Not many people can say they learned from a literary star. But children’s book author Linda Trice received that honor twice. Sterling Brown, considered the Dean of Black poetry, and John Oliver Killens, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated novelist, were both her mentors. Their lessons about celebrating the beauty of black people and writing with love shines through in her acclaimed work. From middle-grade Charles Drew: Pioneer of Blood Plasma to her beautiful picture books, Kenya’s Word and Kenya’s Song, Linda shares stories that affirm, delight and empower.
Please join us in saluting Linda Trice on Day 5:
I always wanted to be a writer but I didn’t know how to do it. If there were any books or classes about how to write I sure didn’t know about them when I was growing up in my Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. It’s where Great-grandfather Trice landed when he escaped from slavery in the South. I was lucky enough to be picked to be in a class for musically talented children when I was in junior high school. Some of us formed a literary magazine in our afterschool center and that’s where my first short story was published, along with an interview of Leonard Bernstein, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
THE SAG HARBOR EXPRESS: My mother’s friend Mrs. Fraser learned about my interest in writing, read my published work and offered me her job for the summer. She was the society editor for our Black community in Sag Harbor, NY. The Sag Harbor Express is the oldest continuously published weekly newspaper in the United States. I got paid two cents a line and wrote about the teen parties I was attending and the parties that my parents went to. HOWEVER there was no byline and no photo of me. Mrs. Fraser wanted it this way for both of us. She hoped white people in town would read the column and realize that the people we were writing about were not much different from them. That was one way we could fight against negative stereotypes of our people.
HOWARD UNIVERSITY AND STERLING BROWN: I went to Howard University and worked on the campus newspaper, The Hilltop. Years later I learned that my mother had worked on The Hilltop when she was a student at Howard. The only creative writing class at Howard was for seniors who majored in English. I majored in history so I had to find a way to learn how to become a writer.
Sterling Brown was a famous poet of the Harlem Renaissance era and a mentor to Stokely Carmichael and other leaders of SNCC. I often sat in his office on the top floor of Howard’s Founders Hall Library and talked with him. He taught me to find beauty and greatness in our people. He taught me to think for myself and not to easily accept negative portrayals of our people that others wrote. Now I wanted not only to be a writer but an author of books that elevated our people.
Years later I learned that Sterling Brown had been named the Poet Laureate of the District of Columbia and was often called the Dean of Black Poetry. I am so appreciative that he took an interest in me and was willing to take time to mentor me.
NYU: As I approached graduation I looked for a job, anywhere, doing anything that would help me become a better writer. I got a job as a writer with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (the public agency that built the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers) and took a creative writing class at New York University at night.
Linda Trice and Walter Dean Myers at the African American Children’s Book Fair.
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY AND JOHN KILLENS: My mother saw a notice in the Amsterdam News, New York City’s Black newspaper. The famous Black author John O. Killens was accepting students into his workshop. Killens knew and influenced just about every major Black writer of the last half of the twentieth century. He read my submission and admitted me into the program. I still hadn’t published a book. One of our classmates had, Walter Dean Myers, but it was a children’s picture book. We all wanted to write literary works for adults. At least half of us became published book authors- Wesley Brown, Delores Williams, Quincy Troupe and others. Brenda Wilkinson and the poet Nikki Giovanni eventually wrote books for children.
I graduated from Columbia University’s two year Master of Fine Arts writing program, moved to Connecticut and worked on the women’s page of The Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in the United States. I first applied to The Hartford Times but they openly told me that they paid male writers more than female writers. I also worked as a free-lance reporter for several weekly papers in the area.
Moving back to New York I ran magazines for Richard Clarke, the Black man who created the first employment agency for Black college graduates. There was great resistance by corporate America in those days against hiring us.
I also did free-lance work writing children’s stories and curriculum for the United Presbyterian Church and the United Methodist church. I had columns about children’s books in small newspapers, got short pieces about famous Black heroines published in small magazines and newspapers and continued to send articles, short stories and poetry to magazines. Some of them published me. Most rejected me. In those days you had to have clips- samples of your writing that had been published in order for a book publisher to consider your manuscript. I was working hard to get those clips.
GETTING AN AGENT: A television soap opera scriptwriter I met at a little girl’s birthday party told me about her agent, Sally Wecksler. Sally accepted me after reading some of my published material (those clips!) She got me a contract with McGraw-Hill and Bank Street Publishing Group. They wanted a docudrama, CHARLES DREW: PIONEER OF BLOOD PLASMA for ages 9-12. When it was published it was the only book for children about the founder of the first blood banks that had been written by a Black person. It was a success and quickly sold out every copy. I’d finally had a book published!
My agent Sally Wecksler sadly died while I was trying to get a second book published. I wrote the new book Kenya’s Word without an agent and without a publisher. I sent it to every publisher in Writers Market and they all rejected me. One of my friends, Amy Elder from the National League of American Pen Women reminded me that I hadn’t sent Kenya’s Word to Charlesbridge Publishing.
I’d won the Eve Bunting Fellowship to attend a weeklong workshop given by the Highlights Foundation and heard Yolanda Scott, executive editor of Charlesbridge speak. I sent Kenya’s Word to her and reminded her that I’d attended the Highlights workshop.
While I waited to hear back from Charlesbridge I taught adults how to write for children at the Institute of Children’s Literature. I also wrote essays about writing and short stories for adults and children. Many of them were published then one day Charlesbridge phoned me. Yolanda said she loved Kenya’s Word and offered me a contract!
Charlesbridge assigned an editor to me, Elena Wright and we worked together, rewriting the book and polishing it. I remembered that Killens had taught me that a book should have a rhythm. This is especially true with something written for ages 4-7. Books don’t have to rhyme but they should sound lyrical when adults read them aloud to little children.
The illustrator George Ford, taught me at the Highlights workshop that a manuscript should make the illustrator shine. I realized that when people walk into a bookstore the first thing they notice about a book is the cover. Ford taught me how to create a great dummy, one that lets the illustrator create something wonderful on each spread.
Sue Sherman, Charlesbridge’s Art Director found Pamela Johnson, an illustrator who had done more than one hundred picture books. Pamela worked on Kenya’s Word for a year and finally it was done. It was shipped to the printer, then to the warehouse and finally the book came out to glowing reviews and awards.
Every copy of Kenya’s Word quickly sold. I was offered a three book contact to write more books about my confident character, Kenya and the loving, supportive people in her life.
KENYA’S SONG: Emily Mitchell edited my second Charlesbridge book. My previous editor had left to work at Harvard University. Working with Emily was wonderful. She easily understood what I was trying to accomplish with Kenya’s Song. It was published in 2013 and people loved it.
In Kenya’s Song children whose grandparents are from the Caribbean are celebrated. I wanted to remind adults of the diversity of languages, music, foods and dance in some of the Caribbean nations. When I was doing my research I talked to seniors who lived in the Bronx and were from different Caribbean nations. Each person I talked to told me about their culture but always said, “Remember, it all goes back to Africa- the drum, the dance, the food.”
Since Kenya’s Song is read to little children between the ages of 3-8 I was happy that so many adults asked me to speak to their organizations. Just before I gave my first adult talk, The New York Times published an article about studies that showed that children who knew about their family history have great confidence in themselves and learn better.
Using that article as a springboard my audience and I discussed the best way to tell family history to children. We talked about using funny stories about parents and grandparents and relating incidents that showed the strength and bravery of an ancestor. Teachers suggested that they could talk about the traditions of their school and of their community. For instance some communities have a parade on July Fourth while others have picnics in the town park. Sunday school teachers wanted to tell children stories about the people who founded their congregations.
I have since done school presentations to children in kindergarten and first grade. They loved talking about the culture and traditions of their family and their community. Their teachers and I learn a lot from listening to them.
I’m now working on the third book about Kenya, her family and Mrs. Garcia’s class. Kenya’s Art is scheduled to be released Spring 2016.
I write books, stories and articles about issues that I am passionate about and keep in mind the lessons I’ve been taught. From John Killens I learned to write with love about our people. From Sterling Brown I learned to focus on the beauty and greatness of our people. I try to think for myself and to question negative portrayals of our people that others have written.
For instance, my picture book for ages 4-7, Kenya’s Word is about a child who taught her classmates and her teacher Mrs. Garcia to think of all the beautiful things in the world that are the color black such as black patent leather shoes, the night sky and Mommy’s velvet party dress. When I give school presentations I ask my students to also suggest beautiful things that are the color brown.
Kenya’s Song shows the diversity of people of color in the New World and the ways we are similar. It also shows confident children who are eager to learn and create new things and are supported by the adults in their life.
“Kenya’s Song for grades K-3 is a heart-warming story that celebrates the diverse music found in different cultures.”
- International Reading Association (IRA)
“Kenya is having trouble with her homework assignment–choosing her favorite song. Her daddy, who plays jazz piano, takes her to the Caribbean Cultural Center. ‘There is music that you’ve never heard before,’ he tells her. What Kenya comes up with will surprise her classmates and the reader. Kenya’s Song shows a loving family living in a multicultural neighborhood full of children who are proud of their heritage. Kenya’s appreciation for the music around her and her loving relationship with her father makes this an appealing story for most libraries.”
- School Library Journal
“Linda Trice’s Kenya‘s Song is written for children ages 4-8. Themes include: cultural awareness, music appreciation, creativity and father/daughter relationships.”
- Jen & Kelly Read Amazing Picture Books
“Linda Trice has written an enchanting children’s book for kids 4 to 7 years of age. Anyone who loves the variety of music available to everyone will appreciate the choice of Kenya’s favorite song.”
- Spirituality and Practice
The New York Public Library included KENYA’S SONG in their list of New Children’s Picture Books
Booklist recommended Kenya’s Song for Black History Month.
Kirkus included Kenya’s Song in its review of picture books with Caribbean themes.
Reading Rocket suggested Kenya’s Song for Women’s History Month.
Find out more about Linda Trice at www.lindatrice.com/.