M. LaVora Perry

February 18, 2010

I was so excited at the prospect of interviewing M. LaVora Perry — I’ve been admiring her enthusiastic spirit, sense of humour, and won’t-take-no-for-an-answer attitude for a long time. Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, LaVora fell in love with writing in the 4th grade thanks to Mrs. T.–a teacher who was mean to her but who nonetheless provided LaVora and her classmates with many opportunities for creative expression.

LaVora is a former actor who has performed on stage and in film in New York City and Europe. Fans of her MG novel , TANEESHA NEVER DISPARAGING, include Teaching Tolerance magazine and the Teaching for Change organization. Reading Today reviewer David Richardson called Taneesha “a joy to read”. Her upcoming PEACEBUILDERS: Daisaku Ikeda & Josei Toda, Buddhist Leaders got a rave review over at Multiculturalism Rocks!. LaVora’s work is full of personality, wit, and charm — just like the author herself.

What were you like at Taneesha’s age? What was your reading life like?

As fifth-grader, I was very self-conscious and felt like an outsider. A few books I remember from fifth and sixth grades are James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk; the still popular Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume; Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations; Where the Lilies Bloom by Bill and Vera Cleaver; and the play, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.

I was a Taneesha! Except, even though she might not think so, she has way more guts and a better sense of humor than I did at her age. Taneesha is the girl who, back then, I wished I was.

What were some of your inspirations for that character?

In third grade, my best friend had a slight physical disability. Once, we watched as older girls picked on one of our classmates. On the way home, I
told my friend that those girls were wrong for teasing our classmate. Unfortunately, the older girls, who were sisters, heard me. They taunted me forever after that. Plus, unbelievably, they moved into the house next door! This experience inspired some parts of Taneesha Never Disparaging.

What do you love most about Taneesha? 

I love the way Taneesha stands up to her fears even when she doesn’t want to. I also love her honesty—the way she’s willing to self-reflect and learn and grow from her mistakes.

How did you decide to create Evella?

A few years ago, Linda Johnson, the women’s leader of the Soka Gakkai International-USA (SGI-USA) Buddhist association, who happens to be African American, talked about how it’s like we each have two minds–our enlightened mind and our unenlightened mind, which she called our personal “evil twin.” It’s the part of us that recites an endless list of reasons why we’re going to fail at everything we try to do. Evella grew out of Linda’s description of the “evil twin.”

Taneesha and Carli have such a dynamic relationship. What inspired that? And perceptions of illness and physical challenges are an important part of Taneesha’s story; how did that come about? 

The third-grade friendship I mentioned inspired Taneesha and Carli’s relationship. I wanted Carli to be a fully fleshed out character, not just Taneesha’s sidekick. It was important to me that Carli not be a wimp.

Your dialogue and description jump off of the page. You write wonderfully descriptive phrases, like “crease in his pants could have sliced a hunk of cold cheddar cheese”, “multicolored laundry powder from a box turned upside down”. How do you suggest writers be descriptive without overwriting?

I can overwrite with the best of them! But my advice would be what anyone who’s studied writing has already heard: Use concrete language and imagery. Employ all five senses. Read your writing out loud; if it sounds boring to you, it’ll sound boring to everybody else, too.

What’s your favorite part of the writing process?

I love it when I make what I’m thinking jump of the page.

Are there any particular resources or exercises you recommend?

I list several writer’s resources on my website at  http://www.mlavoraperry.com/writers

It’s wonderful to see a Middle Grade novel in which the main character’s spiritual life plays an important role. Why did you include this aspect of Taneesha’s life?

I’ve practiced Buddhism for almost twenty-three years and my husband has done so even longer. We’ve raised our three children as Buddhists (our oldest is fourteen). However, there were no books that reflected this aspect of our lives that I could read to them and that their school and Buddhist friends could read. So I set out to create a literary world in which urban African American Buddhist kids do stuff.

Have your choices been challenged in any way? What was most challenging for you about making faith part of the story?

I struggled with how to write a non-preachy story in which faith plays a central role. When I shared my frustration about my challenge to write such a story, and get it published, some Buddhists suggested that I just write books that didn’t mention Buddhism. Ultimately, however, this advice fueled my determination to write what I really wanted to write—and to learn how to write it well.

Taneesha was the first children’s novel published by Wisdom Publications. How did that relationship come about? 

After I attended a Highlights Foundation writers’ workshop and revised Taneesha Never Disparaging for the zillionth time, I telephoned Wisdom, whom I’d found online, to see if they’d read it. I didn’t want to send them the manuscript if they would never publish a book like mine. Ultimately, they offered me a contract to write the first and only novel they’ve ever published.

Tell us some of the experiences you’ve had as you’ve shared Taneesha with students, educators, parents.

Children ask questions about why the teenage girl who bullies Taneesha acts the way she does. When I read the scene in which an elderly Japanese woman who lived near Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was dropped describes what that was like, they ask lots of questions and share insights.

Teachers are often surprised to learn that a book about a black Buddhist girl exists. Frequently, they are eager to share a new type of “diversity” book with their students.

Parents are typically glad to find a fun book that their children will like. 
Usually, African American parents are glad to find a book featuring a child of color.

Successful self-publishing is an amazing achievement. Why and how did you make that choice?

When I published my first book, I was simply afraid that my kids and their peers would be too old to want to read a story about a Buddhist kid by the time I found a publisher for it. So, I published it—Taneesha’s Treasures of the Heart—myself.

What were some of the surprises along the way? 

My biggest shock was discovering that most writers keep their day jobs! Often, the big names we know about wrote for years and years in obscurity before they became “overnight” successes.

Tell us more about the birth and wonderful life of Forest Hill Publishing. 

When I first published Taneesha’s Treasures of the Heart, I used a subsidy publisher, which is sometimes called a “vanity
press.” This was expensive.
Forest Hill Publishing, LLC
But, because I was very energetic about marketing and promotion, I recouped my investment by having the book go into reprint several times at no additional cost to me. After two years, the publisher released me from my contract. They don’t normally do this, because most of their authors don’t sell as many books as I did and therefore most of their authors don’t keep ordering more books at the publisher’s expense.

Once I learned how the business worked, I realized I could publish books myself. However, if it weren’t for the advent of print-on-demand (POD) printing, I would not have been able to start my company when I did because it wouldn’t have been able to afford the cost of printing books or making the books widely available.

But with POD printing, and by using the company Lightning
, which is a division of Ingram, one of the world’s largest book wholesalers, I can affordably print, publish, and sell books to booksellers and individuals worldwide.

How did your work in the greeting card industry affect your book projects?

Working for a global greeting card company helped me learn the importance of writing in such a way that the broadest number of people will understand what I’m saying.

On March 16 of this year, Forest Hill launches, PeaceBuilders: Daisaaku Ikeda & Josei Toda, Buddhist Leaders, a chapter book biography. How did you decide to tell the story of Daisaku Ikeda and Josei Toda?

I’ve always known I would write this story. Daisaku Ikeda’s achievements on the world stage have been huge. He’s founded universities, cultural institutions, and received over 3,000 honors and awards—more than any person in human history.

Often, we look up to historical figures and their lives seem so large we don’t think of them as people like us. That’s why I began the opening scene of
PeaceBuilders with Daisaku Ikeda as an ordinary nine year-old. From there, the story depicts his growth, fears, and struggles from boyhood to young adulthood.
I hope PeaceBuilders inspires children to believe that, just like Daisaku Ikeda—a man from a simple background—they, too, can achieve great things in their own unique ways.

What were some of the challenges of writing narrative nonfiction? Did you learn anything new in the process?

I hate the thought of writing something that’s boring. So, I kept revising PeaceBuilders to breathe life into lifeless parts—or dump them all together. I hope I succeeded.

I was greatly helped with this book by critique partners and by a wonderful editor that I met at our last Northern Ohio Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference. I was told to focus on one or a few key aspects of my larger-than-life protagonist’s life, rather than tell his whole life story. Another great nugget of advice I received was to show him as a real person with human flaws. I was also advised to leave dates out of the narrative all together—otherwise, it would read like a dry encyclopedia entry. That’s how the book ended up in two parts—a story-like biography in part 1 and a reference section in part 2 that includes a timeline and achievements.

I know Forest Hill is seeking stories of transplant survivors; can you tell us more about that? 

This project grew out of a publishing contract I had to write a book about a friend of mine who is African American and who, along with her twelve year-old son, discovered that they both had a rare hereditary heart condition
and needed new hearts. When my publisher went out of business, after talking it over with my friend, I decided to publish the book through Forest Hill and expand it to include stories about several people. (*Note: For details of this project, visit the Forest Hill Web Site.)

My goal with this book is to raise awareness among people of color of the need for us to be organ donors. We represent the group of people least likely to sign up to be donors and most likely to need an organ or tissue transplant—and to die while waiting for one.

You’re a mother; what would you like to share with other parents about their role in their children’s literacy development? How does your parenting affect your work as a writer? 
My advice to parents is to read to babies before they even pop out into the world and keep reading to your children and talking about books with them.

My kids keep me in touch with children—how they think, what’s important to them. They help me stay connected to my own childhood dreams, aspirations, and fears. And they keep me from getting the big head.

What challenges have you faced as a Black author and publisher, and how did you move past them? What advice do you have for other authors?

The challenges of being black in this world are so ginormous and ingrained in the way things are done everywhere, that, for the most part, while I’ll stand up to them, I don’t dwell on them.

My advice to authors is to READ; WRITE; join a critique group; take advantage of every opportunity to learn about the craft and business through online information and social networks, books, classes, workshops, conferences, et cetera; and, most important, never ever give up on your dream. As long as you keep moving toward it, you’ll reach it. BELIEVE that.

What do you wish someone had told you?

That most writers keep their day jobs and the best selling books are non-fiction.

What do you see happening in the marketplace now that encourages/discourages you?

We are at the same place in the world in terms of changes in how communication is shared as the difference between the world before the printing press and after. I intend to ride the new wave of communication into the future, and to play a major role in creating the waves of the future.
I am not discouraged.

What role do you see self-publishing playing in the future? How do you see self-publishing changing?

I think we’ll see more and more independently published titles gain traction as more people use the endless stream of new technologies to reach readers. However, in order for new publishers to last, they must produce excellent publications.

You have a blog and web site; how do you use social media in your work?

I have two blogs—one’s my personal musings about whatever; the other focuses on kid-lit. I use the Internet to let people know where and when I’m doing workshops or book events and when my books are coming out. I use Twitter and I created a short and slightly longer book trailer for PeaceBuilder and posted them on YouTube. I created a PeaceBuilders Facebook fan page. Activities like these help build book buzz.

I use social media to promote other writers as a way of informing folks and giving back to the writing community that supports me in countless ways. In addition, I use social media to say whatever’s important to me at a particular time.

What makes you smile these days?
My kids make me smile—when I’m not fussing at them and we’re just having fun. Yesterday, I literally jumped up and down and shouted with joy after a friend phoned to tell me that Michelle Obama had publicly clarified that her new child health initiative was about being fit, not all about body size. (In a
post on my blog, and in an email to Mrs. Obama, I’d asked her to please not make size the focus of her initiative.) When I shared the news about her clarification with my husband and asked him to “Give me some skin!” instead of high-fiving me, he kissed me. And I smiled.

What’s your favorite word?


What’s next for M. LaVora Perry?

March 19 – 21, I’ll join, hopefully, several other writers and aspiring writers of color at the first Multicultural Literature Advocacy Group
conference in Mobile Alabama. Attendees will learn from writers and publishing industry and other media professionals and leaders. I’ll be presenting a workshop on affordable and successful self-publishing based on my book, Successful Self-Publishing–From Children’s Book Author to Independent Publisher, A Simple Guide for New and Not So New

Successful Self-Publishing--With strategies that work to sell books by self-published authors and authors of book published by general trade publishers.

In 2011, Forest Hill Publishing will release a health book I’ve coauthored with internationally-acclaimed Cleveland Clinic super doc and teaching surgeon, Dr. Linda Bradley (http://www.drlindabradley.org).

At some point, I’d like to complete a novel that’s been simmering. I like to
write fiction and non-fiction. But being a writer is only part of who I am. So, all of “what’s next,” I can’t say because I don’t even know. However, I do know that I will make sure that whatever it is, by the time I’m done with it, it’s magnificent.

Can you tell us about the M.? 

The M is for my mother’s and my first name—Mattie. She’s Mattie Mae Perry and I’m Mattie LaVora.

No one in my family calls me Mattie, though—except for Ma when she’s playfully calling me “Miss Mattie.” I keep my “M” in honor of her—the self-named “Big Mama” of our family.

Thank you so much, LaVora! You are an industry trailblazer indeed, and it’s been a true pleasure.
LaVora is sponsoring an essay contest! Students in grades K-12 can win a copy of PEACEBUILDERS in the PEACEBUILDERS Essay Contest. Entry deadline is March 16, 2010. For details go to: her blog. To learn more about LaVora, click on the image below.

To learn more about M. LaVora Perry, click here.

Dinah Johnson

February 17, 2010


Accomplished. Creative. Family-oriented. Passionate.                         Four qualities embodied in today’s featured author.

Dr. Dianne “Dinah” Johnson obtained her undergraduate degree from Princeton University in English, with concentrations in African American Studies and Creative Writing. She then received her Master’s Degree in African American Studies, and her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University.  Today, she is a professor of English at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, and—most importantly—the mother of Niani Sekai Feelings.

Johnson–the daughter of an Army Colonel father and educator mother–is an intellectual who has travelled the world. She’s written six picture books for children, and edited or co-edited various publications including:  The Best of the Brownies’ Book (a compilation of fiction, poetry, photographs and more, from the 1920’s children’s magazine edited by W.E.B. Dubois and Jessie Fauset); the African American Review (a special issue devoted to black children’s authors and illustrators); and The Collected Works of Langston Hughes.  She is also involved in the production of a documentary film called Beautiful by Design: The Story of African American Children’s Literature.

On day seventeen, we proudly present to you a true renaissance woman, Dinah Johnson.


BBS:    Hi, Dinah. Welcome to the Brown Bookshelf

DJ:       Thank you. I’m excited about speaking with you.

BBS:    Growing up in a military family, you lived in many places as a child: ten different states in the U.S., plus Iran and Germany. How does your extensive travel history inform your writing today?

DJ:       Growing up around the world has given me an appreciation for the richness and uniqueness of various places—the sounds, the smells, the color palettes are all unique. The people in different places, collectively, have their own ways of expressing themselves, their own relationships with the concept of time. I could go on and on; they have their own orientation to the world. Seeing different places gives me an informed appreciation for the richness of human cultures and reminds me, as writer, to make my writing “truthful” to the extent that that is possible. And if I tell the truth of a particular character, the specifics make the story rich, while also depicting a character whose humanity is evident to all readers.  

BBS:    Professionally, your life’s work seems to revolve around African American children’s literature—not only writing it, but unearthing and preserving its history as well.  Can you expound more on your passion for this genre?

DJ:       I earned a master’s degree in African American Studies at Yale. As part of that program, I wrote my thesis on the work of the magnificent Lucille Clifton. Her Everett Anderson series is a masterpiece as are her other pieces for young readers, in particular The Times They Used to Be. When I went on to write my dissertation, I decided to expand upon the earlier work and research the history of African American literature for young people. I’m especially interested in writers who have devoted their careers to writing for children. But it’s worth noting that many of the most important writers in our tradition, such as James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, also produced work for children. Our writers have understood that children’s literature cannot simply be cute and innocent. It has to communicate to our children something about our complex and rich identities as Africans and as Americans. It has to do with beauty and with power and with love.

BBS:    Which came first: your desire to promote the rich history of Af-Am children’s literature, or your desire to write books for children?

DJ:       I’ve always been a writer. I began writing seriously in sixth grade when my teacher, Miss Carol Johnson, required her students to write creatively every week. As an undergraduate, I majored in English with a specialization in creative writing. My thesis was a collection of poetry inspired by a trip I made to West Africa after my sophomore year. I was definitely a writer before I became a scholar.

BBS:    What were the circumstances surrounding the publication of your first book, All Around Town? How did this project come about?

DJ:       Actually, the first book for which I landed a contract was Quinnie Blue. Because of timing issues with James Ransome, the fabulous illustrator, it was the third to be published. But to answer your question about All Around Town, photography has always been one of my passions. So I started off thinking I’d write a book about a family going to have its portrait made. But as the project evolved I decided to honor Richard Samuel Roberts, who so elegantly chronicled the lives of dignified people in my beloved home state. The most disheartening part of doing this project was learning, after communicating with some of Mr. Roberts’ children, that the family does not control the Roberts photographs. It’s too long a story to get into here. Suffice it to say that in my opinion, this is a case of cultural appropriation. But as for my book, it’s beautiful. Henry Holt’s design team does exquisite work, subtle but powerful.

BBS:    In the span of two years—from 1998-2000—you published four books. In addition to All Around Town, there was Sunday Week, the aforementioned Quinnie Blue, and Sitting Pretty: A Celebration of Black Dolls. Each one of these titles is a meaningful and important addition to the literary landscape.  For the sake of our readers, can you briefly describe these last three works, including what it was about each that made it “necessary” to you?

DJ:       Quinnie Blue was “necessary” because it is an homage to my four great-grandmothers—Hattie, Lottie, Annie, and Quinnie—all of whom I knew. I was closest to Grandmama Quinnie, who didn’t die until my junior year in college. Sunday Week was illustrated by my friend Tyrone Geter, who lived in Ohio at the time he illustrated the book; we met only afterwards. Sitting Pretty was inspired by my doll rather large doll collection. My editor, Christy Ottaviano, did not like the first manuscript I sent to her, a fiction piece about the dolls. She’s the one who suggested I try poetry. And it worked out beautifully. When I visit schools, those poems are very popular; children get up and act out some of them in the voices and personalities of the characters. I hope that all of my work is read aloud; only then can the books be experienced and appreciated in their fullness.

BBS:    Hair Dance, had an interesting evolution. The photographs—which are especially gorgeous— existed before the text. Can you tell us how you became involved with this project?

DJ:       Actually, there’s a long back story that I won’t recount. The short version is that my editor knows that I like to write in response to visual prompts. For example, to create All Around Town, I responded to the Roberts photographs. For Sitting Pretty, I put myself in conversation with my dolls. So my editor thought I might come up with an interesting manuscript in response to Kelly Johnson’s gorgeous photographs. I love the final project. (And I love hair: At the University of South Carolina I occasionally teach a course on the cultural politics of black hair!—in addition to my English Department courses.)

BBS:    Your latest book, Black Magic, was just released this January. By all accounts, it’s a must-read. You’ve received several favorable reviews, including ones by Kirkus, School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and a starred review by Booklist.  Tell us about this book. What do you hope children experience, or extrapolate, while reading it?

DJ:       When I was a freshman in college, in 1979, I picked up a book entitled Black Is Beautiful in the campus bookstore. Written by Ann McGovern in 1969, the book is made up of spare text and black and white photographs. I read it as her subtle contribution to changing race relations in this society. Black Magic is to some extent a revision of that book. Gregory Christie has done a brilliant job of illustrating the words so, so joyfully.  But our hope is that children of color will understand the deeper meanings; that they will understand that everything that is black is not bad, an idea so entrenched in our language and thinking.

BBS:    All six of your children’s books have been published by Henry Holt BFYR. What do you like best about working with this publisher?

DJ:       Henry Holt stands behind its writers and artists, and gives every book everything they can give it—beautiful design and attention to detail. So whether or not a book makes a splash, they know that they’ve produced a quality product, a work of art. Though my work has not garnered the attention Holt thinks it deserves, they have continued producing my books, standing by their belief that my work deserves to be out there.

BBS:    You’ve been in the publishing game for over a decade.  Tell us what some of the differences are in the industry now, versus when you started out?

DJ:       I’ll defer to the publishing professionals for a detailed response to this question. But my general impression is that when things are bad, people of color are hit the hardest. Editors take fewer chances on newcomers. Christy Ottaviano found my Quinnie Blue manuscript in a slush pile she inherited. I don’t think that would happen today, with so many editors no long accepting unsolicited submissions. But I would tell aspiring writers and illustrators that where there’s a will there’s a way.

BBS:    What have you learned along the way, that you wish someone had been honest enough to share with you at the beginning of your journey?

DJ:       Nothing that I can think of….I’ve had great mentors, including the prolific and pioneering Joyce Hansen and the late, great Tom Feelings. I was part of a journey to South Africa with a group that included Virginia Hamilton. I’ve been blessed to learn from and to be embraced by some of the best in the business.

BBS:    Do you have any new children’s projects in the works?

DJ:       First, I’d like to comment on a commitment that is very, very special and important to me—serving on the advisory board for the Children’s Defense Fund’s Langston Hughes Library, located at the former Alex Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee. I urge everyone to visit their website and to support them in any way possible. They serve as a depository for invaluable works of literature and they host important gatherings—all in the interests of our children.

            And I always have numerous projects in the works. One very special project is book I’ve co-written with my daughter, Niani Feelings, about her special relationship with her father, who died when she was eight and half years old. Another project that is dear to my heart is a book for young adults inspired by my first trip to the African continent the summer after my sophomore year in college. It was the most important journey of my life—other than the journey of motherhood!

BBS:    Thanks for your time, Dinah. We appreciated the opportunity to speak with you today.

DJ:       My pleasure. Your questions are thoughtful and evocative.

BBS:    Last questions–A.M. or  P.M.?

DJ:       A.M. all the way.

BBS:    Backyard pool or front porch rocker?

DJ:       Depends on the day.

BBS:    Red Velvet Cake or Sweet Potato Pie?

DJ:       There’s a time for everything. But it’s always a good time for chocolate!


Praise for Black Magic:

“While Johnson’s prose is crisp and definitive, Christie’s artwork takes the words and imaginatively whirls them in stylized, riotously colored pictures that will remind some of Maira Kalman’s work. The exuberance this child feels in exploring black in all its permutations can’t help but spill over to young listeners, who will have fun thinking up pieces of black magic in their own lives.”—Booklist, Starred Review

“This expressive book combines well-matched text and pictures to pay tribute to the myriad qualities of blackness. Buoyant yet reflective, Johnson’s (Hair Dance!) free-flowing verse presents an imaginative girl’s musings on the essence of black…With vibrant colors offsetting velvety black images, Christie’s (Bad News for Outlaws) acrylic gouache illustrations playfully tweak perspective and scale, echoing the verse’s energy and fluidity.”—Publishers Weekly

“These early literacy concepts are conveyed in short, snappy lines of text that make the book an outstanding choice for preschool storytimes. The African-American children in Christie’s illustrations have a variety of hairstyles and skin tones and are shown playing with children of other races. The bright acrylic colors capture the energy of childhood, and the artist’s bold, loose brushstrokes further underscore the dynamic nature of the text, and of the little girl who narrates it.”—School Library Journal

“‘My hundred black braids make a spiderweb around my head, / and Mama’s voice is black and sweet as I fall asleep.’ This emotionally rich sentence is representative of this winning celebration of blackness. Johnson successfully uses figurative language to describe basic concepts and more complex connections, such as using color to describe emotions. She effortlessly zigzags from the immensity of the sky to the comfortable warmth of a puppy. The illustrations are bright and vibrant and provide an excellent contrast to the actual color black, which appears throughout the book. …. Adults will find this book a great conversation starter with little ones.”—Kirkus Reviews

Find out more about Dinah Johnson at http://www.Dinahjohnson.com

Eric Velasquez

February 16, 2010

To describe illustrator Eric Velasquez as a “prolific artist” would be an understatement. Before snagging his first picture book contract, he created art for more than 300 book jackets and interior illustrations — more published art than many illustrators create in a lifetime.

A few of those titles include Journey to Jo’Burg and its sequel Chain of Fire, written by Beverly Naidoo; The complete series of Encyclopedia Brown; The complete series of The Ghost Writers; The Terrible Wonderful Telling at Hog Haven; and Gary Soto’s The Skirt and its sequel Off and Running. He also illustrated the cover of the 1999 Coretta Scott King award winning title Jazmin’s Notebook by Nikki Grimes.

His first picture book, The Piano Man, written by Debbie Chocolate (Walker & Co.), won the 1999 Coretta-Scott King/John Steptoe award for new talent.

In addition to illustrating, Eric is also a writer/storyteller. Grandma’s Records was his first authored title. It published in 1999 to rave reviews from School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly and others.  Grandma’s Records is autobiographical, based on Eric’s childhood in Spanish Harlem with his grandmother.

Houdini: World’s Greatest Mystery Man — the interviewer’s personal favorite — is like magic in and of itself. The images are uncanny, and nearly jump off the page.

He received his BFA from the School of Visual Arts, and studied at The Art Students League with Harvey Dinnerstein.

For our third illustrator of 28 Days Later, 2010, we present vanguard illustrator and author Eric Velasquez:

Please talk about your most recent book.

My most recent book is My Friend Maya Loves to Dance (Abrams, 2010), by Cheryl Hudson. I always wanted to do a book about a ballerina, however I never took into account how technical a project it would be. Inspired by the work of Edgar Degas, I figured I’d hire a model and photograph her in a variety of poses, and then use them as reference.

Once I read the manuscript six times, I realized that Cheryl was telling her story in a very personal and heart-felt way. It demanded attention. Suddenly I wanted the images to be far from those of Degas. I abandoned the thought of doing the book in pastels (my original intention). I wanted Cheryl’s words to come through the images unencumbered by the comparisons to Degas.

Cheryl and I went to a ballet school in an African American community, in New Jersey. We hired the dancers, and had the staff pose them. Every pose in the book is the real thing, as well as the model for Maya; she is a real ballet student.

Of the many books and covers you’ve illustrated, what are some that mean the most to you. Why?

I feel fortunate to have had a chance to illustrate a lot of my heroes. Muhammad Ali, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Houdini, and Jesse Owens. However I would have to say that the book I am especially proud of will always be Grandma’s Records, which is my story. I am not particularly fond of my illustration work technically.  But the book has resonated with so many people. I still get emails from people thanking me for writing it. Walker Books informed me that the book is their second all-time bestseller.

Grandma’s Records is a simple story about a boy who spends the summer with his Grandma, listening to records and her stories. Three famous Puerto Rican musicians visit them, and they attend a show that changes both of them forever. The book has helped bridge a generational gap that is widening between grandparent and grandchild. People write to me all the time explaining how they are playing old records for their grandchildren, ultimately that is most rewarding.

What is the primary medium used in your work?

My primary medium is oil on paper. I have also done three books in pastel and one in charcoal.

Who are other illustrators or fine artists who’ve inspired you?

I love them all, the old illustrators for different reasons at different times. I am a lifelong student of illustration. However, this is a serious question to me for many reasons. Not all illustrators whose work I admire would have invited me to spend a day in their studio. This is something that I have been aware of since childhood.

Therefore, if I could spend the day in the studio with any artist, it would have been Tom Feelings. Tom and I became friends after the masterpiece The Middle Passage was published.  It was the first time that looking at artwork made dizzy. I really had to sit on the floor of the bookstore when I first saw the book. It is everything that a book should be, a true Masterpiece. When I met Tom, I complimented him and I began to walk away. I guess he sensed my shyness and immediately called me back to thank me and to tell me that he was honored by my words.

We would meet again at the New York Public Library picture collection. We spoke for three hours. Tom Feelings was his artwork. Every pencil line and every composition was evident in his personality. He was as real as his art. I was inspired by his reality and his generosity.

Tom would often call just to see how I was doing and encouraging me to take ownership of my African heritage. A lot of art that is credited as being created by Europeans had in fact originated in Africa. Perhaps my only regret is that I never had a chance to spend a day in his studio and watch him create his magic.

The Middle Passage, Tom Feelings

What was the biggest change, unexpected result, or interesting observation noted since you received recognition by the Coretta Scott King committee, or any other award or honor?

Public speaking. That has been the most significant change in my life. Up until I won the award I never spoke publicly. I hid in my studio and painted. Many doors opened, especially when I began doing school visits. Most notably, teaching.  I was hired by the chairman of the Illustration Department at FIT (The Fashion Institute of Technology), Ed Soyka, after he viewed a school presentation I gave on C-Span Book TV.

Three books recently illustrated by Velasquez: I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer, written by Carole Boston Weatherford; The Rain Stomper, written by Addie Boswell; Voices of Christmas, written by Nikki Grimes.

Can you talk a bit about your process for illustrating a book?

After reading the manuscript several times I begin to do my rough thumbnail storyboard sketches.  Next I begin to research the story in terms of costumes, location, books, etc. Basically I try and learn everything I can about the subject within the time I have.

From there I create a book dummy (a pagination) of the book. This involves cutting up the manuscript and pasting it down next to the corresponding images.  I submit the book dummy to the publisher for approval. Sometimes there are changes at this stage. Next I find models and costumes, then I set up a photo shoot.

Next, I begin the final artwork. First I create a detailed drawing of the image then I paint on top of it using oil paint.

If you could wave a magic wand and completely change professions, what would you be doing today?

I waved a magic wand when I was seven and I wanted to be an illustrator. Nothing has changed.

Why do you illustrate for children? What do you find most gratifying?

The ability to change the future through art. For instance, let’s say I have text that reads: “Then he laid his eyes on the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.”

Now, let’s say I paint an image is of a darkly complexioned African woman. My point: If enough artist are courageous enough to depict a variety of images of beauty, regardless of country of origin, slowly the next generation will begin to open their eyes to another more truer sense of beauty, that of a broader spectrum.

For aspiring children’s book illustrators,  please talk about your path to publication.

There are so many obstacles today perhaps more than ever. There are lots of closed doors in publishing. It’s a small community that seems to be getting smaller. Currently I am a loss for words. I am very concerned with the future of publishing.  Persevere.

If you could put your career in reverse, is there anything you’d do differently as a young artist?

I would read more. Aside from Baldwin, Hughes, Wright, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky. Gogol, Zola. These writers really formed the basis of my perspective in illustration.

See the trailer for Racing Against All Odds: The Story of Wendell Scott, Stock Car Racing’s African-American Champion, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Eric Velasquez, above.

What is the most challenging thing about illustrating a children’s picture book?

Finding your voice in the story without overshadowing the text.

What was your favorite book as a child?

The Lollipop Party by Brinton Turkle. I grew up at a time where there were no images of African Americans in children’s books. I gravitated toward this book because there is a little brown boy in the story that I identified with.

Most Americans have no idea what is like not to see themselves represented in books or films. They don’t know what it’s like to constantly see images of themselves portrayed in a negative light or subservient role to the main protagonist.

How do you find balance in your busy schedule?

Very carefully. I pretty much work all the time.

What would be your dream manuscript? Is there an author you’d especially like to work with?

My dream author would be James Baldwin.

A current author would perhaps be Willie Perdomo, the poet. I really would like to explore more of the Afro-Caribbean perspective; sadly there is not enough of it in children’s books.

Who are your cheerleaders, those who encourage you?

My lady, Elizabeth, E.B. Lewis, James Ransome, and the countless  fans that write telling me how my work has affected them.

Do you visit schools? Is there any particular message you like to leave with children when you speak?

Yes. My message is that everyone has a story to tell that is unique. Don’t be satisfied with the same old story being retold, like the stuff that comes out of Hollywood. Tell me a story that I have not already heard.

What’s on the horizon, what can your fans expect?

I have just completed all of the art for Grandma’s Gift, the prequel to Grandma’s Records. I am very excited about it.

This book deals with art the way Grandma’s Records dealt with music and explains where the sketchbook comes from.

********* Just For Fun **********

Favorite M&M color: I don’t really eat candy

Favorite TV show: Dexter

Favorite food: Salmon

Favorite sport: Biking

Favorite ice cream flavor: Coconut

Favorite Author: James Baldwin

Favorite American Idol winner: Huh?

Favorite Pop culture personality: Huh?

Favorite Day of the week: Any day that I don’t have to leave the studio.

Favorite genre of book: Nonfiction

Myspace or Facebook: Facebook

Tonya Hegamin

February 15, 2010

photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Tonya C. Hegamin is an author that refuses to be penned down to one category. She has degrees in both poetry (from the University of Pittsburgh) and in creative writing (from the New School University). She’s penned both picture books (Most Loved In All The World, Houghton Mifflin, 2008) and novels. And even within her novels, she’s avoids categorization. Her first novel, M+0 4EVR (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) is a seamless blend of contemporary fiction and historical drama, and her second novel, Pemba’s Song (Scholastic, 2008) co-written with Marilyn Nelson, blends poetry and prose.

For the 15th day of 28 Days Later, we are proud to present Tonya C. Hegamin.

After receiving an undergraduate degree in poetry, why did you decide to back to school for your MFA? Why in writing for children and young adults?

After undergrad I decided to take a few years off to “experience the real world”.  I worked as an educator for Women Against Rape in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. I also prepared teen moms for the GED in a town whose median income was $9,000. Then I was the teen safe sex educator for Planned Parenthood.  I even taught 6th grade math for a minute!  That was a total disaster–I barely know the times tables!  I only knew that I wanted to help and teach kids and teens and reading was my number one passion as a kid.  It was something I always wanted to do–write the books I loved.

M+0 4EVR is mainly a contemporary story, but you also weave in narrative about a runaway slave named Hannah. Was it difficult to intertwine the two stories together?

Writing M+O was like watching some complex organic biology experiment unfold.  I had written long stories before but never attempted a novel.  It was really just the beginning of a puzzle for me when it was sold off of 30 pages.  Nobody expects that!  I didn’t really have a plan for it, I was just fascinated by the characters and the story they wanted to tell.  It was like a vine in my brain.  Every character took on a complete life of their own.  I’m working on a sequel that is in the voice of M.  Gran has perhaps an entire book to her life, as well as the rest of the characters.  Hannah and Mine were just a story that the characters wanted to tell.  The only thing I consciously did was make Mine a Nanticoke; my Grandfather Coursey’s family was from a line of chiefs in that community so I added some of his history.

What gave you the idea to write the novel?

I think the idea germinated when I was in High School and my mother and I had moved to Rochester, NY from the suburbs of Philadelphia where I grew up.  We drove hours through the wilds of Pennsylvania several times a year and it gave me the opportunity to dream unlikely dreams.  I love wondering what people’s lives are like in those houses you get a glimpse of when driving through country highways.  I wanted characters that I had never seen written before in those places.  It’s the perfect storm for a melodrama.

According to some reviews, Opal’s love for Marianne goes beyond platonic? Did you or your publisher have any concerning about including this thread in the novel?

Yes, Opal is in love with Marianne; it’s not totally overt because I’m not an advocate for gratuitous sex scenes in teen lit.  One of the reasons I read so much as a kid was looking for “sex parts” in Norma Klein books!  Reading them now, they were so ambiguous and tame, but that tension was what led me to keep reading.  I wanted to write a love story that wasn’t typical or urban and Opal’s story was important for me to tell.  She is the witness to tragedy but not tragic herself.  Understanding that makes her realize that being open about her sexuality is actually not going to cause the Earth to stop spinning.  I wanted the love stories that surrounded her to be untraditional yet unconditional so that she knew how to love well.  I think most teens can relate to longing for someone they can’t have.  I wasn’t trying to write a “coming out story”, just a good love story. Of course, Opal is the first African-American lesbian protagonist in teen lit; that’s not easy to market and that’s what publishers think about.  Strangely, I’ve had more direct ‘controversy’ over my picture book, MOST LOVED IN ALL THE WORLD. Recently I spoke to a group of Queer teens at the New York City LGBT Center.  Even though my publishers haven’t put vampire money into M+O, getting to see those kids’ faces and to hear how much they needed the book was payment enough.

You also wrote a novel, Pemba’s Song, with Marilyn Nelson. How did this novel originate?

We wrote it to help our friend, Abraham Haqq (who is a character in the book).  Abraham did a lot of research about African-Americans who built the town he lived in, which did not celebrate or note the integral part that African-Americans played throughout history.  Abraham taught himself to read and do research.  He recently left his life in Connecticut and is now living in Mexico.  He’s a blazing fire of information as well as an amazing inspiration!

You wrote the voice of Pemba, and Marilyn Nelson wrote the voice of Phyllis? What was your process of working on the novel?

Marilyn wrote Phyllis first since her story is chronologically first.  Once she gave me her poems I wrote Pemba’s story around them.  Originally Pemba’s story was going to be all poems but I felt that the narrative flowed better and would interest more readers if told in a hybrid fashion.

Tough Question—do you consider yourself more of a poet or more of a novelist?

I’m a storyteller.  In teaching fiction and in teaching poetry I want to get my students to the same underbelly of human beauty that strikes a chord in the reader.  I write poetry for instant voluntary torture and novels for prolonged voluntary torture.  It just depends on my mood or the nature of the story I want to tell.  My Introduction to Poetry class (in 1996?!) was with Toi Derricotte (co-founder of the first African-American poetry retreat, Cave Canem) and she taught me that the most important thing about writing was to open your heart onto the page.  It really doesn’t matter to me what form it comes out in.

Can you talk a little about what you’re working on now?

Mostly these days I’m working on teaching writing as an extension of my craft.  Over my winter break I worked on another historical novel and a graphic novel.  I have a large section of the sequel to M+O that needs to be edited (again).  I’ve got a short story or two for adults percolating and I’m refining a performance of a poem/song about John Henry’s wife, Polly Ann.  I’m also trying to write two really good Haiku poems a week.  It’s harder than you’d think!

(Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths (http://rachelelizagriffiths.com/)).

Christine Taylor-Butler

February 14, 2010

On her website, Christine Taylor-Butler says “Writing for children is a joyful endeavor. It takes heart, passion, and one endearing story that yearns to be told. As with all things, commit to putting your own ideas on paper. A story left untold will never blossom or touch the heart of a reader. ” Heart, passion, and commitment shine through in this author’s extensive body of work. Her determination to make a career out of writing, to be a mentor to aspiring writers, and to be a force of change in the publishing industry is also evident, as in this interview for School Library Journal’s W.A.R series and last year’s Brown Bookshelf interview about her latest, the highly acclaimed SACRED MOUNTAIN. Christine Taylor-Butler doesn’t need anyone else to tell her story; she can and will do it herself:

Kirkus called SACRED MOUNTAIN “irresistible”. How did you get started on this book — what attracted you to the story? What grabbed you as you started your research, and what surprises did you find along the way? Do you think you’ll make the climb yourself?

I’m always looking for obscure ideas that aren’t covered already in childlit. I was approached about writing a series of books about the World’s Mountains and this was later narrowed down to Everest – the tallest.

When I began my research, I realized that most books are written about the accomplishments of foreign climbers but few if any, books examined the life of the indigenous population – the Sherpa who are solely responsible for almost every successful summit.

I came across an excerpt of a letter written by the head of the British climbing expedition in the mid-1900′s. The British made the Sherpa sleep in an unheated barn without bathrooms, food or other supplies before the start of the expedition. After seven Sherpa were swept away in an avalanche triggered by the British the expedition leader wrote to his wife, “Thank God, no British were killed.” This reminded me of the attitude towards African Americans in early American history. The people doing the lion’s share of the hard work, were nothing more than disposable commodities.

That made me angry and that became the basis for writing the mountain’s story to highlight the people and the natural elements – punctuated by the arrogance of foreigners who take credit for all the accomplishments and leave their trash behind as repayment. The mountain is sacred. Climbers are required to pray before going up. I think that has to be respected, and the people as well who hold that religious view. But often, it has not been.

It’s a gorgeous book. Stunning photographs, well-organized. How did you decide on the book’s structure? Tell us about some of the partnerships involved in the process.

I was lucky. It took a true village to pull this project together. First – I want to thank Apa Sherpa and Jerry Mika of SuperSherpas for their beautiful photographs. Apa holds the world’s record for Summits at 19 (as of 2009). He grew up in the region and I’m not sure my text does justice to his images. Jerry provided a dictionary of Sherpa words that is still in progress. The language is unwritten and it took three weeks just to compile a glossary and pronunciation guide.

Bernette Ford of Color-Bridge Books coordinated the project with Lee and Low. Bernette hired Paul Colin Studios for book layout and design. He’s brilliant, by the way. I also worked with Diana Ward, a freelance editor and Louise May at Lee and Low to shape the text after I established the text progression and sidebars. Diana put me in touch with author Diana Cohn whose picture book NAMASTE is a good compliment for Sacred Mountain. Chapter titles and quotes helped to reinforce my point of view for the work.

What were some of the most interesting facts, and/or most fascinating elements of the SACRED MOUNTAIN? Were there any stories or people in the book that inspired you personally?

I don’t think the British had the right to name the mountain after George Everest, former Surveyor General of India. Foreigners were not allowed to enter Nepal (south) or Tibet (north) so they had to measure the Himalaya mountain range from more than 100 miles away by hoisting telescopes up large towers. George Everest never saw the mountain with his own eyes, and was in Europe when the mountain was discovered. It was another example of colonial arrogance. As it turns out, a mathematician from India, Radhanath Shikdar, performed the actual calculations that determined the mountain was the tallest in the world. So why not name the mountain after him, if you’re going to ignore the local name for the mountain?

The mountain’s true name is Chomolungma which means “Goddess Mother Of the World”. The Nepali government was so angry that the world was using a British name or the mountain, they renamed it Sagarmatha in the 1960′s. But it was too late. The world had adopted Everest. In retrospect I wish I’d named the book Sacred Mountain: Chomolungma – but I doubt people would have known what that meant. Reaching the consumer on familiar ground is sometimes key to delivering additional content to them.

I’m inspired by the two all-women teams that climbed in recent years. Talk about the ultimate girl-power story. Women don’t traditionally climb or lead expeditions, so this was one effort to claim the mountain back for the people. So kudos to the First Inclusive All Woman Expedition, and to all the others. I’m in awe of the resilience of the Sherpa people and their physical and spiritual strength.

You have more than 46 books for children published, in a variety of genres. You’ve also done a lot a early readers — is early childhood literacy an important issue to you? What are some of your favourite projects? Were there any that had particular challenges?

I fell into early readers by accident. Both Bernette Ford, and Childrens Press editor Eileen Robinson pushed me to try my hands at them. I wanted to become a novelist. It was hard to switch gears because books for very young readers involve writing with a limited vocabulary and short sentence structure. I often had only 200-300 words to explain a nonfiction concept. For the Rookie Reader series I was constrained to only 130 words. I learned to write very tight in those days and it’s led to more contracts. I recently finished a book for an educational publisher with similar guidelines and a very short deadline. The prior experience made my life a lot easier.

I don’t have a favorite project. That would be like naming my favorite child. What I can say is that I left my corporate job to write for children because I saw my own daughters loving to read, but their friends did not. And there was a gap in terms of how we, as a people, are depicted in literature. Literacy is a huge issue in urban communities. From birth to third grade children are learning to read. After that, they are reading to learn. Children who don’t develop literacy skills while their brains are still “wiring” struggle to catch up. As a result, many enter high school with a 4th grade reading level, are frustrated, and do poorly in school.

What led you to the business? What has kept you in? You’re also very much a children’s literature activist — what publishing issues are important to you right now? What are the challenges? What are you excited about? What are some of the things you’ve done ‘out in the field’?

I’m really frustrated with the current trend of whitewashing literature. I mean – come on! It’s 2010 and Bloomsbury USA, for instance, has been brazen in their decision to put photographs of white girls/women on books featuring dark skinned protagonists. In a recent case, the new cover of LIAR is only marginally better than the white one. Although the protagonist is described as dark skinned with nappy hair, Bloomsbury chose a replacement cover featuring model who was bi-racial with ringlet hair.

Also, I was told, early in my career, that books by and about African Americans didn’t sell well and that we weren’t considered a target consumer. We were a “niche” or “special interest” market. That came from both an editor at a major NY publishing house, and an agent at a major NY literary agency. Rather than be upset, I appreciated the candid – albeit “off the record” information so I would know what I was up against. Since then I’ve discovered there are many things at play. The “gatekeepers” are primarily white and look for a “familiar voice.” Editors are motivated by performance reviews tied to profit and loss calculations. Awards committees tend to favor books that tread the same civil rights territory but don’t reward books that seek to put people of color in mainstream roles. And books written and/or illustrated by people of color get little marketing support. One need only look at the current crop of books about civil rights that are celebrated at National Book Awards or Primary ALA awards to see that they are written by people who aren’t. So the playing field isn’t level.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Elizabeth Partridge, for example, is the author of MARCHING FOR FREEDOM, which was a National Book Award Finalist. She’s is an amazing researcher and her tenaciousness to uncover an unknown aspect of the era is unbelievable. I’ve learned a lot from her. I want to focus on training people of color to write at the same level in order to be competitive AND to pressure publishers to give more attention to authors and illustrators who have already demonstrated they write with the same skill level as their white counterparts. I’m hearing from Latino, Asian and Native American authors and illustrators that suffer the same fate – lack of exposure and mentoring. So I’ve invested my own money in initiatives that will move that needle. And would like to thank the Highlights Foundation for making scholarship money available for people of color to attend their conferences.

There is a new initiative being developed that will move the needle forward but we aren’t ready to roll it out yet. I am honored to be working some of the most amazing authors and illustrators who are collaborating to make it happen. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I applaud Brown Bookshelf for pushing the envelope and giving visibility to the authors who are not well known in the market. And to a new group “Association of Children’s Authors and Illustrators of Color” (ACAIC) for its willingness to mentor new talent while celebrating the accomplishments of those who have already achieved some measure of success. I also helped start a chapter of an organization for children’s authors in Kansas City – JWKC. This year were adopting a new trademark: Midwest Children’s Authors Guild to make it easier for people to understand what we do. As professionals, we have to pass the favor forward.

What does the term “multicultural literature” mean to you? What would you like it to mean in the children’s publishing arena?

Multicultural means featuring children of all backgrounds with emphasis on under served populations. At some point, we’re going to have to move past the point where we stick children of color in books only when the source of the conflict is their race. We can’t keep taking a narrow slice of history – the most negative part of it – and beating children’s heads with it. We need to make multicultural literature a celebration of life and eliminate stereotypes.

What was your childhood reading life like? What were some of your favourites? What were the stories that changed your life? Were there any that really inspired you as an author?

I grew up in an extended family which did not have a lot of financial resources. But I was surrounded by books and “lived” at the Cleveland library in my free time. So my perfect world is what I’m doing now – reading and writing. My taste is eclectic so there is no one book that stands out.

Writing and publishing are “two different animals”, you say. Can you elaborate? What do you think writers need to know on the path to publication?

Writing is writing. It doesn’t have to be good – it can just be cathartic. But it is emotionally hard to do – making oneself vulnerable to get thoughts and emotion on a page. To breathe life into characters and then allow them the latitude to take you on a journey rather than the other way around.

Publishing, on the other hand, is a commercial business with profit and loss goals, marketing obligations which can eat up precious writing time, and involves a more focused skill set than people realize. Many authors struggle because they fail to do the research and don’t know what they are writing or where it fits in the market place. (Hint: 10,000 words is too long for a picture book). Some new writers fail to study what is being published at a particular house and target a submissions appropriately. Each company has a personality and editorial style. Within that each editor has preferences as well. So it’s like dating – finding the perfect spouse. Within the ethnic community, however, we’re seeing that editorial preferences often preclude new voices from people of color. It’s a common complaint to hear authors say they’ve been told their voice doesn’t sound “authentic” from someone who is not of the same race or culture.

What are the top three mistakes you think those new to the business make, and what could they do instead?

Submitting a first draft.

Submitting a second draft.

Submitting a third draft.

I’m not kidding. Too many people write a story and send in the first version. Then get frustrated about lack of response. Not reading or studying the market is a major trend. You shouldn’t write a book until you’ve read 50-100 of them in your genre. There’s a language and a rhythm to everything and you have to know the rules to break the rules. If you don’t have time to read, get into a different profession. Trying to “practice” the craft in isolation where you can’t get credible feedback. Not reading nonfiction books or essays on the craft of writing. Believing that writing for children is easier than writing for adults (it’s harder.) Writers need to “know what they don’t know” and take the time to treat this as a business with skills that need to be honed over a long period of time.

How does your background in engineering influence your work? How does your role as a mother influence your work? What else has influenced you? What are your favourite parts of the writing process? Do you have a particular way of working?

My engineering background makes it easier to do research for nonfiction. I can become quite a nerd about facts and like to track down primary sources even for a book with only 300 words. And I’m tenacious about accuracy when faced with copyeditors. I include a lot of research in my current novel even though it’s fiction. If you can include elements that are familiar it helps ground the reader. But I’m motivated by that one super nerd that will read my book and look up the animal or location I use. I don’t want to face them at a school or library visit if my facts are off. So I do the same research for fiction as nonfiction.

My daughters are my primary source of motivation. I’m so disheartened that the climate for literature still is not inclusive of their experiences. I call it the “Not You” syndrome. You won’t be a love interest, or a fairy princess, or President of the US. The world would rather embrace stereotypical images such as those in THE BLIND SIDE and PRECIOUS than acknowledge I live with two bookworms who love Shakespeare, play classical music (we have flute, piano and guitar in the house) and study Latin. In terms of publishing – they’re still invisible. The standard bearer is still a “Mary Sue” protagonist who will remind you over and over again how white and beautiful her love interest is. Sigh. My kids call those types of girls too stupid to live.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given What do you wish you’d been told?

Jerry Spinelli once told me to write what I loved and not worry about the market. The biggest mistake I’ve ever made – and still regret – was to forget that in the face of rejections. I’m bringing my favorite project back on line and taking it overseas at the advice of a mentor after getting a rejection that said “I’m not intelligent enough to edit this.” So my mentor suggested I take the work to Europe where more complex novels are desired.

What do you do for fun?

Fun? I have children. What is this thing called fun and where do I purchase some of it? Actually, I ballroom dance with my husband, play piano, and draw a lot. I have also tried to convince my teens that I’m the queen of their universe. That last task has yet to be successful. I’m open to any tips.

What’s coming up next for you?

Several novels on the parking lot which are undergoing revision. I recently attended a workshop at the Highlights Foundation taught by Patti Gauch. I started a novel there and received amazing feedback – so I’m keeping a promise to have it finished this summer. Patti is a task master, but her skill at analyzing a story is unsurpassed. I also have a a chapter book that is pushing to get my attention so I write it in spurts, then park it until I can give it my full attention. But if I only had time to finish one thing before I died – I think my urban fantasy needs to come back to center stage. I worked and researched that series for 6 years and I want to rediscover my addiction for it before sending it off to editors. I started reading it and fell in love all over again.

Thank you, Christine! You inspire and motivate, and we’re looking forward to that urban fantasy. Visit Christine online, and you never know where else — she is a true dynamo. Words of wisdom from her web site:

“Now start writing. Thinking about it is not the same as doing it!”

Are you writing yet?

Sharon Bell Mathis

February 13, 2010

As a child, one of Sharon Bell Mathis’ favorite reading spaces was the iron fire escape above the backyard. There, she stepped through the pages of books into new and exciting worlds.

“I don’t remember when I actually realized how very special was this private playground/haven/sanctuary of mine . . . Everything was possible while I sat and imagined on my fire escape,” said Mathis in Something About the Author.

But though she had a passion for reading and a talent for writing, Mathis didn’t plan on becoming an author. Instead, she became a teacher after graduating from Morgan State University.

Perhaps the magic of the fire escape – peopled with characters from her books and her imagination — never left her. In the 60s, Mathis returned to her roots. Her story, “The Fire Escape,” was published and her career as a children’s book author began to bloom.

According to a Horn Book interview with Rudine Sims Bishop, Mathis’ work was brought to the attention of publishers by a contest sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. That contest also helped Walter Dean Myers and Mildred Taylor break in, Bishop said.

It didn’t take long for Mathis’ books to win acclaim. One of her early middle-grade novels, Sidewalk Story, was chosen as a Child Study Association of America’s Children’s Book of the Year. Tea Cup Full of Roses, another middle-grade, was recognized as a notable title by the American Library Association (ALA). In 1974, she won the Coretta Scott King Author Award for her picture book, Ray Charles. (Illustrator George Ford won the first Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for that title too.) And in 1976, Mathis won one of the industry’s highest awards — a Newbery Honor for The Hundred Penny Box, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon.  

Whether writing about the life of Ray Charles, exploring the rich bond between a boy and his great-great aunt in The Hundred Penny Box or a girl with a dream of running like the greats in Running Girl: The Diary of Ebonee Rose, Mathis writes stories that celebrate the fortitude, resilience and beauty of African-Americans.

Mathis is quoted as saying: “I write to salute the strength in Black children and to say to them, ‘Stay strong, stay Black and stay alive’”

Mathis has made many contributions. She was a longtime teacher and school library media specialist. She inspired young voices just as her parents nurtured her creativity by encouraging her to write. She was a columnist for Ebony Jr! magazine. And she continues to create an important legacy as a children’s book author.

We are proud to salute the amazing Sharon Bell Mathis on day 13 of our campaign.

A Few of Sharon Bell Mathis’ Awards:

Coretta Scott King Author Award,  Ray Charles

Newbery Honor Book, The Hundred Penny Box

ALA Notable, Tea Cup Full of Roses

American Bookseller Association Pick of the List, Red Dog, Blue Fly

Partial Bibliography:

 Teacup Full of Roses (Viking, 1972)

Ray Charles (Crowell, 1973)

Listen for the Fig Tree (Viking, 1974)

The Hundred Penny Box (Viking, 1975)

Red Dog, Blue Sky (Viking, 1991)

Running Girl: The Diary of Ebonee Rose (Harcourt, 1997)

Several of Mathis’ wonderful books have been republished and remain in print. Ray Charles was published by Lee & Low in 2001. Puffin  released a paperback edition of The Hundred Penny Box in 2006.

Tony Medina

February 12, 2010

It was a teenaged tryst with Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon that led award-winning poet and author, Tony Medina, to his love of all things literary.  He went on to earn his MA and PhD in Poetry, and American and African American Literature from Binghamton University, SUNY. He’s taught English and Creative Writing for 15 years (currently at Howard University in Washington, DC), and written numerous books—five of which are for children.

His first two picture books, Deshawn Days and Christmas Makes Me Think, were published in 2001 with Lee & Low. Love to Langston followed in 2002. In 2003, Medina published a young adult title with Just Us Books, Follow-up letters to Santa From Kids Who Never Got A Response. His latest children’s work is a picture book biography in verse, I and I, Bob Marley, released in April of 2009.

In addition to his children’s books, Medina has written five volumes of poetry for adults, been included in more than eighty publications, and edited several anthologies featuring the work of emerging poets. He also contributes much of his time to Behind the Book (a New York-based, non-profit literacy organization) as a speaker and workshop instructor.  

It is with extreme pleasure that we present Day twelve’s featured author, Mr. Tony Medina. 


BBS:   Welcome to The Brown Bookshelf, Tony.

TM:    Thank you for inviting me.

BBS:    Deshawn Days was your first picture book, published by Lee & Low. What motivated you to make the leap from adult literature to picture books?

TM:    I wanted to be a well-rounded writer like one of my literary heroes, Langston Hughes. As a writer who is politically and socially engaged in making positive change in society, I felt it was critical to reach out to younger generations through art and literature. I wanted to expand my palette to include the voices of children and young adults. They have a lot to say and no one really listens to our youth. I wanted to create characters and stories and poems that communicated to them…and from their point of view.

BBS:    Deshawn Days was somewhat autobiographical wasn’t it?

TM:    Like DeShawn, I was raised by my grandmother, grew up in the projects (in my case in the Bronx) in a household of cousins, uncles and aunts. Like DeShawn, I have asthma and was always dreaming about wanting to be something (in DeShawn’s case, he wants to be a rap artist; I turned out to be a poet…same difference). So, some aspects are from what I know personally while, of course, the bulk of the narrative is invented. I wanted to give voice to an aspect of our society that usually is not heard from in a beautiful and positive way.  I admire DeShawn’s sense of wonder and his level of sensitivity and empathy, which is what needs to be fostered in our children and youth.

BBS:    What surprised you most about the process of creating a PB?

TM:    It’s not as easy as it seems. In fact, I learned it’s one of the most challenging of the literary arts because you have to walk a tight rope with regard to language and ideas that are appropriate for certain age groups, without losing authenticity of language and without insulting young peoples’ intelligence.

BBS:    What about Love to Langston, how did that come about?  Did you approach the publisher with the project, or did they approach you?

TM:    Langston’s centennial was fast approaching and it was important to get a book out about his life that children could relate to. I felt that a biography in verse—in poetry—would be the best way to celebrate the life of a poet. It was important that the poems be in the present tense as if Langston (who had long passed away) were speaking directly to young people in the here and now. The research and the manuscript were generated in short order, because I had already read a lot on Langston’s life; and Lee & Low (and my editor Laura Atkins) were generous enough to move the book up on its list to accommodate Langston’s centennial. So, it really became a labor of love and an exciting book to work on. Not to mention the dynamic artwork R. Gregory Christie created. It’s a really special book.

BBS:    Your latest picture book is I and I, Bob Marley. Talk about this book, and the significance that it has for you.

TM:    I think that Love to Langston proved to be so popular, it was clear that biographies were what children, teens, parents, teachers and media specialists were interested in. There hasn’t been really a strong biography aimed at young people on the life of the great Reggae Revolutionary, Bob Marley. So, it was a no-brainer. I was approached to do one by my editor, Jennifer Fox, and I jumped on the opportunity to write about another one of my cultural/spiritual heroes. I made it more challenging for myself by creating a biography in verse about Bob’s life, which was quite daunting. But once I did the research and got the voice down (particularly in the opening poem), I was off and running.

BBS:    Why is Bob Marley a figure that young children should become acquainted with?

TM:    Bob Marley is important because of his life story which was rife with struggle, a story that showed how he overcame so many obstacles to become a champion of his people in Jamaica—and humanity in general— through his voice and vision and his music. Bob grew up poor; was of so-called mixed parentage (his mother was Black and father white); struggled with identity problems; was (as a young boy) acknowledged as a visionary and seer with special powers; fell in love with music; formed a band with other poor and talented teens; spent his entire life dedicated to music; revolutionized Reggae music and Rastafari beliefs; and risked his life in the service of truth and justice and the defense of the poor. He did all of this in the short span of thirty-six years.

BBS:    To date, all four of your PBs have been published with Lee & Low. What is it that you like best about collaborating with them?

TM:    Lee & Low is an independent publishing house dedicated to publishing multicultural books for our children and youth. They are a publishing house that allows writers and artists of color to get their voices and visions out to a global audience. They take risks with regard to subject matter that may normally go ignored. They also try to keep books in print for as long as possible.

BBS:    If you had to identify a common theme or thread in your work, what would it be?

TM:    I think all of my work is political. I also think that if you look at my children’s books, say DeShawn Days, Love to Langston and I and I, Bob Marley, they all have to do with young boys who have been abandoned by their fathers and who have dreams, and their dreams help them to overcome the obstacles and challenges that life and circumstance puts in their way. Their stories are not only triumphant and inspirational, but are relatable to many of our children and youth, particularly those who are raised by a single-mom or grandmother.

BBS:    Tony, you’ve got a lot going on. You’re an acclaimed poet, with several adult volumes to your credit and work appearing in over 80 publications; a college professor at Howard University; and a community activist. Yet you still make time to focus on books for the young. Why is writing children’s literature a priority for you?

TM:    The rewards are many. I get to reach, influence and inspire young people. They fall in love with books and reading through—hopefully— one of my books. They treat you like a rock star when you come to visit them in schools and at book signings. So do teachers and librarians (media specialists). They truly appreciate writers and artists and the books that we create. I get to visit schools and other institutions and engage the children and teens. It’s so much fun because they are generally so smart and funny. I get to basically inspire someone the way I was inspired (to become a writer), through literature.

BBS:    Speaking of school visits, you do a lot of work with an organization called Behind the Book. Can you tell us about it—the organization itself, and what your affiliation with it means to you?

TM:    Behind the Book is a New York City-based, non-profit literacy organization that places books in the hands of children and teenagers, mainly in under-represented areas. They have a wide scope in parts of Brooklyn and Harlem, as well as other parts of the city. They also send out authors and illustrators to these places—particularly ones that the youth can relate to, in terms of having similar backgrounds etc. I think I’ve been working with Behind the Book for close to five years running. We have a good relationship and they seem to admire how the young readers take to my workshops and my books.

Usually, the children will get the books in advance (free, of course). Then the author or illustrator will meet with them to conduct a reading, discussion and workshop. We give them an assignment, then come back a week later for a follow-up visit and book signing. It is very rewarding. The kids are always amped and fun to work with. The best classes are when the teachers and media specialists are really passionate about the books, poetry, and getting their students excited about creative writing and forms of expression. The organization raises funds to be able to purchase the books and get the authors in the schools. But they are not just limited to books. Behind the Book also has field trips and other exciting programming—all to stimulate and educate our youth.

I’m also affiliated with other literacy organizations across the country, such as The African American Museum in Dallas, Texas, where Dr. Harry Robinson has been doing major work for the young people of Dallas—particularly with children’s and young adult book festivals. I also have worked with A Cultural Exchange in Cleveland, Ohio, another non-profit literacy organization founded by Deborah and Punch McHam, and Say It Loud Readers and Writers based in Little Rock, Arkansas, founded by Patrick Oliver.

I’m very proud to have formed these lasting relationships with various, but similarly important and necessary organizations, that are about the business of getting our young people excited about reading, writing, their future, their community…with a focus on building a strong sense of their black and brown and red and yellow and white, beautiful selves.

BBS:    You characterize yourself as having been a “TV kid”, but after reading Flowers for Algernon  in the 9th grade, that all began to change. Today we not only have TV kids, but internet kids, texting kids, video gaming kids…. Do you fear we’re witnessing a generation of children who are going to be less literate than ever before?

TM:    I do think that many of our kids are gong to be lulled away from literature and influenced by technology. But I have hope that there are always going to be children and youth that will be fascinated by stories. That are going to be drawn to the beauty of books and the endless possibilities and worlds that they harbor. I just have to have faith in our youth that they will not only be influenced by TV, videos, the internet and other technology—but by books as well, creating a whole new generation of sophisticated and savvy young people. But we have to fight against the dumbing down of the generations and insist that books and bookstores and libraries do not become extinct because of those who care more about profits than people. I just can’t see myself falling in love with an I-Book or Kindle machine. When I come upon a shelf of books I get so excited from the colorful enticing covers rife with art to the words on the page luring me into a labyrinth of syllables and ideas. I can’t resist books.

BBS:    Accepting that the technological age is here to stay, what can we—as a community—do to ingrain a love for words and reading in our children?

TM:    Make books and story time be a part of our daily ritual like bathing and prayer and sitting down for a meal. Once you start reading to a child at a young age, they develop an undying fascination and love of books. I have a writer friend whose son was so in love with books and reading, he’d throw a temper tantrum if they passed a bookstore with out going inside. He memorized one of his stories so much as a toddler, he’d recite the book aloud and turn the page on time exactly as if he could read! It was incredible. I know of so many kids that just love books. And when they meet a writer, it’s like a teenager that goes crazy over their favorite rap artist or rock star.

BBS:    What are some projects you’re currently working on?

TM:    Oh, I’m still chipping away at trying to get more work completed. I generally don’t speak about my work unless there’s something definite and concrete up the pike, but I remain inspired and dedicated to the art. When I have something to announce, though, I’ll let you know.

At the present, I’m trying to familiarize myself with all these so-called advances in technology without compromising what’s really important: people, the person(al), the simpler things in life. I’m always working on my lifelong project, which is reading and trying to be a better person.

BBS:    Thanks so much, Tony for your time.

TM:    Thank you for this opportunity to exchange ideas. Your questions were thoughtful. Peace.

BBS:    Wait!  I mean…before you go—Hip hop or Reggae?

TM:    That’s a tough one. I want to say both, but I’ll say Hip Hop because its collage aesthetic can most likely encompass Reggae in it—and has, particularly with artists like KRS-One (whose parentage is Caribbean). And Hip Hop emerges from Jamaica with DJ Kool Herc, who imported rapping and DJing to the Bronx from the Islands.

BBS:    Conch salad or calamari?

TM:    Conch salad. Calamari is tasty, but feels weird to the crunch.

BBS:    A hike in the mountains or a swim in the ocean?

TM:    There’s nothing like the feeling of salt water washing over your skin and coursing through your hair while being kissed by the sun.


Find out more about Tony Medina and his books at:




Debbie Rigaud

February 11, 2010

I love all types of books, but I’m a pop fiction writer pure and simple. So when I get the chance to celebrate other pop fiction writers it’s like kicking it with fam.

Debbie Rigaud and I seem to have lived parallel lives (sort of) when it comes to writing – writing for teen mags and then jumping into YA fiction. Except she’s done it full-time (lucky!) and she lives in sunny Bermuda while I’m trapped here in Maryland in the midst of a second (yes, I said second) blizzard.

Debbie, warm us with stories of beaches, sand and winning the hearts of today’s youth why don’t you…

BBS: Although I may know the answer, simply based on your past work with magazines such as Seventeen, YSB and CosmoGirl why Young Adult fiction? Did you pick it or did it pick you?

DR: I think it was a little of both. When I reflect on my writing journey, it’s clear to me that there’s been a natural progression to Young Adult fiction. My own tween and teen years were practically immortalized in the pages of my journals. I probably wrote down every “uh-oh” and “a-ha” moment I encountered. (If you think I’m philosophical now, you should’ve seen me as a teen!)

Back then, it wasn’t so much for therapy that I closely documented the episodes of my life. I held this hyper-awareness that my writing could serve other teens down the line, namely my kids and grandkids. I had this idea that my stories could not only entertain, but may guide, advise, comfort or educate. I also imagined my future self referring back to my diaries whenever I’d lose sight of how it felt to be a tween, teen or young adult.

My senior year in high school was my first indication that a wider audience could enjoy my writing. That’s the year I won scholarship prizes from writing contests. By the time I was in college, I had published my first article in a national teen magazine. It was a service piece about AIDS prevention for BET’s YSB Magazine.
From there, I bonded with the YA audience. I looked out for my readers like any big sister would. When I decided to transition to fiction writing, the YA genre was a perfect fit.

BBS: Perfect Shot is your latest novel, but your YA fiction debut was with the Hallway Diaries, a Kimani Tru anthology. What characters are you bringing to the table, in both books, that are missing from the YA arena?

DR: Hallway Diaries was expressly packaged to offer Black and Latino readers age-appropriate stories about multicultural characters. I was excited to contribute my novella Double Act to the anthology.

I think the message, “You are not alone,” is a powerful one. There’s something validating to a reader when she sees herself or her experiences represented in literature. I keep this in mind as I create my characters.

Mia,the protagonist in Double Act is a city girl whose identity is caught somewhere between her private school in the suburbs and the double Dutch team in her neighborhood.

Perfect Shot’s London Abrams has the talent to back up her volleyball ambitions,yet it’s the competition happening off the court that shapes her character in ways she never imagined. Whether we are or know a Mia or a London, as a people, our stories are so varied. It’s an honor to expose readers of all backgrounds to different slices of African-American life.

BBS: Although there’s a definite increase in the number of books like Perfect Shot and Hallway Diaries available, there is still a gaping hole where break-out success is concerned when it comes to commercial fiction revolved around a character of color (I’m thinking along the terms of a Meg Cabot). Why do you think publishing still has not taken a real chance on these kinds of books? What will it take?

DR: It may be that publishers play it too “safe,” just to secure that bottom line. But at the same time, I think publishers are finding it tougher to ignore what readers want. An example of this is the troubling whitewashing trend. Thanks to strong reader reactions (Yay, book bloggers!), we’ve seen publishers rectify misleading cover art!

So, it’s up to readers to set the tone by showing their support for those books that have the potential to be break-out successes. I know that with Perfect Shot, Simon Pulse will be watching to see how the book performs as compared to the other ro-coms in the series. That’s why I’m campaigning for readers to post reviews of Perfect Shot on amazon. As of now, there are none. I’m hoping my readers make a few waves to show my publisher that there is commercial viability for Black ro-com characters.

BBS: Is life in Bermuda like a perpetual vacation? (*daydreams about what it must be like) How does living outside of the states impact how you promote your books? Advantages? Disadvantages?

DR: LOL! It definitely has the most inspiring scenery a writer can ask for. But you’d be surprised at how corporate the vibe can be on this island. It’s a major financial center and people are busy worker bees buzzing around on scooters in Bermuda shorts and knee-high socks. My husband and I moved here a little over two years ago (thanks to his new job) and it’s been fun. We had never been to Bermuda before then, so it’s crazy that we’re now residents.

My family and friends still can’t get the name of the island straight. We still get calls, like, “I heard there’s a hurricane in Barbados! Are you guys okay??”

I wrote Perfect Shot in its entirety here and I’m also promoting it from here. Thank goodness for the Internet. I’m grateful to be a part of the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit (GCC), a popular YA author blog collective.

I went on a GCC blog tour when Perfect Shot was released. The exposure and support I get through the GCC and AuthorsNow, of which I’m also a member, is invaluable.

And I’ve been able to engage with readers here on the island as well. I visit schools and hold writing workshops and have received so much support from Bermudians. Bermuda is less than two hours from New York, so I visit home often. But I don’t get to do Stateside school visits and booksignings as much as I would had I not lived abroad.

BBS: You’ve been a full-time writer your entire career. Quick, what’s the biggest myth when it comes to how great life is writing full-time?

DR: That it’s a glamorous life. (Picture me musing by the fountain. And wearing an ascot!)

BBS: Now, name one or two things that are actually pretty cool about writing for a living.

DR: The flexible schedule; connecting with your characters and your readers.

BBS: What’s next in the pipeline for you (YA fiction-wise)?

DR: I’m working on another YA romantic comedy, as well as a humorous YA novel about a Haitian-American teen’s overprotective life. It’s also been a lifelong dream to write a middle grade series based on my mother’s hilarious and heartwarming stories about growing up in Haiti. I plan on finishing that manuscript this year.

BBS: Contract or free agent, which do you prefer?

DR: At this stage in my career I’ll go with contract. I still feel like a rookie author, so a deadline-driven schedule works wonders for me.

The Buzz on Perfect Shot
• First book in the Simon Pulse Romantic Comedies series to feature an African-American protagonist
• First book in the Simon Pulse Romantic Comedies series to be written by an African-American

Sandra Belton

February 10, 2010

Although Sandra Belton is the author of eleven books, she didn’t always want to be an author. She did, however, always want to be a storyteller—and story is certainly at the heart of Belton’s fiction.

Belton grew up in West Virginia, and after graduating from Howard University, she went into teaching. This path eventually let her to working in education technology. After writing books for the educational market, she took a chance and decided to write something that would bear her own name. This work eventually became From Miss Ida’s Porch, which Publishers Weekly praised as “a memorable and personal introduction to the larger issue of racial segregation.”

Belton’s latest novel, The Tallest Tree, was born from a true incident. A few years ago, she  overheard a young person asking  who Paul Robeson, and was immediately taken aback. “The idea that our young people have not heard the name of this Renaissance man of the twentieth century…blew my mind,” Belton said. Belton researched numerous sources, including Robeson’s biography, Here I Stand, before setting off to find a way to “talk about this hero without being didactic.” The result was The Tallest Tree, which Booklist called, “A realistic, hopeful story of finding one’s roots…” With the novel, Belton hoped to not only inform young people about Paul Robeson, but to also inspire her readers to investigate on their own. In the back matter of the novel, the author included a wealth of information including websites and  book lists about Robeson.

The Tallest Tree was not Belton’s first foray into novels featuring famous African-Americans. From Miss Ida’s Porch celebrated the life of opera singer Marian Anderson, who, like Robeson, was a famed entertainer and activist. The novel, based on her own childhood community in West Virginia, is as much a celebration of family and community as it is of Anderson.

When asked why she writes for children, Belton called children “an honest audience,” stating, “I feel that if I can pull together imagery that would appeal to a kid—if I can hit that 10-14 year old group—I can affect an attitude…a way of thinking.”

Based on the number of books she’s written and fans she’s collected over the years, I think we’d have to agree that Sandra Belton has succeeded at her goal.

Shadra Strickland

February 9, 2010

The title of her blog says it all: LIVING THE DREAM. A dream born many years ago, when she was just a child. A dream nourished by a supportive mother. A dream guided through instruction at Syracuse University. Polished at the School of Visual Arts. But Shadra Strickland’s dream didn’t end there.

Soon after graduation, she was offered an opportunity to illustrate her first book, an emergent reader called BIG OR LITTLE, written by Fonda Bell Miller. It was published by Lee & Low Books in 2002.

Her second book, BIRD, written by Zetta Elliott, published with Lee & Low Books in 2008. Following the success of BIRD, the dream began to collect awards.

In 2009, Shadra became the recipient of the American Library Association’s John Steptoe Award for New Talent, given by the Coretta Scott King Task Force, and the Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award.

Shadra was a contributor to the book Our Children Can Soar: A Celebration of Rosa, Barack, and the Pioneers of Change, published by BloomsbuyUSA in 2009, which has also received major accolades, including an NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Literary Work for Children. With Our Children Can Soar, she paid tribute to Ruby Bridges, who became the first African American child to attend an all-white school in the South. Her illustrations are full of emotion and successfully capture the quiet strength of Ruby Bridges, using soft colors and delicate line work.

Please note: I interviewed Shadra about a year ago, and I just realized that most of my questions here are repeat (same photo and everything). My apologies, but don’t go away. New things are a-poppin’ in the land of the dream. Check it out:

Please talk about your most recent book.

My next book is called A PLACE WHERE HURRICANES HAPPEN. It’s the story of Hurricane Katrina told through the voices of four neighborhood friends.  “Hurricanes” was challenging for me for a couple of reasons. First, it featured four main characters, and second it was the story of Hurricane Katrina. I had never been to New Orleans before working on the book. I tried to be very careful not to make the images journalistic.

What is the primary medium used in your work?

Right now I primarily use watercolor and gouache. I studied illustration at Syracuse University where I experimented with a few different mediums, mainly oil and acrylic, but I didn’t learn how to “play” until years later in graduate school at SVA.

The next few spreads are from her upcoming book A PLACE WHERE HURRICANES HAPPEN:

Why did you choose to illustrate for children?

Storytelling comes naturally to me. When I was young my family (grandma, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc.) would sit around my grandmother’s kitchen table and tell stories for hours on end.

Making picture books just made the most sense—I get to read great stories and create world for the characters in which to exist. I also need my work to function in some way. The idea of people learning from my work and living with the images for years and years amazes and excited me.

Are there any particular illustrators or fine artist who have inspired you, past or present?

I am a fan of many many artists. If I could visit anyone’s studio, I think I’d like to watch William Kentridge work on a film, Jerry Pinkney draw, Tom Feelings do anything, Pat Cummings paint, Jon Muth compose, and Walton Ford paint.

From Bird, written by Zetta Elliot, Lee and Low Books October 2008

With BIRD, you’ve collected many accolades, including the Coretta Scott King /  Johnsteptoe New Talent Award, and the Ezra Jack Keats (New illustrator award). What was the biggest change, unexpected result, or interesting observation you’ve noted since receiving the awards?

For me winning the John Steptoe and Ezra Jack Keats Awards for BIRD was surreal. The most interesting and unexpected result was the amount of work that came flooding in. I also underestimated the amount of celebratory cupcakes I could consume.

As an illustrator who happens to be African American, do you ever feel any special pressures, or unique challenges?

I try to pick projects that I connect to emotionally and that align with the way I see the world or wish the world could be. For BIRD I loved how Zetta portrayed her male characters. They were supportive and loving to each other so I just added to that in the imagery. I also try to be careful not to villanize people, even if they are making bad choices for themselves and the people around them.

I love painting different shades of African-American people. My family is made up of many different shades of black and I feel that’s important and true to life in painting pictures.

So, I guess, no, I don’t really feel any “special” pressure. I just try and make the work as sincere as I can and as strong as I can. The rest will fall in place.

From Our Children Can Soar, BloomsburyUSA April 2009

Please talk about your process of illustrating a book.

I start with an 8.5 x 11 “Cheap Pad”. As I read, I fill up the sketchbook with many many possibilities for the story. As I thumbnail, I scan each image, blow them up, and drop them into a mechanical. Once I am happy with the look of the rough dummy, I make a pdf and e-mail it to my editor and art director with any notes I may have embedded in the file. This is the most I do with a computer in making the books. Once the dummy is okayed, I print out the sketches to size and refine the drawing.

Unfortunately, my finishing process is never cut and dry. Each story is different and requires something different from me. For example, BIRD’s world was ballpoint pen and charcoal against some airier skies. HURRICANES paired the brightness and energy of New Orleans against an impending storm. In OUR CHILDREN CAN SOAR I needed to go back in time and make things look aged and bare.

I try and go straight to finish if I have a strong vision for a piece. Because I experiment a lot; sometimes…most times I have to do a piece many times before it’s right. For Bird’s rooftop scene I had to paint it eight times before I got what I wanted out of it.

If you could wave a magic wand and completely change professions, what would you be doing today?

I’d be Beyonce.

(Don, waving magic wand…zing!)

For our aspiring children’s book illustrators, talk about your path to publication.

My road, like my work process, was long and crooked. I stumbled many times, but I never gave up.

I finished my first emergent reader book with Lee and Low right after college. I was teaching with Atlanta Public Schools then. After the first project I worked on some smaller e-books and some projects with local authors. After three years of teaching art I applied to SVA. While in grad school I befriended three other illustrators and we showed our work to as many art directors and editors who would see us.

During that time I also worked at an after school program in Chinatown and interned as a design assistant with Penguin for a semester. After graduation all of my friends landed book deals, but I still kept getting close but no cookie. My graduate advisor, Pat Cummings, recommended me to Chris Myers and I became his assistant for a year. She also introduced me to an old student of hers who was leaving Bloomsbury and that connection turned into a four year freelance design position at the company. That first year after grad school I illustrated a book with a Korean publishing house, Tantani Media. I kept making work and sending it out to people who liked my work via e-mails and postcards and one night at the Society of Illustrators’ Original Art Show I ran into my very first editor at Lee and Low, Jen Frantz. She asked me in for a meeting and the rest is….history.

If you could do it all again, what would you do different?

I can honestly say that every experience I’ve had has contributed to the work I do now. I wouldn’t change a thing (except win the lottery).

From The Dancing Shoeshine Boy, written by Hae-Da Lee, Yeowon Media June 2008

What do you find most challenging about the book creation process?

The biggest challenge for me is balancing truth and fantasy. For a book like HURRICANES, I needed to stay true to the look and feel of New Orleans, but I also had to make art out of it. Learning how and when to take artistic license is a challenge.

What was your favorite book as a child?

I had a bunch of educational books and books with play along records that I’d read and listen to over and over again. My favorite “high art” picture book was THE SNOWY DAY. I can still remember the smell of the paper.

How do you find balance in your busy schedule?

I’m still learning how to balance everything. I recently moved back home to Atlanta for a few months after leaving my job at Bloomsbury and that has given me great peace of mind with more time to work. I go through cycles of getting everything done and not sleeping and getting very little done and not sleeping. Eventually I will clone myself so one of me can get some shut eye.

Do you visit schools? Is there any particular message you like to leave with children when you speak?

I love visiting schools. I try to give kids as much positive energy as I can about life. My main message for kids is that it’s okay to make mistakes. If you believe in yourself and what you want to do in life you can do it in spite of the small missteps along the way.

What would be your dream manuscript?

This may sound like a cop out, but my dreams are already coming true. I am a part of some truly phenomenal projects (that I hope I can live up to). My wish for the future is that I continue bringing outstanding stories to life alongside some of my own.

Who are your cheerleaders, those who encourage you?

My mom is my biggest cheerleader. She works in education so she gets to have bragging rights in her school. In addition to her are my friends, librarians, kids, and people who love art and books!

What’s on the horizon, what can your fans expect?

Ha! Fans. There are so many books in the works, which is amazing, but wow, I need to start taking my vitamins! My next book is with Candlewick, called WHITE WATER. It’s a story of segregation in 1950s Alabama.

********* Just For Fun **********

Favorite M&M color: blue

Favorite TV show: The big bang theory (when I get to watch it)

Favorite food: spinach

Favorite sport: football

Favorite ice cream flavor: rocky road

Favorite American Idol winner: *crickets*

Favorite Pop culture personality: Sheldon Cooper

Favorite Day of the week: the day after a great night’s sleep

Favorite social network:the book

Favorite genre of book: magical realism

***********GIVE AWAY***********

Here’s the thing: I have an ARC of Shadra’s newest book, A PLACE WHERE HURRICANES HAPPEN. I’d planned to keep it all to myself, but then realized it wouldn’t do Shadra much good buried here in my studio. So, I’d like to give it away. If you’re a librarian or teacher who’d like a sneak peek of Shadra’s newest work, and wouldn’t mind posting some nice comments (Twitter, Facebook, blog) after you receive it, then post a comment in today’s highlight. I’ll close my eyes and draw a name, then send you the copy.


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