Tanita S. Davis is an oddity in the world of children’s and young adult authors – she’s one of the few authors that actually set out to write YA fiction. School Library Journal calls her first novel for young adults, A La Carte (Knopf, 2008) a book “with a lot of heart,” and Kirkus says it’s “delightful and fulfilling.” Her second novel, Mare’s War (Knopf, 2009) – part road trip novel / part historical fiction – is scheduled for a June release.
Tanita is a graduate of the Mills College MFA program. A Californian by birth, she now lives in Scotland with her husband, whom she calls the “world’s best baker.” According to her website, she prefers to “sit in the corner of a coffee shop, her hot chocolate getting cold, listening to the world around her.” Given the level writing success she’s already achieved, I bet she’s doing a lot more than just “listening.”
For Day 11 of 28 Days Later, please welcome Tanita S. Davis.
Congratulations on all of your success with your first novel, A La Carte (Knopf, 2008). What was the best thing about being a debut author in 2008?
Thank you! The best thing about being a debut author in 2008 was the inability to get nervous about the whole thing – I just didn’t have the time. David found out he’d been accepted into his PhD program in Scotland right about the time my book was scheduled to come out, and I’d been frantically in revision up to a week before on MARE’S WAR. Celebration, packing – it all happened – just, boom. No time for panic.
You hold an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College with an emphasis in Prose. How did you grow as a writer during you time at Mills College?
One of the things I always tell people about having an MFA vs. not having an MFA is that an MFA doesn’t teach you to write – but boy does it give you experiences in reading things you might otherwise have never picked up, and it gives you the courage to experiment with styles and be influenced by people you might never have met. The novelist and artist-in-residence, Victor LaValle, taught me to throw things away, and to believe that genius resided in myself. The South Asian novelist, Ginu Kamani, taught me to explore the ugly – in myself, in my fiction, and to exploit that. The Lebanese novelist, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, taught me to be an incisive reader, and to strive to read things that challenged me, in order to think with more clarity and depth. None of these lessons were easy, none of these brilliant people pulled any punches when it came to trying to impart what they could to us. But boy – what a growing experience, as school always is – and what a deep and vibrant well from which to draw later in my writing.
Your degree wasn’t specifically focused on writing for young people, yet you’ve stated in other interviews that you actually set out to write YA. What inspired you to write for young adults?
…quite possibly the sad fact of never growing up? I was very bad at being a kid, and I was a horrible teen. All I wanted was to be an adult. I left home at sixteen and worked and went to boarding school, and rarely went home. I threw myself into the adult world, only to find that it’s not that great either. So, I don’t know that I have a noble inspiration to write for young adults – or just the inspiration to write stories to myself… the other self who still lurks and can’t quite make sense of the adult world without a lot of snark and sarcasm, and subvocalized criticism. There’s a part of me that easily identifies what’s not fair, what’s plain stupid, sophomoric behavior, and the same stuff we put up with in high school, and I still see the world in a lot of the same ways as I did back then. Any writing I do – whether marketing categorized for young adults or otherwise – will be something that snarky other self might read.
Let’s talk a little about your upcoming release, Mare’s War (Knopf, June 2009). It’s told in alternating points of view – partially told from Mare’s point of view while she’s serving in the Woman’s Army Corps during World War II, and also told from Mare’s granddaughter’s point of view. What inspired you to write this novel?
I was actually seeking information on my own grandmother, whom I knew had run away from home and been in the military. She, like my grandparents on my mother’s side, was in her teens during that time, and I was interested in how she had served. She was a very, very, very, very, VERY close-mouthed woman, and not the type of woman you asked questions, unless she was in the mood to answer them. I was too shy to ask much, and she died when I was a freshman in college, so I went the research route. As it turns out, she did serve, as many other African Americans did during that time, however, she did not leave the United States.
In the acknowledgments, you note a number of sources that you referenced while writing the novel. How difficult was it to research the novel? Did you stumble upon any surprising discoveries while researching the book?
Just about all of it was a surprising discovery. I was shocked to learn that an African American woman, Charity Adams Earley, had risen to the rank of major prior to the desegregation of the U.S. military by President Truman. I was surprised to learn of the bizarre lack of support from the United States, and the truly crazed fears which the British had about African Americans – the whole “they have tails” thing was, for the mid-40′s, a little much, to think that people would believe that in the age of technology. (But fear makes people sort of insane.) Just digging and finding that there was so little American acknowledgment, celebration – of the women’s effort – was really surprising to me. Shocking, actually. No monuments, no celebratory days. There is one memorial, in Dayton, Ohio – the Charity Adams Earley Academy for Girls. And that’s all, which is a shame.
An earlier draft of Mare’s War served as your thesis for your MFA program. Did you find it easy to revise this novel after working on A La Carte?
Yes and no… I had to add about a hundred and thirty pages, and cut about sixty entirely. The addition of Mare and her granddaughters was entirely new and rewritten, and I had to think about the whole project from a different direction. In some ways, it felt more polished because I’d had many readers on the previous project, but in the end, it was down to me, writing frantically and hoping my editor would see where I was coming from, and where I was going. We weren’t always all on the same page, but we got there.
Can you tell us a little about your next project?
As usual, I’m working on a few things at once – and I can’t tell you in which order they’ll be completed. I’m beginning the research for an unusual historical fiction novel – which takes place in Northern Italy and Tunisia. I’m also working on finishing a family story, and I’m flirting with the idea of doing something really out there, like writing a fairytale not based on the European model.
Read more about Tanita S. Davis in the following locations:
Floyd Cooper defies The Brown Bookshelf’s mission of highlighting children’s literature creators whose works may be flying under the radar of teachers and librarians. His name isn’t flying under anything. In fact, he’s probably one of the best known, most celebrated, and highly regarded artists in the industry.
He has won the Coretta Scott King Award and Honor multiple times, including taking the top CSK award for illustration in 2009, for The Blacker the Berry (Text: Joyce Carole Thomas). His most recent authored and illustrated work, Willie and the All-Stars, the story of an African American child in 1934, who dreams of becoming a professional baseball player, has received starred reviews and critical acclaim.
Floyd began his career while still a student at the University of Oklahoma. After which he worked in advertising, then took a job working at Hallmark greeting cards in Kansas City. In 1984, he headed for the east coast and snagged a literary agent, illustrated his first book, Grandpa’s Face, and the rest is history.
Mr. Cooper takes his work seriously. He says: “I feel children are at the front line in improving society. This might sound a little heavy, but it’s true. I feel children’s picture books play a role in counteracting all the violence and other negative images conveyed in the media.”
On day number 10, I’m thrilled to present Floyd Cooper:
Don: Tell us about your book Willie and the All-Stars
Floyd: Willie and the All-Stars is about a boy who lived in Chicago during the heyday of the Negro Baseball Leagues, 1940′s. Hel loved baseball and wanted to be the “best in the world”. That meant not only playing for one of the Negro League teams someday,but making it all the way to the Major League!
It is a simple tale of a kid with a dream and how fragile keeping a dream can be.
With this book, you are both writer and illustrator. Do you prefer one discipline over the other?
Floyd: I will always be an artist first. I see my writing as an extension of my illustrating. The approach to “building” a story with words and phrases is no different than “building” a painting with brushes and pigments.
In my journey to becoming an artist who writes, I tend to start my idea process with simple, concrete messages that relate to what kids may be experiencing as they navigate through childhood and adolescence putting together building blocks of the foundations on which they will become adults. This book started the same way, this time the moral of the story is of course- hold fast to dreams.
What kind of research went into telling this story and what were the challenges related to research?
Floyd: Research is always a very necessary part of my process because all of my books to this point have been historical. Time spent in the library adds to one’s wealth as a writer or artist.
Do you work from memory, photographs, live models?
Floyd: The model for Willie is my nephew. I try to use models at least for the main characters because of the nature of my art. I tend to focus on the humanity of my subjects, the details of expression that add a certain reality to the work. Real faces= real art. That’s the goal anyway.
How did you become interested in illustrating for children?
Floyd: I owe my career in children’s books to my former agent- Libby Ford. She got my work in front of the right people and basically launched my career.
What is your mission as an artist?
Floyd: My “mission”, if you can call it that, is to connect with my readers on an emotional level and have them come away with a stronger impression of the basic message in the story I am illustrating.
What is your primary medium?
Floyd: My method is subtraction. I use erasers to make the images in my paintings. You really have to see it to fully get it, but it is basically erasing shapes from a background of paint. (See him in action at the National Book Festival)
Tell us about your process of illustrating a children’s book.
Floyd: I get the “call”, the story is sent via email and I will then read it to see if it “fits”. It usually does and then right away I begin visualizing with a series of tiny, tiny, thumbnail sketches. Just blocked in shapes that I then enlarge a add details to. Sometimes a model is acquired, usually my son and his friends. (They don’t come cheap!) Once sketches are approved, I start to paint. I like to give myself at least a couple of months to work, but things can move quite fast, if the story is just right I can finish in a couple of weeks. It just depends.
What inspires you as an illustrator? Are there certain topics/
stories you enjoy more than others?
Floyd: I like people. Humanity. My family is a part of my work. They contribute throughout the process with critiques, advice, opinions, etc.
Do you visit schools?
Floyd: I visit schools. You can learn more on my website: floydcooper.com I love visiting schools and demonstrating my eraser techniques!
What are you doing when You’re not creating chilren’s books
Floyd: I love the cinema, sports, playing basketball and hanging out with the fam!
What were some of your favorite books as a child?
Floyd: I loved fables and tales from the Borthers Grimm and Aesop, Anderson and most of all the stories my Mother never tired of telling. My favorite author is Joyce Carol Thomas, my favorite illustrators are Jerry Pinckney and Paul O. Zelinsky. And Ginnady Spirin.
As an illustrator who is African American, have you ever felt pressure to illustrate a certain type of manuscript?
Floyd: Early in my career I did feel this “pressure”. I bucked it and asked to illustrate Laura Charlotte and now am quite proud of the diverse cultures represented in my backlist.
Who are your cheerleaders?
Floyd: I have many who keep me going, I am very fortunate in this sense. There is nothing like a child who knows more about your books than you do!
My family are right there, also.
What advice can you offer to aspiring writers and illustrators of children’s books?
Floyd: My advice to writers is: READ! A lot. Then read some more. read, read, read, read!
What can your readers expect from you next?
Floyd: I just finished Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation about a South Carolina boy who learns to read and “From Way in Back” about a boy on Rosa Parks bus that day in December. Look out for another project from Joyce Carol Thomas/Floyd Cooper collabo.
Pat Cummings’ first drawings, she admits, were more like scribbles than anything resembling art. She would spend entire afternoons coloring them, and then her mother would try to guess what they were. A dinosaur? A duck? Or maybe even her Daddy? Although no one could figure them out, that didn’t stop her mother from bragging them up and proudly posting them on the refrigerator door.
An army brat, Pat moved around quite a bit. She was born in Chicago, but grew up in Germany, Japan, and several states here at home. She and her sister were always the “new kids,” but Pat used her art to make new friends, even selling her ballerina drawings to classmates. While living in Germany, she developed a love of fantasy — castles and princesses, and fire-breathing dragons. Fantasy themes remain strong in her stories today.
Pat is a Coretta Scott King Award winner for the books My Mama Needs Me (Text: Mildred Pitts Walter); Just Us Women ((Honor)Text: Jeannette Caines), Storm in the Night ((Honor) Text: Mary Stolz), and she’s received a slew of other recognitions.
In addition to writing and illustrating, Pat co-hosts Cover 2 Cover, a talk show about children’s books and the people who create them. Past episodes have featured Tomie dePaola, Walter Dean Myers, and Brian Selznick. A two part episode with Leo and Diane Dillon is in the works.
So without further ado, here’s my chat with Pat Cummings:
Don: Tell us about your book, Harvey Moon, Museum Boy.
Pat: Harvey Moon, Museum Boy is about a boy who finds his class field trip to a museum to be considerably less boring than he anticipated. After bringing his pet lizard along as company, he finds they are both stuck in the museum after closing time and things get way too lively. Harvey’s adventure not only lands him in the news but takes him all the way to Hollywood….and to a rude awakening about ‘true events’.
What inspired this story. Where did the Harvey Moon character come from?
Pat: I wrote and illustrated a book called Clean Your Room, Harvey Moon about my younger brother. It was something of an expose so I had to change the name to protect the guilty. Over the years since then, I’ve had ideas for other stories about Harvey, loosely based on my brothers exploits. He never, to my knowledge, took a field trip like the one in the latest book. But I had spent time sketching in the Metropolitan Museum and knew that I wanted to use the Samurai soldiers, the knights and the Egyptian figures in a book one day. Museum Boy grew out of that.
Talk about the process of writing and illustrating your children’s books.
Pat: Usually, the stories that I write begin with imagery I want to draw. I loved looking at clouds and wrote C.L.O.U.D.S. so I could paint the skyscapes I envisioned. After seeing carousels in Europe with all sorts of animals on them, I wrote Carousel, a book for which the images actually came before the text.
I write down snippets of stories, opening lines, sometimes just titles and work on them when and if more of a story comes to me. It can be the same with sketches….I’ll have pieces of paper tucked all over the place with images that might turn into something one day. After I have a manuscript I like, I usually work do thumbnail layouts to show to one of my editors. From there, I make a dummy, filling it with enlargements of my thumbnails. Using trace paper, I draw and redraw over the sketches to develop them into comprehensive line drawings. And once I’ve traced the line drawing onto watercolor paper I can finally start painting.
What is your primary medium and can you discuss your illustration process.
Pat: I tend to work in watercolor, gouache and color pencil. But I’ve worked in pastel, oil, acrylic and even tried a little collage. Usually, I paint the entire spread first, lightly blocking out the color. Then I use color pencils to define the edges and establish the light and dark areas. I work back and forth between the watercolor and gouache and pencil depending on whatever medium strikes me as needed at the moment. It takes me forever to finish a spread because I like to build up layers and layers of color. An art director once accused me of using colors that didn’t exist. But I’m not trying to recreate a photograph or stick to absolute reality when it comes to color so mixing them appeals to me.
What inspires you as a writer and illustrator? Are there certain topics/stories you enjoy more than others?
Pat: I’ve always been drawn to fantasy. But my books tend to come out of very real family anecdotes, stories that friends tell me, dreams that I have….or sometimes I simply base them on imagery I want to draw. The wonderful thing about creating children’s books is that almost anything goes. So I might start with a real incident and then let my imagination take me in the direction of what if…?
What were the biggest challenges in writing and illustrating Harvey Moon, Museum Boy?
Pat: With HMMB I wanted to reference the first Harvey Moon book but not be bound by it. Poor Harvey didn’t age much in twenty years. The style I used was similar but, with twenty years between them, I knew I didn’t have to create a sequel in the traditional sense. The biggest challenge visually was trying to incorporate actual artifacts from the Metropolitan but draw them in a style consistent with the book. I tried to reference actual paintings, sculptures, suits of armor and even rooms, but I adapted everything in hopes that the setting might seem to be any museum in any city. My editor came with me on one visit to photograph the armored horses. It was very interesting to have her input on the spot: not THAT horse…the armor has too much detail, it’ll take you forever to draw!
ALA Booklist says that Harvey Moon, Museum Boy will make readers giggle. Share with us your secret to making kids laugh.
Pat: I grew up in a very funny family. I know life can be terribly serious but, to the extent that I can, I want to write and draw stories that elicit a laugh. Some of the things that got my siblings and me in huge trouble when we were growing up turn out to have the potential to make funny stories. A lot of humor for kids is visual. I don’t like slapstick, where characters look like they might get hurt or embarrassed, but I do like humor that grows out of the surprise all children experience when they find they’ve crossed some line of etiquette.
What brought you to write for children?
Pat: After illustrating several books, I realized that no one was going to write a story that went with the exact images I wanted to paint. One day, my editor Barbara Lalicki told me she thought I should try to write my own stories. So I handed her a stack of manuscripts I had been keeping to myself and she chose two.
I’ve been a big fan of yours for a long time. You are truly a children’s literature trailblazer. Have you noticed any changes in the industry since earlier days?
Pat: Thanks for the kind words. And I’ve been a fan of yours ever since I first saw your illustration samples many moons ago.
When I began, the default setting for characters in picture books was white. I came into the business on the heels of others who had really forged a way for African American illustrators. The number of Black writers and illustrators seemed small to me back then. In one way, that was good: they were easy to identify and approach. I sought out Tom Feelings when I got my first book contract and he helped me enormously. His advice and encouragement were invaluable.
Over the years, I’ve seen a change in how the publishing industry considers imagery of people of color in children’s books. When I began in the late seventies, having black characters in your book put it into a kind of boutique category. I’d visit schools where teachers felt comfortable telling me that they didn’t have many of my books because they had no black students. Yet they’d have a copy of Springtime Bears or C.L.O.U.D.S (in which all the characters are blue), although there wasn’t a bear or a blue student in sight.
In the eighties and early nineties, the buzzword became multiculturalism. Cultural authenticity ruled and what had seemed like a relatively small group of African American writers and illustrators suddenly blossomed. Books featuring people of color increased in number although the equivalent percentage of total books produced may not have changed significantly.
One good thing about the business today is that all books featuring people of color aren’t automatically assumed to be about color. There are more genres and a wider range of races represented now. Reviewers, teachers, librarians and parents understand that a book about the first day of school or dealing with a new baby are situations that concern every child and now they’re more likely to focus on the story than on the color of the protagonist. It’s the norm now for stories featuring more than a couple of characters to include one or more children of color. It seems natural and logical in 2009 but when I first started doing picture books, showing diverse groups of children was quite unusual.
Writing comes easy for some. Not so easy for others. What is the most challenging part of writing a book for you?
Pat: It’s all challenging. The beginning, the middle, the end. Finding the right voice, the perfect word or establishing a certain cadence in the text are all challenging. Rhyming is a challenge, editing is a challenge, finding a fitting title is a challenge. Fortunately, writing is immensely satisfying so it’s an enjoyable challenge.
What were some of your favorite books as a child and how did your childhood reading affect your work today?
Pat: I was always drawn to fantasy. My favorites were the CS Lewis books, starting with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and books like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Entering an alternate reality caught my imagination as a child and never let go.
I grew up in a military family and a chunk of my childhood was spent overseas in Germany and then Okinawa. In Germany, my mother would read to us from a book of fairytales and then we’d take weekend trips along the Rhine valley. Walking through the ruins of old stone castles made the stories of endangered princesses, fire-breathing dragons and heroic princes come to life.
When we lived in Okinawa, my friends and I would explore neighboring villages where we’d run into characters right out of Grimm. There were black-clad old women carrying bundles of sticks on their heads and long-bearded old men I was sure were wizards. The front page of the local newspaper often recounted sightings of the Nago ghost who haunted taxi drivers along the main highway (she was very specific). So the line between reality and fantasy was pretty blurry for me. I’ve always been attracted to that blurry line and doing books allows me to indulge in it.
Who are some of your favorite children’s book authors and illustrators today? And why?
Pat: I love the work of Leo & Diane Dillon. They are consummate artists and good friends so I get to see the work up close and in various stages. The variety of styles and techniques in their books is breathtaking. Their color sense, use of patterns and imaginative layouts are inspirational. I think any artist would feel the need to ramp up their game when they see such work.
There are a lot of illustrators whose work I follow and admire and I’ve included many of them in my series Talking with Artists. Lane Smith, Elise Primavera, Kadir Nelson, Chris van Allsburg, Denise Fleming, Anna Rich, Peter Sis, Sheila Hamanaka, Kevin Henkes, John Rocco, Sean Tan, Paul Zelinsky….the list goes on and on. For different reasons, at different times, I study how others handle color or line or perspective. A painting I see by Jerry Pinkney might fire some jet in my brain and make me want to pick up watercolors. When I first met Tom Feelings, he was working on The Middle Passage, his masterpiece. There were only two choice I thought. I could fold up my tent and go home in the face of such exquisite work, or I could try to let beautiful work by others inspire me and challenge me to work harder on my own. I’ve just tried to keep the tent up ever since.
What are you doing when you are not writing and illustrating for children?
Pat: EVERYTHING I do outside of writing and illustrating seems to be about writing and illustrating. I live under a pile of paperwork. Because I teach Children’s Book Illustration at Parsons and Pratt, I have a lot of student work to review and assignments to plan. I speak at conferences, schools and libraries around the country and even overseas, and occasionally hold my own Children’s Book Boot Camp for aspiring writers and illustrators. After my husband, Chuku Lee, turned himself into a producer last year, we sometimes work on a show called Cover to Cover: A Talkshow About Children’s Books and the People Who Create Them that airs periodically on Brooklyn Cable Access Television. Everything seems to be related to children’s books but I do try to make time to read, travel, swim and hang out with friends.
Who are your cheerleaders, those who cheer loudest for you along the way?
Pat: My family members have always been my biggest supporters. My parents raised my sisters and brother and I to believe we could do whatever we put our minds to and that gave me an enormous amount of protection against all of the naysayers I met who said it was impossible to break into the children’s book business. When I wanted to move away from freelance illustrating, which had been lucrative, to focus on doing books, which was financially uncertain, my husband convinced me to think of the transition as an investment in myself. At the time, it seemed a very iffy proposition, so having his strong support really helped me to commit to this career.
What advice can you offer to aspiring writers and illustrators of children’s books.
Pat: Anyone entering this business now needs to be ready. Unique, attractive art and wonderful stories are only the admission tickets. It’s important to understand that this is a business and, aside from blind luck, you need to arm yourself with research and a professional work ethic to enter and flourish in this field. Studying popular, successful books will help you to acquire a sense of what works and why. Take courses, haunt bookstores, polish your work. When you have the best possible portfolio or the best possible manuscript then you’re ready to show your work to a publisher. But researching that publisher would be wise. There’s no need to show up with a retelling of Tom Thumb at a company that just published a recent version of the story. Get catalogues, make lists, target publishers who are doing the types of books you admire. The professionalism you show can make the difference between getting published and getting discouraged.
What can your fans look forward to reading from you in the future?
Pat: I’ve been working on some middle grade stories and really enjoying it. I’m still illustrating, but writing older stories has become very appealing to me. The picture book on my desk is a funny folktale called Ananse and the Monster but I have NO idea when I’ll finish or when it will come out. I am VERY slow. And next on my schedule is a classic fairytale which my husband has translated from the original French and retold….but I’m not telling which one.
In elementary school, Angela Johnson had a special teacher who could create worlds with words. She would read stories after lunch and make characters spring up around Johnson: “Book people came to life,” Johnson shared in one interview. “They sat beside me in Maple Grove School. That is when I knew.”
Johnson wanted to be a writer.
More than 40 books later, Johnson is not only a writer, but an award-winning author who is hailed as a leading voice. From moving picture books that celebrate African-American families, history and relationships to stirring young adult novels, Johnson’s stories touch readers in ways that endure. Rich with memorable characters, lyricism and meaning, Johnson transports us to new places and keeps us there by exploring the threads that connect us.
We are proud to celebrate Angela Johnson on the eighth day of our campaign:
I read that your dad, grand-dad and a special teacher were some of your early storytelling role models. Please tell us about their influence on your life.
My father and Grandfather told very funny stories when I was a child.
It was a wonderful afternoon that found me sitting next to my Dad as he told story after story after hysterical story. My grandfather would do the same when we visited him in Alabama. We’d sit on the porch beside him as he told us off color stories that made my very Christian grandmother almost faint. My brothers and I loved him and the stories! I realized early on that stories made life into theater where people laughed until they cried, were sad, frightened or just plain content. But because I lived in my head — I knew my stories would be written not spoken.
How did your first book, Tell Me a Story, Mama, come to be? What was your publication journey?
I wrote Tell Me A Story, Mama when I was a nanny to two small children. I would sit on a chair swing and rock the babies to sleep and write.
One day a friend asked me to share a couple of stories I had written with her. I was apprehensive, but finally did. She had decided after she read my story to send it to her editor. I left town soon after that to live near college friends. Soon after that she informed me of what she had done. I was shocked, but shocked even more when her editor called me a couple of months later to tell he’d like to publish the story as a picture book. That friend was Cynthia Rylant.
You won early praise as a picture book author with touching and timeless stories such as When I Am Old With You and Do Like Kyla. What did that acknowledgment mean to you? Did having such a strong start in the industry bring any challenges?
I was very lucky to strike a chord with my first couple of books.
But all that it did was make me a bit more comfortable sending the next book to my editor Richard Jackson.
He encouraged me and talked to me about the essence of writing. I didn’t feel any pressure because truly I did not feel a part of the writing world then. In some respects I still don’t feel a part of it because I rarely discuss my writing with others in the field. The challenges have mostly been self- imposed. I did not think it odd to want to write poetry, picture books, middle readers, novels and board books and short stories. No one told me I couldn’t — so I did.
Early in your career, you made the decision to be a full-time children’s book author. What were the sacrifices and rewards of following that path?
There were very few sacrifices but many rewards.
I am able to think, freely — without hindrances. Staying in my pj’s has an amazing effect on my creativity. It’s so important to have the time without the noise of the outside coming in. Also I found one of the rewards of just writing tested my bravery a bit. To survive, eat and pay bills — I had to write. I did that.
Your first several books were picture books. What called to you about that form? What keeps you writing them now?
Picture books are the nearest form of poetry that I can create on a regular basis.
The writing process is visceral and the gratification is immediate. I continue to be enchanted with the mixture of art and poetry in picture books (if done correctly.) I tend to write more historical fiction picture books these days Wind Flyers, Just Like Josh Gibson, I Dream of Trains, A Smell of Sweet Roses – but I don’t ever think I will tire of the form.
How did writing those picture books prepare you to write your first novel, Toning the Sweep?
Writing picture books did not prepare me to write novels. There was nothing that could have prepared me. It was another world of craft altogether. Every day was another challenge.
Had I been clear on a point? Had I introduced a character in a timely fashion? Did I tell too much or too little? It was very different from picture book creation. But I learned so very much from it.
I would tell others to tell one story. Never say in ten words what you can say in five. Remember that the unsaid is just as important as the spoken. And a far as page count goes — sometimes you can have too many notes . . .
You’re a young author, but in many ways, you’re a pioneer. How has your voice changed and developed over the years? What inspires the characters you create?
How kind to call me young and a pioneer.
I think it becomes a bit tougher to keep a clear head about the story I want to tell as the years move along. In some ways you see the world clearer. But sometimes everything is a muddle. You’d think it would be easier after about forty books, but no. I find my characters are becoming more complex — at least to me.
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?
I came along in the late 80s when there were amazing writers and illustrators creating lasting work for children — Virginia Hamilton, The Dillons, Eloise Greenfield, Jerry Pinkney, John Steptoe, and others. These people were legends to me. I’d like to think and the current numbers do prove that there is a more racially dynamic make up of African Americans, Hispanic and Asian writers and illustrators now than there ever has ever been. Of course there is a long way to go.
Numbers cannot make up for understanding and marginalization though.
The Hispanic community is the fastest growing in the country — yet . . . I look forward to ALL children having access to good literature and decent schools. I look forward to illiteracy disappearing. I also look forward to writers truly writing books that are truly multi-cultural encompassing African American, Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian, Native, and all the social mores and subsets that beholds.
Many of your books read like poetry. What influenced that part of your voice?
Poetry was indeed my first love. When I was in high school it was the The Beats.
In college it was Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka and Frank Polite (a professor), later it was Rita Dove and Sandra Cisneros.
Anything I write must have a cadence and beat. I’ve never been able to write any other way.
If it was up to me the only thing I would write would be poetry. I believe it is the essence of writing.
You’re a prolific author who seamlessly travels back and forth between genres from board books to YA. For people hoping to turn their writing dream into a career, what’s your advice? How do you become an author with staying power?
Well you can’t really go by my day if you want to be a dedicated writer.
And truly, I guess the only advice I can give about staying power (if that is indeed what I have) has everything to do with luck, perseverance, hard work, a great agent and some more luck.
I wake early — usually around 6:00 a.m. If I am working on a book I try to get the days work done before noon. I’m of the mind that I work better at this time of day. I am a movie buff and some mornings find me watching old silent movies and perusing political blogs on the Internet. (I’ve decided to stop this though as I get less work done thinking about politics.)
I go out to lunch and dinner with friends and family. And usually do a few school and library visits during the spring and fall.
I try to get time in for reading — but I’m very behind. I always feel a bit guilty when I am not up on new books. Yet I still rarely know what’s going on in the children’s book universe as I am a bit reclusive.
In the summer I garden. In the fall I take long walks In the winter I look out at the snow. In the spring I hope my airline flights won’t be delayed because of bad weather.
It’s a simple life.
You’ve won so many awards — Ezra Jack Keats, multiple Coretta Scott King Awards, Michael L. Printz Award, even the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. How do you measure success?
I measure success by how happy I am on this planet. And I am happy. Awards can stop. I may never get another one. But all the same it is lovely to be thought of. I appreciate that my work has been recognized. But what is more important is to continue to write work that connects with the reader.
I really only have a private life. The few times I am out in public I am only myself — there is nothing really to balance.
What have been the proudest and toughest moments of your career?
The proudest moment of my career is when I stood by my principles and decided not to go to an event that may have been lucrative for my writing, but would have gone against my political and moral judgment.
The toughest moment in my career was the year that I couldn’t show a manuscript to anyone because of an upheaval of my publishing house and editor.
What’s your mission? What do you hope young people take away from your stories?
I have always hoped that I could connect to my readers. I want them to come to a safe place when they are reading my books — even if the story is tumultuous.
I want my voice to be one that they can count on for a good story and maybe even take away something that might hold them in good stead.
But mainly, I want to connect.
Your latest picture books, Lily Brown’s Paintings and Wind Flyers, were such lovely stories. Can you please give us a preview of your next book? When will it debut?
Actually I believe my next book is my novel SWEET, HEREAFTER.
It is the third companion book to HEAVEN and THE FIRST PART LAST. I can tell you it is about love, loss, Iraq and loneliness. I believe the release date is in the fall.
What’s your greatest joy?
My greatest joy is my family and friends. They make me laugh and let me know when I need to come down to earth — for a visit.
The Buzz on Lily Brown’s Paintings:
“Lily loves the real world in which she lives with her parents and baby brother. But when she paints, her world is transformed into a magical place indeed. Stars come to Earth and relax in cafés. Trees wear hats and drink tea. Fruit sings on its journey to people’s homes. Lewis’s watercolor spreads become delightfully childlike when depicting the girl’s creations and pay tribute to the artists who inspired him as a youngster. Lily’s bedroom and her painting of a star-studded café bring to mind Van Gogh’s work. Her conversion of a path to the park into a “wild-animal living room” is a nod to Gauguin. The text comes full circle as Lily, her paints tucked away for the day, reenters the world of her loving family. Pair this story with Peter H. Reynolds’s The Dot (2003) and Ish (2004, both Candlewick) to inspire readers to don their painting smocks and create new worlds of their own.”
– School Library Journal
“Young Lily Brown loves spending time with her family, and she also loves spending time in the imagined worlds that she paints: the swirling solar system, a sidewalk cafe filled with dancing stars. Even her walk to school becomes an opportunity for pictures. When it’s time to stop painting, Lily remembers the things that she loves about her family–her mother’s smile, her father’s eyes–to help pull her back to the real world. Picture books depicting a child entering an imagined game are certainly nothing new. Examples, from Crockett Johnson’s classic Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) to Peter Sis’ Madlenka (2000), leap immediately to mind. But Johnson’s warm, poetic text and Lewis’ exuberant, childlike watercolors stand out here, delivering a clear sense of the love Lily shares with her African American family and the transporting power of art. Children who find it hard to shift gears from private playtime to interactive family time will take heart from Lily’s smooth, openhearted acceptance of worlds on both sides of the looking glass.”
The Buzz on Wind Flyers:
“In spare, poetic lines, a young African American boy introduces his great-great-uncle, who was a Tuskegee airman. His uncle’s love for flying begins in boyhood, when he “catches air” in jumps from haylofts and takes his first rides in a “flying barnstormer.” Later he becomes a Tuskegee wind flyer and serves in World War II, and his delight in piloting lasts his lifetime. Johnson introduces the history in oblique, pared-down words. Many children will need adult help to place the story in context, and they may want to talk about the story’s references to war, including a scene of planes in combat. Long’s acrylics beautifully extend the evocative words. Resembling WPA murals in clearly defined, rounded figures and realistic scenes, the artwork shows thrilling expanses of sky and gives a sense, in aerial views, of what it must feel like to touch clouds from an open aircraft. Pair this title with Lynn Homan and Thomas Reilly’s The Tuskegee Airmen Story (2002).”
“A child recounts his great-great uncle’s lifelong passion for flying-which began at age five with a leap from the roof of a chicken coop and climaxed with wartime flights as one of the Tuskegee Airmen. The man is depicted as a slender figure with distant eyes contemplating the wild blue yonder or, later on, posing with massive-looking, antique aircraft. The slightly misty look of Long’s illustrations artfully evokes that sense of remembered times and matches the lyrical tone of Johnson’s brief, poetic monologue. “He cried when they landed/because then he knew/what it was like to go/into the wind,/against the wind,/beyond the wind.” A final view of the child and his uncle flying off into the “magical wind” in an oversize biplane caps this soaring double tribute to both the Second World War’s still-underappreciated African-American pilots and to the profound longing to fly that impelled them.”
– School Library Journal
A Few of Angela Johnson’s Awards:
2004, Michael L. Printz Award and Coretta Scott King Author Award for The First Part Last
2003, MacArthur Fellow
1999, Coretta Scott King Author Award for Heaven
1994, Coretta Scott King Author Award for Toning the Sweep
1991, Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award for Tell Me a Story, Mama
For more about Angela Johnson, please visit:
As a child, Zetta Elliott felt the sting caused by racial slights and slurs. She endured the pain of divorce and the devastation of family breakup. As any child would feel given these situations, Zetta often felt invisible, overlooked — seen yet not heard. Her writing, like the works of many authors, reflect her personal life experiences, while allowing her to respond to situations that were never quite “fixed” in her own childhood.
She believes that writing can help a child better understand a sometimes difficult and confusing world. “Too often, however, [children] lack the language and/or the opportunity to articulate their wide range of emotions and keen observations.” Zetta views her writings as a chance to help children fill that void.
Her stories are real, and like real life, they are not sugar coated. Bird (Lee & Low Books, 2008) is the story of young Mehkai, better known as Bird, who struggles to understand the death of his grandfather, and his older brother’s addiction to drugs. Drawing offers Bird a way to express his emotions and imagination, and it helps him to make better sense of his world. His drawings provide the wings that allow him to fly.
Zetta Elliott is the Honor recipient of Lee & Low Books New Voices Award for 2005. She is an accomplished poet, playwright, and African-American studies scholar. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she works as a visiting professor in the African American and African Studies Program at Mt. Holyoke College. Bird is her first published book for children, and it is a brilliant debut.
Don: Tell us about your book, Bird.
Zetta: It’s actually quite difficult to summarize BIRD. What’s really interesting to me are the summaries produced by some reviewers, libraries, bloggers, etc. One said that BIRD was about life “in the ghetto,” and another said it dealt with gang violence. I thought that was so telling, and so different from how I see the book. To me, it’s about a child’s love of art, and the process by which he learns to use his creativity to make sense of the world around him. The book deals with some difficult, serious issues that children unfortunately have to confront: death, addiction, grief. But I don’t think of BIRD was a book about those things—it’s the child’s response that matters, and the help he receives from those who love him. BIRD is a book about the resiliency of families, and the power of art and storytelling to preserve our long tradition of transcending loss and coping with change.
Bird deals with tough issues. What kind of research went into telling this story?
Zetta: I didn’t do any research for BIRD. I’m a professor of Black Studies, so I have a general understanding of African American history and literature. Mostly I try to follow James Baldwin’s advice: “trust your experience.” I taught city kids for many years while I was in graduate school at NYU, and I had personal experience with the ways silence can destroy relationships within a family. I love birds, and I was living in Ohio at the time—I had never seen so many cardinals! I would take frequent walks by the river and see hawks circling overhead; I definitely knew more birds than people out there (I was supposed to be writing my dissertation)! So all those things came together to produce BIRD, and I wrote it in the middle of a creative binge—5 stories in 4 days.
It’s interesting how often people ask if I had a brother who died of drug addiction; I don’t, and I didn’t have a grandfather who was a Tuskegee airman. Readers often want to believe that a story emerged directly from an author’s life experience, but more often than not, it’s a blend of fact and fiction. I like the term “speculative fiction” because it speaks to the endless possibilities that can be found in the past, present, and future. There’s a part of my personal experience in everything that I write, but not everything I write is based on something I’ve personally experienced (except my memoir). I grew up in a family where children weren’t encouraged to talk about their feelings, or to ask questions. So it was important to me to write a book that provides a different model of children relating to the adults in their lives.
What were some of the challenges in writing this story?
Zetta: The challenge in writing a story like BIRD is knowing that there’s a readership out there that’s already primed to receive stories about dysfunctional black families, criminal black youth, and other problematic aspects of urban life. When many people see a black child on the cover of a book, they have certain expectations, which are informed, in part, by the distorted images and stories of black people that have circulated in this country for hundreds of years. I’m very aware of that history of misrepresentation, and there’s no way to counter it without simultaneously invoking it. I can’t tell a story about a young man succumbing to drug addiction without triggering the discourse on blacks and crime—I’m now part of that discourse, but my story isn’t the one with the most power behind it. So I’m aware that I’m writing against a certain kind of unhappy ending, and that makes it hard sometimes to speak publicly about topics that others find taboo. I don’t want to reinforce ideas of black youth as pathological or deviant. But in order to humanize characters, you have to tell the truth. And sometimes you have to not care about others misinterpreting your experience. You just have to hope your story will teach the reader something new, help him or her to see this one reality as just that—ONE reality, and not representative of the entire race.
Congratulations on being an Honor winner of Lee & Low Books New Voices Award. Can you talk about that a bit?
Zetta: Like many emerging writers, I spent many years sending out stories and then filing away the endless rejection letters. Lee & Low was actually one of the first presses to show interest in my work; back in 2000, when I had just started to write for children, I sent some stories to Lee & Low and Laura Atkins, an editor there, wrote back to encourage me. We began to correspond, and eventually she invited me to meet for lunch. That relationship has been so important for me as a writer, even though Laura eventually left Lee & Low and we never worked on a book together. She was so supportive; she taught me about the standard picture book format, of which I was totally ignorant—my early stories were way too long, but Laura felt I had a distinctive voice, and she encouraged me to keep writing and sending my work out. I did, and several editors expressed interest, but no contracts came my way. In 2003, I stopped writing for children and began writing in other genres, but I had 20 picture book stories stashed on my hard drive, plus a middle grade reader and a YA novel. Every so often I’d send something out; I sent several stories, including BIRD, to Lee & Low, but they weren’t interested. Then, in 2005, I moved to Louisiana and Hurricane Katrina struck. That shook me up, and I began digging through my many manuscripts, looking for my best work. I saw the notice for Lee & Low’s New Voices Contest and decided to submit BIRD. In January of 2006, I got a call from the publisher, letting me know I was an honor award winner. I thought, “This is it! I’ve found a home for all my work!”
As a first-time published author, what were some of the lessons you learned along the way?
Zetta: I learned a lot with this first book, mostly from my illustrator, Shadra, who (as a book designer at Bloomsbury) knows a lot more about the publishing industry. But she and I didn’t meet until after the book was done. I think I was most surprised by the lack of intimacy in the editing process. Writing is such a solitary pursuit and such a private experience that suddenly going “public” requires a big adjustment. I communicated with my editor via email, and finally asked if we could meet. I guess I assumed we would be sitting at a desk together, going through the text line by line, face to face. For the first few months of our relationship, I was living in MA, so I understood the need for so many emails. But then I moved back to Brooklyn, and thought that would change things; it didn’t. In some ways the publishing process felt like an assembly line—I did my part, the editor did her part, the illustrator did her part, it came back to me for revisions, it went to the publisher for final revisions, and then it went to the printer. I guess in the 21st century, that’s how business is done. I actually prefer email to telephone conversation, but with something like this—your writing, which is like your baby—I thought it would be different.
The publishing road is long and sometimes bumpy. Can you talk about your path along the way?
Zetta: We hit some bumps right away, b/c the readers at Lee & Low thought Mehkai was a girl; my editor also felt that Bird’s distinct voice would work best in a different format—not a standard picture book, but a format for older readers that would have significantly more text and only occasional illustrations. I was opposed to that idea, but agreed to try expanding the story. When I hit 2000 words, I stopped and said I couldn’t go any further. My editor then agreed to move forward with the picture book format, and I think that compromise produced a really beautiful book. The editing process was difficult b/c I didn’t see my writing as copy—it was like poetry to me and not something I could easily reproduce or extend. There’s also the issue of cultural difference; it’s not easy accepting that as a member of a minority group, you’re responsible for making sure readers from the majority group understand your experience. I wanted the story to be subtle, but my editor felt certain things needed to be explained with detail that made me uncomfortable at times. By the time we finished negotiating the text at the end of 2006 (when they acquired the book), I was quite demoralized. The story no longer felt like it was “mine,” but I guess that’s the price of publishing! Not surprisingly, I’ve turned to self-publishing for my other books (not picture books).
What brought you to write for children?
Zetta: In 2000, I was teaching at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, in their after school program. I was developing a writing curriculum and decided to try doing a unit on children’s picture books. I needed to first make a sample book to show my students, and so I wrote a story, “Room in my Heart,” and then illustrated it myself. Very basic drawings, but the kids found the story compelling. So I kept on writing stories that I thought would interest them. Also, my mother was an elementary school teacher for 35 years, so I grew up around picture books, in a way. I saw how she read to children, and she was my kindergarten teacher, so she also introduced me to a lot of the books I still cherish to this day (Ezra Jack Keats). When I started teaching myself, I was struck by the lack of material that addressed my students’ varied realities. So I started filling that gap myself. [see also Artistic Statement on my website].
Writing comes easy for some. Not so easy for others. What is the most challenging part of writing a book for you?
Zetta: Writing is like breathing for me, except that I don’t do it constantly. For me, writing is 70% dreaming, so the hard part is making sure you’re doing the work—putting in that “dream time,” even though to others, it looks like you’re doing nothing. I wrote BIRD in less than a day—it came very quickly, and in between other unrelated stories. I think the challenge of being a writer lies in having faith in yourself. Sometimes I go months without writing anything new, and that’s agonizing—I get depressed, grouchy, but I never despair. I’ve learned to trust that whatever’s inside will eventually come out. Teaching is time-consuming—I have a flexible schedule as a college professor, and I get lovely, long winter and summer breaks. But what you really need is headspace, and if I’m teaching a course on racial violence, then I don’t have a lot of free headspace for my creative work. I also have to meet the publishing demands of my profession, and that’s a very different kind of writing (scholarly articles, etc.) So being successful as a writer mostly means trusting yourself and creating balance in your life. That’s my goal, anyway!
The pairing of you and Shadra Strickland was absolutely on target. What did Shadra bring to Bird?
Zetta: Meeting Shadra is the best thing to come out of this entire experience! She’s such a warm, open, generous person—I absolutely count her as a mentor, and not just a good friend, b/c she’s taught me so much about the publishing process and the life of a professional artist. I don’t aspire to be a professional author, so publishing books has a different value for me. I think of myself as an artist, but I don’t ever want to quit my day job—I love to teach, and I actually need to be bound to some kind of institution or organization b/c otherwise I spend too much time inside my head, disconnected from the world. Shadra’s a person who can draw you out without ever making you feel unsafe or uncomfortable. She’s outgoing, curious about life, very open to new experiences—in some ways, she’s my polar opposite! So her energy really enriches my artistic life. We didn’t meet until after the book was done, but my editor did send me some of her artwork, and I was thrilled to know Shadra would be illustrating BIRD. She “got” the story—she didn’t need extra cues or explanation. I actually wanted something heavy and layered; I like saturation—deep colors, different textures. But she produced something better—very light, airy, and so the layers are more evident, there’s greater clarity. She brought the story to life, and her beautiful illustrations made me want to claim BIRD as my own again. I wanted my story to show black boys and black men interacting with tenderness, and Shadra captured this perfectly—her choice of clothing for the boys, their facial expressions—everything is spot on. I think she’s an intuitive artist, and so she knew what the characters were feeling; this wasn’t just a job for her.
What were some of your favorite books as a child and how did they affect your work today?
Zetta: My favorite books as a child included Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel, The Little Island (by Golden MacDonald), The Story of Ferdinand, and the Peter books by Ezra Jack Keats (Snowy Day, Whistle for Willie, Goggles, etc). Those were really the only books I recall from my childhood that featured children of color. My mother loved Keats, and so I remember having those books read at school very often. At home, we had loads of books that the school librarian gave to my mother; they weren’t in good condition, but as a child, I would’ve read just about anything. As an adolescent, I started to read the novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett, and The Secret Garden remains a favorite of mine. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry also became a favorite, and again—that was pretty much the only book I recall reading as a teen that featured a black protagonist. In my last semester of my last year of college, I had my first black professor, Gerry Tucker, and he introduced me to the writing of Jamaica Kincaid; my friend Kate also loaned me Beloved, by Toni Morrison, that semester, and that changed the course of my life. I went from only reading British Victorian literature, to only reading books written by black women. And that’s still mostly what I read today. I find the particular perspective of black women authors to be so rich and varied—Octavia Butler is a huge influence, and Gayl Jones. My YA novel, A Wish after Midnight, borrows Butler’s use of time travel (in Kindred) to question the idea of progress for blacks in the US. A teenage girl wanders into her local botanic garden, makes a wish in the fountain, and gets sent back in time to Civil War-era Brooklyn. I want to make magical things happen in the city—that’s important to me and, I think, to urban kids. Magic doesn’t happen elsewhere, to somebody else—it can happen to YOU!
What are you doing when you are not writing for children?
Zetta: I spend a lot of time dreaming, and I go to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden quite often b/c it soothes me and instantly opens my imagination to different possibilities. I teach, so some of my time goes into reading for class, grading, and working on lesson plans. I just canceled my subscription to cable, and hope to watch less TV in 2009! I love to watch movies, go to museums, listen to moody music—anything that will trigger the dreaming that leads to writing.
Who are your cheerleaders, those who cheer loudest for you along the way?
Zetta: Without question, my friends are my greatest support, particularly those who are also artists. There are too many to name, but when we had the launch party in Brooklyn, I really SAW just how blessed I’ve been when it comes to support. My friend Kate came from Nova Scotia, other friends came from out of state…and in Toronto, my extended family turned out in force to buy up everything I had penned. I’m so grateful for their love and support
When I think of the word “cheerleader,” however, I think of my cousin, Bethany (pictured with me; blond, wearing a green scarf). She has been reading my work forever, and now feels quite vindicated that others are sitting up and taking notice. I would send her picture book stories while I was living in Ohio, and she’d write back to tell me how a certain story made her cry…when BIRD came out in October of ’08, Bethany took an overnight bus down from Toronto so she could attend the party—and then she stood at the refreshments table and served cake to everyone! A month later she single-handedly coordinated a launch party for BIRD in Toronto. She’s relentless, tireless, and so, so generous. A true gem.
I have to say that I’ve always had support for my writing—my high school English teacher, Nancy Vichert, was the first to tell me that I could become a writer some day. Laura Atkins convinced me I could make a difference writing for children. My professors always encouraged me, and my friends were busy making their own art: poetry, plays, photography, novels, dance—you name it, they do it! So in terms of advice for other writers…
What advice can you offer to aspiring writers of children’s books.
Zetta: I would say one of the most important things is to surround yourself with people who BELIEVE. I don’t come from a family where open communication is valued, so I had to get away from my family before I could really claim my identity as a writer. Having a strong, supportive circle of artistic friends meant I never had to justify spending a day in front of the computer, or in a gallery, or rereading a favorite novel. My father once said, “No one can wake up every day and just write!” But I can. He was right—I also needed a steady source of income! But it’s important to value the person you believe yourself to be. And others can’t always see that. They’re so used to thinking of you in a familiar way, and perhaps they think writing is just a hobby or a phase. But if you are an artist, then making art is an integral part of who you are, and you need to affirm that daily. You will face a LOT of rejection, and you will be asked to do things that make you uncomfortable. I think you have to have a limit, so you know that you will bend, but only so far. Toni Morrison once said, “You don’t need anyone’s permission to be a writer. But you do need permission to be an author.” For a long time, I thought I wasn’t “legit” b/c I didn’t have any publications. But I’ve always been a writer, and I will always BE a writer, regardless of what happens with the publishing industry. Write because you love the work itself. Write to learn more about yourself, and the world around you. Don’t do it for fame or fortune, b/c that’s hard to come by in the publishing industry.
What can your fans look forward to reading from you in the future?
Zetta: Right now I’m focusing on getting my self-published books into the hands of readers. I have two collections of plays, and those are being taught at a couple of universities. I have a memoir, Stranger in the Family, and my YA novel, A Wish after Midnight, and I’m working on getting those to students as well. They’re available on my website, and on www.lulu.com, but getting the word out is challenging! Especially when I’m not a very public or outgoing person. I never wanted to hustle books out the trunk of my car, but books can’t circulate unless you talk them up and increase their visibility. The positive attention I’m getting for BIRD also creates opportunities for me to do workshops and give talks; I’m doing interviews, podcasts, I’m blogging—it’s a whole new world for me! So I hope fans of BIRD will stay tuned, and look a bit harder for the stories that reflect the full range of our experiences.
The Buzz on Bird:
“From a first-time author and illustrator comes a sad truth of contemporary life successfully leavened with hopeful optimism.” – School Library Journal
“With unusual depth and raw conviction, Elliott’s child-centered narrative excels in this debut.” – Kirkus Reviews
When Little Divas hit bookshelves in 2006 it could have been called Lonely Divas because there simply weren’t many middle grade novels, of its kind, aimed at African American readers – a refrain repeated often here at The Brown Bookshelf when we spotlight those authors working hard to fill the slowly shrinking but still present void.
There’s something both awesome and awful about being a trailblazer. There are two paths one may take – and sure there may be shades of gray in between but surely these two paths are the most obvious, either, one day you find yourself at the end of a long career looking back at your first novel, fondly, nodding knowingly about how you knew it would be “something special” in the market. Or, you find yourself left behind as the market gloms on to the up and coming, forgetting who helped open doors for them.
The pages are still being written about Philana Marie Boles, author of Little Divas. She has yet to see which type of trail blazing author she’ll be, but there’s no doubt that Little Divas was among the first of its kind. So a trail she has most definitely blazed.
I talk to her about blazing trails and what’s next.
BBS: Whenever someone says “among the first” it’s code word for – I don’t know who was first. When Little Divas came out in 2006 were there any other books out there that you felt were like it? Or do you feel it stood as a “new kind of book” for young Black readers?
PMB: First, thank you so much for this honor. I wholeheartedly appreciate it.
When I was first inspired to write Little Divas–which was actually back in 2003 when my agent initially sold it–and when the hardback of Little Divas came out in ’06, things for young Black readers weren’t great, as you know.
At the time I was doing a lot of substitute teaching, often in middle grade/junior high, and–when it came to reading books for fun–a lot of my students, young girls of color, just didn’t see themselves in books. So, sadly to me, they were reading a lot of popular adult books in addition to, of course, the mainstream books that were specifically for their age group yet did not have diverse characters.
This was a clear disparity, but also one that I chose to view as an opportunity more than anything. So, no, I didn’t know of any middle grade books for our target audience at the time, and that is why I consciously, and with so much preparation and inspiration, set out to happily fill that void.
That being said, however, I must point out that sometimes I do grimace at the thought of the audience for Little Divas being limited by the race of its readers. Little Divas is for all girls as should all books be written. As a society, we must support and encourage the cross-cultural experience. We need not only read books about ourselves and our own backgrounds. How then will we grow?
The misfortune only occurs when all experience are not represented on the shelves, as was the case when I decided to write Little Divas and also when such efforts are not as readily embraced by the media–which is why The Brown Bookshelf is so very, very much appreciated!
Little Divas is simply a story about the transition into teenage years. As the author, I’m blessed because all girls of all races have embraced Little Divas. God is good.
BBS: The paperback of Little Divas was released Sept 2008. Why such a long gap between hardcover and paperback? And was there any conscious effort to make the paperback cover more inclusive racially? I notice it’s different from the hardcover.
PMB: Girl, at the end of the day, we really shouldn’t look at the two year time line between hardback to paperback for Little Divas as anything but a blessing. Because during those two years, Little Divas was doing exceptionally well in hardback. And now, with its paperback release, Little Divas is meeting a whole new life.
Oh! And those are actually the same three girls from Ali Douglass’ awesome original artwork for Little Divas’ hardcover version. There was no change. In fact, if you look at the back of the hardcover of Little Divas, you will see that the artwork from the back of the book is now the front cover for the paperback, which I absolutely love.
Much like how I grew up in the Midwest, and like the world that we live in, Little Divas was always intended to be racially inclusive. Clearly, HarperCollins was years ahead of the presidential elections and the tone of multiculturalism that we now celebrate as a country. I’m thankful to HarperCollins for taking a chance on that vision years ago when my then agent and I first approached them with my Little Divas idea.
BBS: Did you have any expectations for the book’s success? If so, in your opinion were they met? Explain yes or no. If not, what were your hopes/desires/wishes for the book once it was out there for young readers?
PMB: No expectations Paula, no. It’s never wise, nor is it humble, to feel entitled. What I did however, and have always done, was to just pray that God would have His way. In my sincerest heart, I knew that I had written a story reflective of the things that average pre-teen girls are going through, regardless of their race. And I just wanted the book to reach its audience. From there, as you know all too well yourself, it’s really out of our control as writers. You just want the intended audience to know that the book exists, more than anything.
My prayers were answered, yes, as sales have been great and I’m constantly hearing from my readers. I am so inspired by them and grateful for the blessings.
BBS: One review of Little Divas says, “in the tradition of Judy Blume.” Hearty accolades for a writer. No secret that many YA authors, of all races, credit Blume for the modern day YA style of honest, sometimes brutally honest insight into teens and tweens. However, there’s yet to be an African American “Judy Blume” crowned. Why do you think there’s been no one yet with that same sales record, appeal and recognition? Or is there, in your opinion? Is such an icon necessary to boost Black YA/MG fiction to another level?
PMB: I’m always humbled and grateful by the comparisons of my work to Judy Blume’s! As a younger reader (and even still now as an adult), I always adored reading Judy Blume’s books because she allowed her characters to be themselves, no pretense, yet the tone was–at the same time–never gratuitous. As a writer, I also strive to be unabashed but also conscious. Ultimately, I know that kids don’t like corny stuff and I had to let the characters be honest.
Paula, this whole “Black Judy Blume” buzz is incredibly inspiring. Besides the reviewers, I often get it from parents of my readers who grew up reading Judy Blume as well. You know though, I must tell you that I’ve never strived to be like anyone in any aspect of my writing. I admire so many writers in addition to Judy Blume, yet I’ve never tried to emulate anyone else’s style or journey. My goal is to be true to my own. God gives us all something different, you know. I’ve always been big on innovation, too.
Let me say this, also, because this is a great topic that you’ve raised…
Through all of my career hurdles, it has not been easy (as we both know as women writers of color), but my parents instilled in me to always just keep doing my part–that is working constantly at my craft and conducting myself with Godfearing integrity–and that has been key. That’s really what we should be concerning ourselves with as writers of color–as all writers actually–and just striving to do our part first. We must continue to assertively progress, yes, but also to be anxious for nothing. We, as writers, must center our goals foremost on being excellent in our craft. Too many people think they should just be able to throw a book together and get paid for it and that’s off kilter.
What if, when the time came years ago, Quincy Jones had not been prepared to be so amazing in his talent? What if Oprah, when given the chance to begin her career journey, had not been so knowledgeable and spiritually grounded? What if, when given the chance, Present Barack Obama, had been unprepared in his debates? Let us not focus on the opportunities that we–as writers of color–so deservedly desire and will have, but remain steadily focused instead on growing more and more equipped with polished and impeccably well written manuscripts. Because–God bless America–excellence can certainly trump race.
BBS: The field remains pretty wide open – what would you like to see happen in the world of children’s literature for African Americans?
PMB: I heard Phylicia Rashad in an interview once; she talked about the admirable tone of The Cosby Show and how they didn’t feel, as a production overall, the need to shout and scream about Blackness nor constantly state how proud they were to be Black (and I’m paraphrasing of course) because–quite frankly–it was obvious that they were more than proud. That inspires me, still.
So, I’d really like to just see more and more quality children’s literature with more minority protagonists. And I want to see all readers being able to just enjoy and embrace our books as beautifully written and enjoyable stories yet for it to be wonderfully obvious that the author and the characters are proud of the culture in which they represent. We are such an enormously rich culture, so full of untapped potential for stories and books!
BBS: Having written for both children and adults – share with us at least one pro and one con to each side of the industry.
PMB: Well, the cons are the same and that would be the editorial shuffle. With both of my adult books and then also with my middle grade/tween debut, all three of my editors left prior to the book’s publication. I was fortunate to have each of their editorial talent during the writing process but all three of them were gone by the time we got to the point of marketing and distribution. Those stages in the process without your in-house champion can be a challenge.
The pro, with writing for younger readers, is that the kids aren’t so skeptical about trying out a new author. Years ago Eric Jerome Dickey (though he writes for adults) told me that the hardest part for him breaking through to his eventual success was just getting people, potential readers, to give him a chance, to just pick up the book. So, the pro, in this regard, would be that kids don’t have that pretense of hesitation, thinking I don’t know this author so I don’t know if I’m going to give this book a try… They’re the best fans in the world in part because of this and I admire my younger readers immensely.
Hmm… the pro with writing for adults would have to be depth of subject matter. Most adult readers have a lifetime of experience that they are bringing with them to the page when they come to read, so that range of emotion therefore makes the writing topics deliciously endless.
BBS: What other contributions can we expect from you in the field of children’s literature?
PMB: God willing, a lot! In addition to some adult material, I’m finishing up my debut YA (for older teens) that will be released next year in 2010. I’m just hopeful and so grateful and so inspired and truly, truly excited. There is no limit to what God can do, you know, and I keep my faith centered on that, Paula. I do.
The Buzz on Little Divas
“Readers will hope for another encounter with Cass.” – Booklist
“A positive and friendly reading experience,” – Ebony Magazine
“This summer story of friendship and growing up reads like the beginning of a series.” – Kirkus Reviews
While we’re happy to be featuring Julius Lester as one of our Vanguard authors, the word Vanguard doesn’t even come close to describing the type of career he’s had. Lester has published over forty books and his novels have received numerous honors, including the Newbery Honor Medal, the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, National Book Award Finalist, National Jewish Book Award Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, Boston Globe/Horn Book Award, and Coretta Scott King Award.
In addition, Lester taught for thirty-two years at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, retiring in 2003. While at the university, he was the only faculty member to have been awarded all three of the university’s most prestigious faculty awards: The Distinguished Teacher’s Award, the Faculty Fellowship Award for Distinguished Research and Scholarship, and the Chancellor’s Medal, the University’s highest honor. In addition, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education selected him as the Massachusetts State Professor of the Year in 1988.
In 2008, HarperTeen released his latest novel, Guardian – the story of the lynching of an innocent black man, and the reverberating effect that this has of a number of characters. School Library Journal said, “Lester’s compelling tale is an excellent purchase for most libraries,” and the American Library Association recently named Guardian to its 2009 Best Books For Young Adults List.
I am honored to present Julius Lester as one of our Vanguard spotlights for 28 Days Later.
You’ve stated in your author’s note to Guardian that once you began writing, the novel “came very easily” – including the scene with Zeph Davis under the bridge. While the scene with Zeph Davis was disturbing, you chose not to show other scenes as vividly and explicitly, such as the rape of Mary Susan and the lynching of Big Willie. Can you speak a little as to why you chose to construct some of these scenes as you did?
The scene of Zeph Davis under the bridge was a surprise. Sometimes when writing a novel, a character will do something that you, the writer, did not think of, and this was certainly the case with that particular scene. But as I went on with the novel I realized that this scene was necessary to set up Zeph’s murder of Mary Susan. But I didn’t know that when Zeph started walking under the bridge.
One of the questions I had to answer was how much detail to put into the rape and the lynching. The rape scene was easy, in the sense, that I did not have to go into detail to make it clear what had happened. With the lynching scene it was a matter to put in enough of the horrific details without making the reader throw up. If I’d been writing the book for an adult audience, I would have put in more details but I thought I put in enough so that the reader would be horrified. Perhaps the most horrific part of the lynching scene was the people having their pictures taken next to the body.
I was amazed by some of the information you discussed in the author’s note to Guardian. Was there any piece of information, any incident, which shocked you the most?
The most interesting information for me was the list of states and the number of lynchings that took place in each. And the most shocking piece of information was the number of whites who were lynched.
As a child of the South, I was elated when Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, as I honestly didn’t believe an event like that would happen within my lifetime. Some would argue that President Obama’s election proves that racism in the United States is on the decline. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Obama’s election certainly indicates a major change in American history. Like you, I did not expect to see a black president in my lifetime. Whether this means that racism has declined remains to be seen. If Obama turns the economy around and is reelected in 2012, I’d say racism has declined. But if Obama is perceived as failing, then we’ll see if racism rears its head again. But I think there has been a major generational shift in American consciousness in which young whites do not carry the prejudices of their parents and grandparents, and these young whites believed in Obama long before most black people did, including me. I am grateful to them for helping to bring about this enormous change.
You’ve been publishing books since 1968. What do you think has changed the most in the industry since you were first published? Are these changes for better or for worse?
The major change I’ve seen in publishing is that when I started getting published, I could call up an editor, present a book idea, and the editor would give me an answer on the phone. Now editors do not have that power. They have to present a book to a committee, and even if the editor-in-chief of a company wants to publish a book, the committee can turn down the book, and the editor-in-chief is helpless. I had this happen recently. Publishing houses are now owned by European conglomerates that care only about the bottom line, not the quality of books published. Publishers are willing to give millions of dollars to celebrities for books that don’t sell. The changes have been for the worst as far as I’m concerned.
In addition to having a long career as an author, you were also a professor in the Judaic and Near Eastern Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts. How has your teaching career affected your writing?
I taught for 32 years at the University of Massachusetts and I loved it. Teaching and writing were both very creative activities for me. Teaching kept me in touch with young people and young energy, and that was good for my writing. Things I taught in the classroom certainly made their way into my writing and vice-versa. I can’t imagine having done one without the other.
Can you tell us a little about your next project?
Presently I am involved in working on translations of French children’s books with my French teacher and close friend, Kimberly Buescher. We have just completed translating a book of stories from Senegal that have never been translated. The manuscript is presently making the rounds of publishers, and we have our fingers crossed that someone will agree with us that these are wonderful stories that children and adults will love.
Read more about Julius Lester at the following locations:
Even though most authors fall more along the lines of padding into the office to write with flannel PJ’s or sweat pants and bed head – writer, Tia Williams is all about glam and fab. As a former Beauty Director at Teen People and writer on fashion and beauty at some of the most popualr lifestyle magazines (Elle, Glamour and Lucky to name a few), Tia Williams has had the type of writing jobs that it seems many movies base the entire profession on.
In 2005 she left the magazine world to become a full-time author and out of that came her YA series It Chicks.
Because the world is so caught up in labels, It Chicks is often tagged as a Gossip Girl type book. I imagine because the characters are urban and hip. But in truth, the book has its own contemporary teen lit style with multi-culti characters to boot. Take that Gossip Girl!
True, the voice is authentically urban, no surprise from an author who has worked in the beauty industry in New York City, itself a hub of fashion and entertainment. But outside of the It Chicks taking place in New York City, it’s in its own literary lane.
I’ve often wondered if there aren’t more books like It Chicks out there simply because some actually believe if fiction depicts African American life anyway except hard scrabble urban or historical inspiration, the world will spin off its axis.
But those folks haven’t picked up It Chicks – no doubt judging it by its cover. How scandalous those young legs in a mini-skirt must be to someone refusing to peek inside the book’s cover.
In fact, It Chicks and its sequel, Sixteen Candles, are exactly the type of books that authors must continue to offer. Not because of the lesson nuggets within (yes, because most books do teach us a little bit of something, whether they mean to or not). Not for any symbolic reasons at all, but because it’s a fun teen story that young readers will find entertaining.
But don’t take my word for it…
The Buzz on It Chicks
“IT CHICKS has the characters of GOSSIP GIRL and the setting of the movie Step Up…another summer must-read.” –TeensReadToo.com
“IT CHICKS packs plenty of plot: There are closeted gay characters, a diva who is secretly super-insecure—and even a mystery surrounding Tangie’s mom’s disappearance. [It’s like] a soap opera saga!”
Last fall, when I received a copy of No Mush Today, written by Sally Derby and illustrated by Nicole Tadgell, I was wowed by the story and art. I hoped for an opportunity to feature Nicole in some way, so when her name turned up repeatedly during our nomination process for 28 Days Later 2009, the opportunity became clear.
In No Mush Today, a young girl, fed up with her crying baby brother and squishy, yucky, mush for breakfast, sets off to spend the day with her Grandma. But after spending a day in a world full with grown-ups, she reconsiders her decision.
Nicole’s watercolor illustrations are crisp and airy, and her color pallet is dreamy. Her characters are so full with life, they seem like people you know.
In addition to this book, Nicole has illustrated many others, including Fatuma’s New Cloth (Moon Mountain Publishing, 2002), Josias, Hold the Book (Boyds Mills Press,2006), and I’ll Do The Right Thing (Judson Press, 2003), just to name a few.
On day number three, I’m happy to present Nicole Tadgell…
Don: How did you become interested in illustrating for children?
Nicole: Somehow I never really “grew up”! My artwork has always been pretty much whimsical and childlike, so doing children’s books was a natural progression.
What kind of training have you received to prepare for your career?
I majored in Studio Art while at Wheaton College – I took all the art classes: drawing, painting, sculpture.
What is your mission as an artist?
To communicate and connect with children and adults of all races and backgrounds. To always improve my skills and techniques, and to grow as an artist.
What is your primary medium?
Watercolor and pencil, occasionally with gouche and acrylic. I really love pastels and would love to do a book in that medium.
Tell us about your process of illustrating a children’s book.
Oh, the call is the most exciting part! Usually, though, it’s an email. :) So after I dance around and cheer, I read the manuscript. I read it a lot…sometimes I memorize it. I think about it a lot. Driving to work, grocery shopping, walking the dog. I imagine what it feels like…I feel out how it might look. I think about the setting, the season, the weather. I think about what the characters lives were like before the story. I do research. Then I do sketches. Characters, scenes. I make storyboards, and break the text so it all fits into a 32 page book. Then I show it to the publisher, if they like it, I make tighter pencil sketches, do more research, find & photograph models, get perspectives right, that sort of thing. After these are approved, I print the drawings onto watercolor paper and start painting. I often work on 2-3 paintings at a time, because they need drying time. When everything’s done, I wrap them carefully and ship them off to the publisher.
What inspires you as an illustrator? Are there certain topics you prefer?
I love drawing faces and expressions best, so any story where the characters go through a lot of emotion is really fun for me. Sci-fi and fantasy stories would be awesome to draw, too. The world of make-believe is fun! I enjoy drawing character growth and relationships between characters.
What was the biggest challenges in illustrating No Mush Today? (or other books)
In NO MUSH TODAY, one challenge was that the model I wanted to work with was a bit too young for the publisher (she was four, the character in the book is six). So I had to find a new model, and I ended up making a blend of the first girl’s personality, and the second girl’s appearance.
For some books, it’s difficult finding a balance of doing work that’s satisfying to both the publisher and to me. They may have something different in mind than what you have! Sometimes, you have to stand your ground and fight for your way. Sometimes, it’s better to find a compromise – often, the compromises work out even better than what either of you had wanted!
How long does it take for you to illustrate a children’s book, and how do you balance work, family, and other activities?
It takes about a year to do a really good job. Roughly 3 months for research, 3 months for storyboarding and character development, 3 months for rough pencils, 3 months for final paintings. Including revisions and corresponding with the publisher. Balancing work and family isn’t easy…I do have a full-time job, and I consider them my BEST client. If I have a book project, I tend to get up early and work on it for a couple hours before work. Then I’ll also spend 4-8 hours on it over the weekends.
Do you visit schools, and can you speak a bit about your program?
Yes, I do school visits and they are fun. I don’t get to do a lot of them, so I stay pretty much locally. I like to give a presentation on how a book is made, with sketches, work in progress, using models, etc. Then I do a question and answer session and give out bookmarks and coloring pages for kids. For high school and college students, I focus more on illustration as a career, and we’ll have in-depth discussions.
What are your interest/hobbies beyond art?
I enjoy hiking, birdwatching, quilting, baking, watching sci-fi, and of course, reading.
What were some of your favorite books as a child, books that influenced you as an artist?
Who are some of your favorite children’s book authors and illustrators today? And why.
Jerry Pinkney, E.B. Lewis, Trina Schart Hyman, Jon Muth. Because they can capture light, mood and expression in both characters and environments AND make it look so easy. Because when I look at their work, it stays with me for hours or days.
As an African-American children’s book illustrator, do you ever feel pigeon-holed, or feel pressured to illustrate only certain topics?
Sometimes I do. It does seem like some of the illustrations I’ve done as self-promotion get a lukewarm response because publishers feel the style or subject matter won’t sell well. Fantasy and science fiction for example. It seems that folks are most interested in stories that have some kind of trouble, tragedy, or lesson – like slavery, poverty, overcoming racism. These things are very important, of course, but I wonder why there can’t be just as many books featuring African-American children who go on space adventures, or see fairies, or… just have fun!
Who are your cheerleaders?
My mother, of course, is number one! Followed closely by my husband. The rest of my family – Dad, sisters, brother have always rooted for me, too. I’ve got great friends as fans, too.
What advice can you offer to aspiring illustrators of children’s books.
Don’t stop drawing! Keep improving, keep getting better, don’t give up.
What can your fans look forward to in the future?
Stories that I’ve both written and illustrated!
Read more interviews featuring Nicole Tadgell:
Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Book Talk: An Interview conducted by Lori Calabrese of Lori Calabrese Writes!
Big A Little A