Heads Up Vol. II

December 31, 2007

paula_thumb2.jpgHeads Up is a reposting of AACBWI’s announcement of book releases that may picque the interest of young African American readers.

As a Brown Bookshelf partner, The African American Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators society is dedicated to spreading the word about these and other books that are of special interest to multi-cultural audiences.

From Board Books to Young Adult fiction, Heads Up serves as a guide of what to look for in stores or what to ask for at the library.

 Taking a peek at this column’s latest entries, I get the sense that with Black History Month around the corner, historical books are the flavor of the day.

FREEDOM ON THE MENU by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by
Jerome Lagarrigue (Puffin) Picture Book/Paperback (ages 4-8)

There were signs all throughout town telling eight-year-old Connie where she could and could not go. But when Connie sees four young men take a stand for equal rights at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, she realizes that things may soon change.
This event sparks a movement throughout her town and region. And while Connie is too young to march or give a speech, she helps her brother and sister make signs for the cause. Changes are coming to Connie’s town, but Connie just wants to sit at the lunch counter and eat a banana split like everyone else.

CIRCLE UNBROKEN by Margot Theis Raven (Square Fish) Picture Book (ages

As she teaches her granddaughter to sew a traditional sweetgrass basket, a grandmother weaves a story, going back generations to her old-timey grandfather’s village in faraway Africa. There, as a boy, he learned to make baskets so tightly woven they could hold the rain.

Even after being stolen away to a slave ship bound for America, he remembers what he learned and passes these memories on to his children.

FRANCIE by Karen English (Square Fish) – Middle Grade (ages 9-12)

Francie is happiest up on her hill, bare feet pushed into the cool grass, eating a Scooter Pie, reading a Nancy Drew mystery, and–best of all–waving at “her” train as it heads up the tracks to Birmingham. Life isn’t easy being a quiet, bright, “colored” eighth-grader growing up in the ’30s in Noble, Alabama. The fact that Francie can be a little willful doesn’t always help.

Her train promises escape, the chance to travel to “places of possibility.” And anywhere seems better than Noble, with its “pickaninny” racism and back-breaking routine, where she slaves away with her mother cooking and cleaning for white folks in town (when she isn’t studying hard at Booker T. Washington, her clapboard country school, that is).

Francie dreams of Chicago, where her father moved a year ago to work as a Pullman porter, promising to send for Francie, her little brother Prez, and their mama as soon as he could. But Daddy has yet to come through, and Noble begins to offer possibilities of its own, the most exciting being when Francie puts her reading smarts to use tutoring an unschooled 16-year-old from nearby New Carlton.

When he gets framed for attacking a white foreman, though, the courageous Francie can’t keep from trying to help, endangering herself and those she holds dear.

I, MATTHEW HENSON By Carole Boston Weatherford (Walker Books for Young
Children) – Nonfiction (ages 5-10)

Matthew Henson was not meant to lead an ordinary life. His dreams had sails. They took him from the port of Baltimore, around the world, and north to the pole. No amount of fear, cold, hunger, or injustice could keep him from tasting adventure and exploring the world.

He learned to survive in the Arctic wilderness, and he stood by Admiral Peary for
years on end, all for the sake of his goal. And finally, after decades of facing danger and defying the odds, he reached the North Pole and made history. At last, Henson had proved himself as an explorer—and as a man.

A SWEET SMELL OF ROSES by Angela Johnson (Aladdin) – Picture Book
(ages 4-8)

There’s a sweet, sweet smell in the air as two young girls sneak out of their house, down the street, and across town to where men and women are gathered, ready to march for freedom and justice. Inspired by countless children and young adults who took a stand, two Coretta Scott King honorees offer a heart-lifting glimpse of children’s roles
in the civil rights movement.

The 28 Days poster

December 26, 2007

In February, we here at The Brown Bookshelf will begin our first initiative, 28 Days Later. For each day, we will highlight an author of children’s or young adult books. To go along with the initiative, I’ve designed a poster which will be available for download. For now, question marks mask the faces of the authors to be featured, but the final poster will display a photograph and more information about each author. Come February, for your school library, home library or classroom, I encourage you to download, print, laminate and display some of the best and brightest stars in African American children’s literature.


Thinking Teen

December 24, 2007

paula_thumb1.jpgI’ve been asked by both adults and teens, how am I able to write an authentic teen experience, as I’m obviously well beyond my teen years.

My answer is always the same:

My primary responsibility as a writer, is to write a teen character that’s true to my story and the fictional world I’ve developed.  As long as I remain true to what the teens in my world would wear, say, listen to or watch, there’s no need to double check with the zeitgeist, for approval.  Because, face it, there’s no one way to “think teen.”

I believe when talking about what teens are reading, we, as influencers and even writers, sometimes tend to look to the zeitgeist to “think teen.” We ignore that within the teen culture, each and every teen has individual tastes, motivations, experiences and values.

There’s no more a unanimous winner among teen readers when it comes to what they like to read than there is among African American readrs or adult fiction readers. 

Whenever I blog here, my mind is on how to help influencers…well, influence a young reader.  So, I wanted to offer a broad-stroke recommendation on the two types of young readers out there and the fiction that’s available to them.

I hope it will help us to stop trying to “think teen” and instead think individual teen reader.

So, with that, I think it’s safe to say every young reader falls somewhere within or between being a reluctant reader or an avid reader.

Reluctant readers rarely read for pleasure and may only pick up a book for required reading.

While there are some individuals who simply do not find joy in reading, I don’t believe that’s the vast majority (of teens or adults).  Paint me a cock-eyed optimist, but a reluctant reader is simply a reader who has not yet found that book or books to convert them them into an avid reader.

As influencers, it’s our job to help the reluctant reader find their book “first love,” so they may explore similiar books to feed that interest.

Since lengthy books can be intimidating to a reluctant reader, shorter books could be the ticket to an increase in reading. 

Fantasy, paranormal and action books may be this reader’s magic bullet, as a reluctant reader likely prefers “loud” books to “quiet.”

I also believe that popular fiction series are ideal, for this reader, because they offer multiple volumes with familiar characters, surroundings and issues. 

On the flip side are, Avid readers, those who tend to read voraciously.  This is not to be confused with the stereotype of the “book worm,” the reader creature who ONLY reads and does nothing else.  

Avid readers are often as active as any other teen in a myriad of activities.  If anything, these are the teens who are most busy. For that reason, I believe many avid teen readers prefer a mix – reading stand alone books (getting the start and finish of an issue in one book) in between volumes of their favorite series (comfort of the familiar).

Personally, that was my M.O. as a teen reader.

It’s essential to remember that an avid teen reader, while still testing the waters of different genres, has likely already developed author or style/voice preferences and tastes.

In reality, avid readers may not need book suggestions. But they should be encouraged to occasionally read outside of their present favorite genre and preferences, to continue their quest for exploration.

What’s available to these readers is an industry work-in-progress.

Currently, there are still more realistic fiction books aimed at African American teens then there are pure “escape” novels.  And it’s likely that because realistic fiction tends to be more complex, the subject matter more intense, the books rarely series-based – they aren’t as appealing to reluctant readers.

There’s a clear need for more escapist fiction for our young readers.

I define escapist fiction as books which offer a reader entry into an entirely new world – be it a fantastical world or merely an exxagerated parallel to real-life.

Fantasy, paranormal, action adventure and sci-fi books meet this criteria easily. However, due to the lack of availability of such books revolved around characters of color, and because pop fiction tends to offer an extreme perspective of a given lifestyle, pop fic and series books may fill the escapist readers needs. 

A good example of a realistic fiction book good for a reluctant reader would be G. Neri’s Chess Rumble or Angela Johnson’s Heaven

An example of a good read for a reluctant reader preferring escapist fiction is Troy Cle’s, The Marvelous Effect.

Look for more recommendations at the two Brown Bookshelf Amazon Listmania lists.  I will update them as more books come to our attention. And we will be creating other lists for picture book and MG novels, in the near future.

For now, please check out:

The Brown Bookshelf’s Picks for Reluctant Readers

The Brown Bookshelf’s Picks for Avid Readers

Those Who Paved the Way

December 20, 2007

  As we enter awards season, it’s the time to celebrate new voices, but also to pay homage to those who paved the way. So in the spirit of the coming year, here’s a quiz on some African-American children’s literature trailblazers:

1. The first Coretta Scott King Award was given in 1970. Who received it?
A. Sharon Bell Mathis, author of Ray Charles
B. Lillie Patterson, author of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Man of Peace
C. Camille Yarborough, author of Cornrows
D. Charlemae Rollins, author of Black Troubadour: Langston Hughes
2. In 1972, this man was the first black artist to receive a Caldecott Honor:
A. John Steptoe for Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters
B. George Ford for Ray Charles
C. Jerry Pinkney for Mirandy and Brother Wind
D. Tom Feelings for Moja Means One: A Swahili Counting Book
3. What year did the American Library Association recognize the Coretta Scott King Award as an official association award?
A. 1970
B. 1991
C. 1982
D. 1976
4. Who was the first African-American author to win a Newbery Medal?
A. Mildred Taylor
B. Virginia Hamilton
C. Christopher Paul Curtis
D. Sharon Bell Mathis
5. Bonus: What was the book?
A. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
B. The Hundred Penny Box
C. MC Higgins, The Great
D. Bud, Not Buddy
6. What was the name of the children’s magazine co-edited by W.E.B. DuBois and published by the NAACP in the 1920s?
A. The Brownies’ Book
B. The Renaissance Reader
C. Negro Voices
D. Black Song
7. Bonus: How much did it cost per copy?
A. $1
B. 15 cents
C. 25 cents
D. 50 cents
8. In the 1890s, what black poet published, Little Brown Baby,  a collection of children’s verse?
A. Langston Hughes
B. Joshua McCarter Simpson
C. Paul Laurence Dunbar
D. George Moses Horton
9. What black author won the first ever Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature?
A. Walter Dean Myers
B. Louise Meriwether
C. Rosa Guy    
D. June Jordan
2. D. For more about Tom Feelings, please visit: http://www.answers.com/topic/tom-feelings
3. C. For more about Coretta Scott King Awards, please see above.
4. B. For more about Virginia Hamilton, please visit: http://www.virginiahamilton.com/
5. C.
7. B.
8. C. For more about Paul Laurence Dunbar, please visit: http://www.dunbarsite.org/
9. A. For more about Walter Dean Myers, please visit http://www.walterdeanmyers.net/.

The beauty of words

December 18, 2007

Varian Johnson (posts)You hear it all the time now, every time you turn on the radio. Syncopated rhythms, heavy beats, words laced together at an alarming speed. But where many people hear blasting music and demeaning lyrics , I hear alliteration, assonance, and allegory.

Simply put, I hear poetry.

Of course, I’m not saying that there aren’t a lot of harsh, demeaning rap and hip-hop songs out there; truthfully, I listen to a lot less rap than I used to. But if you listen closely, hidden in the harsh language is the emotion and fury of a person trying to tell a story; a person trying to connect with his or her audience.

That’s the beauty of poetry; it allows the poet and the reader to connect in a way that’s very difficult–if not impossible–with traditional prose. The economy of words dictated by poetry means that every word, every line break, every syllable, is important.

Picture books-in-verse have always been popular–so much so that many authors attempt (and fail miserably) at trying to create happy, perfect, rhyming texts. However, poetry novels–called novels-in-verse–have also become quite popular over the years. In addition to exposing readers to the beauty of language, these novels-in-verse also encourage reluctant readers to delve into the world of reading.

Here are a few novels-in-verse that I’d suggest taking a look at:

Street LoveStreet Love, by Walter Dean Myers

LocomotionLocomotion, by Jacqueline Woodson

The Way a Door Closes The Way a Door Closes, by Hope Anita  Smith

 A Wreath for Emmett Till A Wreath for Emmett Till, by Marilyn Nelson



Head’s Up

December 17, 2007

paula_thumb.jpgHeads Up, a periodic column of The Brown Bookshelf, is a reposting of AACBWI’s announcement of book releases that may picque the interest of young African American readers.

As a Brown Bookshelf partner, The African American Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators society is dedicated to spreading the word about these and other books that are of special interest to multi-cultural audiences.

From Board Books to Young Adult fiction, Heads Up may serve as a guide of what to look for in stores or what to ask for at the library.

STACIE AND COLE by RM Johnson (Jump at the Sun) – Young Adult

“Stacie and Cole have been in love since the beginning of high school. Their heads should be all up in the clouds, but lately it’s been about sins and secrets that threaten to tear their love apart.

Stacie’s dad is acting more overprotective than usual. And what’s up with her best friend being so shady lately? Even Cole has been testing her. Stacie loves him more than anything, but she’s not sure she’s ready to take their relationship to that level just yet.

Cole is ready to take their relationship further. Feeling abandoned by his dad — and harassed for being a virgin by his trash-talking boys– he’s trying to learn intimacy any way he can.

Stacie and Cole have always been close — but with lust and lies at every turn, they’re about to discover if their love really has no limit.”

CHESS RUMBLE by G. Neri (Lee and Low) – Ages 8-12

“In Marcus’s world, battles are fought everyday—on the street, at home, and in school. Angered by his sister’s death and his father’s absence, and pushed to the brink by a bullying classmate, Marcus fights back with his fists.

One punch away from being kicked out of school and his home, Marcus encounters CM, an unlikely chess master who challenges him to fight his battles on the chess board. Guarded and distrusting, Marcus must endure more hard lessons before he can accept CM’s help to regain control of his life.

Inspired by inner-city school chess enrichment programs, Chess Rumble explores the ways this strategic game empowers young people with the skills they need to anticipate and calculate their moves through life.”

ISLAND COUNTING 123 by Frané Lessac (Candlewick Press) – Board Book

“One little island in the Caribbean Sea. Two parrots squawking in a coconut tree.”

 Take a trip to the Caribbean, where one little island offers many exotic items to count! Here the three hilltop houses are painted in tropical hues, the five market ladies wear shady hats, the nine limbo dancers sway on a sunny beach, and the ten wildly dressed children celebrate carnival time.

Counting from one to ten is a lot more fun on a balmy beach in this lively read-aloud full of tropical flair.

Kayla Chronicles by Sherri Winston (Little, Brown) – Young Adult

Available January 1, 2008

Kayla Dean, junior feminist and future journalist, is about the break the story of a lifetime. She is auditioning for the Lady Lions dance team to prove they discriminate against the not-so-well endowed. But when she makes the team, her best friend and fellow feminist, Rosalie, is not happy.

Now a Lady Lion, Kayla is transformed from bushy-haired fashion victim to glammed-up dance diva. But does looking good and having fun mean turning her back on the cause?

Can you be a strong woman and still wear really cute shoes?

Soon Kayla is forced to challenge her views, coming to terms with who she is and what girl power really means.

Narrated with sharp language and just the right amount of attitude, The Kayla Chronicles is the story of a girl’s struggle for self-identity despite pressure from family, friends and her own conscience. Kayla’s story is snappy, fun and inspiring, sure to appeal to anyone who’s every questioned who they really are.

After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson (Putnam) – Young Adult

Available January 10, 2008

D Foster showed up a few months before Tupac got shot that first time and left us the summer before he died.

The day D Foster enters Neeka and her best friend’s lives, the world opens up for them.

D comes from a world vastly different from their safe Queens neighborhood, and through her, the girls see another side of life that includes loss, foster families and an amount of freedom that makes the girls envious.

Although all of them are crazy about Tupac Shakur’s rap music, D is the one who truly understands the place where he’s coming from, and through knowing D, Tupac’s lyrics become more personal for all of them.

The girls are thirteen when D’s mom swoops in to reclaim D—and as magically as she appeared, she now disappears from their lives. Tupac is gone, too, after another shooting; this time fatal.

As the narrator looks back, she sees lives suspended in time, and realizes that even all-too-brief connections can touch deeply.

Ain’t Nothing but a Man: A Historian’s Quest to Find the Real John
by Scott Nelson (National Geographic Children’s Books) – 9-12

Who was the real John Henry? The story of this legendary
African-American figure has come down to us in so many songs, stories, and plays, that the facts are often lost. Historian Scott Nelson brings John Henry alive for young readers in his personal quest for the true story of the man behind the myth.

Nelson presents the famous folk song as a mystery to be unraveled, identifying the embedded clues within the lyrics, which he examines to uncover many surprising truths. He investigates the legend and reveals the real John Henry in this beautifully illustrated book.

Frenemies by L. Divine (Dafina) – Young Adult

South Bay High wouldn’t be such a bad place to go to school if it weren’t for all the drama. Not that Jayd Jackson’s helping matters. She’s right there in the center of it all—whether she wants to be or not. Maybe it just goes with the turf. After all, there’s a reason they call this place Drama High…

Jayd doesn’t know what’s going on with her girl, Nellie. Ever since she got named homecoming princess, she’s been acting like Mickey and Jayd aren’t her friends anymore, and she’s even falling in deeper with Tania and her crew. It’s amazing the girl can fit her new crown over that big head of hers.

And then there’s Jayd’s boyfriend Jeremy. His aloof attitude is really getting on her nerves. Jayd’s even starting to question his commitment, not to mention her own. Especially since lately, all she can think about is Rah—and that surprise kiss he planted on her the other day…

Trouble Follows by Monica McKayhan (Kimani TRU) – Young Adult

Life Is (Was…Will Be?) Good

Indigo Summer has everything she wants: a coveted spot on the high school dance squad, a hot boyfriend (the one and only Marcus Carter) and—her best friend, Jade, is moving back to Atlanta! But why does trouble always have to follow?

 Jade is suddenly getting too cozy with their good-looking history teacher. And instead of shooting hoops, Marcus is sitting in a courthouse, forced to prove his innocence for something he didn’t do. Indigo is feeling the pressure—from the squad, from her friends, from her family. It’s time to show everyone—and herself—that she’s made of strong stuff.

Help! My Kids Don’t Like to Read

December 14, 2007

If you’re a teacher, author, librarian, bookstore employee, chances are that you’ve been asked, “How do I get my kids or students to read more?” or “How do I get my kids or students to like reading?”

As a teacher, I was asked some variation of those questions.  Since becoming an author, I’ve been asked even more.  As a reader, I am puzzled by the non-readers of the world.  I don’t know what I would do with my time if I didn’t read.  Sure I could watch more TV, but I only like so many TV shows.

There is no tried and true way to get kids, or even adults, reading.   We’re all unique and there are different reasons that reading appeals to us.  For some people, they will read any and everything that they can get their hands on.  Others are genre readers meaning they will only read fiction, non-fiction, poetry, self-help, etc.

Typically, I tell parents or teachers who ask me the question that they need to find the right book to place in the non reader or reluctant reader’s hands.  Once they do, they will be inclined to read more.  Even if they don’t go from reading 0 to 60 books in one week, peak their interest here and there.  Also, take an interest in what they find to read.  Have conversations with them about what they are reading and what you are reading.

As I travel around the Internet, several others have addressed this same issue of increasing reading in kids as either a parent or a teacher.  Rather than regurgitate their advice and tips for increasing reading among children and young adults, I am simply your tour guide to their websites:

Youth/Teen Services Librarian Liz Burns at Shelf Space offers eight tips for encouraging reading and how to make reading fun.

Young Adult Library Services Association defines reading and promotes expanding our idea of what reading really is.

There are also tips for teachers who want to motivate their students to read as well as develop independent readers.

Dads, Be A Good Dad suggests that you read to your kids as well as mom because it reinforces the notion that reading is cool if dad does it too.

Parent Tested Tips to Get Kids Reading offers great suggestions from parents around the country.  One of the suggestions is an incentive program for your kids with incentives ranging from an extra thirty minutes of TV time per week or allow the incentives to accrue per book read for a big reward when report cards come out.

This is a great list of 81 Ways to Get and Keep Your Kids Reading with some writing tips as well.

5 of my favorite tips from the list are: 
Show that you value reading- buy books, and give and receive them as gifts.
Read detective stories and have kids guess whodunit.
Wherever you and the kids travel, before and after, have kids read about the place.
Get subscriptions in kids’ names to magazines focusing on topics they like.
Suggest that your kids read the book before (or after) seeing the movie about it.

Another tip that I recommend is getting your child to join a book club.  If there’s not one in your area, start one.  Network within your circle of friends, church members, children’s classmates, etc. and then start a book club that caters to your kids.  Make it a parent and child book club.  Whatever you do, make it fun and meaningful for all of the participants.

GRITS Kidz is an online book club that features reading lists for all age groups.

Scholastic supports the idea of book clubs for tweens as well. 

Another fun idea is to create a personalized book for your child.  We all love our names and we especially love to see our name in a book somewhere, especially if your name is uncommon.  Think about the keychains, pencils, ink pens, and other novelty items sold at amusement parks with our names on them.  I don’t know about you, but it was disheartening for years to never see Carla anywhere on any item.  So how cool would it be to a kid to be reading a book that has a character with their name?  The smile on their face would be priceless.

And as your kids read, check out Shelfari as well.  Shelfari is dedicated to readers worldwide.   There they can create their own bookshelves that show other Shelfarians what they have read.  They might even encounter some of the authors they read on Shelfari and can add them as a friend.  Shelfari has great groups for all ages and reading preferences.  They can even create a group about books they like to read and invite others to join them.

So there you have it, ways for us to increase reading for kids, but a few thrown in for adults as well.