Charisse Carney-Nunes wanted her daughter to see the strength and heritage of her hair. So she wrote a poem of celebration called “Nappy.” She included that poem in her first book, Songs of a Sistermom (Brand Nu Words, 2004). But she had no idea that it would begin her journey as a children’s book author too.
Then she read the poem at church and was inspired. Carney-Nunes turned Nappy (Brand Nu Words, 2006) into her first children’s book. And a new mission began. Carney-Nunes received an early sign that she was on the right path: Nappy, illustrated by Ann Marie Williams, won a gold IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Award).
Carney-Nunes is a Harvard Law graduate and senior vice president at the Jamestown Project, an action-oriented think tank. To that impressive list, she adds award-winning children’s book author and publisher.
She has sold more than 10,000 books through her company, Brand Nu Words. Her latest book, I Am Barack Obama (Brand Nu Words, 2009), also illustrated by Williams, won a 2009 Skipping Stones Honor Award. Here Carney-Nunes talks about self-publishing, her children’s books and dreams for the future:
What inspired you to start your publishing company, Brand Nu Words?
For as long as I can remember, my greatest dreams were 1) to be free, truly free and unencumbered; and 2) for my voice to be heard. When I decided to turn my musings about motherhood into a book, I thought about shopping it to publishing companies. But as a busy working mother I didn’t really think I had the time to shop my ideas around and wait months on end for a response without straying off course. The fact that I was writing poetry – a genre that is difficult to sell – made it even more daunting. Deathly afraid of not fulfilling my dream to write that book, I decided it would be quicker and more certain to just publish it myself.
What challenges did you face getting it started?
My first challenge was that I had no idea what I was doing. But lawyers are REALLY good at pretending we know the answers and then rushing off to research them! So I took a crash course from my good friend Kwame Alexander, author of Do the Write Thing, and within a few months I had the road map.
My second major challenge was lack of distribution. I dutifully wrote to a few major distributors. One of them, Biblio, wrote me back the most encouraging and complimentary rejection letter. It kept me going because it acknowledged the beauty in my work, the good business sense in my pricing and marketing strategies, but simply told me in so many words, “Girlfriend, selling these poems is going to be hard! I mean when was the last time you ran to the store for the latest book of poetry?”
How did you overcome them?
I overcame the challenges by relying on great and knowledgeable people – relationships can be the key to success. My relationship with Kwame endures to this day and I strive to give him at least as much as he gave to me. In the near future, I hope to be publishing the new edition of Do the Write Thing for him!
I overcame the lack of distribution by refusing to be discouraged. I acknowledged the expertise of the folks who would not distribute the book, but set about proving that there was a community of Black mothers – and even White, Latino and other mothers and men and women generally – who would buy my book. I distributed it myself. When it came time for me to write my second book – this time, a children’s book – I went back to the same distributor and they immediately signed me. Now, I am one of the few self-publishers with access to a world-wide distribution network!
What are the rewards of publishing books through your own company?
Control over my marketing strategy.
Control over my digital rights.
Is there a theme here????
There are downsides too. You must make a special effort to create to team of great people around you to give you input when needed. Outside input is invaluable and necessary in such areas as editing, design, illustration, marketing campaigns. Also, sometimes you get comfortable and unimaginative about future possibilities.
Your first children’s book, Nappy, affirms the beauty and strength of black hair. The back section has biographies of sheroes named in the story. What inspired you to write Nappy?
Nappy was inspired by a 3 hour session I had of doing my little girl’s hair. Pulling, Ouching Crying. When she looked at me with those big eyes I didn’t know what to say, so I just said, God gave you this hair as a gift. He wanted you to be strong. He wanted you to know that there wasn’t NOTHIN’ that you couldn’t handle. And then I wanted to tell her about all of the strong Black women who came before her with hair like her’s. Women like Ella Baker, Josephine Baker, Ida B. Wells… Women like Rosa Parks and Sojourner Truth. And the poem “Nappy” flowed through from there.
“Nappy” was first merely a poem contained within Songs of a Sistermom. But when a lady in my church, after hearing my powerful recital of the poem, gave me a bear hug and proceeded to say, “Girl, my hair is NAAAAAPPPPPYYY,” as she pulled off her wig… I decided that the poem needed a place of its own. So I turned it into a children’s book.
What response did it receive from children? teachers? parents?
The response has been awesome. Children love the way I present it, and join in with me joyously shouting, NAPPY!!!!!!! Teachers and parents, I think, appreciate the history lesson contained in the book which is a powerful message about history, heritage and high self-esteem. It’s the first children’s book to address the “Nappy” issue in almost 10 years. And it’s the ONLY one to do so by weaving a history message into to the story. The back of the book containing biographies about each of the 10 African-American women honored in the story, alongside beautiful original sketches by the illustrator, ANN MARIE WILLIAMS.
The idea was to give parents, teachers and older children an educational tool so that they can find those teachable moments with young kids to instill lessons of self awareness and self esteem. History is the first and most crucial step toward self-esteem. Knowledge of SELF. And for Black folks, it’s not always so easy to find that history. As the old African Proverb says “Only when lions have historians will hunters cease being heroes.”
How did you feel when your book won the gold IPPY for being named Most Inspirational to Youth?
I was so incredibly overjoyed to receive the IPPY Award. I honestly first thought it was a mistake. Then, I thought, well maybe no one else entered until I learned that almost 3000 titles competed. Finally, I felt like this was a milestone to be appreciated, particularly in light of the fact that my original goal in all of this was simply for my voice to be heard.
And it was.
Tavis Smiley wrote the foreword for your next book, I Dream For You a World: A Covenant for Our Children (Brand Nu Words, 2007), a children’s companion to the Covenant with Black America. Please tell us about the Jamestown Project and how I Dream For You A World (illustrated by Williams) came about.
The Jamestown Project is an action-oriented think tank based out of Harvard Law. Our mission is to MAKE DEMOCRACY REAL. We connect thinking and action.
One of our first “action” projects was to help move the goals of The Covenant with Black America into action. I was determined to ensure that children were included in that effort. I wanted to officially extend the “call to action” to make a difference in your community to children SPECIFICALLY.
I love the section in the back where you highlight the Covenant concepts and tell children how they can be Covenant Kids. Having a part of the book where you offer educational and action-based connections seems to be a hallmark of your work. Why is that important?
In all of my books, I like to use some of the space to create teachable moments. Here, I am not only telling children to never underestimate the power of the dream, but also giving them specific tools for that. This is important to the Jamestown Project because we want to capture children’s dreams and show them that without a dream, America would have never been born. It was an improbable dream. Without a dream, African Americans – my people – would have never been free. Without dreams, we wouldn’t have been celebrating the victory of Barack Obama. Our successes will only be as great as our imagination allows. I use the backmatter of my books to nudge this thinking along.
Barack Obama was your former classmate at Harvard Law School. Rather than being a story of his life, your latest book, I Am Barack Obama, lets children envision themselves as having the same power for creating change and same promise for reaching greatness as President Obama. It has already won praise and the 2009 Skipping Stones Honor Award. What inspired you to write that book?
You know, I wrote I Am Barack Obama because I was inspired by the impact that I witnessed he was having on children. I’d spent years visiting schools and community groups reading my first two children’s books, and in particular the Children’s Covenant, where we were seeking to teach children about democracy and civic engagement. Well, of course, in 2007-2008, everyone was talking about the election. And when the children found out, through my story, that I actually went to school with Barack Obama … well guess what? They no longer wanted to talk about Nappy or I Dream for You a World!!! LOL! It was all about BARACK. So, I quickly decided to capture this historical moment and create a space and place where children could do so.
I Am Barack Obama features a beautiful section where we meet different children and read in their own words what having Barack Obama as president means. How did that section with children’s voices and images come about?
Thank you soooo much for that compliment. I was really determined that this book not be about Barack Obama. This moment … what he means … well, it’s bigger than he is! The fact that a little Black girl in my mom’s urban school in NJ brings up his grades … The fact that another boy in the same school has pulled up his pants, put on a belt and stopped modeling prisoners … The fact that a multi-racial kid from Wisconsin discovers a kinship finds his dreams attainable … This impact is all because of Barack.
I felt that the best way to capture this moment was, yes, to tell Barack’s story, but also to tell the stories of these varied children who, today, view themselves and the possibilities for their lives differently because of Barack’s example.
How do children react when you share the book?
Children just get it. They always do. I have found that as adults, we tend to over think things. More often than not, if you get down to the level of a child … literally, like on the floor or like looking them in their eyes … they will understand you and love, appreciate and admire you for making them feel like they matter. Children always know that they matter to me. And they do. They may be less than 50% of our population, but they are 100% of our future.
Have you heard what President Obama thinks of your book?
No. I only hope that he knows about it and approves of the approach and my sincere effort to use his story to inspire children to achieve their own goals and dreams. I know that it’s a message of which he’d approve.
Your books have received many awards and honors. Sometimes self-published works get short shrift. What advice do you have for people who would like to follow that path? What are some hurdles they may face? What does it take to succeed?
Well, my decision to self-publish was based on two things: time & money. As a busy working mother I didn’t really think I had the time to shop my ideas around to major publishing companies. And as an unknown author I knew a publishing company would give me little or no advance, and they would also give me little or no marketing budget.
Three pieces of advice to someone considering self-publishing:
- SPEND SOME TIME BEFORE YOU SPEND A DIME. Do your research.
- LINK UP TO A CAUSE OR AN ISSUE THAT IS BIGGER THAN YOU OR YOUR BOOK.
- BELIEVE IN YOUR SELF. For me, this all happened because I had a story, I had a dream.
Describe your writing life. As a mom, wife and senior vice president, how do you find time to write and promote your work?
Honestly, it’s hard. I’m not going to lie. My friends call me the ultimate multi-tasker. But I try to remain consistent, set aside regular time for mommy to work on her writing, and lately, I DELEGATE DELEGATE DELEGATE. I now have three business partners, two assistants, and an amazing group of family, friends and contractors who help me keep all of these ventures going.
What do you enjoy most about your writing journey?
Letting my voice be heard.
I read on your site that your company will release digibooks. Please talk to us about what those are and how you’ll use that platform to spread your work.
Digibooks are reader-friendly, digital, interactive books available in a multimedia environment. They use the cognitive model of a real book, and are consumed just like regular books.
The amazing thing about them is that they can be immediately duplicated and transmitted to millions of readers all over the world using the Internet, Interactive TV and other digital platforms. In 2009 with the power of social media/social networking, this platform, if handled carefully could have wide-ranging implications in the US and beyond.
What’s next for you?
Believe it or not, I’m actually taking a hiatus from writing and putting my lawyer hat back on! Your readers will be among the first to learn that I’ve accepted a position in the Obama Administration at the Department of Transportation. I am very excited about this detour, and look forward to the stories I will share with children as soon as I finish with the appointment.
Meanwhile, my business partners will continue to run my publishing company. We have developed a “brand nu world for Brand Nu Words” and entered the field of digital publishing!! All of my books, as well as the books of many other authors will be available as interactive digibooks!
What’s your dream?
My dream is to be free to spend all of my time writing for children, inspiring them, and coming up with new ways to impact their lives. My dream is to see children – all children – dream big, dream loud and to dream in color.