Brown Gold by clicking here. I could write an entire blog post about this image, but do I need to say more?


Brown Listmania!

For those who don’t know, Listmania Lists are created by Amazon users. They contain everything from books to music, videos to whatever else is available on Amazon. While on a narcissistic search of my own name, I discovered several lists that feature picture books with characters that look like my family.

If you’re the parent of a black child — or any child of color — it’s so important that you expose him or her to books that reflect their image. Don’t misunderstand, there’s nothing wrong with books that feature white characters — anthropomorphic pigs, cars, warthogs or worms either. But a child of color needs to see positive images of themselves represented in the literature they read, too. We live in a world of many colors, cultures, religions, lifestyles. Books introduce children to the diverse world around them.

Here area a few Listmania Lists featuring picture books that celebrate diversity:

–Books for Young Children in Black & Multiracial Families

–Caring, Confident, Colorful Kids

–Chocolate Garden of Lil’ Angels

–African-American Children Books

–Black Children’s Hair Books

–Best Children’s Books Celebrating Diversity and Individuality

–My Favorite Books for African American Children

–Adopting a Child from Haiti Kids’ List

–Books About and for Children of Black and African Heritage

Note: This post by no means is an endorsement of Amazon over any other online stores or sources. If you know of any other lists that highlight diversity, or lists specifically that feature books by African American authors or artist, let us know.

– Don

Required Reading

November 20, 2007

Varian Johnson (posts)I was going to make a post today about the importance of ethnicity-based literary awards, such as the Coretta Scott King Awards. Instead, I’ve decided to post links to two articles about that very subject.

In his article, “Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes” (Horn Book Magazine, May/June 2001) Marc Aronson (then editor and publisher of Cricket Books) discusses the negatives of ethnicity-based awards, stating that current ALA awards such as the Coretta Scott King and Pura Belpre’ awards should honor the content of the literature, not the ethnicity of the author. Andrea Davis Pinkney, (then editorial director with Hyperion/Jump at the Sun) crafts a powerful rebuttal in “Awards that Stand on Solid Ground” (Horn Book Magazine, Oct/Sept 2001).

Being that I helped to found an initiative that highlights African-American authors, my opinion skews heavily toward Mrs. Pinkney’s assessment for the need for ethnicity-based awards. However, Marc Aronson makes some pretty powerful points as well; points that we should all keep in mind as authors, readers, and gatekeepers. I encourage you all to read both articles, and form your own opinions on the matter.

A Brown Bookshelf Trailblazer

November 17, 2007


One of my most favorite places in the world is the library. You know how most women might love to be locked inside of a department store or shoe store for a weekend?  I would love to be locked inside the library. Even now, I love to go to the library and walk the aisles perusing the shelves for favorite authors and hidden literary treasures.  I cannot tell you how many authors I have encountered by accident just by roaming around the library (and bookstores too).

I spent many hours in my elementary school library listening to Mrs. Brewer read us stories, helping us find books to read, and later working as a library during my recess.  Yes, I gave up swings, the sliding board, and the teeter totter to spend my extra time in the library.  As a teen, I remember going to the library and walking out with a huge stack of books to read for the next twenty-one days.  My dad was always sure I would never read them all before they were due back, but I managed to most of the time.

Earlier this year, while writing the sequel to Freshman Focus, I came across the name of the first Black librarian.  And it hit me.  As much as I love libraries, how come it took me thirty-one years to learn her name?  How dare I call myself a bibliophile and not know this important historical fact?  Just so you won’t be left in the dark, let me tell you as well.  Each one, teach one is my motto.  A native of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, Florence Virginia Proctor Powell began her career as a librarian at the New York Public Library in 1923.  You can read more about this pioneer here at the African American Registry which is a wealth of information. 

But today’s blog is about another library pioneer.  And while I have never met this woman, I believe in my heart that she would be very proud of The Brown Bookshelf, our goals and our mission.  While researching for a future blog, I came across the name Charlemae Hill Rollins who is pictured above.

Born in Yazoo City, Mississippi on June 20, 1897, Charlemae Hill Rollins was an African American library administrator and educator.  The granddaughter of a former slave, Rollins grew up hearing stories about her grandmother’s life as a slave and having children by the slave owner, including Rollins’ father.  Thanks to her grandmother, Rollins grew up reading books that used to be in the slave owner’s library.  Moving from Mississippi to Oklahoma as a child with her parents, Rollins attended a school founded by her family where her mother served as a teacher.  Growing up in a time where opportunities for Blacks were scarce, Rollins attended secondary schools in Missouri, Kansas, and Mississippi. 

Moving to Chicago with her husband, Rollins became a library assistant in 1927 and later became the first black head of a children’s department with the Chicago Public Library in 1932 at the newly opened George Cleveland Hall Branch Library.  Serving the community for 36 years, Rollins had a profound impact on African Americans in literature. 

She loved to encourage children and their parents to embrace reading and introducing them to Black history.  Rollins started a reading guidance clinic that encouraged a partnership among parents, teachers, children and books.  Often frustrated about the lack of resources and books about Blacks and the lack of diversity with the stories about Black people, “Rollins made it her mission to improve the image of Blacks in children’s books and to teach her young patrons about their heritage. She formed a Negro history club and a series of appreciation hours in which she taught children about the contributions of blacks. She researched and collected materials for her programs and made publishers aware of the need for books about African American culture and history. ‘I got to be quite a nuisance for the publishers, writing them letters on top of letters for more information,’ she told a contributor to American Libraries.” (source)

Go Mrs. Rollins!

“In the introduction to We Build Together Rollins states, ‘Whether books are written for Negro children or about them for other children, the objective should be the same. They should interpret life. They should help young people to live together with tolerance and to understand each other better.'” (source)

What I have shared here with you is just the surface of Mrs. Rollins’ contribution to African American literature.  I encourage you to check out the following sites that were instrumental in me learning more about Charlemae Hill Rollins, 1897 – 1979, a Brown Bookshelf trailblazer.

Extensive biography

Secondary biography with list of accolades

Charlemae Hill Rollins biography with quotes from Mrs. Rollins’ writing

Pearls of Knowledge

November 15, 2007

As a child, I always peppered everyone with questions. Why is Pennsylvania called The Keystone State? Who invented crayons? What causes a rainbow? My grandma’s eyes would twinkle before she delivered her trademark response: “Look it up in your Funk & Wagnalls.” She was referring me to the dictionary and cream-colored set of encyclopedias that sat on my bookshelf. And sure enough, I would find the answers I sought. Grandma’s words showed me the power of books. They could open doors to new worlds, deepen insight and inspire.

So as I thought about where teachers, librarians and parents could find recommendations of black children’s book authors, I remembered Grandma’s advice. I had to look deeper than Funk & Wagnalls this time. But there they were, books full of answers, like precious pearls of knowledge.

Here are a few great resources that feature celebrated and under-the-radar black authors and children’s books:

Black Authors and Illustrators of Books for Children and Young Adults: 4th Edition (Routledge, 2006)  by Barbara Thrash Murphy and Deborah Murphy. This wonderful 498-page book contains photos, biographical information and bibliographies of more than 200 hundred black children’s book authors and illustrators. Appendices feature a treasury of book covers and listings of Coretta Scott King Award winners and African American bookstores.

Black Books Galore!: Guide to Great African American Children’s Books (Jossey-Bass, 1998) by Donna Rand, Toni Trent Parker and Sheila Foster. This landmark work gives descriptions of 500 black children’s books from board books to young adult novels. Highlights include quotes from the books, book covers, author and illustrator portraits and listing of award-winners.

Black Books Galore!: Guide to Great African American Children’s Books About Girls (Jossey-Bass, 2000), by Donna Rand and Toni Trent Parker.

Black Books Galore!: Guide to Great African American Children’s Books About Boys (Jossey-Bass, 2000), by Donna Rand and Toni Trent Parker.

Black Books Galore!: More Great African American Children’s Books (Jossey-Bass, 2001) by Donna Rand and Toni Trent Parker.

You can visit the Black Books Galore! website at


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