The Back Story with Katheryn Russell-Brown

It’s not often that a debut picture book earns three starred reviews. But that’s just what Katheryn Russell-Brown won for her brand new release, Little Melba and Her Big Trombone (Lee & Low, 2014). A law professor by trade, Katheryn was called to write for kids after she became a mom. Here’s her inspiring story of bringing her first children’s book to life. We look forward to many more.

The Road to Little Melba and Her Big Trombone

katherynIt’s a testament to the power and love of children’s books that so many people want to write them. My yearning to write children’s books only grew after my twins were born. I wanted to do my small part to create a world of reading for them that was different from mine.

When I was little, my mom searched low and high to find books with main characters who were brown like me. I remember being excited to read books by Ezra Jack Keats, including The Snowy Day, Peter’s Chair, and Whistle for Willie. The pages were filled with people who looked like they could be members of my family. I also remember “Color Me Brown,” a coloring book that combined history lessons, art and, race pride. My mother was intent on showing me an alternate, inclusive literary world. It was the late 1960s and change was in the air.

Mom wanted me to read and dream a world more colorful than the one portrayed in the books assigned by P.S. 192, where I attended first grade. It seems the entire year was filled with the activities of Dick, Jane, and Spot.

It was around the time when my twins were the same age—first grade—that I started to seriously consider writing children’s books. I have been a sporadic collector of children’s books for years, with a soft spot for purchasing stories that feature heroines and heroes of color, particularly ones who are African American. My “brown book” mission went into overdrive after I had kids. I was determined that they were going to have realistic and interesting images of themselves reflected in our home library.

melbaThis brings me to Little Melba. One afternoon, in 2010, I was listening to the radio and heard a program narrated by Nancy Wilson. She, along with the people being interviewed, were raving about a woman named Melba Liston. Who? They were talking about how Melba had been playing the trombone since she was a girl of seven, that she had a special talent for arranging lush and complex songs, that she had worked with jazz legends, including Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Quincy Jones, and Randy Weston.

Whoa Melba!

Right then and there I decided to write a children’s picture book on Melba Doretta Liston. I immediately started looking for any information I could find on Melba. I came across her name in a few newspaper articles, blogs, journal articles, and magazines. I also found some links to her music and was able to locate video clips of some performances.

I was in my element. I’m a law professor by day and I’m used to doing research and had already published non-fiction books.

The more I read about Melba, the more convinced I became that the world should hear about her musical sojourn. After several weeks, I had what I thought was a solid draft of a picture book, about 900 words. At this point, I figured I was done with the heavy lifting—the research and the writing.

Little did I know that I was still near the beginning of my children’s book publishing journey. Over the next couple of months, I read my story to my local writers’ group (SCBWI). The feedback was encouraging and I made numerous revisions.

Based on the advice I received at conferences and from members of my book group, I did two things. I started sending out query letters to literary agents and I started sending query letters, unsolicited, to publishers. I was hoping to increase my odds by doing both at the same time. I was constantly on the lookout for publishers and agents who expressed an interest in books on African Americans, women, or musicians. For months, I didn’t get any real bites worth pursuing.

I did finally hear from someone who seemed to be a good match for me. She later became my agent. By this time, almost a year had passed since I’d written my first draft. I knew that by snagging an agent I had cleared another major hurdle. I also knew that there was still a lot more work to do. The good news, though, was now I was part of a team. Team Melba.

Almost another year passed before we found the publisher we wanted to work with. Lee & Low Publishers was the perfect match. My agent had worked with them previously and it was clear, based on Lee & Low’s mission and publication track record that they shared our feeling that Melba Liston’s story was an important one to tell.

Team Melba still needed a homerun hitter—a superb illustrator. The amazing Frank Morrison was more than up to the task. He’s done such a wonderful job not only of bringing Melba to life but also showcasing the geography of her life. Just beautiful.

On the road to Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, two of the things I have most relied upon have been confidence in my story and patience. It’s been 4.5 years since Little Melba was a twinkle in my eyes. She’s finally here, sounding and looking good!

The Buzz on Little Melba:

“Russell-Brown’s debut text has an innate musicality, mixing judicious use of onomatopoeia with often sonorous prose.”

Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“An excellent match of breezy text and dynamic illustrations tells an exhilarating story.”

School Library Journal, starred review

“Staccato rhythms pepper the fluid prose…‘Blues, Jazz, and gospel danced in her head—the plink of a guitar, the hummmmm of a bass, the thrum-thrum of the drum.’”

Publishers Weekly, starred review 

Find out more about Katheryn at

5 thoughts on “The Back Story with Katheryn Russell-Brown

  1. It’s a kick no matter how many times I hear the story: someone learns about a person they knew nothing about and says, “WHO??” and then finds out and SHARES. That’s what it’s all about. Congratulations!

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