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.

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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.
–Don


Milestones

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?

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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


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