Andrea Pinkney

February 19, 2009

andreaWithin the world of children’s publishing, Andrea Pinkney has become an icon. Her career spans more than twenty years, and during that time she’s juggled many hats.

As Vice President, Executive Editor for Scholastic Trade, Andrea has acquired and edited many titles, including the Newbery Honor Book Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis; The Clone Journals, a science fiction series by Newbery Honor author Patricia McKissack; Odetta, a picture book with the legendary folk singer; Sunrise Over Fallujah by Newbery Honor author and National Book Award finalist Walter Dean Myers; March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World by Christine King Farris (the sister of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.); and the upcoming Sassy series by New York Times bestseller Sharon Draper. In addition, Andrea will soon publish Crow Call, the first picture book by two-time Newbery medalist Lois Lowry and Beautiful Ballerina, a gift book featuring the principal dancers from Dance Theater of Harlem, to be published for Dance Theater of Harlem’s 40th anniversary.

Andrea began her editorial career at Essence Magazine as Senior Editor, Contemporary Living, where she headed up one of the most vibrant profit centers at the magazine. She then went on to pursue a career in children’s book publishing; at Simon & Schuster she served as an acquisitions editor, and then at Disney Publishing’s Hyperion Books for Children, she served as Editorial Director. During her tenure at Disney, she was the founding editor of Jump at the Sun, the first African American children’s book imprint at a major publishing house. Under Jump at the Sun, Andrea launched the hugely popular best-selling series, The Cheetah Girls, which has now become a Disney media franchise. Andrea also created the Shanna Show book series, now a Disney Channel animated selection.

After Disney, Andrea joined the Children’s Division of Houghton Mifflin as Vice President and Publisher. While there, she served as the strategic visionary and chief architect of the children’s trade editorial program and oversaw the successful expansion of the company’s key franchises including the Curious George publishing program and the media tie-in program for the bestselling children’s classic The Polar Express. Additionally, Andrea acquired and edited many award-winning books, among them Toni Morrison’s Remember: The Journey to School Integration and A Wreath for Emmett Till. Andrea also published the teen book Serving from the Hip by World Class tennis pros Venus and Serena Williams, which was featured in a two-part special on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

This year, Andrea was named one of the “25 Most Influential Black Women in Business” by The Network Journal, a publication for Black professionals.

Andrea also is a writer, and has authored more than 20 books for children, including the Caldecott Honor Book and Coretta Scott King Honor Book Duke Ellington, illustrated by Brian Pinkney; Let it Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and winner of the Carter G. Woodson Award; and Alvin Ailey, a Parenting Publication Gold medal winner.

Andrea lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, award-winning illustrator Brian Pinkney, and their two children.

I’m very honored to present one of the most influential people in the children’s publishing business, my very first book editor, Andrea Pinkney:

Don: Your most recent published book, Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation, is beautifully written and illustrated. What inspired you to write about Rosa Parks?

Andrea: Rosa Parks had a quiet strength about her. I found this inspiring. She was one of America’s sheroes whose courage and determination set her apart. By writing about her in Boycott Blues, I wanted to show young people that taking a stand can be done by simply standing firm in your convictions (or in Rosa’s case, sitting firm for what she believed was right).

Can you talk about your approach to telling the Rosa Parks story?

Andrea: Boycott Blues is told from the point of view of a blues-guitar-playing hound dog named Dog Tired. I chose this narrator because the blues is such an emotionally compelling musical form that speaks to the weary nature of the many dogged steps those boycotters must have felt. Then, too, the blues have hope wrapped inside them. Dog Tired delivers hope through his narrative. I thought, too, that by having a fiesty canine tell the tale, children might find it more accessible.

You wear many hats — author, speaker, publisher, wife, mother — how do you find balance, and how do you find time to write?

Andrea: I do wear many hats! Like any working mother, I have to balance and manage my time very carefully. My children and husband come first, of course, then my work. I get up very early in the morning and do my writing before I go the office, where I work as a children’s book publisher. I never leave home without my writing notebook, and get a lot of writing done in transit. One great place to create is while riding the subways of New York City, where I live. Weekends are family time, and they’re sacred.

What are the challenges in wearing so many hats?

Andrea: One of the challenges of wearing so many hats, is that I love each and every one of them!

What inspired you to make children’s literature the focus of your career?

Andrea: I started my career as a magazine editor. I worked at several women’s and special interest magazines. When I was a senior editor at Essence magazine, I produced many special sections for the magazine. One of those was a parenting section, in which we reviewed and featured children’s books. That was in the late 1980s, and I noticed there wasn’t a large selection of books by African American authors that covered a wide range of subjects (commercial, literary, historical, pop culture, fantasy, etc.). During a chance meeting with the publisher of the children’s division at Simon & Schuster, I mentioned this, and she offered me a job! I jumped at the opportunity because I saw such a tremendous need. I didn’t know a thing about producing children’s books (even though I’d authored two picture books at that point). The experience I brought to Simon & Schuster was that of a magazine editor — a profession that requires generating ideas all the time. I came to children’s book publishing with a lot of ideas, some of which I still have today.

In an ever tightening market, what advice can you give aspiring authors, interested in writing for African American children? Illustrators?

Andrea: The best advice I can give to any aspiring author is to write every single day. Work at the craft of writing. Take it seriously. Read. Read. Read. And make a study of books that are the best in the field — those that have won awards and are well reviewed.

What kind of stories do you like to read?

Andrea: As a publisher and author, I’m a big fan of historical fiction and also memoir. One of my favorite recent books is Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis (I’m a bit biased — this is a novel I acquired), and I love the memoir by James McBride entitled The Color of Water.

In your longtime career, what are some of the the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in children’s publishing?

Andrea: One of the most refreshing changes I’ve seen in recent years is the blending of genres — the pushing past the hard-and-fast lines of specific publishing categories. Nowadays talented authors and illustrators are creating books that can’t easily be put in a box. For example, I published a book entitled A Wreath For Emmett Till by Newbery Honor author Marilyn Nelson. This is an illustrated poem about the lynching of Emmett Till. Though illustrated, it’s not a traditional picture book, and it’s not for young children. The book has been embraced by middle school and high school teachers as a powerful teaching tool. Also, the book won a coveted Printz Honor medal and a Coretta Scott King Honor medal as well. It’s a book that I’m proud to say is “beyond category.”

What do you do outside the world of writing, reading, and publishing?

Andrea: When I’m not writing or working on books as a publisher, I’m doing things that make me happy. One is skiing with my kids and husband. I love sports. Last November I ran in the New York Marathon for the second time. I trained for a whole year, and ran in several New York City races leading up to the marathon. Running with my fellow New Yorkers is such a thrill! Also, I’m a true opera buff. Operas make the best stories.

What can your readers look forward to?

Andrea: My next book is entitled Sojourner Truth’s Step Stomp Stride, which will be published this fall by Hyperion. The book is illustrated by Brian Pinkney, my husband and frequent collaborator. The book introduces abolitionist Sojourner Truth and her mighty ways!

Marilyn Nelson

February 18, 2009

marilynnelsonThree-Time National Book Award Finalist. Two-Time Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Winner. Former Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut. Those are just a handful of the ways to describe Marilyn Nelson.

Nelson is the author or translator of twelve books and three chapbooks. carverHer first book for young people, Carver: A Life In Poems (Front Street, 2001) won the 2001 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award, was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award, a Newbery Honor Book, and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Nelson was also awarded her second Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and Coretta Scott King Honor for A Wreath For Emmett Till (Houghton Mifflin, 2005); the book was also recognized as a 2006 Michael L. Printz Honor Book, and a 2006 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor Book.

Her latest book, The Freedom Business (Wordsong, 2008), has received starred review from both Booklist and Kirkus, with Kirkus calling Nelson’s work, “An astonishing, heartbreaking cycle of poems…”

The recipient of three honorary doctorates, Nelson is a professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut and serves as founder and director of Soul Mountain Retreat, a small writers’ colony.

Please welcome Marilyn Nelson to Day 18 of 28 Days Later:

emmett_tillMost of your collections of poetry for young people, such as Carver, A Life in Poems (Front Street, 2001) and A Wreath for Emmitt Till (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), focus on biographies and true events. What draws you to non-fiction?

I’m interested in the stories contained in US history. It’s not so much history that draws me; it’s more the personal stories of actual people, and what can be learned from them.

Do you find that you approach poetry for young people differently that do you would poetry for adults?

Not really, except that I wouldn’t write about sex in a collection for young people. But I don’t write about sex, anyway!

Your latest book of poetry, The Freedom Businessfreedombusiness, chronicles the life of Venture Smith, an African sold into slavery that eventually purchased his and his family’s freedom. What attracted you to this project?

Venture Smith spent much of his adult life, and is buried, in East Haddam, CT, the little town in which I live. He is something of a “local hero.” When I moved to town, pretty much everyone I met asked whether I was planning to write about him. I had never heard of him before that.

The layout of the The Freedom Business features the text from Venture Smith’s narrative of his life on one page, and your poetry on the opposite page. How did this unique layout come about?

This decision was made by my publisher. So I give a shout-out to Stephen Roxburgh and Helen Robinson, and WordSong, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press.

You are also the founder and director of Soul Mountain Retreat, an organization established to “encourage and support emerging and established poets – especially those belonging to traditionally underrepresented racial or cultural groups.” What inspired you to found this program?

The experience of being “the only one” at several larger artists’ colonies, and the experience of being on the faculty of Cave Canem, the wonderful organization which exists to encourage and support African American poets. I’m especially interested in fostering community for ethnic writers at Soul Mountain, in offering, albeit on a much smaller scale, an opportunity for them to share some of the spirit of camaraderie which Cave Canem poets share.

Can you tell us a little about any upcoming projects?

Several books are forthcoming:

Sweethearts of Rhythm (Dial, 2009), a book of poems about an integrated all-girls swing band which toured the country during WWII.

Beautiful Ballerina (Scholastic, 2009), a picture-book about ballet, featuring African American dancers.

Snook Alone (Candlewick, forthcoming), an allegory about a dog marooned on a desert island.

Seneca Village (Dial, forthcoming), a book of poems about a nineteenth century African American village in Manhattan.

The Baobab Room (Candlewick, forthcoming), an allegory about a boy playing inside a baobab tree.


Learn more about Marilyn Nelson at the following locations:

Soul Mountain Retreat

CCBC Interview

Blue Flower Arts

London Ladd

February 17, 2009

londonladdEvery now and then, a new artist sneaks onto the children’s literary stage and dazzles us with such unbridled talent, that we’re left standing on our tippy-toes begging for an encore. Last year, one of those artists was London Ladd.

Ladd made his debut illustrating the book March On!, written by the sister of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Christine King Farris. With this book, Farris offered her account of the day Dr. King delivered his historic I Have a Dream speech. The book published last month, on the 45th anniversary of King’s march on Washington.

In a video, Ladd talked about living his dream illustrating children’s books, and about the day when March On! published. The excitement in his eyes sparkled as he recalled the day he gathered up his family and headed for the book store to take pictures.

When he’s not illustrating, you’ll find him teaching art at the Kuumba Project, an after school program that introduces visual and performing arts to inner city kids.

Here’s my chat with London Ladd:

Don: How did you become involved in the March On! project?

28593667London: Andrea Davis Pinkney hired me after a mutual acquaintance of ours referred her to my website. She liked my work and thought it would be perfect for this project.

How did you become interested in illustrating for children?

London: I wanted to bring words to life for children with my artwork. My first love was comic books, especially graphic novels. I loved the imagery and storytelling that came across in these books.

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

London: I graduated at Syracuse University where I received my degree in illustration. I was lucky enough to study with great illustrators like James Ransome, Bob Dacey, Yvonne Buchanan, John Thompson and Roger DeMuth who taught various aspects of not only illustration but design and painting.

mlk-with-leaders What is your mission as an artist?

London: That’s a great question, I think my mission is to tell a story with beautiful vivid illustrations that children will enjoy.

What is your primary medium?

London: Acrylic paint on Bristol board because it doesn’t rip, buckle or bend, when I’m painting on it. I also love painting in my sketchbook. The Earthbound recycled paper is the best at handling thin washes and/or heavy opaque layers.

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

London: After I except the project I read the manuscript over and over so I can understand what’s being said by the author. I really try to find myself in the story because then it becomes more personal to me, like a form of “method illustrating.” This gives me a better understanding of the projects composition, design and color choices. I quickly sketch down ideas and keep sketching then I put the drawings away for a few days and do some research. When I return I combine my research and refined sketches to compose the dummy book. I send the dummy book to the publisher and after they review and make suggestions I begin the paintings for the final art work. When art work is completed I package it and send to the publisher.

What inspires you as an illustrator? Are there certain topics/stories you enjoy more than others?

London: I love history so anything historical fascinates me because it allows me to learn while working. African American history especially interests me because there are so many untold stories.

mlk What were the biggest challenges in illustrating March On!

London: I wanted to create an MLK that conveys an intimate feeling, a behind the scenes perspective without making him too iconic. Christine’s story is a personal first hand account so I wanted to show him as an ordinary man who happened to do something extraordinary. There are so many books, magazine articles, photos, documentaries, etc, about Martin Luther King Jr., I wanted my vision to be unique.

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

London: The entire process from first call to handing in finished work takes 7-9 months depending on the subject matter. Sometimes it’s difficult to juggle everything with my families various schedules. But we make an effort to really spend quality time together.

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

London: Yes, I started visiting schools recently. During these visits I talk about my personal journey from student to illustrator. I explain the career of an illustrator and I try to inspire the kids to persistently reach for their dreams no matter their circumstance. I share with them the struggles that I experienced and how it built my character. I want kids to know that they can achieve any level of success if they put their mind and heart to it.

What are your interest/hobbies beyond art?

London: I love to travel and enjoy being around my extended family. In the summers I like visiting state parks around the State of New York.

What were some of your favorite books as a child?

London: I don’t remember any children’s books as a child only comic books but I know the first children’s book I gave to my daughter, Goodnight Moon. I love that book, not just because of the sentimental value but also the simplicity of everything about it, from the words to the illustrations.

Who are some of your favorite children’s book authors and illustrators today? And why.

London: There are so many illustrators whom I admire because they blazed the path and are successful and so amazingly talented.

Jerry Pinkney, Ashley Brian, Floyd Copper, Leo and Diane Dillon, James Ransome, Brian Collier, Kadir Nelson, Shane Evans, Ezra Jack Keats, E. B. Lewis, Greg Manchess, John Thompson, Bob Dacey, Yvonne Buchanan, James Garney, N.C. Wyeth.

the-long-night-thumbAs an illustrator who is African American, do you ever feel the pressured to illustrate certain types of manuscripts?

London: To be honest with you as an artist just entering the field I am grateful to illustrate books regardless of the subject. As long as they are good quality projects that are interesting and challenging I am open to them. If these projects happen to be African-American themed I’m fine with it. Maybe after a few years I’ll feel differently and want to do other types of projects.

Who are your cheerleaders, those who cheer loudest for you along the way?

London: My wife, daughter and mother, they’ve been there with me from the beginning through the good and the bad that’s why I dedicated the book to them.

What advice can you offer to aspiring illustrators of children’s books.

London: Passion, Perseverance and Patience. Passion in what you do, perseverance to fight through tough times and patience in knowing that you will reach your goal.

What can your fans look forward to in the future?

London: I’m currently working on my second children’s book which is about a well-known African American. I’m excited and blessed to have an opportunity to do what I love.

Buzz about March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World

Ladd, in his first picture book, demonstrates a rare talent for portraiture-even the faces in his crowd scenes are individuated. Like Farris, he resists the temptation to lionize his subject: instead of looking iconic, his King looks human-in other words, capable of inspiring the reader.

–Publisher’s Weekly

Ladd’s acrylic paintings are an excellent accompaniment to the text. His use of color and varying perspectives creates a great deal of visual energy, extending the excitement of the event.

–School Library Journal

Ladd, a talented figure painter and first-time picture-book illustrator, offers his own fresh and affecting take on these now familiar events; his images expand and enliven the well-known facts and ably expand on Farris’s powerful family story.

–Kirkus Reviews

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

February 16, 2009


As a child, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson was captivated by the stories her mother read at bedtime. She soaked in the poems her father recited.  Those early  experiences gave her a deep appreciation for the power of literature and language. Today, part of Nelson’s mission is to share that gift with others: “I hope to give children some of what my parents gave me – the opportunity to grow, to be made stronger, through story.”  

As an author, Nelson has achieved that and more. Her books, exploring sensitive topics like slavery, elderly memory loss and discrimination, are filled with hope and heart. Her work has received many honors — Always Gramma was named a Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies and Beyond Mayfield won a Parents’ Choice Gold Award. Her picture book, Almost to Freedom, won a Coretta Scott King Honor Award for illustration and was made into a play.

On day 16 of our campaign, we are proud to salute Vaunda Micheaux Nelson:

How did your parents help put you on the path to writing? 

My parents brought books into my life on the day I was born; my mother found my name in a novel she was reading.  And my love of books began at bedtime, which was story time at my home.  Though I often joined my four siblings in the resistance against the dreaded hour, I can admit now that most times I was secretly anxious to go to bed to hear Mom read the next chapter of our current adventure involving Uncle Wiggily, Tom Sawyer, or the Bobbsey Twins.  Dad would recite story poems from memory, like “Oh, Captain, My Captain” and “Paul Revere’s Ride.”  He read Langston Hughes and other poets.  And he recited poetry he’d written himself, though he didn’t tell us it was his until years later.  Mom got us library cards and, twice a month, took us to the bookmobile.  We had no library in our small town.  Many parents stop reading to their children after they start reading on their own.  I will be eternally grateful that mine never did.  They both loved literature and made it an integral part of our lives.  They taught me the power of language.  This made me want to be a writer.

What inspired you to write for children?    

I had always loved children’s literature, and was working at Pinocchio, a bookstore for children in Pittsburgh, when I wrote my first book.  At the time, I was a sponge, soaking up all the children’s books I could.  I came to understand why they were so appealing to me.  The really good stuff has a complex simplicity, a subtlety, a depth of feeling and meaning, an economy of language, rarely seen in adult literature.  What a challenge!   It is a challenge I reach for every time I sit down to write. 

Also, I know what a difference books have meant to the fullness of my life.  It is gratifying to think that something I write may touch a young reader in a positive, permanent way.

How did your first book, Always Gramma, come to be?   What was your journey to publication?

When my grandmother became ill years ago, my parents couldn’t talk to us kids about it.   They didn’t have a language for it themselves, so they were as frightened and confused as we were, probably more.  Consequently, when I grew up, I couldn’t talk about it very well either.  I didn’t really understand everything that had happened and what I did understand had become so internalized that trying to deal with it was difficult.

I needed to write Always Gramma.  The process of writing the story helped me to move beyond the sadness, beyond the pain of what my grandma and I had lost to the disease, and to focus instead on what we had — the wonderful things we shared, and the love that illness or even death can never take away. 

Most editors thought the story was too sad.  Certainly, the sadness of the illness cannot be denied.  But the real story moves beyond that.  Always Gramma is simply about a relationship between two people in which one of them changes, but the love goes on.  The love is stronger.  It wins in the end. 

I received a terrifically helpful rejection letter from Patricia Gauch of Philomel Books.  She gave me advice and a critique that led to a good revision and to publication with Putnam.

Please talk about your Mayfield series.  What inspired you to write it?  Will you write more middle grade novels?

When I was a child there was a man in our neighborhood we all called Old Harry.   He was scruffy and unshaven, sort of a local hobo.  And he terrified us.  Naturally, we circulated horror stories about him, and we all ran and hid when he showed up.  He never did anything to justify our fear; he just was. 

Years later, I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  Old Harry was dead by then, but the character of Boo Radley made him live again for me, and I felt ashamed.  I wondered, who was Old Harry really?  I never tried to find out then.  And I should have known better.  As the only black child in my class at school, my own spirit had felt the pain of rejection.  I never forgot Atticus Finch’s words: “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”

The wonderful thing about writing fiction is that you can create the world as you would like it to be.  Readers have asked, “Is Meg Turner you?”  There’s a lot of me in Meg, many of her experiences and feelings were mine.  But Meg is better than I was.  She made the leap between Old Hairy’s feelings and her own.  She connected with her Old Hairy, and her actions helped me to forgive myself for not connecting with mine.

It can be said that both of the Mayfield books are about discrimination.  In Mayfield Crossing, I had hoped to leave readers with some awareness that change can happen — not overnight — but through a compounding effect of individual acts of kindness and courage.  Beyond Mayfield is less about how to stop people from hating each other because of differences (racial or otherwise) than it is about how the individual reacts to this kind of hatred, how victims of hate survive this treatment without letting the goodness of their own hearts be damaged, without becoming hateful themselves.  In this book, I was pursuing answers to questions about the possibilities, the capabilities, of the human heart.

I do hope to write more middle grade novels, because I love reading them, and I love living in the fictional world that writing a novel provides, a place to escape to when I feel frustrated by things I can’t control in the real world.  

What was the racial landscape of the children’s book industry like when you entered the field?  How has it changed?  What gains in the field have made you proud?  What do you hope the future brings?

When I entered the field in the 1980s, many of the greats were around — people like Virginia Hamilton, Ashley Bryan, Mildred Taylor, Patricia and Fredrick McKissack.  I discovered most of them during my saturation time at Pinocchio Bookstore.  And I was thrilled because, as a child, the number of books by and about African Americans for my age was limited.

 I’m not sure if my memory is correct, but it seems that shortly after I came to the field, the ‘multicultural” movement hit the schools.  Prior to this movement, many schools where inclined to purchase titles featuring black characters if the book had won an award, or to provide materials for their small population of black students.  If there were no black children enrolled, some schools didn’t see the need.  The idea that all children benefit from exposure to materials about cultures not their own changed this.  This trend, I’m sure, opened the door to more African American titles being published and purchased.  It was good.  But, I remember at some point feeling a little tired of the word “multicultural” and the impression that the problem was fixed.  Some educators added books featuring Chinese, Native American, and African characters to their collections, displayed books in February, and felt they were covered.  I think we’re doing better on this.  Books by and featuring African Americans are being read and discussed more throughout the year.  Things have improved and I am glad for this.  My hope for the future is for the numbers of quality titles being published to keep growing.  In fairness to publishers, this certainly can’t happen unless people buy them.  So it’s up to everyone — editors and publishers, teachers, librarians and parents.

Although I enjoy and have written books that deal with the African American experience, I’d like to see more black characters in stories that simply embody the American experience.  I suppose Ready? Set. Raymond! helps to fill this gap.  I hope to do more.  

I’d also like to see a hot new series with a black main character.  A series that flies off the shelves like Harry Potter did.  I’d love to see kids of all races lined up at bookstores waiting for the clock to strike midnight when the next book hits the shelves.

How does your experience as a children’s librarian inform your work? 

Easy access to new books and other librarians, seeing which books work in story time, listening to what kids are saying about particular books and authors, having the opportunity to introduce children to books that they might not discover or seek out themselves are all wonderful aspects of my library work.

The best thing though is this:  Over the years, as I’ve watched and assisted kids in their search for everything from Garfield, Captain Underpants, and Harry Potter, to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Maniac Magee, and The Book Thief, I’ve learned not to be a snob about what kids should or should not be reading.  Every book can’t be filet mignon.  If fact, most are closer to hamburger, but there’s nothing wrong with a good hamburger.   Part of my job is helping kids to see the difference so that when they get a taste of filet, their ideas about great books are forever changed.   As a writer, I strive for filet, but I don’t despair if I end up with hamburger, as long as it is nourishing to my readers.

What do you hope young people take away from your stories?

I hope my characters and their stories will provide readers with something they may need at that particular moment in their lives.  Every individual enters the reading experience with his own needs and desires.  I hope to be able to speak to readers on a personal level. 

I hope to give children some of what my parents gave me – the opportunity to grow, to be made stronger, through story.  To make them laugh and cry and get angry and maybe change their minds about some things.  To make them care about something, someone, beyond themselves. 

Your moving award-winning picture book, Almost to Freedom, was made into a play.  How did that opportunity come to be?  What was it like seeing your book come to life on the stage of the SteppingStone Theatre in St. Paul, MN?

 A few years ago I received a message from my agent, Tracey Adams, that the theater was interested in adapting my book for the stage.  SteppingStone has successfully done many plays based on children’s books, and I was lucky enough to have them discover Almost to Freedom and see the possibilities.  Writers are often concerned (and justifiably so) about changes that will be made when their work is adapted.  But everyone involved in the production seemed to respect the intent and spirit of my story.  I loved their handling of it.

 I attended the play with folks from my publisher, Lerner, and I met the cast, the director, and the playwright, Kim Hines.  It was an amazing night.  Beautiful spirituals were woven throughout the play, and I heard the clear voices of those young singers in my head for weeks afterwards.

Juneteenth is a wonderful collaboration with your husband, Drew.  Please tell us about that process.  Will you do other books together?

My editor asked me if I would be interested in writing a book on Juneteenth, as part of  their On My Own Holidays series.   I wanted to do it, but the deadline was short.  I had heard of Juneteenth, but didn’t know enough about it, so I knew there would be quite a bit of research involved.  Seeing my uncertainty about accepting the project, Drew offered to work with me on it.  My husband is a great writer and loves history.   He’s always my first editor anyway, but having him more closely involved in the process was a true gift.  I’d done historical fiction before, but never a nonfiction book.  Drew is very good about questioning the accuracy of a thing.    When I give him anything to read, I must be prepared for it to come back bleeding with comments and corrections.  Sort of like Mikey on the cereal commercial —  “Let Drew read it.  He catches everything.”  Needless to say, it was fabulous to work with him.  I’d write a section, he’d edit.  He’d write, I’d edit.  And we talked and laughed and disagreed and compromised.   Did I want to strangle him sometimes?  Yes.  Did he want to strangle me?  Yes.  Would we like to do more books together?  You bet.  

What have been the proudest and toughest moments of your writing career? 

I am proud every time I finish a book that I feel in my gut is good, and I’m proud every time someone says they love it!  I was especially proud when, after I had read some of my father’s poems as part of a presentation on Possibles at a regional IBBY conference, Marianne Carus approached me and asked if she might consider some of the poems for publication in Cricket.  I was proud of my dad and proud to be his daughter. 

The toughest times have been the struggles through brick walls in the research process, times of low confidence when I feel I’ll never finish a book that is important to me and, even if I do, who will care?  And times when I think I’ll never be the writer I want to be. 

If you could go back and whisper in your ear when you were just starting out, what would you say?

“Open a retirement account now.”   I love writing for children, and I love my library work, but I have to admit there isn’t much financial security in either profession.  If I had a nice fat IRA, I would have more flexibility, more time in my schedule to write and be with my family.

Can you please give us a preview of your next book?  When will it debut?

I have two books coming out in the fall of 2009.  Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal  is a picture book biography coming from Lerner (Carolrhoda Books).  I am excited to finally see this nonfiction book come out.  From the time Drew introduced me to Bass Reeves in 2003, I’ve come to admire him so much I can’t wait for kids to get to know this incredible man.  And I’m thrilled that Gregory Christie is the illustrator. 

Just as exciting, Random House is publishing Who Will I Be, Lord? with lovely art by Sean Qualls.  It’s a picture book with personal meaning for me since it’s based in family history.   

What’s your greatest joy?

There are so many!   Family, friends, good books, moments of discovery, the New Mexico sky, and bread pudding, to name a few.  I am blessed.

The Buzz about Juneteenth:

“As the school year lengthens well into June and as Juneteenth celebrations gain footing across much of the country, books on this grassroots holiday, which celebrates the belated arrival of emancipation news to Texas slaves on June 19, 1865, are sure to become increasingly popular. This entry in the On My Own Holidays series offers a solid introduction to the holiday for independent readers or for presenting to small groups. At times the historical overview sacrifices nuance for concision (not every abolitionist, for instance, “believed that blacks and whites were equal”), but the understated narrative draws children in with a dramatization of Galveston slaves receiving the long-delayed news, followed by powerful accounts of the history of slavery, the Civil War, and the incremental emancipation process. Schroder’s pastel illustrations can appear muddy, but at their best, leaping, embracing figures convey the resilience and rejoicing of celebrants then and now. Information about Juneteenth traditions–such as red velvet cake and red soda pop as symbols of bloodshed in the battle for freedom–will help young readers plan jubilees of their own.”

– Booklist

The Buzz about Almost to Freedom:

“A compelling story told from the point of view of an enslaved child’s beloved rag doll. Made for young Lindy by her mama, Miz Rachel, the hand-stitched toy is the girl’s most prized possession. She tells her, “Your name be Sally. We gonna be best friends.” When the child’s father is sold and Lindy is beaten for asking Massa’s son how to spell her name, the horrid conditions of the cotton plantation become intolerable. One night Miz Rachel wakes Lindy and they run for their lives. They are reunited with Mr. Henry and the fugitive family heads North to freedom. They are given shelter at a station on the Underground Railroad, but must flee from slave catchers in the middle of the night. In the frantic scramble, Sally is left behind. The doll is lonely for her friend and worries for the safety of Lindy and her folks. When another child and her mother are sheltered in the basement, the doll joins her new best friend on her trip to Freedom. This accessible story is told in language that is within the experience of a young child and makes its impact without frightening or overwhelming readers. It is ultimately a story of hope and resilience, love and friendship. The evocative oil paintings are expertly rendered and effectively convey the powerful emotions of the tale. A fine addition to most collections.”

– School Library Journal

“Lindy’s beloved rag doll, Sally, tells how Lindy’s family escapes on the Underground Railroad to find freedom “in a place called North.” The doll’s narrative and Bootman’s dark, dramatic paintings bring close the child’s daily experience: the cruel separation and physical punishment, and then the adventure of running away and hiding. At times it’s hard to distinguish Sally from Lindy–why not just let the child tell the story herself? But then there’s an anguished twist in the plot: the child and her doll are separated. Lindy gets away, but in the turmoil she leaves her doll behind. When another escaping child finds Sally and hugs her to herself, the story comes full circle. That’s a powerful way to express the sorrow of loving families torn apart, and Bootman’s stirring portraits, many of them set at night, in rich shades of purple and brown, show that the small rag doll bears witness to historical events of cruelty and courage.”

– Booklist

For more about Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, please visit:

Joyce Hansen

February 15, 2009

When she was starting out, Joyce Hansen struggled to become a published author. Like many new writers, she received rejection letter after rejection letter. But Hansen found story gold when she drew from the richness of her Bronx childhood and the young people she taught. Those memories and observations inspired her first novel, The Gift-Giver, which began a distinguished children’s book writing career that has spanned more than 20 years.

Hailed for the authenticity of her fiction novels and the sensitivity and realistic detail of her non-fiction books, Hansen has won many awards. But what matters to her most is the reaction of children: Did she help them see themselves? Did she encourage them or turn a reluctant reader into an eager one?

On her website, Hansen writes: “I want my readers to sense the possibility of hope, to be aware of how the human spirit can rise to great heights–to see how some people manage to survive the madness and create a sane space where there is still beauty, love, peace and even joy.”

As testament to her success, Hansen’s The Gift-Giver (Clarion, 1980) is still in print. She has become a beloved author and inspired generations of readers and writers.

Please join us in celebrating Joyce Hansen on day 15 of our campaign:

How did your childhood shape your path to writing?

I was blessed with a mother who loved books and writing. She read to me before I knew how to read. My father was a photographer who told my brothers and I stories through his photography and his memories about his childhood.

How did your experience as a NYC school teacher inform and inspire your work?

My early work was very much inspired by my students, and I think it still is. I was afraid to retire from teaching in 1995 because I wondered whether I’d still be able to write books for children.  A story walked before me everyday. I also had a good sense of what the children liked, and I wrote with the goal of creating books for those children who rarely saw themselves in the books they read.

 Please tell us about your journey to publication. How did The Gift-Giver come to be? What was your break?

I wrote The Gift-Giver as a creative project  when I was getting my Master’s degree in English Education.  I was trying to write at that time, but had not thought about writing for children.  I had been trying to write for a few years and didn’t have anything published.  I had a box full of rejection letters.  My professor liked the little children’s book I’d created for my project and said he thought it was publishable.  It was a story based on my growing up in the Morrisania section of the Bronx,  at least one hundred years ago.  The characters in The Gift-Giver are based on my childhood memories coupled with the children I saw everyday in school.  At one point in my teaching career, I taught in the neighborhood I grew up in.    My break came when I showed my good friend, the writer Brenda Wilkinson, the manuscript and she liked it.  She showed it to her editor and it was eventually published in 1980.  I’m amazed that it’s still in print. 

 You first earned acclaim for stories like the wonderful books in your 163rd Street trilogy — The Gift-Giver, Yellow Bird and Me and One True Friend — that were hailed for their authenticity and emotional depth. How did you develop your voice?

Thank you so much for that compliment.  I didn’t think about it consciously, but I guess I developed my voice as I remembered what it felt like to be a middle school kid  and a teenager–I recalled the things that bothered me and most youngsters–growing pains, making friends one day and falling out with them the next, trying to make sense of the world and your place in it, hiding vulnerability with attitude.      

What were the challenges and rewards of writing your first historical fiction novel, Which Way Freedom? What advice can you offer for writers hoping to create books in this field? 

Which Way Freedom? was  quite a challenge because I really wasn’t sure what I was doing.  But it was a book I had to write whether anyone wanted to publish it or not.  I have always loved history and writing this book gave me the chance to pursue both history and writing.  I wanted to write historical fiction because I felt it was a good way to teach youngsters our history.   I started out with a small idea.  I wanted to write a book, set during the American Civil War and I wanted to have,  at some point in the story,  a very exciting scene where a group of enslaved people escape.   I didn’t develop a story until I began to research the Civil War era.  My advice to those who want to begin writing historical fiction is to first find a solid history book about the historical setting of your story.  This is just to give you an overview of the historical time, and the bibliography should lead you to other books and primary sources.  As you read and take notes decide how you’re going to narrow and focus this whole period.  Think about your characters who will tell the story.  How will they fit into the setting.  In Which Way Freedom? I had to figure how my three main characters, enslaved children, fit into such a large catastrophic event as the Civil War.  While you want your historical information to be as accurate as you can make it, in the end it is the characters who will take center stage and bring the history to life.   Also, where you can, identify things in the present that still inform the past.  I had one of the characters in my story escape a Confederate Army camp by floating in a basket “boat” made with sweet grass. People in the low country of South Carolina still make sweet grass baskets.  

 How was writing your first non-fiction novel different? How much research was required for books like Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground?

My first non-fiction book was Between Two Fires and was about Black soldiers in the Civil War.  I learned how to apply fictional techniques to a nonfiction book. Breaking Ground Breaking Silence was a real challenge.   How could I write about the discovery of bones and a burial ground and make it interesting to  young readers.  I wrote this book with Gary McGowan who was one of the archaeologist working on the  African burial ground that was discovered in lower Manhattan, in New York City in 1991.  Gary provided the archaeological information and I researched the history of New York City during the period when the burial ground was actually in use.  We tried to tell parallel stories of the burial ground and the early history of New York City in  an engaging and interesting way. 

 What was the racial landscape of the children’s book industry like when you entered the field?

 When I entered the field in 1980, I had the benefit of walking through a door previously opened by African American writers such as Virginia Hamilton, Mildred Taylor, Brenda Wilkinson, Eloise Greenfield, Lucille Clifton, Walter Dean Meyers, Rosa Guy  and others.  There were still not a lot of us and with the exception of Hamilton and Taylor who had both won Newbery Awards, our books were not as widely publicized  or pushed.  I’ve always felt that the books were viewed as written primarily for African American children.  If a teacher had no Black children in her class, then it’s most likely she wouldn’t use one of our books.

 What gains in the field have made you proud? What do you hope the future brings?

I think now our books are more widely read. I hope they are.  We have an African American President now.  Can some people still feel that a book written by a black writer with African American children cannot be read and enjoyed by white children also?  I’m also proud of younger writers on the scene now and the interesting books they’re producing–writers such as Rita Williams Garcia and Jackie Woodson.     

What lessons have you learned from reading other writers? How has that influenced your work?

I’ve been an avid reader all of my life.  I read other writers in order to learn how to tell a good story.

In an autobiographical statement on the Scholastic site, you write that “Those of us who write for young people have a special responsibility because the word is so strong. We must use our words to help our children acquire a richness of soul and spirit, so that perhaps one fine day we will learn to live with ourselves and one another in peace and harmony.” How do we meet that responsibility?

We have to give our young people stories that validate them and help them to make sense of the world.  At the same time we have to help them understand  that we share a common humanity, as opposed to the differences that send us down the paths of chaos and war.

You’ve won multiple Coretta Scott King Honor Awards and earned ALA Notable honors. What does that acknowledgment of your work mean to you?

It means so much to me, and encourages me to keep writing. 

How do you measure success? 

Real success for me is when young people tell me that they were encouraged and helped by something I’ve written.

What have been the proudest and toughest moments of your career?

The proudest moment of my career was when I received a Coretta Scott Honor Book Award for Which Way Freedom?.  I was just hoping that no one would say that the book was awful.   I’d never written historical fiction before.   You can’t imagine how shocked  and proud I was when the book was given that honor.  I still have the letter from the Committee telling me that I won the award. 

For people hoping to turn their writing dream into a career, what’s your advice? How do you become an author with staying power? 

 First of all don’t put off the writing waiting until you have more time to write.  Most likely, you’ll never have more time.  Be disciplined and have a regular routine for your writing.  Read a lot.  Analyze  how  some of the best authors develop their stories. 

What’s your mission? What do you hope young people take away from your stories?  

In my contemporary stories, I’ve focused a lot on peer pressure and tried to create young protagonists who learn how to trust themselves.  In my historical fiction and nonfiction, I want my readers to understand the history of our people as Americans of African descent.

Your last book, African Princess: The Amazing Lives of Africa’s Royal Women, was a beautiful testament to the richness of African heritage. Can you please give us a preview of your next book? When will it debut?

My next book is historical fiction set in 1855 in New York City about the life of a free black family.  It’s a five book series and this first book will be published in the fall of next year. 

 What’s your greatest joy? 

 When a teacher tells me that a student who never read a book, read and liked one of my books.

The Buzz on African Princess: The Amazing Lives of Africa’s Royal Women:

“A beautiful book from cover to cover. A portrait of Princess Njinga (of Matamba c. 1582-1663) graces the cover of the volume, representing the qualities of strength, pride, and conviction that the six royal women profiled in this title possessed. Hansen’s introduction addresses the varied nature of the continent’s land and people and informs readers that the six “…princesses and queens whose stories are told in this book give us views of Africa we do not often see.” The map of the continent that faces this introduction features small portraits of each person positioned over the area in which she lived and ruled. Each chapter covers the life and times of one leader from Hatshepsut (c. 1497-1457 B.C.) to Elizabeth of Toro (1940-), and opens with a stunning, full-page portrait. In addition, there are quality reproductions of artwork and photos of artifacts, sites, and individuals. In the early profiles, the author sometimes shares what she imagines the women might have thought or felt given the time or circumstance. Chapters on later individuals include a few quotes. Captions and occasional sidebars add additional information. These intelligent and dedicated women all overcame obstacles, took risks, and often challenged the status quo. Their stories will provide inspiration to all readers.”

– School Library Journal

“The history is compelling in this collective picture-book biography of six highly successful African women–warriors, builders, businesswomen, and administrators–whose exciting personal stories show the rich diversity of the continent and celebrate their achievements during times when most women had little power. From Hatshepsut of ancient Egypt and Amina of sixteenth-century Zaria (now part of Nigeria) to contemporary Princess Elizabeth of Toro, a Ugandan lawyer, model, foreign minister, and U.N. ambassador, Hansen’s lively, well-researched accounts bring close each woman’s struggle and place it within the context of her country’s changing politics and culture. The spacious book design is inviting: the paper is thick and glossy, the type is small but clear, and attractive geometric designs border the pages. The six full-page artist renderings of the women are glamorized, but there are also plenty of fully captioned historic prints and photos of carvings and artifacts. Hansen is always careful to distinguish fact from surmise, and her research will stimulate readers to find out more . . . “

– Booklist

A Few of Joyce Hansen’s Awards and Honors:

2005 NAACP Image Award Nominee, African Princess

1999 Coretta Scott King Honor Award, Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground

1998 Coretta Scott King Honor Award, I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl

1995 Coretta Scott King Honor Award, The Captive

1987 Coretta Scott King Honor Award, Which Way Freedom

For more about Joyce Hansen, please visit

NEWS: Meet The Brown Bookshelf

February 14, 2009

We’re mid-way through our 2009 campaign and hope you’ve enjoyed this year’s interviews, so far. The last half of the month will be just as informative and fun.

Normally, we here at The Brown Bookshelf tend to take a “vacation” of sorts once 28 Days Later ends. As much as I wish it were a real one that involved lying on the beach, we simply tend to take a small break from blogging.

But not this year. Every day, during the first week of March, we’ll give visitors a “behind-the-scenes” peek with Meet The Brown Bookshelf profiles.

If you comment on any posts that week, you’ll be eligible to receive one of our books.

So stick around once the 28 Days Later profiles are done, because there’s nothing wrong with the chance to win more free books.

Remaining committed to our mission, even when defining the mission can prove tricky

February 14, 2009

When we set out to define our mission for the 28 Days Later campaign, our vision was crystal clear: To highlight African-American (Black) youth literature creators. Children’s books written by or about African-Americans make up a small percentage of the publishing pie, and those works often flow under the radar of teachers and librarians. Our goal was to shine a light on those authors and illustrators.

Our intentions were good, but there was a problem: How does one define African-American? What does an African-American look like? And what does it mean to be Black?

Last fall we took nominations for the 28 Days Later campaign in the form of comments and emails from our readers — teachers and librarians, authors and illustrators, publishing houses and their editors, anyone with an interest in children’s publishing. We culled the nominations and discussed them. We argued them, cheered them and sneered them, before we left them to simmer awhile more. Then we tossed in a few names of our own. Finally we took a vote, formed a final list, and then our research began.

Our team is made up of published authors and illustrators, so we know many of the people in consideration, or are at least familiar with them. Some are obviously African-American. Others, we weren’t so sure about. We don’t use a litmus test or subject the authors to genealogical surveys. And we don’t draw blood, so there’s room for error.

The author we’d planned to highlight today came highly recommended by someone influential in the children’s publishing industry, so I took the nomination and ran with it. For research, I began with pictures. But again, what does Black look like? My own mother is African-American, and she is just as fair-skinned as any Caucasian (recent photo), and her hair is naturally straight.

I attempted to contact the author and his editor for an interview, but I was unsuccessful. Finally I called his job, but I didn’t get him. I explained the 28 Days Later campaign to the receptionist who answered the phone.

Sheepishly, I asked, “Is Greg Foley African-American?”

“Y-yes,” she answered slowly, careful how she let it roll off her tongue. “Well . . . he might be African-American.” There was a long pause. “He could be.” Another long pause. “Honestly, I don’t know his racial makeup.” she said. “He’s definitely not White.”

Last week I finally made contact with the author. Greg is not African-American. Not even a little bit. He’s Filipino, Irish and French. Stop giggling.

What to do, what to do?! We considered changing the poster, hoping that no one would notice. But more than 600 posters had been downloaded; We weren’t going to fool anyone. We’ve decided to be up front, admit our (my) mistake, and hope ya’ll wouldn’t write I told you so posts on your blogs.

Thankfully, Greg was understanding. I asked him to complete the interview, and he graciously did. I am posting it on my personal blog, Devas T. Rants and Raves, and I ask you to shoot over there and check it out. Maybe even link to it from your own blog. I’m a fan of Greg’s work. I love his simplistic yet powerful illustrations. Nothing, absolutely not a thing changes that.

But in order to remain committed to the mission of the 28 Days Later campaign, today we’ve decided to commemorate author Virginia Hamilton. Please see her highlight below.

Our apologies, and thank you for your understanding.

Virginia Hamilton

February 14, 2009

I’d planned to begin this post by stating the number of books written by author/storyteller/lecturer/biographer Virginia Hamilton. But I couldn’t find a definitive answer. One source credited the author with writing 30 books. Another, 35. Yet another, 40. So let me begin by stating that Virginia Hamilton has authored a whole lot of books!

A prolific author, to say the least, she is sometimes called the “Toni Morrison of children’s literature.” (Though I would say that Toni Morrison is the Virginia Hamilton of adult literature.)

Virginia was born in 1936 on a small farm in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She began writing early on, inspired by stories told to her by her parents, often about her “Grandpa,” Levi Perry, an exslave who escaped to freedom using the Underground Railroad.

Her first published children’s book, Zeely, actually began as a short story, and is now considered a classic. My personal favorite, The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales, is a compilation of folk tales, illustrated by the great Leo and Diane Dillion. It has received many honors, including the Coretta Scott King Award.

Virginia Hamilton has been the recipient of every major award in children’s literature. She was the first African American woman to win the Newbery Award, for M.C. Higgins the Great. She is a three-time Newbery Honoree, a three-time Coretta Scott King Award winner, and in 1992, she was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, in recognition of her entire body of work. She was the first writer for children to receive a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship. Other awards include the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, the Edgar Allan Poe Award, the Regina Medal and an NAACP Image Award.

Virginia Hamilton passed away in 2002. My words could never do the woman or her career justice, so instead, I offer links to her website. I encourage you to go tere, dissect it, enjoy!


Awards, prizes and honors


A Visit With Virginia Hamilton

Brenda Woods

February 13, 2009

woods2-169x275There’s probably not a children’s author out there who hasn’t had to answer the question, “So what’s it like writing for children? How do you do it?”

I always have an answer, but it’s something that’s much easier answered by simply picking
up a children’s book and reading it. Once you do, you realize that the primary difference between a good children’s book and a good piece of adult fiction is that the protagonists are younger. That’s about it.

Brenda Woods’ novels deal with challenges and issues even adults would find daunting. But the author refuses to shield her young characters from life’s harsh realities and tough lessons. Not much different from raising a child in real life.

Woods’ 2003 debut, The Red Rose Box, about two sisters orphaned by a hurricane was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and she’s not shied away from the tough subjects since.

BBS: The loss of parents (The Red Rose Box), the death of a friend (Emako Blue) and the brutal reality of slavery (Sally Little Song) your books portray characters batting against some of life’s toughest curve balls. What made you want to portray these topics through a child’s eyes?
BW: When I started writing, I don’t think I consciously intended to write solely about young people confronting harsh realities or learning hard lessons. Truth be told, I love a happy ending. Perhaps because my own childhood was traumatic, (a parent who was ill and time spent in foster care), my literature has unfolded in this way.

Digging deeper, I suppose I want kids to see themselves as capable of overcoming obstacles. Though I may put my young characters on sinking ships, whenever possible, I give them life boats.

BBS: Despite the complex subject matter, your books are told so delicately from the character’s point-of-view. They’re classified middle grade novels, so the readers may be as young as nine. What challenges did you face unraveling the emotions surrounding loss and death in such a beautifully straight forward manner?

BW: I was nine when one of the boys who lived on our block was killed by a car while riding a bicycle. He was only twelve. His funeral was where I learned about loss. I remember watching his mother grieve and having compassion for her. Once we got home, my mother wouldn’t let us talk about him. It was as if she was trying to hide death from us. But she couldn’t and we talked about him anyway.
Depicting death or loss from a child’s point of view is very much the same as depicting it from an adult point of view, at least it is for me. So, I can’t admit to feeling challenged in that respect. Young or old, loss is loss.

BBS: Your website bio says “sometimes kids who feel different, weird, and misunderstood grow up to write books and such.” How much of your feeling like that as a child/teen go into your characters and how they approach challenges?

BW: Growing up, feeling different, like you’re always outside the house, peering in through the windows, can make you a keen observer. Imagination blossoms and sensitivity takes root.

How much of that goes into my characters? Often, my protagonists are imaginative, sensitive observers.

BBS: What’s most interesting about My Name Is Sally Little Song is the blending of cultures – there’s the slave culture, the African culture and the Seminole culture. And for some reason, I was surprised that the males in Sally’s family adjusted better than she to the Seminole ways. But you captured the various cultures well. What went into research for this book?

BW: It’s true, Sally does have trouble adjusting. Her brother Abraham has his father to emulate but Sally’s eleven and still needs mothering. More than any character I have written, my love for this motherless, displaced child remains constant.

In terms of research, it was both substantive and substantial. One of my goals as a writer is to write authentically. Not only did I have to know what slave quarters were really like I also had to know how the Seminoles lived. I had to gain an understanding of the: geography of the area, the swamp environment, animal life, crops, language, and ways of dress. It was months of work.

BBS: What do you enjoy most about writing for young readers?

BW: What I enjoy most is meeting young people in person. They are bright and always genuine.

The next best thing are the letters…some are so heartfelt. Every so often, I get a letter from a young lady who confides that she decided to be a better person after reading Emako Blue. Once I received a letter from a young man who told me he had never read a book from cover to cover until Emako Blue. What a pat on the back that was.
BBS: What will you be offering young readers next?

BW: I am currently working on a young adult novel. I have received many requests from young readers to please write something where no one dies. At this point, all I can say is there will be some trauma as well as romantic drama but I promise…no one dies.

The Buzz

“The searing historical fiction shows that there can be no sunny ending; while slavery exists in America, the family will never truly be free.” – Booklist on My Name is Sally Little Song

“Steered by perceptive dialogue, the story takes readers from Emako’s funeral, through flashbacks, to the moment she is killed, to the shock and sorrow that follow her death, bringing it full circle.” – School Library Journal on Emako Blue

“She creates some memorable characters, especially Leah, and probes historical events in a personal context that may open many readers’ eyes.” Publishers Weekly on The Red Rose Box

Derrick Barnes

February 12, 2009
Derrick Barnes

Derrick Barnes

Derrick Barnes is no stranger to the Brown Bookshelf community.  Last year, we did a spotlight on his book The Making of Dr. Truelove as well as announced the debut of the Ruby and the Booker Boys series.  In case it is not clear, the future is bright for author Derrick Barnes.  Full of optimism, this Brown Bookshelf shining star is poised to take children’s literature by storm.

When you read Derrick Barnes’ biography on his website, you get a true sense of who he is as a person.  I could picture the kid version of him in the closet reading his encyclopedias experiencing life in the footsteps of others.  Now he is the creator of words that today’s children can read and broaden their horizons by being a part of the stories that he tells.

Barnes write stories that are meant to empower his readers even at a young age.  On a quest to change the face of children’s literature, Barnes writes from a sincere desire to appeal to readers of all races.  Barnes is determined to shake up the African American literary community without isolating us from the mainstream literary community.

With characters like Ruby Marigold Booker and her rambunctious, charming, loving brothers, fans of mainstream characters like Ramona Quimby, Amber Brown, Judy Moody, and Junie B. Jones will find a new friend in Ruby.


Carla:  What drew you to the field of being a children’s author?  What is your dream for children’s books by black authors and illustrators?

Derrick:  I used to say that I just kind of fell into children’s books, but there’s no such thing. God has a plan for each and every one of us. All of my experiences as a columnist, poet, greeting card writer, husband and father lead to this point.

My dream for children’s books by black authors is that they bust out of being created exclusively for and marketed to Black children. For decades, Black children have had to live vicariously through white children in books, on cartoons, and movies. When the truth of the matter is, all kids deserve the chance to dream and to see themselves in the books and entertainment made available to them.

Carla:  Besides the infamous encyclopedias that you read as a kid, what authors did you read growing up?

Derrick:  I was deeply influenced by two writers in particular:  1) Langston Hughes and his “Simple” short story series really inspired me to work on my dialog skills and character development. 2) Stevland Hardaway Morris aka Stevie Wonder added color and rhythm to my writing style. I tell kids all of the time that they used to make these big round things called records or LPs. They used to come in record sleeves for the liner notes which contained the lyrics to every song. Imagine me at age seven reading:

Summer soft…
Wakes you up with a kiss to
start the morning off
In the midst of herself
playing Santa Claus
She brings gifts through her breeze

I couldn’t sing like Stevie but I was determined to be able to manipulate words like him.

0439568676Carla:  What is your author style?  Do you outline?

Derrick:  My author style is similar to my presentation style, very conversational. I really study human behavior and interactions and try to convey every single nuance from our body language to every color on our emotional pallet.

I definitely outline. I arrange them by chapters, and then fill in as the story evolves. Sometimes the outline changes, which is to be expected. The characters’ story often changes through out the course of their journey, similar to what we go through.

Carla:  Describe a typical day in the life of Derrick Barnes the author.  Do you write full time?

Derrick:  I started writing full time almost a year ago, and it takes discipline, structure and time management skills. I’m still working on that aspect of it, but each author has to do what works well for them. May day usually consist of getting my three sons ready for school, dropping them off, going to the gym for an hour and a half, coming back home to answer emails, send emails, telephone calls, and then writing. I do housekeeping, run errands, and make sure dinner is ready for the fam. Although, I do my best writing at night between 10-2 AM. Then it’s just me and John Coltrane working it out.

Carla:  As you write, are there voids within the literary arena that you would like to fill?  What are 0439568706some of the stories that you yearn to tell?

Derrick:  The obvious voids are African American characters playing key roles in stories that are universal to all children. I promised myself that I wouldn’t create characters and place them in down trodden, hopeless, violent situations or environments. To me it seems like the publishing industry embraces stories that feature African American characters that are one dimensional; characters that fit into ‘their’ ideal and image of who we are. We have to continue to create our own reality in our own voices.

I want to tell stories about Black love, create complete families with both parents, educated, progressive characters. It may seem idealized to some, but it gives children something to aspire to become. I want to tell stories of hope.

Carla:  As I watched the video clip on your website, your words that it is okay to be different and to set trends stood out to me.  What are you doing to be different as an author?  What trends are you setting in the literary arena?

Derrick:  I think the trend I’m setting is being one of only a few young Black men that write children’s books as well as being an aggressive promoter of my work. I have a BA in marketing from Jackson State University and it definitely comes in handy. I am very conscious of my image, my brand and all of my target readers. I learned quickly that being an author doesn’t stop with writing great books. You have to be a salesperson. You must come up with ideas that will get your stories in the hands of people that will appreciate them. I want to be the Usher of children’s book publishing. I want my books to be everywhere for children of all colors to appreciate and love.

0545017610Carla:  The world is your oyster, what would you love to see happen for your books?

Derrick:  First and foremost, I want every single child that is able to get a Ruby Booker book in their little hands to become huge fans of the book series; millions of books sold! Second, I’d like the series to transcend the books and become either a series on Nickelodeon or Disney or a cartoon series. I created the characters to leap off of the pages and become bigger than life. Third, I’d like Ruby to become as big merchandise-wise as Dora the Explorer, Hannah Montana or High School Musical. Every time I see a little sister wearing  a Dora backpack, a Hannah t-shirt, or High School Musical notebook, I say to myself it sure would be nice to see them rockin’ Ruby. It’s going to happen. I’m full of optimism.

Carla:  I read an article in the Kansas City Star about your career with Hallmark and was amazed about the history of the Mahogany line.  Looking back over your entire writing career from your days as an advice columnist at Jackson State to today, if you could go back and give yourself any advice, what would it be?

Derrick:  I think I would have done more to reach out to writers and authors of all genres. Just like in every other aspect of our lives, you never can learn enough. I’m always a sponge and willing to pick up as much as I can from others in order to become a better writer.

Carla:  Reading about your career at Hallmark and the aftermath, I am curious about other obstacles you faced as a writer.

Derrick:  I think the biggest obstacle as an African American author/writer is getting your books and ideas across effectively and efficiently to the audience you’re trying to reach. The decision makers, most of the time, are not people of color. It’s been my experience that because of the lack of understanding and connection with our culture, there doesn’t seem to be a marketing machine in place to properly promote product that is unfamiliar to them.

That goes back to what I was saying earlier about the author having to throw on their promoter and marketer hats. Although those obstacles exist, it doesn’t mean that our books will not succeed. You must work your butt off, make as many contacts as possible, and most importantly believe that there is an entity more powerful than your publisher, editor, PR rep or agent. God is amazing!

Carla:  What are the moments that you have experienced as an author that makes it totally worth it to craft stories and get the first draft ready for readers?

Derrick:  It’s always about the kids. Always. When I receive emails from little Black girls saying thanks for making a character that acts, thinks, and dreams like they do, it pushes me to do more, to go further as an author.

1416914390Carla:  Do you plan to write more for young adults?  Will you return to Diego, the protagonist in The Making of Dr. Truelove?

Derrick:  Dr. Truelove is quietly my favorite book. I would love to work on a sequel, and I’d REALLY love for a legendary indy movie production company to purchase the rights to the book and make it a hit underground film (What’s up, Spike!? Get at me!)

Carla:  What’s the story behind Ruby?  How did she come to be?  What’s next for Miss Ruby?   How many books will the series have?

Derrick:  The series was created in 2002 as simply The Booker Boys. Tyner was the protagonist and the books were slice-of-life from three little African American boys. Then, Ruby was just a sub character; just the little chatty mouthed little sister to the brothers (kind of like Dee from What’s Happening).

We tried for a couple of years to land a deal, but a series about three little African American boys just wasn’t in demand at that time. So I put the series on the shelf. In 2006 my agent (the lovely Regina Brooks of Serendipity Literary Agency) suggested that I pull the Booker Boys back out, but this time make the little sister the star. I dusted the original four manuscripts off and rewrote them for the new star Ruby Marigold Booker. It took us a year but we finally landed a four book deal with Scholastic!

Just recently, the publisher asked for two more books. We just signed that deal so expect books five and six in the near future. Until then Ruby fans should look forward to book four, Ruby Flips For Attention on March 1st of this year.

Carla:  Will you ever focus on her brothers for a YA boys series?  Do you have plans to write more books for male readers?

Derrick:  I’m researching right now for a boys series. It’s a detective/super hero/hip-hop idea I’ve been mulling over for the past two years. On school visits, teachers ask what they can do to get their boy students to read more, and the little guys ask when I am going to make something cool for them. The bottom line is 1) boys have to see the male role models in their lives reading on a regular basis. Period. When boys see their dads, uncles, grandfathers reading they accept it as being cool. 2) Just as in the case of Ruby, boys like to read books that reflect their own interest and ideals. Help is on the way little brothas! I’m hard at work now.

I also have a middle grade novel coming out in 2010 entitled We Could Be Brothers. I have high “Coretta Scott King Award” dreams for that one.

0545017629Carla:  I know that you have three sons.  How much of Ro, Ty, and Marcellus are based on your sons?

Derrick:  All three of the Booker Boys’ personalities eerily mirror those of my own sons. When I created this series, my wife and I only had one of the boys. And now, six years later my two year old son is just like Ty; really considerate and sweet, bright, and he has a little round head just like Ty. My four year old is the catylst in the family just like Ro. He keeps things interesting; he keeps the ‘pot stirred’ in the house. And my eight year old is a know-it-all, pretty boy just like Marcellus. A real life Ruby would be cool…but I don’t know. You never know, right?

Carla:  From reading three of the Ruby titles as well as your biography, I know that family is very important to you. Share with our readers how you incorporate family in your stories.  Besides the importance of family, what else do you hope readers come away with after reading your books?

Derrick:  Family, my family in particular, is the main reason I do what I do. I pray everyday to become a better husband, father, friend, son, brother, etc. One thing that I’ve learned over the years is that no matter what my profession is, my main obligation is to my wife and children. I take my role in their lives seriously.

In the Ruby series I always incorporate one or two scenes where the family is together, maybe during a meal or on an outing. That togetherness, the exchanging of ideals, feelings, and laughter is priceless. I don’t know where I’d be without my family, and I try to impart that core necessity of love and support in every single book.

0545017637Carla:  While reading Ruby’s stories, I pictured the very exuberant and adorable Sasha Obama as Ruby and reading your books.  How cool would that be to have the President’s daughter reading your books?

Derrick:  I have tried two or three times to get all three of the books in the First Lady’s hands. I have no way of knowing if I was successful. I autographed all three of the books for Sasha and Malia and gave them to a friend that was involved in a rally attended by the First Lady here in Kansas City on 18th and Vine; the historic jazz district where Charlie Parker once ruled. I saw him hand the books to Mrs. Obama, but they were quickly confiscated by her staff, for security reasons. I hope the girls received them and are stark raving mad Ruby fans. That would be a dream come true. Little Sasha giving my girl Ruby a shout-out from the White House? Amazing.

Carla:  Five years ago, your first two titles debuted.  How does it feel to celebrate five years as an author?  What changes have you seen and experienced since 2004?  What are your plans for the next 5 years?

Derrick:  I guess I haven’t really had the chance to reflect on it. There are so many more things I want to write about, and so many more books I’d like to write. I’m always looking towards the future; never allowing myself to get comfortable. I’d like to work on essays, more middle grade and YA novels that reflect positive imagery and hope for African American children. A picture book or three would be nice too. In five years I see Ruby as a literary icon, Dr. Truelove has been made into a film (…and its dope!), plus a couple of big time awards under my belt. But most importantly I’ll still be working hard every day to be the best family man that I can be. It’s a never ending journey, and the ride has been well worth it.

Carla:  What’s up next for Derrick Barnes?

Derrick:  I’ll be a featured author at the Bush family’s Celebration of Reading conference in Florida February 13 (that’s right thee Bush family: George H.W., Barbara, and Jeb will be in attendance). My eldest son, Ezra asked why the Obamas didn’t invite me to a book conference, especially since Ruby Booker is a beautiful, smart little Black girl like their daughters. I told him that the Obamas are really, really busy, so they haven’t gotten around to it yet, but they will. I’m sure of it.

Wow!  What an awesome opportunity that should be for you.  Enjoy the Florida sunshine and the networking opportunity.  Thank you for sharing your journey with us.  We wish you all the best in your writing endeavors.

Stop, Drop and Chill (2004)
Low-Down Bad-Day Blues (2004)
The Making of Dr. Truelove (2006)
Ruby and the Booker Boys:  Brand New School, Brave New Ruby (2008)
Ruby and the Booker Boys:  Trivia Queen, Third Grade Supreme (2008)
Ruby and the Booker Boys:  Slumber Party Payback (2008)
Ruby and the Booker Boys:  Ruby Flips for Attention (2009)

The Buzz on Ruby and the Booker Boys
“Many younger siblings find themselves in this exact predicament and will find strength and motivation in Ruby’s spirit.” – Kirkus Reviews

“Derrick Barnes captures the hearts and minds of young readers with the very colorful Ruby Marigold Booker. . . Barnes cleverly writes to entertain, as well as educate young people.” ~ The RAWsistaz Reviewers


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