Book report: Metal Man

May 27, 2008

Metal Man
Written by Aaron Reynolds
Illustrated by Paul Hoppe
Published by Charlesbridge Publishing, June 2008

On a scorching hot day, Devon, a young Black child, skips out of the house and heads over to visit Mitch, “the metal man,” an artist and welder who creates art with scrap metal.

Devon’s mother isn’t impressed with the metal man. She doesn’t think his work is work, or that his art is art. “It’s junk,” she says. But her words fail discourage Devon.

When he asks the metal man if he can make something, too, Devon becomes afraid to express himself, thinking his ideas too dumb. But the metal man won’t have it. “Don’t be scared, boy. Bring it on out to play,” he says. And so Devon begrudgingly shares his ideas.

Sparks fly — quite literally — as the metal man goes about sawing and torching and grinding the art his student had designed. When Devon shows his mother the “star-house” he and the metal man created, she is quite impressed, and changes her tune about the metal man and his art.

This story really hit home for me because, as a child, I had my own metal man of sorts. Brother Larry Harris was an artist who offered drawing classes for children in the black community of Des Moines, Iowa. I only took a few of his classes — some 30 years ago — but he profoundly inspired me.

Having been a heavy player in the Black Power movement of the 60s, he would mix messages of Black pride into his lessons of line, shape, value and composition. While drawing a face, he spoke about the beauty of African facial features — the broad nose, the thick lips. His drawings celebrated the unique look of the Black race.

My favorite part of the class was when he taught us to draw an afro. He’d use squiggly lines and curlicues, telling us to “focus on feeling the hair,” as much as drawing it. He also introduced us to the word subjective, explaining how, with art, there is no right or wrong.

I thought about Brother Larry Harris while I read the book Metal Man because, like Devon’s mother, my dad wasn’t very excited about my artistic aspirations. I never expressed my ideas with him, are you kidding?

And it will hit home with kids, too, at least it did with my six-year-old son. We read the story together. His favorite part was the sparks that jet off the page from the metal man’s torch.

He surprised me with his observations about Devon’s language. Throughout the story, Devon uses words like ain’t, gonna and whadd’ya. Dialog includes phrases like Whatcha makin’. We couldn’t get through a couple paragraphs without my son interrupting the story to correct the author’s grammar.

I commended my son on his good use of language, but also reminded him that everyone speaks a little differently. I explained that some people — like his dad —use words like ain’t and got and gonna, and that they appreciate seeing their imperfect language used the literature they read. It’s called voice, I told him. And it helps to define a character’s personality, background, culture.

He didn’t seem understand (he was more interested in being right), so I decided to shelve that topic for another day.

Although Metal Man is for children, it has a quiet message for adults, too: Spend a little time with a child, mentor them, inspire them. A few minutes can create memories to last a lifetime.

The art is by Paul Hoppe, and it is very impressive. Paul uses bold brush strokes — digital? I think — to outline his work, and mixes soft earth tones with fiery oranges and reds to create the illusion of sparks shooting off the page.


If you have a picture book that you’d like to submit for possible mention here, send me an email and I’ll return it with my mailing address.

What to send:
Picture books or very early chapter books, of particular interest to African American children (regardless of the race of the author). I’m looking for books with African American characters (however you choose to define that) or subject matter.

For other types of books — YA novels, middle grade chapters, graphic novels, contact Paula, Varian, Kelly or Carla (Although they, I’m sure, would welcome picture books too.)

– Don

It’s A Teen, Teen World

May 19, 2008

In case you live under a rock or haven’t noticed, we’re smack dab in the middle of a teen “renaissance.”  Quotes are necessary because pop culture pundits don’t believe it’s a temporary thing, which renaissances typically are.

No, as it stands, we’re in the middle of a change in entertainment – movies, TV and music.  With channels like ABC Family, The N and Nickelodeon offering shows like Degrassi and Greek – and of course that scandalous GG, mother of all pop teen sensations – more and more television shows are offering teen fare.  Movies as well and of course we can’t leave out music with sensation, Ms. Miley “I own every entertainment venue” Cyrus.

And some are saying this surge is here to stay.

Teens are exposed to so much, due to the wide access to images and information via the internet and media, that programming and music for them has morphed into a strange hybrid of somewhat sophisticated “not just for teens” fare.  The true kick to this boost,  adults are enjoying some of these shows and music as well.

I’ll include myself, as I did enjoy a good episode of Zoey 101 pre-Jamie Lynn becoming preggers, now and then, and have been known to bop my head to Chris Brown or Asia Cruz. 

Sue me, I’m a pop culture fanatic.

Of course it all comes down to money.  And the word, is that Gen Y (ages 13-31) not only have a few million in disposable income but are being helped by their parents who are kicking in another hundred million to allow them to iTune, merchandise overdose and movie-go their buns off.

And that’s not accounting for the dollars spent by adults consuming (guiltily in some cases) teen fare.  It’s quite the market!

So where does publishing fit into all this?

True enough, teen lit and literature for teens has experienced quite the boost – largely in part to Harry Potter showing readers that children’s books aren’t just for children anymore.

But publishing is notoriously old school and has yet to capitalize on this new trend where “teen” life extends well beyond the age of true teendom. Bummer for YA writers who are chomping at the bit to remain YA writers but portray the older side of young adult life.

For a year or so now, I’ve been batting around an idea for a YA book that would start with a character in high school but take them onto college.  Problem is, in the eyes of the “industry” a YA book should (must?) have a protag who is indeed a teen.

But…aren’t you still a teen your first two years of college?  And with more and more adults and older young adults reading YA well beyond the age of 16 – wouldn’t there be a market for such a book?

The answer is yes.  But publishing has yet to construct a marketing strategy for this hybrid YA.  And it’s too bad because the time is so ripe for it.

Many play with it…none have mastered the best way to accomplish it.

Dorchester’s Shomi line is publishing books where the protags are young twenties, late teens – specifically to capture this market.

Books like Secret Society Girl by Diana Peterfreund – shelved adult fiction, managed to do fine. 

Brown Bookshelf member, Varian Johnson’s first book, Red Polka Dot in a World Full of Plaid was shelved adult but revolved around a young adult character.  Despite it’s ability to fit in both categories without totally being one or the other, it was an Essence best seller.

And Reality Chick by Lauren Barnholdt, despite being about a freshman in college, had wide YA reader appeal.

It’s a hodge podge of examples, for sure, but proves that while TV and film have found ways to have shows with older actors appeal to both older and younger adults – publishing isn’t sure how to master this tricky wicket.

What I’m waiting for is a real shake up in YA.  YA is a sub-genre of children’s lit but with times changing it may be time to look at dividing YA into Tween Lit for ages 10-13, Teen Lit for ages 13-16 and then YA for ages 16+. The overlap is on purpose.

Tween and Teen lit would remain a sub-genre of children’s lit but YA would become a sub-genre of Adult fiction.

Experts say that entertainment programming and consumables are now being developed with the teen buyer and the “extended” teen buyer in mind vs. the traditional model of creating for the adult and having it trickle down to teen buyers. If this remains true, publishing will no doubt have to follow suit eventually.

I don’t forsee a time when books will no longer be relevant, but if consumers are moving at the speed of the internet while publishing moves at the speed of a typewriter, I can see an eventual disconnect on the horizon between literature and young readers.

Meanwhile, enjoy this new teen world…before it morphs to something new again.

IRA releases it Teachers’ Choices lists

May 18, 2008

The International Reading Association has released it’s Choices Booklists for children, teachers and young adults. And the lists are quite diverse.

Here are a few titles from the Teacher’s list, that are either by or about African Americans:

Primary winners:
Ain’t Nobody a Stranger to Me by Ann Grifalconi, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Hyperion, Jump at the Sun.

D Is for Drinking Gourd: An African American Alphabet by Nancy I. Sanders, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, Sleeping Bear.

Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, Scholastic, Scholastic Press.

Intermediate winners
A Friendship for Today, written by Patricia C. McKissack*; Scholastic, Scholastic Press.

A Song for Harlem, written by Patricia C. McKissack, Penguin, Viking.

Sweet Land of Liberty*, written by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins*, Ill. Peachtree.

Advanced winners:
Celeste’s Harlem Renaissance
, written by Eleanora E. Tate*; Little, Brown.

On My Journey Now: Looking at African-American History Through the Spirituals, written by Nikki Giovanni, Candlewick.

See all the lists and download the bookmarks at the IRA website
* Indicates a 28 Days Later author, illustrator or book


Membership Has Its Privileges

May 12, 2008

Have you joined The Brown Bookshelf Myspace forum yet?

We know, we know – you’re already a member of a million and one other forums, message boards and blog subscriptions. But one more won’t kill you.  Especially since, starting next month the forum will host some great guests for our Summer Chat Series.

Temperature Check – State of the Kiddie Lit industry. Need we say more?

Indies & The Author – It’s competitive out there. Even the big chains are having trouble. So how can authors and independent bookstores keep one another afloat? Come talk to reps from two indies that do it well.

Hype, Hype Hooray – Sure, authors, agents, publishers and librarians think we know what teen readers want…but do we really? Hear it right from the mouth of young readers.

Tentative Guests:

Jen Carlson of Dunow, Carlson, Lerner

Regina Brooks of Serendipity Literary Agency

Representative from Hue-Man Bookstore, Harlem, NY

Jenn Laughren of Books Inc and Not Your Mother’s Bookclub

But you have to join the Brown Bookshelf forum to get up close and personal with our guests.  And because we’re all book lovers, there will be a chance to win some.

Dates and times are still being nailed down, so it’s not too early to sign up and get your front-row seat for these great chats.

See you there!

Faith in Fiction

May 9, 2008

Christian fiction is not a new phenomenon.  I grew up reading Catherine Marshall and Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly series in the 80s.  In the 90s, the Left Behind series gained widespread notoriety on the literary scene.

Within African American Christian fiction, there are several well known authors including Jacquelin Thomas, Kendra Norman Bellamy, Michelle Andrea Bowen, Vanessa Davis Griggs, and Reshonda Tate Billingsley.

If we dig a bit deeper into the genre of Christian fiction, we find a subgenre known as  YA Christian fiction being written by authors including Jacquelin Thomas (The Divine Series), Reshonda Tate Billingsley (The Good Girlz Series), and Stephanie Perry Moore (Payton Skky Series).


Of the three authors, Stephanie Perry Moore has written the majority of her books for children and teens.  Visit her website and you will see what I mean.  Don’t forget to check out her 28 Days Later spotlight as well.   Stephanie is akin to a YA Christian fiction Meg Cabot with the number of series under her belt – Payton Skky, Perry Skky, Jr., Laurel Shadrach, Faith Thomas, Carmen Browne – and the list of series continue to grow. 

Christian Fiction author Victoria Christopher Murray joins the ranks of fellow adult authors Jacquelin Thomas and Reshonda Tate Billingsley as she introduces a series written for young adult readers.  Known for titles including Joy, Temptation, and Grown Folks Business, Murray has enlarged her writing territory to include teens with a four book series.  The Divine Divas Teen Series debuted in March 2008 with Diamond and will follow with India, Veronique, and Aaliyah. 

The series centers around four young ladies who have been best friends since they were toddlers.  The four friends formed a singing group to compete in a talent show in their hometown of Los Angeles.  Diamond is the self-proclaimed leader of the group who loves to sing and convinced her friends to form the group.  While she hopes to create her own fashion line, BFF India wants to create her own line of jewelry.  Sophomore class president Veronique also loves to sing, but is very politically aware and is driven to keeping her friends and classmates aware of the issues that impact them all.  Rounding out the talented, diverse foursome is Aaliyah who is in the group because she supports her friends in all of their endeavors, but her biggest aspiration in life is to attend MIT to become a nuclear physicist. 

Visit The Divine Divas site to read an excerpt of the first chapter of Diamond and visit The Divine Divas on Myspace

For the older young adult readers, self-published author Fon James emerged last year with her debut title Back and Forth.  Set on the campus of Jackson State University in Mississippi, four college seniors who are all in the school’s marching band juggle college life as well as what happens when sex and alcohol enter the equation.  Join Faith, Remi, Gavin, and Chrissy as they work through a situation that threatens their foursome.

The element of faith within fiction exists today for children of all ages.  These are five authors who you can check out and pass along to the young adults in your life. 

YALSA’s Best Books for Young Adults

May 5, 2008

Every year, the American Library Association compiles a list of the Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA). Each month, the BBYA committee, made up of members of the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) updates the consideration list. As of April 3, 2008, two novels by African-American authors have made the consideration list: Conception (St. Martin’s, 2008) by Kalisha Buckhanon and After Tupac and D Foster (G.P. Putnam’s Son, 2008) by Jacqueline Woodson.

Conception by Kalisha Buckhanon

About the book: Buckanan takes us to Chicago, 1992, and into the life of fifteen-year-old Shivana Montgomery, who believes all Black women wind up the same: single and raising children alone, like her mother.  Until the sudden visit of her beautiful and free-spirited Aunt Jewel, Shivana spends her days desperately struggling to understand life and the growing pains of her environment. When she accidentally becomes pregnant by an older man and must decide what to do, she begins a journey towards adulthood with only a mysterious voice inside to guide her. When she falls in love with Rasul, a teenager with problems of his own, together they fight to rise above their circumstances and move toward a more positive future.  Through the voice of the unborn child and a narrative sweeping from slavery onward, Buckhanon narrates Shivana’s connection to a past history of Black women who found themselves at the mercy of tragic circumstances.  All of their fates intertwine towards a shocking conclusion.

After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson

About the book: 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.

Be sure to check out all the titles on the consideration list.

CNN hero: Yohannes Gebregeorgis, champions children

May 4, 2008

“Moved by the lack of children’s books and literacy in his native Ethiopia, Yohannes Gebregeorgis established Ethiopia Reads, bringing free public libraries and literacy programs to thousands of Ethiopian children.” Meet this weeks CNN hero, here.