Day 17: E.B. Lewis

February 17, 2011

E.B. Lewis is the award-winning illustrator of more than fifty books for children, a few of which include Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys, (Simon & Schuster, 1999); Talkin’ about Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman, (Orchard, 2002); Coming on Home Soon, (Putnam, 2004); The Negro Speaks of Rivers, (Hyperion, 2009).

In 2003, Mr. Lewis won the Coretta Scott King Illustration Award for Talkin’ about Bessie, and in 2005 he won a Caldecott Honor for the book Coming on Home. The awards don’t stop there. He is also the recipient of Notable Book selections from the American Library Association and Notable Books for the Language Arts citation, and more.

E.B. Lewis entered the world of children’s books in 1993, when his art appeared in Jane Kurtz’s Fire on the Mountain (Simon & Schuster). As a fine artist, E.B. first declined an offer to illustrate a children’s book. But then agent Jeff Dwyer schooled him on the business of trade picture books, and encouraged E.B. to seek out the works of other illustrators. After doing so, E.B. changed his mind, saying, “Hey, I can paint better than those guys!”

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to snag an interview with Mr. Lewis. I know, bummer, but what to do? Here are a few links concerning the artist:

The artist’s website:

R. Michelson Galleries:

E.B. Lewis Video Interview, Scholastic:


Day 16: Kevin Lewis

February 16, 2011

Parents know the name Kevin Lewis and storytime go together. His debut picture book, Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo (Hyperion), has 121 — that’s not a typo –five-star reviews on 

Reading just a few you feel the special connection people have with his story:

“This was my son’s favorite book, and one that I never tire of reading.”

“My girls absolutely MUST hear this book at least five times a day.”

“My boys . . . wanted to read it every night for the longest time. They even memorized it at 2 1/2 years old. The book was ‘read’ so many times that it is falling apart and I ordered a copy for each of them that I will give to them when they have children.”

Kidlit folks also know Kevin Lewis as one of the top children’s book editors in the industry. He has edited award-winning authors such as Angela Johnson, Cynthia Rylant, Ntozake Shange and many more.

So who is Kevin Lewis? Author or editor? Lucky for us, he’s both. His work, creating stories and helping to shape them, inspires children — and adults — around the world.

Please join us in honoring Kevin Lewis for Day 16:

 Along with being a beloved children’s book author, you’re executive editor of Disney-Hyperion Books and were formerly editorial director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Which dream came first, writing for children or being an editor of children’s books? What was your path to both?

I feel like I’ve always enjoyed writing, but it was just something I did, like singing in the shower. I never really considered being published. So the dream of being an editor came first.  I was a sophomore English major and decided to try the Children’s Lit course offered by my alma mater’s Education department.  I thought it would be a fun (and easy) three credits.  Well, it was definitely a lot of fun, but not all that easy. My professor assigned a crazy amount of outside reading each week –  something along the lines of half a dozen novels and a dozen picture books – on top of the assigned class work.  One of the books was Chris Van Allsburg’s WREAK OF THE ZEPHYR.  I was taking a survey of World Lit course and had recently studied the Icarus and Daedalus myth and the idea of hubris in literature. I was surprised to find the motif so elegantly and efficiently expressed in a picture book.  Suddenly I knew why I was studying English… to make books that embraced literary ideals and heritage.

Becoming a published author simply grew out of doing my job.  Back in the mid-90s, I had a boss who was quite adept at ghost writing.  So I started ghost writing as a way of developing projects. Dan Kirk had done an amazing illustration of a train, and I wrote a text to go along with that illustration.  But instead of working out the way I’d planned, it ended up being my first book.

Your first book, Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo, earned praise for its catchy rhymes and rhythm. Today, more than a decade after its debut, it’s still a favorite. What called you to write for the very young? Why do you think that book resonated with so many? What are your favorite memories of sharing that story?

I write for the very young because I tend to see the world like very young children do.  Everything mystifies me, including the day-to-day routine of trains.  There’s something comforting in being steadfast, day after day.  I think kids respond to that. And I’m convinced that book resonates so well with kids because of the Dan’s interpretation. I wrote about a real train. Dan made the train a toy in a child’s room.  And what’s more lovable to a child than a steadfast toy.

Illustrator Daniel Kirk has been a frequent collaborator of yours. Along with Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo, he illustrated acclaimed titles including Tugga-Tugga Tugboat (Hyperion), Dinosaur Dinosaur (Orchard) and My Truck is Stuck! (Hyperion) Are you ever surprised by his illustration of what you wrote? How does his work, and that of other illustrators, bring another layer of meaning to your stories?

 I don’t know if surprised is the right word, but it’s certainly awesome to see something I’ve written interpreted though his eyes.  He always manages to amplify whatever I’m doing with the text, or at the very least, he focuses the themes in a way that the very young can appreciate. That’s always a delight to witness.  I think that’s what the best illustrators do.  I once heard it said that the words illuminate and illustrate share the same root – to bring light.  So the best illustrators shine a light on a story so it can be seen like never before.

Your books are known for their playfulness and lyricism. What inspires your work? What authors and illustrators do you admire?

Kids inspire my work.  I like trying to see the world through their eyes, and I write to help them find joy and comfort in words and, in my sillier moments, just to see them laugh.  As for illustrators and authors I’d admire, I’d probably have to say any of them that take what they do seriously.   To really make a go of it in this field takes the ability to recognize and pursue inspiration and generate a lot of perspiration, which is the product of hard work.

Please tell us about your latest book, The Runaway Pumpkin (Orchard), illustrated by S.D. Schindler. How did that story come to be?

I wanted to do a version of the “The Gingerbread Man” and decided that a runaway pumpkin would be fun because when it was finally caught, it could be eaten and turned into a jack-o-lantern.  The refrain came first.  And it wasn’t until that part was written that I realized my pumpkin wasn’t a runner…  but a roller.  From there, it was just a matter of making each escape as bombastic as possible.  I also got a big kick out of having the little sister in the tale foresee all the mayhem. Little Lil is my homage to Cassandra in the Trojan Horse myth.  If only the Trojans had listened to her.

What is your mission as an author? What do you hope children take away from your stories?

Mostly I want kids to see words as something they can play with just like they play with their toys. Kids can make fun with just about anything. My biggest fear is that kids start seeing words as precious little objects that can only be encountered under the strictest of rules.  In reality, words are more like sand on the beach – effortless and eternal and there for anyone.  Build a castle out of it, dig a hole in it, and just scrunch it with your toes, but you can’t hurt sand and sand can’t really hurt you.  Same goes for words. So have fun!

 You’ve been the editor of many award-winning authors including Ntozake Shange and Cynthia Rylant.  How do you strike a balance between the demands of being an editor and nurturing your own writing?

I can’t.  When I’m editing, I usually can’t write.  I don’t think of it as a bad thing.  It’s like not being able to ride a bike when you’re jumping rope.  When you’re doing one, it’s hard to miss the other.  But then again, I’m sure there are folks out there who can do both at the same time.  I’m just not that coordinated.

Some authors of color feel that the publishing industry locks them into a box of what they should write. You’ve written books that feature trucks, trains, tugboats, dinosaurs and more. How can others who want to write without limits find their way?

I honestly believe that you don’t find your way but make your way. No one ever gave me permission to write, or to write for children, or to write about truck and trains and dinosaurs. Who would seek out a childless reluctant reader with no practical knowledge of vehicles (or dinosaurs, for that matter) to do what I do? But I love kids and trucks and trains and dinosaurs and telling stories, so this is what I do. 

What’s most rewarding about your writing life? What’s most challenging?

The most rewarding thing is hearing from parents how much their sons and daughters have responded to the books I’ve written, or hearing it from the kids themselves. I met one young lady — she was around twelve or thirteen — who said she wanted to be a writer because of me. I was 100% floored. The most challenging is finding time to support both writing and editing careers.

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

Write what you love, read everything you can find, and surround yourself with people who will encourage you to keep writing even when you don’t feel hopeful about it.

What tips can you offer people who would like to write for young children? How can someone with interest in that area get a start?

Write what you love, read everything you can find, and surround yourself with people who will encourage you to keep writing even when you don’t feel hopeful about it …  Wait a minute…  I said that already. So let me add that anyone interested in creating books for kids should seriously look into The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  They’re an outstanding organization and one of the best places to start in the biz.

You’ve held many trailblazing editorial positions. What was the racial landscape of the children’s book industry like when you entered the field? What gains have made you proud? What do you hope the future brings?

This answer may get me into a LOT of trouble, but I have to say that very little seems to have changed on the publisher side. But I wouldn’t say it’s a racial thing, because there there still aren’t a lot of men in the industry either (except in finance). That’s shocking to me. This summer I will have been in the industry for 20 years, and in that time I’ve never sensed any resistance to my being black or male. My colleagues have always judged me on my character and quality of my work. And we’re all focused on creating as diverse a list as the market will bear. But it seems that people of color and men aren’t focusing on the creative side of publishing as a viable career choice. And until that happens, I can’t see there being any significant gains.

The New York Times article, “Picture books no longer a staple for children,” got the blogosphere buzzing. As someone who edits picture books and writes them, what do you see? How has the genre evolved? What is your hope for the future? How can authors and illustrators navigate these changing times?

That article last fall over simplified a very complex set of circumstances and made a rash judgment. Twenty years ago, some people made the same types of arguments about teen fiction, but the industry adjusted and now look. The audience for picture books has gotten younger and most picture books don’t reflect that. As the industry adjusts to the needs of the picture book audience — by creating more appropriate characters and telling more appropriate stories — we’ll begin to see growth in the marketplace. In the meanwhile, picture book authors and illustrators shouldn’t follow trends without considering the long-term viability, because some current trends are vestiges of an older mindset — and the clock is ticking.

Do you have other books on the way? What can we look forward to next?

I have a new book coming out at the end of summer called NOT INSIDE THIS HOUSE (Orchard).  It’s illustrated by and extraordinary new artist named David Ercolini.  Remember the name.  We’re also doing a book app together called BLEEP!  OBSOLETE that’s due out in a month or so.

What’s your greatest joy?

Being alive now doing what I do and having the beautiful set of friends that I have.  I’m a blessed boy!

The Buzz on The Runaway Pumpkin:

“Lewis, the author of Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo (1999) and My Truck Is Stuck (2002) offers another silly, rollicking action story for preschoolers. Rhymed couplets tell the tale: Buck and Billy Baxter and their little sister, Lil, are climbing a hill on Halloween when they happen upon an enormous pumpkin. The brothers Baxter ignore wise Lil’s cautions and cut the pumpkin from its vine. Down the hill it tumbles, crashing through the family farm, finally coming to rest after Papa uses his tractor to dig a ditch to catch the gigantic squash. That night, the family gathers in costume to enjoy a smorgasbord of pumpkin treats, joined by the pumpkin itself, now transformed into an enormous jack-o’-lantern . . . Lewis’ words capture the rolling pumpkin’s ‘thumpin’ bumpin’ rhythm, and Schindler’s paintings extend the story’s tall-tale humor with detail and action that’s perfect for entertaining a crowd. An obvious choice for rowdy, fall story hours.”

– Booklist

“A story about an enormous pumpkin that gets out of hand. The Baxter boys make the mistake of cutting it from the vine before they have worked out how to get it safely home. With a repeated rhythmic chorus that kids will love to chime in on, the pumpkin makes its way through the hillside farm, scattering animals and Baxters in its wake. The family members finally manage to get it inside, and Granny cooks up a feast for Halloween supper. Schindler’s gouache-and-pencil illustrations are amusing and rich in detail. Children will enjoy seeing the animals’ reactions, as the out-of-control pumpkin wreaks havoc on sty and henhouse, and will also appreciate the family’s inventive Halloween costumes. This is a fun read-aloud, without the dark overtones of so many of the holiday’s stories, but it pays to practice the text once or twice as it can be a bit of a tongue-twister . . .”

– School Library Journal

Day 15: Lynn Joseph

February 15, 2011

Lynn Joseph was born in Trinidad in 1963 and was raised in a family of three children by a mother who loved books, and who read Shakespeare to her and her sister Christine, as bedtime stories.

Lynn, like most writers, loved to read and she remembers her very first book, a collection of Grimm Fairy Tales with a hard blue cover given to her by her parents when she was very young. She read that book until the cover fell off and then had to be taped back on over and over again.

From the time Lynn was six years old, she walked along the dusty dunes of the river that ran next to her house in Petit Valley, Trinidad, making up stories in her head and often telling them out loud to herself. She began writing creatively at eight years old, starting with poetry. On the shelves of her mother’s bookcases were many books of poetry including books by Derek Walcott, and Kahil Gibran, which she tried to read.

At the age of nine, Lynn moved to the United States with her family, but continued to return to Trinidad for three months of summer each year. The world became divided into school (the States) and summer (Trinidad). Lynn wrote all the time, poems, short stories and entered school contests and published in school literary magazines and newspapers. She became an editor of her high school newspaper and later an editor on her college paper.

Lynn attended University of Colorado, Boulder and graduated from the Denver branch in 1986. She moved to New York City and immediately was hired to work at Harper & Row Publishers, now HarperCollins. It was heavenly to be surrounded by books all day long and to be paid to read manuscripts and to give her opinions on books.

Lynn went on to attend law school; she had drawn up a life plan at 15 years old that included being a published author by 25 and graduating with an advanced degree from some institution by 30. She did both and then was confounded as to what else to do with her life. Somehow, at 15, the age of 30 seemed so far away and unlikely that she couldn’t plan any further than that. After she published her first book, Coconut Kind of Day: Island Poems, Lynn went on to write short stories, A Wave in Her Pocket and The Mermaid’s Twin Sister, several picture books, and then a novel, The Color of My Words (HarperCollins, 2001).

Featured on Summer Edward’s Caribbean Children’s Literature blog and Anansesem literary magazine, The Color of My Words has been described as “evocative”, “lyrical”, “poetically structured, vividly imagined” (The Horn Book), and “achingly beautiful” (Kirkus Reviews). If you haven’t read The Color of My Words, Lynn Joseph’s words below offer a hint of the gorgeous story mosaics she constructs.

Lynn has two sons, Jared and Brandt, who read her manuscripts first before anyone else. Lynn worked as an attorney for the City of New York, where she was a trial lawyer. She currently works for a law firm in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Lynn loves writing more than anything else in the world. She also needs to live near the sea. She now resides in Long Beach, New York and doing what she loves most, writing and watching the ocean.

Why do you write? What inspired particular works — an image, a conversation, a person, a situation, etc.? Can you describe some surprises along the way of a story?

I write because I am supposed to write. It is my true purpose in this world and I have always known that since I was 8 years old. Before I went to law school and got married and had children, I wrote all the time and managed to publish 8 books. Then nothing . . . . I was living LIFE! Being a mother, an attorney, and always thinking in the back of my mind, one day, one day, I will get to the writing again. Well, my youngest of two sons is 16 now and I work from home as a lawyer, so now, at long last, I am truly writing again. And it helps that my 16-year-old son, Brandt, encourages me. And I figured, what better way to show him that following your dreams is what matters than by doing it myself. And I love it. I just finished a new manuscript for HarperCollins who published The Color of My Words and I am excited to be back!

As for what inspires my books — well, The Color of My Words and my new novel, The Flower Girl, are both set in the Dominican Republic or in Dominican communities and I would say that what inspires me is traveling and living in different countries and cultures. I realized that kids and teenagers are the same no matter where you go, they really are remarkably special in their curiosity and wonderment and once you can see that, it inspires characters and stories set in their world, but which embrace universal themes.

Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? How do you work out your stories? Do you always begin the same way, say with story or character? Do you have any routines or resources that you’d like to share?

Without planning it out, my writing process was the same for my new novel, The Flower Girl as it was for The Color of My Words. I wrote between midnight and 6 a.m. while drinking a pot of black tea (caffeine) with lemon and I was completely alone with my characters; no noises in the house, no one talking, or disturbing my immersion in this other world.

I also do a lot of research before and while writing. I research anything that is factual about a setting or a character’s hobbies. Either I try to experience it myself, or I read about it, or I interview people for their expertise. For my new book, The Flower Girl, the protagonist Nina grows orchids on her fire escape in Washington Heights, NY, so I went to Orchid Shows, and I researched online how to grow orchids and I also spoke to orchid fanatics, of which there are many! I even tried taking care of my own orchids, but . . .that didn’t go so well! The point is to live your story as much as you can, so that when you sit down to write it, it is real to you as the author: your characters are real, the setting is real, the music my characters enjoy, I listen to as well! For The Flower Girl, I not only went to Washington Heights and hung out with my Dominican friends, but I also went to see the Broadway show, In the Heights, and I read everything I could online about the neighborhood, the police presence, the public schools, the stores, etc.

There is nothing like that night quiet with a pot of black tea — the magic of story flows. What were the magical stories for you as a child? What did you connect with? What were the ‘turning points’ for you as a young reader? What literature do you continue to treasure? What made you think?

Like most authors, I read all the time as a child and teenager, and, of course, I won’t go anywhere in the world without one or two books in my backpack or car. The idea of being caught somewhere without a book to read is horrific. And it has to be a real book, not something on a tiny phone where I can’t feel the essence of the words pouring into my soul. One summer when I was about 12 years old I decided to keep track of every book I read. I was in Trinidad, sitting on the cool tile floor of the steps, and I read book after book every day, until I had read 101 books in about 99 days. Most of the books were by the famous British children’s and YA author Enid Blynton. Enid Blynton, a truly prolific author, wrote the books that influenced me most, specifically her Famous Five and Secret Seven series and her Malory Towers series. I also borrowed all of the Hardy Boys books from our cute neighbor, Marcus. No one had the Nancy Drew books so I missed out on those.

I still find YA books the most interesting and I read them more than any other genre. I not only read the Twilight series before women my age were reading it but I read it twice!

Perhaps the most influential book was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, which I read at 16-years-old over Easer vacation. It is over 1100 pages long and it was wonderful to have an entire week to do nothing but read, read, read! That was when I knew that I wanted to be a writer. That book was also pivotal for my older brother Gerard who was 18 at the time and just finishing high school as a mediocre student. I was so excited about this book that I was jumping up and down telling him about it and he actually picked it up and read it. It changed his entire life. He went from disliking reading to finishing an 1100-page novel and then plunged headfirst into reading all kinds of books on philosophy. As a result, he went on to become a writer, actor and producer and owner of his own movie production company, a subsidiary of which is named after the leading character in Atlas Shrugged. The power and magic of books is immense!

It’s amazing, yes? The deepest insights into our joys can be drawn from story. What brings you joy?

My son, Brandt Scott. Brandt lives in the present moment only, yes with goals and hopes, but always in the present, and that is what makes him so joyous to be around. It is what I strive for myself, to live in the present moment. I enjoy nothing more than listening to him play jazz piano or play his guitar and sing, and when he learned my favorite song on the guitar and sang it for me on my birthday, I cried tears of joy. So, whether we are taking practice SAT tests, and going over the answers together, or riding bicycles through Copenhagen as we did last Summer, I’d have to say that living with Brandt fills my heart with pure joy.

Tell us about a favourite book you’ve read lately.

I am currently reading very slowly so that it won’t end, The Fire in His Mind, the biography of Joseph Campbell, the eminent mythologist, and author of books, such as The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and Masks of God. Campbell lived a remarkable life from 1904 to the 1980s and his journey could be summed up in three words, by which I try to live my own life: Follow your bliss! I highly recommend Campbell’s works on mythology as well as his biography for every creative soul. It is without comparison the most influential body of work I have encountered in my life. Reading The Fire in His Mind, I am learning more than I did as an English major in college! I am constantly jotting down books to read, ideas to pursue, and I even ordered online two old out of print books on the writing process, read by Campbell himself. As soon as I finish reading his biography I am going to start over again.

Thank you so much, Lynn! It’s been a pleasure.

Praise for The Color of My Words:

“In finely wrought chapters that at times read more like a collection of related short stories than a novel, Joseph (Jump Up Time) presents slices from the life of Ana Rosa just as she is about to turn 13. Through the heroine’s poetry and recollections, readers gain a rare intimate view of life in the Dominican Republic. Ana Rosa dreams of becoming a writer even though no one but the president writes books; she learns to dance the merengue by listening to the rhythms of her beloved ocean; and the love of her older brother, Guario, comforts her through many difficulties. The author’s portraits of Ana Rosa and her family are studies in spare language; the chapters often grow out of one central image — such as the gri gri tree where Ana Rosa keeps watch over her village and gets ideas for her writing — giving the novel the feel of an extended prose poem. The brevity of the chapters showcases Joseph’s gift for metaphoric language (e.g., her description of Ana Rosa’s first crush: “My dark eyes trailed him like a line of hot soot wherever he went”)…it’s a testimony to the power of Joseph’s writing that the developments readers will empathize with most are those of greatest importance to her winning heroine.”
-Publishers Weekly

“Joseph paints the world of Ana Rosa and her family in this gem of a novel. The girl dreams of being a writer, but knows that this is a very unusual wish in the Dominican Republic. Like her ever-drinking father, she is a dreamer, but like her Mami, who fears for her daughter’s safety if she writes, she learns that time is like the river that rushes by and never passes again. When the government tries to destroy the houses in the village to make room for foreign investors, Ana Rosa writes an article quoting her beloved older brother, Guario, and tries to get support for protecting their homes. Her article is distributed by three newspapers, but her words are not powerful enough to divert money, contracts, bulldozers, and guns. On her 13th birthday, the government troops arrive, shooting begins, and Guario is killed. Six months later, as a late birthday celebration, Ana Rosa receives a typewriter and hundreds of sheets of white paper. Now she has her brother’s story to tell and the words are filling up her head. Although Ana Rosa lives in a Caribbean country, readers everywhere will connect with her story, especially those who have dreams, disappointments, tragedy, environmental concerns, and a love of words and writing. Each chapter opens with a poem that sets the mood. A finely crafted novel, lovely and lyrical, this book is a unique addition to library shelves.”
–School Library Journal

Visit Lynn Joseph by the virtual sea.

Day 14: Ernest Hill

February 14, 2011

One day, we’ll probably actually get rid of the terms “boy” book, “black” book and other such tags that dictates who the reader should be. But until then, so that everyone is speaking the same language and so that gatekeepers get an idea of who the lowest hanging fruit audience is for a novel – the categories remain.

Ernest Hill has lent his talents to help fill the void in books available to African American teen boys.  His work is realistic and speaks to the sometimes harsh realities of what being young, male and Black is like.

The sequel to Hill’s, A Life For A Life, Family Ties follows main character D’Ray upon his release from jail.

A Life For A Life

D’Ray is 15 when a local drug dealer threatens to kill his younger brother unless he comes up with $100 within an hour. Panicked and desperate, D’Ray decides to hold up a convenience store. In the process, he kills another person, the teenage clerk who tries to foil the holdup. D’Ray escapes and makes a living as a pimp before he’s caught and sentenced to six years in jail. In jail he finds God and Mr. Henry, the father of the dead teenage clerk. Mr. Henry insists that D’Ray become a credit to his race and also be the replacement for his dead son, the one D’Ray killed.

Satisfied With Nothin’
Fifteen years after court imposed desegregation, Jamie Ray Griffin is among the first students at his Louisiana high school to integrate. Berated by many of his white classmates, Jamie channels his anger into football and lands a starring role. The brutal assault and lynching of his cousin prompts him to enroll in a black college in pursuit of a career in football. When an injury sidelines him for good and his grades slip beyond resurrection, Jamie returns to a low-paying job in his hometown and begins to confront the truth about himself.

The Buzz on Ernest Hill

“An exceptional literary piece that some readers will compare to Richard Wright’s Native Son.” Booklist on Satisfied with Nothin’

“A skilled storyteller.” New York Times Book Review

Day 13: ReShonda Tate Billingsley

February 13, 2011

ReShonda Tate BillingsleyWhile maybe readers know the award-winning ReShonda Tate Billingsley for her mainstream fiction for adults, she is also the author of the teen inspirational fiction series, “Good Girlz.” The first book in the series, Nothing But Drama (Simon and Schuster/Pocket, 2006) focuses on the friendship between four girls— Camille, Angel, Jasmine, and Alexis—that meet in a church youth group. The girls’ friendship grows through subsequent novels, and in the eight book in the series, Drama Queens (Simon and Schuster/Gallery, 2010) readers find the girls close to graduation and preparing for college life at Prairie View A&M University in Texas. Through each book, the girls use their friendship—and their faith—to get through life’s tough decisions.

Prior to writing full-time, Billingsley worked as an anchor and reporter for NBC, ABC and FOX television stations in Beaumont, TX, Oklahoma City, OK and Houston, TX. A member of the National Association of Black Journalists and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc, Billingsley is married with three small children and was recently voted a Top 25 Woman of Houston by Rolling Out Magazine.

For more information about Billingsley and the “Good Girlz” series, check out her website at

Day 12: Torrey Maldonado

February 12, 2011

Coe Booth called Torrey Maldonado’s debut novel, Secret Saturdays (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), “a story you won’t forget.”

E.R. Frank said it “ought to be required reading at middle schools everywhere.”

Rita Williams-Garcia said it’s “playground tough with a sweet center.”

Intrigued? Well, here’s more. Maldonado, a veteran New York City public school teacher, says writing helped save him as a kid from going down the wrong path. He became the first person in his immediate family to go to college. He trained teachers and administrators on how to run conflict resolution programs. Now, he’s writing “to help young people change their lives.”

Set in Brooklyn’s Red Hook projects where Maldonado grew up, Secret Saturdays  explores friendship and choices in an unforgettable way through 12-year-old characters Justin and Sean. Maldonado has won praise for the authenticity of his voice, but perhaps the biggest testament to his book’s impact is the way it resonates with kids.  One teacher said Secret Saturdays is the most popular book for independent reading time. A librarian shared that a struggling student carries it with him everywhere he goes. A 13-year-old boy wrote Maldonado that it’s his first time reading a book longer than 100 pages.

We are proud to celebrate Torrey Maldonado on Day 12:

You wrote on your website that in your neighborhood, boys who liked school and writing were seen as soft. How did you navigate the pressure to put down your pen and find the resolve to keep writing?

From my birth to the 1980s, I felt like nearly everyone in my Red Hook projects was my family. People looked out for each other and I was protected. Then drugs ripped Red Hook apart and, by 1988, Life magazine did a nine-page photo spread calling Red Hook the “crack capital” of the U.S.A. and one of the ten worst neighborhoods in NY. What I’m about to say didn’t happen all the time but the violence happened too much. I remember being a twelve-year-old and just getting back to the Red Hook projects after visiting a relative in jail and a gun shootout started right outside while I was in the store buying groceries with food stamps. Right there, I did something that built my will to survive and succeed. Yogis say, “Ohmmm” over and over again. I remember feeling and thinking, “Someday life will be different for me. Someday life will be different for me.” You might say I was praying to get strength. I did that a lot. Then my prayer became “I’m going to make it, come back here, and get others out.” That part of me who almost didn’t “make it” still lives in me and he’s amazed that the adult-me is now using Secret Saturdays to hook Red Hook kids and other youth to books to springboard them to greater heights in life.

I read that your mom was a big influence, helping you stay on the right path. How did she support your writing journey?

Is it true that we absorb what our mothers do while we’re in their bellies? If yes, my writer-journey began in my Mom’s stomach because she read books out loud to me while rubbing her belly. She definitely set me on my journey to write. As long as I can remember, she’s treated books and writers as special. I worshipped her and wanted to be special to her so it makes sense I became a writer, yes? No. Not with the rough realities of my upbringing. A lot of relatives and people in my housing projects pressured me to stop writing because they felt writing equaled school and boys who were into school equaled soft. So how did I stay on my writing-journey while growing up in one of New York’s most violent housing projects with crime, drugs, and people around me trying to knock me off-track? Comic books. I got hooked on comic books in the third grade. Two years later, I told myself, “I will create a comic book and other books too, someday.” I look back and see that little fifth grade me made a promise that the adult “me” kept.

You’re a teacher and have trained educators on how to run conflict resolution programs. Does that give you a unique lens as an author?

If I add up how many elementary, middle schools, high schools and colleges I’ve visited before and during the release of my book, the number would be around one hundred schools. That gives me different lenses. I’m approaching ten years of public school teaching and before that I spent three years as a Conflict Resolution Trainer for the U.S.A.’s largest victims’ services agency (Safe Horizon). I trained students and adults who run and teach in schools to solve small to huge problems. Superman has X-Ray vision and sees through things and I wrote Secret Saturdays with my X-Ray Conflict Resolution lenses on. I spotted the issues behind youth-behavior then created a book that targets and solves those issues. Schools email me and say they use Secret Saturdays almost like a conflict resolution manual. Pre-teens and teens don’t want to sit down and read a conflict resolution manual but they read Secret Saturdays. Why? Most youth prefer fun, mystery, and a thrill-ride. I did what the comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s wife did. She realized her kids hated healthy foods so she snuck healthy food in delicious snacks then made a cookbook. I snuck lessons in Secret Saturdays yet instead of being “corny” Booklist calls it “infectiously readable.”

Why did you want to write for young people? What does it mean to you?

During a school-trip something happened that rocked my world. Two students who hate to read approached me. One boy said, “Mr. T, I know one of the raps from your book by heart.” Not believing him, I said, “Let me hear it.” He looked into the air and said a Black Bald’s rhyme so perfect that you’d think he was reading the rhyme off a cloud or streetlight. The other student started competing and told the boy who just rapped, “That’s nothing. Mr. T, listen to this.” Then he rapped a verse from Killah Kid. It means more than I can say that students who teachers think don’t enjoy reading love Secret Saturdays so much that they memorize parts of it. I write to hook kids to books the way those boys got hooked.

Tell us about your road to publication. How did you get your break?

I’ve been teaching for almost ten years and a few years ago I supervised an after-school program for boys who regularly got in trouble and were heading toward dropping out. The boys loved me. A few would joke, “Mr. T, you’re my father, right?” or “We’re related, right?” I grew close with them too and they shared truths about their lives that they’d never tell other staff members. One day, a seventh grader visited my classroom and asked, “You free?” I waved him in and he did something unforgettable. He stepped away from the doors so no one could see him through the door-windows and he started crying a cry you see a baby do when it needs real comforting. I jumped from behind my desk, asking, “What happened?” He cried, “My father’s gone! My father’s gone!” Around that time I was writing a magazine article about how my absent father and the absent male relatives in my life handicapped my childhood schoolwork, trust, manhood, and family. I was holding back a lot of emotions during my article-writing process. When my student cried, it was like his tears were a tidal wave that hit me and poured my emotions out. That summer I went home and stretched my article into Secret Saturdays. I later got my break after I did a lot of research, reaching out to people, getting rejected then finding that one rare person who helped me and finally shared her agent.

What were the most challenging and rewarding parts of writing Secret Saturdays?

There were a few big challenges in telling Sean’s story. His struggles were my childhood struggles yet I had to be careful not to write my life-story. My family likes to keep “family business” private. I also set the goal to show all sides of Sean when we know that males hide so much. Sean’s a Hip Hop and Rap fan and he’s the man at free-styling so he sometimes wears that rapper front. I love Hip Hop and Rap yet a lot of the music encourages our boys to wear masks or show the worst sides of people—usually that includes cursing and looking at women only as sex toys. So did I show both the public and real Seans? Did I show the roughness he absorbs from his world, music, and TV while showing his innocence, purity, and respect that so many males hide? The reviews from book experts, parents, kids, and schools say I went beyond meeting those goals so that’s one reward. Plus, I kept the book curse-free and sex-free and that makes me very happy because I’m a parent and am giving other parents a safe read for their pre-teens and teens.

I read that you wanted Secret Saturdays to be a book about choices. Why was that important to you?

Choices lead to consequences and you see examples of that in Secret Saturdays. There were points my life where I could’ve taken different turns and that would’ve drove my life over a waterfall to a deadly ending. I could’ve ended up dead, in jail, on drugs, or limited my potential like a lot of the great yet unfortunate people in my family and projects. In 1992 my elementary school principal (Patrick Daly) was shot in the chest and killed in my housing projects. Years later, I became the first person in my immediate family to go to college. As a Vassar College student, I ran into someone arrested for Daly’s murder in an upstate prison where I tutored. The inmate was a boy I ran wild with as a kid! Secret Saturdays shows that a lot influences the choices youth make yet youth can make other choices—to follow their own path and be their best selves.

Saturdays has touched young people and adults with its heart, authenticity and power. What feedback have you received from kids? from adults? What does that mean to you?

Instead of me trying to describe the feedback, I’ll let you experience some. A thirteen year old boy’s emailed me: “Hey Torrey, I want you to know I’ve never read a book over a hundred pages. Not because I don’t know how but because I don’t find books I like. On day two of having your book, I’m already 80 pages in.” A mother of a high school girl emailed me: “My daughter made me promise to tell you that she read it in a day and a half. She loved the book. I am reading it now.” A Florida librarian emailed me and posted this and her review on and other web sites: “I believe this is a book that should be in every school. I am going to promote it to all of my fellow teachers and my students. This is one that must be read.” These emails leave me speechless.

What’s your mission as a children’s book author? What do you hope young people take away from your stories?

Kids approach me every day and say, “I love your book. I read it three times” or “They should turn your book into a movie.” My mission is to make readers feel that way and to springboard them to greater heights in life.

There’s a lot of talk about how to better connect boys with books. What can we do to more fully engage them in reading? Why is that so important?

If we want better men, we must get more boys reading, period. Boys from A to Z connect to Secret Saturdays. I joke and say I use a few magic tricks to grab the interest of guys. Here’s one secret: I wrote Secret Saturdays so alpha male teens wouldn’t feel soft carrying it. And they do. On one hand, a maximum security jail for high school boys asked me to visit because their inmates LOVE my book and, on the other hand, honor roll student-fans phone into my radio interviews, “Secret Saturdays is the ‘Most Checked Out Book’ in my school library.” Readers are leaders and reading sets our minds, hearts, and souls free so we can be the best we can be.

What advice would you give to aspiring children’s book authors?

Eighty percent of Justin’s voice is how I spoke with my friends during my pre-teen and teen years. What makes up the other 20 percent? The 2011 language of youth. Years before I wrote Secret Saturdays, I visited a Literacy (English/ Language Arts) teacher-friend for lunch. I kept grabbing urban fiction titles from her shelves and I was shocked at how many sounded fake. I picked up a famous writer’s novel and told her, “Listen to this. This sound real to you?” I read their book out loud and my friend laughed, “No! You know our kids don’t even talk like that!” So, being playful, I reread those lines how our students or real-life urban-adults sound. The Literacy teacher said, “Torrey. I’m not kidding. You should write a book. I’m serious. Kids need to see and hear themselves in books. Plus, you can write. So why not?” So, I wrote Secret Saturdays and kids find it so real that they memorize parts of my book. My advice to writers is to do what I did: read the stiff dialogue that’s on shelves, practice loosening it up, then write in that voice.

What’s next for you?

My agent told me that the writing business is “supply and demand.” Readers “demand” a sequel to Secret Saturdays then I’m told to “supply” them with Book Two. I’d like that to happen next yet the book must become wildly popular for a part two to happen.

I’m hoping that:

• Will Smith sees how Secret Saturdays is The Pursuit of Happyness for his son’s, Jayden’s, generation (Jayden’s perfect to play Justin too), or

• Tyler Perry discovers how Secret Saturdays mirrors his childhood and he turns it into a film, or

• President Obama realizes my book is the tool The White House is looking for to help youth pick up their pants and fully grab “The American Dream.” I sometimes daydream and hear him on TV telling our nation, “Secret Saturdays will bring about the ‘change’ we need for our males,” or maybe

• Oprah sees how her mission and Secret Saturdays is the same: evolve people into better humans and show life is about choices.

Until then, what’s next are two things. First, finish the novel I’m now writing, which is something Secret Saturdays fans will love. Second, I’ve got a line-up of exciting author visits in New York and other states from elementary all the way up to colleges where professors have built Secret Saturdays into their Spring courses (in two weeks I’m headed to St. Louis, where they call “dissing” “Jonesing.”)

What’s your greatest joy?

Both of my greatest joys have to do with my mother. There isn’t a greater joy than being loved unconditionally and my mother loves me no matter what. My second greatest joy is seeing how hard she worked to get me to cross certain finish lines. She wanted me to avoid getting locked up in prison like other relatives and I did. She hoped I went to college and I graduated from Vassar College (one of the best in the country). Recently, I did a Barnes and Noble reading and the room was so crowded that people sat on the floor. After, my mother hugged me and said, “You’re living my dream. You did everything I dreamt for you and more.” Wow, she and I should be a commercial that ends with “Hearing your hero say you’re her hero: Priceless.”

The Buzz on Secret Saturdays:

– YALSA’s 2011 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers (See complete list here.)

“Dissing is like boxing, Justin thinks—except you fight with words instead of fists. The best disser around is Sean, who is not only mad popular but also Justin’s best friend. They are so tight, in fact, that the other kids call them twins: both are half black and half Puerto Rican, completely obsessed by hip-hop, and love to freestyle rap with each other. But now Justin is worried because something is happening to Sean. His disses are turning vicious, his grades are suffering, and he is retreating behind a wall of silence and secrets. Could it have something to do with the unexplained, out-of-town trips he and his mother are making? Justin is determined to find out. Maldonado’s first novel—set in Brooklyn’s Red Hook Housing Projects, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York—is notable for its viscerally authentic treatment of setting . . . Justin’s first-person vernacular—is infectiously readable, and its characters are sympathetically and memorably realized.”

– Booklist

Check out a video of Torrey reading an excerpt of Secret Saturdays at the Brooklyn Book Festival:

For more on Torrey Maldonado, please visit

Day 11: Marie Bradby

February 11, 2011

Had she not given birth to her son, journalist Marie Bradby may never have written any of the remarkable children’s books she’s published over the past fifteen years. But she did…and she did.

Bradby’s critically acclaimed titles include the picture books More Than Anything Else (Richard Jackson/Orchard Books, 1995); The Longest Wait (Orchard Books, 1998); Momma, Where Are You From? (Orchard Books, 2002); Once Upon A Farm (Orchard Books/Scholastic, 2002); and a middle grade novel, Some Friend (Richard Jackson/Atheneum, 2004). 

Bradby–the sixth of seven children–grew up in the suburbs on the East Coast. She is a graduate of Hampton University with a degree in Sociology. Prior to her career in children’s books, Bradby was a full-time journalist who held staff postitions with The Providence-Journal, The Lexington-Herald, The Courier-Journal, and National Geographic Magazine.

On Day 11, The Brown Bookshelf talks with Ms. Marie Bradby.


BBS:  Hi Marie. Welcome to The Brown Bookshelf.

MB: Hello, it is an honor to be here.   


BBS:  You’re both a children’s book writer and a journalist. When did you first fall in love with the written word?

MB: In high school, my english teacher, Mr. Amos, gave us a creative writing exercise to write about an exciting moment. I wrote about the exhilaration I felt spinning around as a baton twirler for the marching band. He raved about the description and I thought, maybe I’ve got something here. It had happened before when I was in the second grade. My assignment was to write about something or another, which wasn’t working for me. So I wrote about two squirrels playing in the tree outside my window while I was doing my homework. My teacher displayed my story, which of course, had my little scribble drawings on it. I was a keen observer since I can remember as a toddler.         


BBS:  Speaking of toddlers, it was after the birth of your son that you left your career as a full-time journalist, opting for part-time, freelance assignments instead. What led you to begin writing for children?

MB: While I was pregnant, I went to a bookstore in Ithaca, NY to buy Xmas presents for my unborn son. I was dismayed that they had no books that featured children of color either as characters or in the illustrations. In my travels, I found that this unfortunately was widespread. There were paltry few. I made a decision at that time to write books for my own child, but I had no thoughts at the time of publishing them.  


BBS:  How long did it take to get your first book deal? What were the circumstances?

MB: I believe I got my first book deal in 1990, five years after the birth of my son. Over that period of time, I had been involved in self-study of children’s books, reading as many books in the children’s section of the library as I could devour with my son. I gave myself assignments as I studied the way the books were put together. Then I moved to Louisville, KY and became acquainted with well-known children’s author George Ella Lyon. She persuaded me to go to the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop in Hindman, KY where she was teaching writing for children. By the next year, I had a contract for a book called “The Longest Wait.” It was too aptly titled, however, and was my second book to be published, eight years later.    


BBS: More Than Anything Else (Orchard Books, 1995) was actually your first book to be published, inspired by events in the life of a young Booker T. Washington. It received good reviews when it debuted.  As a new picture book author, were you concerned about how well-received your work would be? Why or why not?

MB: I was astonished at how well it was received. The publishing date was August 1, 1995, but all the books had sold out pre-publication, and the publisher had to rush back and print more. I was so new to publishing that I had no idea how extraordinary this was. i thought only my parents and relatives would buy the book. But many people connected with it and still do. It’s been published in several languages and in many editions.    


BBS:  You have published four wonderful picture books for children…but my personal favorite has to be Momma, Where Are You From? (Orchard Books, 2000) because it conjures nostalgic images of my Granny and Bigmama sharing stories with me about their childhoods—which were so very different from mine.  Do you have a favorite among the picture books you’ve published? If so, which one is it and why?

MB: I always say the next book is my favorite, because without a “next” book, you don’t really have a career as a book author. That being said, I adore “More Than Anything Else” because of the way it came about and what I learned about the writing process. I’d spent three years trying to write it, forcing it really. When I had completely exhausted myself, the entire story came to me one evening in about twenty minutes, as if a recording was playing in my head. I wrote it down like dictation. It was a powerful experience for me, to be able to allow and trust the muse. I had internalized the story, my subconscious processed it, and it popped back out.

But my books are like my children. I love them all.


BBS:  Some Friend is your middle grade novel, a wonderful story about the meaning of friendship and, in my opinion, the importance of honoring one’s personal integrity.  I found the story of Artemesia and her migrant worker family to be particularly fascinating.  What inspired you to write this story in this way?

MB: I based that character on a girl that I happened to see one day when she was mercilessly being taunted verbally and physically. Mine was a middle-class neighborhood and this girl was new and poor. Her family had re-located from the deep south where they had been farm workers. I remember standing there on the edge of the circle watching her. And you are right, it is a story about honoring inner personal integrity. My inner self was saying to the bullies, ‘No, don’t do this, don’t treat a person this way.’ But I wasn’t brave enough to speak up against the other rather brash girls, though my eyes were stinging with tears and I was filled with compassion. I was about 8 or 9. I watched this girl’s reaction of terror and humiliation. I never forgot that lesson in how NOT to treat a person.


BBS:  Marie, if you were to identify a common thread or theme among the stories you write, what would it be?

MB: I have tried to write stories about the most important questions that I wanted my son to think about. What is a real friend? What if you didn’t get a chance to learn to read? Where are you really from? What is it like to wait for your father to return from delivering the mail in a blizzard? Etc.


BBS:  Do you have a strict, daily writing schedule…or do you write more by inspiration?  Where, in what, or in whom do you find your creative muse?

MB: No strict schedule, but I write nearly daily in my journal. Sometimes I go back and pull out things to give to my characters and my settings in books that I write. But the books themselves are not scheduled. I work on a book when it comes to me, usually about one a year. I spend a lot of time working on it in my head. But getting it published is another matter. So, I have a lot of unpublished manuscripts.

The idea for a book usually bubbles up from my sub-conscious when I am drifting off to sleep. Each one has started as a line or two that I’ve heard in my head. As a writer, you have to leave space to listen for words. That means finding time to be quiet and listen for that still, small voice.

As a journalist, I usually have an assignment that I am working on every week or so, and so I write profiles, op-ed pieces, stories about family and women’s issues, etc.


BBS:  What other children’s book projects do you have in the pipeline?

MB: I finished a new picture book called, “The Nest.” It’s about a boy who finds a baby bird and tirelessly raises it.          


BBS:  Cheeseburgers or sushi?

MB Sushi, but only vegetables, no raw fish.


BBS:  Hiking or water skiing?

MB: I hike and snow ski. Water skied when I was very young.          


BBS:  Your son asks you the question, “Momma, where are you from?”  What do you tell him?

MB: That I am from many places.

I am from a hike across Tuscany…waves of golden wheat undulating on the hills…tractors plowing new vineyards…taxi drivers yelling, “Bella!” 

I am from a canoe motoring through marshes in the Amazon outside Manaus, Brazil…Jacana birds taking flight as we pass houses on stilts…giant trees and lily pads…and giggling children jumping into the lake for a swim during a downpour, while I stand unbelievably drenched but baptized by a oneness of spirit.


BBS:  Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Marie.

MB: Thank you for your efforts to support reading. Every person in the world should have the right to learn to read and go to school. It’s our responsibility, as global citizens, to ensure that all people have access to developing that skill…and access to books.

Books and Awards:

“MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE,” (Richard Jackson/Orchard Books, 1995) Illus. Chris Soentpiet. ALA, IRA Children’s Book Award, PBS story time Feature, Teacher’s Choice, starred review School Library Journal, Best Book of 1995 by Book Links, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times.

“THE LONGEST WAIT,” (Orchard Books, 1998) Illus. Peter Catalanotto. Kansas State Reading Circle Recommended List.

“MOMMA, WHERE ARE YOU FROM?” (Orchard Books, 2002) Illus. Chris Soentpiet. Golden Kite Honor Award, Nest Literary Classic.

“ONCE UPON A FARM,” (Orchard Books/Scholastic, 2002) Illus. Ted Rand. “Best Book of 2002″ by the Los Angeles Times, Kentucky Public Librarians “Choice Award” Nominee, 2003.

“SOME FRIEND,” (Richard Jackson/Atheneum, 2004) West Virginia Children’s Book Award Master List, 2006-2007


Learn more about Marie Bradby and her books at .

Day 10: Vanessa Brantley Newton

February 10, 2011

For this interview, I studied Vanessa’s website and sorted through her artwork, looking for just the right words to use in an introduction. I failed, big-time. Words like “charming,” “fresh,” and “retro” came to mind—boring words that didn’t do her art justice.

I fretted for days. I care about my work here, and I wanted to give Vanessa her due props. But then, over the weekend, Vanessa emailed answers to her interview questions, along with her wonderful artwork. That’s when I realized that I didn’t need to say a word. Vanessa’s words and art say it all. They made me smile, laugh, think, cheer. And her art!—you’ll want to gobble it up!

Vanessa describes herself as a full-time mom, and a freelance illustrator and writer, who loves to craft, cook, and collect vintage children’s books. She lives in East Orange, NJ with her husband and daughter, and a very fat cat named Kirby who thinks he is dog.

Vanessa, in your own words, please tell us about your most recent book Don’t Let Auntie Mabel Bless the Table

What happens when everyone is invited to Auntie Mabel’s house for Sunday Dinner? Craziness that’s what. Auntie Mabel just doesn’t know how to stop her snowballing grace over dinner. Her family loves her, but they are hungry and Auntie wants to pray this long prayer and the food gets cold and everyone is upset. I wanted to show what my family was like. I come from a very multicultural family and they are funny and wonderful, and there are so many magical stories to tell about them. Auntie Mabel is just one of them.

Tell us about  your path of publication, from spark of inspiration to printed book

I had written this story many, many years ago, almost 15 years or more. I put it away. I read it to a couple of members of my family and they seem to like it well enough, but I wasn’t sure. I took some classes at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and I showed it to my teachers, some said it was way too much and others said that it wasn’t enough and so I got even more confused. So I secretly worked on my characters and I let them tell me where they wanted the story to go.  I showed it to my agent about a year ago and she told me to work on it some more and this frustrated me. I then took it with me to one of my publishers. Harriet Ziegert over at Blue Apple  Books. She read it and fell instantly in love with it!! She actually took the script out of my hands and started editing it. She told me, “everything you need is in here already and you just need to move some words around and shorten the dang thing!!!” No need to add another thing. Now draw some pictures.”  I laugh now when I think about it.  Harriet is brilliant. I think that stories are fresh and brilliant when they come from your life experiences .  What you have been through. The people you know.  Harriet shortened the story quite a bit but it works.

Can you talk about your transformation from artist to writer

I have always been writing. I am a musician, singer and songwriter. I love to write songs. They are stories to be “Sungtold.”  It’s a word that I made up.  My mom was a great storyteller and singer.  She weaved words and music together to tell fabulous stories or create word pictures.  Writing is a muscle that has to be worked everyday just as illustration is a muscle.  People tend to think that writing for children is easy, but it’s not.  Good writers make it look easy.  It’s hard work. It takes thinking outside of the box. It’s using the gray matter between the eyes.  It’s the art of telling a story that wants to be told over and over and over again in less than an hour.  It’s the art of telling a story with a few delicious words.  I am being stretched even more now as I am asked to create and share my own stories.  Sometimes I have a clue as how to do it and sometimes I clueless.  I keep a notebook by my bedside to write in and keep notes.  I listen to children.  I watch them and I record them.  I reach back into my childhood to find stories and things that want to be put onto paper.  There is no magic formula that I try to follow.  I am still trying to find my voice in writing.  I am currently working on several stories with my sister Coy Curry who is also a singer and songwriter.  We are country girls from the Low Country. That’s Beaufort , SC and the islands of SC.  We are Geechee people. Or Gullah. These are the sea island people who were enslaved from Serra Leone.  Our Gullah culture is dying and we want to tell the stories that we have carried for years to others.  We want to keep it alive.  We want to share what it was like growing up in a Geechee Gullah household with songs, stories, food, crafts and language.

What kinds of stories inspire you?

Stories of the old. Oral tales and accounts. These things inspire me as a writer.

I love your illustrations on the covers of the popular Ruby and the Booker Boys series. How did you come to be a part of this project?

My good friend Karen Proctor asked me to bring my portfolio over to the city.  She wanted to share it with Andrea Pinkney.  I was so honored to meet someone of the Pinkney family!  That made my day right there!  Andrea graciously looked at my portfolio and told me what I needed to do to make it more workable. She was honest and upfront about it and I liked that about her. She saw a piece that I did called “Ghetto Boy in da Hood” and she loved it.  She loved it so much that she took it out of the portfolio with several other pieces.  She told me that she would give me a call in a couple of months.  A couple of months rolled by and I didn’t hear from her. I was a little disappointed and just when I wasn’t expecting a call I got one from her.  She wanted me to create a girl character.  I did some sketches and a finished piece and sent them too her. She called me back told me that they wanted me to work on a new project called, “Ruby and the Booker Boys” I jumped at the chance and Ruby was born.

Please talk about your training, education. What led you to a career in art?

I wanted to be a doctor, but my grades said otherwise.  I am dyslexic, meaning I have a learning difference.  Drawing was my way to express myself.  I am mainly self-taught.  While I attended FIT and the SVA of NYC, I never got my degree. I had run out of money and I had to get a job fast so I worked as a phlebotomist.  I did side jobs in illustration. I did some greeting cards and fine art work. I worked as a phlebotomist for over 25 years before I started doing children’s book illustration.  I knew that I needed to hone my gift in illustration, but I didn’t have the money to go back to school so I started reading books and taking course here and there to hone my craft.  I hope to get my degree soon, but if I don’t I have found expression and it has found me and we work together.

Do you have any thoughts on why so many black illustrators are male yet so many authors are female? Who are  female illustrators who inspired you?

I believe there are not many female black illustrators, because they are not encouraged to step into the arena of illustration and they are not encouraged to learn the technical side of art.  I also feel, unfortunately, I believe that the culture is divided in thinking women are better storytellers, because we are more verbal by nature and that men are more visual.  It is definitely something I feel needs to change.  I don’t know many black female illustrators, but the ones I do know are award winning and exceptional artist and I am proud to be among them, such as Shadra Strickland, Cozbi and Patricia Cummings are a few that come to mind.

In all honesty I have not been inspired by many black female illustrators, mainly, because at the time of my development there were no known black children’s book illustrators, except for Tom Feelings and the Dillions, let alone female black illustrators.  I hope to dispel this truth with my own work and inspire other up and coming illustrators. 

What is your mission as an artist?

To create illustrations and word pictures that are indelibly printed on the brain.  Images, that restore and heal the inner child in all of us.

Your artwork has a very appealing retro look about it. What inspired this?

There is something so beautiful to me about old children’s books. They are traditional done.  No magic tricks, just the magic of imagination.  The colors and hand work of these books are amazing to me.  I collect tons of children’s books from the 1950’s and 60’s along with Old Humpty Dumpty Magazines and Golden Books.  It takes me back to my childhood.  Ezra Jack Keats is one of my greatest mentors.  He inspires me most in my artwork.  I love his collage work.  I never got to meet him, but he has been one of my greatest teachers ever. The others are Mary Blair, Fiep Westendorp, The Provensen’s Tom O’Louglin, Tommy Unger, David Catrow, Mo Williems and Adrian Johnson.

What inspires you as an illustrator?

People!!!! Oh my goodness PEOPLE!!! I people watch all the time. We are the funniest things on the dang plant Man! I am a lover of people good, bad, ugly, pretty, happy, sad I love to look at people, because they inspire and then, of course, anything retro comes next.  Being a child of the 60’s I got to watch Bugs Bunny, Felix the Cat, the Jetston and the Flintstones. These cartoons formed a lot of my desire to become and illustrator.  The colors and patterns and subject matter appealed to me. It was without computers, bells and whistles. You had to make your own magic. I love technology, but I am inspired by the old and tattered.  I love to laugh!  I am always looking to find the funny.  It’s major and important to me to find the funny.  So you will see it in my characters that I illustrate and in the situations I put them in.  I want people to see themselves and not take themselves so seriously.

What are you doing when You’re not creating children’s books?

Singing, laughing and spending time with my husband of 16 years and our daughter who is 10.  I love to craft so I spend any couple of minutes I have creating he he he he!!

Can you talk about some of your works in progress, what’s on the horizon?

Children’s books, comics, etc. I just finished a book with Cedella Marley called, ” One Love” A song written by her father, the great Bob Marley and adapted by his daughter. I have been working on my first traditional collage book called, “Magic Trash “The story of Tyree Guyton.  My sister Coy and I are working on a Gullah Geechee children’s book as well as a series of books of Fractured Fairytales from the Hood.  Things like “Lil’ Red in the Hood” is one that will be published soon. All I can say is “HILARIOUS!”

What advice can you offer to aspiring writers and illustrators of children’s books?

Hone, hone, and hone your writing and illustration skills.  Get around people who support your dreams and visions.  Don’t be too eager to share your dreams and visions with everyone, because everyone is not cheering for you.  You can’t put an 18×24 vision in a 3×5 card mind!  If it comes to you right then, write it down NOW!!  Don’t wait to do it later.  A great story could be right there at your fingertips.  Listen to children. Write down what they say and how they say it.  Read other peoples books.  Go to the bookstores and check out what is on the shelf.  See a need and fill it.  If there  are no books that you like, try writing one that you would like to see.  Take classes in illustration and writing often to stay current and fresh.  Visit other people’s blogs on writing and illustration.  Know the business of publishing.  Be true to yourself. Stop measuring your gifts and talents by other people, its hard enough being you as it is.  Search for things to put around you to keep you inspired.  Collect the books of the authors and illustrators that you adore and study them.  You can be mentored from a far.  Find time for yourself. I am working on this myself.  Find time for you and care for YOU.  Start today saying good things and thinking good thoughts about where you want to be as an illustrator or writer or both.  See yourself doing it and go for it!

Who are your cheerleaders?

My hubby, Ray, my daughter, Zoe, my sister Coy, my sisterfriend Loredan, my brother from another mother, Eric Barclay and my agent Lori Nowicki

See. Aren’t you inspired? Told ya so.

Day 9: Artist Arthur

February 9, 2011

I think in my next life I want to be a paranormal or horror writer because I’ve always loved reading those genres. Yet my mind simply has never gone there when I sit down to write. Guess some of us just have a knack for putting a supernatural or fantastic spin on things.

While YA paranormal has been successful and quite popular, no surprise there haven’t been a boatload of authors of color in the mix. Enter Artist Arthur and her Mystyx series.

Can we say, it’s about time? Go on. I’ll wait…

Look, a book is a book is a book. When authors write them they want a reader to pick it up. We don’t care about that reader’s background or genetic make-up, we just want them to read and enjoy. But facts remain that literature is a great portal for exposure. So if paranormal isn’t diverse, chances are, readers of color will ignore it in favor of a genre that includes them. The Mystyx series includes them. The series follows three characters as they learn to deal with their special powers.

Each character is of a different race, which is entirely beside the point and yet a great thing. Artist talks to us about why the paranormal AOC* club is so small and how she created her characters powers.

*That’s authors of color for those who forgot P abbreviates everything!

BBS: It’s so great to see your series in the paranormal mix. The genre is very popular, why do you think there aren’t more paranormal novels that feature characters of color?

AA: I think there’s a general stereotype that people of color do not like to read paranormal stories as they aren’t realistic. I don’t believe that. I think there’s a readership that’s thirsty for all types of stories, we just have to make them more available.

BBS: What led you to writing in this genre?

AA: I’ve always been a big fan of paranormal and my daughter is a huge fan, reading most of the books in the YA genre. When I decided to write a YA book there was no question that it would have paranormal elements.

BBS: How do you lend authenticity to the paranormal aspects of your novels? Did you base the characters powers on documented evidence of psychic ability or is totally fictional?

AA: I did a lot of research on supernatural powers and I love Greek Mythology, so I decided to blend the two. The characters, their powers and the world they are evolving in can be linked to documented events, especially the weather events. I tried to pull from our history as well as what’s actually happening in our world today, giving an alternative explanation for such things as global warming and the world’s fascination with UFOs.

BBS: Outside of the paranormal, each book tells the story of one of the main characters. Tell us a little about the themes each book covers.

AA: Krystal’s story touches on the mind of a teenager who has been through a divorce, moving to a new town, dealing with a power she cannot explain and experiencing her first crush. It’s a coming of age story with many different emotional twists.

For Sasha, my Latino protagonist, her troubles are a little different. She seemingly has it all, as people tend to believe rich families do. However, there’s a lot lacking in Sasha’s life, she’d trade all the money and prestige for just fifteen genuine minutes of her parents’ time. Stereotypes are a big part of Sasha’s world and dating an African American from the proverbial “wrong side of the tracks” doesn’t help.

Jake’s experiencing the ever growing problem of bullying. Anger and frustration can be like a drug to a teenage boy and Jake struggles to get a handle on his emotions and his power before it’s too late.

My thought for this series was to mix current and relevant issues with a touch of fantasy. To bring awareness as well as entertain.

BBS: Your daughter encouraged you to try your hand at writing for teens. Now you’ve tried it. What’s the verdict…will you remain in children’s literature? What more can we expect from you in the way of YA?

AA: When I was younger a schoolteacher of mine said there’s no greater reward than having an impact on young minds. I never appreciated that statement until I wrote Manifest. Traveling and speaking to children and young adults has given me a satisfaction that I wasn’t even aware I searched for. I am so enjoying the stories that I write and the intelligent discussions they have evoked with young people. I will definitely continue to write in the YA genre. I’m currently working on a YA romance, with no paranormal elements, but a strong sense of navigating the tricky waters of relationships from a young adult perspective.

BBS: You were shy about people reading your work, now that it’s out for all the world to read (and review) how are you managing the attention?

AA: I’m still amazed that people like what I write. No matter how many books I have published I’m still nervous when each one is released. As for reviews, I take the good with the bad, understanding that this is a subjective industry, but enjoying what I do nonetheless.

BBS: As an act of paying it forward put another new YA or MG author of color on our readers map. Someone you think is under the radar and whose work you wish would get a bit more attention and tell us why you chose that person.

AA: Earl Sewell. He also writes for Kimani TRU and does some adult fiction writing as well. What I like about Earl’s work is that it’s written by a man but it focuses on the life and growing pains of a teenage girl. I think it’s great for our teenage girls to see a positive black man looking out for their well-being.

Crystal Allen

February 8, 2011

Crystal Allen has one of the best author bios ever:

I was born in a military hospital in Germany because my dad was in the Army. I’m the youngest of five children.

I spent lots of my young years in New Albany, Indiana where I was corn-shucking and multiplication queen of my third grade class.

I’m ambidextrous, which means I can write with both hands.

I wore a wig to school my entire fifth grade year because I hated my hair.

I had two dates to an eighth grade sweetheart dance in which I was a candidate for Sweetheart Queen. (whoops!) I apologized to both guys because one had asked me very, very early and I’d forgotten. It was awkward for awhile, but then all three of us shrugged, got on the dance floor and shook what our mommas gave us! Ended up being one of the best dances ever!

In high school, I taught everyone in our choir to do the robot and we performed it in a concert.

Like Lamar, I had asthma. I grew out of it, though, when I was 16.

I’m married, have two sons and we live in Texas. My husband’s parents and siblings are from Tennessee and when they come to visit, we have a Texas/Tennessee bowling war where we all talk trash and try to bowl like Lamar.

The raves are rolling in for her debut MG novel, HOW LAMAR’S BAD PRANK WON A BUBBA-SIZED TROPHY (Balzer + Bray/Harper Collins), and she’s as much fun to interview as her writing suggests.

Why do you write? What inspired particular works — an image, a conversation, a person, a situation, etc.?
Writing allows me to empty when characters fill my senses and beg for life. …How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won A Bubba-Sized trophy actually began as a ghost writing possibility. I didn’t get the job, but I loved my characters and wanted to do something with them. At that time, it was a chapter book, written in third person, with multi-cultural characters. I got lots of encouragement and direction from incredible people like Bernette Ford, Christine-Taylor Butler, Eileen Robinson and Dara Sharif, but something just wasn’t right with that story, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Can you describe some surprises along the way of a story?
In following with what I said above, one day, in the middle of a CSI episode, a teenage, African-American boy began walking around inside my head like he owned the place! He was struttin’ like a crazy child! I honestly thought I might need some medical intervention! But soon, the mental scenery changed as this boy took me to a bowling alley. The smells, the sounds, and the kids bowling, made it clear who was strutting around my brain. I can’t tell you much about that CSI episode, but I can tell you that moment switched my story from third-person to first and changed everything between Lamar and me.

What aspect of storytelling most appeals to you?
I love dialogue. I build my stories around what my characters say, how they say it, and who they’re saying it to! I also like to close my eyes and type what I see in my brain. That’s a great exercise. But, if you’re going to try that exercise, make sure your fingers are on the right keys!

What’s the biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge is keeping my personal thoughts out of the story. For instance, Lamar and I fought a lot. For example, one time, I hollered at my computer screen, flipped the hard drive switch to off, yanked the curtains closed and shut the door to my work station! And it was because I didn’t want Lamar to do something that he, as a thirteen-year-old boy, needed to do in the story. It was a very hard lesson for me to learn, but it was also a very good one.

What led you to the children’s writing industry?
For the longest time, I thought my two sons were tone deaf. Then, I realized it was just the tone of MY voice that they chose to ignore. Chores and homework were everyday struggles and punishments weren’t working. So, I decided to write an ongoing story, using them as the main characters. After a few weeks of that, I wasn’t sure which of us was enjoying it the most. So, I began to search the internet for organizations and conferences.

What has kept you in? Can you describe some of the high and low points?
I love it. I wish I’d started sooner. The lowest point was probably between 2005 and the end of Summer, 2006. I’d put a lot of time and money in to week-long conferences, expensive boot camps for writers, grueling workshops and of course, endless writing, but I still had no solid interest from the publishing world to show for it. I strongly considered quitting, believing that maybe I didn’t have what it took to be a children’s book writer.
The highest point was in the Fall of 2006, when I contacted Dara Sharif, former Editor for Scholastic and Read & Rise Magazines–whom I’d met at a conference in Kansas City several months prior. I emailed her, hoping she would give me some direction on a story I was working on at the time. She immediately emailed back, told me to send her the story, informed me that she had lots of things on her desk that needed her immediate attention, but she’d get to it as soon as she could. THEN, she mentioned a story I had written and read aloud during that Kansas City conference where we’d met — a story that was actually an assignment for a class I’d signed up for.
In that same email, she asked if that story was still available and if so, she was interested in purchasing it! ***insert everything you think I did out of excitement here***
She bought my homework! My first sell! That one moment became a validation of my efforts, my reason to keep writing, and I will always be grateful to Ms. Sharif for that special moment.

What publishing issues are important to you right now? What are you excited about?
Digital publishing is an important issue that I’m watching because I think it’s going to dramatically change things in the near future.
I’m excited about the rise of stories with persons of color as the main protagonist or antagonist. This was unheard of when I was growing up. I’m so excited for today’s child.

What are the challenges?
The challenge for me will always be to put out a novel that’s sellable, viewed by my publisher as profitable, and highly enjoyable to my audience.

Were there any people who played pivotal roles along the way?
Yes. There were so many that I took up a whole page naming them in the back of my debut novel!

What brings you joy?
My God brings me joy. My family brings me joy. Finishing a chapter or a scene that I was dreading, brings me joy. Traveling brings me joy. Any of the professional sports teams in Houston getting a win, brings me joy.

Some favorite books you’ve read lately?
Alvin Ho, Allergic to Girls, School and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look,
Around Our Way on Neighbor’s Day by Tameka Fryer Brown, If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period by Gennifer Choldenko.

What’s the best advice that you’ve gotten/or would like to give to writers today?

Get rid of that voice in your head that says, “I can’t.” That voice is full of crackers and cream cheese, and is not the voice of truth.
What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
More humorous stories for middle-graders.

What are you working on now?
Well, because Lamar is such a big-mouth in my head, I’ve had to switch and write a story about a girl. But, she’s hilarious and I’m having an awesome time helping her write her story!

Thanks so much, Crystal!

Visit Crystal online — you’ll be glad you did.


“Cocky, sharp-tongued, and a known prankster, 13-year-old Lamar Washington is a protagonist readers won’t soon forget… Debut author Allen gives Lamar a singular (and often comically misguided) way with words …Under all the braggadocio is a boy with a big heart, and from the first sentence Lamar will have readers hooked.”
—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

“This refreshing first novel is told in the first person with plenty of snappy dialogue by a smart African-American middle-schooler whose asthma has kept him out of the usual sports and whose older brother, a basketball star, consistently taunts him… This stands out for its unusual setting and smooth integration of friendship and family concerns.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“From the opening line, “Since Saturday, I’ve fried Sergio like catfish, mashed him like potatoes, and creamed his corn in ten straight games of bowling…” Lamar’s self-aggrandizing narration is fresh, funny and intriguing…”
—Children’s Literature

“Crystal Allen has the rare ability to make you laugh out loud one minute, and swell with tears the next. The ‘tween book world has a new hero—Lamar Washington—as well as a brilliant new author who’s bound to win a Bubba-sized trophy herself!”

—Neal Shusterman, author of Unwind, Bruiser and The Schwa Was Here


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