Why the Brown Bookshelf?

October 31, 2007

VarianWhile speaking at a predominately African-American high school a few years ago, I asked the students to name some of their favorite books. I expected the students to name novels by some of my favorite YA authors—perhaps Walter Dean Myers, Jacqueline Woodson, or Virginia Hamilton. Instead, the students named authors such as Eric Jerome Dickey and Zane.Don’t get me wrong—I like Eric Jerome Dickey a lot, and both he and Zane have worked hard to achieve their much deserved success. However, for some reason, I just didn’t feel comfortable discussing the works of Zane or EJ Dickey with a bunch of tenth graders.I found myself thinking about this again as I reviewed the statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. According to the CCBC, out of the approximately 5000 trade children’s books published in the United States in 2006, 87 were written by African Americans.87 out of 5000. That’s 2%, if you’re generous with the rounding.

2% isn’t a lot by any means, but if we could somehow highlight a few of these books—help readers to see that good book by good authors are out there—perhaps the publishing and book selling industry would take notice. Perhaps that 2% could grow to 3%. And then to 4%. And so on and so on.

Sometimes, being a writer means that you have to put your own books down so you can cheer for someone else. Sometimes, you have to be an advocate instead of an author.

Luckily for me, Paula was more than willing to buy into this concept. And thus, the Brown Bookshelf was born.


October 31, 2007

PaulaThe old saying, “if you want something done, ask the busiest person in the room to do it” has become somewhat of a lifestyle for me, starring me as the busiest person in the room. Note: This is not a boast! I could honestly, use a good lesson in saying no. But when Varian emailed me, pondering aloud who might be the best organization to start a Reader Girlz type group, to highlight children’s authors of color, even as I read the words I thought – well…I guess us.

Considering both of us hold full-time jobs outside of our profession as authors, it’s not as if we have deep industry-knowledge or access to the powers that be who determine what is published and what gets buzz. But we share a strong desire to see our own books succeed. And if another old saying, a rising tide floats all boats, is true, then it makes perfect sense that we’d jumpstart an initiative to shine the light on our peers in the children’s literature community.

In the year since my novel was released, I’ve experienced a sense of schizophrenia that, I believe, comes with being both a children’s writer and an author of color. I’ve traveled in circles with other YA authors and enjoyed the camaraderie that accompanies sharing the trials and tribulations specific to the world of writing for young readers, with those who understand it best.

I’ve also networked and socialized with many authors of color – primarily of adult fiction and non-fiction – where I’ve found a sense of belonging one usually experiences when race is the primary common denominator.

Both those circles are home – comfortable, comforting and a much-needed balm for the solitary life of a writer. And yet, some days I fit within neither. Just as the adult authors don’t necessarily understand some of the challenges facing a children’s writer, nor can my white YA peers comprehend some of the issues I face as an author of color.

The irony, I wrote my YA hoping to eschew being lumped into the neat, publishing box of “African American.” Yet, how do you do that when there are readers, parents and librarians looking for just that label on a book? It makes me wonder, who am I as a writer? And how much of who I am is marketing babble vs. just, who I am?Some days, it’s like having no home at all…until now.When Varian proposed that we create a group that would highlight voices of color writing for children – bring them to the forefront so librarians, teachers, parents and any book lover would discover or re-discover their works, I didn’t hesitate. For me, The Brown Bookshelf is more than a marketing vehicle. It’s a place where being both African American and a YA writer is finally, the norm.