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.
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