As a child, Zetta Elliott felt the sting caused by racial slights and slurs. She endured the pain of divorce and the devastation of family breakup. As any child would feel given these situations, Zetta often felt invisible, overlooked — seen yet not heard. Her writing, like the works of many authors, reflect her personal life experiences, while allowing her to respond to situations that were never quite “fixed” in her own childhood.
She believes that writing can help a child better understand a sometimes difficult and confusing world. “Too often, however, [children] lack the language and/or the opportunity to articulate their wide range of emotions and keen observations.” Zetta views her writings as a chance to help children fill that void.
Her stories are real, and like real life, they are not sugar coated. Bird (Lee & Low Books, 2008) is the story of young Mehkai, better known as Bird, who struggles to understand the death of his grandfather, and his older brother’s addiction to drugs. Drawing offers Bird a way to express his emotions and imagination, and it helps him to make better sense of his world. His drawings provide the wings that allow him to fly.
Zetta Elliott is the Honor recipient of Lee & Low Books New Voices Award for 2005. She is an accomplished poet, playwright, and African-American studies scholar. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she works as a visiting professor in the African American and African Studies Program at Mt. Holyoke College. Bird is her first published book for children, and it is a brilliant debut.
Don: Tell us about your book, Bird.
Zetta: It’s actually quite difficult to summarize BIRD. What’s really interesting to me are the summaries produced by some reviewers, libraries, bloggers, etc. One said that BIRD was about life “in the ghetto,” and another said it dealt with gang violence. I thought that was so telling, and so different from how I see the book. To me, it’s about a child’s love of art, and the process by which he learns to use his creativity to make sense of the world around him. The book deals with some difficult, serious issues that children unfortunately have to confront: death, addiction, grief. But I don’t think of BIRD was a book about those things—it’s the child’s response that matters, and the help he receives from those who love him. BIRD is a book about the resiliency of families, and the power of art and storytelling to preserve our long tradition of transcending loss and coping with change.
Bird deals with tough issues. What kind of research went into telling this story?
Zetta: I didn’t do any research for BIRD. I’m a professor of Black Studies, so I have a general understanding of African American history and literature. Mostly I try to follow James Baldwin’s advice: “trust your experience.” I taught city kids for many years while I was in graduate school at NYU, and I had personal experience with the ways silence can destroy relationships within a family. I love birds, and I was living in Ohio at the time—I had never seen so many cardinals! I would take frequent walks by the river and see hawks circling overhead; I definitely knew more birds than people out there (I was supposed to be writing my dissertation)! So all those things came together to produce BIRD, and I wrote it in the middle of a creative binge—5 stories in 4 days.
It’s interesting how often people ask if I had a brother who died of drug addiction; I don’t, and I didn’t have a grandfather who was a Tuskegee airman. Readers often want to believe that a story emerged directly from an author’s life experience, but more often than not, it’s a blend of fact and fiction. I like the term “speculative fiction” because it speaks to the endless possibilities that can be found in the past, present, and future. There’s a part of my personal experience in everything that I write, but not everything I write is based on something I’ve personally experienced (except my memoir). I grew up in a family where children weren’t encouraged to talk about their feelings, or to ask questions. So it was important to me to write a book that provides a different model of children relating to the adults in their lives.
What were some of the challenges in writing this story?
Zetta: The challenge in writing a story like BIRD is knowing that there’s a readership out there that’s already primed to receive stories about dysfunctional black families, criminal black youth, and other problematic aspects of urban life. When many people see a black child on the cover of a book, they have certain expectations, which are informed, in part, by the distorted images and stories of black people that have circulated in this country for hundreds of years. I’m very aware of that history of misrepresentation, and there’s no way to counter it without simultaneously invoking it. I can’t tell a story about a young man succumbing to drug addiction without triggering the discourse on blacks and crime—I’m now part of that discourse, but my story isn’t the one with the most power behind it. So I’m aware that I’m writing against a certain kind of unhappy ending, and that makes it hard sometimes to speak publicly about topics that others find taboo. I don’t want to reinforce ideas of black youth as pathological or deviant. But in order to humanize characters, you have to tell the truth. And sometimes you have to not care about others misinterpreting your experience. You just have to hope your story will teach the reader something new, help him or her to see this one reality as just that—ONE reality, and not representative of the entire race.
Congratulations on being an Honor winner of Lee & Low Books New Voices Award. Can you talk about that a bit?
Zetta: Like many emerging writers, I spent many years sending out stories and then filing away the endless rejection letters. Lee & Low was actually one of the first presses to show interest in my work; back in 2000, when I had just started to write for children, I sent some stories to Lee & Low and Laura Atkins, an editor there, wrote back to encourage me. We began to correspond, and eventually she invited me to meet for lunch. That relationship has been so important for me as a writer, even though Laura eventually left Lee & Low and we never worked on a book together. She was so supportive; she taught me about the standard picture book format, of which I was totally ignorant—my early stories were way too long, but Laura felt I had a distinctive voice, and she encouraged me to keep writing and sending my work out. I did, and several editors expressed interest, but no contracts came my way. In 2003, I stopped writing for children and began writing in other genres, but I had 20 picture book stories stashed on my hard drive, plus a middle grade reader and a YA novel. Every so often I’d send something out; I sent several stories, including BIRD, to Lee & Low, but they weren’t interested. Then, in 2005, I moved to Louisiana and Hurricane Katrina struck. That shook me up, and I began digging through my many manuscripts, looking for my best work. I saw the notice for Lee & Low’s New Voices Contest and decided to submit BIRD. In January of 2006, I got a call from the publisher, letting me know I was an honor award winner. I thought, “This is it! I’ve found a home for all my work!”
As a first-time published author, what were some of the lessons you learned along the way?
Zetta: I learned a lot with this first book, mostly from my illustrator, Shadra, who (as a book designer at Bloomsbury) knows a lot more about the publishing industry. But she and I didn’t meet until after the book was done. I think I was most surprised by the lack of intimacy in the editing process. Writing is such a solitary pursuit and such a private experience that suddenly going “public” requires a big adjustment. I communicated with my editor via email, and finally asked if we could meet. I guess I assumed we would be sitting at a desk together, going through the text line by line, face to face. For the first few months of our relationship, I was living in MA, so I understood the need for so many emails. But then I moved back to Brooklyn, and thought that would change things; it didn’t. In some ways the publishing process felt like an assembly line—I did my part, the editor did her part, the illustrator did her part, it came back to me for revisions, it went to the publisher for final revisions, and then it went to the printer. I guess in the 21st century, that’s how business is done. I actually prefer email to telephone conversation, but with something like this—your writing, which is like your baby—I thought it would be different.
The publishing road is long and sometimes bumpy. Can you talk about your path along the way?
Zetta: We hit some bumps right away, b/c the readers at Lee & Low thought Mehkai was a girl; my editor also felt that Bird’s distinct voice would work best in a different format—not a standard picture book, but a format for older readers that would have significantly more text and only occasional illustrations. I was opposed to that idea, but agreed to try expanding the story. When I hit 2000 words, I stopped and said I couldn’t go any further. My editor then agreed to move forward with the picture book format, and I think that compromise produced a really beautiful book. The editing process was difficult b/c I didn’t see my writing as copy—it was like poetry to me and not something I could easily reproduce or extend. There’s also the issue of cultural difference; it’s not easy accepting that as a member of a minority group, you’re responsible for making sure readers from the majority group understand your experience. I wanted the story to be subtle, but my editor felt certain things needed to be explained with detail that made me uncomfortable at times. By the time we finished negotiating the text at the end of 2006 (when they acquired the book), I was quite demoralized. The story no longer felt like it was “mine,” but I guess that’s the price of publishing! Not surprisingly, I’ve turned to self-publishing for my other books (not picture books).
What brought you to write for children?
Zetta: In 2000, I was teaching at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, in their after school program. I was developing a writing curriculum and decided to try doing a unit on children’s picture books. I needed to first make a sample book to show my students, and so I wrote a story, “Room in my Heart,” and then illustrated it myself. Very basic drawings, but the kids found the story compelling. So I kept on writing stories that I thought would interest them. Also, my mother was an elementary school teacher for 35 years, so I grew up around picture books, in a way. I saw how she read to children, and she was my kindergarten teacher, so she also introduced me to a lot of the books I still cherish to this day (Ezra Jack Keats). When I started teaching myself, I was struck by the lack of material that addressed my students’ varied realities. So I started filling that gap myself. [see also Artistic Statement on my website].
Writing comes easy for some. Not so easy for others. What is the most challenging part of writing a book for you?
Zetta: Writing is like breathing for me, except that I don’t do it constantly. For me, writing is 70% dreaming, so the hard part is making sure you’re doing the work—putting in that “dream time,” even though to others, it looks like you’re doing nothing. I wrote BIRD in less than a day—it came very quickly, and in between other unrelated stories. I think the challenge of being a writer lies in having faith in yourself. Sometimes I go months without writing anything new, and that’s agonizing—I get depressed, grouchy, but I never despair. I’ve learned to trust that whatever’s inside will eventually come out. Teaching is time-consuming—I have a flexible schedule as a college professor, and I get lovely, long winter and summer breaks. But what you really need is headspace, and if I’m teaching a course on racial violence, then I don’t have a lot of free headspace for my creative work. I also have to meet the publishing demands of my profession, and that’s a very different kind of writing (scholarly articles, etc.) So being successful as a writer mostly means trusting yourself and creating balance in your life. That’s my goal, anyway!
The pairing of you and Shadra Strickland was absolutely on target. What did Shadra bring to Bird?
Zetta: Meeting Shadra is the best thing to come out of this entire experience! She’s such a warm, open, generous person—I absolutely count her as a mentor, and not just a good friend, b/c she’s taught me so much about the publishing process and the life of a professional artist. I don’t aspire to be a professional author, so publishing books has a different value for me. I think of myself as an artist, but I don’t ever want to quit my day job—I love to teach, and I actually need to be bound to some kind of institution or organization b/c otherwise I spend too much time inside my head, disconnected from the world. Shadra’s a person who can draw you out without ever making you feel unsafe or uncomfortable. She’s outgoing, curious about life, very open to new experiences—in some ways, she’s my polar opposite! So her energy really enriches my artistic life. We didn’t meet until after the book was done, but my editor did send me some of her artwork, and I was thrilled to know Shadra would be illustrating BIRD. She “got” the story—she didn’t need extra cues or explanation. I actually wanted something heavy and layered; I like saturation—deep colors, different textures. But she produced something better—very light, airy, and so the layers are more evident, there’s greater clarity. She brought the story to life, and her beautiful illustrations made me want to claim BIRD as my own again. I wanted my story to show black boys and black men interacting with tenderness, and Shadra captured this perfectly—her choice of clothing for the boys, their facial expressions—everything is spot on. I think she’s an intuitive artist, and so she knew what the characters were feeling; this wasn’t just a job for her.
What were some of your favorite books as a child and how did they affect your work today?
Zetta: My favorite books as a child included Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel, The Little Island (by Golden MacDonald), The Story of Ferdinand, and the Peter books by Ezra Jack Keats (Snowy Day, Whistle for Willie, Goggles, etc). Those were really the only books I recall from my childhood that featured children of color. My mother loved Keats, and so I remember having those books read at school very often. At home, we had loads of books that the school librarian gave to my mother; they weren’t in good condition, but as a child, I would’ve read just about anything. As an adolescent, I started to read the novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett, and The Secret Garden remains a favorite of mine. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry also became a favorite, and again—that was pretty much the only book I recall reading as a teen that featured a black protagonist. In my last semester of my last year of college, I had my first black professor, Gerry Tucker, and he introduced me to the writing of Jamaica Kincaid; my friend Kate also loaned me Beloved, by Toni Morrison, that semester, and that changed the course of my life. I went from only reading British Victorian literature, to only reading books written by black women. And that’s still mostly what I read today. I find the particular perspective of black women authors to be so rich and varied—Octavia Butler is a huge influence, and Gayl Jones. My YA novel, A Wish after Midnight, borrows Butler’s use of time travel (in Kindred) to question the idea of progress for blacks in the US. A teenage girl wanders into her local botanic garden, makes a wish in the fountain, and gets sent back in time to Civil War-era Brooklyn. I want to make magical things happen in the city—that’s important to me and, I think, to urban kids. Magic doesn’t happen elsewhere, to somebody else—it can happen to YOU!
What are you doing when you are not writing for children?
Zetta: I spend a lot of time dreaming, and I go to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden quite often b/c it soothes me and instantly opens my imagination to different possibilities. I teach, so some of my time goes into reading for class, grading, and working on lesson plans. I just canceled my subscription to cable, and hope to watch less TV in 2009! I love to watch movies, go to museums, listen to moody music—anything that will trigger the dreaming that leads to writing.
Who are your cheerleaders, those who cheer loudest for you along the way?
Zetta: Without question, my friends are my greatest support, particularly those who are also artists. There are too many to name, but when we had the launch party in Brooklyn, I really SAW just how blessed I’ve been when it comes to support. My friend Kate came from Nova Scotia, other friends came from out of state…and in Toronto, my extended family turned out in force to buy up everything I had penned. I’m so grateful for their love and support
When I think of the word “cheerleader,” however, I think of my cousin, Bethany (pictured with me; blond, wearing a green scarf). She has been reading my work forever, and now feels quite vindicated that others are sitting up and taking notice. I would send her picture book stories while I was living in Ohio, and she’d write back to tell me how a certain story made her cry…when BIRD came out in October of ’08, Bethany took an overnight bus down from Toronto so she could attend the party—and then she stood at the refreshments table and served cake to everyone! A month later she single-handedly coordinated a launch party for BIRD in Toronto. She’s relentless, tireless, and so, so generous. A true gem.
I have to say that I’ve always had support for my writing—my high school English teacher, Nancy Vichert, was the first to tell me that I could become a writer some day. Laura Atkins convinced me I could make a difference writing for children. My professors always encouraged me, and my friends were busy making their own art: poetry, plays, photography, novels, dance—you name it, they do it! So in terms of advice for other writers…
What advice can you offer to aspiring writers of children’s books.
Zetta: I would say one of the most important things is to surround yourself with people who BELIEVE. I don’t come from a family where open communication is valued, so I had to get away from my family before I could really claim my identity as a writer. Having a strong, supportive circle of artistic friends meant I never had to justify spending a day in front of the computer, or in a gallery, or rereading a favorite novel. My father once said, “No one can wake up every day and just write!” But I can. He was right—I also needed a steady source of income! But it’s important to value the person you believe yourself to be. And others can’t always see that. They’re so used to thinking of you in a familiar way, and perhaps they think writing is just a hobby or a phase. But if you are an artist, then making art is an integral part of who you are, and you need to affirm that daily. You will face a LOT of rejection, and you will be asked to do things that make you uncomfortable. I think you have to have a limit, so you know that you will bend, but only so far. Toni Morrison once said, “You don’t need anyone’s permission to be a writer. But you do need permission to be an author.” For a long time, I thought I wasn’t “legit” b/c I didn’t have any publications. But I’ve always been a writer, and I will always BE a writer, regardless of what happens with the publishing industry. Write because you love the work itself. Write to learn more about yourself, and the world around you. Don’t do it for fame or fortune, b/c that’s hard to come by in the publishing industry.
What can your fans look forward to reading from you in the future?
Zetta: Right now I’m focusing on getting my self-published books into the hands of readers. I have two collections of plays, and those are being taught at a couple of universities. I have a memoir, Stranger in the Family, and my YA novel, A Wish after Midnight, and I’m working on getting those to students as well. They’re available on my website, and on www.lulu.com, but getting the word out is challenging! Especially when I’m not a very public or outgoing person. I never wanted to hustle books out the trunk of my car, but books can’t circulate unless you talk them up and increase their visibility. The positive attention I’m getting for BIRD also creates opportunities for me to do workshops and give talks; I’m doing interviews, podcasts, I’m blogging—it’s a whole new world for me! So I hope fans of BIRD will stay tuned, and look a bit harder for the stories that reflect the full range of our experiences.
The Buzz on Bird:
“From a first-time author and illustrator comes a sad truth of contemporary life successfully leavened with hopeful optimism.” – School Library Journal
“With unusual depth and raw conviction, Elliott’s child-centered narrative excels in this debut.” – Kirkus Reviews