Monica McKayhan

February 28, 2009

monicamckayhanMonica McKayhan writes adult and young adult fiction, with seven novels currently in print. Her first novel for young adults, Indigo Summer, was the launch title for Harlequin’s young adult imprint, Kimani TRU which made its debut in January of 2007.  That same year in May, Indigo Summer was named to the Essence bestsellers list, another first for Kimani Press.  It also appeared on the bestsellers list in the May 2007 issue of Black Issues Book Review and was named to the American Library Association’s list of 2008 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers.  Monica most recently placed three additional titles in the series with Harlequin’s young adult imprint, Kimani TRU.

For our final day of 28 Days Later, please welcome Monica McKayhan.

Indigo Summer is the main character in most of your novels for young adults. How did you create this character? What compels you to continue her and her friends’ stories in subsequent books?

Indigo Summer was created as a result of the lack of books out there for young people who look, talk and behaindigove just like her.  She’s flawed, experiencing struggles in school, identifying with her emotions…all the things that our sons and daughters are experiencing at the age of fifteen.  It’s imperative that I continue her story as well as the stories of her friends, because in the Indigo Summer series, the characters are dealing with real issues that young people are facing today.  In each book, I try to tackle one or two issues and it’s my goal to offer a solution to the youngsters who are reading the books.  In the first book, Indigo Summer, Indigo is faced with the choice of having sex before she’s ready, and it was my intent to let my readers know that it’s okay to say no; that you don’t have to be forced into making a decision that could change your entire life.  In Trouble Follows, my character Jade is being inappropriately touched by her teacher.  I can’t tell you how many young people are being inappropriately touched by adults and don’t know what to do about it.  Sometimes, as parents, we’re unaware of the things our kids deal with on a daily basis.  And we take for granted that they will know what to do…and they really don’t.  Besides being entertaining, Indigo Summer is important for helping young people make good decisions.

What are some of the challenges of writing a series?

The greatest challenge to writing a series is making certain that the subsequent books are just as entertaining, if not more, than the one prior.  That first book is always hard to top.  Early on, my editor and I decided that each book would be about Indigo’s friends and their struggles, as opposed to Indigo Summer being the center of attention.  That keeps it interesting for me, as well as my readers.  Another challenge of writing a series of this type is that the books are written at such a rapid pace.  Because the books are hitting the shelves every six months, I’m constantly working on the next project.  As soon as I meet one deadline, the next one is just around the corner.  That leaves little room for down time, or opportunities for other projects.  However, when I visit schools and I hear young people tell me that Indigo Summer was the first book that they’d read from cover to cover, I know that writing YA is worth the sacrifice.

jadedThe fourth novel in the Indigo Summer series, Jaded (Kimani, 2008), is told from the alternating viewpoints of Jade Morgan and Terrence, her boyfriend. What inspired you to write this novel?

After the first book, readers were eager to know more about Jade (Indigo’s best friend who moved away much too soon).  So it was important to write her story.  She moved back to Atlanta in Trouble Follows and readers were happy about that.  However, those who have read Jaded, find that Terrence is by far the most interesting and well-rounded character in the book.  Terrence is practically raising his younger sister and brother because their mother is struggling with drugs, and is rarely home.  I can’t tell you how many kids are heads of their households by default.  It seems that they will never be able to have a normal teenage life.  This is just one of the many issues that young people face.  And for those youngsters who are growing up in dysfunctional homes (as I did), they need to know that they’re not alone and no matter what type of home they come from, they can still have a bright future.

Your fifth book in the series, Deal With It (Kimani, 2009), comes out this June. Can you tell us a little about the novel?

Deal With It delves into the issue of teen pregnancy.  Indigo’s friend, Tameka, who’s sixteen and college-bound, deal_with_itdiscovers that one intimate night with her boyfriend has changed her life forever.  Tameka’s boyfriend, Vance, who also has a voice in the book, is a high school senior with a bright future as well.  The issue of teen pregnancy forces them to not only make some tough choices, but to step up to the plate even though they both are way too young to be anybody’s parent.  Also in the book, Indigo Summer is jealous when her best friend Jade becomes captain of the dance team and for the first time they are at odds with each other.  Between ignoring each other at school and engaging in a physical altercation in the middle of Macy’s department store, they take anger to a whole other level.  In the end, they both learn a valuable lesson about friendship.

Deal With It is a book about taking responsibility for your actions, and dealing with the consequences.

You write novels for both adults and young adults. Do you find that you approach your novels for young adults differently than you do for adults?

The audiences of adult and young adult books are different, and so the approach to writing for each audience has to be different.  I first had the desire to write for young people when I discovered that teens were reading their parents books (inappropriate adult books).  There was clearly a lack of stories for young people of color.  I’m glad to know that the market has changed drastically over the past couple of years, but it wasn’t always this way.  When I first started writing YA, I discovered that a good portion of my readers were “reluctant readers” and therefore, not interested in the traditional story.  Keeping in mind that some of my readers were used to reading racy books with adult content, while some of my readers were considered to be reluctant readers, it was imperative that I catered to both types of readers.  I create stories with real characters that look, sound and act like my readers with captivating stories that they can relate to, while simultaneously making sure that my books are an “easy read.”  In addition, there has to be a message in every book.  As an author and mother, I use my writing platform as an opportunity to speak positive things into the lives of our kids. I absolutely believe that “it takes a village” and so my approach to writing YA reflects that.

Writing for adults is vastly different, in that there really doesn’t need to be a lesson.  Adults are basically entertained by a good, well-written story with characters that are fully developed.

Can you tell us about any other projects that you’re working on?

Right now, I’m working on my sixth Indigo Summer novel.  It’s currently untitled and scheduled for release in December of 2009.  In addition, I have ideas for an adult novel, and when I get some free time I will begin work on that as well.

Monalisa DeGross

February 27, 2009

When Monalisa DeGross set out to be a writer, she began by writing what she read — romance.  It was an editor who turned her eye to the possibility of writing for children. DeGross considered the young people she knew. She thought about her love of words and the storytelling tradition in her mother’s family. Those memories helped give birth to her debut chapter book, Donavan’s Word Jar (HarperCollins, 1998). School Library Journal called it, “A gentle, thoughtful story of a young African-American boy’s discovery of the power of words.”‘

Since that time, DeGross has written a wonderful picture book, Granddaddy’s Street Songs, and a second Donavan book, Donavan’s Double Trouble, which was named to the Capitol Choices, Noteworthy Books for Children list. She’s at work on a third Donovan book which will feature his sister, Nikki.

DeGross, project manager for a family reading circle program at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, has been praised for writing stories that explore intergenerational relationships and celebrate family bonds.

On Day 27, we are proud to salute Monalisa DeGross:

 I read that you started writing seriously at age 40.  What inspired you to follow that path?

I think it takes some of us longer to find their creative path. The urge to create is powerful; however for some finding the path is difficult. It was for me.  I tried painting, photography, pottery, decorating and all types of needlework; however, everything I put my hand to did not sustain my interest long.  I’d blithely move from one project to another.  Once I told my husband I wanted to take music lessons.  He assured me that wasn’t a good idea.  I’d always been a voracious reader, just about any genre. At that time, romance was a favorite. A friend and I decided that we could write a better romance than the ones we were reading.  So, we started co-writing.  She got busy and dropped out. I kept writing.  I realized that I liked taking the stories that I created in my head and putting them on paper. I never finished that story.

Sometimes I think that I reached children’s writing after a long and winding road; but perhaps not.  I should not have been surprised at my choice when I consider that I had collected children’s picture books since the 70s. I work in a library and am surrounded by books and I am friendly with many of the children’s librarians.  In fact, when I began writing Donavan’s Word Jar I thought it was going to be a picture book.

What called to you about children’s writing?

The challenge of writing about themes and characters that will capture the attention of an audience whose experiences are different and yet similar to my own.  There are some givens about the experience of being a youngster and growing up that are universal. I have traveled the path that my readers are on and yet the times, tone, inventions and the events of today separate us. People and events shape each generation: television, soul music and Martin Luther King shaped my life. My grandchildren are being shaped by laptops, You Tube and Barack Obama.  Somehow I have to maneuver around these new events and inventions and tap into the universal feelings of being and growing up. It’s a challenge to think about the myriad of feelings I experienced during childhood and try to capture them for a contemporary audience.

In three of my books I deal with questions that will always exist.  In Granddaddy, it’s the question most youngsters ask: “What was life like long ago?” In Word Jar, Donavan’s dilemma is: “How can I share something that I love?” And in Double Trouble Donavan’s question is: “Can I accept that someone I love is changed physically?”  I am writing for a new generation and the challenge is remember how it feels to be young – but knowing that the path to solving the age old questions are different. Their approach and energy is different.  It’s a challenge that I worry about and am trying hard to meet.

How did your first book, Donavan’s Word Jar, come to be?

I submitted  what I thought would be my ‘great American novel’ to an editor ( you know the one- where characters appear on page 27 and you don’t hear about them again until page 207). After being rejected by several editors, one asked me if I’d ever thought of writing for children.  I was surprised and more than a little unsettled.  It’s like you’ve auditioned for a part in a drama and the director asks “ever thought about comedy?”  After sharing the suggestion with a girlfriend she said: “Well, why not try?”

I started thinking about what might interest a young person.  Like most writers you start at home. You either think about your own childhood or some youngster in your family.   The story began about a young boy who liked to use long, impressive words, my nephew, I couldn’t advance the idea, and so I searched for something else. 

At the time, everyone was collecting something.  I began to think about something that a youngster could collect.  It came to me that words were something that everyone loved, and that a young person didn’t need money or an adult to help collect words, just a pencil, paper and a jar.  The book was rejected by several publishers until my boss, a librarian, took it to HarperCollins.  And the rest, as they say ‘is history’.

How does your work as a project manager for a family reading circle program at Enoch Pratt Free Library inform your writing?

The Family Reading Circle is a program that brings parents and youngsters together one night a week for six weeks to share a meal, read and discuss two picture books.  There are usually about ten families (no more than twenty five people).  I do this at three locations – two sessions (Spring & Fall). This means that for a year I am meeting with about 30 families for twelve weeks.  I get to know the families well.  The youngster are between the ages of 10 and 15. They must be accompanied by an adult caregiver: parent, grandparent, sibling over eighteen. The care-givers ages mostly range from late twenties to late seventies.  In each group there is a large age-range.

I get to hear the youngsters and their care-givers  thoughts, points of view, outlooks and voices.  I enjoy the opinions, observations, comments and sometimes vigorous debates we have during those sessions.  I am always thinking of stories to shape or characters to create. Some I discard. Others I file away for use one day.

You have one picture book, Granddaddy’s Street Songs. Was that inspired by real life?

I loved writing Granddaddy’s … and Floyd Cooper’s illustrations are wonderful.  Arabber is a term used for people who sold fruits, vegetables and seafood from horse-drawn wagons, the term is identified with Baltimore.  I grew up watching the Arabbers move from neighborhood to neighborhood each identifiable by the way they decorated the wagons and sometimes the horses.  Many of the Arabbers advertised their wares in a bluesy, sing-song fashion.

I remember going to the Baltimore Museum of Art and seeing a collection of black and white photographs chronicling the glory days of Arabbers. I was mesmerized by the photographs. Seeing photographs of men and women that I had known and knew in a museum was jolting.  I realized that these men and few women were a dying breed. I wondered if young people would ever know these people existed and made their living this way. That they’d paid rent, fed their families and sent their kids to college.   Arabbers also served another important function.  They delivered fresh fruits, vegetables, and seafood to a whole population during segregation, which kept people of color from the better supermarkets.   So I decided to try and write about that time.  The book is out of print. I hope that it comes back. Many people ask for it.    

 Any plans to write more?

Yes.  I have several ideas, but I haven’t mastered the brevity that picture books require.  I’m working on it.

Your wonderful book, Donavan’s Double Trouble, debuted nine years after your first Donavan story. What was the path to publication?

I certainly didn’t mean for it to take so long.  After Word Jar, I decided to get an undergraduate degree. I worked full-time and attended college part-time.  Getting a college degree was something I wanted, so I major in Communication. Sometimes I think I should have been writing during that time, most times I think  it was right for me.  It took me six long years to finish.  Two years ago, I met an editor from HarperCollins at a book conference and she asked me what happened — why had I just dropped out of sight.

I explained and we then discussed how well Word Jar was doing. She asked if I had written anything – I had started a second Donavan.  I sent it in and we began again.  

Why did you decide to feature Donavan in a second story?

Even though I had not written anything, I was still visiting schools doing talks and signing books.  During the Q & A at every school I visited, the youngsters wanted to know about Donavan and his sister Nikki.  After visiting, I’d go home and write a bit on a second Donavan.   I’d write or re-write a chapter and then put it down.  After I renewed my acquaintance with HarperCollins, I was assigned an editor and began to write. My editor was easy to work with and persistent. I needed that to get back in the game.

During that time young soldiers were returning from Iraq. It made me sad to see newscasts of the young wounded men and women returning home.  I wondered how youngsters felt when someone they love came home altered.  So I placed the everyday problems that a youngster has with math and school events beside a more serious occurrence – a favorite uncle coming home in a wheelchair.  I wanted to reveal Donavan’s discomfort and embarrassment at his uncle’s disability.  This is an older Donavan, a more complicated Donavan.  He eventually works it out, with a little help from his family and friends. 

Will there be more Donavan books?

I certain hope so. I have a few ideas I am exploring. I loved books that  grow a character.  My next book is about Donavan’s sister Nikki.

What do you hope young people take away from your books?

I hope that when young readers finish reading my books that they feel satisfied.  The satisfaction a reader feels when they have just spent time with characters they recognized and enjoyed.  I hope they see something of themselves in my characters and their situations.  I want to create major and minor characters that captures the reader’s imagination, perhaps they will think about them long after they’ve closed the book.  I also hope that they talk about the book with their friends. I really want young readers to discover something new and interesting about themselves while reading my books.

Along with being an author, you’re a playwright. Please tell us about that part of your writing life.

I entered a playwriting contest sponsored by a local television contest.  My play won and the television station, in collaboration with a  local theatre group. produced a teleplay.  It was televised on a local station and aired in Delaware, Maryland, and Washington D.C.  Seeing and hearing actors perform my work was a thrill.  I still write plays. I haven’t tried to get them published or staged.  I really enjoy writing dialogue. I think that’s a strong point  in my writing.  A librarian told me that she especially loved the dinner scene in Double Trouble.  She felt that I handled the conversation at the dinner table very well. 

What has been the proudest moment of your writing career?

What makes me proud is when I meet youngsters who have read any of my books and they really get into the characters.  When youngsters talk about Donavan, Nikki, Grandma or Uncle Vic familiarly, I feel proud.  I think: It’s working. They are connecting with the characters and I created the characters.

Toughest moment?

My toughest moments are when I’m thinking about how I want  a scene or encounter to read and I can’t get it right.  In my mind I know what I want to write; but, I can’t do it. I have to stop and try to figure out a way to make what I’m saying clearer. Also, when I’m writing a scene and I want it be funny – it’s hard to be funny on paper.  A really tough moment is when the book comes out and I get the finished product and I read it and wish I could have done better.

If you could go back and whisper in your ear when you were just starting out, what would you say?

Take your writing seriously, respect the craft of writing and please, please, please find some discipline.

Could you please give us a preview of your next book? When will it debut?

The next book features Donavan’s sister, Nikki.  It takes place over summer vacation.  It’s about friendship among three girls. It’s hard to have a trio friendship. Nikki and her cousin Vonda are good friends – a new girl moves in the neighborhood and the three girls try to juggle their friendship.  So far that is what I think is going on.  I hope it will come out in 2011.

What’s your greatest joy?

One of my greatest pleasures is at the end of a writing session discovering something on the page that was not there when I started. I may have thought I was going in one direction and my imagination took another direction.  Sometimes it’s a pleasure to be on a journey with characters that I’ve created.

 The Buzz about Donavan’s Double Trouble:

2009 Capitol Choices, Noteworthy Books for Children

Washington Post (Kids Post), Book of the Week

“Donavan’s a word geek, but there aren’t words to describe his frustration with math and his embarrassed reaction to his favorite Uncle Vic’s homecoming. Vic Carter Johnson had once been a fun-loving basketball star and firefighter. He had taught Donavan and his sister crazy dance moves like the cabbage patch, the snake and the running man. But when Uncle Vic’s legs are blown away by a bomb attack while his National Guard unit is on active duty, Donavan is left to figure out how to accept this new version of his adored uncle.

Monalisa DeGross’ latest novel is a follow up to Donavan’s Word Jar, and readers will remember the warm-natured affection of this African-American family. Donavan’s friends Pooh and Eric also provide encouragement and acceptance as Donavan struggles to sort out his math block and his feelings. Adult readers may question the juxtaposing of math homework and the seriousness of Uncle Vic’s injuries, but young readers will empathize with Donavan’s angst.

While the pacing of the novel is measured, DeGross’ words shine in the dialogue between Donavan and his grandmother. In a competitive game of Scrabble, Donavan reveals his difficulty with numbers and his uneasy feelings about Uncle Vic. Grandma gives him counsel and hope, peppered with teasing and affection. In other scenes, as Donavan grapples with his problems, the language teeters on didactic, but the obvious well meaning of Donavan’s family and teachers soften the lessons. A nice moment comes when Donavan’s little sister tries to explain three-digit multiplication. Frustrated that his sister is better with numbers than he is, Donavan can’t believe she solves one of his math homework problems. But she reminds him that she loves math the way he loves words. It’s a sweet reminder that everyone has talent for something.

Always, Donavan comes across as a sincere boy, trying to do his best despite his shortcomings. He never gives up, and in the end, that may be the key to solving his double trouble. Young readers will also enjoy the pencil-sketch quality of Amy Bates illustrations.”

— Children’s Book Page

For more about Monalisa DeGross, please visit:

Shelia P. Moses

February 26, 2009

mosesA native of Rich Square, North Carolina, Shelia P. Moses draws on her upbringing from her small hometown for many of her books.  According to her website biography, she got her start as a writer at the young age, but I was interested to learn that she self-published her first book One More River to Cross which is a collection of essays and poems.  She later self-published a second book So They Burned the Black Churches before being approached by Dick Gregory to write his memoir.  Reading that Shelia began her career as a self-published author surprised me, but it also made me feel a kinship with her.

2009 is off to a great start for Shelia who was recently nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Joseph in the Outstanding Literary Work – Youth/Teens category.  Previously, she was honored as a National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature and received the Coretta Scott King Author Honor Books Award for The Legend of Buddy Bush.0689858396

I, Dred Scott earned her recognition as the Georgia Author of the Year in 2006.  Interestingly enough, her book on this renowned slave came about while conducting research for Dick Gregory’s memoir.  Curiousity about Scott was born at the sight of a plaque bearing his name in the St. Louis courthouse where his infamous trial was held.  From there, she immersed herself in slave narratives and strived to connect to Scott’s voice to create a story about him beyond the court case that made him an important footnote in Black history.

Not only is Shelia an author, but she also owns M-Productions, a research and production company that specializes in the writing and publication of books about historic people, places and events.

Talented and well-rounded, the Brown Bookshelf looks forward to reading more from Shelia P. Moses in the future.

The Legend of Buddy Bush (2004)
I, Dred Scott: A Fictional Slave Narrative Based on the Life and Legal Precedent of Dred Scott (2005)
The Return of Buddy Bush (2006)
The Baptism (2007)
Sallie Gal And The Wall-a-kee Man (2007)
Joseph (2008)


The Buzz on Joseph
This story, told entirely from Joseph’s point-of-view, is an exploration of the bonds that make up family. . . Moses creates a compelling character in Joseph. His struggle to survive his current situation intact is fascinating to read. Joseph’s insights into his and Betty’s lives combined with his child’s wish to protect his mother make Joseph both worldly and innocent at the same time. Negative influences such as drug dealers and users are described in a clear, cold light. Education and hard work are praised for their positive influences. Middle school and junior high teens will enjoy this story. ~ VOYA

Told in Joseph’s candid, present-tense voice, the tale makes plain the tangle of emotions that ties children to even the most incapable parent. Old beyond his years, he observes with a clear-eyed understanding the forces swirling around his fractured family. Moses’s heart-wrenching story of a young man’s struggle to cut ties with his mother and a dead-end life will leave readers profoundly moved. ~ Kirkus Review

Sherri Winston

February 25, 2009

sherri-winston-photoA lifestyle columnist with The Sun-Sentinel in Florida, young adult author Sherri Winston has made writing her career.  She is familiar with a life defined by deadlines, rewrites, and feedback from her editor and readers.  She is also not afraid to tackle controversial issues within her writing, be it an analysis on the lack of media coverage when African American women are missing, or shine the spotlight on a grieving mother helping others.  Reading Winston’s columns shows me that she respects the issues and people that she writes about and she wants to give a voice to those whose stories are under represented in our news coverage and our literature.

Along with M.E. Kerr, Rita Williams-Garcia, Naomi Shihab Nye, Winston was a contributing author to Face Relations,41dtctm6qtl_sl500_ an anthology edited by Marilyn Singer that addresses racial issues and race identity across America.  “Snow” is the story of a high school journalist who exposes tensions between Haitians and African Americans in her school.

In a column penned in 2001, Winston talks about her own literary childhood where she read some of the great young adult classics, including Sounder and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.  But like many African American readers, she wanted to see herself reflected in the stories she read.   She had a desire to read regular stories, not just historical fiction, that contained characters who liked the same music as her, worried about boys and dating, school, and parents.

I don’t know Sherri personally, but reading that article makes me think that she was itching to write tales for teens then.  I like to think that soon after writing that article, she began to start pecking at the keys to write her first young adult novel, Acting, which was published in 2004.

36410749I checked out a copy of The Kayla Chronicles a year ago from my local library after hearing so much buzz about the book in our nominations for the first 28 Days Later.  I was sold on Kayla’s story for several reasons.  Because of a strong relationship with her grandmother, Kayla is empowered and has a strong feminist identity.  Kayla Dean is mission minded and determined to make a difference in life like her beloved grandmother.   But as we read on, we discover that Kayla is caught in the middle.  She doesn’t feel like she belongs in her own family, and especially doesn’t feel like she and her father even like each other.  As Kayla’s chronicle transpires, Kayla learns more about who she is, what she believes in, and how to accept others for who they are.

Winston has written a book that would be a welcome addition on reading lists for teenage girls across the country.  Through an engaging story, she teaches readers about recognizing their self-identity and standing up for their beliefs.

Acting:  A Novel (2004)
The Kayla Chronicles (2008)


The Buzz on The Kayla Chronicles
“After finishing The Kayla Chronicles . . . , I came to the conclusion that I need to read more young adult novels featuring non-Caucasian protagonists. It’s not something I’d given much thought to previously, but I now realize my reading habits have been lacking. . . What I enjoyed most was how becoming a Lady Lion challenged Kayla’s views on feminism. . . Told in a voice with the right amount of attitude and sass, this was a nice way to spend a cold, winter afternoon.” ~ Jia, Dear Author

“It is wonderful to read in a young adult novel aimed towards girls about a respect for the women who have come before and how their accomplishments helped pave the way for the life they are able to live now. Since Kayla is African American, these memories take on an even more poignant bent as she deals with the unspoken taint of racism in the world around her. She manages to embrace all the sides of herself as a young woman and give others the same benefit of the doubt, all the while proving to herself and to her unbelieving father that the strength inside her suits her to a tee. Such journeys of personal discovery, peppered with a healthy dose of women’s history, make THE KAYLA CHRONICLES a special and fascinating book . . . Congratulations to Sherri Winston for proving that “chick lit” can be fun, intellectually satisfying and emotionally relevant, all at the same time. ~ Jana Siciliano, Teen Reads

“Narrated with sharp language and just the right amount of attitude, The Kayla Chronicles is the story of a girl’s struggle for self-identity despite pressure from family, friends and her own conscience. Kayla’s story is snappy, fun and inspiring, sure to appeal to anyone who’s every questioned who they really are.” ~ Young Adult ARCs

Cornelius Van Wright

February 24, 2009

photobio1From early on Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu had a few differences. He was an African-American and native New Yorker; she was born and raised in Taiwan. He was trained in the commercial arts; she was a fine artist. But they put their differences aside and learned from each other. Since then they’ve made beautiful art together, and have illustrated dozens of picture books for children.

A few of the titles they’ve illustrated include Alicia’s Happy Day/ El Dia Mas Feliz De Alicia (Star Bright Books, Inc., 2007); American Slave, American Hero: York of the Lewis And Clark Expedition (Calkins Creek Books, 2006); I Told You I Can Play! (Just Us Books, 2006); The Legend of Freedom Hill (Lee & Low Books, 2003); Jingle Dancer (HarperCollins, 2000); Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree (Lee & Low Books, 1994). A truly multicultural portfolio of books.

Princess Grace, written by Mary Hoffman (Dial Books, 2008), is their most recent book to publish. I’m pleased to present Corneilus Van Wright for my last interview with 28 Days Later, 2009:

Don: Tell us about Princess Grace.

Corneilus: Princess Grace is a third picture book installment about a girl named Grace (Amazing Grace and Grace and Family were the first two books) by author Mary Hoffman. In Princess Grace we find that two girls from Grace’s class will be selected as princesses in the town parade. A question arises as Grace and her friends imagine what they would wear if chosen princess. What do princesses look like and what do they do? They find that princesses are not like the ones pictured in fairy tales. In reality there were princesses from around the world that did more then floated pretty in a pink gown (not that there’s anything wrong with floating pretty in a pink gown).

princessDon: I can’t imagine illustrating a book together with another artist (particularly my wife). Can you talk about that process a bit?

Corneilus: My wife Ying-Hwa Hu is an illustrator also. Some projects we work on individually and some we work on together. On the book Princess Grace we worked as a team. When we work as a team we try to go with our strengths. I usually start the process of breaking down the story (manuscript) into scenes and creating thumbnails (little black and white sketches to convey what is going on in the scene) to present to the publisher. After the thumbnails are approved we both start researching for references for sketches.
I usually start the initial drawings, and then Ying-Hwa takes it. . Her abilities in drawing proportions are more accurate then mine, so she sometimes redraws what she feels is not working or can be improved.
The same is true with the final painting stage. However when we have a project that’s going to be in black and white, Ying-Hwa takes over all the finished art. A black and white final product will be far better off in her hands.

Don: What are the challenges and rewards of creating illustrations with Ying-Hwa?

Corneilus: There are great challenges as well as great rewards in illustrating together. First it takes a lot of trust to hand over something you’ve been working on to someone else. It took a long time to be able to do this. Sometimes we see things (visually) differently. But I’ve learned through the years that Ying-Hwa’s eye for proportions are very accurate. So I am comfortable if she tells me something is off, to let her take it and do it correctly.
Whether she has the assignment or I or both of us are working on a job, it is nice to have another set of eyes to bounce things off of.

Don: How did you and Ying-Hwa become involved in the project?

Corneilus: We became involved in Princess Grace because of another book we illustrated by the same author (Mary Hoffman) for book publisher Frances Lincoln, An Angel Just Like Me.
Caroline Binch, the illustrator of the first two Grace books was not available to illustrate a third book. So the publisher asked if we would do a sample painting of Grace and her grandmother for consideration to illustrate the third book. Though they approved the art work, it took almost three years for the manuscript to be finalized and sent to us.

Don: Can you talk about the challenges in maintaining the look of the character from previous books.

Corneilus: The greatest single challenge to illustrating Grace was trying to stay true to the original image of Grace. We had no photo references of the girl who originally modeled for Grace. Because the paintings for the original Amazing Grace were realistic, there was no getting around having to get a real person to model for Princess Grace. However try as we may, we could not find anyone who looked like Grace. So we took pictures of a girl and tried to modify our drawings of the girl to at least be in the same ballpark as the image of Grace in the original book. This was really a challenge, especially when you have to do thirty two pages of a person you really don’t have references of. We also wanted to stay close to the spirit of the original book, although Grace was suppose to be a little older than she was in the first book.
Fortunately most of the book critics understood the challenge and remarked on it, Stating that we chose right in trying to respect what was done before yet not try to make an exact copy. Of course most critics does not mean all critics…you can’t please everyone.

Don: Do you work from photos, memory, live models?

Corneilus: We work from photos, models and memory. Today we really use photos only as a springboard. We are moving further and further away from straight photo references using more imagination to alter what’s in front of us.

Don: How did you become interested in illustrating for children, how did you get into the field?

Corneilus: I don’t know why but I have always been in the children’s field even when I was in advertising (my first adult job). I always watched children’s programs (especially those on Public Broadcasting) throughout my college years and beyond. To diversify my portfolio, I took a course in painting Romance Gothic novel book covers. After taking that course, I knew I had to go back to the children’s world, where it was much more imaginative and I could illustrate kids of all sizes shapes and colors.
Though I was working in advertising, I knew I wanted to be an illustrator and majored in illustration in college. My portfolio had lots of images geared towards children, so during my lunch breaks I would pound the pavement and show my work to publishers who published for children. All my weekends and holiday time was spent working on what ever jobs I landed. First, lots of magazine work then I got my first book cover assignment. That opened the door (in time) to books.

Don: What is your mission as an artist?

Corneilus: My new mission as an artist (as of a year and a half ago) is to allow the images that are buried deep inside of me to come out and see where they will lead me.

Don: What is your primary medium?

Corneilus: My primary medium is watercolor, though I started out as an oil painter.

Don: What inspires you as an illustrator?

Corneilus: What inspires me as an illustrator changes from project to project. When things are ideal (it sometimes happens) I am so captured by the topic, story and or characters that I enter a ‘zone’ of the painting and just thoroughly enjoy getting lost in the process. Admittedly though sometimes the topic or story does not inspire, and so looking at my electric bill will have to suffice in getting me up and running (only kidding). Sometimes I have to look deep and find that bit of inspiration that may be buried in the story or perhaps, historical event.
I enjoy stories that leaves room for rich images, better still, that allows for imaginative play within the images

Don: How long does it typically take you to illustrate a children’s book, and how do you balance work, family, and other?

Corneilus: It typically takes between 6 weeks (for a rush job), to 8 months to complete a 32 page picture book from thumbnails to finish.
Balancing work, family and other things of life has always been an elusive goal. But I think it’s getting better.

Don: Do you visit schools, and can you speak a bit about your program?

Corneilus: My wife and I have visited schools and libraries. We usually describe to those attending how we illustrate a picture book. First showing what a manuscript looks like, to breaking down stories and creating thumbnails. We also show sketches and what a revision is like (do over). Finally we show the finished paintings and the printed books. We answer any questions on what it’s like doing a picture book.

Don: What are your interest/hobbies beyond art?

Corneilus: My number one life long hobby is listening to music and learning about the different machines that reproduce and record music. I also collect recorded music, some of which comes from around the world.

Don: What were some of your favorite books as a child?

Corneilus: Some of my favorite picture books I had (and still have) were Golden Books my mother bought me when I was little. Sparky the Little Train Engine. The Hat that Mother Made.
Later my first chapter books Space Eagle, Henry Higgins and the Paper Route and many others. I keep them on my bookshelf.

Don: Your books are truly multicultural. Can you talk about how you’ve been able to achieve such diversity in your work?

My wife and I had the privilege to illustrate stories from many different cultures. We have illustrated stories of Chinese Americans, Chinese from Mainland China, Native Americans, African American, Koreans, The Middle East, and more. We believe the editors we worked with saw that part of our process was to really do our homework investigating the culture we were illustrating. We would always find friends and neighbors we knew (or got to know) from the culture we were illustrating to find out or confirm whatever questions we may have had about any given topic, clothing or custom dealing with that culture. That’s one of the advantages of living in New York, it is truly a melting pot of cultures.

Don: Who are your cheerleaders, those who cheer loudest for you along the way?

Corneilus: My wife and I cheer each other on. Our children sometimes surprise us by asking if they can have a particular piece of art when it comes back from printing. That makes us feel good.

Don: What advice can you offer to aspiring illustrators of children’s books.

Corneilus: Advice for aspiring illustrators of children’s books? Love illustrating for children from your inside. This calling from the inside is what keeps you going. Be flexible and persistent.

Don: What can your fans look forward to in the future?

Corneilus: I am looking to do more imaginative art. I ask God to help me see inside more. To that end, in a way I am starting over, to find out what’s really inside me. I’m curious myself.


Read an interview with Corneilus Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu at the website of author Cynthia Leitich Smith.

REMINDER: Book Giveaway

February 23, 2009

Hard as it is to believe, this is the last week of 28 Days Later.

That loud crashing you hear are the Brown Bookshelf members slumping against their keyboards from exhaustion. But it’s a good exhaustion! (I hope, says the one member who’s been done her profiles since the 13th).

Anyway, just a reminder that we have some free books to give away at week’s end. So please remember to come back and check the blog to see if you’ve won anything. We’ll announce, using the name you used to comment.

Also, the profiles don’t end on Friday. We’ll share a little bit about ourselves (we, the Brown Bookshelf) starting next Monday and that means more free books for commenters!

Now, back to your regularly scheduled program.

Lesa Cline-Ransome

February 23, 2009


As a child, Lesa Cline-Ransome dreamed of being an investigative journalist. She loved the idea of uncovering stories and crafting in-depth articles. Then, one summer she got a taste of the field through a workshop, and changed her mind. She longed for the freedom of inventing her own stories and adding her flavor to tales she wrote. Cline-Ransome found what she was searching for in the world of children’s books.

Her adult exploration of children’s books was inspired by her husband, acclaimed illustrator James Ransome. As he worked on his picture book debut, they both began examining stories. James studied the art. Cline-Ransome, who had been a teacher, fashion copywriter and proofreader, soaked in the words. When James encouraged her to try writing a picture book herself, Cline-Ransome passed until reading a passage about a legendary pitcher. She found her topic. Her first book, Satchel Paige, was listed in Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Books of the Year.

Today, Cline-Ransome continues to win praise for writing with sensitivity and grace. James has illustrated her many stories. Cline-Ransome, who also has beautiful quilt alphabet and counting books, has become known for writing stirring picture book biographies of greats like Major Taylor and Pele: “I especially love finding the most interesting parts of a person’s life,” she says on her website, “piecing them together and creating a new story for a new group of readers.”

On Day 23, we are proud to celebrate Lesa Cline-Ransome:

How did your childhood love of reading and writing develop?

I consider myself very fortunate to have grown up in a household with a mother who loved to read.  Each week she would make a trip to the library, and as the youngest of three, I was her constant companion.  While she browsed the adult shelves, I would search the children’s section and we’d each leave with stacks of books.  When my mother gave me my first diary (complete with lock and key!) my love of writing began.  The more I read, the more I wanted to write and the more I wrote, the more I wanted to read.

On your website, you wrote that one reason you gave up your childhood dream of being a journalist was that you didn’t enjoy factual stories. What called to you about picture book biographies? What are the rewards and demands of writing them?

I am a product of the early biographies that were required reading.  These well-intentioned biographies seemed to focus on the same ten people, and all of the subjects, unlike me, were diligent students, driven, kind hearted, seemingly perfect people. But it is the other aspects of people’s personalities that intrigued me.  What were some of the obstacles they faced?  Did they get along with their parents, siblings, spouses?  Did they ever fail?  In asking these questions of my picture book biography subjects, my hope is that I offer a more well-rounded and accessible view for young readers.

How did your first book, Satchel Paige, come to be? What was your path to publication?

I was at home after the birth of my first child and it was James who suggested I try writing for children.  We tossed around a couple of ideas and then he showed me a small passage on Satchel in the book, Champions.  I was definitely not a baseball fan, but Satchel was such a study in contrasts, I was completely drawn to his story.  He was a team player who had few friends and traveled alone.  He loved to put on a show but was never punctual.  He loved his family but preferred being on the road.  These are the elements that lend complexity to someone’s life story.  Stephanie Owens Lurie (then at Simon & Schuster) loved the idea and worked with me for months before the manuscript was accepted.

You’ve won praise for writing stirring stories like Young Pele: Soccer’s First Star and Major Taylor: Champion Cyclist. What are some tips for people interested in writing picture book biographies?  

 While researching, I try to select the most interesting parts of a person’s life and piece them together like a puzzle. I also try to discover first the motivating forces in their lives and then how they overcame obstacles on their way to success.

You also have a beautiful quilt alphabet and quilt counting book. How did you come up with the concept? Will you write more books for young picture book readers? 

Though I do not sew, I am inspired by those who do. The beauty of quilts lies not only in their beautifully abstract qualities but also that history is stitched within each piece.  For generations, women took scraps and pieced them together to create works of art and functional ways to keep their families warm.  We wanted to find a way to celebrate quilts for young readers, so the quilt and counting books were born. 

Your books are collaborations with your husband, award-winning illustrator James Ransome. Please tell us about that process.

lesa_and_james4300dpi2Most people believe that James and I sit side by side when collaborating on a book.  The reality is very different.  We never actually work on a book at the same time.  The largest part of our collaborative process is brainstorming and deciding what we would like to work on together.  Whether we are in the car or at the kitchen table we talk a lot about ideas that interest us.  From there I gather research and start the process of creating a manuscript.  Once it is completed, James begins illustrating anywhere from one to two years later.  So, by the time he has begun, I am already working on another project. 

What do you hope young people take away from your stories?

I hope they find inspiration in the passion and perseverance of the characters in all of my books. 

As a mom, what do you applaud about today’s children’s books? Does anything disappoint you?

I am honored to be in an industry that is putting out so many amazing works for kids of all colors, orientations, limitations and interests.  There is something for everybody.  It seems no topic is off limits and that philosophy opens literature to a much broader audience.  I am in two mother/daughter book groups with my 13- and 15-year-olds and the wide variety of books we read result in some very sensitive and  thought-provoking discussions.  Though it doesn’t seem to bother my kids, I do find it interesting that in many YA novels, the parents are either emotionally absent or deceased.

What are some of your favorite books to share with your children?

Two of my four children are now teenagers but we still take time to read together.  They had so many favorites but the ones we most love are Harry and Lulu (Arthur Yorinks), Nightjohn (Gary Paulsen), Love That Dog (Sharon Creech), Dear Mr. Blueberry ( Simon James) Julius (Angela Johnson), Bigfoot Cinderella (Tony Johnston) and Elijah of Buxton (Christopher Paul Curtis).

Can you please give us a preview of your next book? When will it debut?

I have two books coming out within the next two years.  Before There Was Mozart: The Story of Joseph Boulogne Le Chevalier de Saint-George, is the story of Joseph, son of a slave and French aristocrat who brought he and his mother to Paris in the 1700’s.  He became an accomplished fencer and violinist and eventually performed for the King and Queen of France.  Mozart was said to have been inspired by his compositions.  The other is Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass.

What’s your greatest joy?

My greatest joy is having many loves in my life:  my children, my husband, great friends and family, my writing, books, and, of course, chocolate. 

 The Buzz on Young Pele: Soccer’s First Star:

“With handsome oil paintings and a stirring story, this picture-book biography will first grab children with its action. Just as exciting, though, is the account of Brazilian-born Pelé’s personal struggle—his amazing rise from poverty to international soccer stardom. The focus is on Pelé’s childhood in Bauru, Brazil, in the 1940s and early 1950s. The pictures show him in his multiracial community, especially on the soccer field. He is punished for not paying attention in class; then he gives up school altogether to play soccer. His team, the Shoeless Ones, play barefoot; the ball is a sock stuffed with rags. The kids shine shoes and sell peanuts, until they earn enough for uniforms and second-hand shoes. Inspired by his dad, Pelé plays hard and is chosen as the team captain, and in a triumphant climax, he scores the winning goal in a big youth tournament. An afterword fills in the facts about how Edson (Pelé was a nickname) went on to become the greatest soccer player ever known.The small painting of the team’s battered second-hand shoes is a moving testament to its struggle, particularly in contrast to the final triumphant pages when Pelé kicks the ball straight into the goal.”

— Booklist, Starred Review

The Buzz on Major Taylor: Champion Cyclist:

“A picture-book biography of Marshall Taylor, an African American who became a great bicycle racer. Taylor grew up in Indianapolis, taught himself stunts on his bicycle, and won the first race he entered, in 1891, at age 13. He went on to achieve international fame in a segregated sport. (In this country, he was allowed to compete only because he’d been admitted to the League of American Wheelmen before they voted to bar blacks from membership.) He found a greater level of acceptance in France, and the account of his victory over the French champion Edmond Jacquelin provides the book with its climax. An afterword is frank about the difficulties the athlete encountered after retiring from racing; he died at the age of 53 and was buried in a pauper’s grave near Chicago. Overall, the text is smoothly written and greatly enhanced by Ransome’s vivid and accomplished paintings . . . Useful for reports as well as enjoyable for leisure reading, this attractive book should find a home in most collections.”

— School Library Journal

“African American cyclist Major Taylor, 1899 World Cycling champion, was as famous for the color of his skin as he was for his indomitability on the racetrack. This account covers Taylor’s transformation from a kid who loved to ride, “aware only of the wind against his face and the road he left behind,” into an internationally known athlete. His story bears all the elements of a traditional sports tale, complete with a climactic showdown between rivals and a triumphant ending. Yet the theme of racism looms large, from the white bike-shop owner who treats 13-year-old Taylor as a publicity gimmick to the white competitors who “boxed him out” during races . . .  A thoughtful afterword puts Taylor’s career into grim perspective: he died a pauper, his former glory all but forgotten.”

— Booklist

For more about Lesa, please visit her website: