Thank You For Brown Bookshelving!

February 29, 2008

What a month it’s been.

What started out as a simple exercise in shelf awareness has grown into a full-fledged mission to bring authors and readers of all backgrounds, ethnicities and races together to celebrate books, the authors who write them and the illustrators who make them beautiful.

The support from visitors to our site, influencers in the literary community, the authors who graced us with their presence via Q&A’s and their publishers was tremendous. We hoped, but never imagined that The Brown Bookshelf would be embraced so.

Thank you for visiting us.  We hope that you’ll continue to stop by and read our reflections on the children’s lit industry and discover more great authors.

Now, on to the good stuff.

Book Winners

Grand Prize Winner:  Gift Basket


*Will designate a library to receive a basket containing books by the 2008 28 Days Later spotlight authors and illustrators.

Individual Book Winners

The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County – Diannewrites

Mama’s Window – Sheila K.M.

Chess Rumble – Sabra R.

Jazz Baby – Christal

When Horses Ride By – Hannah

Juneteenth Jamboree – WendieO

How Smart We Are – blbooks

Sweet Land of Liberty – Erin

I Dream for You A World – Ramasay

Tyrell - Joyce H.  & Liz B.

Nikki & Deja – Wits & Lesha

Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It – Stephanie I.

Dance Jam Productions – Katia

Elijah of Buxton – Carole Mcd.

Played – Curtis F.

The Shadow Speaker – Hershey Brown

Next for The Brown Bookshelf

28 & Beyond

While the BBS wholly supports Black History Month and felt it was the best time to bring attention to under-the-radar authors – we don’t want readers thinking they can forget about authors of color until next year.  Plus, it would be a shame to not share some of the great candidates submitted for the 28 Days campaign, who didn’t make our final cut.

So tune into our site for the 28 & Beyond blog feature, where we’ll discuss books by some of the authors who made our  Top 12.

Summer Chat Series

We’re gearing up a forum on Myspace to conduct a series of chats.  Summertime is good reading time and since the publishing industry slows down a bit, also the perfect time to talk books, writing and book publishing.

Every Wednesday, June through August, BBS members will host a chat.  We’re lining up guests now.  Look for chats for young readers, aspiring writers, current authors and influencers. 

Examples of the chats we’re putting together include:

*Indies & The Author: Looking at opportunities for indie bookstores and authors to work together in innovative ways.

*Temperature Check: Chat with agents to talk about what’s going on in the kiddie lit industry

*Hype, Hype Hooray: Chat with teen readers to find out what really makes them pick up a book

Sherri L. Smith

February 28, 2008

sherri.jpgWhat’s the old saying?  Last but not least!

Recently, Sherri L. Smith was the guest blogger over at Finding Wonderland and after reading these words “But, let’s get one thing straight—multicultural is a made-up word. The proverbial “Great American Novel” by its very name is a multicultural novel—America is made up of too many different peoples for it to be otherwise” I knew we’d have a fun interview.  I’m drawn to people who speak their mind and shake things up.  Sherri meets both those criteria.

On a hot streak since her debut, Lucy the Giant, about a tall girl who finds solace in the wild, Sherri followed her first book with Sparrow, the story of family and its many forms.  And just in time for our spotlights, her third YA, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, a humorous look at the life of Ana Shen, a bi-racial eighth-grader, was released.

It seems fitting that we wrap up this wonderful month of spotlights with an author whose latest book celebrates multi-culturalism, while also reminding us the term has less to do with race than it is the very fabric our country is built on.

BBS: Playing the devil’s advocate here. You’ve saidThe multi-ethnic audience is nothing new. It is a shame that the industry pretends otherwise. If I’m a publisher my answer to that is going to be, “Well a book has to have a market. We’ve got to be specific who we target the book to or else it becomes generic ‘this book is great for everybody’.” What’s your response?

SLS: The publishing industry has been marketing books generically, or else there wouldn’t be this recent push for multicultural titles. Now they are getting more specific and saying “these books are for black kids, these are for Spanish kids, etc.”

But it’s foolish to think that a Latina girl can’t relate to a white girl or an Asian girl, and therefore would not want to read the same books. Writers have the opportunity to cross cultural lines, introduce us all to each other, share the day with someone we are different from on the outside, and discover our common ground.

BBS: Why did you decide to make Ana Asian and African American? Why that particular racial make up?

SLS: Ana was inspired by my own marriage, as an African American woman, to a Chinese American man. I was exploring my own future, in a way, when I decided to play out the life of a child we might have together. How would our individual experiences combine in someone who shared them both?

BBS: I’ve had very mixed feelings about the focus of race when promoting my books. I know they’ll appeal beyond African Americans, but I always feel if I don’t focus on the fact that my MC is Black, I’ll lose those readers. If given a choice, would you prefer your publisher to mention the race of your characters in summaries/depict them on the cover or not? And why?

SLS:I’m not a big fan of depicting characters on the cover. I think that should be left to the imagination of the reader.

Richard Peck, the hugely successful children’s author, tells a story about a book he wrote called The Most Beautiful Girl in the World. He took tremendous care to never describe the girl by her physical traits. Her beauty was interpreted through how the other characters reacted to her.

He never gave a race, hair color, or eye color. The reader got to fill in the blanks with their own ideals—until the publisher put out a cover with a blonde Caucasian girl’s photograph front and center.

Whose judgment call was that?

Peck says he was furious, but the author has little power over what the publisher chooses to do in those situations. Having said that, ultimately I think the depiction of race should depend on the thrust of the story.

Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet is, in part, about race and culture; therefore I think it’s totally appropriate to put that out there on the cover, in the summary, wherever.

If the story was about something else, and the character’s race was incidental, then no, I see no reason to highlight it. Would it matter if Nancy Drew, for instance, was black or Japanese, rather than white?

In terms of solving the Mystery of the 99 Steps, or what have you, probably not.

BBS: Let’s talk books! In fifteen words or less tell me exactly why you love each of your babies (books):

SLS: Lucy The Giant, is my first book; I love the adventure, the setting, and Lucy’s emotional journey.

Sparrow, let me delve into my mother’s hometown, New Orleans, and the meaning of family.

Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, let me write about food, which I love, and family histories, which fascinate me.

BBS: Lucy The Giant was reprinted in Dutch. Getting sales overseas is not something you hear much about when talking about books by African American children’s writers. I’m not sure if it’s because it doesn’t happen often or…I’m not sure. How did having it reprinted in another language change how you looked at the books you write? Were foreign rights picked up for Sparrow?

SLS: The biggest change was in getting to know my Dutch publishers, who are absolutely wonderful people, and getting their perspective on the book world.

Lucy made the leap to Dutch because my translator saw similarities in the fishing lifestyles of Alaska and the Netherlands. It was a commonality that allowed the story to translate well.
Sparrow, on the other hand, was seen as too American for the European market. Apparently, certain American experiences don’t translate easily to the rest of the world—race relations, specific locales, and some social issues don’t play well overseas.

I’m not sure if I agree with that belief—Europe has ethnic and religious issues similar to the ones we have in the United States, but the Dutch teens and adults I spoke with seemed to have an “us and them” feeling about the U.S.

Life is seen as more violent, more media-centric in America. This despite the fact that, at the time, practically every square inch of Amsterdam was plastered with Vodafone internet cell phone ads, and ethnic tensions were running high after the assassination of a controversial Dutch filmmaker for his work on violence against women in Islam.

To my mind, books should teach you about worlds you don’t know. That said, while I don’t let dreams of the global markets get in the way of the story I want to tell, now I try to give my work a second look and think about how the rest of the world might see it.

BBS: Lately, race has become such a factor in literature that often we overlook the cultural factors. Asian cultures are more homogenous than American culture. Does Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet acknowledge that at all? What are some of the cultural issues Ana faces that make ordinary teen things like dating and making friends challenging?

SLS: I’m not sure I understand. I think that Asian cultures are wildly diverse, but it might not seem apparent from an American point of view. The differences can be subtle and often deeply tied to historical events, conflicts that delineate strong lines of prejudice and dissonance between Chinese, Japanese and Korean cultures, to name a few.

While Ana’s experience is 100% big city American kid, her grandparents bring their own opinions, colored by time and experience. Her Chinese grandparents are less than thrilled to hear she’s interested in Japanese boy, since the Japanese went to war with China and committed atrocities long before either Ana or her crush, Jamie Tabata, were born.

Ana holds the basic values of both sides of her heritage—namely, the importance of family, of education, etc. Where she butts heads is when the adults are too old-fashioned or conventional for her tastes. You’ll see throughout the book that any ethnicity-based conflict is inspired or perpetrated by the adults. The kids have the same schoolyard rivalries and alliances any kid would have.

BBS: What is your day job with Bongo entail? How challenging is it to switch gears from animation/comic books to novel writing?

SLS: I am the office manager of a small publishing company. We do comic books, calendars and trade paperbacks. My days are usually spent at a computer placing orders, paying bills and digging my way out of paperwork.

In my down time, I get to talk to my co-workers, mostly artists, and debate the merits of Superman over Batman or exactly what it was that Homer Simpson said in that episode. It’s a lot of fun.

Novel writing, on the other hand, is very solitary work. It’s great to be completely independent, starting and stopping when you want, not needing to run ideas by someone else, but it can also be lonely. Doing both is a good balance for me. I’m a homebody, but not a complete shut in. And hey, comic books are awesome!

BBS: Not sure if it’s the cover or what, but Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet seems like it would make a cool cartoon. Do you see any of your books taking form as a movie, TV show or animated series?

SLS: So far, I can’t picture any of them as animated, but certainly a live action version of any of my books makes sense and there has been some interest in that area—two of my books have been optioned. We’ll have to see where it leads.

I come from a film and animation background, and I write very visually. Lucy the Giant, for instance, would be amazing on the big screen—sweeping images of the Bering Sea, storms, the Alaskan landscape. It would be great.

Sparrow is a quieter story, but still has some great visuals, since it’s set in New Orleans. And with this latest book, I think you could have a lot of fun with the comedy of Ana’s situation. I guess I could see it as animated, after all!

BBS: Beyond the Cheetah Girls, YA books with multi-cultural protags have yet truly penetrated movies and television. You’re based in LA – so you’re as close a thing to an insider we have, what do you think it will take for these types of books to get a little big or small screen love?

SLS: First and foremost, they have to get love from the publishing industry. The only way a producer finds out about a book before it’s published is from their connections in the industry, or if their kid brings it home and foists it on them.

It’s hard to get publishers to really push a story. Likewise, bookstores have to show interest.

As the world continues to blend together, there will be more demand for and acceptance of multicultural protagonists. When the market is big enough, as long as the material is compelling, the movies and TV shows will follow.

BBS: I can’t help myself. You’re in an elevator with a bigwig from Nickelodeon. Quick, what’s the elevator pitch of Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet?

SLS: That’s not fair. I don’t jump people in elevators and pitch my ideas to them. However if someone, say my mother, was there pushing me to say something, it would probably be this:

It’s a family comedy about a girl who is half-Chinese, half-black and totally in love with a Japanese kid, trying her best to wrangle her family into helpful, non-embarrassing mode long enough for her to survive her eighth grade graduation and a dinner party in honor of her crush. There.

Thanks, Mom. And no, I won’t tell the man I speak a little French. Because I don’t, Mom. Not really. And it doesn’t matter. What? Oh, well, oui. Un petit peu. * mortified sigh*

Sherri, you’re hilarious and frank. We need to hang out if you’re ever on my side of the U.S.
The Buzz on Sherri L. Smith’s books

Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet
“…Smith serves up a funny, entertaining gumbo of cultural collisions and discoveries.” – Kirkus

“This is a touching novel of a teen left behind by circumstance and a relative who fails her.” – School Library Journal

“…the warm characters redefine what family means.” – Booklist

New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age 2006


Lucy, The Giant

“A tantalizing prologue introduces us to a narrator reflecting on her life while drowning in the Bering Sea. Mixed with riveting descriptions of the extreme cold and harrowing storms at sea are warming human interactions.” – The Horn Book Magazine, Starred

American Library Association Best Books for Young People 2003

American Library Association Amelia Bloomer Selection

Valerie Wilson Wesley

February 27, 2008

I still remember the third grade where I was a student at John Dewey Elementary School – my teacher Mrs. Kaveney, recess, hundreds of games of kickball, our Black History Month program, the school spelling bee, the end of the year class picnic at Mrs. Kaveney’s house.  Thanks to Valerie Wilson Wesley’s Willimena Rules’ series, I was able to go back to the third grade at Harriet Tubman Elementary School.  But instead of Mrs. Kaveney, Willimena was taught by Mrs. Sweetly who is rumored to be a mean teacher.

Reading six of the titles in the Willimena Rules series was such a pleasure for me.  I grew up reading Beverly Cleary’s books about Ramona, her older sister Beezus, the family cat Picky Picky, friend Howie, neighbor Henry Huggins, and his dog Ribsy.  Valerie Wilson Wesley has given me and today’s young readers a very comparable series as we follow third grader Willimena Thomas, affectionately called Willie, her big sister Tina, a host of neighbors, the family cat Doofus Doolittle, classmates, and her loving family members.  In every book, Willie encounters a problem, usually tries to figure it out for herself, but inevitably big sister Tina steps in to help her out.  And sometimes Tina’s intervention makes the problem a little worse.  But Tina really did have good intentions.

With Maryn Roos’ wonderful illustrations and fun chapter titles like “Begin the First Day of School with a Burp,” “Get Over It and Eat Ice Cream,” “Grow Very Big Ears,” “Don’t Even Think About a Plan D,” “Remember:  One Push + One Shove = Trouble,” and “Take Bad Advice From Your Dumb Sister,” the six titles that I read in the Willimena series are great reads that focus on a protagonist who admires Harriet Tubman, has a loving family, and encounters humorous problems with her big sister Tina by her side. 

In the course of six books, Willimena loses the class pet, goes fishing and gets in big trouble, spends her cookie money, loses a coveted role in the school play, worries about Valentine’s Day and is intimidated by a class bully.  My favorite of the six titles was How to Lose Your Cookie Money.  In this book Willie is a Girl Scout who spends part of the money raised selling Girl Scout cookies on something else and needs to recover that money in a hurry.  I could relate to this story because I was a Girl Scout too and throughout school, I had to sell candy.  Every now and then, I would eat the merchandise myself and have to come up with the money because I was sort of irresponsible.   But Willie did a much better thing with the money than I did.

If I was a parent, I would definitely have Willimena in my house for my kids to read.  Instead, I frequently tell friends and family members who do have kids the same age as Willie that Willimena Rules!  Parents who have kids that like to read the Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park, they will adore Miss Willimena.

Valerie, you’re widely known for your Tamara Hayle mysteries written for adults, but you began writing for children.  What made you delve into children’s literature?  What is the inspiration behind the Willimena Rules series?
VWW:  My first published book was a young adult novel called Where Do I Go From Here (Scholastic 1997), which is no longer in print, and I wrote the first book of the Willimena Rules series ( How to Lose Your Cookie Money) years before it was published.  The truth is, I just love to write, be it for adults, teenagers or children. I take each audience very seriously and never talk down to anyone-no matter how old they are.

2008 is the twentieth anniversary since your first book The Afro-Bets Book of Black Heroes from A to Z was published with Wade Hudson of Just Us Books which is also celebrating twenty years this year as a publishing company.   
VWW:  I can’t believe it’s been twenty years since Just Us Books came into being. I’ll never forget the day that Wade and Cheryl Hudson, who had been friends for years, told me they were starting a publishing company and asked me if I would co-write The Afro-Bets Book of Black Heroes (1988). I was, and still am, immensely proud of that book; it has touched so many young lives.  Tamara Hayle readers will occasionally mention that their mothers read the book to them as youngsters…that always knocks me out!

How was your journey to becoming a published author?
VWW:  My journey to publication has been a long road with many turns and corners. As I mentioned, my first published novel was for young adults. About two years later I published my first Tamara Hayle Mystery, When Death Comes Stealing.  My eighth, Of Blood and Sorrow, came out this month. I’ve also written three adult novels-Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do, Always True to You in My Fashion, and Playing My Mother’s Blues. I’ve been busy!

What are the significant changes that you’ve witnessed in African American children’s literature?
VWW:  There are quite a few books for black youngsters now, particularly picture books, but we need more books for kids who are just beginning to read. Black children need to see their lives reflected in the books they read. If they don’t, they won’t feel that they are welcome in the world of literature. Our live are rich and diverse, and the books our kids read should reflect that truth.

I know that you have two daughters.  How much of Willimena and Tina are based on your daughters?
VWW:  My daughters, Nandi and Thembi, were the inspiration for the series. Both are grown women now, and I have a new grandson. In a few years, I’m sure I’ll be looking to him for stories!

On Amazon, so many parents praise you for creating a series for young African American girls.  What do you have planned next for Willimena?  Are there any plans to make Willimena either a television show or an animated movie?
VWW:  We’re looking for a new publisher for the Willimena Rules! series and when we find one, I’ll post the information about forthcoming books on my website. I’ve really been touched by the emails I’ve received from parents and children who love Willimena and are looking forward to new books.

Who was your third grade teacher?  Who was your favorite teacher?
VWW:  I think my third grade teacher was named, Mrs. Banning. (It’s been so long ago I can barely remember.) I do, however, remember by favorite elementary school teacher. It was my eighth grade teacher, Ms. Anne Curran. She was a tiny woman with a deep, powerful voice who was an avid reader and shared her love of books with her students. She really encouraged me to write. I won honorable mention in a state-wide essay contest when I was in her class. I still remember how proud she was of me-and how excited I was when I received that $75.00 US savings bond.

Willimena attends Harriet Tubman Elementary School and she looks up to Harriet Tubman as her model of strength and perseverance.  Who are people that you admire from history?
VWW:  I have always admired such historical figures as Malcolm X, Zora Neale Hurston, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ida Wells Barnett. We have so many heroes and heroines who are inspirational, it’s hard to name just a few. One of the most rewarding things about co-writing the Afro-Bets Book of Black Heroes with Wade Hudson was discovering then writing about the lives of so many important, and often forgotten, historical figures.

Do you find it easier to write for adults or children?  What are the main differences?
VWW:  I love writing for both audiences. Of course, the children’s books are shorter and the language simpler but the themes are often complicated. For example, How to Lose Your Class Pet, is really about the need to forgive and not blame yourself when you have no control over circumstances. All of the Willimena Books are about growth and moral values, which I try to share without being pedantic.  

What is your writing atmosphere like?  Are you an early in the morning or late at night writer?  Do you need absolute quiet or is there music playing in the background?
VWW:  I like to write in the morning. Usually, after I’ve had a cup or two of coffee and read the paper. Sometimes I write at night. The last few months have been an extremely busy period in my life, so I’ve been off-schedule. Hopefully, I’ll get back on soon. My home office is near my kitchen, and that’s rarely quiet. I only write to music if I’m working on a romantic scene.

Do you plan to continue to write for children?  Will you be adding more young adult titles to your bibliography?  Ultimately, what does the future hold for you and your writing career?
VWW:  I love to write, and hope to continue writing for all my audiences.  Wish me luck!!

The Buzz on Willimena Rules! Rule Book #1: How to Lose Your Class Pet
From School Library Journal
Most children will be able to identify with this story, and the dialogue between Willie and her sister sounds realistic, with the two arguing and then giggling from one minute to the next. Black-and-white pencil illustrations convey the oftentimes-humorous tone of the novel. This satisfying tale with an appealing heroine is a good choice for the easy chapter-book section.  ~ Elaine Lesh Morgan, Multnomah County Library, Portland, Oregon

The Afro-Bets Book of Black Heroes from A to Z (1988)
Where Do I Go From Here? (1993)
Freedom’s Gift: A Juneteenth Story (1997)
Willimena Rules! Rule Book #1: How to Lose Your Class Pet (2003)
Willimena Rules! Rule Book #2: How to Fish for Trouble (2004)
Willimena Rules! Rule Book #3: How to Lose Your Cookie Money (2004)
Willimena Rules! Rule Book #4: How to (Almost) Ruin Your School Play (2005)
Willimena Rules! Rule Book #5: 23 Ways to Mess Up Valentine’s Day (2005)
Willimena Rules! Rule Book #6: How to Face Up to the Class Bully (2007)

Stay in touch with Valerie through her website.

Shane W. Evans

February 26, 2008

When Shane W. Evans was a child, a friend of his family invited him to help rehab an old building. Together, they transformed it into a working art studio. Afterwards, Shane enjoyed watching his friend and mentor create large detailed artwork, in the studio they’d worked on together.

Within Shane, that experience produced a dream all it’s own: Someday, he’d open his own art studio, a place where he could create wonderful works of art, too. A place where he could honor his dreams and the dreams of others.

Last summer, inside a 100-plus year-old building in Kansas City, Missouri, not too far from the famed Laugh-O-Grams studio created by Walt Disney, that dream came true. Shane Evans opened Dream Studio, a workspace for himself, an art gallery, a music venue, and a gathering space for the community at large.

Dream Studio was a major milestone in Shane’s career, but his successes didn’t begin there. Before, he had worked as a designer for Hallmark Cards. Then he went on to illustrate more than 30 books for children, including Osceola: Memories of a Sharecropper’s Daughter, written by Alan Govenar (Jump at The Sun, 2000), and No More! Stories and Songs of Slave Resistance, written by Doreen Rappaport (Candlewick, 2005). More recently, he illustrated When Harriet Met Sojourner, written by Catherine Clinton (Amistad, 2007).

Shane Evans was selected by First Lady Laura Bush to be featured at the National Book Festival in 2002, and his books have been highlighted on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Today Show, Reading Rainbow and Late Night with David Letterman. The Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and The Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Non-Fiction for Children are among his awards and honors.

Shane is also the illustrator for the popular Shanna books, a series written by Jean Marzollo. The series proved so popular, it was adapted into a cartoon for Disney, which later spun of a second television show, Shane’s Kindergarten Countdown.

i dream…” is a concept developed by Shane, where he poses the question: What do you dream?, and then he shares the dream with others.

So what’s my dream? Well, to allow myself to dream as big as Shane W. Evans.
Don: How did you become interested in illustrating for children?

Shane: I have always been interested in children’s books, from a child I was fascinated by the art and as an adult I could see the creative diversity in books for children. I myself never actually thought that I would be doing this as a career, for some reason I just never thought about it. A part of the artist in me didn’t think that the work that I was doing fit the “model” for children’s books. My illustrating of books actually came from showing a body of work that I created after I got back from West Africa, it was a very expressive body of work that had an interesting story telling element to it.

Don: What kind of training have you received to prepare for your career as an artist?

Shane: I have been in art school since 5th grade, attending school in Buffalo and Rochester. I was surrounded by amazing young students in the arts that were very series about the work that they were creating even at a young age. I went to school with notable artists such as Taye Diggs, Jesse Martin and Tweet. Being at these 2 schools at such a young age prepared me for Syracuse University, I found myself extremely advanced and focused, that lead me to a major in illustration. Four years of school was a great way to grow my mind and skill and create opportunities for networking early on. Post school I worked at RollingStone then Hallmark Cards, which was truly like a grad, school in the arts.

Don: What is your mission as an artist?

Shane: My mission is to inspire. If I am inspiring others then I am being inspired… inspiration is the way that the spirit grows and learns essentially. Additionally it is to go world wide with my visuals and communicate with other cultures through and with them. On July 7th 2007, I opened dreams studio, a 2200 square foot space for me with both work and showcase my work. Since the opening of the space I have hosted other artists, musical and theatrical and have witness a community come together through the art. Were it not for my tenacity in creating books and other visual artist it would have been difficult to open up such a place. Stay true to the work that I do has allowed a new process to start taking shape, the inspiration of another generation of young artists to start to take shape.

Don: What is your primary medium?

Shane: Oil, pen and ink and computer. (I have no real preference, although I do enjoy painting.)

Don: Is your approach to painting a children’s book any different from how you approach gallery or commissioned work?

Shane: Yes, I am thinking about children when I am creating a book for children where as work for galleries I am often stressing issues and often creating from the soul.

Don: Tell us about your process of illustrating a children’s book

Shane: This often varies but ultimately what I like to do is read the manuscript that I would get from an editor, then I start thumbnails in the margins (very quick) just to get an idea of where I might go in the work. From there I like to start looking for reference, inspiration and research that then leads to a more detailed set of sketches that are still rough but I am flushing out the layout. There is often some conversation at this point with the editor, and this goes back and forth as the sketches are developed. From here I start the process of finished drawings and go to painting from there.

Don: How long does it typically take you to illustrate a children’s book, and how do you balance work, family, and other?

Shane: That is VERY TRICKY. I think if I was not having to negotiate the way a book looks for editors and others that are looking to visualize (which is not always realistic) I could complete a book in a month to two months and this depends on the style. Generally it is about 4-6months. The balance of all things is something that is hard to do, as I do have a family I like to take time with my daughter and wife of course, but it is hard to pull my mind out of a book even when I am not actually painting on it. If I can get mini goals set and stick with them I can balance, if something gets thrown off in that flow it finds me behind and a bit off balance.

Don: Do you visit schools, and can you speak a bit about your program?

Yes I do visits, a great deal of what I discuss is my travels and how they have inspired and influenced my works, West Africa, Europe, Japan, China, South America to name a few, these places have truly shaped who I am as a person and informed my art. I also stress the importance of learning, giving details of my background in the arts and how important it was for me as a young person to maintain practice and learning to lead to continued evolution. Coupled with slides from all over the world and samples of books and actual illustrations I have found children of all ages truly engaged in the process of the lecture.

Don: Do you have any hobbies, or other interest beyond art?

Music, have been playing guitar for a lot of years and been writing songs as well for a number of years. Travel is a big thing for me as well as I am dedicated to leaving the country at LEAST once a year and I have been doing that since 1995. It has taken me to some of the most interesting places in the world and changed me as a person and as an artist.

Don: Is there any particular kind of manuscript you keep your eyes open for? Any particular kind of story you are drawn to?

Shane: Often the manuscripts will JUMP out of the page and it will be obvious that it is something that I would like to tackle although I have delved into texts that have been more challenging and needed exploration and work that I did not foresee. Currently I am bringing my own written voice and illustration to the table. For many years I have loved the process of writing. I have written music for songs and poems so the natural step is that I would start to illuminate books that I that I conceive.

Don: As an African American children’s book illustrator, do you ever feel pigeon-holed, or feel pressured to illustrate certain types of manuscripts?

Shane: I entered into illustrating books when there was a true NEED for books that represented children and people of color. During an episode of The Oprah Winfrey show she had a section of books that highlighted books for children. Included was the Shanna Princess Show, she stopped at that book and said “ I wish that I had books like this as a child”, this is something that I can relate to. So to be playing a role in filling that void is an honor, and not just “filling a void” but creating beautiful and meaningful work that ALL people can appreciate as I create books for all audience that happen to have faces of African Americans. I consider ARTIST and myself foremost, so I know that I am at a point where I can choose to illustrate any story.

Don: Who are your favorite children’s illustrators. Who are your favorite fine artists, contemporary or masters?

Shane: I am mostly a fan of the art… that is primary for me… although, Sendak, Kadir Neslon, Brian Collier, Jerry Pinkney, Suess, Vangough, Basquiat, Gaugin, Jacob Lawrence, William Henry Johnson, Henry Tanner, I could go on and on have all influenced me in some way.

Don: There aren’t many African American children’s book illustrators getting cartoon deals. How did that deal come about? Can you tell me a bit about the Shana cartoon series.

Shane: That came about as the series started getting a lot of looks out in the world, Oprah’s mention of it sparked interest as well as interest by another network besides Disney. The characters that I created had an appeal that Disney thought could translate well to television. I had some input in the series; for the most part the animation is created by a team as the process of animating is beyond a one-man job.

Don: What were your favorite books as a child?

Shane: Where the Wild things Are, I really felt like I was there with MAX on that journey, I felt scared for him at times and glad when he made it back… so it felt real and as a child that is a wonderful feeling.

Don: Tell us about your upcoming projects, children’s books?

Shane: Olu’s Dream with Harper Collins [image below], this is a BIG project for me as it is one that is based greatly around my mission as an artist and my studio. The book(s) (as I am looking to create a series) is about a little boy and his first dream. He is encouraged by his father in a subtle way to “just go for it” to take your dreams and pursue them. Today our youth and even our adults are setting aside their dreams, ignoring their dreams. If you think of dreams like gifts that are given to you to utilize, if you do not do that you are wasting the gift. So this is an important work for my portfolio of works, as the theme and the character is a universal one as EVERYONE dreams, and Olu is a child of 2 cultures so he opens up many to be able to relate to him and his “mission.” I am looking into working with Mr. Taye Diggs and taking this character into the world of animation, it is a long process but the aim is to truly explore all of the options that this character and this universal notion of dreaming has to offer.

A taste of the little dreamer in Action… Olu and Brindle as they race through all of their dreams.

Dream studio light’s up a part of town and brings art to community.

A view of the interior of dream studio.

Don: You’re a busy man, Shane. Thanks for sharing your valuable time.

Evans with the moto that follows the studio and his art “idream…” Evans sports the logo that brand the studio and is the main character for his upcoming book with Harper Collin’s “Olu’s Dream”.

Celise Downs

February 26, 2008

Celise DownsCelise Downs was born, and currently makes her home, in Phoenix, AZ. Her love of writing began in the 7th grade as a way to dispel recess boredom. Her talent was further encouraged by a high school English teacher. She considers her novels to be about the high school experience with a dash of intrigue.

“There’s the normal stuff that teenagers go through, like acne, peer pressure, and angst over the opposite sex,” she says. “Then there’s the not-so-normal, unexpected stuff. I happen to like writing about both.”

Her first book, Secrets and Kisses (Gemini Mojo Press), came out in March 2004 and was quickly followed up with Dance Jam Productions (Gemini Mojo Press) in September 2004. Her current project is Draven Atreides, Teenage FBI, a series about a 16-yr-old African-American girl who gets recruited by the FBI as an informant. You can find out more about more about Celise at her website ( or on MySpace (

For this installment of 28 Days Later, the Brown Bookshelf is happy to present author Celise Downs!

While Dance Jam Productions is clearly suitable for the young adult market, a large portion of the novel would have been suitable for the adult market as well. Why did you decide to become a young adult author, as opposed to an adult author?

I have a lot of high school memories and even though I’m in my late 30’s, I’ve unconsciously immersed myself in teen culture. My favorite shows are “Smallville”, “Supernatural” and “Kyle XY”. I go see the teeny-bopper flicks and subscribe to some of the teen magazines. I still think in a teenage mentality. I would like to eventually go into adult romance (since I’m addicted to Harlequin Blaze), but right now I don’t think I could effectively write for an adult audience. I’m a huge believer in signs when it comes to my writing and right now the sign are telling me to stay with YA.  For now.

Dance Jam ProductionsIn Dance Jam Productions, Mataya Black Hawk is hiding a very dark secret from her friends. Are there any issues that you feel are “taboo” in young adult fiction?

No. A lot of YA authors are “crossing the line” so to speak and covering topics like drug addiction, alcoholism, abuse (of any kind), suicide, homosexuality, etc.  For those that address those issues in a non-preaching type of way, I say more power to them.

Is there any message or theme that you want readers to get from your novels?

Would it be terrible of me to say ‘not really’? I’m all about the entertainment factor. As I mentioned above, some authors write about “real” issues. But when teens read my books, I want them to escape. I don’t think they should have to deal with real life in “real life” and when they pick up a book, too.

You speak a little on your website about how your childhood inspired both Dance Jam Productions and Secrets and Kisses. Which character are you like more, Mataya or Skylar?

If I had to choose, I would say Mattie. Dancing was a big thing for me during high school and college. Several years ago, I took a hip-hop dance class and had a blast. I’d like to get back into it eventually. I also have two best friends—both whom I’ve known for over twenty years each—and tell them just about everything. I don’t trust easily, but when I do, I’m loyal for life.

Secrets and KissesThere are very few African-American authors that write contemporary fiction from the point of view of a character that isn’t African-American, yet you did this with Skylar Knight, the protagonist of Secrets and Kisses. Can you talk a little about why you chose to create this character as you did?

I also did it for DJP; Mataya is Hawaiian. All my life, I’ve lived in two places: Phoenix, AZ and Reno, Nevada. I had the best childhood in Reno (that’s where I met one of the BF’s I mentioned above). In the neighborhoods we lived in, we were the only African-American family. In the schools my older sister and I attended, we were always the minority. Even though that was the case, my parents were very good about teaching us about prejudice and seeing the world in “color”.

There’s the old adage of “write what you know” and I know about being black in a sea of white. I truly am a product of my environment and I think writing from that aspect is very unique. However, my next character, Draven Atreides, will be African-American. She’s light-skinned (light enough to pass for white, in fact), but African-American all the same. She’s the main character in my upcoming 6-book (maybe more) YA series, Draven Atreides: Teenage FBI, about a 16-yr-old girl who’s been recruited by the FBI as an informant. Book One, A Royale Pain, should be coming out in Winter 2008 or early 2009. You can get to know her a little bit by checking out her blog at

You’re a non-traditionally published author, which has both positives and negatives. Can you speak a little about the pros and cons of self-publishing?

No royalty advance and marketing/promoting. Those are the two main cons for me. When I was younger, I had a lisp and a mild stuttering problem. I was very shy and would rather stuff my face in a book than talk to anyone. I’ve since outgrown the lisp, but the stuttering still emerges on rare occasions. If I could just do the writing and leave the marketing/promoting to someone else, I would do it in a heartbeat. It shouldn’t be hard to talk about something you love, but for me, it can be a little difficult. I’m slowly but surely getting used to public speaking.

As for the pros, it’s all about control. I have complete control over the price, the design, the release date…everything. For a long time, I was on the fence about going the traditional route with the YA series. I even went so far as starting the agent search last year. I got a lot of rejections, some of which had great criticism, and some requests, too. But I keep having this nightmare about the book covers: I’m afraid they’re going to put a white girl on the cover when my character is black. In traditional publishing, when you’re a newbie author, you have so little control. I have an idea of how the covers should look, so I’m going to continue to do it my way.

Non-traditional publishing, aka “self-publishing”, has gotten a bad rap from day one. Manuscripts published as-is, mistakes and all; shoddy cover designs…basically it looked like you published it yourself. At home. But it’s gotten a lot better in the past several years. We know more now than when it first started, and advances have been made. While there are still companies out there that require authors to pay upfront, others require the author only pay a portion of the cost. And then there are companies like mine that I refer to as “independently traditional”: the advances may be very small or nothing at all (but the percentage of royalties are bigger) and publishing is at no cost to the author.

When I started my company, it was with the future intent to publish not only my own material, but that of young adults and authors writing for young adults as well. In the four years that I’ve been in business, I’ve never taken on other authors. This year, I’ve decided to become an independently traditional publisher for young adults only. I hope to be re-designed, operational, and taking on teen authors by June 2008.

People are going to write books that may not fit into the traditional “hole”. People are not going to want to wait 1-2 years to see their work published. People are going to create something just for family, friends, organizations, associations, etc and not want to take it to a copy shop. Publishing non-traditionally gives them a choice. It’s not going to be right for everyone, but they’ll have the right to choose. They know now that traditional publishing isn’t the only way they have to go.

Who were some of your favorite authors growing up?

I didn’t have any. I started reading adult romance books when I was in high school and have yet to stop. However, I still have my copy of Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. The poems are amazing.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Edit, edit, edit…and then get someone to do it professionally; it’s always better to have a second pair (or third, fourth and fifth pair) of eyes, well, eyeball your work. Surround yourself with a positive support system and kick negativity to the curb. Be open to your surroundings and your environment because every day, every thing, is potential story material.

Kyra E. Hicks

February 25, 2008

If you spend any time in the children’s literature section of the blogosphere, you’ve probably already met Kyra Hicks. She started her blog, Black Threads in Kid Lit, in early 2007, writing on the subject of African-American children’s literature — picture books, reviews and other topics of interest. Since then, she has become an important addition to the online children’s literature community.

Beyond blogging, and even more important, Kyra is an author and storyteller. While attending a traveling exhibition about story quilts — Stitching Memories: African American Story Quilts — she became inspired. “I remember knowing at that moment that I wanted to tell stories using fabric,” she says. Soon, she was creating her own story quilts.

In 2003, her guide book, Black Threads: An African-American Quilting Sourcebook, was published by McFarland & Co. She followed that success with Martha’s Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria, published in early 2007.

I’m pleased to present, Kyra E. Hicks:

Don: Tell me about your book Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria.

Kyra: This book is the true story of Martha Ann Ricks, a 12 year old girl. Her father purchases her freedom from slavery and then moves the family from Tennessee to Liberia. On Market Days, Martha Ann watches the British navy patrolling the Liberian coast to stop slave catchers from kidnapping family and neighbors and forcing them back into slavery.

Martha Ann decides to thank Queen Victoria in person for sending the navy. But first, she has to save money for the 3,500 voyage, find a suitable gift for the queen, and withstand the ridicule of those who learn of her impossible dream to meet the Queen of England!

Don: What inspired you to write this story?

Kyra: I was inspired by Martha Ann’s story after reading a magazine article by Cuesta Benberry, a quilt historian. I wondered by a black girl would spend 50 years pursuing her dream of meeting the queen. I wondered why a black person would want to meet Queen Victoria. I wondered what happened to the actual quilt.

Well, little did I know that answering these questions would take several years of research on my part! I had a ball doing historical research to eventually learn what plantation in Tennessee where Martha Ann had been a slave to locating three published obituaries when she passed away in 1901 – the same year that Queen Victoria died.

In my research I eventually met great, great, great grandchildren of Martha Ann Ricks! I even wrote to the Queen Elizabeth II to ask if she still had the quilt given to Queen Victoria. I am still hoping to locate the actual quilt, which went on display at the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair.

Don: Tell me about your road to publication.

Kyra: Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria is my first children’s book, but second published work. I’ve written a reference book on 200 years of African American quilt history, Black Threads: An African American Quilting Sourcebook (2003).

Writing a children’s book is very different from writing a reference book. One of the best decisions I made was to enroll in the Children’s Authors’ Bootcamp. This two day bootcamp was led children’s book author, Linda Arms White, and Laura Backes, publisher of Children’s Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children’s Writers. I came home from the bootcamp and totally redid my manuscript!

Don: Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria is a self-published project. Can you talk about the process of publishing your own picture book?

Kyra: Like many would-be children’s book authors, I received dozens of rejection letters for my manuscript. However, I believed 100% in Martha Ann’s story and decided I could self-publish and market the book. Self-publishing is a major decision – and I think the key part is not writing the book, but in having a sound marketing plan. I love the control of self-publishing a picture book: deciding on the artist, deciding the cover, promoting the book! I have been surprised by how well the book is selling.

Don: Self published titles often carry with them a stigma, often viewed as unprofessional, under-edited, badly written and/or illustrated. But your book doesn’t fit that bill. What did you do differently than other self-published authors?

Kyra: Thank you! Selecting the illustrator for Martha Ann’s story was one of the important decisions. I looked at dozens and dozens of online illustrator portfolios to find an illustrator whose work matched my vision for the book. I also wanted to work with an illustrator who had examples of African Americans in his or her portfolio. Lee Edward Fodi, who is Canadian, was marvelous to work with! He had illustrated other children’s books so he had experience where I did not. I wrote about my experience in selecting an illustrator on my blog.

The other decision was to self-publish as a hardback book. This decision was more expensive, but also more classy.

Don: What advice can you give to authors who choose to self publish?

Kyra: My primary advice is to read, ask questions, and research your options for self-publishing as well as marketing your book.

Don: On the subject of craft, do you outline your stories, or do you allow your stories to unfold on their own?

Kyra: I love historical research – digging in to dozens of books, reviewing reels of microfilm, wearing white gloves reading hundred year old magazine articles, writing letters to people worldwide who may have a morsel of information, following threads of ideas and clues. My goal is to get the facts correct. Yes, I do outline a story or book to have a roadmap.

Don: Any stories to share about your experiences?

Kyra: Two experiences with Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria have been most wonderful. The first was when a copy of the book was presented to Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf at the opening of the Ambassador’s Library at the Liberian Embassy in Washington DC. (Read more here.)

The second experience was visiting P.S. 76 – A. Philip Randolph Elementary School in Harlem for an author’s visit. The children had such marvelous questions. Several months later I learned that the 4th Graders put on a play about Martha Ann based on the book!

Meeting with the children at P.S. 76 also led me to create a free discussion guide to Martha Ann’s story.

Don: Who are your cheerleaders?

Kyra: My parents are among my greatest cheerleaders. My Mom and Dad have read and assisted in editing both of my books. My father recently passed away. One of my reasons for self-publishing was to ensure that my Dad saw Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria in print.

My other cheerleaders are in the quilting world, including Carolyn Mazloomi and the late quilt historian Cuesta Benberry.

Don: What is on the horizon?

Kyra: At the moment, I’m editing a book about my grandfather, the late Detroit Congressman George W. Crockett, Jr. I do intend to write another non-fiction children’s book, though.

Don: Is there anything I missed that you would like to say to other authors, teachers, librarians, your readers?

Kyra: I’ve been encouraged by the number of libraries that have purchased Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria. Martha Ann Ricks’ story is true and inspirational. I think it’s also one of the few biographies about a former slave who is not “famous.” It’s also one of the few published picture books about Nineteenth Century African Americans or Liberians.

I love to hear from readers of the book. Feel free to contact me. Thank you, Don!

Don: Thank you for the interview, and I especially thank you for bringing Martha’s story to light.

More buzz on Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria

“Martha Ann’s story bears witness that quilts have always been repositories of meaning and beauty.  This heartfelt, inspirational, and historical account of perseverance is sure to inspire all who read it.”
– Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi, writer, historian, and quilter
“Martha Ann shows us how her lifelong dream to sew a quilt and present it to Queen Victoria came true against all odds.  Children and parents alike can enjoy this poignant and endearing story.”

- Janet Stanley, Warren M. Robbins Library, National Museum  of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

“Kyra Hicks has brought to light a fascinating life story of a young black girl born into slavery in East Tennessee.  Martha Ann’s story is inspiration, delightful, and true.  I can’t wait to share this book with a special young child in my life.”

- Merikay Waldvogel, Quilt historian and author

“Lee Edward Födi’s watercolour illustrations have a naive, folk art appeal. The full-page scenes provide a sense of place, from the coffee fields to Windsor  Castle.”  Recommended.

- CM: Canadian Review of Materials Review by Linda Ludke, a librarian in London,  ON

“This story of a freed slave who sews a quilt for England’s queen is a tear-jerker of the first order, as uplifting as it is heartbraking.”

-  Anne Levy, Book Buds Kids Lit Reviews

Stephanie Perry Moore

February 24, 2008

Writers aren’t rock stars.

We don’t clamor for the spotlight or trash hotel rooms during book tours. All we want, is for readers to give our books a good home where they’ll be read and shared.

It’s because of this quiet nature, that now and again, an author remains a hidden gem – cherished by their readers but not rock star famous among the masses.

Stephanie Perry Moore is one of children’s lits hidden gems. The Meg Cabot of African American kiddie lit, Perry Moore has five children’s lit series, ranging from Middle Grade to Young Adult. And she’s sold one hundred thousand plus within those series.

So how can someone be best selling and still be under the radar? We here at the Brown Bookshelf wondered the same thing.
BBS: You can tell me, does it hurt your ego, even a little, that after selling so many books you’re still not a “household” name among influencers and gatekeepers like librarians?

Stephanie: I’m in this game because God put me here. I want to do more to win folks for Him, but in His time.

I’m certainly not bitter. Just happy that I still have very loyal readers. I’m getting more and more each day. Now, being a bigger author would certainly be great though.:-) But I do feel blessed that I’m impacting people.

BBS: Back in 2000, you released the Payton Skky series to fill a void. How has the literary landscape changed in the last eight years?

Stephanie: There is more material for African-American teens. Back then there wasn’t a lot at all. The industry felt black kids didn’t read, which was not true. Now the sales in that market has grown and thankfully more material is now available for the kids.

BBS: What voids do you see that you’d like to fill with your stories, now?

Stephanie: I’m writing a series about a girl from the projects. I’ve found from my readers that they find it hard to seek God when they don’t see Him making their circumstances better.

This series hopefully will help them understand that He is there even when their life seems bleak. This is a bridge series from middle school to high school. At this tough time, I know teens need to know they can overcome.
BBS: The Laurel Shadrach series and the Faith Thomas novelzines are not revolved around an African American character. Tell us how they came about?

Stephanie: Laurel books came about because many readers loved Payton’s roommate and wanted to know more about her. It didn’t matter that she was white.
Black kids and white kids have the same struggles. The Laurel book points out that my position is, the only race that matters is the one that is saved.

BBS: Did you ever face any resistance – from readers or your publisher – about being African American writing about a non-African American character?

Stephanie: No. I went to a predominately white university. I live in a predominately white world. Telling stories from this point of view is extremely natural for me. This concern I have to minister to all folks has been well received by publishers.

BBS: Tell us a little bit about the novelzine format of Faith Thomas. I’ve never seen that before. Was that your idea or the publishers?

I work on a biblezine with another publisher called, REAL. It is the complete New Testament mixed with fun call outs that help people get a better understanding of the gospel.

As I spoke to different groups, I found that many young people would have questions about some of the messages in the novels. So the vision came for a novelzine. The format is mostly a novel, but all these other great articles, characters breakdowns, prayers, etc. help the reader truly get the message of the book. It is entertainment mixed with teaching.

I love that each chapter has a full-color picture of the character in the scene where the story is.

BBS: Your books are shelved Christian YA. Is the label too specific when describing your novels or just perfect?

Stephanie: Just perfect.

BBS: Would you rather have your books shelved with and blend in with other YA or does the Christian YA shelving ensure the book finds the right reader?
Stephanie: In different stores my books are placed in different sections. All of the sections work. YA, Christian, and African-American. If I’d have it my way, I’d love to be in multiple places in stores so when someone is looking there, my books can be available.

BBS: What hurdles do you think you face as a christian fiction author that your counterparts who write genreral fiction may not?

Stephanie: I have to answer to God. Though my books are juicy, He has to get a message in there that reigns about all else.

There may be other stuff, but that’s not for me to worry with. I have to stay in my lane as an author and write the stuff God gives me. What other people do, is their path.

BBS: Your series’ have covered MG on up to YA and your latest, Perry Skky, Jr. adds to the inventory of boy-centric books. What’s next on the horizon?
Stephanie: My newest adult title, Wearing My Halo Tilted just hit stores this month.

I’m writing a college sorority series and I’m so excited to deal with the issues that make and break community service organizations.

Also, I’ve had some doors open in the tv/film world. Since that was my desire since 7th grade, I’m so thankful to bring my books to that medium soon. Even though it has been a tough writing journey for me, I can look back and say God has me just where I’m supposed to be.

The Buzz on Stephanie Perry Moore’s Books

Laurel Shadrach Series
“Stephanie Perry Moore reinforces important lessons, such as that we can do all things through Christ which strengthens us and to have faith in God no matter what may come our way.” OOSA Bookclub Teen Reviewer

Perry Skky, Jr.
“The author has managed to authenticate Perry and his friends based on their backgrounds and she demonstrates that while you may be a product of your environment, you can always change the course of your life and not use that as a crutch.” – RAWSISTAZ Reviewers

Payton Skky
“SWEETEST GIFT is a satisfying, thought-provoking read. ” – TeenReads

Irene Smalls

February 23, 2008

On her website, Irene Smalls writes that she grew up in a home without books. There were no bedtime tales or cozy reading nooks. Instead, she discovered the magic of storytelling in school. Her teacher used songs, games and dance to bring stories to life. That awakened a joy inside her that lasted into adulthood.

Smalls has been Miss Black New York State, a radio reporter, actress, but a passion is writing for children. Her early classroom experience with reading led to her becoming an award-winning author of more than a dozen children’s books. Smalls first book, Irene and the Big Fine Nickel, was inspired by growing up in 1950s Harlem. Her books explore the joy of family life and black history. Her goal is to: “write classic books that will last for a lifetime.”

Please join us in celebrating Irene Smalls on the 23rd day of our campaign:

Please tell us about how your experience in kindergarten put you on the path to publication?

In kindergarten my teacher made reading loud, busy and fun.  And at five years old I loved all three of those things so I learned to love reading.  It wasn’t until I left her classroom that I found that people sat still to read.  In kindergarten we were dancing, laughing and playing games throughout the literacy experience.

I read that you were told you weren’t a good writer in grade school and college. What kept you believing in your dream?  

I actually never dreamed of being a writer or wanted to be a writer.  I just sort of fell into it.  But, I found that writing fits my values, my spirit, and my talents of creativity and sensitivity.

What inspired you to write for children?  

It was kindergarten again.  Our reading text was Fun with Dick and Jane.  There were no black children in the book at all but my kindergarten teacher read to my all Black class, Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “Little Brown Baby”.  At five I was called the little brown baby girl.  I felt so special and important.  I had only been in kindergarten one day and they had already written a book about me.

How did you land your first deal?  

The first book deal was the easiest.  I just called up a publisher and told him he needed to publish my book and he said, “OK”.

Your books: Irene and the Big Fine Nickel, Kevin and His Dad and Jonathan and His Mommy express the beauty of family and community. Where do your ideas spring from?   

The metaphor I tell students is I write stories from the tip of my nose.   A writer writes best about what they know.   I write about growing in Harlem, New York and about my children as they grew up.

How does your educational background in Black studies inform your work?  

Being a child of the sixties I acutely felt the void of the 50’s when blackness was a thing to be a ashamed of and hopefully forgotten.  Growing up in a poor, working class neighborhood I wanted to honor the great people I knew who may not have been well educated or wealthy but were nurturing, brilliant human beings.

Please tell us about your 12-month Black History Month series.  

Because Black History is relegated to one month of the year as a sort of historical segregation it is my concept to place Black History where in belongs as part of American History.  There was and is no separate African-American History.  By using an existing framework of the holidays it is my hope to make Black History part of each and every month.  Schools always have a holiday celebration as part of the normal activities.

How has the landscape changed for African-American children’s book authors over the years? What gains have made you proud? What do you hope the future brings?

These are frightening times now for Black children’s books.  I heard that 2% of the children’s books published last year were Black Children’s books, that is going backward.  It is like it’s the 1950’s again.  Of course, we do have a lot of negative imagery in the gangstas and their girlfriends books that seem to be doing OK.  The Black Bookstores that would naturally support our books are disppearing at an alarming rate.  I must commend The Brown Bookshelf for recognizing the void and providing a platform for African-American children’s authors.  I hope in the future that Black parents recognize the value of African-American books for our children and demand that schools include the books in large numbers in all aspects of the curriculum. 

What were some of the toughest obstacles you encountered when you began your children’s writing career?  

The toughest obstacles are still there, the overall perception in the marketplace that Black Children’s books generally don’t sell well.  

Please share some of the proudest moments.  

Some of my proudest moments were performing at the White House twice, and writing books about the people I love.

If you could go back and whisper in your ear when you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself about the children’s book industry?  

Keep all your rights, be totally open, flexible, recognize books are a commodity, but still recognize  the importance and value of writing books for African-American children.

What do you hope children take away from your stories?  

That they are loved.  That they matter.  That all things are possible, really, if they believe.

You’ve won many honors for your work. How do you measure your success? How important are awards and recognition to you?  

Honors are nice but cash spends better. Seriously, I love what I do.  I am making the world a better place.

Along with your lovely stories, you’re known for your captivating presentations that incorporate music, costumes, games, chants and storytelling. How does that add to the reading experience? How does it help you connect with young people?  

The presentations started because no one wanted to hear another author sit in a chair and read a story.  When I said I was a storyteller, people were interested.  In terms of connecting with children research shows that the most learning occurs when children are engaged physically, emotionally, visually and orally with the material.

What inspires your work?  

Kindergarten and My Nana.

How do you balance the creative side of writing with the business side?  

The two sides are separate but more and more the business side is taking predominance.  You can write the most beautiful things in the world but if there is no market the dust bunnies get it for free.  We are business people, creative people but business people too.  We have to keep the business side uppermost in our minds because that is how the world works.

Your books, My Nana and Me (Little, Brown, 2005) and My Pop Pop and Me (Little Brown, 2006), were such delightful stories. What can we look forward to next?  

Since the African-American children’s market has shriveled up.  I am writing creative non-fiction that celebrates all our children.

What’s your greatest joy?

The greatest joy is feeling my self grow.  Writing is an art-form as well as a craft.   I am still working on developing my craft.

The Buzz on My Pop Pop and Me:

“An African American grandfather, Pop Pop, and his grandson transform baking a lemon cake into a magical mystery tour of sound and rhythm: “Sniff sniff the lemon whiff / Peel peel I love the lemon feel.” Warm, soft, stylized watercolors add a surreal element to the lively story, especially as fish-eye perspectives sweep the pages and boy and grandfather sometimes shrink down to measuring-cup size. The inevitable messes and cleanup of any kitchen project are faithfully recorded: “Blat blat goes the batter I splat / Swipe swipe the counter I wipe.” The inventive wordplay is quirky (“sizzle sizzle the butter frizzles”), but it somehow makes sense that sprinkled salt would twinkle or that whisks would twisk . . . this is an affectionate, energetic paean to a cross-generational dynamic duo.”

– Booklist

The Buzz on My Nana and Me:

“As she did in Jonathan and His Mommy (1992) and Kevin and His Dad (1999, both Little, Brown), Smalls once again focuses on family relationships. In this charming picture book, an African-American girl tells readers about a special day that she shares with her grandmother. From a tea party and pat-a-cake to bath and bedtime, the routine activities will be widely recognized and celebrated for their simple pleasures. The child’s voice allows the story to take on the rhythm of poetry. Several lines in particular recall many grandchild/grandparent relationships: I am the smartest girl in the world/I know because my Nana told me so, and Nana calls me her baby girl, but I’m/not a baby, I’m big. The affection between the two is reinforced by the golden-hued background and the watercolor illustrations of the smiling pair as they spend time together. The text adds to the playful spirit of the story by dancing across the pages and changing font style to emphasize certain words. A sweetening title that should win lots of smiles.”

– School Library Journal

“Lucky is a child with a loving grandmother, as this picture-book valentine demonstrates. A young African American girl describes a special day with Nana. They have a tea party, play hide-and-seek and dress-up, comb and plait Nana’s hair, play pat-a-cake, and, after a bath, read stories before bedtime. Johnson’s softly colored, warmhearted illustrations bring out the feelings of the loving relationship, which Smalls describes in her spare, rhythmic text. Sunny yellow hues backlight the child and her grandmother, reflecting their pleasure in doing simple things together. Asides printed in curly and wavy script express the girl’s thoughts as Nana calls her “her sweetening girl.” Endpapers provide space “to place a photo of you and your Nana here” indicating a push toward the gift market, but this is a gentle, tender selection that is suitable for libraries, too.”

– Booklist

For more on Irene Smalls, please visit her website:

You can also check out the following sites:

Coe Booth

February 22, 2008

Reading about Coe Booth’s journey to becoming a published writer is inspirational.   Having read many of her interviews and articles written about her, I can honestly say that she is phenomenal at crafting stories and she is truly meant to be a writer.  And she has received many awards since the release of her debut novel Tyrell to prove it.  Coe has earned the 2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Fiction, 2007 New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age, 2007 American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults, and the 2007 American Library Association Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers.  Writing stories since she was in the second grade, Coe is a born storyteller.  Writer Marion Woodman confesses that “storytelling is at the heart of life. As a child, I was never bored because I could always get on with my story.”  I imagine that this is very much true for Coe based on an article I read written by James Blasingame, Jr. where she reflected on just how connected she is to her writing, “I have been writing my whole life. I sometimes judge my happiness at a given time by my writing output, so no matter what I’m doing, if I’m writing, I’m OK, but if I’m doing something and I’m not able to write, I’m not happy. Period!” Being in touch with her emotional barometer aligns with what Maya Angelou once said, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.”

I started reading Tyrell one morning as I sat in my car allowing it to warm up.  My car was ready to go, but I was still making my way through chapter one.  As I drove to work, the word griot kept echoing in my mind.   I know that griots are storytellers who are skilled in the oral tradition.  But griots are also tasked with being the chronicler of history and keeping their audience abreast of current events.  The guardians of the family genealogy, griots are trained to excel at what they do.  Like Coe Booth.  Tyrell is not her family history, but she is telling the story of so many of our young people.  She is telling the stories of so many people that she knew from her years as a social worker. Her storytelling is so powerful that I am able to visualize Tyrell as he walks such a tight rope trying to keep his head above some dangerous waters and make very grown up decisions.  As a former social worker, Coe is in tune with what’s happening to so many young people and their families.  She tells Tyrell’s story with great perception about him and those like him.  As someone who also has a degree in psychology, I believe that her educational background also aided her in telling Tyrell’s story and understanding who he is to help us as readers to see him better in our minds.

Tyrell made me pause a lot as I read because I wondered which of my former students lived a life similar to Tyrell.  How many did I write off thinking they just didn’t care about school or my class when really they had bigger problems than my homework assignment?  For all of my training to become a teacher, it’s books like Tyrell that are just as essential alongside the behavior management theories.  This is a story reminding us that sometimes we need to look beyond a person’s circumstances.  This is a story with heart.  If I was still teaching, this would be a story I would encourage many of my students to read even with the sexual content.  I also recommend that adults pick up a copy as well. 

Author Caitlin Matthews advises, “The one story worth telling is the one that strikes most nearly to the heart. For each person, that story will be different, for each heart is like a harp with its own distinct tuning.”  I’m thankful that the other story Coe was working on a few years back wasn’t meshing with her and she opened up a new file that later became Tyrell

Coe, it is a real pleasure to interview you.  I feel a kinship in that I didn’t outline my first book either.  I made notes here and there but no real outline.  I just went with the flow.  Did you stick to that with your next book?  Does that work better for you – discovering the story as it happens to you?

CB:  There’s definitely something exciting about writing without an outline.  The first time I had done that was with TYRELL and I really liked it, even though it got scary at times.  I kept thinking, “There’s no way I’m going to be able to tie up all these storylines.  What am I doing?”  But looking back, I do believe it worked best for me.  It was fun putting myself in Tyrell’s shoes and wondering what he would do next, as opposed to what I would do.  There’s a lot of acting involved with writing sometimes!

With my next book KENDRA, I wrote about 200 pages and then I hit a wall.  A big one!  So my editor suggested I outline the ending and it actually worked!  So the lesson here, I suppose, is every book is different.  I’m the kind of person who likes to jump right in and start writing, but if I get stuck (and if I’m up against a deadline!) I will give outlining a shot.

Currently you are in Switzerland doing a year-long writer-in-residency at Laurenz Haus.  How long have you been there?  How’s that going for you?  What are you working on over there?

CB:  I’ve been here since September and it has been such a great experience so far.  It’s the first time I’ve been to Europe, and Laurenz Haus is in such a central location that I’m only about ten minutes from both France and Germany.  I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be chosen for this!  The only stumbling block is the language.  Here they speak Swiss German, a language that is much different from standard German.  So the German 101 class I took last summer hasn’t helped me a bit!

Since I’ve been here I’ve been working on KENDRA.  Once I’m finished with the revisions, I will try to get most of the sequel to TYRELL written.  I also want to do some traveling, since I don’t know when I will have this kind of opportunity again! 

Can you tell us what your next book Kendra will be about?  I am eager to read that one already.  Will Tyrell be a part of her story?  Will their lives ever connect?

CB:  KENDRA is about a fourteen-year-old girl whose mother gave birth to her when she was fourteen.  Kendra is being raised by her very overprotective grandmother because her mother, Renée, has been away at college and graduate school.  Kendra has been waiting for Renée forever, and when she does return, Kendra learns that she’s still not ready to assume her role as Kendra’s mother.  This sets Kendra off on a downward spiral since she doesn’t feel she has anything to look forward to anymore.  So the story is really about the choices Kendra makes and the consequences she faces.

Kendra lives in the same “projects” as Tyrell, but she lives a much different life than he does and they don’t even know each other.  However, Tyrell does make a very brief cameo and Ms. Jenkins also pops up here and there.  It’s been a lot of fun overlapping the stories this way.

I read in another article that you are working on the sequel to Tyrell and you’re bombarded with questions and ideas for how that should go.  Don’t you just love when your readers respond to your story and characters in that way?  How is the sequel going for you?  Is Tyrell speaking to you or through you like he did the first time?

CB:  I think just about every reader who has written me has asked if there will be a sequel to TYRELL.  They tell me I left them “hanging.”  But not only do they ask me if there will be a sequel, they tell me what the entire storyline should be.  It’s so great. 

Writing the sequel will be pretty challenging since when I’m in the Bronx, I usually hear people talking like the characters in Tyrell’s world.  Unfortunately, I’m just not hearing that here in Switzerland!  But luckily for me, Tyrell’s voice is strong and (hopefully) I’ll be able to call it up whenever I need it. 

I know you began writing Tyrell as a grad school assignment.  How long did it take you to finish writing the book once you graduated from the New School?

CB:  Yes, I began writing it in grad school, and when I graduated I had only about one-third of it written.  (But at that time I was a full-time college professor and a full-time student, so I wasn’t able to write a whole lot.)  Once grad school was done I was able to finish it in about six months.  So altogether it took about a year and a half to write.  But I’m a slow writer! 

You mentioned in the article written by James Blasingame, Jr. that you grew up reading Judy Blume as a child and wanting stories like that to be written for Black kids.  You also mentioned that you have a desire to write for middle grade readers.  What are some of the topics that you want to write about for middle grade?

CB:  Oh, when I was a kid I loved me some Judy Blume!  And I really wished there were books like that featuring Black kids.  But there wasn’t anything out there like that.  So I started writing my own!  

I would love to write for middle-grade readers, especially books that will appeal to boys as well as girls.  That’s the age where kids really need to find books they can relate to or else they’ll be non-readers forever.  It’s such an important time in their lives and if I can write something that will connect with them, I would feel extremely good about that.  I have a million ideas right now, but nothing has yet clicked for me.  So over the next few months, while I’m working on the sequel to TYRELL, I will try to “marinate” a few ideas and see which ones have staying power. 

We know that since Tyrell has been released, you have received many well-deserved accolades from the industry as well as readers, but have you received any criticism about the story?  How do you deal with that?

CB:  While most of the reviewers had good things to say about TYRELL, I have received some criticism from individuals, mostly for the use of language in the book.  Some teachers of sixth and seventh grade classes have written me to say how much they liked the book and how they wish they could use it in their classes, but the language makes that impossible.  And they always ask me if I could write something for younger kids who are reluctant readers. 

I don’t find it too difficult to deal with that kind of criticism because I understand that TYRELL isn’t for everyone.  Some people aren’t comfortable with the language, and that’s their right.  I knew going into this that some people wouldn’t like it, but I’m really happy that so many people haven’t let that stop them from reading the book and teaching it, especially in high schools. 

Other criticism I’ve received from a few individuals is that TYRELL shows a very skewed perspective of African American life.  A few people have said I should write more uplifting stories with more upwardly mobile characters.  But this is only my first novel, and this one is about one particular boy.  It doesn’t mean everything I write will be exactly like this.  But I also think it’s important to write about characters like Tyrell because people like him exist.  And young people like Tyrell deserve to have books they can relate to available to them.

As I read Tyrell, I was very intrigued by Jasmine and her back story. I’m rooting for both Jasmine and Tyrell because they’re both good kids in spite of life’s circumstances.  Any plans to have a book about Jasmine and her adventures?  Will she be in Tyrell’s sequel? 

CB:  Yes, Jasmine will definitely be in the sequel to TYRELL.  I really ended up liking her, which kind of surprised me!  At first I thought she was going to be more of a minor character, but she just grew on me (and Tyrell!)  I don’t have any plans for a book about Jasmine, but one never knows…

What are you hoping for through your writing?  What do you see for yourself as a writer for the next 20 years? 

CB:  Wow, what a good question!  I guess my main goal is to write books that children and teens actually want to read, including those who don’t normally enjoy reading.  I love making that kind of connection with readers, one that will hopefully open the door to more reading in their future.

In 20 years I would like to have a body of work I’m happy with, books for both middle-grade and teen readers.  I’d like to grow and improve with each book, and maybe push the envelope a little!  I also have a not-so-secret dream of writing for television and film one day, but that would definitely be on the side.  Writing novels is what I’ve always wanted to do and hopefully I will still be doing it 20 years from now.

The Buzz on Tyrell
From School Library Journal
Starred Review. This is a thrilling, fast-paced novel whose strong plot and array of vivid, well-developed characters take readers on an unforgettable journey through the gritty streets of New York City’s South Bronx. At its heart is the painful choice the teen must make as he realizes the effect of his mother’s failure to do right by their family. ~ Caryl Soriano, New York Public Library

From Booklist
*Starred Review* . . . The immediate first-person narrative is pitch perfect: fast, funny, and anguished (there’s also lots of use of the n-word, though the term is employed in the colloquial sense, not as an insult). Unlike many books reflecting the contemporary street scene, this one is more than just a pat situation with a glib resolution; it’s filled with surprising twists and turns that continue to the end. ~ Hazel Rochman

Stay informed by visiting Coe at her website, MySpace or at the Longstockings blog.

Karen English

February 21, 2008

 A teacher’s classroom is always abuzz with activity from the students and teacher engaged in learning.  I can only imagine the level of buzz in author Karen English’s classroom.  As she works with her students and listens to them, the wheels in her mind are turning as she creates stories from what she sees and hears.  Karen English is in tune to the stories that her students hunger for and feeds that need through her own writing which is also inspired by a piece of artwork or a childhood memory.

No stranger to awards and recognition, Karen has been the 1999 recipient of the Coretta Scott King Honor Award for Francie, the 2005 recipient of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award and the 2005 ALA Notable Children’s Book Award  for Hot Day on Abbott Avenue. Two of Karen’s books, Big Wind Coming! and Speak English for Us, Marisol!, have been featured by the Anti-Defamation League as recommended multicultural and anti-bias books for children.

In your interview with Cynthia Omololu, you mention that your first book Neeny Coming Neeny Going (1996) was written out of inspiration by Jonathan Green’s artwork.  You also stated that there was a niche that needed to be filled.  What are some other niches that you believe need to be filled within African American children’s literature?

KE: Everyday life is really what most of our African American children live.  If we respect their emotional lives we can see that they don’t need to be set apart.  Emotionally human beings are the same.  I’d like to see more stories driven by the everyday than by events.  I think our children would more readily see themselves.  Books would be more high interest and we wouldn’t lose so many to TV and video games.

In addition to reading Nikki and Deja, I also read your middle grade novel Francie which was an intense read for me primarily due to the Jesse Pruitt storyline.  Francie also put me in the mind of Mildred Taylor’s books about the Logan family in Mississippi. I read that Francie was inspired by a friend’s childhood in Alabama as well as your mother’s childhood in North Carolina.  How important is it for you to share our history with readers today?

KE:  I used to resent our stories being told by non-African American authors.  But then I realized we can only blame ourselves.  There’s so much that needs to be told.  There’s enough for all writers and perhaps I shouldn’t be so proprietary.  After all, I wrote about a little Pakistani girl in Nadia’s Hands and little Hispanic girl in Speak English for Us, Marisol.

I know that you are an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles area.  What grade do you currently teach?  How many years have you been a teacher?  What do you enjoy most about being a teacher?

KE:  I teach third grade. I love teaching.  I love children.  They are so genuine and quirky and funny and full of love.  They’re aware of so much more than we give them credit for. They provide so much grist for the mill.  I started teaching in the seventies, and then took a long time off while rearing my own four children.  I returned to it when my youngest was in high school.

As a teacher, what books are your students reading?  What are they most interested in reading?  Do their interests play a part in the books you’ve written?

KE:  My students are really into the Flat Stanley series.  They’re devouring them.  My more challenged readers love Frog and Toad.  Their interests don’t guide me at all.  I write from the heart—what I intensely feel I need to write.

Who are some of your favorite children’s literature writers and illustrators?  KE:  I love Allen Say (illustrator), Kevin Henkes (picture book writer)…  Their work taps into universal emotions.

I love the illustrations in Nikki and Deja.  Describe what it is like working with an illustrator.  How do you decide what scenes are illustrated?

KE:  Guess what?  The writer has almost no say about the illustrations that will go in his/her book.  I don’t even know what my characters look like until I get the galleys.  I thought Francie looked like a girl version of my oldest son.  He didn’t agree.  I only met one illustrator—Synthia Saint James—only because she lived in L.A.  Perhaps if I were a bestseller, I’d have more power.  But as it stands, I have very little control.  I did, however, note that the illustrator of Nikki and Deja had given Auntie Dee a flip.  I told my editor that Auntie Dee would more likely have locks and be a vegetarian.  So they gave her a more “earthy” look.

I was excited to read that you’re considering making Nikki and Deja into a series akin to what Beverly Cleary did years ago.  Is that still a possibility?  Who will we meet next from Nikki and Deja’s neighborhood and school?

KE:  My editor wanted a kind of sequel to Nikki and Deja so I wrote Nikki and Deja: Birthday Blues (which is due to come out in Fall 2008).  I’m presently working on a third Nikki and Deja book. 

What are your other future writing plans?

KE:  God willing, I hope to get back to a project that I started in 2001.  It’s a project that’s going to require a lot of research.  The time and setting is 18th century Senegal at the height of the slave trade.  I’ve only been to Senegal once and then it was for a hot minute.  I hope to make a return trip this coming summer.

Karen, thank you so much for your time and for shedding light on your journey as an author and a teacher.

KE: Thank you for including me in your February Author Spotlight. 


Neeny Coming, Neeny Going (1996)         
Big Wind Coming (1996)
Just Right Stew (1998)
Nadia’s Hands (1999)
Francie (1999)
Speak English For Us, Marisol (2000)
Strawberry Moon (2001)
Speak to Me:  And I Will Listen Between the Lines (2004)
Hot Day on Abbott Avenue (2004)
The Baby on the Way (2005)
Nikki and Deja (2007)

The Buzz . . . Critical Praise for Nikki and Deja
Publishers Weekly: “In her first chapter book, English perceptively explores the undercurrent of insecurity and rivalry that threatens two African-American girls’ friendship.”

Kirkus Reviews: “Accesible writing, authentic characters, an easy-to-identify-with plot and Freeman’s appealing black-and-white illustrations come together smoothly in this straightforward friendship tale.”

Common Sense Review: “Author Karen English does a great job of showing these tricky friendship dynamics, and throws in good messages about the dangers of cliques and the importance of saying you’re sorry — all in an easy-to-read format with expressive illustrations that help ease new readers into the chapter book format.”

The Capital Times Review:  “Most of the action takes place at school, where the girls face universal pressures. Themes include acceptance, competition, saying you’re sorry, and respect for adults and peers. Readers of any background will like the story, but African-American girls will especially relate to scenes that include Nikki’s bungled attempt to comb Deja’s hair and the friends’ effort to organize a drill team.”


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