Bookshelf roundup

November 24, 2008

Too often we complain about the shortage of books by and about African Americans. But folks, there’s much to celebrate, too! Here are a few of the wonderful books I’ve read recently:

c_1416917527Joseph (McElderry Books) by Shelia P. Moses (ages 12 and up)
Life is hard for 15-year-old Joseph Flood. His mother is no good. You know the type — ghetto, loud-trash-talkin’ a mile a minute about nothing. Top it off, she’s a crack addict who isn’t the least bit interested in rehab, or self dignity for that matter. Joseph is embarrassed by his mother and their living conditions. They live in a homeless shelter. Joseph’s father is responsible. He’s a good man. But he’s off fighting in the war in Iraq.

When Joseph is enrolled in a new school, a good school on the other side of town, he is forced to keep his life a secret.

But Joseph is a survivor, determined to do the right thing, in spite of his mother’s trifling ways. I especially liked that the author chose to make Joseph’s father the hero in this story.

mainHoward Thurman’s Great Hope (Lee & Low Books), by Kai Jackson Issa, illustrated by Arthur L. Dawson. (grades 3 – 4)

I saw my 7-year-old son in young Howard Thurman. My son is smart, a hard worker, an all “A” student. This is the kind of story I want him to read because it demonstrates how hard work and education can can pay off.

Born in segregated Daytona, Florida, in 1899, Howard Thurman grew up dreaming of a better life.

Through hard work and perseverance, Howard earned a full scholarship to attend the Florida Baptist Academy. But the opportunity was almost lost when he didn’t have enough money to ride the train to get to the school. That’s when a stranger out of nowhere stepped in and gave him the money. He went on to graduate first in his class.

Later, he attended Morehouse College and Rochester Theological Seminary, and ultimately became one of America’s greatest preachers and spiritual leaders.

Arthur L. Dawson, a self-taught artist, is new on the scene of children’s literature, although he is an established fine artist.

main-1The Last Black King of the Kentucky Derby (Lee & Low Books), by Crystal Hubbard, illustrated by Robert McGuire (grades 3 – 4)

Jimmy Winkfield was born in 1880s Kentucky, to a sharecropping family. And, boy, did he love horses! Loved them so much, he grew up racing them and carved out a legacy for himself as one of history’s finest horsemen, and the last African American to ever win the Kentucky Derby.

morebooknewscoverMarch On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed The World (Scholastic Press), by Christine King Farris, illustrated by London Ladd.

On a hot August day in 1963, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Washington D.C. to witness Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his I have A Dream speech. From the sister of Dr. King, comes a stirring account of what the day was like for her.

Look for an interview of artist London Ladd soon, here on the Brown Bookshelf.

49039608e9e62Guardian (Amistad), by Julius Lester (ages 14 and up). I read an advanced copy of this book earlier this year, but never had the time to write up a review. This book captivated me from page one, and is probably the best book I’ve read since . . . well, probably since I first fell in love with Richard Wright‘s work more than 20 years ago. Yes, Julius Lester belongs in that category; this author’s talent blows me away.

The Guardian is powerful, but condensed. It’s like a stick of dynamite stuffed inside a firecracker (the book is very short, my advanced copy was 129 pages). It tells a story from the point of view of a white teenager, living at a dangerous and dark time in American history — a time when Black folk were hanged for nothing more than being Black. Small southern town, 1946, a lynching. Get the idea?

14-year-olds Ansel and Willie are best friends and almost like brothers. Only Ansel is White and Willie is Black. Ansel is being trained to take over his father’s business, a small grocery store. Willie works for Ansel’s family at their store.

Late one night, a preacher’s daughter is raped and killed by a young white man — a rival of Ansel’s, a kid from one of the richest families in town, notorious as a trouble maker. And he blames Willie’s father for the rape. Who they gonna believe, the rich white kid whose family owns much of the town, or the Black guy?

Ansel and his father know the truth and must make a decision, a decision that results in the lynching of an innocent man, the loss of a friendship, and the destruction of a family.

The story is gut-wrenching, and you won’t be able to put this book down.

main-2No Mush Today (Lee & Low Books), written by Sally Derby, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell (grades 2- 3)

This charming story made me smile. It’s a day-in-the life story of Nonie, a young African American girl who’s had enough — no more bawlin’ baby brother, and especially no more mush! So she took off to spend the day with her grandma.

I enjoyed the story sure enough, but I especially loved Tadgell’s art. Her soft lines are expressive, her watercolors are crisp, her color scheme is dreamy! And her characters are real — they look like people you know.

djcompwebThe Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones (Front Street) by Helen Hemphill (ages 10+)

This was such a fun read; I can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s Black history, adventure and great storytelling all balled up in one adventurous chapter after another. Black teenage cowboys, Indians, buffalo stampedes, cattle drives and the wild, wild west! If that won’t interest a middle school boy then tell me what will.

Here are a few other books to look for:

Pemba’s Song: A Ghost Story (Scholastic Press), by Marilyn Nelson and Tonya C. Hegamin (ages 12 10 18)

Amiri & Odette: A Love Story (Scholastic Press), by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe (ages: young adult) Beautiful! Beautiful! Beautiful! Read it, frame it! The illustrations are rich and textured. A picture book for young adults.

main-3Bird by Zetta Elliott and Shadra Strickland. The paring of this author and artist was brilliant! This book is my prediction for a 2009 CSK nod.

— Don

We Want Options, Too

November 21, 2008

film-reel-2Today is an exciting day for author Stephanie Meyer and fans of her Twilight series.  If the words Twilight and Stephanie Meyer don’t ring a bell with you, you’ve either been living under a rock or on another planet.  Readers, young and older, are caught up in the relationship of Edward and Bella.

As an author, I freely admit that I dream of the day my books will become movies.  I think this is something a lot of authors envision as they sit writing their books.  I will go so far as to admit that when I wrote my first book, Freshman Focus in 2003, I visualized the cast and imagined that we would have movie premieres in Los Angeles, New York, Charlotte, and Cleveland, Ohio.

I can only imagine the excitement that an author feels when they are advised that his or her book is being optioned to become a movie in addition to the excitement that the author’s readers feel knowing that a book they read is going to become a movie.  This year alone we saw young adult titles Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 by Ann Brashares hit the big screen.

A few weeks ago, I walked into Borders and was inundated with copies of Twilight, the soundtrack, and other merchandise on hand to promote the movie’s release.  And it hit me, this should be happening to more young adult authors, especially those written by African American authors.

There are so many books written by African American authors that could be optioned into a big screen movie with its very own movie premiere, soundtrack, and all of the other accoutrements that come with a movie debut.  If it’s not possible to do a big screen movie, many books could become movies debuting on Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, or ABC Family similar to the success of the Degrassi, High School Musical and Cheetah Girls franchises.

I wish we still had After School Specials because many books could fill that niche as well.

But instead of ranting on the lack of, I am going to suggest the top five young adult books written by African American authors that I would love to see become a movie, mini-series, or TV show in the next ten years.  To be fair, this list excludes the books written by the Brown Bookshelf committee.  It goes without saying that our books are ready to become movies post haste.

Will Smith, if you’re out there, instead of the Karate Kid, here are some books that could use Overbrook Entertainment’s touch.

It goes without question that it was difficult to narrow my list down to five choices, but these five reflect a wide diversity of the books currently available for African American young adults.

Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper:  Go into almost any school across the country and mention this book and you will see hands shoot up in the air that they read the book and loved it.  This book is a teacher’s saving grace with reluctant and avid readers alike.  I first heard of the book ten years ago and its popularity has not lessened.  This book is overdue to become a movie.


Tyrell by Coe Booth:  I read Tyrell earlier this year and it made such an impression on me.  Tyrell’s story is captivating, offers such an honest look at male adolescence.  Coe Booth’s ability to capture the male point of view is very impressive and I would love to see this story captured on film.


Like Sisters on the Homefront by Rita Williams Garcia:  This is another book that I read ten years ago that has stayed with me as a book I believe young adults should read.  What starts out as a story about teenage pregnancy becomes a story about the importance of knowing our family members and how the lessons our elders teach us have meaning in our lives.lsohf

It Chicks by Tia Williams:  This was a fun read for me, a bit racy in parts, but I think the story merits being told.  Dealing with the complexities of being at a performing arts school set in New York (for my age cohort, think Fame with Debbie Allen), new friendships, and the age old boy/girl relationship dynamics and Tia Williams’ It Chicks would translate very well in movie form and can be followed by her sequel 16 Candles.


Simply Divine by Jacquelin Thomas:  With the success of movies by Tyler Perry, TD Jakes, and other films that revolve around a religious theme, it is time to give young adults a spiritual movie outlet as well.  I really enjoyed reading Simply Divine and since it is a series, this could be developed in several different ways.  I enjoyed the faith in fiction element and I am sure many young adults will enjoy meeting Divine, her parents, and her Georgia family.


So there you have it, my top five choices for books to be optioned into a film version of itself.  Now, it’s your turn to sound off on what books you would like to see on the big screen.

Say it’s so, Joe

November 7, 2008

According to Publisher’s Weekly Children’s Bookshelf, Politics and Prose, an independent bookstore in Washington, DC, has opened a new section for older teens.

 “We needed a separate physical space with more sophisticated titles for our high school readers,” says bookseller Heidi Powell, who has been actively working on creating a special section for older teens, ages 15-18. She’s also been rebranding the store’s children’s booksellers as children and teen booksellers.

Yay!!!!!! Whenever anyone focuses on teen readers and thus YA literature, I feel like I’ve won a lottery…except without that whole winning a lot of money thing.

The article goes on to say that the section was conceived to help prevent older teens from bypassing the young readers section for the adult section, located upstairs.

I’ve long felt there needs to be some re-jiggering of YA and how it’s classified and shelved. I’ve gone as far as advocating that YA become a sub-set of adult fiction versus children’s fiction.

No idea what implications that would have on the industry, but I’m curious.

As savvy and well-read as some teens are, they still don’t necessarily want to look in the “children’s” section for their books.

While most bookstores have their YA section right before the children’s section, I’d love to see someone be a complete rebel and place their YA section away from the children’s section and put it beside, say adult gen fic.

I don’t mean simply move a shelf of books with YA near the adult section. But create a real section that appeals to teens, so it’s obvious it’s for them. A few comfy chairs, maybe, brightly colored, a small flat screen that shows book trailers, maybe?

That way younger tween readers would have something visual to look forward to – the wonder of being able to finally buy books from that section- and teen readers would feel like their area is actually more “adult” than young…but you know, their version of adult.

Maybe one day.

I applaud Politics and Prose for creating the new section. As the hand wringing begins about how the economy will impact holiday sales, and the usual non chalance prevails regarding teen reading – I mean what teen wants a book versus something nice, shiny and electronic for the holidays? *natch* It’s nice to hear the book sellers are still actively seeking the teen dollar and doing whatever they feel they can to keep them reading the books made especially for them.

The Audacity to Hope…for respect

November 6, 2008

I was pleasantly surprised when I woke up and saw this headline on Yahoo: Writer’s Welcome A Literary President- Elect.  What?

Writers getting some sort of national mention?

Are we in some sort of bizarro world now that the elections are over?

We very well may be.

Writing is the ugly step child of the cultural and entertainment field (my opinion, of course) and to have it mentioned on a national level outside of the discussion of education is rare.

So if this is a bizarro world, I like it.

See, I’d forgotten this somehow, but our new President Elect is himself a writer and quite the eloquent wordsmith, I might add. Until reading this article, I’d never thought much about how important the nation’s leader is when it comes to how certain cultural and entertainment forms are viewed.

Bush has an ivy-league education but that doesn’t automatically make him a lover of the written word. He is, in fact a baseball man.  It’s his right to have his passion. But when you’re the head dude in charge, your passion for one form of entertainment and culture may inadvertently push other forms out of the picture.

Obama being a writer could mean great things for writers and readers, alike.

Imagine reading becoming more of a “wanna do” activity and less of a “gotta do.”

Although the ability to read remains something to check off on a list of “what our students must do to be prepared for the real world,” the way we’re preparing them is actually killing the joy of reading. On top of that, there’s more focus on preparation for standardized testing than reading for pleasure and public libraries cutting back on hours. The message is – you must learn to read, but reading for the pure joy…meh, do it or don’t, no matter.

The prospect of the tone toward reading changing is exciting. If there’s a national tone change, it’s not unlikely we’ll see a domino effect resulting in the publishing industry being more adventurous and significantly broadening the portrayals offered. Imagine a flood of books in all genres featuring characters of all races, cultural/religious backgrounds, sexual preference etc…ranging from the most complex to the most friendly to reluctant readers.

It’s a beautiful thought and is only one publisher discovery away from reality.

Correct, me if I’m wrong, but this will be the first President who comes into the White House as a writer vs. writing once he’s there. And I’m hoping his being a writer will eventually impact policy in a way that will benefit writers and readers.

Author Rick Moody says it best:

“But I think the larger issue is cultural. There’s a trickle down from the top in the way art exists inside and outside of the culture as a whole. Here in the USA, you could feel in the Bush years how little regard there was for it. People who disliked art, literature, dance, fine arts, they had a lot of cover for this antipathy. There’s reason to believe that we are in for a much better period.”

Okay, here’s hoping!

President-Elect Barack Obama

November 5, 2008


One reason why I love children’s books is their power to move, affirm, delight and inspire. It amazes me the scope of emotions and topics they cover. When I needed help explaining to my daughter what voting and election day were all about, they were there.

I turned to books like If I Ran for President by Catherine Stier and illustrated by Lynne Avril and Grace for President by Kelly DiPucchio and illustrated by LeUyen Pham. My daughter could see herself in the picture of the brown-skinned Grace who decides she wants to run for president one day after hearing there has never been a woman U.S. president. She could see her baby brother in the face of the boy on the cover of If I Ran For President. In those images, she saw an America of possibility, a place where any child can aspire to hold the highest office in the land.

Yesterday, we had an election night party. We let our daughter vote on her favorite colors, snacks, TV shows and activities. We sang My Country Tis of Thee and America the Beautiful. We talked about the American flag and what freedom and justice mean.

Before Sen. Obama became President-Elect Obama, my 4-year-old asked me to write down her request of him should he win.

Dear Mr. Obama:

Please give the children food and drink, play time, a place to be safe and love. Thank you.

She fell asleep before the results were announced — and Barack Obama strode into history as the first African-American president-elect. But to see her laying on the couch clutching her Obama doll, with an American flag pinwheel and her red, white and blue bear by her side touched me more than words can say. 

I’m so full today that I struggle to explain the enormity of this moment.  The road has been so long and pocked with sorrow and sacrifice that I don’t know where to start. But there’s been hope and promise on this journey too, that sustained us like the enduring faith and soaring Negro spirituals that let our ancestors know that liberty was on the way. President-Elect Barack Obama is the face of hope, change, freedom and much more.

I’m blessed that I don’t have to struggle to find the words to explain Barack Obama’s amazing journey. Children’s book authors are there for me again. Here are two books that explore the incredible life of President-Elect Barack Obama:

Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope is a beautiful picture book collaboration of award-winning author Nikki Grimes and award-winning illustrator Bryan Collier.

Here are some reviews:

 “One day Hope stopped by for a visit,” begins this biography, narrowly framed as an exchange between an African-American mother and her son. They sit together on a “frayed” sofa in a “tenement” as she tells him who “Braco-what?” is and why he is so special; at the end she blinks back tears when he tells her that he, too, wants to be president when he grows up. (Hope later talks to Barack Obama, as does God.) Grimes (Bronx Masquerade) approaches her themes with a heavy hand, starting with her treatment of race as she describes “his mama, white as whipped cream,/ his daddy, black as ink” (she gets at awe similarly: “Barry’s mom married/ a man named Lolo/ and-Oh! The wonderland/ he took Barry to: Indonesia”). Collier uses watercolor and collage, a choice he explains as a metaphor for the way Obama has “piece[d] life’s issues together to create a courageous vision for the world.” There is much to find in each composition (artfully placed photo images, batik patterns, etc.), but the illustrations often feel static and a few (like the one in which a single tear streams momentously down Obama’s cheek), stagy. Ages 5-10.”

— Publisher’s Weekly

“When David wonders why all those people on TV are shouting one man’s name, his mother tells him Barack Obama’s story. Accompanied by Collier’s trademark, powerful collages, Grimes’s storytelling voice, heavily tinged with the gospel rhythms of the black church, relates the particulars of Obama’s youth, from his childhood in Hawaii and yearning for his estranged father, to his days as a community activist in Illinois, in the Senate and, most briefly, his presidential campaign. David’s questions and his mother’s responses punctuate each double-page spread, never letting readers forget the story’s frame. It’s a contrivance that works, perhaps because it’s so obviously informed by the author’s own passion, described in a concluding note. Based primarily on Obama’s Dreams from My Father (2004) as well as other sources, this work stands on shaky nonfiction ground, as Grimes admits to taking artistic license; most troubling are unsourced quotations within the text. Still, of the three candidates’ picture-book biographies out this season, this stands as the one most likely to communicate to children on a visceral level. (author’s, illustrator’s notes, resources, timeline, family tree) (Picture book/biography. 5-10)”

— Kirkus

For older readers, Garen Thomas has written a wonderful biography of Barack Obama called Yes We Can. Check out the reviews below: 

“Readers in search of insight to this political icon’s personal history will not be disappointed. From his personal trials and tribulations regarding identity issues of race and home to his struggles accepting his absentee father and his successes and setbacks in the academic and political arenas, Thomas recounts Obama’s life story in compelling detail. Although he has seen his share of disappointments and tragedies, Obama’s commitment to the importance of family and the need for change in America shines brilliantly. First identifying in kindergarten his desire to become president, this biography reveals exactly how far Obama has come, how hard he has worked to earn the Democratic nomination, and how close he is to accomplishing his dream. Thomas demonstrates an extensive knowledge of Obama’s personal and political lives. The biography is at once entertaining and informative, with a healthy mix of personal anecdotes and political and social discussions. Although it broaches topics such as racism, apartheid, poverty, and the politics of America, it does so in a fair and balanced way. The book is peppered with thought-provoking quotes from an array of Obama’s speeches, photographs from his childhood to the present, and text-box insets that provide additional information on subjects with which readers may not be familiar, such as superdelegates and campaign fundraisers. Written in narrative form, it is a quick, engaging read that with a bit of encouragement will appeal to a wide range of readers.”

— Voya

“Gr. 5-9. Thomas describes Obama as a “new leader who seems to be granting Americans a renewed license to dream,” and maintains an admiring tone throughout. She opens with a look at his Kenyan father and American mother and covers Obama’s childhood, education, and early influences. The author also relates his efforts as an adult to learn about his father and his African heritage and to find his place in America. The last chapters chronicle Obama’s rapid political ascent and his early victories in the Democratic primary, briefly mentioning some campaign controversies, such as his relationship with outspoken minister Jeremiah Wright. Each section of the book opens with a quote from Obama, and the text is supplemented with black-and-white photos of the senator and his family and friends. Although Thomas does not document her sources, an author’s note explains that she draws both from Obama’s own memoirs and other published and interview sources. While there is little here that has not been widely reported in the media or adult titles, Thomas’s clear prose will help students learn more about the first African American to gain a major party nomination for the presidency.”

— School Library Journal

Houston, We have a problem!

November 3, 2008

As you know, the window is now closed for 28 Days Later submissions.  And being the good little Brown Bookshelf member that I am, I’m getting a jump on my research.

One of the things we do, beyond accepting public submissions, is stay abreast of what’s out there so we can add names to the list ourselves, as well.  So I thought I’d stroll a few sites and see if I was missing anything in the way of YA for Af-Am teens.

I go to Barnes & Noble and key in “African American young adult” in the search box.  It sends me 400 results.

Why? Why on earth was #11 on the list Afterburn by Zane?  #14 was Hood: An Urban Erotic Tale and #18 Thong on Fire?

What in the world?!  I’m wondering if I should bother reading the rest of the list.

As much as it baffles me, it also reinforces why the Brown Bookshelf does what it does.

I’m no techie, so I’m not clear how B&N’s search wizards cull their results. Perhaps the word “African American” is what threw it off or maybe the word “adult.”  But the fact that most of the first 10 books on there were indeed YA books tells me that the search engine sort of knew what I was talking about.

Rather than be discouraged, I’d like to think that in another two years I could conduct the same search and actually get the first 50 books to be ALL African American young adult books.  It can happen, with the help of our dedicated readers and gate keepers interested in passing along age-appropriate reads, of course.

If you’d like to see actual YA books appear on a search for young adult books, pass the Brown Bookshelf link on to five librarians, teachers or parents that you know.

One step at a time. That’s what I keep telling myself. One step at a time.