February 16, 2015

tonya hegamin author photoWhen we put out the nominations call for this year’s 28 Days Later Campaign, there was one name that flooded the comments section more than any other: Tonya Cherie Hegamin.

Hegamin began life as a resident of Westchester, PA, but later relocated to Rochester, NY. She earned her MFA in Writing for Children from the New School University in 2003. As an Assistant Professor at the City University of New York, Medgar Evers College, Hegamin currently teaches Children’s Literature, Fiction Writing, and Composition. In 2010, her picture book, Most Loved in All the World, won the NYPL’s Ezra Jack Keats award. She is also the author of three young adult novels: M+O 4EVR, Pemba’s Song, and her most recent, Willow (Candlewick Press, 2014).

Hegamin’s passion for young people extends beyond the literary; she has served thousands of young people as a crisis counselor, rights advocate, and sexual health educator as well. On day 16, The Brown Bookshelf shines its spotlight on author Tonya Cherie Hegamin.



I’ve always been inspired by Virginia Hamilton—she was the model for successful black women in the publishing world for a big chunk of time and I think she will always be a writer who I strive to emulate in terms of depth and most loved in all the worldbreadth of work. Her husband, Arnold Adoff has been another mentor/inspiration to me since my first picture book, Most Loved In All the World. He’s the one I’ve turned to again and again not just for his experience the industry, but for his commitment to the expression of language. His ear for word craft is impeccable, and he is still the best person to talk to when I question being a writer. My other inspiration is E.B. Lewis. He would listen to me read drafts of Willow for hours on the phone while he was painting. He was the first person to believe in that book when it was only twenty five pages and he wouldn’t let me quit. I am so grateful to him for that! My other inspiration is Tove Jansson. Although she is completely different from me as a writer, I’ve read almost all of her work (Moomins and her adult writing) and I am in awe in how she constructs story in such a care-free way. She and her partner, graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä were out and proud before lesbianism was acceptable in public; they both were courageous and powerful artistic humans who never let anyone change them.


The Process

Willow sprouted from a lot of my research for M+O 4Evr and Pemba’s Song. I found books (like Slaves Without Masters by Ira Berlin) about those who “managed themselves” while the master was gone, and even those who feared leaving their sheltered lives in the South. I also read a great book called Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad by Betty DeRamus. I researched historical figures like Mary A. Shadd who wrote A Plea for Emigration (she grew up and was educated in Delaware and Pennsylvania, but led a campaign urging former slaves to Canada for freedom). Then I researched accounts of freed men and women who would travel south to help others over the Mason Dixon line and escape enslavement. Finally, in my own family history we have more than one account of my enslaved ancestors being related to their owners. One great-great-grandmother even sued her white father after the Civil War!  The question of what would make someone stay and willingly subjugate themselves and what would motivate one to leave a seemingly ‘comfortable’ life that rendered you powerless was always in my mind. It became a perfect storm of “what if” that all writers chase for a good book.



Under The Radar

I’d have to say that even more than people who are being “traditionally” published, I believe my students’ writing is the best undiscovered talent I know. Many of my students are writing amazing fiction and creative non-fiction that is so raw and fresh. They are living the world that others are being paid gobs of money to write about. I had a student who wrote a children’s book about a boy with Autism who makes a friend who doesn’t care what other people say. She wrote it so she could share it with the kids she teaches. Another student wrote about a dystopia where kids who are dynamic because of their differences were the only ones who could survive. They write for the joy of it and the need to set their hearts free. I hope they all continue to hone their craft, if simply to create stories that aren’t being told, and sharing it with kids who aren’t being remembered by the industry.


State of the Industry

Perhaps you detect the cynicism in my tone? I do believe that the children’s book industry is saturated with people who churn out the same stuff (I might also be one of them). I don’t think it’s because we writers can’t think of anything new, it’s just that what is marketable and what we really need are two different things. Although I see the merit of the intentions of the Common Core pedagogy, I also know that there will be another educational evolution in the next few years and our ideas about literacy and books for young people will shift yet again, hopefully ever for the better. I think that the future of diversity is inclusion; diversity is quantitative, inclusion is qualitative. We have to take personal steps to stop labeling people as different and embrace them for who they are. The industry is concerned with numbers, not hugs. Companies only shift marketing practices for new demographics when there’s a profit. The more we each demand to be recognized and included there is always possibility for positive change.


For more information on Tonya Cherie Hegamin, please visit her website.

Day 21: Nalo Hopkinson

February 21, 2013


From her bio at Simon & Schuster: Nalo Hopkinson is the award-winning author of numerous novels and short stories for adults. She was born in Jamaica, and lived in Trinidad and Guyana before moving to Canada at sixteen.

Her novels, such as Brown Girl in the Ring and The Salt Roads, and other writing often draw on Caribbean history, culture, and language. Ms. Hopkinson is one of the founding members of the Carl Brandon Society, an organization that helps “build further awareness of race and ethnicity in speculative literature and related fields.”

The first chapter of The Chaos, her forthcoming young adult novel, can be read online. From the book description:

“Sixteen-year-old Scotch struggles to fit in—at home she’s the perfect daughter, at school she’s provocatively sassy, and thanks to her mixed heritage, she doesn’t feel she belongs with the Caribbeans, whites, or blacks. And even more troubling, lately her skin is becoming covered in a sticky black substance that can’t be removed. While trying to cope with this creepiness, she goes out with her brother—and he disappears. A mysterious bubble of light just swallows him up, and Scotch has no idea how to find him. Soon, the Chaos that has claimed her brother affects the city at large, until it seems like everyone is turning into crazy creatures. Scotch needs to get to the bottom of this supernatural situation ASAP before the Chaos consumes everything she’s ever known—and she knows that the black shadowy entity that’s begun trailing her every move is probably not going to help.

For her adult work, Hopkinson has received Honourable Mention in Cuba’s “Casa de las Americas” literary prize. She is a recipient of the Warner Aspect First Novel Award, the Ontario Arts Council Foundation Award for emerging writers, the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, the Locus Award for Best New Writer, the World Fantasy Award, the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, the Aurora Award, and the Gaylactic Spectrum Award.

The Chaos must be characterized by the same literary excellence, as it has received the following reviews already:

“Noted for her fantasy and science fiction for adults, Hopkinson jumps triumphantly to teen literature. . . . Rich in voice, humor and dazzling imagery, studded with edgy ideas and wildly original, this multicultural mashup—like its heroine—defies category.”–Kirkus Reviews, *STARRED

For more about Ms. Hopkinson, visit her online.

Day 29: Meet The BBS – Paula Chase Hyman

February 29, 2012

Day 29 is like being atop a mountain and looking out on the lay of the land, which are 28 great spotlights and knowing that readers and those who influence readers have the work of 28 more creative authors to consume. Pride and satisfaction are understatements to describe how that makes me feel.

But, making sure The Brown Bookshelf and 28 Days Later goes off like a well-oiled machine can be challenging. What gets lost in the mix is that we, the BBS members, are all authors as well. So thanks to Leap Year, we’re able to remind not only our visitors of that…but ourselves, as well. Promoting others and yourself, simultaneously, not such an easy thing.

So here I go…

The Journey After the Journey

You can check the About Us page or my bio to find out a bit more about me. What’s less known is what happened after my Del Rio Bay series was published.  Kensington published the five-book series between 2007 and 2009. My initial goal was to get the characters to graduation. Instead, the series ends at the end of their junior year. I still have readers write me and say – Noooo what happens next?! Tell me there’s another book coming. And those emails never fail to make me smile. I love that readers have bonded with Mina and the clique. But the will of the readers  is not always that of the industry.
drama-cover.jpg twisted.jpg
The series continues to  live on in libraries, in the online marketplace and wherever readers can get their hands on it. Meanwhile, I’m trying to find my way back to writing regularly.  From the time my series launched until now, writing has always been something that has to take place in between my full-time job and managing a busy family. So one day, my current Work-in-Progress will see the light of day. And if this article, about teens and ebooks, is right – sooner rather than later because ebooks opens up the opportunity for me to try free e-novellas etc…So watch out for me, I’ll be back in “print,” no matter the form.

The Buzz

The Del Rio Bay series was among the first contemporary YA books featuring a multi-cultural cast where the storyline wasn’t strictly revolved around race. I’m proud to say that because of books like mine Nikki Carter and Ni-Ni Simone were able to publish their YA books. The DRB series proved readers, of any race, were looking for books that portrayed a more diverse community. And it proved that readers of color were hungry for books that went beyond historical fiction.


Day 25: Malorie Blackman

February 25, 2012

Award-winning author Malorie Blackman seems to have done it all and won it all — she’s the recipient of the FCBG Children’s Book Award, Fantastic Fiction Award, Lancashire Children’s Book of the Year, Sheffield Children’s Book of the Year — and those are just some of the awards she’s won for her groundbreaking NOUGHTS & CROSSES series. Set in a fictional dystopia, NOUGHTS & CROSSES is science fiction with action and depth, exploring love, racism, violence and more. The series is complex, offering no easy answers. When describing the inspiration for the title, Blackman said that noughts and crosses is “…one of those games that nobody ever plays after childhood, because nobody ever wins…”

Ms. Blackman’s first book, NOT SO STUPID! was published in 1990; since then she’s written over 50 books for children of all ages, including Pig-Heart Boy which was made into a BAFTA winning serial, Hacker and Whizziwig among others. An accomplished playwright and television writer, Blackman is a graduate of the National Film and Television School, and divides her time between book and script writing. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write poems and short stories,” she’s said. “I’ve always been as interested in imaginative flights of fantasy as well as reality.”

Born in London, Ms. Blackman was always an avid reader, and was partly inspired to write by the memory of her own childhood, her times searching the library in vain for ordinary stories with a black central character. “I wanted to show black children just getting on with their lives, having adventures, and solving their dilemmas, like the characters in all the books I read as a child,” she has said. In an Webchat on Mumsnet, Ms. Blackman spoke more about her love of children’s literature: “As I love strong, challenging stories, I think the best place to find those on a regular basis is in books for children/young adults. I don’t know of any children’s writer who writes on controversial topics merely to be exploitative or gratuitous and I have read books for adults which have turned my stomach, quite frankly. But there’s usually an element of hope in children’s books which appeals to me.”

Malorie Blackman’s latest published work, BOYS DON’T CRY was published in 2010, and described in The Independent as a book that “shows her writing at its best, creating characters and a story which, once read, will not easily go away.”

You’re waiting for the postman – he’s bringing your A level results. University, a career as a journalist – a glittering future lies ahead. But when the doorbell rings it’s your old girlfriend; and she’s carrying a baby. You’re fine to look after it, for an hour or two, while she does some shopping. Then she doesn’t come back and your future suddenly looks very different…

Watch the BOYS DON’T CRY trailer:

Listen to Malorie Blackman in conversation about the NOUGHTS & CROSSES series with the Scottish Book Trust,and on The Guardian podcast, discussing her work and writing from the POV of a teenage father.

For more about Malorie Blackman, visit her website.

Day 24: Sofia Quintero

February 24, 2012

A writer. An activist. An educator. A comedienne. The author of works of contemporary fiction like THE MORE THINGS CHANGE and DIVAS DON’T YIELD is also known to readers as “Black Artemis”, the author of several novels of “Feminist Hip-Hop Noir”, including PICTURE ME ROLLIN’. This self-proclaimed “Ivy-League homegirl” graduated from Columbia University with a BA in history-sociology and an MPA from its School of International and Public Affairs, then started a career as a policy analyst and advocate, and worked for various nonprofit organizations and government agencies including the Vera Institute of Justice, Hispanic AIDS Forum, and the New York City Independent Budget Office. All this, and a YA novel too. Sofia Quintero is not playing around.

With her YA debut, EFRAIN’S SECRET (KNOPF, 2010), Ms. Quintero tells the poignant and powerful story of Efrain Rodriguez, a South Bronx honor student who is desperate to realize his dream of going to an Ivy League college — and does something he’d never imagined he’d do as a result. Publishers Weekly, in a starred review (one of several), called EFRAIN’S SECRET “…an in-your-face YA debut, a passionate polemic on racial politics in urban America.” In an interview with She Writes, Ms. Quintero notes that “…writing for young people has actually made me a better craftsperson. The limitations, length, language, etc. forced me to be more imaginative.”
Ms. Quintero describes herself and her work as “unapologetically feminist”, and as such, made deliberate choices when writing EFRAIN’S SECRET. From She Writes: “I have come to believe that part of the feminist movement must include reenvisioning masculinity for boys and men, and my particular concern is with boys of color and working-class boys. Our society tells boys of a certain socioeconomic background, ‘These are the things that make a man,’ only to use racism and classism to block those paths to manhood.”

But wait, there’s more.

From her bio: “Sofia co-founded Chica Luna Productions to identify, develop and support other women of color seeking to make socially conscious entertainment. Among other projects, Chica Luna launched The F-Word and the Popular Media Justice Tookit. The F-Word is a comprehensive filmmaking institute for women of color based in East Harlem in New York City while the Toolkit is a collection of resources that deconstructs images of women of color in popular films from SET IT OFF to I LIKE IT LIKE THAT.

Sofia is also a social entrepreneur and cultural activist devoted to elevating the quality of entertainment both through her personal initiatives and business ventures. With her business partner Elisha Miranda, she founded Sister Outsider Entertainment, a multimedia production company that is developing several projects for television, film and stage including the upcoming Internet series SANGRIA STREET. SOE also co-created CONSCIOUS WOMEN ROCK THE PAGE with Marcella Runell Hall and Jennifer Jlove Calderon. CONSCIOUS WOMEN is a cutting-edge multidisciplinary curriculum that enables socially conscious educators to introduce feminist hip hop fiction into their learning environments and use it to incite social change among their students.”

We can’t wait to see what’s next!

For more from Sofia Quintero on EFRAIN’S SECRET, check out this interview at A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy.

Brown Book Review: My Own Worst Frenemy

December 13, 2011

I’d ask where books like My Own Worst Frenemy were when I was a young reader, but I already know the answer – they didn’t exist. It’s why I started writing YA, in the first place.

Reviewing books like Reid’s first in the Langdon Prep series is bittersweet for me. On one hand I feel like doing a friggin’ back flip to celebrate their arrival. On the other, I’m so annoyed that it’s seriously taken publishing this long to acknowledge that readers (of color or not) would enjoy a book like this.

So yeah, obviously I liked this book. And sorry a portion of my review was done on a soap box. This issue isn’t just close to me, it formed my identity as an author. It’s tough to sit back and separate the individual book from the overall issue of diversity in YA. Maybe one day…

That said, My Own Worst Frenemy is quite a gem. Readers looking to infuse a little mystery in their lives will love it. Chanti Evans (confession: every time I saw the MC’s name I wanted to call her Chianti – just how my brain works) is from a working-class hood in Denver. Her mom’s an undercover cop who wants Chanti’s academic career to have a fighting chance, so she sends her to Langdon Prep a snooty private school where all schools are in books – across town.

My Own Worst Frenemy is a good first in a series book. We meet Chanti, Bethanie (a sure-fire frenemy in the making), Marco (the future BF) and of course there’s a female and male meanie, Lissa and her twin Justin. Getting to know them all is most of the fun, but this is a mystery after all – so there’s some intrigue and sleuthing involved.

The 4-1-1 breaks down like this:

The Good
Chanti and Marco are full-bodied characters. They feel real and readers will care about them. But note to authors: stop making main characters so insecure. We all know they’re going to end up with dude in the end. Enough with them putting themselves down just to build up the tension revolved around the growing love interest!

Chanti is African-American and Marco is Mexican. I’m fairly certain the other characters are of color too, but the book doesn’t dwell on that. Which is a plus. The reader can assume everyone is brown or not – it’s up to them really.

The Bad
The chapters revolve between the present and flashbacks of how Chanti ended up in trouble and thus at Langdon. The flashbacks were distracting and sometimes slowed down the action. It was obvious Chanti had gotten caught up in something, but since she’s not in juvie or jail, it couldn’t have been that serious. So, really, it almost didn’t matter to me how she ended up there. For the sake of the series, I hope the flashbacks end at book one.

The Ugly
No ugly.

Like most mysteries that involve teen sleuthing, the reader will have to suspend a little belief about just how much knowledge and moxie Chanti has. But that’s the fun of reading mysteries, right? We all want the MC to be a bit more courageous and smarter than we would be in the situation. Chanti’s righteously nosy and observant which makes her a great investigator and ripe to be a new millennium girl-detective idol.

Commentary: Life – An Exploded Diagram

November 7, 2011

By Mal Peet

My problem is, I’m way too literal. When someone tells me that a book is Young Adult, I sort of believe it. And right, wrong or indifferent, for ME a Young Adult novel has to primarily revolve around a young person’s experience. Some YA historical fiction reads like adult historical fiction.

An adult historical fic can start with the protagonist at birth or even before the protag is born and I’m fine with that. I’m not okay with that if it’s a YA historical fic. Feel free to argue this point with me, but I’m not likely to budge. I like my YA about young adults!

So, in a nutshell that’s one of my issues with Mal Peet’s, Life: An Exploded Diagram. One of them.

In all fairness, the Worldcat summary of Life says:
In 1960s Norfolk, England, seventeen-year-old Clem Ackroyd lives with his mother and grandmother in a tiny cottage, but his life is transformed when he falls in love with the daughter of a wealthy farmer in this tale that flashes back through the stories of three generations.

So I’m warned that the story is told through three generations. But then it shouldn’t be YA. It makes me wonder if it was classified YA because they felt it was more easily marketed that way.

Okay, moving on…

Even if I ignored that the story was told over three generations, the other issue I had with Life was that the heart of the story “how Clem’s life is transformed when he falls in love with a daughter of a wealthy farmer” was lost in the detail of the Cuban missle crisis. The detail about the USA’s standoff with Cuba over nuclear arms should have been woven into how it impacted the characters. Instead, there was far more detail about the crisis, how it started and played out than I wanted. And the impact it had on Clem and Frankie felt like a side story rather than the main story.

I’ll put it this way, I can tell you more about Clem’s parent’s relationship and its quirks more than I can about Clem and Frankie. Their overall relationship felt…rushed. There was no good reason for Frankie to be attracted to Clem, but she was. And I took it on face value. But as soon as I was ready to throw myself totally into their romance that pesky nuclear arms crisis kept interfering.

As historical fiction goes, it’s a nice body of work. Had someone booktalked it to me alluding to the fact that an adult Clem is re-telling his life story – I would have probably lapped it up. I would have still had an issue with the level of detail about the arms crisis, but I would have come at the book in a different frame of mind. As it were, this was presented as YA. In that regard, it didn’t work as well for me.


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