Throwback Thursday: Charles R. Smith, Jr.

August 24, 2017

Charles R. Smith, Jr.

“This was my first book and it came about by accident,” says Charles R. Smith, Jr. regarding his first book for children, Rimshots: Basketball Pix, Rolls and Rhythms (Dutton, 1999).   In the years that have followed this work of happenstance, Smith has written, or photo-illustrated (or both!) more than 20 titles for young readers, including: Hoop Kings and Hoop Queens; Brown Sugar Babies; Loki and Alex; I Am America; Dance With Me; The Mighty 12: Superheroes of Greek Myth; and My People (Ginee Seo, 2009), recent winner of the 2010 Coretta Scott King Book Award for Illustration.

Smith, the husband and father of two, is a graduate of the Brooks Institute of Photography, and a California native who currently resides in Poughkeepsie, New York. Prior to his career in children’s literature, he worked as a freelance photographer doing magazine shoots, novel covers and even projects for a cruise line. Smith is also an ardent sports fan—with a particular passion for the game of basketball.

Over the past decade, Smith has published an array of books for children ages pre-K through young adult, with some of the most highly esteemed publishing houses in the business:  Jump at the Sun/Hyperion, Scholastic, Candlewick, and Ginee Seo/Atheneum. Still, of the project that jumpstarted his career in children’s literature, Smith says, “If there was no Rimshots, there are no other books.” On behalf of the kidlit community, thank goodness there was a Rimshots!

On this final day of our 28 Days Later campaign, we present our final Spotlight feature: Mr. Charles R. Smith, Jr.

 

BBS:    Charles, welcome to The Brown Bookshelf…and congratulations on your CSK win!

CRS:    Thanks for featuring me.

BBS:    Where were you when you found out the news?

CRS:    I was actually eating breakfast and had my son grab my cellphone off the charger. Since it was charging, I never heard it ring. He saw that there were two missed calls and I had to figure out who would be calling me so early during the week. My wife thought that the awards might be given that day so she dashed into her office and looked up the awards and they had literally just announced that I had won. I guess the only number they had was my cell phone. I’ve made it a point to keep it on my nightstand now.
BBS:    What have these past weeks been like since you won—both personally and career-wise?

CRS:    Personally, it’s been great because when you do what I do, you’re pretty much alone, but with the award came press and local publicity which drew attention from friends and colleagues. Career-wise, it’s already opened doors to projects that use photography. The old knock that photography doesn’t do well seems to be moot now.

BBS:    You won for your book MY PEOPLE, a photo-illustrated version of the brief, but poignant Langston Hughes poem. Your pictures in this book are beautiful and resonant.  How did this project come to be?

CRS:    I had always loved the poem and considered doing photos for it for a while, but since it was so short, I wasn’t sure it could be done. Finally, at one point, I just broke it down page wise and saw that it would be very simple but strong with so few words.

BBS:    I’ve read how your first book, RIMSHOTS, came about, and find the story fascinating. Recount for us how one of your greatest passions, your acquired technical skills, and your natural abilities—all converged at one point in time, and set you on the path to a whole new career.
CRS:    I truly believe that we create our own luck. That book (Rimshots) came about in the oddest way, because I wasn’t there to sell a book at all; I was there to do photos for a jacket. Nonetheless my skill in photography was there and my passion for writing was there and since I had been hustling my tail off until that point, it was only fitting that things happen the way they did. One thing I’ve learned is that if you do something you love, then that love will shine through and it can’t help but be noticed. Those basketball photos were done for the sheer love of the game. My skill in photography allowed me to share that love with others.

BBS:    Your love for sports, especially basketball, is evidenced in the majority of your books to date. What’s your first memory of the game…how’d you fall in love with it? Why do you think it still occupies such a prominent place in your heart today?

CRS:    When kids ask me why I love basketball, I ask them the same question and get a million different answers, but the primary one is simply that it’s fun. I can’t remember my earliest memory, but my childhood is filled with memories of the game being played with my father and family and friends. That’s probably what I remember the most; the connection with all the people. I have two boys now and we have a hoop in the backyard and I look forward to teaching them things my father taught me, about ball and life.

BBS:    You are one who is equally writer and illustrator. You even have books where you’ve served as writer, solely (the graphic novel, THE MIGHTY 12: SUPERHEROES OF GREEK MYTH; LET’S PLAY BASEBALL and LET’S PLAY BASKETBALL). At what point in your life did you first start writing? Did you ever take any courses or workshops to develop your talent in this area?

CRS:    I’ve been writing for enjoyment as long as I can remember. While in school, we all have our favorite subjects and writing just happened to be mine. What I do remember standing out is that I always had a big vocabulary and knack for words. Probably because my parents emphasized education and my mom was always telling me to look up a word in the dictionary if I asked her how to spell it. I was in honors English all through high school but the college I went to was an all photography school, so I didn’t get to really study my writing. I actually think that’s a good thing, because writing is a very individual thing and if you study with a group of people, you can all end up sounding similar because you’re constantly listening to others critique your work. On my own, I just relied on knowledge gained through reading lots of books through the years.

BBS:    DANCE WITH ME (illustrated by Noah Z. Jones) is a popular picture book for the pre-K set that you authored. How did you come up with the idea for this one?

CRS:    That actually came from seeing my oldest son (who, at the time was about 3) dance when music was played. I wanted to do something for that age set and something musical made sense.

BBS:    Let me ask you about CHAMELEON, the first YA novel you’ve published. As a writer, how was the transition from crafting picture books, to crafting a novel?

CRS:    To me, they’re all words. It’s just how they’re put together. Picture books are not easy because you have to be mindful of page count, so you choose your words carefully. In a novel, you can use as many words as you need. In that regard it was much easier. When I would re-read what I had written, I just asked myself if I wanted to read more. I try to keep it real simple.

BBS:    While your photographs are all phenomenal, I must say I’ve got special fuzzies for your “baby” books:  the BABY LOVE board book series, and the one that started it all, BROWN SUGAR BABIES.  The text is pure and simple, the pictures beyond adorable.  And the only project direction you had for BROWN SUGAR BABIES was a title, is that right?

CRS:    Basically. I had a meeting with Andrea Davis Pinkney and she just wanted to do something that focused on diversity regarding blackness. The first thing that popped into my head when she said the title was Sugar Babies the candy. That led to treats that we often use to describe ourselves like honey or caramel or chocolate.

BBS:    Your children have inspired your work. Of course, so have sports.  Is there any other person, place or thing that spurs your creativity?

CRS:    As an artist I’m really just inspired everyday by life. The best way I like to describe it to kids is that I’m a raw nerve and everything triggers something in my brain. I could be speaking at a school and hear a child’s unique name and questions pop into my head like, why did their parents name them that? Or, how will that affect them when they’re older? Or, who else in that family had that name? What were they like? Things like that. My mind is ALWAYS going, but I think that’s the case with any creative artist; painter, photographer, actor, musician, etc. We see the everyday and take something creative out of it.

BBS:    What’s been the most difficult professional obstacle you’ve had to face thus far?
 
CRS:    The biggest obstacle probably has to be, editors and others asking, what am I? Am I a photographer who writes? Or a writer who take pictures? These questions are posed to me in a roundabout way, because I just consider myself an artist; I create. I’ve done a CD where I did the music, but I don’t call myself a musician. I’ve done some acting, but I don’t call myself an actor. I’m simply an artist. When people are used to artists doing one thing, they have an idea of what they can do, but once they start doing very different things (such as writing and photography) it confuses them because they don’t know the skill level you might possess in each. The biggest thing the CSK award has done is open people’s eyes to my talents. I also received the CSK Author’s Honor award for (writing) my book, Twelve Rounds to Glory, about Muhammad Ali. Now that I’ve WON the award for illustration, people see that I’m serious about both.

BBS:    Is there anything you haven’t yet done in the childlit field that you’d still like to do?

CRS:    Well, I’m not dead yet, so there’s plenty left for me to do. I would love to do a few different novel series. I would particularly love to do a series that has the same appeal as Percy Jackson or Harry Potter but featuring black characters, without the focus on them being black. Black people could fly too ya know. :-0  I have many more biographies I’d like to do. I’d like to write a modern day Native Son. I’d like to write more novels that appeal specifically to boys, young black boys. I have tons that I’d like to do and I’ll keep creating until I heave my last breath.

BBS:    Charles, list five words that describe the traits aspiring authors and illustrators must have to achieve success in their craft.

CRS:    Confidence. Perseverance. Creativity. Teamwork. Discipline.

BBS:    What new projects are you working on?

CRS:    I’m currently working on a biography of Jimi Hendrix. It’s written as a song. Right now, it’s a long song, but that’ll change.

BBS:    I know this is an exciting, but crazy period for you. Thanks for taking time out to share your thoughts and experiences with us.

CRS:    No prob. It’s fun looking back on the past and forward to the future.

BBS:    A few more questions, I promise they won’t take long… Planned or pick up game?

CRS:    Pickup.

BBS:    Wood floors or concrete?

CRS:    For basketball, wood floors because of my knees.

BBS:    Hot Dogs or Nachos?

CRS:    Neither. Chips and salsa. (Hey, I’m a California boy!)

Critical Praise for My People:

” ‘At just thirty-three words total, [this] poem is a study in simplicity,’ writes Smith (Rimshots; If); in its visual simplicity, his picture-book presentation is a tour de force. Introducing the poem two or three words at a time, Smith pairs each phrase with a portrait of one or more African-Americans; printed in sepia, the faces of his subjects materialize on black pages. The night, reads the opening spread, across from an image of a mans face, his eyes shut; is beautiful, continues the next spread, showing the same face, now with eyes open and a wide smile. The text, sized big to balance the portraits, shows up in hues that range from white to tan to brown-black, reflecting Smiths reading that the words celebrate black people of differing shades and ages. An inventive design adds a short, shadowed row or column of small portraits to the edge of many spreads; these quietly reinforce the concept of my people. Whether of babies, children or adults, Smiths faces emerge into the light, displaying the best that humanity has to offer—intelligence, wisdom, curiosity, love and joy. Ages 4–8.”— Starred Review, Publishers Weekly

“Smith’s knack for pairing poetry and photography is well documented in books such as Hoop Queens (Candlewick, 2003) and Rudyard Kipling’s If (S & S, 2006). Here, his artful images engage in a lyrical and lively dance with Langston Hughes’s brief ode to black beauty. Dramatic sepia portraits of African Americans—ranging from a cherubic, chubby-cheeked toddler to a graying elder whose face is etched with lines-are bathed in shadows, which melt into black backgrounds. The 33 words are printed in an elegant font in varying sizes as emphasis dictates. In order to maximize the effect of the page turn and allow time for meaning to be absorbed, the short phrases and their respective visual narratives often spill over more than a spread. The conclusion offers a montage of faces created with varying exposures, a decision that provides a light-filled aura and the irregularities that suggest historical prints. A note from Smith describes his approach to the 1923 poem. This celebration of the particular and universal will draw a wide audience: storytime participants; students of poetry, photography, and cultural studies; seniors; families. A timely and timeless offering.”—Starred Review, School Library Journal

Learn More about Charles and his books at charlesrsmithjr.com

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Grown Too Soon

August 7, 2017

Too many times we’ve heard the refrain “gone too soon” to allude to a life cut short. A wistful phrase lamenting the potential of one who has earned their wings prematurely. Sadly, the sentiment can also be applied to children of color and the premature death of their innocence.  But I’ll call it grown too soon, instead.

In Black culture, being “grown” is never confused with being a “grown up.”  Being a grown up means to reach adulthood and join the rat race, no matter how reluctantly.  To be grown, is to adopt adult mannerisms. This can be a sharp/sassy tongue, acting out or promiscuous behavior. If someone tells you you’re too grown, it ain’t nothing good. And it’s usually followed by a reprimand or worse.  Tressie McMillian Cottom (@tressiemcphd) covers the promiscuity aspect in an excellent NY Times Op-ed.

Few parents allow children to get away with being grown. Yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, very few children of color have the luxury of maintaining child-like innocence beyond the age of 8. Both in my childhood experience and in raising my daughters, I’d say eight was about the time the world reached into our lives and dictated that it could no longer be sugar coated.

Sometimes the experience is a world event (9/11, school shootings, a certain Presidential campaign) and other times it’s more personal – like dealing with overt racism by a classmate. Whatever the situation, it requires the adult to shoot straight with the only thing that’s left, the ugly truth. They’re the conversations no parent likes to have because you know, at its end, you’ve stripped one more layer of innocence from your child.

We’re foolish to think we can keep chipping those layers away without it leading to a little grownness. At the very least, our children come away with a wary world-view made worse as incident after incident shows them how tough things can be when your skin has a tint.

Unless society changes drastically, this is simply the way things are for brown children. Luckily, many parents find ways to balance preparation for the real world with plenty of opportunities to let kids be kids.  And here, I applaud the authors of color who naturally portray this sticky wicket in our fiction. No heavy-handed lessons, just life as it is.

This matter hit home, recently, as I journey closer to the publication of my first MG novel, So Done. My wonderful editor sent over a sample book cover. I loved it. But the sample featured two young girls who looked years older than my 13-year-old characters. Despite the vivid color and fun lettering, the girls’ age was the first thing I noticed. The only, to be honest.

All I could think was – I don’t want these girls portrayed too grown. So Done’s underlying story showcases the adult issues facing the girls. I didn’t want them to look too mature lest anyone begin the age-old cycle of solely blaming young Black people for their grownness. You know the phrase  – “Well no wonder [fill in some offense that’s their fault], look how grown they look.”

I outlined these concerns and after quickly assuring me it was only a mock-up to squarely identify the artistic style and direction, my editor said something else important – that she understood my concerns. That they were noted.

I’d like more people to start there – understand and note the concern. Remember why so many Black kids and other children of color exude an air of seriousness or level of maturity that leans dangerously close to being grown. It’s not an act. And in most cases, the kid isn’t being disrespectful on purpose. They simply can’t unsee the world around them.

Being grown too soon is the reality of far too many of our kids. In order to provide well-rounded depictions of our children, authors of color must be at the table to show exactly how kids are still able to be kids in spite of the grownness thrust upon them.


Throwback Thursday: Justina Ireland

July 27, 2017

As a follow-up to Tuesday’s Black Kids on Covers post, here’s a look back at one of the authors included as she discusses her first two novels and how music helped her to write them. I wonder what music she wrote to while working on her upcoming Dread Nation!

Enjoy this throwback post…

 

What is a purveyor of awesomeness? If you saw one walking down the street would you know? Let me help you out. Just look at the picture to the left. When you write novels about butt-kicking females with a Greek mythology backdrop, you can put “Purveyor of Awesomeness” on your website next to your name because you’re bound to turn heads! She turned ours, and that’s why on this 24th day of February, 2015, The Brown Bookshelf is honored, and excited to spotlight:

JUSTINA IRELAND

The Process

How do you work? Do you start with a character, a concept, an idea? Do you outline first or just go? Is there a technique or routine for drafting or revising that you find particularly helpful? Do you have an office or other location that works best for you?

I am a complete and utter pantser (meaning I don’t outline). So my writing process is deceptively simple and completely insane:

  1. I come up with the basic idea (not a plot, just a general idea). Example: Dexter meets Greek Mythology.
  2. I write the first 30,000 words or so. Generally the entire first act heading into the second (my books are generally between 80,000 and 90,000 words).
  3. I write the ending so I have a direction. Otherwise I would just keep writing with no end in sight.
  4. I fill in the gaps.
  5. Revisions! Smoothing out the plotholes, making sure plot threads make it the entire way through the book, etc.

If the process sounds disorganized, that’s because it is. I see writing as a kind of archeology. The process of uncovering the story is just as important as the story for me, which sounds a lot prettier than it is in reality. There is usually swearing. And lots of swearing. To be honest my process has been different for each story, but there is always swearing.

I think that’s what makes it fun, the spontaneity of it all! Or maddening. Sometimes it is both fun and maddening, which explains the swearing.

I mostly write at home, in the evenings and in the mornings before I head to work (I have a day job that is not writing related). My writing locations are the office I share with my husband within my home and the dining room table. Not sure why I like writing at the dining room table. Maybe because it’s right next to the kitchen and therefore close to the food.

The Inspiration

I actually write a lot of my stories based on music, which sounds weird. But sometimes hearing just the right song will inspire a feeling that drives my story.

Vengeance Bound, my first published story, was sparked by the album American Idiot by Green Day.

Promise of Shadows was pretty much entirely written to three albums: What to Do When You are Dead by Armor for Sleep, Juturna by Circa Survive and On Letting Go by Circa Survive.

My most recent story was inspired by Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire, so you can pretty much imagine what that is like. For me, music is a huge part of my process. I listen to music when I write, and I actually find it pretty hard to write without it.

As for writers who inspire me, I love Courtney Summers, Jenny Han, Justina Chen, Nova Ren Suma, and Alaya Dawn Johnson.

Under The Radar

Brandy Colbert’s Pointe is a book that I think has not gotten nearly enough love. Theo’s journey is just plain heartbreaking, and I hope lots of good things happen for that book in 2015.

I’m also a huge fan of LR Giles, Stephanie Kuehn, Elsie Chapman, Lydia Kang, and Maurene Goo. I hope all of them continue to write fantastic books. And I hope people continue to read them.

 

The State of the Industry

I honestly think that the industry is really at a pretty important decision point. The We Need Diverse Books campaign has done a good job of shining a light on the challenges within the publishing industry with regards to diversity and how we can all do better. There’s a lot of talk about increasing diversity, not just with regards to the books being published but also with regards to the staff at the publishing houses. But right now I feel it’s more lip service than reality. Everyone thinks diversity is important, but it seems like few people are actually challenging themselves to make it a reality. If the big publishing houses want to cater to people of color they need to make a commitment to doing just that. And they need to publish books that reflect diversity across the board, not just a couple of issue books every season or diverse books ghettoized under a specific imprint. Where are my black Katnisses? Or my Latino Harry Potters? I’d love to see more books that really push the envelope and break out of the old models, books like Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Love is the Drug, which is a book that talks about race and class but also has a pretty amazing storyline as well.

Of course, there are publishers like Lee and Low that have always been committed to diversity and that probably don’t get nearly enough credit for what they do. But in an ideal world I’d really like to see publishers like Lee and Low rendered obsolete. I’d like it to be easier to find a book with a character of color than a talking animal or some mythological creature, but I think right now we’re a few years away from that goal.

Thank you, Justina, for your contributions to Young Adult books!

Learn more about Justina Ireland by visiting her website:  http://justinaireland.com


Black Kids on Covers

July 25, 2017

This is a wonderful time in children’s book publishing, where the faces of black girls and boys on covers is not an anomaly. When I was a kid, I almost never saw myself on the cover of a book, and certainly not ones as spectacular as those upcoming in the next few months. There was a time in this industry when publishers believed having a black person on a cover meant the book wouldn’t sell. (If you haven’t heard Justine Larbalestier’s battle to get a black girl on her cover for LIAR, you can read all about it here.) But that seems to be a thing of the past. Below are upcoming novels with black girls and boys on the cover that we’re all excited about.  

Tomi Adeyemi’s CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE, a young adult fantasy based in African mythology. (March 2018)

 

Dhonielle Clayton’s THE BELLES, a young adult fantasy about a group of young women who control how people look. (February 2018)

 

David Barclay Moore’s THE STARS BENEATH OUR FEET, a middle grade novel about 12-year-old Lolly, dealing with the gang-related death of his brother. (September 2017)

 

Justina Ireland’s DREAD NATION, a young adult novel which reimagines the civil war with children trained to kill zombies. (April 2018)

 

Ilyasah Shabazz with Renée Watson’s BETTY BEFORE X, a middle grade novelized nonfiction book about activist Betty Shabazz as a young girl. (January 2018)

 

Jason Reynolds’ MILES MORALES SPIDER-MAN is a novelized version of Marvel’s newest super hero, who is half African-American and half Puerto Rican. (August 2017)

 

Kheryn Callendar’s HURRICANE CHILD, an MG magical realism about a girl who can see things others can’t. (March 2018)

 

And my own RISE OF THE JUMBIES, the second in a middle grade fantasy series about a girl who must fight mythological Caribbean creatures. (September 2017)

Feel free to add more upcoming titles you’re excited about in the comments.


Sweet Blackberry: Karyn Parsons Is Sharing Stories We All Need Now

June 29, 2017

It seems like Karyn Parsons was born to start Sweet Blackberry, the non-profit organization dedicated to bringing little known stories of African American achievement to light. Her mother was a librarian, and “I did grow up in libraries,” says the star of the long-running hit show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. “The advantage of having a mother who worked there was that you could check books out way over the limit. I grew up with books around the house too, and with a strong love of books and reading.” Parsons mother also made sure to share with her the stories and information about African American culture that she’d been told as a child growing up in the South. “From time to time she was surprised by the things that I wasn’t being taught in school,” says Parsons.

Parsons began dreaming of Sweet Blackberry while her mother worked at the Black Resource Center in South Central Los Angeles. She was playing Hilary Banks on the Fresh Prince and her mother would call to share stories of people she found fascinating. “She told me stories in ways that made them come alive.” And one of the first was the story of Henry Box Brown.
“I had never heard his story before,” she remembers. “I was fascinated! I wasn’t a big history person in school — I couldn’t stand history! It was always presented to me in this very dry and abstract way… ‘Memorize these dates, do a report.’ Nobody was bringing it to you where you lived.” The tale of the enslaved man who literally mailed himself to freedom in a box “still feels like a fable, it’s amazing! Such a magnificent story,” she says. Parsons in turn shared Brown’s story with friends.

“I would tell my friends about it and no one had heard this story, it was so incredible. I became so determined that I was going to share this story with kids.”

But starring on a television show took precedence for a while. Parsons kept Henry Brown’s story in the back of her mind and heart, and would occasionally scribble notes, etc. It was when she was pregnant with her first child that she started thinking about ways to supplement her daughter’s education. “What do they teach the kids in schools these days? What can I expect her to learn? What can I give her?” Motherhood brought with it new responsibilities and opportunities. “My daughter’s watching.” And Sweet Blackberry was born.

Parsons points out that it’s important that we go beyond the usual MLK and Harriet Tubman stories, as important and beautiful as they are. “There’s so much more…I have to get these out.” As she wondered how she’d go about sharing stories like Brown’s, her husband, an independent filmmaker, encouraged her to “just do it.”

Parsons started with the idea to write books, but indie publishing was not as accessible as it is now. She had studied filmmaking, and knew the industry. “I knew I could make a film. And I could press it, make DVDs.” Parsons started talking to friends and acquaintances in the business, and the positive response was encouraging. “There was so much goodwill,” she remembers.

As Sweet Blackberry kicks off a Kickstarter campaign that will bring the story of aviator Bessie Coleman to the screen, Parsons says that she’s more than ready to share Coleman’s story with kids and families. “I love the way Bessie Coleman’s life can show kids that all of us have opportunities for greatness despite the obstacles in our lives,” she says.

And Sweet Blackberry has had its challenges – bringing high-quality animated stories to the screen is not easy work. Some are surprised that a television star is using a crowdfunding campaign. “Everybody thinks you have money because of Fresh Prince,” she says, laughing. “It’s hard to get people to understand that we really need your help,” points out Parsons. “We have this short window of time to raise all of this money or else we don’t keep any of it. We need people to respond now, any way they can – even a dollar. Every little bit matters.”

Choosing and crafting the stories is no easy feat either. “When you sit down to write the story, and consider your young audience, you really have to consider the story you’re trying to tell,” says Parsons.

“It’s not just a person and their achievements, but how you’ll bring this story to young people in a way that they can understand it.”

Though she’d dreamed of sharing the story of Henry “Box” Brown for years, sitting down to write a children’s story of a family that was broken up by this country’s brutal system of slavery was difficult. “The narrative was heart-wrenching…but I didn’t want to sugarcoat things.” Parsons saw that using animals to ask questions in The Journey of Henry Box Brown, narrated by Alfre Woodard, offered a child with some distance from the experience of slavery “An opportunity to understand why one might go to such lengths to escape it.”

Sweet Blackberry went on to tell the story of accomplished inventor Garrett Morgan in Garrett’s Gift, narrated by Queen Latifah. She started looking for an angle that children could connect with. “As I researched, I tapped into his young life, his having so much energy, and how he had a creative mind and how children can get labeled negatively because of that.”

Parsons always knew that she’d tell prima ballerina Janet Collins’ extraordinary story of refusing to dance in whiteface then finding success on her own terms — the result is the powerful Dancing in the Light, illustrated by award-winning artist R. Gregory Christie. While there are an abundance of under-the radar stories to tell Parsons remains thoughtful about her work. “There are some I’ve had to shelve for now because I’m not sure yet how to tell those stories to children…I have to figure out the way in.” All three of the Sweet Blackberry award-winning productions were screened on HBO, and are currently streaming on Netflix.

And now, Bessie Coleman. “I’m so inspired by her…envious of her having that spirit, to be such a badass…She was so ahead of her time. If she was happening right now, she’d be all over Facebook. And this was 100 years ago!”

Children get these messages that “Once in a while, a Black person comes along and does something.” It’s important to Parsons that Sweet Blackberry share the stories of all of the African Americans “who were such a part of the building of this country, such a part of the fabric of this country…These stories are for all children. These are American stories that every child should know.”

Parsons is focused on the Bessie Coleman project, and plans to use other media, including books, to share these vital stories. While she can’t tell us what’s after Coleman, she can promise that “It’s gonna be good!”

But first, the campaign must be fully funded for the production to happen. Parsons believes that not only is Coleman’s story exciting and groundbreaking and remarkable in many ways, it’s especially necessary for the times we’re in right now.

“So many children are feeling helpless, and challenged. Bessie Coleman’s story empowers them and reminds them of what they’re capable of.”

To make a donation of any amount to help bring the Bessie Coleman story to the screen, visit the campaign page now. There are only a few days left, and Sweet Blackberry’s work is more important than ever.

Sweet Blackberry Sizzle from karyn parsons on Vimeo.


Throwback Thursday: Martin Mordecai

June 22, 2017

Martin Mordecai

The gorgeous novel BLUE MOUNTAIN TROUBLE from Martin Mordecai debuted to rave reviews last year. Kirkus gave it a starred review, Booklist called it “rich in characterization with a beautifully realized setting”. Publishers Weekly noted that “the author captures the rhythm of the children’s daily life and effectively conveys their hopes, fears and family love as they look toward the future and learn secrets about the past.” BLUE MOUNTAIN TROUBLE was just recently named an Ontario Library Association (OLA) Best Bet — one of their top 10 Canadian novels for children. Mr. Mordecai was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, far from Top Valley, where his novel is set. Martin’s professions have included television, radio, journalism, and the foreign service, but he has written all his life. Martin now lives in Toronto, Canada, with his wife, Pamela.

In BLUE MOUNTAIN TROUBLE, intrigue and a sense of romance are intertwined with the daily realities of the twins lives, and the life of their community. Do you consider your book a fantasy tale? How do you see the concept of ‘magic’ playing a part in your work? In readers’ lives? How have you seen the ‘magic’ of literature in your own reading life? In your readers’ today?

I think perhaps that the ‘romance’ is in the tone of the writing, which is deliberate — BMT started life as a bedtime story told to a child. And it’s a fantasy only insofar as there is the element of the ‘duppy Goat’. I think the ‘magic’ is really just the goat and the sense of wonder it brings to the lives of the twins. Much of the rest is very reality-based.

For me there is definitely magic to be found in literature, and it saddens me to see and hear people who do not read or “have no time” for books. The magic in books, even in non-fiction, is a shared magic between the author and the reader,— it’s interactive. You bring yourself to the author’s and character’s selves, and something quite alchemical can happen. When you watch television you’re merely observing someone else’s magic — and in many cases there’s no magic at all!

How and why did you choose twin characters? You’ve mentioned that Pollyread was ‘hogging the best lines” — how did you uncover Jackson’s voice and story? How much do the twins’ external and/or internal lives reflect your own at age 11?

As I said, this started as a bedtime story to a child. Unless I’m sitting in front of a keyboard I’m not very imaginative, so after I began the usual way, Once upon a time…I said, there were twins . . . figuring two characters gave me more options than one. Likewise the duppy goat. Pollyread got all the best lines because once I started actually writing the story I had a ready template for her: our daughter, who’s bright and lippy and has been known to be devious. Jackson took more thought and effort. I took some of him – his gift with mathematics and plants – from our eldest son, but otherwise he is, I think, himself, and I kinda like him.

I can’t remember what I was thinking and feeling when I was 11! But I know I wasn’t as smart or as confident as either of the twins.


You’re a very descriptive writer — how does your photography influence your work as an author? What were the stories that transformed your childhood? Are there any contemporary authors or works of children’s literature that are particularly powerful to you?

The photography: Probably a lot. I have to ‘see’ a scene, usually with a line or two of dialogue, before I can start writing. And it was a photograph I took one morning in the mountains that solidified Top Valley for me, the physical aspects of it.

Our house, when I was a child, was full of books and records, of all kinds, so reading was not a remarkable activity for any of us – or music for that matter, most of us learnt an instrument at some time or another. There were fewer books for children at that time, so you read whatever was to hand. I remember some of the stories of Mark Twain, which were fantastic in all meanings of that word, and those of Damon Runyon — my father had lived briefly in New York and loved Runyon, as do I. And from quite young I loved history, historical stories, and still do. It was perhaps fated that I would try to write a historical novel myself.

Among contemporary writers for children, I’ve really only started reading them (a bit) since BMT was accepted for publication. There are some fine ones I’ve found, but what’s enjoyable about them brings pleasure to me as an adult. Which confirms my wife’s conviction that BMT is not really ‘a children’s book’.


You were born in Jamaica, and now live in Canada, where you’ve said that you arrived and “did many different things, as immigrants have to”. What were some of those many things? Can you elaborate on your observations of immigrant lives in North America?

I can’t generalize, each immigrant has a unique experience. I will say, however, that immigrants, especially those from the so-called Third World, bring to their host countries, particularly the U.S. and Canada, a toughness of will and a breadth of vision and experience that those mainstream societies can only benefit from, and ignore at peril to their own future vitality.

For myself, and my wife, Pam, what we did had to do with books in one way or another. My wife’s a well-published author, and without her royalties my own trajectory would probably have been the more archetypal one of the PhD driving a cab — except that I don’t have a PhD; I do however know the streets of Toronto pretty well. But we imported and exported books, published books, edited books, and in the early years did a little consulting.


How did this story come to you? How did your plot evolve? Are you more of a character- or plot-focused writer? Or neither?

I’m not bad with plot ideas for other people’s stories, but hopeless with my own. I follow the words. I make discoveries about the people I’m writing about, and derive plot-points or whatever, from listening to the words in my head or that appear on the screen, and letting the ideas sparked by the words lead me into the light. That’s one reason why I’m a very slow writer. Because the words can lead you into blind alleys, and you have to go back and find the word(s) that point in a new direction.


A review of BMT mentions your use of patois, adding that “Mordecai pays us the compliment of respecting that readers have more than one way of understanding a word and a concept.” How did you make decisions about what to define or not define in the process of telling your story? Why was it important to you to tell your story in the way you did?

I think that review, in a Canadian journal, is the most gratifying of those from North America, and that comment typifies it. I didn’t make any decisions about ‘defining’ or ‘explaining’ words. I’m not a speaker of deep Jamaican Creole, so that language wasn’t available to me, so I just wrote what I heard in my head. Fortunately, Rachel Griffiths, my editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, took the decision against a glossary; I appreciated that.

Tell us a bit about your path to Arthur A. Levine Books, and the factors that made this pairing a success. What was your debut year like? Were there any surprises along the way? What was most gratifying for you? What do you wish you had been told? What would you tell new authors today? Do you have any best/worst moments to share?

I’m embarrassed to say that I’d never heard of Arthur A. Levine Books before my agent, Margaret Hart, told me about Arthur. And Margaret was absolutely convinced that AAL was the ‘right’ place for BMT. She was correct. (She sent it to other publishers, but wasn’t too upset when they turned it down.) What was most gratifying was the respect with which Rachel and Arthur treated the manuscript, and their conviction (far stronger than my own) that it was a worthwhile project to publish.

The best moment for me was when they called one day shortly after publication last year to tell me that BMT had received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. They were so very pleased for me. That was nice.

Another great moment was a ‘review’ from my 9-year-old grandniece, whose mother reported that she had to wrestle the book away from her in the shower! All the words of praise in journals can’t match that.


There have been numerous discussions of the value of ‘multicultural literature’ — what does that term mean to you? How has the Caribbean literary tradition played a role in your reading and writing life?

I’m not sure what the term means at all; I’m not familiar with it in Canada, though we pride ourselves on being ‘the most multicultural country’ in the world. In Canada it’s pretty much all ‘Canadian literature’.

The Caribbean Literary tradition, such as it is, is only, for English-speakers anyway, about 100 years old. For me what it means is that we have stories to tell that people want to hear, and that we are the best people to tell them. People like CLR James, Sam Selvon, John Hearne, VS Naipaul, Sylvia Wynter, Vic Reid – these people gave scribblers of my generation and later ones the confidence to dream about writing books. For myself, the excitement has been more in the use of language, by writers like Reid, Louise Bennett, Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Olive Senior, and my wife, Pam. Younger writers are building on this and taking the ‘tradition’ in new directions.

In the area which BMT occupies, literature for children, the ‘tradition’ is less old. There were stories from the forties by Eddie Burke, a social worker who became a clergyman and established the rural setting as the ‘heart place’ of childhood; Vic Reid, who gave our history the clarity and resonance of childhood; then books written and edited by Jean D’Costa and others, meant for schools but with much original writing. And always, giving delight to children and adults, the poetry and stories of Louise Bennett. BMT is a modest addition to that venerable library.

In a post on Geoffrey Philp’s Blog Spot, you talk about your online critique and support group. Why do you think it worked so well? What were its benefits in comparison to an in-person group? What advice do you have for other authors considering the same?

I think the online writer’s group worked for two reasons. First, all of us knew at least one, maybe two other members of the group. Only Nalo Hopkinson, a marvelous Caribbean-Canadian writer, knew everybody, all six of us (seven eventually). So there was a certain shyness, but also an element of discovery and anticipation about the exchanges. And, like all the best friendships – because we were not just mostly strangers but also writing totally different stuff – it started slowly.

The second reason was that it was non-judgmental. The only thing required of you, so to speak, was a word-count for that day. You didn’t have to ‘show’ anything if you didn’t want to, and when you did there was no obligation for anyone else to comment And if you didn’t write anything for that day you didn’t have to explain why, unless you wanted to. When you’re meeting relative strangers – which is what we were – in the flesh, at a coffee shop or someone’s home, there’s often an unspoken obligation/anticipation dynamic at work: ‘What have you got to show? Why don’t you?’ And you feel you have to make some comment, preferably enthusiastic, about your colleague’s work.

Writing is such a personal thing, so much of your personhood is invested in it, that you are instinctively careful about exposure. Online – ironically, because we hear so much about the nakedness of the online person – provides a filter, a firewall.

But that’s me. Pam is more relaxed about showing her work to other people for their assessment – people whose judgment she trusts, of course. But I don’t. She and my children are the only people who saw any of BMT, until the online writing group started. Different strokes for different folks. But BMT would not have been written without them. And without the grants provided by various arts funding agencies here in Canada. Give thanks for new friends and taxpayers.


What do you do for fun? What do you wish people knew about you? What do you wish an interviewer would just ask already?

Fun? Writers aren’t allowed to have fun – except when they’re writing. The blood, sweat and tears constitute fun, the delete button is our rubber ball!

But I listen to music, talk to my wife, my children and our grandchild, and read a lot, mostly, at the moment, history.

I don’t wish people to know anything about me except what’s in my books or in the author’s profile. That’s why I’m not on Facebook, I don’t Twitter, Buzz, or any of those things. I’m developing a website, but I don’t intend to go further than that. My life is pretty boring anyway — and nobody’s business.

Thank you so much, Mr. Mordecai — this interview has inspired me in many ways.


Leah Henderson and the Release of Her Debut Novel

June 12, 2017

 

On February 8, 2017, Brown Bookshelf member, Tracey Baptiste interviewed Leah Henderson about her upcoming novel, One Shadow on the Wall. Leah discussed the spark that led to the idea, her writing process that led to an agent, an editor and a book soon to be published. Her story was fascinating. Read it here Day 8, 2017 Leah Henderson.

 

Now our readers want to know, what is it like to hold your first book  and share it with readers? One Shadow on the Wall was released on June 8, 2017. Now that she has had time to reflect, Leah is ready to share her feelings.

“When people ask how I’m feeling now that my book is out in the world, they generally assume my first response will be excitement, but right now I am truly in awe. Not just because I have hoped, dreamed, prayed, and wished for this day, but because of the outpouring of love, support, and encouragement I’ve received from the moment I started this project. Today, I am beyond grateful for that.

I am grateful to my family for always striving to show me my possibilities. I am grateful to a young boy in Senegal that through just one glance showed me strength and the makings of a story. I am grateful to my grad school professor for seeing the possibilities in a few short pages when it took me a year to believe and see them myself. I am grateful to my next grad school professor for giving his time to read “more pages of Mor” above and beyond the other work he was already reading from me. 

I am grateful to the amazing writer who stepped on my path the day of my grad school graduation and after asking “What is next for Mor?” offered to help me figure out just that through pages and pages of dead ends and detours. I am grateful to an agent who believed in Mor (and me) when others said they weren’t sure where a story like his would fit in the market. I am grateful to my wonderful editors and for my publisher for bringing Mor’s story into their family. I am grateful to friends and strangers who have kept me going with phone calls, emails, texts, kind words, smiles, hugs and oh yes . . . plenty of chocolate. I am grateful for so much today and every day!
So that is exactly how I am feeling right now.”  

Leah is enjoying life with One Shadow on the Wall. Check out the pictures from her release party and book signings. If you don’t have your copy yet, get it soon! Don’t forget to recommend it to your local library.

Visit Leah’s website for more information.