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!


Day 4: R. Gregory Christie

February 4, 2015
hshtR. Gregory Christie is known today as a multi-award winning illustrator , who’s accolades include art for the New Orleans Jazz festival’s Congo square poster, imagery for the 2013 United States Postal office’s Kwanzaa stamp and even a 2010 NAACP Image award for his work in the book “Our Children Can Soar: A Celebration of Rosa, Barack, and the Pioneers of Change” authored by J. Patrick Lewis.
However interestingly enough this illustrators illustrious career began in New York city’s nightlife. His first exhibition took place at the Spiral Bar in the lower east side. Then further opportunities through lead to more exhibitions and live paintings sessions in London, Malaysia, Amsterdam, Stockholm and Thailand; it was a situation where Christie would often paint as people partied or performed. Live painting sessions led to album artwork for jazz funk group Justice System and that gig lead to his first children’s book project with Lee and Low Books which won the Coretta Scott King Honor in 1997.

The Back Story

I was asked by members of SCBWI’s Southern Breeze chapter to be a part of a panel discussion at the Sugar Hill (2)Decatur Public library. The Illustrator’s Day  helped beginners and professionals gain insight in to the children’s book industry. Some of the other speakers for the day were Kelly Barrales-Saylor editor for Albert Whitman & Company, and illustrators Elizabeth Dulemba and Peter Brown.

 Soon after the event Kelly asked if I’d be interested in illustrating a book with her company showcasing Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood. I jumped at the opportunity and soon began researching images and fashion from the 1920’s. I had just finished up It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw and was still excited about the flat graphic style I had used for that book. I brought this visual sentiments in to the art that I created for Sugar Hill. 

It Jes' HappenedThe Inspiration
I’ve always have been inspired by any artist who can alter the human form with an eloquence and rhythm. in particular, Pablo Picasso, Romare Bearden, Ben Shahn, Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Egon Schiele Bill Traylor, even painters who practiced their own form of realism like Lucien Freud or John Singer Sargent. I simply cant get away from the human form and portraiture.

Inspiration also comes from living life and keeping the balance of being social. How can you paint images of people if you never really try to know them? i inspire to get a gesture or expression “right” and so a lot of time is spent being cognizant of human behavior and interactions.

The Process:  I suppose I’m a just go with it type of artist because I’m not able to completely see the end No Crystal Stairsresult before I begin things, i just simply just know the direction due to some very loose sketches. I tend to draw in front of a computer when doing historical books, because I really care about visual historical accuracy. I tend to really think about fashion social dynamics architecture, skin tone as well as facial expressions. I try to get out of my own head and imagine how a child, librarian , teacher and parent will respond to my image. 

The Buzz

Sugar hill was well reviewed and even received a star review from Kirkus and recently the book has won the Best History/Non-fiction Picture Book of 2014 designation from the Huffington Post.
Under The Radar 
Well I have to admit that I keep my head in the sand in regard to the industry, but I can say I often hear people tell me that they cant find good books with “us” or brown people in it. So I’d be remiss to not direct anyone reading this to Lee and Low Books as well as Just Us Books. There’s also Patrick Oliver of “Say it Loud,” Zetta Elliott’s  Rosetta Press and Maya Gonzalez’s School of the Free Mind. If after all that ,you are still searching then be sure to see some of the not so under the radar talents. Shadra Stickland, Sean Qualls, Eric Velazquez, Shane Evans, Freddi Williams Evans,Tonya Bolden, Elbrite Brown I can go on and on but please be sure to especially check out the art of all the fine creators who put this invaluable blog together. It’s all top notch work and is out there for anyone who is interested.

Day 3: Connie Schofield-Morrison

February 3, 2015

???????????????????????????????What happens when a 19 year old poet and songwriter marries her high school sweetheart who’s a professional dancer? He becomes a celebrated artist and illustrator, and she becomes the Chief Executive Officer of a successful family business, Morrison Graphics.

Since 1999, Connie Schofield Morrison has managed the business aspects of Morrison Graphics while simultaneously taking great pride in caring for the needs of her children, her home, and her husband. And because it’s what driven individuals do, she also carved out time for her literary passion and has published her first children’s book.

On Day 3 of 28 Days Later, we are pleased to feature Connie Shofield Morrison:

 

The Journey

My path to publishing started in 2009 when my husband, Frank Morrison, and I decided to join our talents and collaborate using his “MIRACULOUS” illustrations and my “MIRACULOUS” story. I had something of an advantage in working with my husband in our self-made business (Morrison Graphics) since 1999: I was able to study the literary market up close for years–watching him grow through his collaborations with numerous children’s book authors. Even so, my own path was still rather challenging! Although my husband is a world renowned artist who has worked with a variety of publishing companies, my publishing journey was certainly not a “who you know” situation. It was stringently based on the book being a masterpiece in order to get published. Before shopping my book, I signed with my agent Lori Nowicki at Painted Words.

My path was fueled by PASSION, PERSISTANCE, and PATIENCE. My journey was challenging. However it was worth the cultivated experience.

 

 

The Inspiration

My inspirations–outside of GOD, my husband, and my children– are the late Elizabeth Keckley, Oprah Winfrey, Mary J. Blige, Justine Simmons, Kelly Ripa, and Jada Pickett Smith.

 

The Process

I have a home based office. In order for me to convert into Author mode, I need to take off my CEO suit, Wife suit, Mommy suit, and go into a quiet, clean zone with the aroma of scented candles and the sound of light music. While creating or writing, I start off with a character or characters. In my first published book, “I Got The Rhythm”, I started off with my character, Miraculous, whose name I never displayed in the first book. I created her using the sassiness of my youngest daughter, Tiffani; the “superstar” characteristics of my oldest daughter, Nia; and the “anti-shyness” of them both. What worked for me in developing Miraculous’ character was writing her many mood swings out on paper; dancing her dance moves to the beat of whatever music I was listening to at the moment; seeing, smelling, tasting and listening to the melodies that surrounded me.

 

The Buzz

“The driving beat of debut author Schofield-Morrison’s narrative is likely to have readers bouncing and tapping right along with her… An upbeat celebration of the senses, selfexpression, and camaraderie.” – Publishers Weekly

“The bright palette and vibrant tones of Morrison’s loosely painted illustrations echo the energy of the text nicely… the book begs readers to sing and move along with this little dancer.” – Booklist

“For a storytime that will get bodies rocking, fingers popping, and rhythm flowing.” – Library Media Connection

“The little girl at the center of it all is wholly likable in her joyful approach… This will work well in an interactive storytime for preschoolers, as listeners are invited to shake and stomp along with the happy protagonist.” – BCCB

“Ready made for storytime, Schofield-Morrison’s text pulses with a beat of its own and practically demands audiences to clap along… The urban setting and varied cast of characters make this title particularly valuable, showcasing diversity as an integral part of everyday life.” – School Library Journal

KIRKUS REVIEW
The beat is all around her when a girl takes a walk in the park with her mother. On a lovely summer day, a young African-American girl in a bright pink sundress and matching sneakers sees, smells, sings, claps and snaps her fingers to an internal rhythm. As a boom box plays its song and a drummer taps his beat, neighborhood children join her in an energetic, pulsating dance culminating in a rousing musical parade. Schofield-Morrison’s brief text has a shout-it-out element as each spread resounds with a two-word phrase: “I shook a rhythm with my hips. /SHAKE SHAKE”; “I tapped the rhythm with my toes. / TIP TAP.” Morrison’s fullbleed, textured oil paintings capture the joy of a mother and daughter in an urban park
surrounded by musicians, food vendors and many exuberant children. Read this aloud with music playing loudly—not in the background. Morrison is a Coretta Scott King/New Talent Award winner, and this is a fine debut for his wife in their first collaboration.

 

Authors/Artists Everyone Should Know 

Frank Morrison
Nyree Morrison
Kadir Nelson
Brian Collier


Day 2: JaNay Brown-Wood

February 2, 2015
janaypic

Photo by Michelle Wood Photography

As far back as she can remember, JaNay Brown-Wood loved to write. Whether spinning tales about a Tyrannosaurus Rex named Taylor or weaving mysteries that put her in the starring role as Detective JaNay, stories called to her as a child. She filled notebooks with her imaginings and dreamed of seeing her words in print.

Dream turned to destiny when grown-up JaNay won the picture book category of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) Children’s Book Award with her lovely manuscript, Imani’s Moon. The prize was a contract with Charlesbridge.  Imani, her endearing main character, appears on the cover with her arms raised to the sky. We can picture JaNay that way too, smile beaming with arms stretched heavenward in triumph.

JaNay, an early childhood education professor, shares on her website that her advice to children is: “Believe.” Here she shares her inspiring path to publication:

“The children are the bright moon.” —Maasai proverb

When you hear a child tell you what she or he wants to be when they grow up, how closely do you listen? Do you take her words to heart or do you nod and say “uh-huh” knowing that her ambitions will probably sound completely different by the end of the day? It’s understandable to shake your head complacently when he says something like “an astronaut,” or “a princess” or even “an undercover spy,” because it’s likely that you are thinking about how implausible something like that might be. But, I challenge you to humor that child, even if just for a moment, by genuinely saying something like “okay, how do you plan to do that?” I mean, you really never know. You just might be laying your eyes on the next Amelia Earhart or Neil Armstrong. Or Barack Obama. Or Maya Angelou.

I bring this up because as a child, one of the many things I said I wanted to be when I grew up was an author. I knew all the way back then. I was blessed to have family members who humored me, and teachers who encouraged me. Although, I will say that one of my other very early ambitions was to be Michael Jackson, and that one didn’t pan out too well. But the “being an author” aspiration did come true, of course.

Her Journey and Backstory 

My journey to authorship spans way back to my elementary school years, and probably even earlier than that. I reveled in receiving creative writing assignments from teachers. I loved coming up with stories and using the perfectly picked words to coax those stories out of my head to capture them on paper. This expanded beyond class and I’d find myself writing stories and poetry outside of school, just for fun. Fast forward fifteen years or so, and you would have foundimani me as a UCLA student, sitting in my apartment and feverishly scrawling out a story about a young protagonist who wanted to jump to the moon. With research and lots of editing and refining, IMANI’S MOON was born, finalized several years later, and then published on October 14, 2014!

In addition to expanding my love for writing, my earlier experiences also built up resilience and confidence in me, too. Those positive adults—the ones who said “okay, make it happen,” and “work hard and you can do it,” instead of “yeah right,” or “sure you will [sarcastically],”—helped me to increase my perseverance, determination, and belief in myself.

My path to publishing, meaning me actually putting effort into selling my written works, took eight years to come to fruition. I’ve sent out many manuscripts, including IMANI’S MOON, where I got rejection after rejection after rejection (with a few poetry sales that have yet to be published). But I kept on. I keep on. IMANI’S MOON was actually published because I won a contest for the National Association of Elementary School Principal’s Book of the Year Award, with the prize being a publication contract. I have also signed a contract for a second picture book with a tentative release date of Fall, 2016. What if I hadn’t kept on?

Her inspiration

On top of my encouraging experiences leading me to fulfill my dream of writing, inspiration has also played a part in my publication journey. Dr. Seuss has always inspired me. As a child, I enjoyed his silly stories and whimsical writing. Whenever my dad read his words to me at bedtime, Seuss’s stories came to life even more vibrantly. Additionally, I am in awe of J.K. Rowling’s ability to not only write a spectacular series, but in her creation of a completely new world, culture, and Magical/Muggle movement. She gives me something more to aspire to. I’m also inspired by the voices of writers such as Langston Hughes, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Zora Neale Hurston, Nikki Grimes, and of course, Dr. Maya Angelou. I hope to make my mark on the world or writing in a powerful way like each of these groundbreaking authors has.

I also find inspiration beyond books in nature and the beautiful landscapes I see, in music from India Arie and Jeanette Harris (a fantastic saxophonist, and my cousin too—you should check her out) to name a few, and in strong people chasing their ambitions in life. One of my biggest inspirations comes from First Lady Michelle Obama and her poise, intelligence, and unwavering strength. As you see, my inspiration as a writer, but also as a woman of color and a young professional, comes from so many who have come before me.

The State of the Industry 

Just as those who have inspired me, I hope to inspire others to continue chasing their dreams, to continue making positive waves in the world so they too can create a ripple effect of inspiration and change. I feel that this is relevant, especially when we think of the current state of children’s literature where so few characters look like me or others of color. Although not all of the characters I write are of color, I think that my voice and who I am can add to children’s literature in a way that will empower others. I was thrilled to hear about the Brown Bookshelf, the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and the reintroduction of Reading Rainbow, each important vehicles for moving our field of literature forward. I want to join in that push!

The Buzz

Thus, I am ecstatic to make my appearance as a writer of color. I plan to keep honing my craft and to keep improving so I can continue to share my voice in an encouraging way. Upon reflecting on the past few months since the publication of IMANI’S MOON, I think I am off to a positive start. My book has received a number of great reviews including encouraging sentiments such as “…a message of hope and gentle lyrical tone make this the perfect story with which to lull listeners into sweet slumber…” from Booklist, “a story of determination with magical realism,” from School Library Journal, and “…Imani, with her winning personality, is a child to be admired” from Kirkus. Additionally, IMANI’S MOON has received five hearts from Foreword Reviews and an Outstanding from the Association of Children’s Librarians of Northern California. You can find links for a number of other reviews for my book on my website www.janaybrownwood.com as well as the fabulous book trailer created by the illustrator Hazel Mitchell. Also, I am readily booking events and school visits to share my book with the world (you can contact me through my website if you’d like to book a school visit). My heart is so full from all the wonderful feedback I’m getting about my book.

So to wrap up this blog post, I just want to remind adults that as children are stating what they want to be when they grow up, humor them just a little, and encourage them a lot to be hard-working, perseverant, and resilient. This will serve them well because even if they do not end up as astronauts or princesses or spies, your encouragement will help them become strong and determined individuals who know how to seize the day, or leap to the moon.

And remember the words of a Maasai proverb which says “The children are the bright moon.” Why not help them shine their brightest?

 

 


The Importance of Dreaming: Why Diversity Matters in Science Fiction and Fantasy – by C. Taylor-Butler

January 26, 2015

 

CTB

I’m a dreamer. I grew up in a lower middle class environment where the stretch goal was simply survival. Many of my neighbors had never ventured far from the city. Reading wasn’t a popular hobby. Dreams were for other people.

But my mother introduced me to every free or low cost cultural program she could find. I took art classes at the Museum of Art. Spent days sketching by a replica of The Thinker near the reflecting pond. And my weekends existed living in the stacks of the Public Library and carrying home as many books as I was allowed at the end of the day. Whenever I needed to escape my environment, books were there to guide me. I immersed in Barbar and envisioned myself traveling with the king to a far distant land. I was Madeleine lined up in a row of similarly dressed girls. All the while I doodled designs of futuristic cities while munching popcorn in front of Lost In Space. I imagined being tutored by the magical Mary Poppins. But in those books and movies the characters were animals or they were white. Other than Star Trek, people of various backgrounds didn’t exist in the imagined futures for our world. I loved Uhura, Checkov and Sulu. But I wanted them to be my Captain Kirks.

A few years ago, I spoke at a public library in Arkansas. Over the course of a week I talked about writing to 25 busloads of elementary school children. At the end of the week a teacher returned and said one of her students was perplexed that I had gone to MIT. The teacher, confused by the girl’s question, pressed her. The young girl wanted to know if she could go to a school like that, given that she was Hispanic. She wanted to know if it was allowed. And if so, could she tag along with the teacher who, herself, was studying for her Masters degree at a nearby college. In that child’s neighborhood, college wasn’t in the vocabulary. And in her literature, girls like her didn’t exist at all.

I want you to think about that a minute.

Decades after the multicultural Star Trek series debuted, contemporary literature and the media still play a large role in the perception that options for children of color are severely limited. Popular fiction and blockbuster movies center around children who are not Hispanic, or Native American or . . . (fill in the blanks). In the rare instance where they are, movie directors make a course correction. For instance, in writing Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula LeGuin created a world in which all of the communities were populated by people who were various shades of brown. No specific ethnicity is delineated. The hero is brown, the villain is blonde and blue eyed. In translating the book into a mini-series for the SyFy channel, Producer Robert Halmi of Hallmark Entertainment cast all the characters using white actors and said he had “improved upon the author’s vision.” Ursula LeGuin responded by saying he had wrecked her books.

In recreating the popular Avatar: The Last Airbender, director M. Knight Shamalayan cast all of the Asian heroes with white actors. The villain who was white in the series, became Asian in the movie. Children of color are tokens in the background of Harry Potter’s universe but not in his inner circle. The olive-skinned girl in Hunger Games becomes Jennifer Lawrence. See the trend? For children of color the message is clear: when it comes to being a hero in a fantastical adventure . . .

Not you.

But it also sends a more dangerous message to society. For people of a majority race it may imbed a subconscious message of “only you,” or worse . . .

“Not them.”

In watching the protests around the country starting with, but not limited to Ferguson Missouri, I found myself wondering if someone like ex-officer Darren Wilson grew up surrounded by images of people like him who were the heroes, the leaders, the enforcers and where people who didn’t look like them were villains to be feared. Police officers who are later assigned to patrol neighborhoods where gifted children are stunted because they were trained by society, and sometimes their own communities, to stop dreaming beyond the end of the street.

In crafting The Lost Tribes I envisioned a world where those children were integral to the story and allowed to take center stage. Children who were very smart, but not perfect. Children who bickered and made mistakes while they worked out solutions and came together as a team out of necessity but remained together out of mutual respect. I envisioned characters informed by their cultural backgrounds but not constrained by them. I wanted to create an environment where the characters faced frightening situations and had to work out the solutions without the use of magic wands or other tricks that would substitute for logic and team work. In a sense – if your world is falling apart what would an ordinary kid do with few skills and no training?

Girl

I had a vision, for instance, of who the character of Serise would be. She’s Navajo and I knew book research wouldn’t substitute for spending time in her environment. So I spent two weeks in Rock Point, Arizona. It is a small town on the reservation where I met two teens who were Goth and quiet. I met another who was quite outspoken. I came armed with books, including a lot of age appropriate fiction. They leaped for the nonfiction, showed me how to log on to a password protected satellite dish so I could check emails, and talked about their lives and dreams with me. And so Serise was reborn as a computer hacker, far from the stereotypes people have about Native American girls.

My protagonist, Ben, thinks basketball is the ticket to success. He eschews his parent’s scientific interests as the stuff of nerds. In working with urban students I learned that many hide being smart. It’s easier to be athletic. It’s expected. It’s often emphasized. So it is fascinating that a friend and librarian forwarded an excerpt of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book in which he talks about fulfilling society’s expectations of aspiring to be a top athlete until he read a fascinating fact about the speed of light and black holes. He decided science was infinitely more interesting and became an astrophysicist.

Moai of Easter IslandMy characters, like my readers, crave adventure and as an engineer writing science fiction I understood that Earth already held much stranger backdrops than anything I could make up. For example the Moai of Easter Island or the Terra Cotta Army.

I wrote Tribes to say “Yes. You belong in the wider context of the universe.” “Yes. You can be the center of an adventure.” “Yes, children from different backgrounds can and do work together for a common purpose.” “Yes you can dream bigger than the landscape of your own neighborhood.”

 

“Yes.”  Terracotta warriors

“You.”

As we approach February, inevitably children across the country will be introduced to the same ubiquitous fare that adults provide every year. We’ll fill their reading lists with realistic fiction, historical fiction and angst based nonfiction centered around race. But we won’t tell them they can aspire to slay dragons, build castles or venture out into the great unknown. They won’t travel to outer space or even abroad to a foreign land. When they are looking at the stars, we’ll quiz them on books that go no farther than their own environments. And when some children are dreaming of the future, we’ll be drilling into their heads only visions of a painful past.

During Black History Month we’ll ask, “What are you doing to fulfill Dr. King’s dreams?” and therein lies the rub.

Because it’s the wrong question.

We should be asking, “What are you doing to fulfill YOUR dreams?” and then make it our priority to point them toward a path that will get them there.

I’m still a dreamer. I found my path forward in books and used the clues to figure out how to reach for the stars. Perhaps it is time for publishing to provide those clues forward without our readers needing a universal translator to see themselves between the pages. Perhaps it is time for a broader selection of children to be shown leading the way.

Tribe cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

C. Taylor-Butler is the author of more than 70 books for children. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with dual degrees in Civil Engineering and Art and Design, she serves as Chair of one of their regional Educational Councils. After traveling the world and speaking to thousands of children with dreams of their own, she has decided children of color shouldn’t have to settle for second place.

The Lost Tribes Series
“Well-written and well-paced: a promising start to what should be an exciting and unusual sci-fi series. (Science fiction. 10-14)” Kirkus Reviews, Jan. 2015

To find more speculative fiction featuring children of color (sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal, time travel, alternate history, dystopia, horror, etc.), see the list compiled by Zetta Elliot.

 

 


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 629 other followers