Just Us Books: Celebrating a 20-Year Legacy

July 28, 2008

Two decades ago, Wade and Cheryl Hudson searched for quality African-American children’s books to share with their kids. Frustrated by the lack of options, they made a bold decision: They would fill the gap themselves.

Their simple desire to give their children books that reflected their images and voices launched a 20-year legacy. Founded on the principle of cultural authenticity,  Just Us Books  has helped pave the way for the diversity in children’s books we see today. The black-owned, family-run publisher has sold millions of books and given many black illustrators and authors — including me — their start in the field. Here, the Hudsons, accomplished children’s book authors themselves, talk about the past, present and future of Just Us Books and diversity in the children’s book industry.

Kelly: What was the landscape of the children’s book industry when you founded Just Us Books?

Cheryl: Our work in the industry began around 1972 when Wade and I started collaborating on children’s book projects. At that time Jerry Pinkney, Tom Feelings and Leo and Diane Dillon had just begun to be recognized as talented children’s book illustrators. Virginia Hamilton,
Lucille Clifton, Walter Dean Myers and Eloise Greenfield had been published authors since the mid-sixties but books reflecting the life and culture of diverse African American were few and far between. There were very few published children’s book creators and their works were
pretty much standing alone in sea of what was known as the ‘all white world of children’s book publishing.’

Through the 70s, there were a handful of black editors who worked in the industry as a cadre of authors and illustrators gradually increased. John Steptoe did some of his most important work during this time and was recognized as a wonderkid of the field but it wasn’t until the early 80s that larger numbers of talented artists and writers emerged. Still by 1987, Wade and I knew it was time to do something about the limited numbers and kinds of books that were being published. That’s when we self-published the AFRO-BETS ABC Book and began our plans to establish Just Us Books.

Kelly: What challenges did African-American children’s book authors and illustrators face?

Wade: One of our biggest challenges was breaking the barriers – getting through the doors to present our work and to have it accepted for its authenticity. We had to respond to questions such as, “Is there really a need for an ABC books using only African-American imagery?” or responses from editors who believed it was very difficult to find talent writers and illustrators of color who could produce good stories. Traditional publishers were accustomed to publishing biographies of people such as George Washington Carver and Harriet Tubman and it was difficult to convince them to publish books about realistic, contemporary Black children and their day-to-day experiences.

Kelly: What inspired you to create your publishing company?

Cheryl: As parents we were always in search of books and learning materials for our children that reflected our culture and history as African Americans. In the late 70s, when our daughter Katura was born, there were a few great titles – Cornrows by Camille Yarbrough, Stevie by John Steptoe were some of her favorites. But these books were difficult, if not impossible to find in bookstores outside of special sales seasons like Black History Month and the holidays. By the time our son Stephan was born in 1982, Wade and I had developed a number of manuscripts for children’s books that celebrated Black culture. After our manuscripts were rejected by publisher after publisher, in 1987, we decided to publish the AFRO-BETS ABC Book ourselves.

Kelly: What response did you receive? from the public? from others in the industry?

Wade: The response was phenomenal. We received so many letters from parents and teachers who said that the book was exactly what they were looking for. Some of the most touching feedback came from children. We always knew that there was a tremendous need for books that Black children could relate to. But when we received letters written in crayon from 3- and 4-year old children who couldn’t wait to show us that they could write the alphabet, or share drawings they did of their favorite AFRO-BETS character, that really validated our belief and inspired us even more.

When we published our second title, the AFRO-BETS 1 2 3 Book a year later, in 1988, we launched along with it our own publishing company. I was a writer and marketing specialist, Cheryl worked as an art director for a textbook publisher, but we had no prior experience running a business. Launching our own publishing company really was a leap of faith, but we were confident in our mission and believed God was with us. So we withdrew all the money from our personal savings and set up shop in our home to start Just Us Books.

Kelly: As a small publisher entering the field, how did you build awareness about Just Us Books?

Wade: Most of Just Us Books’ early customers were Black parents, teachers, librarians, sorors, church leaders and other community members who saw our vision and shared our mission. Our earliest marketing was primarily done on a grassroots level. We exhibited at conferences, community events, book fairs. We sold directly to day care centers, parents, teachers. We also placed some ads in select trade publications and received favorable reviews in several media outlets, but Just Us Books gained most of its early exposure through word of mouth and community and industry events.

Kelly: How has the children’s book industry changed since your founding? What role has Just Us Books played in the increased diversity of children’s books offered?

Wade: The publishing industry and retail climate has changed since 1988. More Black-interest books for children are being published and sold, and it’s not as rare to find these books throughout the year and on the
bookstore shelves of major retailers across the nation. Large publishers now have imprints dedicated to Black-interest books.

What we think Just Us Books has helped to prove is that there is a viable market for children’s books that reflect Black culture and experiences, and that these are books that all children can enjoy and learn from.

Kelly: What strides still need to be made?

Wade: We’ve been in this industry for more than 20 years, and we’re proud of the tremendous work publishers, authors, illustrators, editors and other publishing professionals have done to increase the availability of
positive Black-interest children’s books. But we still need to be vigilant in our advocacy and work.

– We still need to ensure that what our young people are reading reflects the diversity of our experiences as a people – not just one aspect of our culture or reinforcements of racial stereotypes.

– We still have to push for Black-interest books to be included in our classroom curricula, both in majority Black schools and schools with more diverse populations.

Cheryl: – We need to see even more Black children’s books on shelves at major retailers, local bookstores, libraries, and homes – and make sure that these books get in the hands of young people.

– We also need to make sure that more of our books uplift our children-promote healthy self-esteem, offer them hope and positive role models.

Kelly: You’ve given many African-American children’s book authors and illustrators their start. What’s your advice for building a career in this field? What qualities do those with staying power possess?

Cheryl: As authors and illustrators, we all need to continue to support one another – to mentor aspiring children’s book creators and to create an open atmosphere for sharing our stories. Workshops, writing critiques, conferences and seminars are essential. Each individual must be serious about developing his or her craft. It takes personal perseverance but it also takes banding together and supporting our independent institutions such as Just Us Books, Third World Press, Africa World Press, Black Classic Press and also the retail and specialty outlets that sell our books. Those with staying power constantly work on their craft, connect with their audiences, and with each other.

Kelly: What is your dream for children’s books by black authors and illustrators?

Cheryl: We want all of our children’s spirits to soar with recognition, positive self-awareness and belief in their infinite possibilities and their power to become the embodiment of their dreams. Books by Black authors and illustrators should inspire children to want to read more and to know more about themselves.

Kelly: This year, you’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of Just Us Books. Congratulations! You’ve made incredible gains — winning your first Coretta Scott King Award (Coretta Scott King Honor Award for Illustration for The Secret Olivia Told Me, by N. Joy, illustrated by
Nancy Devard), launching a new imprint Marimba Books, signing veteran authors Omar Tyree and Evelyn Coleman, being chosen as honorees for the National Black Writers Conference hosted by Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, CUNY. When you look back at your two decades in this industry, what are you most proud of?

Wade: When we reflect on Just Us Books’ first 20 years, we don’t just celebrate our success as a company. We celebrate 20 years of Black children and all children reading, learning, growing, and affirming African-American heritage. We’re very proud of that.

Many people have told us that Just Us Books has become an institution. We humbly accept that honor, with thanks to God and tremendous gratitude for all the people who have supported us through the years.
Kelly: What can we look forward to next?

Wade: In fall 2008, Just Us Books will publish 12 Brown Boys, the children’s book debut by New York Times best-selling author Omar Tyree. 12 Brown Boys is a collection of short stories for middle readers. We think readers, particularly boys – the audience Omar is trying to reach – will really connect with the engaging characters and the diverse experiences of the boys in this book. Omar is a gifted writer and he’s created characters that are funny,
serious, edgy, street-wise, studious, and all unforgettable. Another title to look for in the fall 2008 titles is a special 20th anniversary edition of the AFRO-BETS A B C Book – the book that started it all. And rounding out our list are two new volumes in our Poetry from the Masters series.
Cheryl: And beyond Just Us Books’ fall list, we can look forward to more and more great children’s books that affirm our heritage and culture and make our children want to soar.

Artist to artist: Don Tate chats with Seven Miles to Freedom illustrator, Duane Smith

July 23, 2008

Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story

Written by Janet Halfmann

Illustrated by Duane Smith

Published by Lee & Low Books, 2008

After I read Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story (Lee & Low Books, 2008), I knew I wanted to talk it up here at the Brown Bookshelf. But then I decided to take it a step further. So interviewed the illustrator, Duane Smith. Here goes:

Don: Tell me about the book.

Duane: Seven Miles to Freedom is the story about Robert Smalls: an African-American slave turned soldier and steam-pilot who helps his family and friends escape from the south to the north on his steamboat.

Don: How did you come to be a part of this project?

Duane: I became apart of this project through an editor at Lee and Low Books, Momo Sanya, and my agent, Nicole, at Tugeau 2. Momo had a great wealth of information to share about the project and the history of Robert Smalls.

Don: What did you like most about the story/manuscript?

Duane: It was pretty much straight forward and well written. The author, Janet Halfmann, did a lot of research. As an Illustrator my job is to interpret the writer’s words. Each paragraph of the manuscript made me want to read more. The writing style is historical and captivating. It made me want to turn the page. Real edge of your seat reading with history, adventure and inspiration.

Don: What do you feel your art brings to the story?

Duane: Working on this story and illustrating it was a great honor. I usually paint pretty tight, but with this story, I wanted to go a bit more painterly. The
story is historical and most illustrations seen with historical picture books are tightly rendered. With this book I wanted to try something different and almost go the opposite direction we’re use to seeing. I wanted to describe the efforts of Robert Small using bold, colorful and board strokes. My goal was to bring a conceptual thought process to story.

Don: I can definitely relate. When I got into this business in the mid 90s, that was my thing, too. I wanted to be different. It seemed to me that African American children’s literature all looked the same — realistic portraiture. In fact, editors and agents at the time warned me to develop a realistic style if I wanted to get work. I’m glad that’s all changed. African American children’s literature styles now run the gamut. And I commend you for adding to the ever-growing diversity of styles.

Don: What kind of research went in to preparing for this project?

Duane: All of the of the literary research was done by Janet Halfmann. Being the illustrator most of my research was done through images from books based on that era, the pictorial archives at the New York Public Library, and some research was done online through the Library of Congress.

Don: What medium do you use, and can you detail your illustration process.

Duane: I usually use oil on watercolor paper. I really like the way it feels on the paper once the paper is sealed. I begin by covering the paper with gesso and then drawing my image. I seal it with matte meduim and begin painting with washes. building layer by layer.

Don: What were your favorite illustrated children’s books as a child?

Duane: I was really into the educational books like Encyclopedia Brown, books about pioneers and Abraham Lincoln. I remember getting those books when I was young. I was always flipping through the pages.

Don: Who are your modern-day illustration heroes?

Duane: Actually most of my heroes were my professors. They had a huge impact on my illustration style which in really cool. You start out wanting to paint like your mentor then you discover other artists on your own. I tend to really study old school painters and fine artists. Jerry Pinkney is a legend. James Ransome is a mentor and friend who’s taught me a lot. As well as Rudy Gutierrez and Steve Brodner. An array of very unique and classic styles. In which I’ve learned from all.

Don: What is on the horizon for you?

Duane: I would really like to illustrate more books and paint a few more murals. I enjoy teaching young people. I also enjoy graphic design. I like to pass on to others what’s been passed on to me.

Don: Now for an off-the-wall question. While painting in your studio, what do you like to snack on?

Duane: I really like sour cream cheddar potatoe chips with the ruffles and a coke with ice. That makes my day.

Don: All that an and iPod, too! Yes, I agree, that sounds good. Thanks for your time.
See what other’s are saying about Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story:

–A fuse # 8 production


Real Talk With Independent Bookstores – July 23

July 22, 2008

A few years ago, the lingo “indie bookstore” would have gone right over my head.

As an avid reader, all I knew was I liked books and I’d get them anywhere I could – my local library or the nearest bookstore. But as an author, I realized that the business of writing was much more complicated and that my livelihood depended as much on who was distributing my books as my ability to produce an entertaining tale.

Independent bookstores are a struggling breed. In the age of Amazon, they may as well be a dying breed.  They close down just as quickly as they pop up. When Karibu Books, my local indie, closed earlier this year I was shocked.  This was a store with five locations throughout Maryland and Virginia.  They seemed to be thriving.  Certainly, the location nearest me kept a steady stream of customers whenever I was there.

However, they were down the block from a Barnes & Noble, which was twenty times its size with a never ending selection of books to Karibu’s very selective African American-related inventory.

The questions I’ve asked myself are – did Karibu do enough to distinguish itself from chain stores? Did they court readers and truly offer a level of service and product that a corporate chain cannot? In this age of business-first, were they so busy trying to survive that they failed to hone in on the one aspect of survivial that could have made the difference – interaction with authors and their customers?

I don’t know the answer to those questions.  But our guests for the Brown Bookshelf summer series, Indie & The Author, might.

Jenn Laughren, a representative from Books Inc. and a catalyst behind its popular teen book club Not Your Mother’s Book Club. Books Inc. is the West’s oldest independent bookstore and has eleven locations.

Jaz Vincent, owner of RealEyes Bookstore, based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

They’ll be chatting Wednesday, July 23 from 9 p.m. – 10 p.m. eastern on the Brown Bookshelf forum about how indie bookstores can work with authors and their local community to ensure their survival.

If you’re interested in learning the best ways to support your local indie as an author, librarian, teacher or simply a lover of books, drop in ask a few questions, make a few suggestions or just listen in to what Jaz and Jenn have to say about literary life among the big whales of industry.

Book report: Donavan’s Double Trouble

July 16, 2008

Donavan’s Double Trouble

Written by Monalisa DeGross

Illustrated by Amy Bates

Published by HarperCollins, 2008

Donavan’s friends say he has a math block. They say no matter what he does or how hard he tries, he won’t understand until he has some sort of a math breakthrough. Donavan knows his friends are right, but he is annoyed they’re talking about his problems.

Math isn’t Donavan’s only problem. His favorite uncle, Victor Carter, has returned from war, not the same as when he left. He’s in a wheelchair, having lost both his legs when his tank got blown up.

Before heading off to war with his National Guard unit, Uncle Vic had been a firefighter. And quite the basketball player, too. He balled like he belonged in the NFL. He’d also been quite a dancer, having taught Donavan and his little sister, Nikki, to dance the cabbage patch. Donavan isn’t sure how to react to his uncle’s disability, and the thought of artificial legs freak him out.

When Donnavan’s family suggests that Uncle Vic participate in his school’s
Heritage Month program, Donavan finds himself at odds with the idea. He’s uncomfortable at the thought of his uncle visiting his school. He doesn’t want his friends asking embarrassing questions. Might his friends feel sad
for Uncle Vic? Might they be disappointed? Might they stare? Donavan doesn’t want to take chances, so when his grandma gives him a note, to give to his principle, asking if Uncle Vic could display his carvings during Heritage Month, Donavan conveniently kept the note to himself.

One afternoon when Donavan visits his uncle, he finds him sprawled out on the floor, having fallen out of his wheel chair. Alone with no one else to help, Donavan is forced to face his fear of his uncle’s disability. “I’ve got to do it,” he thought.

Uncle and nephew begin to spend more time together, and they talk. And what Donavan discovers is that he isn’t the only person feeling uncomfortable about Uncle Vic’s disability: Uncle Vic is too.

In the end, both learn to overcome their fears and difficult problems by making a plan and facing problems head on.

DeGross’s portrayal of a child dealing with feelings toward a disabled relative
was convincing and real. As I read the chapter where Donavan found his uncle
lying on the floor I imagined myself in his same situation. In that scene, Donavan had to untangle Uncle Vic’s artificial legs, and then detach them from metal cups that held them to the stump of his leg.

I’m an adult, and that would creep me out.

I liked that the author also gave readers insight into Uncle Vic’s feelings of insecurity in dealing with his disability.

Donavan’s Double Trouble is Monalisa DeGross’s follow-up to Donavan’s Word Jar.


What others are saying:

Washington Post

Bookpage Children’s Review

Ms. Deb’s Youth Fiction

Are you a librarian? Or other interested party in support of African American children’s literature? I’ll send you a free copy of Donavan’s Double Trouble. Send me an email or post a comment here. And come the end of the week, I’ll select a couple folk.


A new series for African American girls

July 10, 2008

Sorry I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had time to make a post. But I did want to pop in and share an article that ran in the Kansas City Star earlier this week. It’s about a new series of books, for young African American girls, written by Derrick Barnes. Ruby and the Booker Boys is one book in 11, published by Scholastic. My neices are going to love this!

I’ll be back soon, with lots more books to share.


Middle Grade Book Review: Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It

July 4, 2008

nullAuthor Sundee T. Frazier’s debut novel Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything In It is the tale of a bi-racial boy in search of answers.  Brendan is a 10 year old scientist who has questions about everything in his universe.  Thanks to his science teacher Mr. Harrison, Brendan has learned the scientific method and seeks to apply it to a family situation that he stumbles upon one day at the mall with his grandmother Gladys.

A precocious 10 year old, Brendan is happy that summer vacation has arrived and plans to use the remaining seventy-nine days of his vacation to the fullest.  He has big plans to celebrate his eleventh birthday, advance to the next level in Tae Kwon Do, explore his universe, begin a rock collection, and engage in mischief with best friend Khalfani.

Still grieving the recent death of his grandfather, Brendan only knows one other grandparent, Gladys.  Before Brendan was born, his Caucasian mother was shunned by her father for marrying an African American.  Brendan’s mother Katherine has remained very vague about her family and has no ties to either of them.  Until recently, Brendan accepted that aspect of his family.

Meeting his mother’s father by accident due to a shared bond over rocks and minerals causes Brendan’s curiosity to go beyond exploring answers to questions like, “Do boys fart more than girls?” to seeking truths about people with questions like, ” Why are white people so mean to Black people?”  In his Book of Questions, Brandon conducts research to the questions that enter his mind and then works hard to find the answers.

The strengths of this book is that it takes a look at being bi-racial, as a child, within a family that didn’t totally embrace an interracial marriage.  Last month, I read and reviewed Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet by Sherri L. Smith which also features the story of a bi-racial child who was born to an African American mother and Chinese father.  Frazier’s story of Brendan Buckley shows what happens when one side of the family doesn’t embrace the basic element of family — love no matter what the race of the two people who are joining the families together — and how that can damage the family structure.

The story of Brendan Buckley shines because it is more than just a story of a boy coming to grips with who he is and how two cultures and racial identities play a part into his overall identity.  Frazier’s use of the scientific method, Brendan’s fascination with rocks and minerals are layered in to show other meanings of family and love.  Add to that the principles that Brendan has learned through Tae Kwon Do classes and Frazier’s story teaches the reader through Brendan’s eyes about understanding race, understanding family, and ultimately, understanding life.

Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It is not just a story for boys, bi-racial kids, rock and mineral enthusiasts, it’s a story for those who are curious about the world around them and want to seek to understand it better.  Grab a copy and soak up what Brendan is curious about.  I learned a lot about dust, rocks, minerals, and family.