Jacqueline Woodson

February 22, 2009

There are some authors who change the way you look at literature. Through their words, you are sent to unexpected places and leave transformed by the journey. You connect to characters whose stories, whether foreign or familiar, hit you where it counts — in the heart.  Jacqueline Woodson did that for me.

The first Woodson book I read was Visiting Day, illustrated by James Ransome. In the tale of a girl traveling with her grandma to see her incarcerated father, a world opened up.  It was a place where a tough issue affecting children could be turned into a lyrical and moving story, a place where words could affirm, comfort and heal. That power for creating poignant — and enduring — testimonies is a Woodson hallmark.

Through her picture books, middle-grade and young adult novels, Woodson takes her characters — and readers — on emotional odysseys. Young people like Clover and Annie, Lili and Lonnie C. Motion, Lafayette, Ty’ree and Charlie and Melanin Sun spring to life. They pull at something inside us that lingers long after their stories end.

Woodson, author of more than 20 books, has been hailed for the beauty, power and depth of her stories. She has won many of the industry’s top accolades for her work —  Newbery Honor, Coretta Scott King Award, Los Angeles Times Book Prize. And in 2006, she added one of the greatest honors for young adult literature — the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement.

For Day 22, we are proud to celebrate vanguard author, Jacqueline Woodson:

What place did writing and reading have in your youth? Did those early experiences help shape your future as an author?  

My mom was a single mom  (she and my dad separated when I was two-months-old) who worked full time.  When I was around eight-years-old, my grandmother came from South Carolina to live with us but, always, our after-school ritual was this: My older brother, sister, younger brother and I walked each weekday from our school to the library a block from our house.  There we did our homework and when done, we read.  I was a slow reader and spent a lot of my younger years in the picture book section reading the same books over and over.  At 5:45 p.m., just before the library closed at 6 p.m., my mother picked us up and took us home.  She made sure we all had library cards and that they were in good standing.  We had many books at home (mostly ones we borrowed from the library). My mom didn’t allow us to watch much television and was constantly saying, “You need to be reading.” — Which is a phrase that made me so cranky as a kid!  I wrote poetry and songs and silly rhymes all the time because I loved doing so.  I made up lots of stories to entertain my siblings with and I was always excited about any kind of writing assignment our teachers gave us.  So when I look back, my coming of age as a writer and reader started because of economics and my mother’s philosophies about education and reading being a tool for moving forward in one’s life.  I always said I wanted to be a writer but thought it would be a hobby rather than a life.  Of course my big dream was to ONLY write but no one was encouraging that (straight-forwardly) but even as my mom and grandma discouraged me being A Writer as a career, they were subversively (whether they knew this or not) showing me the road to a life as a writer.

How did your first book, Last Summer With Maizon, come to be? What was your publication journey? How did you decide to make Maizon’s and Margaret’s story a trilogy?

I started writing Last Summer With Maizon when I was still in college. I knew I wanted to write about things that mattered to me.  One summer, I took a writing workshop at the New School with a woman named Margaret “Bunny” Gable.  In this class, writers I had cherished as a child would visit to sit in, have their own work critiqued and critique the work of others. I was the only person of color in the class and probably one of the youngest.  I handed in a piece about a white family who wins a lottery and moves to the suburbs — very Judy Blume, M.E. Kerr, etc. inspired.  Bunny said I should write what I knew and the next time around I nervously handed in a piece from Last Summer with Maizon and Bunny thought it worthy of reading aloud to class — anonymously, thank goodness — but everyone knew it was me since I was the only brown person and the story was all about brown people, I guess they kind of figured it out.  An editor from Bantam Doubleday Dell (now Random House) happened to be there and asked if I’d send the novel to her. I did.  She ended up quitting very soon afterward and the novel sat around with no editor for a while until Wendy Lamb got ahold of it and worked with me on it.  Bantam Doubleday Dell/Random House went on to publish a number of my books but I was writing a lot and so a number of other publishers published my work as well.  Wendy was the one who suggested making Last Summer With Maizon a trilogy.  I wrote Maizon At Blue Hill after getting lots of fanmail from people saying they wanted to know what happened to her while she was at boarding school.  Then Wendy said let’s just make a trilogy.  Sounded cool to me at the time but by the time I got to Between Madison and Palmetto – -I was SO ready to move on to some new characters!  At the time, it was the only trilogy out there about girls of color.  I’m hoping that’s since changed.

Can you please share the demands and rewards of writing for middle-graders? What inspired you to start writing for other ages?

I found my voice as a writer of middle grade fiction.  For many years, it was the age that came to me and all of my characters seemed to be somewhere between 8 and 11.  So I just wrote and wrote.  Then I started getting more sure of myself as a writer and started venturing out. I love Young Adult fiction because I feel like I have this HUGE canvas and can paint in a complicated landscape and take my time doing it.  I love Middle Grade because it’s immediate and clear and in the moment. I love Picture Books because I can write poetry and the urgency moves the book along quickly. With picture books, I have no time to fool around and take my time with words.  That’s why I’m usually working on two books at once — usually a YA alongside the picture book.  That way, when things get too urgent and I can’t figure out how to move through it, I go work on the young adult and just let myself take my time with the telling.  That’s not to say there isn’t an urgency to the YA.  It’s just a different journey for me to that urgency.

You said in one interview: “My writing comes from something I know deeply and then I put into and onto my characters.” Please talk about that. How does your past and present inform your writing?

I do believe that everyone has a gift and mine is the gift of writing.  I think this is what I was called to do in life and whether people knew it or not, they helped me on this journey — family, teachers, editors, friends, strangers . . . The thoughts my characters have and things they do are informed by my own beliefs and values and thoughts about the world.  I do sometimes write about things I know nothing about (Witness Protection Program, mothers abandoning their children, being raised by fathers, siblings separated, parents dying). Sometimes I have to do research. Sometimes I just have to sit with my character and feel out what this means to them — or rather, what it means to me and by extension to my characters.  Sometimes my characters are so complete that it feels like I just sit down and let them tell their stories.  But most times, it’s not like that.  Each book is a journey and I learn from that journey.  Everything I do and see and think and experience informs who I am and therefore informs my writing.  I can’t walk through this world with blinders on or else I don’t grow. I think there are those who are afraid to let the world in — to see the injustices, the unkindness, the fear, etc.  I can’t afford to be one of those people because it would mean not growing — and if I can’t grow, I can’t write.  So some days, I’m like this big bruise walking through the world — and it’s a bit awful but it comes with what it means to be a writer and so I do what I need to do — take deep breaths, find things to smile about, and write.

In another interview, you say that your writing is character-driven: “I have a character or few characters in my head and they just start speaking.” Do you ever wish you could silence them? What’s been the hardest character to write? The most rewarding? What character is most like you?

I think the hardest character to write was Nelia in Behind You right after Jeremiah’s death. I was a new mom, the towers had come down and the world was going crazy.  I had to go into the head of a mother who had lost something so dear to her and try to get her to be someone who had healed from this loss by the end of the book.  I had no idea where to begin.  Another character that was hard was Lena’s dad in I Hadn’t Meant To Tell You This — I couldn’t just make him evil — I had to SHOW why he was doing what he was doing and in order to do that, I had to sit with him – figure out who he was as a boy, what had broken him.  I could go on.  Toswiah/Evie was a challenge.  Melanin Sun was my first boy point of view.  I am writing a book now with so many people in it all needing to have their stories told that I just had to put it down for a bit and exhale.  And that’s when I want to say “Enough!”  Instead, I try to get away for a bit and be in the world of my friends and family to gain strength before I head back into their world.

Some of your characters cope with tough realities such as sexual abuse, police brutality, parental loss. Is it ever tough exploring those hard places? Where do you get the strength to go there and write with candor?

I think if I didn’t have a village — here in Brooklyn I have so many close friends, my children have so many ‘aunties’ and ‘cousins’.  There is always someone saying “You can do this, Jackie” or “You rock!” or just saying “come over, we’re cooking for y’all tonight.”  And that’s the kind of stuff that makes the everyday so much easier.  My friends/family/village is irreverent, funny, tough, honest and most of all – – here for me and helps me get through the hard stuff.

I really admire how you boil down complex issues to their essence in moving picture books such as Visiting Day, Coming On Home Soon and The Other Side. What tips can you offer to others hoping to write realistic fiction for young children? What are some tips for those hoping to write realistic fiction for middle-grade or YA audiences?

Write what you know and don’t let fear keep you from telling your characters’ truths.

Your picture book, Show Way, beautifully celebrates the threads and history that connect generations of your family. How did it feel to see that book come to life and be received so warmly?

It’s always surprising to touch someone with your work, but to have people acknowledge it in ways you never imagined is some whole other thing.  Show Way is very, very close to me and I feel like in some ways it’s so intimate and personal and in other ways it’s everyone’s story who had to make a way out of no way.  It’s a book that pays homage to my people and connects me to people all over the country so I’m pretty grateful for it in the world.

In the frequently asked questions on your website, you answer, “Why do you love writing so much?” by saying: “Because it makes me happy. Even when the words are slow in coming and the story seems all lopsided, writing keeps me happy.” That’s a beautiful statement. How do you push past that rough patch and find story gold?

Such a good question — I think it’s important to remember that writing is a gift and our stories are gifts to ourselves and to the world and sometimes giving isn’t always the easiest thing to do but it comes back.  You have to give it away to keep it — I know each time I put a story into the world, a part of it is stronger inside of me — I understand something on a deeper level, I appreciate someone just a little more, I am just that much more grateful for my life and my work.  Yes, writing is not easy.  But can any writer imagine NOT writing?

Your verse novel, Locomotion, is such a poignant story. How did you decide to tell that story through poems? What role does poetry play in your life?

I was scared of poetry as a kid. I loved Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni but those were pretty much the only poets I understood.  I always felt like it was someone trying to confuse me somehow.  Locomotion helped me move past my fear of poetry.  I knew I wanted to write about a boy who was learning to tell the story of his life through poetry and at first, I tried to write it as chapters but realized that wasn’t okay because I was telling instead of showing and so I had to go back and read lots of poetry and really begin to believe that there was a poet inside of me in order to write about the poet that was Lonnie.

Peace, Locomotion, just debuted. Congratulations! It’s already winning great reviews. Why did you decide to write a sequel to Locomotion?

When Locomotion was done, I thought that I was finished with Lonnie and Lili’s story.  But they stayed with me. I hadn’t found true peace with them living apart and so Lonnie wasn’t at peace (in my head).  Then the war was/is so much with us and I thought about all the brothers over there fighting and knew Lonnie had a foster brother in the war so wanted to explore that.  Thus began this story.

Please tell us about the process of seeing your YA novel, Miracle’s Boys, turned into a mini-series. What was it like to see your words brought to the TV screen? Are there other of your books you’d love to see made into films?

I haven’t figured this one out yet.  I’m glad it was made into a miniseries. I got to meet great people and had a lot of fun.  Some of us stayed close and that’s really cool.  It’s always nice to see this other kind of attention paid to your work but I don’t dwell on it for too long.  I spent a lot of time on the set of Miracle’s Boys when I should have been writing and I don’t want to do that again.  If something else gets made, I’ll probably enjoy it from afar.

You’ve won so many awards including Coretta Scott King Awards and Newbery Honor medals for Feathers and Show Way. What did receiving the 2006 Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults mean to you? What have been the proudest and toughest moments of your career? How has your voice grown and developed over the years?

The MAE is still taking some getting used to.  A part of me still can’t believe I got a Lifetime Achievement Award.  A part of me thinks, “Goodness, should I stop while I’m ahead?”  I don’t know.  The recognition can sometimes be scary — with it can come an expectation.  I try to say, “Those awards were for that book and that’s great but today is another day, Jackie and you still have work to do.”  Audre Lorde said, “We must wake up knowing we have work to do and go to bed knowing we’ve done it.”  I believe that everyday.  There is so much work left to be done in the world and for me, I am hoping to make the change I can and do the work I need to do through this gift I’ve been given.  The awards are gifts back to me and to me, they say, “Keep on doing what you’re doing.  Thank you.”  

I think I’ve become a better writer over the years because I’ve grown up and with growing has come a certain understanding that life is SO not easy!  Jeez — some days I’m shocked by how un-easy it is.  But then I look up and the sky is amazing or I look across the table and my son is smiling with his five little teeth or my daughter is cracking up over some joke someone has told her or Obama’s given his Inaugural Speech and I think “I wouldn’t want things any other way.”

What was the racial landscape of the children’s book industry like when you entered the field? How has it changed? What gains in the field have made you proud? What do you hope the future brings? 

I remember Virginia Hamilton, Walter Dean Myers, Ashley Bryan, Pat Cummings, Joyce Carol Thomas and Eloise Greenfield.  I know there were some others who I’m forgetting but these were some of my heroes and the landscape was changing and these writers had made it possible for me to get Maizon in the world.  I think what’s cool now is publishers are open to ALL kinds of stories and many ways of telling them — I think they’ve realized that we as people of color has lots of stories and there are many readers out there eager to read these stories.  I want my daughter and son and the daughters and sons of people of color to see themselves in the pages of the stories they read — and see writers of color writing these stories.  I had very little of this as a child.  Around the country I still hear, “Well, I have no African American kids in my class so I don’t have any books by African Americans in my class library.”  I always respond by saying “I SO hope I’m not the first African American any of your students meet!”  I hope this changes.

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

Mainly my mission is to do the work I was put here to do — which is write and be a good person in the world.  

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

I’ve finished a couple of picture books and am deep in a middle grade (I think) book I don’t know what to make of yet.  This is from my book, Each Kindness, a picture book that Shadra Strickland (hopefully) will be illustrating:

“That morning, as we settled into our seats, the classroom door opened

and the principal came in.

He had a girl with him and said to us

This is Maya

Maya looked down at the floor.  I think I heard her whisper 



We all stared at her.

Her coat was open and the clothes exposed looked old and ragged.

Her shoes were spring shoes, not meant for the snow.

A strap on one of them had broken.”

What’s your greatest joy?

That’s hard to answer — I have so many of them that I don’t know where to begin and I fear I don’t want to jinx any of them by naming them this way.  I think at this point (our four-month-old puppy was killed by a car last week as a dogsitter walked her) I am thinking about what gives me joy each day and trying to be in the moment of that.  I think like my work, I have to wake up thinking about the MANY gifts I’ve been given and not go to sleep each night until I’ve given thanks for each one of them.

The Buzz on Peace, Locomotion:

 “…the spare, beautiful prose – both the dialogue and the fast first-person narrative – is as lyrical as the first book.”

— Booklist

“Moving, thought-provoking, and brilliantly executed, this is the rare sequel that lives up to the promise of its predecessor.”

— School Library Journal, Starred Review

“Woodson successfully develops characters that readers will feel close to…the resonance of the characters’ situations with those of many young readers and Woodson’s undeniable literary talent… distinguish this… “

— Kirkus

The Buzz on Feathers:

“Looking forward” is the message that runs through Woodson’s (The House You Pass on the Way) novel. Narrator Frannie is fascinated with Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope is the thing with feathers/ that perches in the soul,” and grapples with its meaning, especially after a white student joins Frannie’s all-black sixth-grade classroom. Trevor, the classroom bully, promptly nicknames him “Jesus Boy,” because he is “pale and his hair [is] long.” Frannie’s best friend, Samantha, a preacher’s daughter, starts to believe that the new boy truly could be Jesus (“If there was a world for Jesus to need to walk back into, wouldn’t this one be it?”). The Jesus Boy’s sense of calm and its effect on her classmates make Frannie wonder if there is some truth to Samantha’a musings, but a climactic faceoff between him and Trevor bring the newcomer’s human flaws to light. Frannie’s keen perceptions allow readers to observe a ripple of changes. Because she has experienced so much sadness in her life (her brother’s deafness, her mother’s miscarriages) the heroine is able to see beyond it all—to look forward to a time when the pain subsides and life continues. Set in 1971, Woodson’s novel skillfully weaves in the music and events surrounding the rising opposition to the Vietnam War, giving this gentle, timeless story depth. She raises important questions about God, racial segregation and issues surrounding the hearing-impaired with a light and thoughtful touch.”

— Publisher’s Weekly, Starred Review

“Stepped through that door white and softly as the snow,” notes sixth-grader Frannie, on the arrival of a pale, long-haired boy to her predominantly black middle school on a winter day in 1971. He is dubbed the Jesus Boy by the class rowdy, and the name seems to suit the newcomer’s appearance and calm demeanor. Frannie is confused, not only by declarations that he’s NOT white, but that her friend Samantha, daughter of a conservative Baptist minister, also seems to believe that he is Jesus. In light of this and other surprises in her life, Frannie questions her own faith and, most of all, the meaning of the Emily Dickinson poem that she is studying in class, “Hope is a thing with feathers/that perches in the soul/….” How does she maintain hope when her newly pregnant mother has lost three babies already? She also worries about her deaf older brother, Sean, who longs to be accepted in the hearing world. She sees the anger in the bully intensify as he targets Jesus Boy. With her usual talent for creating characters who confront, reflect, and grow into their own persons, Woodson creates in Frannie a strong protagonist who thinks for herself and recognizes the value and meaning of family. The story ends with hope and thoughtfulness while speaking to those adolescents who struggle with race, faith, and prejudice. They will appreciate its wisdom and positive connections.”

— School Library Journal, Starred Review

A Few of Jacqueline Woodson’s Awards:

2008, Newbery Honor Medal for Feathers

2006, Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement (for significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature)

2006, Newbery Honor Medal for Show Way

2003, National Book Award Finalist for Locomotion

2001, Coretta Scott King Author Award, Miracle’s Boys

2000, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Miracle’s Boys

For more about Jacqueline Woodson, please visit: www.jacquelinewoodson.com.

Evelyn Coleman

February 21, 2009

05-13-evelyncoleman1alone-copyEvelyn Coleman is candid about her life as an author and what her publishing experience has been like for the past fifteen years since her first book, The Foot Warmer and the Crow, was published.

Her resume is extensive and shows that she values her calling as an author.  She respects the craft of writing and shares her knowledge with others at writer’s workshops, conferences, and speaking engagements.

In 1987, Coleman was the first African American to win the North Carolina Arts Council’s $5,000 fiction fellowship.  Her young adult novel Born in Sin was selected as a Junior Literary Guild Selection in 2001 as well as the Young Hoosier Book Award.  The Riches of Osceola McCarty was a recommended book in the February 1999 issue of Essence magazine as well as awarded as a Carter G. Woodson Honor Book in 1998.  Several of her titles have been lauded and placed on recommended reading lists across the nation.

Evelyn Coleman is a treasure in the children’s literature community who values a well-written story and her audience.

Your first book, The Foot Warmer and the Crow, was published fifteen years ago.  I read about your journey to become an author and respect your perseverance to become a published author.  I won’t ask you to relive the journey of becoming an author, but I am curious as to what you have learned about being an author.

I’ve learned that even though I thought it would be difficult, I still wasn’t prepared for the complexity of it. Enjoy the process of writing, because once you are published, it will NEVER be the same. The advice my first agent Denise Stinson gave me, “Don’t quit your day job,” was on target for several reasons.  Before being published, “writing” was my passion, stolen moments, the first thing I wanted to do when I came home from my 9 to 5. It was a release, a path of pure joyful, unhindered creation, however under contract it not only became “my job” but sort of took over my life. I am amazed at how long it takes to actually have your “advance” in hand after you’ve signed the contract. Even more amazed at how long the editorial process can be, meaning you don’t see the other half of the advance, not so much on your writing schedule, but the editor’s schedule. If you’re not a great sales person (like me – I might be the world’s worst) then the road to being a “selling author” is tough going. I’ve also learned that it’s fruitless to complain about the lack of advertising/marketing support a publisher might give you. That no matter what you think of your book, the sales are not decided by you. And most perplexing, that even with years of accounting experience, I still am not able to read the royalty statements of at least half of my publishers. That editors move around like Chinese checkers, back and forth between houses. That just because you sell a book is no guarantee that it will be published. And last but not least, that sometimes it matters more what you have done wrong than what you’ve done right in the world of publishing, ask Monika Lewinsky.

footwarmI read about your childhood growing up in Burlington, North Carolina.  Do you plan to tell any stories set in Burlington or that are based on your childhood experiences like you did with To Be a Drum?

I rarely have a “plan” but I did begin a book I wrote, Mystery of the Dark Tower, in Burlington.

Are there any niches within African American children’s literature that you are seeking to fill with your stories?

Yes, I want my work to challenge conventional thinking. I don’t mind it if my work is controversial and I rarely shy away from issues about “race.”

What is your goal as a children’s author?  Has that goal changed from when you first began your career as an author?

Hmm. My goal is to entertain readers, either “make them cry, laugh, smile or just piss them off.” So far I have been really good at the “pissing them off” part.

I don’t think my goal has changed because I have always believed that it’s important for children’s literature to change the forces in the world for the better. Children’s books touch all ages and that’s why I love writing children’s literature.

During your interview at Embracing the Child, you reveal that you’ve always had a captive audience in your family.  Your brother loved your stories so much that he gave you his dessert and lunch money.  Do you test out your stories on your children and grandchildren?

No. Children don’t buy books, adults do, so it seems a waste of time to me. Plus, my children and grands “love” almost everything I say and do…. So they’re not an objective audience.

Describe yourself as a writer. I care more about the craft of writing than selling. I want my work to 0807580074last for a long time and I spend countless hours doing research for each book.

What is your writing style?  I write in spurts. I often go to a monastery to start a book, where they practice “silence” so I am not tempted to chat too much. I get up, eat breakfast, take a walk about their grounds, write, eat lunch, walk, write, pray, eat dinner, walk, write…. Get a few hours of sleep and start all over again for about a week. If I am home I am not so disciplined though. I will do everything I can think of before writing… sometimes I’ll even clean up to avoid it. That’s how serious it gets for me. Right now is the longest stagnant period I’ve had in years. Hopefully soon I will snap out of it. Pray for me. I don’t use outlines, rarely know where I am headed, just a general notion, sometimes I have a loose tag line. Plot is most important to me, I hate giving people names and will call them Fido until I am mid way the story. I also don’t care for long descriptions of scenery or “things like rooms, décor, etc.” I want action usually. And if it is adult writing I want someone deserving to die. I don’t like gray areas and usually prefer for the hero/heroine to know right from wrong even if they don’t do it and I want them to survive at the end. I don’t care for grifter tales unless there is a redeeming quality gleaned in the end.

What do you do to create the story?  Sit down and write usually. Are you an outliner? No, if I do an outline I usually have lost interest in the story by the time I’ve completed the outline. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, but trust me, I try to get around that.

Do you have several works in progress or do you only work on one story at a time? I often have more than one project going at a time, mainly because I am an obsessive compulsive without medication.

What is the best part of being a children’s author? Watching a child read my work while laughing out loud or becoming tearful. Getting a letter from a teacher who explains that her class had chosen one of my books to do as a play, and a problem came up only when it was time to divvy up the parts….no one wanted to be the “white people.” I love visiting schools that are enthusiastic about my work. Also, knowing that my books are in public libraries and remembering that when I was a child I couldn’t even go into the public library in my hometown. I enjoy finding other writers who care about children’s literature. It helps knowing that my work is forcing people to face their own prejudice, racist or homophobic notions. Mentoring other writers as they begin their careers, and, more recently teaching writers and storytellers how to write for children.

What motivates you to keep writing every day? It’s tough. I threaten to quit often, sometimes I don’t write for months (like now) because I lose my confidence and feel like I really can’t write that well so why bother. Then someone emails me or I receive some honor that keeps me going for a little while longer. Sometimes writing depresses me, terrifies me, until I am paralyzed, fortunately it eventually passes. The bottom line for me is I would die without writing. As Rainer Maria Rilke, the great poet, suggested, “go within,” and ask, “MUST I WRITE. For me the answer is a resounding YES! Now the question to myself, today is “WHEN?”

080758956xYou’re no stranger to winning awards for your writing, but how do you measure your success? I started out measuring my success by how reviewers responded to my work, then later the reaction from readers, now I am not sure if I can measure it. Sometimes I feel that I have completely missed the mark. For instance, I have never won the most coveted awards, not even a Coretta Scott King Honor…. So as an African American writer that hurts… but hopefully one day, if I persevere I will win it. Another writer I know, who started in this business around the same time I did told me “I plan to win every major award,” and she has done just that. I didn’t have “awards” on my radar back then but it finally came to me that winning the major awards means selling more books. Clearly not only is she a better writer, she understands what we do.

When it comes to measuring my success, I fought feelings of “envy” for a long time, something I had never experienced in my previous career. I am finally past that though. It was a shameful feeling for me and I struggled to overcome it. I give thanks that I was able to move past that. It is so crippling to the spirit of a writer.

How much importance do you place on the literary awards that you receive?

As I stated, early on I don’t think I gave awards much credence in the beginning, now I understand that without the awards you suffer in your career. On the other hand, none of this has any real meaning to the “act of writing.” It is a lesson I understood from the beginning. Yet, for a few years I was caught up into a flawed way of thinking — that publishing had something to do with writing. I separate the two completely now.

I read in your interview at Writers Write (1998) that writing books for children is more of a challenge for you as well as a longer process in comparison to writing for adults.  Is that still true almost eleven years later?

Absolutely it’s still true. It takes me about a year to write an adult book, two years for a YA and maybe three to four years for a picture book.

What are some of the challenges that you face that come with writing for children?

A child told me once that it made sense it would be harder for me, he said, “you’re an adult.” That is certainly a part of the difficulty. Also the shorter the book the more deliberate and precise you must be with the economy of words.

I read that White Socks Only was produced as a live action film several years ago.  What was it like making one of your books into a movie?  I see that you also have a screenwriter credit for White Socks Only.  What was the process like to turn one of your books into a movie?

Excruciatingly joyful! It is so different than writing prose. If you can’t see it, then you don’t write it. It took me a while to grasp that. However, the Academy Award winning producer, Barbara Bryant guided me on this path with expert hands. I will be forever grateful for that experience. She also produced Eleanora Tate’s Just an Overnight Guest and Pat Cummings’ books as well. Working with someone of her talent is another bonus to being an author.

Are any of your other books on their way to becoming movies?1593691629

Nope. Several of them have been close. My adult book What a Woman’s Gotta Do has been under option for years. As for children’s books, Disney was interested in Born in Sin but decided to go with the Cheetah Girls instead. And I can understand why…. certainly that series had great commercial appeal.

Which of your other books would you like to see become a movie?

I think of all my books, I’d love to see Shadows on Society Hill (because it shows Addy in a more progressive, economically secure place in her life and also she is so strong in this story.) Freedom Train I think will make a great movie because it exposes the pitfalls of “class warfare” and how the powerful for centuries have been able to use minority and poor against each other while they rob us blind. This book also looks at the changes in our country after World War II for women and the idea of patriotism.

American Girl is very popular with young girls all over the country.  How did you come to write Shadows on Society Hill: an Addy Mystery?  Did American Girl approach you to write the story about Addy, the sole African American character in the American Girl series?

Initially my dear friend and author, Angela Shelf Medearis told American Girl about me. They approached me to write in their history mystery series. After that, they came to me to tackle Addy’s first mystery, probably because I am most of all a “mystery writer.” Of course, I could only write this mystery because Connie Porter created the character.

Before reading Freedom Train, I never knew that this train existed.  I love learning more about history so this piece of history was right up my alley. Neither did I.

Where did the idea for Freedom Train come from? Savannah College of Art’s design staff, including editor, Anna Burgard actually told me about this train.

Do you plan to write more stories based on lesser known historical events? Yes, absolutely. I wrote about little known historical facts in American Girl’s History Mystery, Circle of Fire. This is loosely based on the KKK threatening to bomb the Highlander Folk Center in Tennessee. I was amazed to find that in the 1940s in the mountains of Tennessee a white man, born and bred in Tennessee, started integrating the Highlander Folk Center. Also I found out that many Civil Rights leaders, including Rosa Parks (before she refused to stand on the bus) attended the school to learn civil disobedience techniques. Mendy, the main character of the book is a strong “Daniel Boone” type trapper, who thwarts the KKK’s plans. Circle of Fire, Mystery of the Dark Tower and Eleanora Tate’s, Minstrel’s Melody, along with the other titles in the former History Mystery series from American Girl are being printed by Windmills Books, Mysteries Through Time series.

isbn0689855524From your notes at the conclusion of Freedom Train, you reveal that originally you wanted to tell the story from the point of view of an African American character, but it just never worked out.  How often do your original ideas for stories, characters change as you further immerse yourself in the story?

Almost always is the answer, sometimes I write a book over from beginning to end three or four times.  My original ideas are often flawed, too grandiose, not rooted in enough reality, off track about some aspect that I can only discover once I’ve done the research. Often I have to write over more than once to find the spots that are too coincidental for fiction. Yes, coincidence happens often in the real world, but in fiction it often doesn’t work. That is the key. Once in Circle of Fire, I had the main character setting a bear trap. I wrote the most beautiful scene (and it takes a lot for me to call my own work beautiful) only to discover after talking to six real-life trappers that it couldn’t be done. Talk about crying. I don’t normally fall in love with my own words…. But that time it was difficult to change this chapter. The thing is this for me, if a reader or an editor has a problem with something I wrote I don’t attempt to explain what I meant, I just accept that I didn’t do my job as the writer. After all I will not be there every time someone reads the book. So why not just fix it?

Next year, you have a new book coming out for young adults titled As Opposed to What.  Can you tell us what it’s about?

This is a book that will be published by the wonderful publishers Just Us Books. They are the premiere publisher for multiethnic children’s books, specializing in African American Literature. Cheryl and Wade Hudson, award winning writers themselves, have for years fought to bring poignant and meaningful stories to the world by and about African American people. Because writing a book means so much to me, it has caused me to cry many a night trying to perfect just the right story for them. I am in awe of their talents and want to give them the best book I can write. They would be the first to tell you it is taking me a long, long time. At this point if I don’t give them a great book, somebody needs to shoot me. I won’t reveal what As Opposed to What is about, mainly because I’ve started writing this book over from scratch six times and I am still not done.

You encourage young writers in the making to devour books. What’s on your To Be Read List? On my richesofoseola1list is: Kadir Nelson’s We are the Ship; Angela Benson’s Up Pops the Devil, Black Children’s Literature Got de Blues, Dr. Nancy Tolson; Celeste’s Harlem Renaissance, Eleanora Tate; Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell; Just Be, Carla Sarratt; Ashley Bryan’s Words to My Life’s Song

Name five books you’ve read in the last year. Margaret Johnson Hodge’s, Red Light, Green Light (my literary daughter) Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Jeff Kinney, Kenya’s Word, Linda Trice; Double Dutch, Sharon Draper; literally 40 adult thrillers – too many to name.

Evelyn, this was such a wonderful opportunity for me to pick your brain and glean from your experience as an author. Any final words for our readers?

Thank you for Brown Bookshelf. I hope that readers will take the opportunity to read all the wonderful authors you have showcased on this month.  Thank all of you for your continued support of all writers.


The Buzz on Freedom Train

Children’s Literature Review:“This book was an unexpected pleasure and a strong work. Its detail is beautiful and, at times, painful. Its voice jumps out at you from the first page and does not lose its potency throughout the rest of the work. The reader genuinely likes and becomes involved with Clyde and his family. This is a must-read. Reviewer: Monserrat Urena

Kidreads.com: Freedom Train is a powerful historical fiction title that illustrates the evils of segregation and discrimination for a younger audience. Children will want to read and discuss this timely and important book with their parents and teachers.” Reviewer: Carole Turner

Publisher’s Weekly: “Coleman convincingly depicts Clyde’s gradual awakening to the racism that surrounds him, as well as the prejudice his impoverished family faces.”

Kirkus Reviews: Clyde Thompson may be the shortest 12-year-old in seventh grade, but he learns to stand tall in this story about the Freedom Train’s arrival in Atlanta in 1949.

The Foot Warmer and the Crow (1994)
The Glass Bottle Tree (1995)
White Socks Only (1996)
What If (1997)
The Riches of Osceola McCarthy (1998)
The Flight of Kites (1999)
To Be a Drum (2000)
Mystery of the Dark Tower (2000)
Born in Sin (2001)
Circle of Fire (2001)
Shadows on Society Hill:  An Addy Mystery (2007)
Freedom Train (2008)

Deborah Gregory

February 20, 2009

deborahgregoryIn 1999, author, entertainer, and “Fashionista” Deborah Gregory took the ‘tween literary world by storm with her hugely popular series, The Cheetah Girls. The series — a positive, upbeat portrayal of a multi-ethnic girl music group — has spawned sixteen books written by Gregory, three movies, and countless other movie-related books and merchandise.

Gregory equates part of the series’ success to the desire for people to rise above their environment. “Part of the American culture is to transcend your background…to focus on a dream.” Gregory says. Gregory herself rose above a childhood spent in the New York foster care system to earn a degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology. She later earned a degree in English from Empire State College.

Though painful, it was Gregory’s childhood in the foster care system that led to her two passions. Gregory’s first foster mother was illiterate, which Gregory hypotheses is one of the main reasons that she became an author. “I was designated to be her eyes,” Gregory says of her foster mother. Gregory would read her foster mother’s letters for her, and pay her bills. In addition, Gregory made clothes for her foster mother, which fueled her other passion — fashion.

catwalkIt’s this combined love of fashion and writing that had led to Gregory’s second series, Catwalk (Delacorte, 2008 – ongoing). The first novel, also titled Catwalk (Delacorte, 2008), features Pashmina Purrstein  and fierce friends-all students at a New York fashion high school-as they prepare to compete in their elite high school’s legendary Catwalk competition. Essence calls Catwalk, “…a high energy journey through the world of fashion high school…” and says, “…young readers will dive into Gregory’s vibrant mix of teenage realism, glamour and fantasy…”

strikeaposeThe next novel in the series, Catwalk: Strike a Pose (Delacorte, 2009), is scheduled to be released this summer. While Gregory isn’t offering many details, she’s promised that the novel will chronicle the next set of struggles for Pashmina and her friends, and will be full of the “drama and kaflamma” her readers have grown to love.


Read more about Deborah Gregory at the following locations:

Official Website

Random House Author Site

Andrea Pinkney

February 19, 2009

andreaWithin the world of children’s publishing, Andrea Pinkney has become an icon. Her career spans more than twenty years, and during that time she’s juggled many hats.

As Vice President, Executive Editor for Scholastic Trade, Andrea has acquired and edited many titles, including the Newbery Honor Book Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis; The Clone Journals, a science fiction series by Newbery Honor author Patricia McKissack; Odetta, a picture book with the legendary folk singer; Sunrise Over Fallujah by Newbery Honor author and National Book Award finalist Walter Dean Myers; March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World by Christine King Farris (the sister of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.); and the upcoming Sassy series by New York Times bestseller Sharon Draper. In addition, Andrea will soon publish Crow Call, the first picture book by two-time Newbery medalist Lois Lowry and Beautiful Ballerina, a gift book featuring the principal dancers from Dance Theater of Harlem, to be published for Dance Theater of Harlem’s 40th anniversary.

Andrea began her editorial career at Essence Magazine as Senior Editor, Contemporary Living, where she headed up one of the most vibrant profit centers at the magazine. She then went on to pursue a career in children’s book publishing; at Simon & Schuster she served as an acquisitions editor, and then at Disney Publishing’s Hyperion Books for Children, she served as Editorial Director. During her tenure at Disney, she was the founding editor of Jump at the Sun, the first African American children’s book imprint at a major publishing house. Under Jump at the Sun, Andrea launched the hugely popular best-selling series, The Cheetah Girls, which has now become a Disney media franchise. Andrea also created the Shanna Show book series, now a Disney Channel animated selection.

After Disney, Andrea joined the Children’s Division of Houghton Mifflin as Vice President and Publisher. While there, she served as the strategic visionary and chief architect of the children’s trade editorial program and oversaw the successful expansion of the company’s key franchises including the Curious George publishing program and the media tie-in program for the bestselling children’s classic The Polar Express. Additionally, Andrea acquired and edited many award-winning books, among them Toni Morrison’s Remember: The Journey to School Integration and A Wreath for Emmett Till. Andrea also published the teen book Serving from the Hip by World Class tennis pros Venus and Serena Williams, which was featured in a two-part special on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

This year, Andrea was named one of the “25 Most Influential Black Women in Business” by The Network Journal, a publication for Black professionals.

Andrea also is a writer, and has authored more than 20 books for children, including the Caldecott Honor Book and Coretta Scott King Honor Book Duke Ellington, illustrated by Brian Pinkney; Let it Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and winner of the Carter G. Woodson Award; and Alvin Ailey, a Parenting Publication Gold medal winner.

Andrea lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, award-winning illustrator Brian Pinkney, and their two children.

I’m very honored to present one of the most influential people in the children’s publishing business, my very first book editor, Andrea Pinkney:

Don: Your most recent published book, Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation, is beautifully written and illustrated. What inspired you to write about Rosa Parks?

Andrea: Rosa Parks had a quiet strength about her. I found this inspiring. She was one of America’s sheroes whose courage and determination set her apart. By writing about her in Boycott Blues, I wanted to show young people that taking a stand can be done by simply standing firm in your convictions (or in Rosa’s case, sitting firm for what she believed was right).

Can you talk about your approach to telling the Rosa Parks story?

Andrea: Boycott Blues is told from the point of view of a blues-guitar-playing hound dog named Dog Tired. I chose this narrator because the blues is such an emotionally compelling musical form that speaks to the weary nature of the many dogged steps those boycotters must have felt. Then, too, the blues have hope wrapped inside them. Dog Tired delivers hope through his narrative. I thought, too, that by having a fiesty canine tell the tale, children might find it more accessible.

You wear many hats — author, speaker, publisher, wife, mother — how do you find balance, and how do you find time to write?

Andrea: I do wear many hats! Like any working mother, I have to balance and manage my time very carefully. My children and husband come first, of course, then my work. I get up very early in the morning and do my writing before I go the office, where I work as a children’s book publisher. I never leave home without my writing notebook, and get a lot of writing done in transit. One great place to create is while riding the subways of New York City, where I live. Weekends are family time, and they’re sacred.

What are the challenges in wearing so many hats?

Andrea: One of the challenges of wearing so many hats, is that I love each and every one of them!

What inspired you to make children’s literature the focus of your career?

Andrea: I started my career as a magazine editor. I worked at several women’s and special interest magazines. When I was a senior editor at Essence magazine, I produced many special sections for the magazine. One of those was a parenting section, in which we reviewed and featured children’s books. That was in the late 1980s, and I noticed there wasn’t a large selection of books by African American authors that covered a wide range of subjects (commercial, literary, historical, pop culture, fantasy, etc.). During a chance meeting with the publisher of the children’s division at Simon & Schuster, I mentioned this, and she offered me a job! I jumped at the opportunity because I saw such a tremendous need. I didn’t know a thing about producing children’s books (even though I’d authored two picture books at that point). The experience I brought to Simon & Schuster was that of a magazine editor — a profession that requires generating ideas all the time. I came to children’s book publishing with a lot of ideas, some of which I still have today.

In an ever tightening market, what advice can you give aspiring authors, interested in writing for African American children? Illustrators?

Andrea: The best advice I can give to any aspiring author is to write every single day. Work at the craft of writing. Take it seriously. Read. Read. Read. And make a study of books that are the best in the field — those that have won awards and are well reviewed.

What kind of stories do you like to read?

Andrea: As a publisher and author, I’m a big fan of historical fiction and also memoir. One of my favorite recent books is Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis (I’m a bit biased — this is a novel I acquired), and I love the memoir by James McBride entitled The Color of Water.

In your longtime career, what are some of the the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in children’s publishing?

Andrea: One of the most refreshing changes I’ve seen in recent years is the blending of genres — the pushing past the hard-and-fast lines of specific publishing categories. Nowadays talented authors and illustrators are creating books that can’t easily be put in a box. For example, I published a book entitled A Wreath For Emmett Till by Newbery Honor author Marilyn Nelson. This is an illustrated poem about the lynching of Emmett Till. Though illustrated, it’s not a traditional picture book, and it’s not for young children. The book has been embraced by middle school and high school teachers as a powerful teaching tool. Also, the book won a coveted Printz Honor medal and a Coretta Scott King Honor medal as well. It’s a book that I’m proud to say is “beyond category.”

What do you do outside the world of writing, reading, and publishing?

Andrea: When I’m not writing or working on books as a publisher, I’m doing things that make me happy. One is skiing with my kids and husband. I love sports. Last November I ran in the New York Marathon for the second time. I trained for a whole year, and ran in several New York City races leading up to the marathon. Running with my fellow New Yorkers is such a thrill! Also, I’m a true opera buff. Operas make the best stories.

What can your readers look forward to?

Andrea: My next book is entitled Sojourner Truth’s Step Stomp Stride, which will be published this fall by Hyperion. The book is illustrated by Brian Pinkney, my husband and frequent collaborator. The book introduces abolitionist Sojourner Truth and her mighty ways!

Marilyn Nelson

February 18, 2009

marilynnelsonThree-Time National Book Award Finalist. Two-Time Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Winner. Former Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut. Those are just a handful of the ways to describe Marilyn Nelson.

Nelson is the author or translator of twelve books and three chapbooks. carverHer first book for young people, Carver: A Life In Poems (Front Street, 2001) won the 2001 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award, was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award, a Newbery Honor Book, and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Nelson was also awarded her second Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and Coretta Scott King Honor for A Wreath For Emmett Till (Houghton Mifflin, 2005); the book was also recognized as a 2006 Michael L. Printz Honor Book, and a 2006 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor Book.

Her latest book, The Freedom Business (Wordsong, 2008), has received starred review from both Booklist and Kirkus, with Kirkus calling Nelson’s work, “An astonishing, heartbreaking cycle of poems…”

The recipient of three honorary doctorates, Nelson is a professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut and serves as founder and director of Soul Mountain Retreat, a small writers’ colony.

Please welcome Marilyn Nelson to Day 18 of 28 Days Later:

emmett_tillMost of your collections of poetry for young people, such as Carver, A Life in Poems (Front Street, 2001) and A Wreath for Emmitt Till (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), focus on biographies and true events. What draws you to non-fiction?

I’m interested in the stories contained in US history. It’s not so much history that draws me; it’s more the personal stories of actual people, and what can be learned from them.

Do you find that you approach poetry for young people differently that do you would poetry for adults?

Not really, except that I wouldn’t write about sex in a collection for young people. But I don’t write about sex, anyway!

Your latest book of poetry, The Freedom Businessfreedombusiness, chronicles the life of Venture Smith, an African sold into slavery that eventually purchased his and his family’s freedom. What attracted you to this project?

Venture Smith spent much of his adult life, and is buried, in East Haddam, CT, the little town in which I live. He is something of a “local hero.” When I moved to town, pretty much everyone I met asked whether I was planning to write about him. I had never heard of him before that.

The layout of the The Freedom Business features the text from Venture Smith’s narrative of his life on one page, and your poetry on the opposite page. How did this unique layout come about?

This decision was made by my publisher. So I give a shout-out to Stephen Roxburgh and Helen Robinson, and WordSong, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press.

You are also the founder and director of Soul Mountain Retreat, an organization established to “encourage and support emerging and established poets – especially those belonging to traditionally underrepresented racial or cultural groups.” What inspired you to found this program?

The experience of being “the only one” at several larger artists’ colonies, and the experience of being on the faculty of Cave Canem, the wonderful organization which exists to encourage and support African American poets. I’m especially interested in fostering community for ethnic writers at Soul Mountain, in offering, albeit on a much smaller scale, an opportunity for them to share some of the spirit of camaraderie which Cave Canem poets share.

Can you tell us a little about any upcoming projects?

Several books are forthcoming:

Sweethearts of Rhythm (Dial, 2009), a book of poems about an integrated all-girls swing band which toured the country during WWII.

Beautiful Ballerina (Scholastic, 2009), a picture-book about ballet, featuring African American dancers.

Snook Alone (Candlewick, forthcoming), an allegory about a dog marooned on a desert island.

Seneca Village (Dial, forthcoming), a book of poems about a nineteenth century African American village in Manhattan.

The Baobab Room (Candlewick, forthcoming), an allegory about a boy playing inside a baobab tree.


Learn more about Marilyn Nelson at the following locations:

Soul Mountain Retreat


CCBC Interview

Blue Flower Arts

London Ladd

February 17, 2009

londonladdEvery now and then, a new artist sneaks onto the children’s literary stage and dazzles us with such unbridled talent, that we’re left standing on our tippy-toes begging for an encore. Last year, one of those artists was London Ladd.

Ladd made his debut illustrating the book March On!, written by the sister of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Christine King Farris. With this book, Farris offered her account of the day Dr. King delivered his historic I Have a Dream speech. The book published last month, on the 45th anniversary of King’s march on Washington.

In a video, Ladd talked about living his dream illustrating children’s books, and about the day when March On! published. The excitement in his eyes sparkled as he recalled the day he gathered up his family and headed for the book store to take pictures.

When he’s not illustrating, you’ll find him teaching art at the Kuumba Project, an after school program that introduces visual and performing arts to inner city kids.

Here’s my chat with London Ladd:

Don: How did you become involved in the March On! project?

28593667London: Andrea Davis Pinkney hired me after a mutual acquaintance of ours referred her to my website. She liked my work and thought it would be perfect for this project.

How did you become interested in illustrating for children?

London: I wanted to bring words to life for children with my artwork. My first love was comic books, especially graphic novels. I loved the imagery and storytelling that came across in these books.

What kind of training have you received to prepare for your career as an artist?

London: I graduated at Syracuse University where I received my degree in illustration. I was lucky enough to study with great illustrators like James Ransome, Bob Dacey, Yvonne Buchanan, John Thompson and Roger DeMuth who taught various aspects of not only illustration but design and painting.

mlk-with-leaders What is your mission as an artist?

London: That’s a great question, I think my mission is to tell a story with beautiful vivid illustrations that children will enjoy.

What is your primary medium?

London: Acrylic paint on Bristol board because it doesn’t rip, buckle or bend, when I’m painting on it. I also love painting in my sketchbook. The Earthbound recycled paper is the best at handling thin washes and/or heavy opaque layers.

Tell us about your process of illustrating a children’s book.

London: After I except the project I read the manuscript over and over so I can understand what’s being said by the author. I really try to find myself in the story because then it becomes more personal to me, like a form of “method illustrating.” This gives me a better understanding of the projects composition, design and color choices. I quickly sketch down ideas and keep sketching then I put the drawings away for a few days and do some research. When I return I combine my research and refined sketches to compose the dummy book. I send the dummy book to the publisher and after they review and make suggestions I begin the paintings for the final art work. When art work is completed I package it and send to the publisher.

What inspires you as an illustrator? Are there certain topics/stories you enjoy more than others?

London: I love history so anything historical fascinates me because it allows me to learn while working. African American history especially interests me because there are so many untold stories.

mlk What were the biggest challenges in illustrating March On!

London: I wanted to create an MLK that conveys an intimate feeling, a behind the scenes perspective without making him too iconic. Christine’s story is a personal first hand account so I wanted to show him as an ordinary man who happened to do something extraordinary. There are so many books, magazine articles, photos, documentaries, etc, about Martin Luther King Jr., I wanted my vision to be unique.

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

London: The entire process from first call to handing in finished work takes 7-9 months depending on the subject matter. Sometimes it’s difficult to juggle everything with my families various schedules. But we make an effort to really spend quality time together.

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

London: Yes, I started visiting schools recently. During these visits I talk about my personal journey from student to illustrator. I explain the career of an illustrator and I try to inspire the kids to persistently reach for their dreams no matter their circumstance. I share with them the struggles that I experienced and how it built my character. I want kids to know that they can achieve any level of success if they put their mind and heart to it.

What are your interest/hobbies beyond art?

London: I love to travel and enjoy being around my extended family. In the summers I like visiting state parks around the State of New York.

What were some of your favorite books as a child?

London: I don’t remember any children’s books as a child only comic books but I know the first children’s book I gave to my daughter, Goodnight Moon. I love that book, not just because of the sentimental value but also the simplicity of everything about it, from the words to the illustrations.

Who are some of your favorite children’s book authors and illustrators today? And why.

London: There are so many illustrators whom I admire because they blazed the path and are successful and so amazingly talented.

Jerry Pinkney, Ashley Brian, Floyd Copper, Leo and Diane Dillon, James Ransome, Brian Collier, Kadir Nelson, Shane Evans, Ezra Jack Keats, E. B. Lewis, Greg Manchess, John Thompson, Bob Dacey, Yvonne Buchanan, James Garney, N.C. Wyeth.

the-long-night-thumbAs an illustrator who is African American, do you ever feel the pressured to illustrate certain types of manuscripts?

London: To be honest with you as an artist just entering the field I am grateful to illustrate books regardless of the subject. As long as they are good quality projects that are interesting and challenging I am open to them. If these projects happen to be African-American themed I’m fine with it. Maybe after a few years I’ll feel differently and want to do other types of projects.

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

London: My wife, daughter and mother, they’ve been there with me from the beginning through the good and the bad that’s why I dedicated the book to them.

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

London: Passion, Perseverance and Patience. Passion in what you do, perseverance to fight through tough times and patience in knowing that you will reach your goal.

What can your fans look forward to in the future?

London: I’m currently working on my second children’s book which is about a well-known African American. I’m excited and blessed to have an opportunity to do what I love.

Buzz about March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World

Ladd, in his first picture book, demonstrates a rare talent for portraiture-even the faces in his crowd scenes are individuated. Like Farris, he resists the temptation to lionize his subject: instead of looking iconic, his King looks human-in other words, capable of inspiring the reader.

–Publisher’s Weekly

Ladd’s acrylic paintings are an excellent accompaniment to the text. His use of color and varying perspectives creates a great deal of visual energy, extending the excitement of the event.

–School Library Journal

Ladd, a talented figure painter and first-time picture-book illustrator, offers his own fresh and affecting take on these now familiar events; his images expand and enliven the well-known facts and ably expand on Farris’s powerful family story.

–Kirkus Reviews

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

February 16, 2009


As a child, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson was captivated by the stories her mother read at bedtime. She soaked in the poems her father recited.  Those early  experiences gave her a deep appreciation for the power of literature and language. Today, part of Nelson’s mission is to share that gift with others: “I hope to give children some of what my parents gave me — the opportunity to grow, to be made stronger, through story.”  

As an author, Nelson has achieved that and more. Her books, exploring sensitive topics like slavery, elderly memory loss and discrimination, are filled with hope and heart. Her work has received many honors — Always Gramma was named a Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies and Beyond Mayfield won a Parents’ Choice Gold Award. Her picture book, Almost to Freedom, won a Coretta Scott King Honor Award for illustration and was made into a play.

On day 16 of our campaign, we are proud to salute Vaunda Micheaux Nelson:

How did your parents help put you on the path to writing? 

My parents brought books into my life on the day I was born; my mother found my name in a novel she was reading.  And my love of books began at bedtime, which was story time at my home.  Though I often joined my four siblings in the resistance against the dreaded hour, I can admit now that most times I was secretly anxious to go to bed to hear Mom read the next chapter of our current adventure involving Uncle Wiggily, Tom Sawyer, or the Bobbsey Twins.  Dad would recite story poems from memory, like “Oh, Captain, My Captain” and “Paul Revere’s Ride.”  He read Langston Hughes and other poets.  And he recited poetry he’d written himself, though he didn’t tell us it was his until years later.  Mom got us library cards and, twice a month, took us to the bookmobile.  We had no library in our small town.  Many parents stop reading to their children after they start reading on their own.  I will be eternally grateful that mine never did.  They both loved literature and made it an integral part of our lives.  They taught me the power of language.  This made me want to be a writer.

What inspired you to write for children?    

I had always loved children’s literature, and was working at Pinocchio, a bookstore for children in Pittsburgh, when I wrote my first book.  At the time, I was a sponge, soaking up all the children’s books I could.  I came to understand why they were so appealing to me.  The really good stuff has a complex simplicity, a subtlety, a depth of feeling and meaning, an economy of language, rarely seen in adult literature.  What a challenge!   It is a challenge I reach for every time I sit down to write. 

Also, I know what a difference books have meant to the fullness of my life.  It is gratifying to think that something I write may touch a young reader in a positive, permanent way.

How did your first book, Always Gramma, come to be?   What was your journey to publication?

When my grandmother became ill years ago, my parents couldn’t talk to us kids about it.   They didn’t have a language for it themselves, so they were as frightened and confused as we were, probably more.  Consequently, when I grew up, I couldn’t talk about it very well either.  I didn’t really understand everything that had happened and what I did understand had become so internalized that trying to deal with it was difficult.

I needed to write Always Gramma.  The process of writing the story helped me to move beyond the sadness, beyond the pain of what my grandma and I had lost to the disease, and to focus instead on what we had — the wonderful things we shared, and the love that illness or even death can never take away. 

Most editors thought the story was too sad.  Certainly, the sadness of the illness cannot be denied.  But the real story moves beyond that.  Always Gramma is simply about a relationship between two people in which one of them changes, but the love goes on.  The love is stronger.  It wins in the end. 

I received a terrifically helpful rejection letter from Patricia Gauch of Philomel Books.  She gave me advice and a critique that led to a good revision and to publication with Putnam.

Please talk about your Mayfield series.  What inspired you to write it?  Will you write more middle grade novels?

When I was a child there was a man in our neighborhood we all called Old Harry.   He was scruffy and unshaven, sort of a local hobo.  And he terrified us.  Naturally, we circulated horror stories about him, and we all ran and hid when he showed up.  He never did anything to justify our fear; he just was. 

Years later, I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  Old Harry was dead by then, but the character of Boo Radley made him live again for me, and I felt ashamed.  I wondered, who was Old Harry really?  I never tried to find out then.  And I should have known better.  As the only black child in my class at school, my own spirit had felt the pain of rejection.  I never forgot Atticus Finch’s words: “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”

The wonderful thing about writing fiction is that you can create the world as you would like it to be.  Readers have asked, “Is Meg Turner you?”  There’s a lot of me in Meg, many of her experiences and feelings were mine.  But Meg is better than I was.  She made the leap between Old Hairy’s feelings and her own.  She connected with her Old Hairy, and her actions helped me to forgive myself for not connecting with mine.

It can be said that both of the Mayfield books are about discrimination.  In Mayfield Crossing, I had hoped to leave readers with some awareness that change can happen — not overnight — but through a compounding effect of individual acts of kindness and courage.  Beyond Mayfield is less about how to stop people from hating each other because of differences (racial or otherwise) than it is about how the individual reacts to this kind of hatred, how victims of hate survive this treatment without letting the goodness of their own hearts be damaged, without becoming hateful themselves.  In this book, I was pursuing answers to questions about the possibilities, the capabilities, of the human heart.

I do hope to write more middle grade novels, because I love reading them, and I love living in the fictional world that writing a novel provides, a place to escape to when I feel frustrated by things I can’t control in the real world.  

What was the racial landscape of the children’s book industry like when you entered the field?  How has it changed?  What gains in the field have made you proud?  What do you hope the future brings?

When I entered the field in the 1980s, many of the greats were around — people like Virginia Hamilton, Ashley Bryan, Mildred Taylor, Patricia and Fredrick McKissack.  I discovered most of them during my saturation time at Pinocchio Bookstore.  And I was thrilled because, as a child, the number of books by and about African Americans for my age was limited.

 I’m not sure if my memory is correct, but it seems that shortly after I came to the field, the ‘multicultural” movement hit the schools.  Prior to this movement, many schools where inclined to purchase titles featuring black characters if the book had won an award, or to provide materials for their small population of black students.  If there were no black children enrolled, some schools didn’t see the need.  The idea that all children benefit from exposure to materials about cultures not their own changed this.  This trend, I’m sure, opened the door to more African American titles being published and purchased.  It was good.  But, I remember at some point feeling a little tired of the word “multicultural” and the impression that the problem was fixed.  Some educators added books featuring Chinese, Native American, and African characters to their collections, displayed books in February, and felt they were covered.  I think we’re doing better on this.  Books by and featuring African Americans are being read and discussed more throughout the year.  Things have improved and I am glad for this.  My hope for the future is for the numbers of quality titles being published to keep growing.  In fairness to publishers, this certainly can’t happen unless people buy them.  So it’s up to everyone — editors and publishers, teachers, librarians and parents.

Although I enjoy and have written books that deal with the African American experience, I’d like to see more black characters in stories that simply embody the American experience.  I suppose Ready? Set. Raymond! helps to fill this gap.  I hope to do more.  

I’d also like to see a hot new series with a black main character.  A series that flies off the shelves like Harry Potter did.  I’d love to see kids of all races lined up at bookstores waiting for the clock to strike midnight when the next book hits the shelves.

How does your experience as a children’s librarian inform your work? 

Easy access to new books and other librarians, seeing which books work in story time, listening to what kids are saying about particular books and authors, having the opportunity to introduce children to books that they might not discover or seek out themselves are all wonderful aspects of my library work.

The best thing though is this:  Over the years, as I’ve watched and assisted kids in their search for everything from Garfield, Captain Underpants, and Harry Potter, to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Maniac Magee, and The Book Thief, I’ve learned not to be a snob about what kids should or should not be reading.  Every book can’t be filet mignon.  If fact, most are closer to hamburger, but there’s nothing wrong with a good hamburger.   Part of my job is helping kids to see the difference so that when they get a taste of filet, their ideas about great books are forever changed.   As a writer, I strive for filet, but I don’t despair if I end up with hamburger, as long as it is nourishing to my readers.

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

I hope my characters and their stories will provide readers with something they may need at that particular moment in their lives.  Every individual enters the reading experience with his own needs and desires.  I hope to be able to speak to readers on a personal level. 

I hope to give children some of what my parents gave me — the opportunity to grow, to be made stronger, through story.  To make them laugh and cry and get angry and maybe change their minds about some things.  To make them care about something, someone, beyond themselves. 

Your moving award-winning picture book, Almost to Freedom, was made into a play.  How did that opportunity come to be?  What was it like seeing your book come to life on the stage of the SteppingStone Theatre in St. Paul, MN?

 A few years ago I received a message from my agent, Tracey Adams, that the theater was interested in adapting my book for the stage.  SteppingStone has successfully done many plays based on children’s books, and I was lucky enough to have them discover Almost to Freedom and see the possibilities.  Writers are often concerned (and justifiably so) about changes that will be made when their work is adapted.  But everyone involved in the production seemed to respect the intent and spirit of my story.  I loved their handling of it.

 I attended the play with folks from my publisher, Lerner, and I met the cast, the director, and the playwright, Kim Hines.  It was an amazing night.  Beautiful spirituals were woven throughout the play, and I heard the clear voices of those young singers in my head for weeks afterwards.

Juneteenth is a wonderful collaboration with your husband, Drew.  Please tell us about that process.  Will you do other books together?

My editor asked me if I would be interested in writing a book on Juneteenth, as part of  their On My Own Holidays series.   I wanted to do it, but the deadline was short.  I had heard of Juneteenth, but didn’t know enough about it, so I knew there would be quite a bit of research involved.  Seeing my uncertainty about accepting the project, Drew offered to work with me on it.  My husband is a great writer and loves history.   He’s always my first editor anyway, but having him more closely involved in the process was a true gift.  I’d done historical fiction before, but never a nonfiction book.  Drew is very good about questioning the accuracy of a thing.    When I give him anything to read, I must be prepared for it to come back bleeding with comments and corrections.  Sort of like Mikey on the cereal commercial —  “Let Drew read it.  He catches everything.”  Needless to say, it was fabulous to work with him.  I’d write a section, he’d edit.  He’d write, I’d edit.  And we talked and laughed and disagreed and compromised.   Did I want to strangle him sometimes?  Yes.  Did he want to strangle me?  Yes.  Would we like to do more books together?  You bet.  

What have been the proudest and toughest moments of your writing career? 

I am proud every time I finish a book that I feel in my gut is good, and I’m proud every time someone says they love it!  I was especially proud when, after I had read some of my father’s poems as part of a presentation on Possibles at a regional IBBY conference, Marianne Carus approached me and asked if she might consider some of the poems for publication in Cricket.  I was proud of my dad and proud to be his daughter. 

The toughest times have been the struggles through brick walls in the research process, times of low confidence when I feel I’ll never finish a book that is important to me and, even if I do, who will care?  And times when I think I’ll never be the writer I want to be. 

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

“Open a retirement account now.”   I love writing for children, and I love my library work, but I have to admit there isn’t much financial security in either profession.  If I had a nice fat IRA, I would have more flexibility, more time in my schedule to write and be with my family.

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

I have two books coming out in the fall of 2009.  Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal  is a picture book biography coming from Lerner (Carolrhoda Books).  I am excited to finally see this nonfiction book come out.  From the time Drew introduced me to Bass Reeves in 2003, I’ve come to admire him so much I can’t wait for kids to get to know this incredible man.  And I’m thrilled that Gregory Christie is the illustrator. 

Just as exciting, Random House is publishing Who Will I Be, Lord? with lovely art by Sean Qualls.  It’s a picture book with personal meaning for me since it’s based in family history.   

What’s your greatest joy?

There are so many!   Family, friends, good books, moments of discovery, the New Mexico sky, and bread pudding, to name a few.  I am blessed.

The Buzz about Juneteenth:

“As the school year lengthens well into June and as Juneteenth celebrations gain footing across much of the country, books on this grassroots holiday, which celebrates the belated arrival of emancipation news to Texas slaves on June 19, 1865, are sure to become increasingly popular. This entry in the On My Own Holidays series offers a solid introduction to the holiday for independent readers or for presenting to small groups. At times the historical overview sacrifices nuance for concision (not every abolitionist, for instance, “believed that blacks and whites were equal”), but the understated narrative draws children in with a dramatization of Galveston slaves receiving the long-delayed news, followed by powerful accounts of the history of slavery, the Civil War, and the incremental emancipation process. Schroder’s pastel illustrations can appear muddy, but at their best, leaping, embracing figures convey the resilience and rejoicing of celebrants then and now. Information about Juneteenth traditions–such as red velvet cake and red soda pop as symbols of bloodshed in the battle for freedom–will help young readers plan jubilees of their own.”

— Booklist

The Buzz about Almost to Freedom:

“A compelling story told from the point of view of an enslaved child’s beloved rag doll. Made for young Lindy by her mama, Miz Rachel, the hand-stitched toy is the girl’s most prized possession. She tells her, “Your name be Sally. We gonna be best friends.” When the child’s father is sold and Lindy is beaten for asking Massa’s son how to spell her name, the horrid conditions of the cotton plantation become intolerable. One night Miz Rachel wakes Lindy and they run for their lives. They are reunited with Mr. Henry and the fugitive family heads North to freedom. They are given shelter at a station on the Underground Railroad, but must flee from slave catchers in the middle of the night. In the frantic scramble, Sally is left behind. The doll is lonely for her friend and worries for the safety of Lindy and her folks. When another child and her mother are sheltered in the basement, the doll joins her new best friend on her trip to Freedom. This accessible story is told in language that is within the experience of a young child and makes its impact without frightening or overwhelming readers. It is ultimately a story of hope and resilience, love and friendship. The evocative oil paintings are expertly rendered and effectively convey the powerful emotions of the tale. A fine addition to most collections.”

— School Library Journal

“Lindy’s beloved rag doll, Sally, tells how Lindy’s family escapes on the Underground Railroad to find freedom “in a place called North.” The doll’s narrative and Bootman’s dark, dramatic paintings bring close the child’s daily experience: the cruel separation and physical punishment, and then the adventure of running away and hiding. At times it’s hard to distinguish Sally from Lindy–why not just let the child tell the story herself? But then there’s an anguished twist in the plot: the child and her doll are separated. Lindy gets away, but in the turmoil she leaves her doll behind. When another escaping child finds Sally and hugs her to herself, the story comes full circle. That’s a powerful way to express the sorrow of loving families torn apart, and Bootman’s stirring portraits, many of them set at night, in rich shades of purple and brown, show that the small rag doll bears witness to historical events of cruelty and courage.”

— Booklist

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