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)
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.”