Day 11: JESMYN WARD

February 11, 2015

Where the Line Bleeds.

Salvage the Bones.

Men We Reaped: A Memoir.

If you have not been previously acquainted with the work of author Jesmyn Ward, consider today your lucky day.

 

Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi, a small rural community with which she had a “love-hate relationship”. These hometown experiences have informed each of her three novels to date. While not technically published under the banner of children’s literature, Ward’s novels are particularly suited to the older YA audience due to the ages of the characters and the relevancy of their themes. Her pre-publication literary accomplishments are substantial: an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan (where she received five Hopwood Awards); a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University(2008-2010); a John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at The University of Mississippi (2010-2011). She currently serves as Associate Professor of English at Tulane University.

 

where the line bleeds jesmyn wardShortly after receiving her MFA, Ward and her family were forced to flee their flooding home by Hurricane Katrina. Where the Line Bleeds (Agate Publishing, 2008) is Ward’s first published novel. It is the story of twin brothers who grow increasingly estranged after one of them begins to sell drugs to assuage the family’s post-Katrina financial burdens. It endured three years of rejection before finding a home at Agate.

 

The prolonged devastation Ward encountered day to day—driving back and forth through ravaged neighborhoods on her way to work at the University of New Orleans—rendered her mentally and emotionally unable to write anything new during the three years it took her first novel to sell. Landing her first book deal, however, inspired Ward to pick up the proverbial pen again. Her renewed salvage the bones by jesmyn wardefforts produced Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury USA, 2011) which, although roundly ignored by the literary community upon publication, ended up winning the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction. Post-nomination, it was suddenly and profusely well-reviewed. Another rich tale centered around Katrina, Salvage the Bones chronicles twelve days in the lives of a pregnant teen, Esch, her three brothers and her father. The twelve-day account includes the ten days leading up to the storm, the day it hits, and the day after. According to the book’s copy, it is “[a] big-hearted novel about familial love and community against all odds, and a wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty…muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real.”

 

men we reaped by jesmyn wardMen We Reaped: A Memoir (Bloomsbury USA, 2013) is Ward’s most recent book. It is a reflection on her personal experience with the death of five young men in her life (including her brother). Causes of death range from suicide to drugs to accidents to the plain old “bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men.” In a starred review, Kirkus called it “[a]n assured yet scarifying memoir by young, supremely gifted novelist Ward… A modern rejoinder to Black Like MeBeloved and other stories of struggle and redemption—beautifully written, if sometimes too sad to bear.”

 

In her acceptance speech for the National Book Award, Ward said this about the motivation behind her writing: “I understood that I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor, and the black and the rural people of the South…so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal, our lives as fraught and lovely and important, as theirs.” This sensibility makes her novels significant mirror and window books for mature teens of all ethnicities and backgrounds.

 

If you had not been previously acquainted with the work of author Jesmyn Ward, I hope you’ll consider today your lucky day. I certainly do.

 

THE BUZZ

For the buzz on Men We Reaped: A Memoir, click here.

For the buzz on Salvage the Bones, click here.

For the buzz on Where the Line Bleeds, click here.

 

For more extensive information on Jesmyn Ward and her books, please visit these article sources:

http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/17/breakfast-meeting-nov-17/

http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2011/11/18/author-wins-prestigious-award-for-book-ignored-by-literary-world/

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/16/celebratory-night-for-the-book-world/?_r=0#more-244085

http://www.bloomsbury.com/author/jesmyn-ward

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesmyn_Ward

Author Photo Credit: Adam Johnson


Day 10: Jackie Wellington

February 10, 2015

This year, The Brown Bookshelf would like to introduce a new profile — the “Up and Comer.” In this space, we recognize a children’s book creator “who has made a significant contribution to the world of children books before publication.” We’re delighted to welcome educator, activist, and author Jackie Wellington as our first Up-and-Comer honoree, and as you’ll see below, significant doesn’t even begin to describe it.

jackiewellington
How did your teaching lead to your writing of fiction?

I am a writer who was raised in a Jamaican family. If you know anything about the culture, you’d know education is important and writing is not a “worshipped” profession. Doctors, Lawyers, teachers are notable aspirations for a child growing up on a small Caribbean island. Chef, writer, and artist, not so much. So I did what was expected. I graduated high school, joined the Army, and attended college.

For years I taught. Math was my specialty, but I was great in reading and language arts. I worked with students with disabilities. Most of them, if not all, were reluctant readers. Bribing them to pick up a book was my secret weapon. My students never had books. So whatever skill I taught, I wrote stories to supplement the curriculum. Then I had an idea.

One day, I watched my students in the cafeteria. They were loud as usual, trying to figure out who did what. Who was responsible for something? Eavesdropping, I already solved the problem, but they were still baffled. At that moment, I decided they would be the characters in a lesson on logical reasoning.

I wrote a story, each of them had a role to play. I had to allow their persona to shine. My class clown had to be the funny one which was difficult for someone like me to write since I do not consider myself a humorist. They had to work together to solve the problem. It was a hit! They all wanted to be the star of the story. So I created my own curriculum and integrated stories in Math, Language Arts, and Social Studies. Then one of my student said, “Miss, you are good at this…you should write books!” That was years ago.


Why and where did you see the need?

There is a need for diverse books – picture books, middle grade, and young adult. I would like to see more children being represented in picture books. There are many animal characters. Children need to see themselves early on as they embark on the journey of reading. I have to admit, I never paid attention to the characters until I taught. In Jamaica, we got books from America and England. When I was seven, I read every Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Bobbsey Twins. While Nancy was traveling to Arizona to solve mysteries on a ranch, I was going to the beach, sipping coconut water, and eating Jerk Chicken from the side of the road. The fact that Nancy did not look like me did not bother me at all. But in America, your race enable people to form opinions about you. On my island, race is second nature. We are Jamaicans, a mixture of people from all over the world.


What was the response from your students?

My students like to see themselves in books. Whether they are solving mysteries, jumping through obstacles, or slaying dragons, each of them want to be the victor. The hero. The problem solver. The adventurer.

Tell us a bit about the #ReadSameReadDifferent campaign.

The purpose of #ReadSameReadDiffernt campaign is to expose readers to the creativity of underrepresented authors in the Kidlit industry. This is not about Blacks, Whites, Latinas/Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, or any other ethnic groups. This is about books. Children. Reading. And exposing. One goal – to get great books into the hands of children of all races, cultures, and socio-economic groups. This is embracing #DIVERSITY and #MULTICULTURALISM.

This campaign is not complex. I love it because it gives me the opportunity to do what I love – READ BOOKS! I read a lot of books and then I pair them with books written by diverse authors. For instance, one of the books I loved last year was A DANCE LIKE STARLIGHT written by Kristy Dempsey and illustrated by Floyd Cooper. This book is a picture book about a little girl who dreams of becoming a ballerina. I can take this book and pair it with MY FRIEND MAYA LOVES TO DANCE by Cheryl Willis Hudson or MOON OVER STAR by Dianna Hutts Aston. I can take HARRY POTTER and pair it with HOW LAMAR’S BAD PRANK WON A BUBBA-SIZED TROPHY.

People say, “Those books don’t go together.” I beg to differ. They are related in many ways beneath the surface. So my job is to convince others why these books are wonderful pairings. I am loving reading new books.By the way, it is time to update the list.

I hope this campaign will enable the industry to extinguish the myth that Black folks don’t read. Books are ways to escape. And everyone deserve the opportunity to escape into a world far from his own. A world where mysteries need to be evaluated, adventures need to be explored, and fantasies need to be encountered.


Tell us about your journey to publication so far.

I am new in the writing game. I have been taking some writing classes, honing my craft. I am paired with some awesome mentors. I did find an agent. I have some stories in revision mode. I guess I am at the point where I am paying my dues, but I have time. I’ve only been writing for one year. So I have time.

What stories do you most want to tell?
I most want to tell stories that expose readers to unknown African-American heroes. The heroes you do not read about in history books. Heroes such as Walter Morris, the first African-American paratrooper in the Army who forced the Army to integrate. Or Valaida Snow, the musical prodigy who was captured and placed in a Concentration Camp. And what about Mary Ellen Pleasant who went from living in slave shack in the south to a millionaire mansion. Children need to know why these people risk their lives for the betterment of their race.

I also want to write stories and correct history. Correct what we have been taught. I want people to know that the Civil Rights Movement went all the way back to the 1800s. And that the “Mother of the Civil Rights” is not Rosa Parks. These are the stories I want to tell.

What are you working on now?
Right now, I am working on a bunch of projects, mostly picture books. However, I do have a middle grade nonfiction project in the works. I am constantly bonding with librarians and pushing books written by authors of color or books about people of color. I am realizing that being the “Book Advocate” takes time away from writing. I have to find a balance between being an activist and a writer. I want to go on record to say, “Activism is hard work, but writing is harder.”

What are your goals for your writing career?
My goals are to publish stories that will reach a wide audience. I want to write screenplays. And I want to publish a book in all the genres of kidlit. Am I a “Brown Girl Dreaming?”

What are some things that you hope to see happen in the industry?
I want to see a more diverse industry. I want to see the inclusion and representation of all children. And I want to see them in a positive light.

What do you wish editors and publishers knew?
I wish editors and publishers knew what diversity looks like. If you do not sit and mingle with people who do not look like you, then how do you know what our characters are supposed to do and say?


Day 9: Jan Spivey Gilchrist

February 9, 2015

JanSpiveyGilchristNewWithPhotoCreditSmallerJan Spivey Gilchrist is an award-winning author, illustrator, fine artist, and lecturer. She is the illustrator of numerous children’s books including, THE GREAT MIGRATION: JOURNEY TO THE NORTH, written by Eloise Greenfield; NATHANIEL TALKING, written by Eloise Greenfield; and MY AMERICA, written by herself with illustrations by Ashley Bryan.

Outstanding features and reviews of her work have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Defender, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, L.A Times and US Today, Chicago Sun-times (Kup’s Column) and Ebony Magazine, etc. as well as television and radio.

Her awards include the Coretta Scott King Award for Nathaniel Talking, and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book forNight on Neighborhood Street.


Day 8: Katheryn Russell-Brown

February 8, 2015
Katheryn and Little Melba (top shelf) at Barnes & Noble in Emeryville, CA (Dec. 2014)

Katheryn and Little Melba (top shelf) at Barnes & Noble in Emeryville, CA (Dec. 2014)

As a child, Katheryn Russell-Brown remembers enjoying books like The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats and cherishing the coloring book, Color Me Brown. Her mother made sure she saw affirming images of herself.  When Katheryn became a mom, she wanted the same for her twins. “I was determined that they were going to have realistic and interesting images of themselves reflected in our home library, ” she wrote in this Brown Bookshelf post. As she collected books featuring brown children, she began dreaming about writing them herself.

littlemelbaKatheryn’s debut picture book about pioneering trombonist and arranger Melba Liston, Little Melba and Her Big Trombone (illustrated by Frank Morrison, published by Lee & Low) was inspired by listening to Nancy Wilson rave about her work on a radio program. For Katheryn, professor of law and director of the Center for Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida, raising awareness of Melba’s work became a mission. She used her expert research skills and gift of writing to create a winning story that has been featured on many best lists and has received multiple honors and starred reviews.

Here Katheryn shares her inspiration, children’s writing journey and creative process:

The Journey & Backstory

Patience and perseverance. I had to rely on both of these throughout the years-long process of finding an agent and publisher for my first children’s book. Patience is the key to getting through the process. What was particularly unnerving was the wait after sending out query letters. Most times the response was by snail mail—a form letter that basically said thanks but no thanks. Sometimes the rejection came in e-mail form. A few responses came quickly, but sometimes I didn’t hear back for months. Then there are those agents and publishers who never, ever responded to my query letter. With each rejection I dusted off my bruised feelings and kept going—believing that someone would “get” my story and see its potential. It also helped that I had a mentor, a published children’s book writer, who kept encouraging me to send out my manuscript. After a few months of mostly silence, I started hearing back from agents who expressed a little interest. Ultimately I went with Adriana Dominguez at Full Circle Literary. She was very knowledgeable about the business of children’s book publishing and she expressed sincere interest in working with me as I develop and grow as a writer of children’s books. She has been fantastic to work with.

Inspiration

Here are a few things that fill me with inspiration to write for children (and make me feel good):

  • Any song on Earth Wind & Fire’s “Spirit” album (1976)
  • Dinah Washington’s voice
  • An amazing art exhibit, such as Kara Walker’s “Sugar Sphinx”
  • An incredibly blue sky with translucent clouds
  • Seeing a young child hold and read a book
  • Listening to “Sketches of Spain” by Miles Davis
  • Reading a beautiful and touching book, such as Bebe Moore Campbell’s Sweet Summer
  • Picture book art. Frank Morrison somehow managed to bring Little Melba to life in ways that I could not have imagined. Simply divine.

The Process

I’ve only published one children’s book. So, I can’t say that I have my process down to a science. I have, however, written non-fiction books for adults (on race and the criminal justice system). Also, I’ve written a few other children’s stories that have not been published.

I keep different journals. One is for story ideas. Another is for expressions, words, phrases, etc., that I’ve come across—maybe from a newspaper article or from a story I’ve heard on the radio—something I might use in a future story. Once I select a topic, I start gathering information. I always keep a journal for the book I’m working on. In this journal I write and clip any information or research on my topic area. Also, any books or other resources that I can use, or people who I may want to contact to ask some questions about the topic or person I am writing about.

When I finally begin to write the story, I will have a general outline of how the book should go, from beginning to middle, to end. However, I don’t limit myself to a set number of words. I just write! I save the editing for later. This is my “big pot” approach. I put all my words into the pot (onto the page) and then, after the pot is full, I start to take things out that don’t (or can’t fit) the story I’m telling.

After I have a solid draft—a completed story—I take it to my local Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) group for feedback. Then I edit some more. And, I edit, edit, edit, edit, edit…..

The Buzz

Little Melba has been welcomed with open arms. I’m thrilled that it has

 Six-time Tony Award winner Audra MacDonald holding Little Melba (September 2014).

Six-time Tony Award winner Audra MacDonald holding Little Melba (September 2014).

found a home on several Best-of-2014 book lists, including Kirkus Reviews, the School Library Journal, the Huffington Post, and the Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature. The book also received a 2014 Eureka Honor Book Award (California Reading Association). And, Little Melba has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award for “Outstanding Literary Work, Children.” This nomination is particularly meaningful to me because my dad, Charlie L. Russell, won an NAACP Image Award in 1973 for writing the screenplay for his movie, “Five on the Black Hand Side.”

Find out more about Katheryn Russell-Brown on her website.

 


Day 7 Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)

February 7, 2015

Langston

 

Researching Langston Hughes gave me a chance to look at his work in a different way. Not just to enjoy his poetry, but to read his work while placing it in context of his background. So much of his life is revealed in his poetry. I feel slighted that I didn’t have a chance to meet him in person. It does give me chance to introduce him to new audiences and re-introduce him to his legends of fans. The Brown Bookshelf is proud to honor Langston Hughes on Day 7 of 28 Days Later 2015.

As a child, Langston did not always live with his mother. But during the times that he did, she profoundly affected him. He relates in his autobiography, The Big Sea that his mother often took him to the vine-covered library on the grounds of the capital in Topeka, Kansas.
That is where he fell in love with librarians because they helped him find wonderful books. He remembered the big chairs and the long tables. And the library seemed to be mortgage free—unlike his grandmother’s home.

Langston’s literary interests stretched from westerns like the Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey to love stories such as Mistress of Shenstone by Florence L. Barclay which he borrowed from his mother’s bookshelf.

He barely saw his father who lived in Mexico. After Langston decided not to continue his college education, he never heard from his father again.

Langston worked in flower shop, on a ship, and wrote poetry. Some were published in the Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP. He was a man of the Harlem Renaissance, the period in the 1920s when Harlem exploded with black art, music, and literature. Langston took it all in. He frequented jazz and blues clubs where the music entered his soul and excited into poetry like “Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor. He played a few chords then sang some more . . .” from the poetry collection, Weary Blues.book cover

He continued to write poems and also plays, screen plays, and short stories. He work always celebrated the life of everyday black people. Author and historian, Michael Eric Owens said, “He was unapologetic, passionate, and an advocate of Black culture.” He was generous with his time and talent, often helping to promote other artists.
house color

He was a traveler. Langstone traveled to any countries including, Russia, Japan, China, Frnce, and Haiti. But he always returned to Harlem. He bought a house at 20 East 127th Street, Harlem, NY. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

Schomburg-Center_V1_460x285Langston died on May 22, 1967 and his ashes are buried beneath the Langston Hughes Atrium of the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

 

 

visitinglangstonA book to share with young readers is Visiting Langston written my Willie Perdomo and illustrated by Bryan Collier. You can read more 28 Days Later about Willie  and Bryan.

Langston Hughes awards

• Harmon Gold Medal for Literature
• Guggenheim Fellowship
• Honorary Doctor of Letters
• NAACP Spingarn Medal
• American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Other interesting reading:

A letter Langston wrote in 1944 protessing how black children were portrayed in literature.

Biography with videos.

 

Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks


The African American Children’s Book Fair

February 5, 2015

AACBP poster_FB_Template_11x17_vert_working

Each year, the African American Children’s Book Fair shows the beauty of books for kids made by black authors and illustrators. Saturday marks the 23rd annual event. Held at the Community College of Philadelphia, thousands will stream through the gymnasium from 1-3 p.m. for a chance to buy books and meet acclaimed children’s book creators. It’s a free event, full of meaning, that people look forward to all year.

Here founder Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati talks about the upcoming fair, diversity in children’s books, her mission and dream for the future:

There’s been a lot of media attention lately about diversity in children’s books. That’s something you’ve been working on for decades. What are your thoughts about the current children’s book industry landscape? What do you think it will take to turn things around?

Decade after decade, we’ve had this discussion about diversity in children’s books. Walter Dean Myers, Wade Hudson and Cheryl Hudson (owners of Just Us Books for 25 years) kicked it off and made some in-roads. But social media has been a game changer. We Need Diverse Books uses that tool to jump-start a new focus on the topic.

The industry and the media are talking, but we need to make sure that after the dance, the movement continues. The conversation must include all consumers and their responsibility to buying multicultural children’s books.

I’m holding the fort down for African American Children’s Books. The current supply in the marketplace is just outstanding. From fiction to non-fiction, these books hit home runs. Is there enough? From my point of view, for every Eric Velasquez, Tonya Bolden, Carole Boston Weatherford, Floyd Cooper, and E.B. Lewis there are hundreds waiting in the wings who can’t get published by a major publisher or go the difficult self-published route. We need more.

The publishing industry needs to try new marketing strategies. My company, The Literary Media and Publishing Consultants, has been involved in publishing for over two decades. The company was created in response to the Literary Renaissance that took this country by storm 25 years ago. We went to the consumer’s backyard and utilized our resources in the urban marketplace to get the attention of the book buyers. It worked, but the downturn in the economy slowed it down, and the industry went into a different direction.

However, the African American community — churches, social groups and civic organizations –always thrive. The children’s book industry needs to reach out to these groups. These relationships have helped to make The African American Children’s Book Fair a success. Twenty-three years with an average attendance of over 3,500 people who come to BUY books should be acknowledged. We sell more books in three hours than any other African American retailer in the country.

Even with this success, I feel an urgency to get the train moving faster. That’s why I’m stepping up my game with “Preserve a legacy, Buy a Book.” campaign. 

How has your mission for the African American Children’s Book Project and book fair grown and changed over the years?

The need is greater than ever before. When I first started this journey 23 years ago, I just wanted a book fair that featured African American children literature. My first event was a Black History Month event in a major department store. The public relations representative of the store wanted a low-cost event that would drive traffic to the store during a slow season. Tonya Bolden, E.B. Lewis and Jacqueline Woodson were a part of those early events….These three are still producing great books, but, sadly, so many others are no longer a part of the children’s book industry. I am grateful that Tonya and E.B. continue to use my book fair to showcase their books. The attendees come looking for them and their books year after year. Children who attended in those earlier years are now bringing their children.

I’m also feeling urgency because there are so many media platforms that expose our children to negative images of themselves. We have to make sure that they are surrounded by literature that reflects positive images of themselves, books that empower, enlighten and enrich their lives –. books that make a child boast about his or her history.

When kids read a children’s book about Leontyne Price, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, they’re not only learning about a person who came from their own community who overcame obstacles, but this type of book also introduces them to elements that might be out of their comfort zone. Leontyne Price is an opera singer. Take that book and put on an opera CD – show how the seeds of greatness are sown.

Another issue on my mind is that we teach our children how to read, but we don’t teach them how to love reading. If I wanted you to read for pleasure, my first question would be what type of books do you like to read? What are your interests? So if you told me you like romance books, I’d pile your plate with romance books. Rarely do we ask a child, especially reluctant readers, what are their interests. If the child likes cars, give them books about cars, not birds. Put books back into the home.

When I was a kid, we had duck-and-cover drills because the Russians where coming from Moscow. After a number of these drills hiding underneath my desk, I asked my teacher, “Who are the Russians, why are they coming for ME?” I lived in a rural community outside of Philadelphia – Elmwood. My teacher didn’t understand who they were and why these Russians could find their way to our neighborhood. She told me to go to the library to read about the Russians.

We didn’t have a library in my school, but a weekly book mobile would come around. My dad would take my sisters and me to the book mobile. I requested two books on Moscow. The kids laughed at me and said it was stupid to read about something I was never going to see. My dad said, “Never mind, keep reading.”

Five years ago, I did go to Moscow. I was standing in Red Square identifying all of the monuments surrounding me. The tour guide asks me how I knew so much about his country. I told him I read about it in a book. Throughout the afternoon, I was introduced as the American who knew something about their country. It seemed to break the ice. Books do open up a world of opportunities.

What’s new this year? What can people expect? How can they get the most out of the fair?

The book fair is a platform for our literacy initiative “Preserve A Legacy, Buy A Book.”

Let’s get books back into our homes. You can’t tell a child to read at home if there aren’t books in the home. I remembered as a child – in the home of George and Helen Lloyd and their brood of eight children, we had a reading corner. We didn’t have African American books, but my favorite was the Time Life travel pictorial books. I spent hours looking at the pictures and reading the text, imagining the day I would travel. And travel I’ve done. I’ve taken my literary message to Europe, the Caribbean and Africa. Those books in my home opened a world outside of my world.

Engaging cooperate America has also helped the book fair to grow. This year, the NBC10 Telemundo62 Reading Circle will kick off the afternoon by giving away brand new books of the authors/illustrators to youth attendees (while supplies last). PECO is sponsoring a workshop with syndicated cartoonist Jerry Craft. Karen Thompson’s crocheting workshops are another hit at the event. All of the workshops will offer hands-on opportunities to learn these skills. Participants will also receive a book written by these authors. An African American scientist will share his book and present an insider’s look at how science works in our day-to-day lives.

More sponsors = more books. The Educators/Parents Book-giveaway is sponsored by Wells Fargo, Comcast, Health Partners Foundation, Health Partners Plan, McDonald’s, Always Best Care Senior Services and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. These sponsors purchase books of our guest authors/illustrators to give to teachers/librarians to use in their schools. Community College of Philadelphia and The Literary Media and Publishing Consultants are also community partners

One of the key elements that keep it fresh is having the authors/illustrators. Truly this is the best and the brightest of the crop. Every year these talents bring their A-game. This year, there’s a book illustrated by Eric Velasquez called New Shoes. It’s about two girls during the era of Jim Crow who couldn’t buy shoes because of the color of their skins, but they didn’t let this stop them from creating their own shoe store.

With all the buzz about “Selma,” the movie, these types of books are a great way of explaining to a child through the eyes of another child how people coped with Jim Crow – a horrible period in American History. It’s a conversation kids are having with parents now. How did you get through this? How did you feel? Books help with these tough questions.

What’s your dream for the future?

I lived in Italy for well over a decade and often was amazed about how their perception – definitive perception – of black people was based solely on what they saw on the small and big screen. The printed word can sometimes change that. I do believe that books have the power to change minds, and we need to use this power to help shape positive images of Black people. We need to have more of our books translated into foreign languages.

I’m having conversation with a representative from the Bologna (Italy) Children’s Book Fair to put the conversation of “Why diverse books?” on their agenda this spring. Diversity in books is a global discussion.

Taking the book fair on the road is an important step in getting books into the homes of our children. I hear this over and over: I’d buy it if they sold it. Getting corporate America on the literary train is vital to achieving this goal. They are masters at promoting their brand. – successfully. Having them involved can help to raise the bar to getting books into the homes of our children.

Another goal is to work with bookstores around the country on servicing the needs of multicultural consumers. Somebody has to take the first step in getting books on the shelves and into the homes of consumers. Sadly, there is a generation of readers who have never been inside a bookstore.

Finally, Our White House has celebrated music, dance, and art. It is time to put African American Children’s Books on that stage. Let’s celebrate reading. After all, a book opens up a world of opportunities.

Here are the authors and illustrators who will be featured Saturday:

Patrik Henry Bass

Tonya Bolden

Floyd Cooper

Jerry Craft

Monique Curry

Nancy Devard

Shanequa Davis

Zetta Elliott

Christopher John Farley

AG Ford

Joel Christian Gill

E.B. Lewis

Sheila P. Moses

David Miller

Jerdine Nolen

Gloria Pinkney

Jerry Pinkney

Nicole Tadgell

Pamela Tuck

Eric Velasquez

Valerie Wilson Wesley

Carole Boston Weatherford

Sharon Dennis Wyeth

JaNay Brown-Wood

Find out more at The African American Children’s Book Project.

 


Day 5: Dhonielle Clayton

February 5, 2015

Dhonielle Clayton photoA newcomer to publishing landscape, Dhonielle Clayton is ready for the spotlight, with her first novel, the dishy dance drama Tiny Pretty Things, hitting shelves in May, and the first book in her fantasy series, The Belles, due in 2016. But while she may be a 2015 debutante, she’s already spent nearly a decade studying the book biz from the inside out, first as a grad student, then as an intern and reader for agencies, and now as the co-founder of CAKE Literary, a boutique book development company with a decidedly diverse bent. Welcome back, Dhonielle!

The Journey
I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer. I wanted to be a doctor – the first doctor in the family. But if I were to look back now, the writerly seeds had been planted early on. I wrote stories in notebooks, created doodles and comic strips, and my dad took me to the bookstore almost every Saturday. I read everything I could get my hands on – from magazines to newspaper articles to books and comic books. I annoyed my teachers with wanting to go to the school library every day, even if it was just to smell the paper and glue and ink scent that came from library books. They would probably not be surprised that I am also a school librarian now. I also weaseled my grandfather – who picked me up from school every day – into getting me a slice of Jerry’s pizza and taking me to the library instead of going straight home to do homework.

I was a reader, through and through. My dad read several books a week, so it was natural that I would follow in his footsteps. I wanted to read the books he read: Dune, The Hobbit, and space operas. When I landed in college at Wake Forest University, I failed chemistry my freshman year, and my dreams of being a doctor fizzled. I didn’t love the course load, and found myself spending most of my time working on essays and reading responses for my Lit classes. Once I changed my major from pre-med to English, I hit another roadblock – the books I had to read were overwhelmingly Western and overwhelmingly white. I got bored and frustrated. I returned to the classics I loved as a child – The Westing Game, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Indian in the Cupboard, James and the Giant Peach, The Secret Garden – and I found major problems. The lack of diversity in the texts, problematic portrayals of children of color and native peoples, and a general erasure of diversity. The magic, mystery and joy no longer existed for me. I couldn’t believe I’d read and loved these books.
I made a decision to try to do something about the all-white world of children’s books in a two-pronged approach: through critical study of the canon and creative writing. I felt like I needed a scholarly background, so I earned my MA in Children’s Literature from Hollins University, and then earned an MFA in Writing for Children from the New School. I didn’t think I had the writing chops – but I had stories to tell and I felt like I’d read enough stories.TINY PRETTY THINGS final cover

I wrote for nine years, went through two agents, and had one close call with my first manuscript, before landing a publishing contract for Tiny Pretty Things. A lot of it had to do with meeting my business partner and co-writer, Sona Charaipotra, and the development of CAKE Literary.

The Inspiration
I still return to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series before I start a middle grade project. The imaginative and whimsical world she created is truly transportive. Her series takes me back to the young reader I used to be – the magic is there. I literally fall into the world she’s created.
My stories are inspired by questions and fears. Mostly, my fears. I build characters around my emotional fears, and sometimes worlds around my literal fears.

The Back Story
Tiny Pretty Things came out of my experiences at ballet boarding school that I worked at after I graduated college. I taught pre-professional ballerinas English, and harassed them about their grammar. I loved watching them dance, and felt inspired by the sheer determination they had to reach their goals. They were also beautiful dancers who expressed their artistry through their bodies. I envied their confidence and vulnerabilities.

After starting my MFA at the New School, I hung out with my partner-in-crime and work-wife, Sona Charaipotra a lot before and after classes. I was working as an intern for a literary agency, and complaining to Sona about the lack of diversity in the submissions the agency would receive. We commiserated with each other about how we didn’t get to see enough of ourselves in the books we read as kids – and sadly, the publishing landscape hadn’t changed very much in the decades since then.
We discussed starting a packaging company as a way to help address the problems with the lack of diversity for children’s and teen fiction (and other media), and I thought it would be a good idea to co-write the first project from the venture. I mentioned wanting to do a ballet novel – one that reflected the real diversity I saw in my time at that school. Because what teen girl doesn’t want to see characters like themselves embroiled in lots of drama? Sona jumped on it with the perfect pitch – Pretty Little Liars set in a ballet boarding school. This book perfectly encapsulates CAKE’s approach to broadening the landscape: a rich, organic layer of diversity in a high concept, page-turner of a narrative. Diverse and delicious!


The State of the Industry

When I think of the state of the children’s/teen book industry in terms of writers of color and diverse stories, I imagine a brick wall. Personal relationships, bottom lines, bookseller connections, editorial tastes, and mainstream story-telling conventions dictate and govern the market. On bad days, I feel like I’m back in high school where cliques run rampant, and I’m on the outside again. But the rallying cry for diverse books has the power to push against the wall and send strong roots and fibers through it to start breaking down its surface. For me, it starts by understanding the bricks. How does the children’s/teen marketplace work? What kinds of media dominate and why. How does one get in the door? Knowing the answers to these questions, we can push through the wall. Because to me it’s not about separate but equal. It’s about infiltrating the mainstream so it becomes reflective of reality. It’s about time!


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