Books Across America

March 28, 2008

In the fifth grade, I vaguely remember coming home one Sunday afternoon from church and seeing people standing at the intersection of Northfield Rd. and Miles Ave. in Cleveland, Ohio holding hands.  That human chain was known as Hands Across America which was an event created to fight hunger and homelessness.

In elementary school, we held Right to Read Week and while the majority of the details are no longer in my memory,  I do remember we had a balloon launch with a piece of paper inside telling whoever found our balloons who we were, what school we attended, and a book we read.  As a kid, I really believed that my balloon would be found and I would have a new connection with some unknown person far away from me.  Now, I’m not so sure, but it was still cool to imagine the possibilities of who would get my balloon and learn a little bit about me.

Thanks to television shows like Oprah’s Big Give and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, we’re seeing strangers connect to another stranger who has a need in their life.  We’re able to watch philanthropy be performed on a huge scale by everyday people.  Sure, it’s probably sensationalized and some might argue against the tight time limits, but it’s TV and it’s a competition on Big Give.  Give big (with someone else’s money) or go home.  But it is exciting to watch the levels that the Big Give competitors and Ty’s crew go to in order to enrich someone less fortunate.

Whenever I watch Extreme Makeover, my philanthropic spirit kicks in and I wish I could be there helping the crew and builders give something to the family.  It’s been revved up watching Oprah’s Big Give.  And now thanks to readergirlz, I’ll be able to unleash that spirit.

Who are the readergirlz?  They are a group of female authors who encourage girls to read and connect with others over a good book, primarily books that feature strong female characters.  The Brown Bookshelf considers readergirlz to be influential in inspiring us to do what we do in promoting African American children’s literature.

On April 17, readergirlz and YALSA will partner for Operation Teen Book Drop (TBD), their second teen literacy project.  To build awareness for Support Teen Literature Day on April 17, 2008, readergirlz and YALSA have organized a massive, coordinated release of 10,000 publisher-donated YA books into the top pediatric hospitals across the country.  Isn’t that an awesome project?

Readergirlz and YALSA want our help with Operation Teen Book Drop.

For authors, readergirlz ask that you leave your book, with a TBD bookplate for authors pasted inside, in a teen gathering spot in your community. Place it where the book will be found, taken, and read (i.e. a coffee shop, the park, school, a bus stop, etc.).

For readers, grab a young adult book off of your shelf and drop it somewhere in your community as well.  Don’t forget to include your TBD bookplate for readers.

For anyone who has a blog, blog about Operation Teen Book Drop and how you participated on April 17th.  You can even add an “I Rock the Drop” icon to your site and/or blog.

After you rock the drop, head over to the readergirlz Myspace group to join the TBD Post Op Party on April 17th from 9PM – 11PM EST.   Come to the party where you can win prizes and books as well as chat with teens and authors from around the world.

Visit the readergirlz site to get the complete details about Operation Teen Book Drop and spread the word to others.  We at The Brown Bookshelf support Operation Teen Book Drop and will do our part as we Rock the Drop on April 17, 2008!

28 & Beyond: The Hard-Times Jar

March 26, 2008

Inspired by the author’s childhood, this tale of a girl longing for a book to call her own warms hearts with its vivid language and beautiful acrylic portraits. In The Hard-Times Jar (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), written by Ethel Footman Smothers and illustrated by John Holyfield, Emma, the daughter of migrant farm workers, makes up stories and records them on brown paper-bag pages. She hopes to one day save enough from picking applies to purchase a store-bought book. Plans change when she’s sent to school for the first time where she’s introduced to literary wonders — and temptations. The sweet resolution shows Emma that rules must be followed, but sometimes, through a mother’s special understanding, dreams can come true.

Smothers is also the author of picture book, Auntee Edna (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2001), and middle-grade novels,  Down in the Piney Woods (Knopf, 1992) and Moriah’s Pond (Knopf, 1994).

The Buzz on The Hard-Times Jar:

 2003 Chapman Award for Best Classroom Read-Alouds

IRA Notable Books for a Global Society

NCSS-CBC Notable Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies

“Smothers’s tale movingly attests to the rewards of hard work, honesty and of having dreams.”

– Starred Review, Publishers Weekly

 “When Emma’s migrant family moves from Florida to Pennsylvania for apple picking, she finds herself the only “chocolate-brown” child in her new third-grade classroom. Her initial discomfort is mitigated by the kindness of her teacher and the pleasure of reading books in the classroom library. After Emma owns up to breaking a rule, she receives an unexpected reward. Longer than most picture-book texts, the story provides a convincing portrayal of Emma’s firm grounding within a loving family as well as her powerful affinity for books and stories. In his first picture book, Holyfield contributes an excellent series of graceful, full-page illustrations. With strong composition and sensitive body language, the paintings will draw viewers right into Emma’s world. An inviting picture book with read-aloud potential.”

— Booklist

“Based on the author’s childhood, this inspirational story stands as a tribute to a strong family facing hard times. Emma and her family are migrant workers who follow the crops to make a living. Passionate about books, the girl longs for a store-bought volume, but knows that the few coins her mother saves in a jar are for no-money days. Arriving in Pennsylvania, Emma, her parents, and younger siblings pick apples together, but then Mama tells her that she is to attend school now that she is eight. Nervous because she is the only “chocolate-brown” child in the class, which could not have happened in her still-segregated Florida home, Emma soon discovers the riches of the school library. Desperate to read, she takes two volumes home for the weekend, against the rules. A kind teacher and a firm but understanding mother lead to a happy ending. Filled with descriptive language, the text flows smoothly and it clearly describes Emma’s enthusiasm and fears. The richly textured browns, yellows, and greens of the paintings evoke a warm, orderly, and nonthreatening environment, reinforced by the mother’s long arms reaching out and embracing her children.”

— School Library Journal

28 & Beyond: The Making of Dr. Truelove

March 24, 2008


I dislike controversy.

I’m drawn to controversy.

In between my two realities lies the author of young adult fiction. While the conscious side of me never wants to piss off the literary influencers by writing something they’d deem censor-worthy, when I’m writing (my unconscious side) I’m not thinking about anyone except the characters at hand. 

That means I very well may piss off some people or at the very least make some unhappy with my books’ content.  The “author” in me may worry about that after the fact, but the writer in me never does nor is the writer willing to change a word simply to appease potential critics.

I bet Derrick Barnes was the same way when he wrote The Making of Dr. Truelove, the tale of Diego, a smitten, “premature ejaculator,” on a quest to win his crush’s heart. 

If you’re still absorbing the words premature ejaculator, gazing upwards at The Brown Bookshelf’s wonderfully colorful banner depicting two children reading and wondering how those words dare grace our pages, you’re probably not alone.  As I mentioned in my 28 & Beyond feature of It Girls, some people simply aren’t comfortable with the frank tone of young adult fiction.

Perhaps because YA is a sub-genre of children’s literature…and maybe it shouldn’t be.  But that’s a post for another day.

YA which graphically depicts making-out is not for everyone and certainly not for the tween set. School Library Journal sets the appropriate reading age for The Making of Dr. Truelove as tenth grade and up. With that in mind, any discussion of the honest sexual talk within the book becomes a non-issue, in my opinion.

The Making of Dr. Truelove is a funny story about one guy’s mission to win back his crush’s affection from the resident jock. The fact that he attempts to do so by creating an alter ego, Dr. Truelove, who dispenses advice to the lovelorn is not only endearing but ballsy, pardon the pun.

Society dictates that there are inherently girl behaviors and inherently boy behaviors. What we’re supposed to do when those behaviors cross genders is a gray area for someone smarter than me to debate. All I know is, when fiction tackles the story of a guy chasing a girl, dedicated more to winning her affection than bedding her, I love it.

Us ladies aren’t the only ones struck by Cupid’s arrow and prone to getting ourselves into trouble in our attempts to get our guy’s attention. In Dr. Truelove, the romance shoe is on the other foot and Diego – with the help of his confident pal, J-Love, is a well-meaning but bumbling teen boy with his heart on his sleeve for Roxy.

Derrick Barnes depicts a side of teen males that’s often glossed over in fiction. We’re hard wired to believe that guys only want to read about blood, guts and sci-fi or that hooking up without committment is their primary goal.

True enough the characters in Dr. Truelove are all about the hook up, but it’s Roxy’s heart that Diego is after and Barnes’ debut is a tickling peek into the mind of a sincere but slightly overzealous horn dog.

If you’re still unable to recomend this book because the entire premise revolves around teen sex, just say to yourself “YA reflects teen life,” ten times slow, take a deep breath then gift the book to your nearest teen reader. Who knows, they may actually think you’re the coolest auntie, uncle, mom, dad or librarian they know.

The Buzz on The Making of Dr. Truelove

An ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Readers

“The youthful high school humor keeps it from veering too far into Zane territory, and romance and urban-fiction fans will no doubt love the saucy comebacks, sexy language, and sheer ridiculousness that befalls Diego and J on their Cyrano-like journey to love.”— School Library Journal

“Barnes holds nothing back here, so in case the previous summary isn’t enough, beware of some racy content. However, if you’re comfortable with that, you will love this book! ” – Teens Read Too

28 & Beyond: The Divine Series

March 21, 2008

Known for her Christian fiction titles written for adults, it was a delight last year to encounter Jacquelin Thomas’ debut YA title Simply Divine which is the first title in a series of books about fifteen year old Divine Matthews-Hardison.  After turmoil erupts with her parents, she is forced to go live with a family she’s never met in Georgia.  As I read Simply Divine, I pictured in my mind Bobbi Kristina, the daughter of Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown.

Readers who are avid fans of celebrity gossip will enjoy the Divine titles but understand that there is substance to these stories.  In Georgia, Divine lives with her uncle who is a pastor, his strict wife, and their two children.  Divine Confidential deals with teenage dating, teenage pregnancy as well as online dating.  Divine Secrets tackles teenage relationships again with a look at abusive relationships.  Nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Divine Confidential, Thomas does a wonderful job creating stories that connects with her young adult readers.

The Buzz on the Divine Series
Once again Jacquelin Thomas has brought a very serious issue that teens are facing to the light…online safety. The characters are real. The situations are real, and the book is entertaining from cover to cover. ~ Amazon reviewer

I am really enjoying this new inspirational writing for teens and Simply Divine doesn’t disappoint. My daughter loved the glimpse into the lifestyle of the young, rich and famous. And I loved the message in this book. This should be added to every teens’ library. Great read! ~ Amazon reviewer

Divine Match-Up coming June 17, 2008

Visit Jacquelin at her website or the website dedicated to the Divine series.

Never underestimate a genius

March 19, 2008

This past weekend, I purchased a copy of Kadir Nelson‘s picture book, We Are The Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. I planned to read it and post a review here today. But I can’t. Not enough time. We Are The Ship is a high quality read, not a gratuitous tribute to a talented artist — pretty pictures, empty prose. Kadir can write, and I’ll need more time to review this book.

Kadir is one of the most talented fine artists and illustrators of our time, so I expected the illustrations to be mind-blowing. Which they are. But I didn’t expect the writing to be so good, too. Kadir Nelson is crazy-talented!

Once I get past my own deadlines, this book is definitely on my list of must-reads. I’ll post a review later.

In the meantime, check out this YouTube video, where Kadir talks more about his book.

Other blogs about this book:
A Fuse #8 Production

My Breakfast Platter

I.N.K. Ineresting Nonfiction for Kids

Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Writing and Ruminating

28 & Beyond: It Chicks

March 17, 2008


The wild popularity of the Gossip Girl series has resulted in a strange and often contentious divide among those looking for good books for young adult readers and those who read them, regularly.

On one side, you have some influencers who absolutely cannot understand the appeal of a book where girls are catty, fashion rules and illicit behavior such as sex makes an appearance.

On the other, you have readers who have grown up on a healthy dose of Celebreality and don’t know a life before the term “reality TV star” was coined. They not only see nothing wrong with books like GG, but can turn to a decent facsimilie of it pretty much anytime they’re near a television – a plasma flat screen, of course.

Teen books of the popular fiction variety don’t dictate what teens do, say, wear or how they act, 90% of the time they’re simply reflecting it. And sometimes the authors willing to go out on a limb and portray/admit that teens can be catty, sometimes engage in sexual intercourse, or may even drink illegally are forced to defend their books to those who forget reading is about escape.

It Chicks, by Tia Williams could easily be labeled a Gossip Girl copy cat and readers could make up their own minds whether they’d like to take a cruise through its pages. But to call it that would do the book and the author a disservice.

The author’s comment, when asked about writing about black girls keeping up with the Jonses, strikes me as perfect, “the black girls I know were the joneses.”

In other words, the mainstream doesn’t have the market cornered on the antics of students of privilege.  What It Chicks does is give readers a peek into a world they’ve likely never been a part of and likely never will be beyond literature or television.

For readers who love the pure drama of teen life – either because it’s so far from their own, it’s like voyeurism or because they need escape from their own trials – It Chicks is a fresh take on a topic as old as time.

If for some of us, the brand name dropping within It Chicks is too much, remember that for every reader who will be turned off by it, there’s four more who 1) may not even notice the brand names and 2) won’t let mention of them impact how they feel about the story.

A more legit concern, when recommending this book to a young reader, may be its large cast.  There are seven protags in the story.  However, Teens Read Too reviewer said of that element “In the beginning it was hard to tell who was who, but as you keep reading it gets easier. ”

I know well the debate books like It Chicks brings about – my own have been mired in it from time to time, but the fact remains, it’s still new for African American teens to see themselves portrayed outside of problem novels and historical fiction. And if one is looking for a wide variety to put in front of a teen reader who may still be hunting for their cuppa tea, offering It Chicks is a good start.

The Buzz on It Chicks

“Williams, who has an ear for the way teens speak, has created a hip series filled with heart and a lot of sass.” —Essence

“If you enjoyed the movie Fame, you’re sure the dig IT CHICKS!” —American Cheerleader

“The writing and dialogue is lively, and there’s plenty of turmoil to get caught up in…over-the-top and fun!” —Publisher’s Weekly

“It chicks is an entertaining story but could have been so much better if the makeup expert and fashionista would cut back on the name brand dropping or just have a tip section at the end of the chapters. ” — Amazon Reviewer “Nodice”

“THE IT CHICKS is likely to be well-received among young adult readers, however, parents may have reservations. ” — The RAWSISTAZ Reviewers

Where I am

March 11, 2008

Just in case you’re wondering, The Brown Bookshelf is not on hiatus. We’re recovering. The 28 Days Later campaign was a lot of fun, but it was a lot of work, too. In little over a month, we corresponded with 32 authors and illustrators, their agents, editors and publicists. I even spoke with one guy’s mom.

Since the campaign ended two weeks ago, we’ve been trying to catch up on our other work — writing and illustrating books for children. Our main purpose here is to highlight others in the children’s literary community. But honestly, my workload has been so heavy, I haven’t had time to think beyond my own literary endeavors. So today, I’m writing about myself. Here’s what I’m doing when I’m not Brown Bookshelving:

Little Ron on a Big Mission (tentative) is a picture book written by Corinne J. Naden and Rose Blue. It will publish next year with Dutton. For the past few months, I’ve had the pure pleasure of bringing Ron’s story to life. The story involves real-life astronaut Ron McNair. It is set in a library, circa mid-1950s. Both children and librarians will cheer for Ron. But that’s all I can say, not wanting to give the story away. The final paintings are due to my publisher in May. So you’ll understand why I haven’t blogged in awhile and why my postings will be spotty over the next couple months.

My next two books are both biographies. One is about a Negro league baseball heroine, the other pairs two very famous jazz music greats. I will begin sketching both books simultaneously later this summer.

In addition to illustrating, I’ve also been busy writing. I recently sold my first written work, a picture book biography, to Lee & Low Books. I was the honor winner of their New Voices contest two years ago. Since then, I’ve been revising the manuscript for publication. In addition, I’ve written several other stories, and recently signed with a literary agency.

Through this experience, I have gained such a higher regard for the picture book author. Before I started writing, I had no idea what an author went through to write a picture book and get it published. As an illustrator, I would received the final manuscript, polished and near ready for print. How hard can it be to write a 500-word, picture-heavy book? I used to think. I knew nothing about the struggle of getting through a first draft. I didn’t know about the 30 re-writes and 80 rejections. I didn’t know about the waiting and waiting and wondering, sometimes years before a manuscript would be acquired by a publisher. I certainly know now.

28 Days Later has been an eye-opener for me, too. In the past, I’d complained about not getting more opportunities to illustrate manuscripts beyond those with African American characters or subject matter. I’d felt as though I’d been boxed. Pigeon-holed. At times, I was angry with myself for allowing publishers to define me, rather than my defining myself. But I was wrong, and illustrator John Holyfield summed it up best when he said: “God gave me this particular talent to affect a particular group of people. And that group just happens to be African-American.”

Being a spiritual person myself, I can relate to his words. Publishers have a need. They need, or perhaps prefer, African Americans to illustrate certain types of manuscripts. Their need creates a niche that I can fill. And by doing so, not only do I get to stay busy in an over-crowded, competitive market, but I get to share my God-given gifts with children all over the world. I belong to a special group, and I’m happy about that. I have a new attitude!