African-American Children’s Book Project

January 29, 2009
vanesseI first met Vanesse J. Lloyd-Sgambati at BookExpo America. She congratulated me on the debut of One Million Men and Me and said she’d be in touch about having me sign at her book fair, The African American Children’s Book Fair in Philadelphia. I was thrilled, but had no idea about the event’s important history and what it would mean to participate.  Then, I got there.

As soon as the door opened, a stream of adults and children rushed inside. Outside, a line snaked for more than a block.  They were parents, students, teachers, librarians, community leaders, hard-working every-day folks. And they were all there to celebrate — and purchase — books by African-American children’s book authors and illustrators. It was inspiring and beautiful to see.

Over the past few years, stories about the closures of black-owned bookstores have become all too common. Schools and libraries struggle to cope with budget cuts. That may mean fewer kids of color get the chance to see the many wonderful books reflecting their images and voices. But in Philadelphia, the African-American children’s book reigns on one special day.

This year, on Feb. 7, Vanesse celebrates the 17th annual African-American Children’s Book Fair. It’s one of the nation’s oldest and largest single-day events for African American children’s books. (Details including time, location and featured authors and illustrators below.)

Here, Vanesse talks about African-American children’s books, her book fair and vision for the future:

What was your childhood experience with books? How did your interest in children’s literature grow?

As a child growing up in Elmwood, a section of Philadelphia, PA, we didn’t have a library or a bookstore. However, every week the city would send a bookmobile to my community. I looked forward to this experience because even as a child I understood that a book opened up a world of opportunities. I didn’t pick out the usual books of my peers (fiction), but sought out those that told stories about cities beyond my horizon.

I remembered taking out a photo/text book on Moscow, Russia. The kids in my community made fun of my choice. My dad who was a voracious reader said, “Never mind, keep reading.” A few years ago, I was in Moscow in Red Square and knew every inch of that historical land marker. I knew it not because it was taught to me in school, but I had read a book.

Why did you start your African-American Children’s Book Festival?

As a publicist for adult books, I saw heavy traffic of authors visiting my community, but the children’s publishing industry seemed to have forgotten Philadelphia. I was working on a project for a local department store and they requested a black history event. So I started calling around and Marie Brown, a well-known literary agent, was very helpful in guiding me in those early years to find authors/illustrators who would be willing to make the trip to Philadelphia. When I started the festival, my family was my rock.  They supported my core volunteer outlet and made sure these ran smoothly

What was the industry like then?

I couldn’t get the stars of the industry, but I still had a lot to choose from. Being a novice, I was looking for quality, not just a name. Seventeen years later that mission continues.

Sadly many of the author/illustrators, only about 25%, are still being published. But that 25% represents some of the current stars of the current children’s book industry. Tonya Bolden, E.B. Lewis, Deborah Gregory, and R. Gregory Christie are a few of those who continue to stay on my roster for their outstanding work.

What changes have you seen over the years? in content? exposure?

One of the most significant changes, for me, has been the evolution of children’s book illustration….this is the age of the beautiful book. The artwork stands the test of time…the writing was and is still powerfull. But the books coming from illustrators today are classics that will surely ended up in a museum. I’m working on a tour to travel around the country that will spotlight the illustrator and his book. When you look at E.B. Lewis, Colin Bootman, Cozbi Cabrera, R. Gregory Christie, Sean Qualls, Christopher Myers, Kadir Nelson, Bryan Collier, Floyd Cooper, Eric Velasquez, Nancy Devard, Shadra Strickland’s book illustrations, you are looking at masterpieces.

Please tell us about your African American Children’s Book Project.

The African American Children’s Book Project serves to promote and preserve African American children’s literature. My long-range goal is to have a children’s book museum. But for now, I’m just happy to use the skills that I have crafted to lead a number of best-selling adult authors to promote children’s literature. The book project develops book tours, creates promotional events, serves as consultant to publishers/authors and corporate entities who are interested in literacy.

How has your festival grown?

The Book Fair started out on a cold frosty day at John Wanamaker Department Store with 250 attendees. Last year over 4,000 people attended the event at Community College of Philadelphia. The book fair is one of the nation’s oldest and largest single day events for African American children’s books.

What response do you get from people who attend your annual event? from children? from adults? What do you hope they take away from the experience?

The numbers speak for themselves. It is an annual event that the media loves and is marked on the calendar of folks around the region. I want children to appreciate our rich history. I want them to love to read. I want parents to go back to creating their own home libraries. In my generation every home had a book shelf….with books.

As a literary publicist, what are the challenges to getting exposure for your clients?

There is no marketing budget for literary talent, so I have to be creative in getting clients on the airwaves and in print. Knowing the media and how it functions is crucial. Know the FORMAT of the media. Understanding this will enable my clients to get airtime.

What can African-American children’s book authors do to get on the public radar? How can they increase their chances of making it onto library and bookstore shelves and staying in parents’ minds?

Quality should be the mantra of every author/illustrator. In adult books you can slip….a little…but everything has to be perfect in the children’s book world. Text, illustratrations, quality of paper….don’t take anything for granted.

Look within your immediate community to promote yourself….social, civic and religious organizations are always looking to do book events. But you’ve got to make sure that your books are getting into the hands of the consumer.

Ask questions…How many books sold at previous events? Is it possible to have the organizations pre-purchase books? You don’t have stand on the street to sell your book, but use your network to create book selling opportunities..

What is your dream for children’s books by black authors and illustrators? Please share your vision with us.

My mantra is PRESERVE A LEGACY, BUY A BOOK. Every time a book is sold that means a story is told. Telling those stories enables the African American book industry to grow. This growth will mean that our legacy, our history is preserve.

Please tell us about this year’s African-American Children’s Book Fair.

NBC 10, our title sponsor, will host the Reading Room. They will giveaway over 600 brand-new books of the guest authors and illustrators who attend the event. This donation offers children who attend the opportunity to own a brand-new book, but also to get their book personalized by the author/illustrator.

Our Educator’s book give-away, sponsored by URBAN GENESIS, PECO, The Philadelphia Daily News and THE LITERARY, offers brand-new books of guest authors and illustrators to teachers and librarians. Thousands of children will not only get a chance to read these books, but educators/librarians will be able to share the story behind the story from their encounters with the author and illustrators.

Thank you for your important work. We wish you continued success.

 17th Annual African American Children’s Book Fair

Saturday, February 7, 2009, 1-3 p.m.

Community College of Philadelphia (Gymnasium)

17th Spring Garden Street

Free and open to the public

For more information, please call 215-878-BOOK

Guest authors and illustrators include:

Tonya Bolden

Cozbi A. Cabrera

R. Gregory Christie

Bryan Collier

Zetta Elliott

Kristina Evans

Laura Freeman

Glenn Garrett

Lorraine Dowdy Gordon

Deborah Gregory

Tonya Cherie Hegamin

Cheryl Willis Hudson

Wade Hudson

G. Lawrence

E.B. Lewis

Lori Nelson

Charisse Carney Nunes

Charles Smith, Jr.  

Shadra Strickland

Omar Tyree

Carole Boston Weatherford

Allison Whittenberg


Shadra Strickland wins the John Steptoe Award for New Talent

January 27, 2009

cimg5587large2Yesterday, The American Library Association announced the 2009 Youth Media Award winners. There was much to be excited about, so much to celebrate. But I was most thrilled with the recipient of the John Steptoe Award, given by the Coretta Scott King Task Force. This award is given to affirm African American writers and illustrators new on the horizon, up-and-coming talent that may otherwise go unacknowledged within a given year.

So often, in my opinion, because The African-American community is so small in relation to the larger publishing community, there are no surprises with the CSK’s. But The John Steptoe Award offers a surprise and introduces fresh new talent. It shines a light on a new author or illustrator and promises opportunities for the next generation.

That’s why I’m so excited about Shadra Strickland. She is the 2009 John Steptoe Award winner for New Talent, for the book Bird, written by Zetta Elliott (Lee & Low Books). Shadra has masterfully crafted line and watercolor to produce an emotion-packed book. One of my favorite scenes is of young Mehkai, better known as Bird, as he imagines playing a saxophone, while jazz great Charlie Parker blows a tune.

I’m honored to present Shadra Strickland…

Don: How did you learn the news of your Coretta Scott King, John Steptoe award?

Shadra: I got “the call” this morning [Jan. 26] at 8 AM. Robin Smith and the rest of the committee gave a warm CONGRATULATIONS and apology for waking me so early…not that I minded AT ALL.

Don: How does it feel to win the John Steptoe New Voices Award?

Shadra: I felt I had already “won” when I was asked to work on this very special book. Winning the John Steptoe Award is icing on the cake. To be the first woman awarded it are the sprinkles on top of the icing.

Don: You did a fantastic job illustrating Bird. How did you become a part of this project?

Shadra: Thank you. My editor, Jennifer Fox gave me my very first illustration job when I graduated from Syracuse. It was an emergent reader called, BIG OR LITTLE. I was living in Atlanta at the time. A few years later, after graduating from SVA’s M.F.A. program, I ran into Jen at The Society of Illustrator’s Original Book Art Show. Throughout the years I had continued to send her samples of my work and invited her to my thesis show at SVA. When we ran into one another at the Original Art show, it was kismet. She called and invited me to the office to show my portfolio the next day. After the meeting, she sent the manuscript. I said YES! It was absolutely perfect.

Don: What drew you to the field of children’s publishing?

Shadra: I love stories, and I love art. It seemed a very natural way to go for me. I started out wanting to be a designer at Syracuse but I studied illustration and writing on the side. After my first year of design, I switched my major solely to illustration. My passion lied in drawing and painting people. I would spend hours at bookstores pouring over picturebooks. I knew it was what I wanted to do. I moved back to Atlanta to teach for a bit before applying to SVA’s M.F.A. program. I chose as my advisor, Pat Cummings. Working with Pat was important to me because she was the only Af. Am. female illustrator I knew at the time who worked so steadily and with such imagination, and it was important to me to be around that energy…around someone whose work I respected and admired so much. While at SVA I interned at Philomel where I was able to see gorgeous live art come in for each magnificent project. Being at SVA with an amazing group of artists and meeting with editors and art directors for those two years was invaluable. After graduation I had many high hopes of getting my first book published and came close a couple of times, but it took almost a whole year after SVA before BIRD found me. It was worth the wait. In the meantime, I worked as an assistant for the amazing and talented Christopher Myers, finished my first Korean language picturebook, met my agent, and worked as a designer at BloomsburyUSA.

Don: How would you describe your illustration style and technique?

8jrShadra: My style…hmm, I try not to think about style too much. For BIRD, I spent days wandering around the city, taking pictures and drawing on location to try to exist in and understand Bird’s world. The more “real” images I collect, the easier it is for me to play when making the art. I like to combine very realistic elements and more whimsical ones. My favorite devices are pattern and line, but I am also a huge fan of delicious texture, and light. Honestly though, it all depends on the text. Zetta’s writing of BIRD was so straightforward and so graceful. I felt the art needed to be delicate and airy. I wanted people to be able to get in that story and live with walk around in his shoes and feel what he felt.

Don: Your illustrations are full with real life energy– who are the people in your work? Models, imagination?

Shadra: I do shoot models for reference, but it’s important for me to work from the reference loosely. I am looking to capture specific emotions in the work and I find if I work too closely to the reference, the expression dies and gets caught up in the drafting. Granddad and Marcus were made-up. Though Granddad’s character is based on a man I saw sleeping on the subway one day. His hair was beautiful and snow white. I had to snap a pic of him with my cell. For Bird, I used my neighbor in Atlanta, and “Uncle Son” is my real-life uncle. All of the city elements were collected along the way. I spent a lot of time in Harlem shooting pics of clothes, shoes, buildings and people to be able to create a believable world for Bird to live in. I also watch a lot of movies for reference. For example, to create Marcus’s graffiti I watched Rock Fresh, by Danny Lee, a great documentary about the art of graffiti.kite3

Don: What’s on the horizon for you?

Shadra: I just finished art for a new collaborative project with Bloomsbury USA called OUR CHILDREN CAN SOAR due out this April. I am working on two picturebook projects currently. I will also be working on another picturebook with Lee and Low next year. My goal is to author my own books and see what other spaces my art can “live” in. The John Steptoe award is such an honor…and such big shoes to fill. I just want to keep making beautiful books and keep getting better and better at being an artist.

P.S. Shout out to my mom!

Note: To clarify, the top image is from the book cover. Other images are from Shadra’s portfolio.

–Don Tate

Drums, please…

January 26, 2009

[Insert the scratching and drums intro to the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff’s jam, Summer Time]

The following are some of the winners from this year’s ALA Mid-Winter:
*Denotes a Brown Bookshelf Spotlight, past or present

Forgive me, some of the books do not have the author because I took the winner list from a blog and not the ALA site. I’ll do my best to update later.

Coretta Scott King

The Blacker The Berry, Joyce Carol Thomas and Floyd Cooper*(Illustrator award winner)

We Are The Ship, Kadir Nelson* (Author award winner)

Author Honor Books
Keeping the Night Watch, Hope Anita Smith and E.B. Lewis
Blacker the Berry, Joyce Carol Thomas and Floyd Cooper
Becoming Billie Holiday, Carole Boston Weatherford* and Floyd Cooper

Illustrator Honor Books
We are the Ship, Kadir Nelson
Before John was a Jazz Giant, Carole Boston Weatherford and Sean Qualls*
The Moon over Star, Dianna Hutts Aston and Jerry Pinkney

John Steptoe Award Winner

Shadra Strickland, illustrator of Bird by by Zetta Elliott*

I’m always tickled to pieces when some of the honorees and winners also happen to be Brown Bookshelf spotlight authors and illustrators.

It’s like we’re psychic or something.

J/K. I think it shows that while there’s lots of talent out there, the circle of writers of color is still simply quite small.

In more award news:


The House in the Night,Susan Marie Swanson

Honor Books
A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever
How I Learned Geography
A River of Words

Jellicoe Road, Melina Marchetta

Honor Books
Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, M.T. Anderson
Nation, Terry Pratchett
Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan
Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, E. Lockhart

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

Honor Books

The Underneath, Kathi Appelt, illustrated by David Small
Surrender Tree, Margarita Engle
Savvy, Ingrid Law
After Tupac and D Foster, Jacqueline Woodson*

Pura Belpre
Just in Case, illustrated by Yuyi Morales

Honor Books
Reaching Out, Francisco Jimenez,
The Storyteller’s Candle / La velita de los cuentos, Lucia Gonzalez

January 22, 2009

The First Annual African American Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference will take place on April 25, 2009.

Speakers and faculty:

Sarah Ketchersid—Senior Editor, Candlewick Press

Eileen Robinson—Children’s book editor, editorial consultant and creator of F1rst Pages. For almost 10 years, she has acquired, developed, and edited children’s books for both Scholastic as Executive Editor, and Harcourt publishers, as Editorial Manager. She has also worked on projects for National Geographic, Santillana USA, Marshall Cavendish, Weekly Reader, and others. Having published many new authors, Eileen believes in helping newcomers get their feet in the door, as well as working with experienced fiction or nonfiction authors.

Eleanora E. Tate—Award-winning author of over 15 fiction and non-fiction
books for children, preteens, and teens (Celeste’s Harlem Renaissance!)

Don Tate—Award-winning illustrator of over 25 children’s books (Sure As Sunrise: Stories of Bruh Rabbit and his Walkin’ Talkin’ Friends; Ron’s Big Mission)

Christine Taylor Butler—Author of more than 40 books (A Mom Like No Other)

Jacquelin Thomas—”Divine” young adult novel series author (Simply Divine)

Kelly Starling Lyons—Picture book author (One Million Men and Me)

Christine Young-Robinson—Picture book author (Chicken Wing)

Register early!

This is going to be such a fun weekend! In addition to speaking at the conference, thanks to Kelly Lyons, I’ll visit at least one school.

So, why do we need an African American children’s writers and illustrators conference? I mean, we already have an SCBWI, right?

Well, I’ve been in this business for almost 25 years. Those who deny that race plays a factor in children’s publishing are simply in denial. I’ve illustrated for many other industries — newspapers, magazines, advertising, education, toys, textile, apparel. In no other industry has the color of my skin been such an issue.

I’m not complaining, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many publishers depend upon African American’s to fill a need. Filling that niche creates great opportunities for African American illustrators like me. I’m honored and proud to create children’s books that reflect my skin color, my history, my people. But topics pertaining to these special needs are probably not covered at other writing conferences. And I’ve been at conferences where publishing folks uncomfortably dance around the topic when questions are asked.

For African American children’s authors and illustrators, the challenges of writing a book, getting published and staying published are the same as for everyone else. But within our community, there are issues uncommon to others. The more information we have as African American youth literature creators, the better equipped we will be in a competitive and tightening book-buying market.

Thanks to Sabra Robinson and AACBWI for addressing this need.

Better late…

January 18, 2009

bbs2009blogThan never. Isn’t that the old saying?

If you’re wondering where the 28 Days Later list is because we promised it on Martin Luther King’s actual birthday (Jan. 15) wait no longer. My dad passed last week and as I tended to my and my mom’s needs, my Brown Bookshelf family handled the release preparation.

So wait no more.

Check out this year’s 28 Days Later spotlights.

12 Brown Boys

January 8, 2009

We hear a lot about the need to get more boys reading. According to a 2000 study cited by the National Center for Education Statistics, boys lagged behind girls in reading performance across all age groups. Experts say the reading gap for African-American and Latino young men is even more pronounced. There are lots of factors that contribute to this problem. But here are two that seem solvable — Some boys find books boring and have trouble connecting with the stories. How can we turn that around? Give young men books that reflect their interests and lives.

12 Brown Boys (Just Us Books, 2008), the children’s book debut of best-selling urban lit novelist Omar Tyree, does that in a meaningful way. In this short story collection for middle-graders, Tyree explores the lives of a memorable cast of tween brown boys. His characters, with names like Red-Head Mike, Chestnut and Oneal, come from different family situations and backgrounds. They face different trials. They show diversity in their interests and  beliefs. But they’re united in being young men with frailties and flaws, strengths and talents. Tyree succeeds in creating distinct personalities with complex lives.

He opens the book with the throw-back story of a boy named Michael who loves Heavy D and Rakim and looks up to an older teen named Cool Dave. Then, Michael discovers what Dave does for a living and things get more complicated. Tyree shows us a boy who struggles with reading in public until his dad teaches him a trick he used as a child. There’s a young artist and musician who inspires his friend. There’s an oldest son who stands up when he’s needed most. In Tyree’s book, we travel from Jamaica to Detroit, from Washington, D.C. to Charlotte and a camp in the Poconos to meet boys who stick up for their beliefs, have fun their own way, weather challenging moments and unfamiliar experiences to become their best selves.

12 Brown Boys is a needed book that gives African-American boys an important incentive to read — reflections of themselves.

Here is a Book Links article that offers more titles that celebrate African-American boys:

Chatting Up The CSK’s…

January 5, 2009

The fact that the Coretta Scott King award does not evoke as much “who will win?” chatter as the Newbery and Caldecott, in my opinion, is simply more proof that too often the books for and by African Americans remain somewhat on the periphery of children’s literature.

But that’s what places like The Brown Bookshelf and Black Threads in Kid Lit are for.

Our friend and 2008 Brown Bookshelf spotlight author, Kyra Hicks, is holding a mock CSK over at Black Threads.

See what she thinks may take home the most coveted children’s lit awards for writers of color and jump in with your own ballot.