Day 29: Meet the BBS — Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

February 29, 2012

Wow, participating in the special celebration that is 28 Days Later has been such a wonderful honour for me. I am floored by how much I learn from the campaign every year, and it breaks my heart too — I should be hearing about these amazing authors and illustrators more often!

DAILY INSPIRATION: My debut novel, 8th GRADE SUPERZERO (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2010), has brought so many opportunities my way. I’ve loved meeting (in person and in the digital world) readers of all ages who have their own precious stories to tell, who are exquisite reminders of one of my biggest WHYs for this work: writing, telling stories, brings new opportunities to listen, to step outside of myself and my affinities into unknown people and worlds. I’m so grateful for your stories that make mine richer.

One of the challenges I think we face in today’s culture is a directing away from nuance, from complexity, from in-depth exploration and discomfort. I’m glad that we still hold on the stories. Stories give us room to ask the questions that have more than one answer, or don’t have any answers at all. While preparing for a conference talk, I found this, from the poet Wendell Berry: “In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter, war spreading, families dying, the world in danger, I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.” That’s what I want to do with my writing: sow clover. I write to honour the particular, and embrace the universal. To listen between the lines to your story, and mine. I wrote an essay about listening recently (my writing is all about what I listen to), and came to see that I write because I “cherish the magic and mystery of life, and I want to imagine, and remember, and share.” And even when I’m beyond frustrated, completely flummoxed, or bored to tears with my efforts — I love this work deeply. All my life, I’ve been grateful for the stories.

Day 29: Meet The BBS – Paula Chase Hyman

February 29, 2012

Day 29 is like being atop a mountain and looking out on the lay of the land, which are 28 great spotlights and knowing that readers and those who influence readers have the work of 28 more creative authors to consume. Pride and satisfaction are understatements to describe how that makes me feel.

But, making sure The Brown Bookshelf and 28 Days Later goes off like a well-oiled machine can be challenging. What gets lost in the mix is that we, the BBS members, are all authors as well. So thanks to Leap Year, we’re able to remind not only our visitors of that…but ourselves, as well. Promoting others and yourself, simultaneously, not such an easy thing.

So here I go…

The Journey After the Journey

You can check the About Us page or my bio to find out a bit more about me. What’s less known is what happened after my Del Rio Bay series was published.  Kensington published the five-book series between 2007 and 2009. My initial goal was to get the characters to graduation. Instead, the series ends at the end of their junior year. I still have readers write me and say – Noooo what happens next?! Tell me there’s another book coming. And those emails never fail to make me smile. I love that readers have bonded with Mina and the clique. But the will of the readers  is not always that of the industry.
drama-cover.jpg twisted.jpg
The series continues to  live on in libraries, in the online marketplace and wherever readers can get their hands on it. Meanwhile, I’m trying to find my way back to writing regularly.  From the time my series launched until now, writing has always been something that has to take place in between my full-time job and managing a busy family. So one day, my current Work-in-Progress will see the light of day. And if this article, about teens and ebooks, is right – sooner rather than later because ebooks opens up the opportunity for me to try free e-novellas etc…So watch out for me, I’ll be back in “print,” no matter the form.

The Buzz

The Del Rio Bay series was among the first contemporary YA books featuring a multi-cultural cast where the storyline wasn’t strictly revolved around race. I’m proud to say that because of books like mine Nikki Carter and Ni-Ni Simone were able to publish their YA books. The DRB series proved readers, of any race, were looking for books that portrayed a more diverse community. And it proved that readers of color were hungry for books that went beyond historical fiction.


Day 29: Meet the BBS — Kelly Starling Lyons

February 29, 2012

The Journey

I still remember the book that called me to write for children — Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth, illustrated by Chris Soentpiet. Looking at that sweet cover of a smiling girl with the same kind of pigtails I used to wear moved me. I was an adult and that was my first time seeing a picture book featuring an African-American child.

Right then, I knew that I wanted to create stories that shared every-day moments and history that put African-American children in the center instead of the margins. I’m so grateful for editors at Just Us Books believing in me. They guided me and published my first two books, NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal and One Million Men and Me.

I wasn’t looking for a story when I came across the cohabitation register that inspired my latest picture book, Ellen’s Broom (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), illustrated by Daniel Minter. I was researching family history in a North Carolina library. But maybe the story was looking for me.

I don’t believe it was chance that after telling a mentor at the Writers Workshop at Chautauqua about the record I found and the jumping the broom tradition, he encouraged me to find the story within. I think some stories are waiting to be told. I feel so blessed that this story chose me.  

Like Just Us Books, agents at Dwyer & O’Grady and then editors at G.P. Putnam’s Sons believed in me too. Putnam published Ellen’s Broom and bought two more of my stories. In December, Tea Cakes for Tosh, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, will debut. Shortly after, my picture book with BBS member Don Tate will hit shelves. So grateful for everyone who has helped me along this journey.

Being part of The Brown Bookshelf is one way I give back. I love shining a light on the wonderful authors and illustrators of color creating stories for kids. They inspire me to keep writing and pushing.

The Buzz on Ellen’s Broom

A Junior Library Guild selection

“Lyons’s homespun and heartfelt dialogue combine with Minter’s exquisite use of line, color, and composition to produce a story that radiates deep faith and strong family bonds.”

– School Library Journal

 “A spirited story filled with the warmth of a close family celebrating a marriage before God and the law.”


“A heartwarming story . . . Daniel Minter’s vividly colored block prints are brilliant.”

– USA Today

“Set during Reconstruction, this story bursts with one family’s joy as Mama and Papa, both former slaves, legalize their marriage . . . Minter’s vibrant, hand-painted block prints, filled with period detail, nicely enhance this testament to remembering the trials of the past and celebrating hardwon freedom.”

– Booklist

“Ellen’s Broom is entertaining and delightful. Enriched with amazing illustrations . . . this book celebrates the meaningful history of weddings for the African American community. This articulate, bright and cheerful story is a must for all families to read.”

– Black Bride and Groom magazine

Day 29: Meet the BBS – Gwendolyn Hooks

February 29, 2012

This is me, graduating from high school. I'm off to college to become a math teacher--my first passion. Years later, I discovered my second passion--writing for children.

WOW! I finished my first stint as a 28 Days Later blogger. After researching and emailing back and forth with five authors, I feel like I made lifelong friends.  Just reading about their accomplishments made me scurry back to my office and hit the laptop keys.

2011 was a great year for me. I had 10 early readers published, 11 if you count the Spanish translation of The Best Shoes. My Pet Club series of eight books was published by Stone Arch Books. They featured me on their website. I love writing early readers and kids seem to love reading them. I was ecstatic when a Lee Elementary teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma told me “Thank you for writing books my second graders can read successfully.” That’s when I knew I had done a good job.

Because of my early readers, I was invited to the Humboldt County Authors Festival in Eureka, California last October. I had an amazing time visiting with students, sharing my writing life, and learning about theirs. I visited three schools and one had only eight students! An apple orchard surrounded the school. Students picked apples and the teachers baked a pie for me. I can still taste the warm apples and smell the cinnamon. Delicious!

So far this year, I’ve finished a picture book biography and have sent it out to find the perfect publisher. I have lots of ideas for other books I need to start researching. That reminds me that I need to head back to my office and laptop and start thinking about the next 28 Days Later.



HOOKS, Gwendolyn. Pet Costume Party. illus. by Mike Byrne. 32p. (Stone Arch Readers: The Pet Club Series). Stone Arch. 2011. PLB $21.32. ISBN 978-1-4342-2513-9; pap. $3.95. ISBN 978-1-4342-3053-9. LC number unavailable.
K-Gr 2–Andy and his pet goldfish are having a Halloween party and need costumes. They move through various choices but the fact that Nibbles can’t talk complicates matters. Ultimately, Andy does all of the brainstorming and the fish uses creative nonverbal methods to add her two cents. Throw in the bow on the top of her head and how she deadpans her displeasure, and Nibbles steals the show. Byrne’s vibrant cartoon drawings offer gentle humor to Hooks’s giggle-worthy story. Basic vocabulary combined with dialogue and slightly more complex sentence structures will help stretch beginning readers while keeping them engaged with the familiar. An excellent addition to most collections.–Sarah Townsend, Norfolk Public Library, VA

Day 29: Meet the BBS — Tameka Fryer Brown

February 29, 2012

Me, somewhere around 2nd grade


I’m an achievement-oriented person, always have been. Knowing this, it should come as no surprise that my journey to publishing Around Our Way on Neighbors’ Day didn’t really start out as a dream.

It was a goal from day one.

Yes, I made the rookie mistake of banging out a picture book story in three days, mailing it off to four of the top publishers in the industry, and waiting confidently for the offers to roll in because of my phenomenal, oft-commended writing skills.

Well. At least I had done enough research to make sure the manuscript was properly formatted and a SASE was enclosed.

Though that first book was certainly way…way…WAY off the mark, I do consider that first round of submissions to have been serendipitous. From those submissions, I received a form rejection letter (photocopied askew on the page) that informed me about The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

Via SCBWI, I found out there was much I had no idea I didn’t know. I got straight to the business of learning it. The rest is ongoing history.




From Booklist: “[A]n African American girl bounces around her urban neighborhood celebrating Neighbors’ Day…happily surrounded by a multicultural crowd.… The acrylic art is saturated with rich color, energetic movement, and abstract figures and shapes, all reminiscent of Jacob Lawrence’s art. Most scenes are double-page spreads that, together with the words, demonstrate the size and diversity of a joyful world.”

From School Library Journal: “…The book’s lively illustrations and energetic main character lead readers to think about their own neighborhood, and the kind acts and community spirit that make good neighbors. This story in verse is sure to receive a warm welcome, and it might inspire youngsters to institute their own ‘Neighbors’ Day.’”

From Kirkus: “…In this lively and accessible poem, a multicultural community brings food, music and laughter to the streets to celebrate their neighborhood….”

From Children’s Literature: “…In rhythmic rhymes kids dance, jump rope, and eat ice cream…Nothing sits still on these double pages. The people, buildings, even the sidewalks seem to vibrate….”

From Multiculturalism Rocks!: “…The first lines set the tone: no cloud in the sky; if you were moody when you picked up the book, prepare yourself to smile. I like that I can sing the text. I am enjoying how fun it is to read it to children. I challenge the adult to remain seated during the whole reading….”

From ReaderKidZ: “…[A] celebration of good people, joyful times, and a community that honors and respects the traditions and culture of those who call this part of town home… lively, rhythmic language and bright, colorful illustrations…a celebration of families and neighborhoods and all that’s right in the world.”

From A Book and A Hug: “…[A] diverse, energetic, vibrant clan of people who live side by side and bring their uniqueness together to create a delicious melting pot…Great smiling energy beams out to you from the warm, bright pictures and the voice calls to everyone, ‘Hey, who lives in your neighborhood?’ Go find out!”

From K12Reader: “The book is a welcome addition to the growing body of multicultural children’s literature, offering a positive portrayal of a diverse community cooperating and having a good time together…a valuable addition to any classroom.”

From The Children’s Book Review: “…This is a fun, rhythmic read that showcases a multi-ethnic community joining together to share some laughs and more than a few servings of rice and beans, collard greens, mac and cheese, and grilled lime chicken—all contributed by various families in the area. Throw some dancing into the mix and you’ve got one heck of a party.”

Find out more about Tameka and her upcoming projects at her website: 

Day 29: Meet the Brown Bookshelf — Don Tate

February 29, 2012

I’ve been drawing since I was old enough to grasp a pencil. I’ve been illustrating children’s books and educational products for 27 years. But I’ve been writing for  just a few years. Writing always scared me. To me a writer possessed a 4-year college degree. Writers attended journalism schools. Had law degrees. A writer committed to memory the concept of conjugating verbs. None of that applied to me. I focused on  drawing and painting.

But, shoot — good thing I got over that or else I’d never had the opportunity to announce this good news: I am now a published author! In 2004, I shoved my drawing tools aside and began writing the first draft of a book that eventually went on to win a Lee & Low Books New Voices Honor award, . Next month, It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, will publish with Lee & Low Books (April, 2012).

When I visit schools I always encourage kids to face their fears, don’t run from them. I faced my fear of words and discovered a whole new passion. I am a writer. Here’s a look at a teaser/trailer for the upcoming book.

What else am I working on? Well, I’m under contract to finish a book by our own Kelly Starling Lyons. Then it’s on to a book written by the wonderful Eve Bunting. And later this year, a collaboration with my good friend Chris Barton. So many good things on the horizon. I’m blessed.

Day 29 – Meet the BBS – Crystal Allen

February 29, 2012

The New Journey When my debut novel, How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won A Bubba-Sized Trophy came out in February of 2011, I thought that was the biggest moment of my life in the world of publishing.  I now had a book that would hit the shelves of many bookstores and libraries around the world.

But that wasn’t my biggest moment.

It happened during my very first author’s visit.  I was so scared but I wanted to share the news to all children that they, too, could grow up to be a writer.  As I looked into the bright eyes of those children, some being introduced to a library for the first time (their library had been closed for five years because they didn’t have a librarian) it changed my motive from “Publish as many books as I can” to “Reach them,” especially when two African American fourth grade girls approached me and said, “We’ve decided we want to be writers.  We didn’t know Black people could write books.  We love to make up stories.”

The New Inspiration

My new inspiration is anchored in reaching reluctant readers.  I was one, but I didn’t know it.  Maybe back in the day it was called something else.  But a book was the last thing I was interested in picking up.  Now, as I do school visits and presentations, I get so fired up when a child approaches me and says, “After listening to you, I’m excited about writing.”

So I’ve created a spot on my website for them to write stories, show their talent and represent their school.  It’s called STRIKEWRITERS.  I’m inspired because they’re inspired.

The New Back Story

Even though I had the concept, I didn’t know how to get the word out.  But then I got an email, asking me to speak at a librarian’s conference in my area.  (I’ve just got to say ‘Thank You, Lord’)

I explained my idea to the librarians and how I wanted to reach reluctant readers and give students an opportunity to display their work on an actual author’s website.

I began to get emails like crazy.  Requests for full days, half days, career days, it was amazing.  But the most fulfilling piece came through the children.  During my visits, when I announced the opportunity to have a story displayed on my website, the response was phenomenal.

Now I know, beyond any doubt, that this is what I’m supposed to do.  As long as I can, I’ll write, just so that I can remind those children who had never thought of writing as a career, that they, too, can do what I do.


Day 28: Margaree King Mitchell

February 28, 2012

If you are at all familiar with the picture book genre, you’ve likely heard of Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, the much heralded, 1994 Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Margaree King Mitchell is the author of that still-popular title, as well as Granddaddy’s Gift (1996).

Her latest book, When Grandmama Sings, was released last month to wonderful reviews. As we wind down this year’s campaign, it is an honor to feature the words and work of Margaree King Mitchell.


The Journey

When my son was in kindergarten, his school had Grandparents Day.  Students could invite their grandparents to spend the whole day with them.  We lived in Memphis, TN at the time and my son’s grandmothers lived in Atlanta and Kansas City, so he had no one to invite to school.  When he arrived at school, not only had students brought their grandmothers, some had also brought their grandfathers.  When my son got home he was very sad.  “I don’t have any grandfathers,” he said.  I explained to him that both of his grandfathers had died before he was born.  But he didn’t understand.  Every day he came home from school sad because he had no grandfathers. I searched the public library for books that would show what life was like for his ancestors. I couldn’t find any.  Then I went to all the bookstores in town.  I still couldn’t find any.  Therefore, I decided to write the books myself.

I wanted the books to be set in the rural South because that is where I’m from.  I grew up on my grandfather’s farm in Holly Springs, Mississippi. I wanted each book to focus on an ordinary person who does extraordinary things for the time period in which they lived. I patterned the Uncle Jed character in my first book, UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP, after my grandfather.  My grandfather owned his own farm during a time of segregation and racial discrimination.  And he showed me that a person can rise above their surroundings and make their dreams come true.

I wanted to show the same things in my books.  As I was thinking about my first book, I remembered my grandfather telling me about a barber who went house to house cutting hair. I made Uncle Jed a barber because I wanted all children to identify with the character whether they lived in the city or a small town. By the time I began writing the book we had moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. One day my son’s first grade teacher asked me to help out with some of the kids in her class who were behind the other kids academically.   I started volunteering three days a week and worked with five students.  Those three days turned into four days, then five days.  I really cared about the students and wanted them to do well in school.  When the end of the school year came, I wondered what would become of students who had no one to believe in them.  Then I realized that the book I was writing to teach my son about his ancestors could also inspire children to dream big dreams for their lives.

After submitting my story for two years I received nothing but rejection letters.  However, they were personal rejection letters from editors telling me that they loved my story but it didn’t fit in with their publishing plans.  Finally, frustrated that those editors could love my story and not publish it, I decided to submit it directly to the publisher of Simon & Schuster.  Within a month I had a contract.

When UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP was published, I was asked to read the story during Story Time at the main branch of the Little Rock Public Library.  This was the first time kids other than my son had heard the story so I was anxious to see their reaction.  After I finished reading the book, parents who were fascinated by the historical aspects of the story dominated the question and answer period.  And I didn’t get any comments from children.  But as I was leaving a little girl was waiting for me by the door.  She said, “I liked your story about Uncle Jed.  I want to be a doctor when I grow up but my grandmama keeps telling me I’ll never be one.  Now I know I can be a doctor.”

I knew then I had achieved my goal in writing UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP.  Since that day I have received many letters from children all across the country telling me their dreams.   They also tell me who says they can’t achieve their dreams and why.  But because of Uncle Jed’s story, they now know they can be anything they want to be if they just don’t give up.


The Inspiration

I get ideas for my stories on my morning walks.  When my mind is quiet and I’m surrounded by nature ideas come to me.  If I’m stuck at a certain part in a story I put it aside until the next day.  I know that the next morning while I’m walking and appreciating nature the right solution will come.

I’m inspired by stories that are populated by families and friends, the stuff of life.  I especially love the books of Mildred D. Taylor, whose stories are inspired by her family and their experiences.   She heard about many of these stories at family gatherings in Mississippi.  Her book ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY, is set in 1933 Mississippi during the Great Depression and deals with racial injustice.  Her stories are filled with characters who find a way to right wrongs done to them.


The Back Story

My agent placed WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS with Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, a division of William Morrow and Company.  WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS was the third book she had placed with them.  However, before the first book came out, HarperCollins purchased William Morrow and Company.  Therefore, HarperCollins inherited all three books.   After a review of my books, it was decided that WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS would be published first.  So I have waited over ten years for WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS to be published.

However, during those ten years lots of great things happened with UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP.  They are too numerous to name.  I’ll just mention a few.  An award winning musical featuring Broadway veteran Ken Prymus has been adapted from UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP.  The most recent performances were in Denver last year.  Plans are being made to take it to additional theaters.

The Federal Reserve Bank has developed lesson plans using UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP to teach students about saving, savings goals, opportunity cost, and entrepreneurship.

The Library of Congress has developed a lesson plan connecting events in history to the story in UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP.


The Buzz

From School Library Journal:

Gr-2-4 – Set in the segregated South of the 1950s, Mitchell’s poignant story features eight-year old Belle and her loving, stalwart African-American family. When Grandmama, who can’t read but whose singing voice captures the hearts of all who hear her, joins a jazz band for a tour of the South, Belle pleads to go along. Thrilled to expand her world beyond Pecan Flats, MS, she experiences firsthand the difficulties her people face: hotels marked “White Only,” diners that refuse them service, police who search their cars and luggage for no reason. Through it all, Grandmama sings to growing crowds, believing in the power of music to bring people together. When, at the story’s end, a recording contract beckons her “up north,” Grandmama tells Belle to believe in herself and “sing her own song.” Ransome’s full-page images, rich in color and feeling, portray the landscape of the South and the individual emotions of the characters with equal aplomb. Placed in the past, the message is still relevant for children today.” (Barbara Elleman, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, MA

From Kirkus Reviews:

Belle joins her beloved grandmother, a jazz singer, on a summer tour of Southern towns and sees that segregation is everywhere—not just at home in Mississippi.

Holding tight to her uncle’s lucky rabbit’s foot, Belle watches as Grandmama and the musicians face the ugliness of Jim Crow in diners and theaters and on the road. In Alabama, the police dump their belongings on the roadside, a state’s welcome. She also listens as her grandmother shares her dreams for an integrated society and thrills to her resounding performance on stage in Atlanta, one that leads to an offer to make recordings for a company up North. It’s a moment that inspires Belle to dream, because “the promise of her song helped me believe in myself.” As in Uncle Jed’s Barbershop (1993), for which Ransome won a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor, Mitchell has crafted another compelling story of an African-American family both strong and determined despite the all-powerful clamp of racism. Ransome uses watercolors in warm tones of yellows and browns to reveal nuances of expression and the warmth of family and community.

A gentle story that shows the everyday realities of segregation through the observant eye of a child. (Picture book. 5-9)

From Publishers Weekly:

“Mitchell and Ransome, the team behind Coretta Scott King Honor–winner Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, reunite for another story set in the early 20th century, in which intimate family relationships are set against a backdrop of racial segregation. Eight-year-old narrator Belle lives with her parents and Grandmama in the fictional town of Pecan Flats, Miss. Grandmama’s singing voice has earned her local fame, and when a man offers to “book her and a band on a small singing tour of the South,” she agrees, bringing Belle along for the ride. Written in the past tense, Belle’s narration has an elegiac quality, but while the band encounters plenty of discrimination on the road, triumphs outweigh setbacks (and Grandmama doesn’t come to any serious harm). Ransome’s lovely, naturalistic watercolors draw out a wealth of emotions from the characters, particularly Grandmama, whose expressions range from weariness to passion while she’s singing, and determination, such as when she slams money on the counter of a restaurant that won’t serve them. It’s a stirring reminder that it’s never too late to chase one’s dreams, no matter the obstacles. Ages 5–9. (Jan.)”

From The Horn Book:

From the author and the illustrator of Uncle Jed’s Barbershop (rev. 11/93) comes another picture book about life in the segregated South. The narrator recounts her grandmother’s story—she couldn’t read but “always had a song to sing”—which centers on Grandmama’s singing tour with her eight-year-old granddaughter there to keenly observe everything. Grandmama and her musicians initially draw small crowds, and Belle nervously points out the “whites only” signs wherever they go, but Grandmama is undeterred. Gradually word spreads about Grandmama’s talent as the tour continues, but the group still must contend with suspicion from Alabama police. The narration is calm and matter-of-fact, like Grandmama, who remains focused on what’s right, while in contrast Ransome’s paintings show the shame, sadness, and anger the characters feel. Mitchell’s latest picture book gives modern-day children a realistic depiction of the small humiliations and frightening moments African American travelers went through in their daily lives during the Jim Crow era, and it makes an excellent book for discussion. susan dove lempke

From Elizabeth Bird’s Librarian Preview:

Remember Uncle Jed’s Barbershop by Margaree King Mitchell, and illustrated by James Ransome?  I sure as heck do because that book ends up on a lot of school lists of required reading.  Well, that book came out in 1993 and is still in print to this day.  Now Mitchell and Ransome have reunited at long last in When Grandmama Sings.  In this picture book (historical) a girl can read and her grandma can’t.  When her grandmother’s singing gives her a chance to go on tour she does so with her granddaughter.  The trouble?  They’re touring the segregated south.  This is a book that covers both a meaningful relationship and history.  A good companion to last year’s The Green Book by Calvin Ramsey and Floyd Cooper, don’t you think?


The State of the Industry

Publishers should remember that there is a whole market of underserved readers who are interested in stories of the South and other stories featuring the African American experience.     There are a myriad of stories about African American life waiting to be told but if traditional publishers are not interested in these stories the literary record will be incomplete. The South is filled with rich history of how African Americans overcame racial obstacles to not only survive but thrive and be successful under unbearable conditions.  This is why ordinary people are at the center of my stories. By telling those stories students will realize that they, too, can make a difference in the world.

Regardless of how well previous books by authors of color are received, there is still someone who says no one will read your book.  Or the book has to be about a famous African American.  Or the person reading the story has no grasp of history and doesn’t believe that ordinary African Americans could be resourceful and create their own destiny.  Therefore, it is hard for new books to be published.  And it will continue to be so unless there is an advocate in publishing companies who is committed to being sure that all stories are told.

Day 27: Elizabeth Zunon

February 27, 2012

Elizabeth Zunon was born in Albany, NY and grew up in the Ivory Coast in West Africa (Cote d’Ivoire). Her artwork reflects the people, places, and things from the cultures of her childhood.

A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Elizabeth has illustrated four picture books for children with several more on the horizon.

Today Zunon talks about her journey. And this is a treat!

By Elizabeth Zunon

The Journey 

Picture books have always been a feature throughout my life. I grew up in French-speaking Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) West Africa. Being a product of a bi-lingual family, my mother often read English-language bedtime stories to my little brother and me, and our bookshelves were filled with African, French, and American picture books. The excitement I felt (as a child and as an adult), finding a book in an American bookstore or library that I had been read or owned while living in Africa was (and still is)  exhilarating!

It was no surprise then, as I realized that making pictures could be something one could do for a living, that I decided to pursue children’s book illustration when I attended the Rhode Island School of Design. I toiled in my studio for hours on end, creating stories and projects that drew from memories of my childhood in the Ivory Coast. Obsessed with depicting scenes from home, trying to relay to my classmates and professors foreign and familiar ideas about the world which I grew up in.

After graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 2006, I moved to Jersey City, NJ and started working in a flower kiosk in Bryant Park in New York. It was a green oasis in the middle of a busy, crowded, noisy city where people could take the time to sit, rest and contemplate. I had a lot of time alone in the flower kiosk among the potted orchids, hydrangeas and irises, to sit and contemplate myself. I filled up my sketchbook with drawings of people in the park, notes about clandestine conversations I overheard, and story ideas for potential books I could create. I met a lot of people and had many unexpected conversations with passers-by that I probably wouldn’t have just walking down the street.

The park was a great space for an artist’s mind to absorb sights, smells, sounds… and to generally be inspired.

During my time in New York City, I attended various Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) meetings and events where I met authors, illustrators, editors, publishers and agents. I spent my evenings after work researching publishing houses and their portfolio submissions, worked on my own painting projects on the weekends to add new pieces to my portfolio and did some portfolio drop-offs at various houses in New York (collecting rejection letters along the way). I met my agent, Lori Nowicki (Painted Words) during an illustrator-agent critique session at the Society of Illustrators. She offered to work with me and help me get “real” (paid!)  illustration jobs. Soon after she took me on, the contract for My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey came along! It was my first illustration contract, and it was published in September 2010.

The Inspiration 

My favorite author/illustrator is Ezra Jack Keats. I loved the book The Snowy Day as a little girl; mostly because the idea of putting on a snowsuit and playing outside in mounds of snow was very exotic to me at the time, living in tropical Africa (I took the palm trees swaying in the hot sun for granted until I was a teenager living in upstate New York). The various textures and colors that Keats used in his books inspired my way of working when I graduated from design school. A seamless combination of printed paper, colored paper and painting is what I strive to create today. I love pattern. I’ve started experimenting recently with stamping and silkscreening – so much fun! And addictive!

Vera B. Williams is another one of my favorite author/illustrators. As a child, I saw aspects of myself in Bidemmi, the main character in her book Cherries and Cherry Pits: “… Bidemmi loves to draw… She always tries a new marker right away… The green, the pink, the red, the purple, the brown, the black, and all the others.” She was just like me! I love the carefree  marker and watercolor style of Williams’ illustrations. I also think that this book got my mind simmering on the idea of “drawing stories” and the importance of the reader identifying with a character.

In the last illustration for My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey, I painted a little Bearden running across the page, leaving blue footprints in his own painting. This is a nod to my favorite Keats and Williams book characters.

I also love the work of illustrator Kadir Nelson. The gracefulness and sumptuousness of  his oil painted portraits is unparallelled. There is a mature quality in his paintings that I think should be seen more in children’s books. Why shouldn’t books we buy for our children consist of exquisitely executed oil paintings? They deserve it! The symmetry and balance in his illustrations makes them seem majestic- and you just can’t stop staring! Nelson’s use of light, especially highlights on dark skin, make his figures glow, sing, live.

All of the books and stories I most identify with feature characters of different colors and origins. This reflects the world we live in, which I think is very important to represent to children.

Outside of the children’s book world, I would have to say that the lyrics of Bill Withers’ songs are a great inspiration to me. The beautiful simplicity with which he communicates feelings and describes imagery is something I look to often when thinking about writing my own stories.

The Back Story 

I was lucky enough to be considered as the illustrator for The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind last year. The manuscript arrived on my desk just as I was finishing up the paintings for Lala Salama: A Tanzanian Lullaby. I felt very proud, as an African, to actually be illustrating a true-life story of innovation and ambition by another African. As the deadlines for his book were very tight, I immediately set to work researching the boy; William Kamkwamba, and his life.

One of my favorite parts of exploring a new story is posing as the characters  and taking lots of reference photos that I will draw and paint from to create the final illustrations.

William collected odds and ends of metal, rubber, rope and such from his local scrapyard and from around his home to build a working windmill. This windmill changed wind into electricity, which William  then used to light his house and ultimately help irrigate his family’s fields during a horrible drought.

I wanted to emulate William’s process of searching and gathering, so I scrounged my house for odds and ends that I could use in the illustrations for his book.

Photos I took of bottle-caps, nails, screws and lightbulbs I found all made it into the illustrations, as well as lots of pieces of paper from my (always growing) collection. Gathering and putting all these different pieces together was a thrill!

The Buzz for The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

The true story of a Malawian teenager who leveraged need and library research into a windmill constructed from found materials.

Forced by drought and famine to drop out of school, William dreams of “building things and taking them apart.” Inspired by science books in an American-built library near his village, his dreams turn to creating “electric wind.” Despite the doubts of others he begins—assembling discarded bicycle parts and other junk into a rickety tower, triumphantly powering an electric light and going on to dream of windmill-driven wells to water the land. Kamkwamba tells this version (another, for adult readers, was published with the same title in 2009) of his tale of inspiration meeting perspiration in terse, stately third person: “He closed his eyes and saw a windmill outside his home, pulling electricity from the breeze and bringing light to the dark valley.” Zunon illustrates it handsomely, with contrasting cut-paper-collage details arranged on brown figures, and broad, sere landscapes painted in visibly textured oils.

A plainspoken but inspiring tale of homespun ingenuity. (afterword) (Picture book/biography. 7-9)

-Kirkus Review

Zunon’s (My Hands Sing the Blues) oil paint and cut-paper collages amplify the entwined themes of science and magic in this adaptation of the authors’ 2009 adult book. Kamkwamba was born in Malawi in 1987, and when he was 14, drought was ravaging his country. Forced to leave school to save money, Kamkwamba studied science books at the library, learning about windmills—and their potential. “He closed his eyes and saw a windmill outside his home, pulling electricity from the breeze and bringing light to the dark valley.” Gathering materials from the junkyard, he assembles a windmill that creates “electric wind” and even lights a light bulb. Tradition and “tales of magic” combine with the promise of technology in this inspiring story of curiosity and ingenuity. Zunon’s artwork combines naturalistic and more whimsical elements; the African sun beats down on Zunon’s villagers, ribbony “ghost dancers” encircle Kamkwamba’s bed while he sleeps, and blue cut-paper swirls sweep toward the windmill. While the narrative simplifies Kamkwamba’s creative process, an afterword provides additional detail for readers who share his mechanical inclinations. Ages 6–8. Agent: ICM. Illustrator’s agent: Painted Words. (Jan.)

- Publisher’s Weekly

Based on the best seller of the same title, this picture-book biography chronicles Kamkwamba’s teen years in a Malawian village. As he tills the soil, his mind teems with a mix of mechanical questions and the magical stories relayed by his elders. When a drought destroys the crops, his education fund dries up as well. Kamkwamba seeks refuge in the American-built library, where, dictionary in hand, he decodes the function of a windmill that has captured his interest. Despite the murmurings of incredulous villagers, the young man assembles junkyard scraps to build “electric wind.” The third-person descriptions and dialogue are flavored with African phrases. Zunon’s compositions, rendered in cut paper and oils, create a variety of moods. Colorfully garbed ghost dancers populate the boy’s dreams, while crumpled tan rice paper, arranged to depict a high horizon line just beneath a blazing sun, forms a parched landscape, overwhelming in scale. Swirls of patterned blue and green paper portray the wind that propels the blades of his creation. While an extensive author’s note explains that it took several years to achieve the ability to irrigate, the lack of clear visuals to show how wind becomes electricity (and ultimately pumps water) may frustrate young children. That caveat aside, this is a dynamic portrait of a young person whose connection to the land, concern for his community, and drive to solve problems offer an inspiring model. It would pair well with one of the recent titles about Wangari Maathai.-Wendy Lukehart, Washington DC Public Library.

- School Library Journal

(website with video)

Day 26: Alice Faye Duncan

February 26, 2012

Alice Faye Duncan is a National Board Certified Library Media Specialist with 19 years of school librarian experience. Surrounded by stacks and shelves of books, writing for children seemed like the next logical step in her career. And she certainly knows how to capture the attention of her readers. The award winning Memphis, TN native has written five books: Willie Jerome; Miss Viola and Uncle Ed Lee; The National Civil Rights Museum Celebrates Everyday People; Christmas Soup; and HONEY BABY SUGAR CHILD. In high school, Alice read two books that changed her life. “To Be Young Gifted and Black by Lorraine Hansberry helped me fall in love with myself.  Toni Cade’s Bambara’s Gorilla My Love made me fall in love with words.” Alice believes everyone has a story to tell and if you’re an aspiring writer who wants to write that story, “Feel free to scream and cry about the writing process. But whatever you do, DON’T GIVE UP!” Alice doesn’t and is currently working on a picture book about blues great, B.B. King.

Today the 26th day of our annual 28 Days Later campaign, we’re honoring Alice Faye Duncan for her writing successes and her contributions to the world of children’s publishing.


The Journey

In 1991 I graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville with a degree in Library Science.  During my studies at UT, I took a couple of classes in children’s literature.  I tried writing a picture book during that time but was completely unsuccessful.  While working for the Memphis Public Library I took another children’s literature class from Mrs. Ramona Mahood at the University o fMemphis.  She was an inspiring teacher who allowed me to write a picture book for my graduate project.  That manuscript was WILLIE JEROME which became my first publication with Simon and Schuster in 1995. Tyrone Geter was the illustrator. I have not stopped writing since that time.

The Inspiration

My mother was an elementary school teacher who kept every college book she ever purchased.  Our house was filled with bookshelves and as an only child, who often rambled through the shelves for something to read, I found three favorite poets at a very early age.  They were Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou.  I loved them when I was ten years old and I love them now at forty. In terms of fine artists who inspire me, I plan to rob a bank so that I can purchase a painting by Kadir Nelson and a sculpture by Vinnie Bagwell.  Here in the city ofMemphis, I collect work by local African American artists such as Frank D. Robinson, Morris Howard, Darlene Newman and Carl Moore.  I can’t draw a stick!  However, art is my muse and my addiction. In fact, when I am short on inspiration I seek out, art museums or documentaries about artists. I recently viewed Radiant Child which is about the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat.  His work came across simplistic but it was most thoughtful and well planned, just like a great picture book.

The Back Story

My most recent book is HONEY BABY SUGAR CHILD.  It is a mother’s love song to her young child.  I hear that my book is a very popular gift at baby showers and birthday parties for preschoolers.  HONEY BABY SUGAR CHILD is presently in its 6th printing.  Its publication was somewhat circuitous. In 1999 I sent the manuscript to my editor at Simon and Schuster who left the company shortly after receiving it.  The new editor found it tucked away in the old editor’s drawer.  He liked it and offered me a contract.  An original publication date was set and changed. Finally, HONEY BABY SUGAR CHILD was released in 2005 and it remains in print.





The Buzz

In 2006, HONEY BABY SUGAR CHILD received an NAACP Image Award Nomination for Outstanding Literary Work for Children.

The State of the Industry

I did not choose writing.  It chose me.  However, what I write does not frequently excite my agent or major publishing houses.  For periods in my career this type of rejection has made me doubt my talent.  However, I recently had a new revelation. Yes, self-publishing is hard as heck.  But there are times when a burning manuscript will not be denied and you must publish it, yourself.  Religious folks might compare this to a Jeremiah experience.  It’s like fire in your bones.  Though the powers that be say, “No, that’s not it,” your soul says otherwise. On my own, I recently published, THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT—a Puzzle Book for Children. Within three months, I have sold 3,000 copies through school visits, social networking and my presence on the Web. They have not been easy sells.  However, my soul is satisfied.

Find out more about Alice Faye Duncan by visiting her website at


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