Day 28: Higgins Bond

February 28, 2014

HB_Photo_2014Higgins Bond is a trailblazer. She has been a freelance illustrator and fine artist for almost forty years. She has received many awards, including a medal of honor from Governor Bill Clinton, the Ashley Bryan Award for outstanding contributions to children’s literature. She has exhibited her work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, and the DuSable Museum of African-American Art in Chicago, Illinois. In addition, she is the illustrator of three Black Heritage stamps for the United States Postal Service and four stamps for the United Nations Postal Administration on endangered species. Many of her original images have been published by some of this country’s largest collectible plate companies.

Higgins Bond has illustrated 39 books for both children and adults. Her lists of accolades are long. Here is Higgins Bond in her own words:

Her Journey

Turtle Cover

A PLACE FOR TURTLES, written by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Higgins Bond, published by Peachtree Publishers

When I was young, I never knew anyone personally who actually made a living as an artist. So drawing and painting was just a hobby for me that I truly loved. My family and I believed it would always be just that. So inevitably, when I told my parents that I wanted to attend the Memphis College of Art, the only thing they wanted to know was “how will you really make a living?” As if a career in art was merely a fantasy. However, I grew to have faith in myself as an artist. It took a while before my family also believed.

After graduating with a BFA in Advertising Design, I was fortunate enough to get a job at a Park Avenue advertising agency in New York City. All through art school, I signed my work with my maiden name “Higgins”, because “Barbara” (my first name) was one of the most popular names at the time. Using last names was less confusing. But when I got married in my final year of college, I went back and added my new name to all my work. The professional name of “Higgins Bond” has stuck with me ever since. Hardly a year after graduation, my son was born. At this point I made the decision to become a freelance illustrator, so I could stay at home with him for a while. It was very slow and difficult at first. My son is now 39 years old and I have illustrated 39 books. That is about one for every year of his life. In between, I have worked for such clients as Anheuser-Busch, The Franklin Mint, Hennessy Cognac, The Bradford Exchange and NBC TV. I have even been a footnote in history, as the first African-American woman to illustrate a stamp for the United States Postal Service.

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The Great Kings and Queens of Africa collection, Commissioned by Anheuser-Busch. Illustrated by Higgins Bond

At first my only concern was just to make a living and pay the bills. An illustrator’s job is to interpret what is written and paint or draw whatever the art director asks them to. But as I grow older, my priorities have changed and I need more urgently to express my own creative passions about nature and wildlife. However, as a widow now, the practical matter of just paying the bills doesn’t allow for much creativity like a fine artist. But this passion has given me the honor of working with many wonderful authors over the years such as: Joan Banks, Mary Batten, Melvin and Gilda Berger and most of all Melissa Stewart.

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Black Heritage stamps for the US Postal Service, Higgins Bond

For most of my career when asked, I would always say that my specialty was limited edition collector’s plates. I have illustrated many plate series about kittens, tropical fish, butterflies, dogs and children. Unfortunately, when the economy crashed and some people could not afford to put food on a regular plate, collector’s plates were a luxury. That market has all but dried up for the moment. Thankfully however, people will always read. A few years ago, I was honored to illustrate the 30th anniversary edition of Alex Haley’s Roots, The Saga of An American Family ©2010. It was a special collectible edition for Easton Press. This was particularly gratifying because, in addition to being passionate about wildlife, I am also passionate about African American history. Throughout my career my most successful work has involved the history and struggles of African Americans such as the three paintings I did for Anheuser-Busch’s Great Kings and Queens of Africa series and three Black Heritage stamps for the US Postal Service. It’s very important to me to continue to honor my heritage with more historical painting and drawings.


I recently published my 39th book, A Place For Turtles, by Melissa Stewart. Artwork like this is considered commercial art, but when I began my career, that didn’t matter. I just didn’t want to become one of those starving artist you hear jokes about. At least I can still say that I make my living from my art. Something I did not believe was possible when I was young. Things are getting better and the economy is coming back. I’m older and more patient. I don’t seek just to document nature and wildlife like Audubon, but rather to illuminate God’s creations and my history in a way that crosses that difficult but arbitrary barrier between fine art and commercial art.

puzzleHer Process

I adopted a logo many years ago that I think is symbolic of my ideas about illustration. My logo is a self-portrait that is composed of black-and- white puzzle pieces with the focus on the eyes. Illustration is all about vision. I adopted this as a symbol on my cards and stationary because I began to see illustration as putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The average illustration that I do is composed of at least 10 different images. My style might be considered photo-realistic, but I’m not trying to compete with a photograph. If that were the case, the art director would just hire a photographer. An illustrator is often needed when something just can’t be photographed, or to show an idea that goes much farther than a photograph. That’s illustration. That also means that these works of art don’t always have to be painted or drawn traditionally. There are many illustrators that use only computer generated images. And that’s fine, whatever works. As long as you think of it this way: illustration is language. It’s the language an artist uses to communicate what the author has written in a book an ad or poster. A good illustrator tells a story with images.
But I still prefer the traditional way with pencils paint and brushes. All my black-and-white illustrations are done with pencil. And all my color illustrations are done with acrylic paint on illustration board or canvas. I like to use watercolor brushes because I can get more detail with them. Pencil is my favorite medium, but these days I seldom get to use it. I do all of my sketches in pencil however, and once the art director, editor, and the author approve them; I then proceed to paint the final art.
Non-fiction children’s books today require many hours of research to find all the “puzzle pieces” needed to put together an illustration. The books that I have done about animals had to be scientifically correct and accurate. You can’t just make things up. Some time ago I illustrated a book about the former slave and the Native American woman that traveled with the explorers Lewis and Clark. It was called I Am Sacajawea, I Am York. This one had to be historically accurate as well.

When I was a child, art was just a hobby for me along with stamp collecting and playing the piano. I stopped collecting stamps and playing the piano as a teen, but stamps continued to interest and fascinate me. One day I was reading the newspaper and I saw Thomas Blackshear’s beautiful black heritage stamp of John Baptist Du Sable. Blackshear was one of the most highly talented illustrators I have ever known. But his Du Sable stamp was stunning! I was already familiar with the beautiful stamps in the series that were done by Jerry Pinkney, such as the Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman stamps. I said to myself, “I would give anything to get to do one of those stamps”. Well it never hurts to dream. You see I had already met Pinkney and Blackshear because we are all part of the earliest groups of artist hired by Anheuser-Busch for their Great Kings and Queens’s series of posters. We also worked on the same jazz calendar for Smirnoff liquors and we were all members of the Society of Illustrators. I had met them both at various events and unveiling ceremonies. So I felt comfortable enough to write to Jerry, who for those of you who don’t know is the winner several time over of the Caldecott Award, most recently in 2010. The Caldecott is the highest honor there is for a children’s book illustrator. Anyway, I wrote to Jerry and asked him how do you go about getting a job like this? It turned out that Jerry was now the art director for the Black Heritage Series, and was no longer painting the stamps. Blackshear was now working on the next two stamps in the series. I told Jerry of my interest in the project, so he took samples of my work to Washington DC and showed them to the Stamp Advisory Committee (they make all the decisions about stamps). And as a result I was commissioned to do the Jan Matzeliger Stamp in 1991, the W.E.B. Du Bois stamp in 1992 and the Percy L. Julian stamp in 1993. I will be forever grateful to both Pinkney and Blackshear for the inspiration and Pinkney especially for opening this door for me.

Sac-York cover (1)

I Am Sacajawea, I Am York: Our Journey West With Lewis and Clark, written by Claire Rudolf Murphy and illustrated by Higgins Bond, Walker Childrens (October 1, 2005)


I don’t know about you, but I’m blown away by Higgins Bond — Don Tate

Day 26: Kadir Nelson

February 26, 2014

kadirnelsonphotoKadir Nelson is an award-winning American artist whose works have been exhibited in major national and international publications, institutions, art galleries, and museums. Born in Washington, D.C., Nelson earned a Bachelor’s degree from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Nelson illustrated several New York Times best-selling picture books and his authorial debut, WE ARE THE SHIP: The Story of Negro League Baseball was winner of the Coretta Scott King and Robert F. Sibert Awards, as well as the 2008 CASEY Award for best baseball book.

Nelson is a two-time Caldecott Honor winner, and received an NAACP Image Award for the book JUST THE TWO OF US. His book NELSON MANDELA was a Coretta Scott King honor book in 2014.

Visit with Kadir Nelson at his website, and this video interview from Scholastic.

Sources: Wikipedia, Author’s web site.
Photo Source: Author site.

Day 25:Celeste O. Norfleet

February 25, 2014

Celeste head shot

Best-selling author, Celeste O. Norfleet may write about teen girls who are “fish out of water”, but she is certainly not one when it comes to writing for teens. Her novels have earned numerous awards and nominations including YALSA Quick Pics for the Reluctant Reader. Celeste lives in Virginia with her husband and two teenagers.

The Brown Bookshelf is proud to honor Celeste O. Norfleet February 25, 2014 on 28 Days Later.

My Journey

I consider myself a late bloomer to the writing and publishing world. In truth, I never saw myself as a writer or published author. My background is in illustration and graphic design and I worked as an art director in an advertising agency for many years. It wasn’t until I became a stay-at-home mom did I reconnect with my love of reading and writing. My journey to becoming a published author began when I wrote my first novel in 2000. It was a woman’s romance. I sent the manuscript into a publishing house and received a publishing contract six months later. That novel, Priceless Gift, was published in 2002.

Four years later, while still writing romance, my editor at Harlequin Kimani, Evette Porter, asked me if I was interested in writing a synopsis for the new imprint called Kimani TRU targeted to African American young adults. I was eager to try something new, so needless to say I was thrilled to have the opportunity. I always wanted to write for a young audience, so being asked to submit to Kimani TRU was an honor. Also, with two teenagers at home at the time, I absolutely loved the idea of writing something they could enjoy reading.

I approached the YA synopsis like I do all of my projects, I did major research. I wanted to create a unique story with characters that would reflect the issues concerning African American teens. But instead of going to the library and researching romantic locations as I usual did, I talked to my son and daughter and their friends, I went to the local mall, I listened to music and began watching television geared to the youth market. Within a week I had an idea for a story of a young girl in a fish out of water scenario.

I love writing connected series novels, so I decided to create a friends series for my first young adult novel. I came up with the idea of a young materialistic teenager named Kenisha Lewis who had everything she could ever want. Then I slowly took everything away to show her what was really important in her life. I also surrounded her with great secondary characters including her love interest, Terrence Butler, and two incredible best friends, Jalisa Saunders and Diamond Riggs. Of course a novel wouldn’t be interesting without a few antagonists. For this I threw in the neighborhood thug, a frenemy and her father’s girlfriend. The idea of the Kenisha Lewis series grew from there.

I outlined the main plot and story idea with an emphasis on great characters and then I decided to write the story in first person from Kenisha’s point of view. I wanted the story to be intense, but with a touch of humor, centering on forgiveness, acceptance, and of course a lot of family love. The language is teen orientated with references to today’s pop culture. I submitted a proposal. It was immediately accepted and Pushing Pause, the first in the Kenisha Lewis series, was released in 2007.

After the release and success of Pushing Pause, I was asked if I’d was interested in writing another young adult novel, but this time with a co-writer, my daughter. I broached the idea with my then fourteen year old daughter and we decided it would be something we could do. Together we came up with the idea of a mother and daughter relationship novel called, She Said, She Said. I love writing and creating complex characters in relationships and She Said, She Said is a fascinating novel on how a mother and daughter rebuild a family bond with mutual respect, acceptance, humor and love. Writing this novel with my daughter was an incredible experience for both of us.

I have since written four more novels in the Kenisha Lewis series and look forward to continue writing for the young adult market.

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The Back Story
My current young adult novel is entitled, Download Drama. In the novel I continue the family issues and day-to-day struggles of my teen protagonist, Kenisha Lewis. Kenisha finds herself in deep drama when money is tight and there’s a very real possibility of her grandmother losing the family home. She wants to help out, so she gets a job dancing in a music video. The glamour she expects is soon overshadowed by the reality of the business when she begins dancing for an abrasive, spoiled performer who quickly becomes jealous of her talent.

The main storyline of Download Drama is centered on the hip-hop music industry and the popularity of online social networks. The concept of this novel came about after seeing a number of young adults making it big via Internet success. With this in mind, I decided to incorporate a new element into the Kenisha Lewis series — fame. The idea of uploading a dance video and having that few minutes of fame change a life was intriguing and the current popularity of social networks fed into the storyline perfectly.

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My Process

My writing process begins with a story idea and then I start plotting the main situations. I focus on drama, drama and more drama. Then I begin sketching out the characters. If I’m writing a series novel, I already know who my characters are, if not, I create character sketches. Afterwards I focus on scene locations. Using several map engines, I literally go ground level checking out streets, landmarks, points of interest and neighborhood locations. It’s a great way to research without leaving my office.

After that I write a very loose synopsis outlining the main situations, locations and characters in each chapter. I tighten up the synopsis focusing on details and character dialogue. Since I feel it’s essential to have the characters interacting realistically, I spend a lot of time researching current slang, pop culture and teen interests. I try my best to stay relevant and keep current. For instance, my first novel, Pushing Pause, mentioned MySpace, my current novels don’t. I also listen to a lot of hip hop, rap and go-go music to help keep the young elements fresh.

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The Buzz
“`Pushing Pause’ invites you into 15-year-old Kenisha Lewis’ world. … I loved the complexity of the friendships, relationships and the need to rebel just a tad.” ~ OOSA Online Book Club

“`Fast Forward’ and Kenisha Lewis are back. While she’s a little more seasoned, unfortunately, due to the death of her mom, the fact still remains, she’s hurting.. … I do hope that this isn’t the last that we’ve seen of this series.” ~ OOSA Online Book Club
“Celeste O. Norfleet produces award winning writing for her young adult series about Kenisha Lewis. Ms. Norfleet consistently provides fresh scenarios, relatable characters and a realistic storyline for this teen to face. … Getting Played is an unparalleled read for all ages. Be sure to pick it up or download it for you readers’; I promise you WILL NOT be disappointed.” ~ Black Butterfly Review

To learn who is the model for her male characters and more interesting facts, visit Celeste’s website Celeste Norfleet.

posted by Gwendolyn Hooks

Day 24: Trish Cooke

February 24, 2014

Trish_Cooke_photoAward-winning author Trish Cooke’s charming picture books SO MUCH and FULL, FULL, FULL OF LOVE are the kind of stories that have you smiling all the way through. Parents love to share them. Kids plead to hear them over and over until they know every word. Cooke lives in Britain, but her books have touched people around the world. Their celebration of family, tradition and black culture resonate in delightful ways.

Though she may be known best in the U.S. for those tales, Cooke has written more than a dozen books for kids. Her latest, LOOK BACK! (Papillote Press, illustrated by Caroline Binch), draws on a magical piece of folklore from her Caribbean heritage and is already winning praise.

We’re proud to celebrate the wonderful work of Trish Cooke on Day 24:

The Journey:

I have enjoyed story making for as long as I can remember. Before I even knew how to write my stories down on paper I was acting out stories on my street, to neighbours and friends, with two of my sisters. I remember writing fun stories at primary school. I had a way of making the ordinary things that happened in my life into something quite extraordinary. One of the stories that comes to mind was written after spending the night at my newly married sister and brother in law’s flat. It was about a giant rat called Samson who came to stay. When I was about nine years old I started to keep a diary and I got into the habit of writing daily logs of what was going on in my life. I used to embellish on the happenings of the day and my life became more interesting on paper than it actually was in real life. From school I went on to do a Bachelor of Arts degree in Performing Arts and afterwards I began a career as an actress. I continued writing but for some time kept my writing private. In 1987 I decided to be brave and get some of my writing work ‘out there’. I wanted to test whether I was any good or not and the only way for me to do that was to get people to read my work and offer feedback. I had been making up stories for my nephews and nieces and experimenting with stage plays so I sent my stories off to competitions and publishers and I sent my plays off to theatre companies.

I had a couple of stories about a little girl with a vivid imagination who had come to England from the Commonwealth of Dominica. I didn’t have much luck with the publishers but a competition, led by Rymans Stationery shop, put my stories in their short list. I didn’t win the competition but one of the judges onpampam the panel, a woman called Elspeth Lindner who worked for Methuen at the time, sent me some lovely feedback and suggested that I get in touch with a literary agent called Gina Pollinger. She thought Gina might be able to place my work with a publisher. Knowing very little about the publishing world I was happy for the advice and contacted Gina immediately. I sent Gina samples of my work and she invited me to her office. Gina and her husband, Murray Pollinger, ran their own agency. Gina was fantastic and so enthusiastic about my work. She did warn me though that though she herself loved what I was doing, she knew that she would have a hard time convincing publishers to buy. Coming from a West Indian background, a lot of the characters I created spoke with the rhythms and the dialect of the Caribbean. Gina’s job was to convince publishers that there was a market out there for this type of work.

Gina brought my stories to Century Hutchinson publishers and they liked what I had done so far. They encouraged me to turn the stories I had done into chapters for my first book. In 1988 Century Hutchinson published MAMMY SUGAR FALLING DOWN. I had my first child in 1989 and I grandadstarted to create stories for him. Before long I had a collection of stories for 0 to 5 year olds. Gina managed to get two of the major publishers interested – Penguin and Walker Books. Penguin wanted to publish my work as a book of poems but I had always envisaged each of the stories I had written as single picture books. Walker Books had the same vision and I signed with Walker Books. They offered me a four book contract straight away and published MR PAM PAM AND THE HULLABAZOO; WHEN I GROW BIGGER; THE GRANDAD TREE and SO MUCH. Afterwards they published: WAITING FOR BABY and FULL,FULL,FULL OF LOVE. SO MUCH went on to win lots of prizes: The Smarties Book Prize; Kurt Maschler Award; The WH Smith and She Magazine Award and the book has also been translated into numerous languages and sold all over the world. SO MUCH was also included in the 2009 National Strategy good practice publication on raising achievement of Caribbean children at foundation stage.

fullofloveAs well as Walker Books and Century Hutchinson, over the years other publishers of my work have included: Scholastic – ‘CATCH’; Frances Lincoln – HEY CRAZY RIDDLE; Franklin Watts: THE DIARY OF A YOUNG WEST INDIAN IMMIGRANT; NO DINNER FOR ANANSI (Hopscotch Myths); HOORAH FOR MARY SEACOLE (Hopscotch Myths); Collins: ZOOM!; Collins Educational: MRS MOLLY’S SHOPPING TROLLEY; LOOKING FOR AUNTIE NATAL; Oxford University press: HOW ANANSI GOT HIS STORIES; Papillote Press: LOOK BACK! and stories in a number of anthologies.

The Back Story:

My latest book LOOK BACK! was published in May 2013 by Papillote Press.

Papillote Press is a small publishing house based in the Commonwealth of Dominica and in London. Polly Pattullo who runs Papillote Press approached me and asked me to retell a Dominican folktale. lookbackPolly knew my background and liked my work and we had wanted to work together on something for some time so this looked like a great opportunity. We discussed a few ideas and I wrote some drafts of some stories based on characters from Dominican folklore. In the end we decided on me writing about a strange mythical character my dad had told me about when I was a child called Ti Bolom. This mysterious creature is a little man /gnome type character that many Dominicans share numerous tales about and I was intrigued by him. I decided to tell the story through the words of a Dominican grandmother to her English born grandson as she remembered how she tried to hunt down the elusive Ti Bolom in her childhood. Polly was happy with the story but we still didn’t have an illustrator. We were very excited when Caroline Binch agreed to illustrate LOOK BACK! Her illustrations are amazing. Since publishing in May we have had interest from several publishers outside of the UK including Interlink Publishing who have bought the North American rights.

The Process:

I usually work from my office at home in Yorkshire. I have a nice view from my window – a lovely skyline and lots of greenery .It helps to look out of the window when I get stuck. My inspiration for my early picture book stories came from my children and my family. Often something I heard one of somuchmy children say would trigger off an idea and then I would use it as a starting point for a story and see where it led. Many of my stories start off with real life incidents but then by the time I have finished writing the story, the original trigger is no longer at the centre of the story it has turned into something else. With my most popular book, SO MUCH, the trigger was the birth of my baby. I was just totally besotted with my new born son. I sang songs to him all day long and made up little stories. My son Kieron was too little to understand much of what I was saying . The first draft of SO MUCH was more of a song than a book with lots of repetitive sounds and gestures to keep him entertained. In my original version I had short repetitive verses where family members hugged, kissed and played with the baby. All the characters in the book are real family members, I just changed their names. Eventually, after several drafts, a story emerged with Daddy’s secret surprise birthday party being the reason for the family get together.

Most times I like to let a picture book story come out spontaneously. I work on the drafts later to improve the structure but the gem of an idea has to grab the child’s attention in its first telling or it won’t work. When I told SO MUCH to baby Kieron first time round he was engrossed. I can still remember locking eyes with him as I sang out the story to him. It was magical.

Once I have worked on a couple of drafts of a story I like to try it out on an audience. I can usually see what works and what doesn’t work when I get the reactions from my target audience. I say audience rather than reader because for me a book is like a stage play and the pictures, the words and the reading of it all culminate to make a performance.

The Buzz on Look Back!:

“Listen to the story as a grandmother shares with her grandson stories of her Caribbean childhood. Is the mysterious Ti Bolom real or a figment of Grannie’s active imagination? The story interweaves the rainforest secrets with present-day curiosity and still the reader is left guessing. If you want to believe… Atmospheric illustrations by Caroline Binch capture both the rainforest with all its rich variety and the modern-day world. A thoughtful and very special story about the power of the imagination, with a loving family relationship at its heart.”

Parents in touch - 13th May 2013

“Look Back! by Trish Cooke and Caroline Binch (Papillote Press £6.99) even has the confidence to remind children (and parents) that fear is an inevitable part of life. This is a beautiful book with painstaking, lifelike illustrations that pull you into the story from the start. Cooke tells a West Indian grandmother’s tale about a predator no one has ever clapped eyes on – Ti Bolom. We meet the grandmother as a little girl with furrowed brow and braided hair, standing in a tropical wilderness and turning to look back at… nothing. Sometimes that is the nature of fear: the predator you never see but continue to believe exists. And I love the way the exploration collides here with a celebration of the rapport between a grandmother and her grandson: family, at its best, the ultimate tonic.”

Kate Kellaway, The Observer

“Atmospheric illustrations… A very special story about the power of the imagination.”

Parents in Touch

“You feel as though you were there. And you could be. Maybe.”


“This small independent publisher has taken on a big book – one that is magical and one that celebrates other cultures, in this instance the Caribbean culture. In the story the reader is treated to a tale of magic adventure in the rainforest but is not quite sure whether the story is all in a grandmother’s imagination or a true adventure. Does it really matter? Probably not for the adventure takes us on a glorious journey through brightly coloured foresty jungle and into the heart of storytelling.”

Louise Ellis-Barrett, Armadillo Magazine

“I doubt there’s a single KS1 or Nursery class that has not enjoyed So Much [by Trish Cooke] so it is a great pleasure to recommend another title by the same award-winning author. I would hazard a guess that Look Back! will be just as popular with a slightly older readership at KS1 and early KS2…Let’s not forget the illustrations, which complement the telling perfectly – and we would expect nothing less from the same hand that brought us Amazing Grace.”

Angela Redfern, The School Librarian

“The relationship between Grannie and Christopher is beautifully portrayed by author and illustrator. It is a lovely book for sharing and reading aloud, with sound effects and repetition for teller and listener to enjoy.”

Sue Mansfield, The International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY)

“It is good to see something by Trish Cooke and it is good to see something by Caroline Binch and doubly good to see them working together in this story drawn from a Dominican folk tale…The mystery and implied danger in Cooke’s story is nicely held in check by the realism of Binch’s richly detailed portraiture: and Binch’s affectionate rendering of the relationship between both Granny and Christopher and granny as a girl and the old woman, Ma Constance, to whom she takes food, implies a beneficent universe in which even the slightly scary Ti Bolom can be a friend.”

Clive Barnes, Books for Keeps

Find out more about Trish Cooke at

Day 23: Stephanie Kuehn

February 23, 2014

SkuehnhighresBWThe Journey

When I was growing up, my father was an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, and he worked with freelance writers from all over the Bay Area (and beyond). My whole life, we had diverse and creative people coming in and out of our home, and I was enthralled by their passion and the stories they wanted to tell.

Consequently, I wanted to be a writer from a very young age. My parents encouraged me and I was that kid who spent all my classes daydreaming and jotting down stories in notebooks. However, when I went to college, I became interested in linguistics and philosophy, and I stopped writing fiction. That’s disappointing to reflect back on, but if I’m being honest with myself, I think I was at a school with so many talented writers and artists that I was intimidated to take classes with them. The linguistics department was small and vibrant, and it suited my analytical temperament well.

It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I found writing again. I had young kids and I was going to graduate school (for psychology), and I needed a self-directed creative outlet. I found some of my old writing that I had saved from high school and it inspired me to try and write a full-length novel. I did that, and I kept writing. Writing for teens felt natural to me. I work with young people and find it meaningful to tell stories that they can relate to.

The Back Story
I suppose I got the book deal for Charm & Strange in a fairly traditional manner. I wrote the novel, revised it, and queried agents that I thought would be a good fit. I was fortunate enough to connect with a really wonderful agent who wanted to represent it. The manuscript went on submission to editors and found the perfect home at St. Martin’s. It was definitely not an overnight thing at all, which is what you always hear about. There was a lot of revising and rejection and waiting, waiting, waiting, and some days I thought nothing would happen. But it all worked out and I am very grateful for that.

The Inspiration
Inspiration is everywhere! My reading taste is somewhat eclectic, but I really dig Robert Cormier, Isabel Allende, Walter Mosley. Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Janne Teller, Nick Burd, John Barth, John Fowles, Flannery O’Connor, Blythe Woolston, Meg Rosoff, Toni Morrison, Josephine Miles, and I’ll stop there because I could go on and on. As far as music goes, I’m a huge jazz fan (I played bass for years) and some favorites are Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Horace Silver, and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

The Process

I start with a concept. That’s what first piques my interest, although it’s usually a concept that’s abstract and difficult to explain. But that difficulty makes me want to write it even more, so that I can say what I mean and say it just right.

Then it usually takes me playing around with the concept and finding a character and voice to see if the idea takes. If it starts to become less abstract and turn into more of a story, and I’m excited to write it, I’ll go with it. If I can write a few chapters and then compose a rough synopsis of what I’m trying to do, I’m usually committed. What I’m finding is hard is learning how to set something aside and then come back to it. I’m getting better about it, but it can be frustrating because inspiration and motivation can feel so fickle.

I live in a small house with a husband and three kids, and there is no sacred office space. I have tiny desk in my bedroom, but I write anywhere I can find a free moment.Charm and Strange

The Buzz

Charm & Strange has been nominated for YALSA’s 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults list, the 2014 CILIP Carnegie Medal, and WON YALSA’s 2014 William C. Morris award! (ed. note: woot!)

Under The Radar

Brandy Colbert is a young adult author whose first novel, POINTE, will be published in April by Penguin. I’ve read POINTE and it is amazing. Beautiful and layered and complex, with a narrator who is very special and whose story unfolds in ways you wouldn’t expect. Sumayyah Daud is another young adult author whom I really admire, and her debut BEGIN AGAIN, is forthcoming from Dutton.

Thank you so much, Ms. Kuehn! It’s been a pleasure, and we’re looking forward to COMPLICIT this summer. Visit Stephanie Kuehn online for more!

Day 22: Amar’e Stoudemire

February 22, 2014

stoudemireAmar’e Stoudemire. New York Knicks Power Forward. Six-time NBA All-Star. Author.

That’s right—in 2012, the NBA superstar Amar’e Stoudmire teamed with Scholastic Press to launch the STAT (Standing Tall and Talented), a chapter book series based on Stoudemire’s life. In STAT: Standing Tall and Talented #1: Home Court, we’re introduced to eleven-year-old Stoudemire as he and his friends band together to win back the neighborhood basketball court from a group of bullies. Kirkus notes that the book, “hits all the major points in encouraging boys to read: sports, peer relationships, the value of hard work and family support,” and helps to “address the dearth of chapter books featuring children of color positively engaged in the normal adventures of life.”

On his website, Stoudemire notes his commitment to turning kids, especially boys, into readers. He states, “I decided to write for stat5children because although I am an avid reader now, I wish I had read more as a child. I hope that together with Scholastic, we can creatively inspire a new generation to read.”

With five books in the series so far, he seems to be making good on his goal.

The latest novel in the series, STAT: Standing Tall and Talented #5: Most Valuable is in stores now.

Day 21: Dr. Gwendolyn Battle Lavert

February 21, 2014

Dr. Gwendolyn Battle Lavert standing in front of the Professional Development Center at Qatar University in Doha, Qatar.

A veteran educator, Dr. Gwendolyn Battle Lavert has made a lasting impact as a children’s book author. Her lyrical picture books, full of warmth and strength, celebrate African American life and culture. From a father who learns to write his name with his son’s help in Papa’s Mark to a boy whose uncle teaches him to play harmonica in The Music in Derrick’s Heart, Lavert mines family and history to create moving, memorable tales. “I want students to know that reading opens up the world to them,” she is quoted as saying in Gale Biographies of Children’s Book Authors. “It’s a journey that will last them a lifetime.”

Please join us in celebrating Dr. Gwendolyn Battle Lavert on Day 21:

My Journey

Every family has a recorder.  I happen to be the one for my family. Hearing my Mama’s oral storytelling about her life strengthened me. Her real life stories gave me the self-esteem, pride, and love that has navigated me onto the path that I travel today.   My first experience with writing professionally came as a first grade teacher.  I felt compelled to write stories because the students in my class were having difficulty learning to read.  The stories and the pictures didn’t depict who they were culturally.  I wanted my students to own the stories.  After searching for months with very few options, I started writing stories for them.  barberWith the stories that I wrote, the students excitedly began to read. As a result, I had a collection of stories that I had written. Afterwards, I had a strong desire to really want to write professionally.  My first book, The Barber’s Cutting Edge (illustrated by Raymond Holbert), was published in 1994.

I have worked as a principal, assistant school principal, reading specialist, university professor, and now an International Consultant.  Growing up in Paris, I was always writing and drawing.  With this offtoschoolearly childhood experience, it is no surprise that I’ve found a career as a children’s book author. In books that include Off to School (illustrated by Gershom Griffith), The Shaking Bag (illustrated by Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson), and Papa’s Mark (illustrated by Colin Bootman), I portrays young lives steeped in African-American culture and history. Off to School, for example, finds sharecropper’s daughter Wezielee so obsessing about the possibility of attending school that she over-seasons and overcooks the meals she prepares for her father and his crew at harvest time.  This book is about my Mama.  But, I used my grandmother’s name.  In reviewing the book, Booklist contributor Susan Dove Lempke praised my depiction of “a warm family atmosphere” and a “likeable African American main character” in young Wezielee. Similarly, in The Music in Derrick’s Heart (illustrated by Colin Bootman), musicinderrickBooklist reviewer Shelle Rosenfeld dubbed it as a “charming, uplifting” tale about a boy learning to play the harmonica with help from a favorite uncle. She also states that my “easy-flowing, rhythmic prose” reflects the story’s focus on “the extraordinary power of music as universal language,” Rosenfeld added.  When my mother told me about a man in the community who played the harmonica, her voice was so musical. It moved me to write in this rhythmic prose.

I love writing.  I have shared my writing with my teaching.  I have lived in Doha, Qatar for two years.  This International flair is moving my thinking and writing to another level.

The Back Story

Holiday House in New York had published two of my books before I submitted my last, Papa’s Mark.  So, as I was writing the story, I papasmarktalked with the editor of my last two books.  She was interested.  When I completed the story, I sent it to her.  It was accepted.  However, it took me several years to get to the position of calling an editor and discussing my new ideas.  This does not happen overnight.

The Process

Since my stories are expressive narratives, I like to start with a narrative graph organizer to help guide me in building the Beginning, Middle, and End. I’m a good listener.  So, I listen to other people talk. Many times they will say something in conversation that will lead to a story idea. For example, I was talking with a lady in the grocery store.  She told me how her Grandfather wanted to vote and be able to write his name on the ballot.  All of a sudden, I knew I had to write about this man. This one brief meeting gave me ideas for a story.  It was easy to write because I made connections to relatives that had the same challenges. So, I wrote Papa’s Mark.  The character Simms came to me.  That might sound crazy, but the character appears.  I give the character a name according to the period of the story.  Many of my stories take place before the  civil war.  I like that period of time.

Is there a technique or routine for drafting or revising that you find particularly helpful?

I learned from going to writing conferences that the first draft is never your final draft.  I do a lot of revising and revising.  Sometimes after I finish, I feel that I need to write it over again.

Do you have an office or other location that works best for you?

I do not have a particular place to write. I usually write on a notepad long hand just to put the ideas in my head.   I then move to my computer desk.  Sometimes I type in bed with my laptop.  So, the location depends on my feelings.

The State of the Industry

I think that it is more difficult to get books published.  However, I still believe that editors are looking for good stories.  Children are looking for good stories.  So, a writer must not give up.

The Buzz on Papa’s Mark

A Children’s Book of the Year 2004 from the Child Study Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College

Reading Rainbow Review Book 2004

Parents Choice Recommended Title 2000

The Booklist Starred Review 2000


Day 19: Diane Browne

February 19, 2014 smiling

Diane Browne has written over 40 stories/books. She has been published by Ginn in the United Kingdom; Harcourt Brace and Friendship Press in the USA; Heinemann Caribbean, Carlong Publishers, Arawak Publications, and the Ministry of Education in Jamaica.

She has been a visiting author for the Students’ Encounter Programme at the Miami Book Fair, and has presented papers on children’s literature at the National Association of Teacher’s of English, UK; the International Association of School Librarianship, the International Reading Association and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. She has frequently participated as trainer/consultant in writing workshops for both writers of children’s fiction and textbooks, in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean.


My journey began when I was quite young; I loved books. I read the usual books, Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys as well as listened to Anancy stories. But I knew that I wanted someone
to write books about us, people who looked like us and lived like us. I longed for this. And then when my two girls were little, I realized that this person could be me. There was nothing for them to read that represented them. There was a particular Enid Blyton book ( a British children’s author) in which there was a golliwog, which was a doll depicting black people, a caricature really, and he was always the one giving trouble or getting into trouble. A subtle but significant message. My older daughter, was then only about eight, and she remembers feeling uncomfortable about this. Our story book heroes were still the golden haired girls and princesses. I had to write children’s stories so my children, all our children would have books reflecting positive images of themselves.

However, my journey is not only a story of my writing for children. It became a journey as a children’s writer with a passion for raising the consciousness, here and in the Caribbean region, of the importance of our own children’s stories to validate our children and their lives. Children must see themselves in books.

My actual writing journey began on a project for the Ministry of Education. The project was to write supplementary readers, the Dr. Bird Readers, for our government-run primary schools (elementary schools), which the majority of the children in the island attend. This was in the late 1970s early 1980s, and it was revolutionary. Story books which featured snow, ice skating, sledding and firesides and chimneys were presented as the norm for children, who lived in a country which was hot all year round, where beaches and palm trees and towering green mountains and tropical vegetation were what they saw. When our writing team went into schools to meet our target audience, we discovered that the children thought that all writers were either foreigners or were dead. The Dr. Bird books changed this. They are still in schools, and even now, I run into adults, a policeman, a nurse, who remember favourite books from that series. My most recent experience was last year with a team interviewing at risk youth, ages 15 – 20, all male. When asked what books they could remember reading, we got the not unexpected looks of astonishment. How could anybody expect them to remember a book? And then they began to recall books they had read in school and call out their names – books I had written.

I grinned with pleasure, as it dawned on them: “Is she write it?” (Amazement!) “Yes, is she write it!”

(Discovery): And I replied, “Yes, is me write it.” Creole is often used to express surprise, a familiarity one with the other. Grins and laughter all round. We were one in this delight of writing and reading our own stories. These were their story books. These are what they remember.

One of my picture story books produced by Heinemman Caribbean at this time was Cordelia Finds Fame
and Fortune. This was also published in the USA in a library series called Passports by Harcourt Brace and Company. Although I had only used Creole structures in the dialogue, and very modified ones, the American edition totally changed those so that a folk song in the book, the first line of which read , ‘Oh Cordelia Brown, whe mek you head so red?’, became ‘Oh Cordelia Brown, what makes your hair so red?’ Nonetheless, I was thrilled that there had been an American edition; at the recognition. And I was fortunate to be part of a Student’s Encounter Programme for the Miami Book Fair where we were able to sing the original version of that folksong.

Cordelia Finds Fame and Fortune, is about a little girl who is teased because she has red hair with dark skin, an anomaly. That was connected to my younger daughter’s experience, although I did not realize that that was my inspiration then. Our passions inform our writing journey even when we aren’t looking.

My journey has taken me from picture story books to ‘tween’ books, two Time Travel novels in which the protagonists go to historical events in our past,( because we can do time travel too just like people in big countries); and to my most recent book, a novel in the YA genre, Island Princess in Brooklyn, published by Carlong Publishers, Jamaica, 2011.


ISLAND PRINCESS IN BROOKLYN is a coming of age story of a 13 year-old protagonist, who reluctantly leaves her Granny with whom she has grown, to join her mother in Brooklyn. Princess has to adjust not only to a mother she barely knows, but also to a stepfather she never knew existed, a new country and a new school.

My connections with New York go way back. Most of my father’s family migrated in the 1930s and eventually lived in Jamaica, Long Island (which we always said, to differentiate it from our own Jamaica.)

Did this back story begin with my 15 year-old self who went to visit them, and had such a magical time discovering more family, and Radio City Music Hall, and the United Nations (where she planned to work when she grew up) that she fell in love with New York?

Did that girl reach out across the years to Princess? Or was the genesis of the back story more in the present? Some few years ago when my older daughter was in New York as her husband was doing a fellowship at a hospital in Brooklyn, I went up for the birth of my two grandchildren. And I fell in love again! Big time – with Brooklyn; the Brooklyn of migrant peoples and old-time houses turned into apartments buildings, laundromats where people who did not speak English helped you anyway, dollar stores, grandmas watching children in small front yards, old men sitting on steps in the sun. Different ethnic groups, all there working for the American dream; I saw their lives, our lives.

I was dizzy with joy! I would have written an ode to Brooklyn. Instead Princess McQueen turned up and said, ‘Tell my story’. I wrote in the first person, so it is Princess’ voice we hear. By the end of the story, Princess grows to discover that it may be possible after all to love both Jamaica and New York, that family, may not be perfect – but they are family.

This theme of migration is a part of the fabric of our lives. Everybody has family or knows of someone who has migrated to the USA, the UK or Canada. And therefore there is the social construct of the absent parent who has left children to make a better life overseas before sending for them. These
children left behind here are often called ‘barrel children’ because of the barrels of goodies sent home by the parent, ‘evidence’ of their love and success.

Many have told me how much they love this book; women from cultures as different as Puerto Rico and Uganda said it speaks to them of their lives, the dynamics of their families. They recognise the various levels in the story, including that of the women in a family. In this novel there are three pivotal female figures circling around one another, Princess, her Mum and Granny. As Princess’ Mum says about the relationship to Granny: She was my mother before I was your mother, she was my mother before she was your grandmother.

We all belong to each other. Nothing can change that.

However, the character who has the greatest impact on Princess’s coming to terms with her new life is an African American boy. I didn’t plan that; he just stepped forward and played that role.

In a way Island Princess in Brooklyn celebrates my father’s family and their journey. Interestingly
enough, Cordelia Finds Fame and Fortune celebrated the fact that fame and fortune can be found here
at home (no need to migrate). However, Princess is forced to migrate and forced to make a new life
or return home. Is this back story then part of the journey, a journey in which I am now able to look outwards from our island to our people overseas? This circle of family, of story, fills me with wonder.


“This delightful well-wrought novel . . . All the challenges of the young protagonist, who tells her story in the first person, are handled with emotional impact and veracity of experience. We are treated to the world as seen by the new migrant. It is a fresh and appealing point of view that makes for fast-paced reading that often melds the two countries . . . Browne builds a solid map of Jamaican culture and mores that her youthful migrant can use to comfort herself in the strange new situations she encounters without being obtrusive or in any way false or forced. This is one of the attractive features of the narrative, for the young protagonist becomes more and more appealing as she faces each challenge that comes her way.” Mary Hanna: Bookends, The Sunday Observer: Jamaica

“a delightful read” — Geoffrey Philp

Diane Browne has won awards for her children’s stories/books in Jamaica, including a prestigious Musgrave Medal for her contribution to the field of children’s literature from the Institute of Jamaica.

She also won the special prize for a children’s story in the Commonwealth, (a worldwide association of countries) from the Commonwealth Foundation, 2011.


I was inspired by the West Indian writers of adult fiction like Sir V. S. Naipaul, Samuel Selvon, Edgar Mittelholzer, John Hearne. They were telling our stories, stories I understood about people whom I recognised. This was the understanding and recognition in literature that I wanted to bring to our children. In contemporary children’s literature I was inspired by the American Judy Blume, especially her book Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, as she presents us with the multi-faceted characters of real young people; Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce and Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time led me to a fascination with time travel, made me want to create time travel for my people. I suppose everything I read and liked, urged me onwards to create our own stories.


In the Caribbean we need more opportunities for publishing of children’s books, and more people buying books, but too often disposable income is limited. Moreover, foreign children’s books undersell local books because of their economies of scale. Nonetheless, I do not think that indigenous literature gets the support of our education institutions which our children and our countries deserve. I’m delighted that there are more and more African American children’s books. That these books, as well as Black British books are also available to us, is a good thing. They provide our children with images of children like themselves, even if there are cultural differences. What I would love to see is Americans being interested in children’s material from the Caribbean. The Brown Bookshelf by affording me the opportunity of writing this blog, has highlighted us, and I thank you.


I write as the spirit moves me, as the characters appear, as a story set in a place or time calls out to me.

I have no set pattern and often I’m thinking when next I’ll get the time to write while I’m doing other things. I usually write an entire story and then rewrite, edit, etc. over a period of time. If it’s a novel, the first draft is always done before I return to any specific thing within the story. Then I grow my story in layers.

Thank you so much, Ms. Browne! I love thinking of growing a story in layers. (*And* it makes me think of cake, which I also happen to love.) Readers, visit Diane Browne’s blog for more about her extensive work, and a wealth of resources on Caribbean children’s literature! You can also read an excerpt from ISLAND PRINCESS IN BROOKLYN over at Anansesem Magazine.

Day 18: Christopher Myers

February 18, 2014

myers_christopher_lgChristopher Myers is an award-winning author and illustrator of children’s books. In 1998, Myers won a Caldecott Honor for his illustrations in Harlem, written by Walter Dean Myers. The following year, he wrote and illustrated Black Cat, a book that received a Coretta Scott King Award (2000). In addition to writing and illustrating his own stories, Myers often illustrates books written by his father, award-winning author Walter Dean Myers. Christopher’s books also include lies and other tall tales.

H.O.R.S.E.: A Game of Basketball and Imagination (EgmontUSA), written and illustrated by Myers, won a Coretta Scott King Honor award in 2013.

Source: Wikipedia

Day 16: Kelli London

February 16, 2014

kelli londonAccording to Kensington Publishing’s website, Kelli London has been writing since she was six years old. That’s not hard to believe, as she has been such a prolific writer for the company, penning seven YA novels since 2011 and co-authoring another. Her most recent title, Beware of Boys, was published last month and is the fourth title in the Charly’s Epic Fiascos series.


beware of boys kelli london cover

Kelli’s passion for young people isn’t limited to literary pursuits. She has also served as a mentor for A Dream Inc.,  a non-profit organization for teenagers. Other passions include “girly stuff: clothes…lip gloss, movies with happy endings”, as well as Ashtanga yoga and anything education-related. On day 16, we recognize University of Connecticut graduate and Atlanta author, Kelli London.


Other young adult titles by Kelli London:

charly fiascos k london

reality check k londonstar power k london

boyfriend season k london

cali boys k london

uptown dreams k london



Find out more about Kelli London’s books at


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