Charisse Carney-Nunes

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?

Self control.

Creative control.

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:

  1. SPEND SOME TIME BEFORE YOU SPEND A DIME.  Do your research. 
  2. LINK UP TO A CAUSE OR AN ISSUE THAT IS BIGGER THAN YOU OR YOUR BOOK. 
  3. 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.

 For more about Charisse Carney-Nunes, please visit www.brandnuwords.com or www.charissecarneynunes.com.

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13 Responses to Charisse Carney-Nunes

  1. Paula says:

    I tip my hat to you, as a fellow multi-multi-tasker (see we do so much we need more than one multi). What an inspirational journey you’ve been on. Much success with your new position. I look forward to what stories may come out of it!

  2. Lucky says:

    I AM BARACK OBAMA is timely and necessary! Love it!

  3. Michelle Malkin » What’s the Jamestown Project? Plus: Finding your “inner Obama” says:

    [...] I linked to her bio at the Jamestown Project, where she is Senior Vice President of Programs. (FYI: In this interview, she says she has accepted a job with the Obama administration’s Transportation [...]

  4. littletim says:

    “…dream big, dream lound, dream in color.” Does that color include white? Who’s writing books that speak to them?

  5. Paula Chase says:

    Does that color include white? Who’s writing books that speak to them?

    Everyone! There are NO shortage of books featuring, revolved around, or “for” White readers. (Note, as far as I know well-rounded readers read beyond color!)

    I fail to see why or even how a person can honestly think that just because someone says “dream in color” that they’re not speaking to White readers.

    Get it? In color, meaning see ALL colors. See ALL people. Look beyond yourself and see others around you.

    With that out of the way, I’d like for comments here to stay positive. And as one of the moderators of this site I’ll keep it that way by simply censoring any and all comments that become combative. So don’t waste your breath if you plan to be.

    This is a site about BOOKS. The books are about and by people of color (roughly less than 500 out of 5,000 children’s books, annually). Anyone who has issue with that, go to the other 5 million websites offered that are about the other 4,900 books that feature, are revolved around and “for” White readers.

  6. ted says:

    Hi Paula. Great point. Since you appear to have a much better working knowledge of the vast list of children’s books available on this subject, could you please help me and my child by sending us information on where to find one of the books titled “I am (fill in the name of one of the other 43 presidents)”? We would greatly appreciate this as our efforts locate one on our own have fallen short. Thank you.

  7. paulahy says:

    Ted, I’d be happy to direct you there as soon as someone writes it. Are you implying it’s someone’s fault specifically that these books don’t exist?

    The invisible author who hasn’t written it? Or perhaps the editors and publishers who decided those stories weren’t marketable enough?

    Clearly no one was compelled to write (or in publishing’s case buy) “I am George Bush.” or “I am Bill Clinton.” or I am One of the Other 43 other Presidents.”

    Oh but wait…History books seem to do a great job of covering these men. And they and whatever political legacy they left are taught in classrooms every.single.day.

    I suppose schools are expected to now not teach about our 44th president simply because some disagree with his views. Or are they to put an asterik next to his name when they teach saying *what we’re about to teach is history not indoctrination. We do not support his politics merely are reporting the facts.

    Funny, that’s not how I was taught about Nixon or Eisnehower or Lincoln.

    Back to the lack of books on I am fill in the blank President…So now Charisse is to be blamed because she (and she’s not alone) decided to write a book about a man who made history?

    Or that she had the gall to be an author making a school visit to talk about her book. Authors do it everyday.

    Since you seem to visit bookstores regularly, I’m sure you’ll notice that people writing books about someone who happens to have caught the public’s attention is nothing new. Whether that person be Paris Hilton or Ted Kennedy – publishing is all about capturing the zeitgeist. Authors writing about them or doing visits about them are nothing new.

    Are you also upset over books about Neil Armstrong? Or Sandra Day O’Connor? Or any other person who made history? Are you upset when these folks are taught about in history classes or mentioned on an author visit by an author who happened to write a book about them?

  8. LaTonya says:

    “‘…dream big, dream lound, dream in color.’ Does that color include white? Who’s writing books that speak to them?”

    littletim, this is a rhetorical question, right? My entire life I have read books by white authors. In fact, in school from elementary through college, I’m required to read books about and by people who don’t look like me. And you know what? I enjoy many of these books. I also like reading about characters by authors who look like me. It’s affirming. Why does that bother you? Did it ever bother you that the expectation has always been that all readers could identify with white characters?

    Are you a reader, do you read children’s and YA fiction? Do you read blogs? There is an overwhelming number of blogs, marketing campaigns online, book signings and YTube book promos promoting books with white MCs. Did you miss the multiple discussions about the Liar book controversy and the reprehensible, but regular whitewashing practice in mainstream publishing? This practice was widely criticized publicly by whites in mainstream media so don’t think it the critics are just whiny black people.

    Walk into your local bookstore. Go to the YA section. Count the number of books prominently on display. What are the common features on the characters on the covers?

    White is the standard, the benchmark, little tim. Everybody else takes a number. Maybe you are mistaken by the current media trend to feature the multi-ethnic model. They are quite exotic, but the trendis shallow and it has nothing to do with pushing white models aside. The multi girl is getting play because the dominant culture is interested in her at the moment.

    Let’s remember Obama is president because enough white people voted for him. We are fortunate that enough Americans did not hold race against him.

    Little tim, I doubt that in either of our lifetimes that you will be forced into the shadows unlike all brown people who have lived their entire lives marginalized, brought into the light only when you want something different. Look at the number of books that actually get published and you can see there is no danger in you disappearing.

  9. Kelstar says:

    Ted,

    You asked where you can find a book called, “I Am . . . (one of the other 43 presidents).” Like Paula, I don’t know if those books have been written. But there are many, many books about our presidents. Here is a small sampling:

    Ronald Reagan (Scholastic, 2006) by Wil Mara
    Ronald Reagan: Young Leader (Simon & Schuster, 1999) by Montrew Dunham
    President George W. Bush (Simon & Schuster, 2004) by Beatrice Gormley
    George Bush: America’s 41st President (Children’s Press, 2005) by Betsy Ochester
    A Picture Book of George Washington (Holiday House, 1990) by David A. Adler
    Lincoln & Me (Scholastic, 1999) by Louise Borden

    Children’s books like Charisse’s that were inspired by the election of President Obama or ones that celebrate his life don’t take away from the wonderful books that honor our other presidents. I think they make our literary world even richer by letting all children, no matter their color, know they can dream of being president one day.

    I agree with Paula and LaTonya. Children’s books featuring white characters are everywhere. They are on required reading lists. They are on bookstore and library shelves. As a child, my favorite books were Miss Nelson is Missing and Wrinkle in Time. Those books were magic then and are now. But it meant so much to me to finally see children’s books that featured characters who looked like me. Sadly, I didn’t see many of them until I was an adult.

    It’s important and affirming for all children to see their lives reflected in the pages of books. It’s critical for all children to know they can dream their biggest dreams and have the power to make them come true. I appreciate you and littletim sharing your perspectives and thoughts. I hope that even if you disagree with our perspectives, you can respect them too.

  10. Don says:

    “‘…dream big, dream lound, dream in color.’ Does that color include white? Who’s writing books that speak to them?”

    Littletim — apparently you’re not a book store patron.

  11. [...] intends the book to “affirm the beauty and strength of black hair” as per an interview at The Brown [...]

  12. [...] intends the book to “affirm the beauty and strength of black hair” as per an interview at The Brown [...]

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