Joyce Hansen

February 15, 2009

When she was starting out, Joyce Hansen struggled to become a published author. Like many new writers, she received rejection letter after rejection letter. But Hansen found story gold when she drew from the richness of her Bronx childhood and the young people she taught. Those memories and observations inspired her first novel, The Gift-Giver, which began a distinguished children’s book writing career that has spanned more than 20 years.

Hailed for the authenticity of her fiction novels and the sensitivity and realistic detail of her non-fiction books, Hansen has won many awards. But what matters to her most is the reaction of children: Did she help them see themselves? Did she encourage them or turn a reluctant reader into an eager one?

On her website, Hansen writes: “I want my readers to sense the possibility of hope, to be aware of how the human spirit can rise to great heights–to see how some people manage to survive the madness and create a sane space where there is still beauty, love, peace and even joy.”

As testament to her success, Hansen’s The Gift-Giver (Clarion, 1980) is still in print. She has become a beloved author and inspired generations of readers and writers.

Please join us in celebrating Joyce Hansen on day 15 of our campaign:

How did your childhood shape your path to writing?

I was blessed with a mother who loved books and writing. She read to me before I knew how to read. My father was a photographer who told my brothers and I stories through his photography and his memories about his childhood.

How did your experience as a NYC school teacher inform and inspire your work?

My early work was very much inspired by my students, and I think it still is. I was afraid to retire from teaching in 1995 because I wondered whether I’d still be able to write books for children.  A story walked before me everyday. I also had a good sense of what the children liked, and I wrote with the goal of creating books for those children who rarely saw themselves in the books they read.

 Please tell us about your journey to publication. How did The Gift-Giver come to be? What was your break?

I wrote The Gift-Giver as a creative project  when I was getting my Master’s degree in English Education.  I was trying to write at that time, but had not thought about writing for children.  I had been trying to write for a few years and didn’t have anything published.  I had a box full of rejection letters.  My professor liked the little children’s book I’d created for my project and said he thought it was publishable.  It was a story based on my growing up in the Morrisania section of the Bronx,  at least one hundred years ago.  The characters in The Gift-Giver are based on my childhood memories coupled with the children I saw everyday in school.  At one point in my teaching career, I taught in the neighborhood I grew up in.    My break came when I showed my good friend, the writer Brenda Wilkinson, the manuscript and she liked it.  She showed it to her editor and it was eventually published in 1980.  I’m amazed that it’s still in print. 

 You first earned acclaim for stories like the wonderful books in your 163rd Street trilogy — The Gift-Giver, Yellow Bird and Me and One True Friend — that were hailed for their authenticity and emotional depth. How did you develop your voice?

Thank you so much for that compliment.  I didn’t think about it consciously, but I guess I developed my voice as I remembered what it felt like to be a middle school kid  and a teenager–I recalled the things that bothered me and most youngsters–growing pains, making friends one day and falling out with them the next, trying to make sense of the world and your place in it, hiding vulnerability with attitude.      

What were the challenges and rewards of writing your first historical fiction novel, Which Way Freedom? What advice can you offer for writers hoping to create books in this field? 

Which Way Freedom? was  quite a challenge because I really wasn’t sure what I was doing.  But it was a book I had to write whether anyone wanted to publish it or not.  I have always loved history and writing this book gave me the chance to pursue both history and writing.  I wanted to write historical fiction because I felt it was a good way to teach youngsters our history.   I started out with a small idea.  I wanted to write a book, set during the American Civil War and I wanted to have,  at some point in the story,  a very exciting scene where a group of enslaved people escape.   I didn’t develop a story until I began to research the Civil War era.  My advice to those who want to begin writing historical fiction is to first find a solid history book about the historical setting of your story.  This is just to give you an overview of the historical time, and the bibliography should lead you to other books and primary sources.  As you read and take notes decide how you’re going to narrow and focus this whole period.  Think about your characters who will tell the story.  How will they fit into the setting.  In Which Way Freedom? I had to figure how my three main characters, enslaved children, fit into such a large catastrophic event as the Civil War.  While you want your historical information to be as accurate as you can make it, in the end it is the characters who will take center stage and bring the history to life.   Also, where you can, identify things in the present that still inform the past.  I had one of the characters in my story escape a Confederate Army camp by floating in a basket “boat” made with sweet grass. People in the low country of South Carolina still make sweet grass baskets.  

 How was writing your first non-fiction novel different? How much research was required for books like Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground?

My first non-fiction book was Between Two Fires and was about Black soldiers in the Civil War.  I learned how to apply fictional techniques to a nonfiction book. Breaking Ground Breaking Silence was a real challenge.   How could I write about the discovery of bones and a burial ground and make it interesting to  young readers.  I wrote this book with Gary McGowan who was one of the archaeologist working on the  African burial ground that was discovered in lower Manhattan, in New York City in 1991.  Gary provided the archaeological information and I researched the history of New York City during the period when the burial ground was actually in use.  We tried to tell parallel stories of the burial ground and the early history of New York City in  an engaging and interesting way. 

 What was the racial landscape of the children’s book industry like when you entered the field?

 When I entered the field in 1980, I had the benefit of walking through a door previously opened by African American writers such as Virginia Hamilton, Mildred Taylor, Brenda Wilkinson, Eloise Greenfield, Lucille Clifton, Walter Dean Meyers, Rosa Guy  and others.  There were still not a lot of us and with the exception of Hamilton and Taylor who had both won Newbery Awards, our books were not as widely publicized  or pushed.  I’ve always felt that the books were viewed as written primarily for African American children.  If a teacher had no Black children in her class, then it’s most likely she wouldn’t use one of our books.

 What gains in the field have made you proud? What do you hope the future brings?

I think now our books are more widely read. I hope they are.  We have an African American President now.  Can some people still feel that a book written by a black writer with African American children cannot be read and enjoyed by white children also?  I’m also proud of younger writers on the scene now and the interesting books they’re producing–writers such as Rita Williams Garcia and Jackie Woodson.     

What lessons have you learned from reading other writers? How has that influenced your work?

I’ve been an avid reader all of my life.  I read other writers in order to learn how to tell a good story.

In an autobiographical statement on the Scholastic site, you write that “Those of us who write for young people have a special responsibility because the word is so strong. We must use our words to help our children acquire a richness of soul and spirit, so that perhaps one fine day we will learn to live with ourselves and one another in peace and harmony.” How do we meet that responsibility?

We have to give our young people stories that validate them and help them to make sense of the world.  At the same time we have to help them understand  that we share a common humanity, as opposed to the differences that send us down the paths of chaos and war.

You’ve won multiple Coretta Scott King Honor Awards and earned ALA Notable honors. What does that acknowledgment of your work mean to you?

It means so much to me, and encourages me to keep writing. 

How do you measure success? 

Real success for me is when young people tell me that they were encouraged and helped by something I’ve written.

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

The proudest moment of my career was when I received a Coretta Scott Honor Book Award for Which Way Freedom?.  I was just hoping that no one would say that the book was awful.   I’d never written historical fiction before.   You can’t imagine how shocked  and proud I was when the book was given that honor.  I still have the letter from the Committee telling me that I won the award. 

For people hoping to turn their writing dream into a career, what’s your advice? How do you become an author with staying power? 

 First of all don’t put off the writing waiting until you have more time to write.  Most likely, you’ll never have more time.  Be disciplined and have a regular routine for your writing.  Read a lot.  Analyze  how  some of the best authors develop their stories. 

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

In my contemporary stories, I’ve focused a lot on peer pressure and tried to create young protagonists who learn how to trust themselves.  In my historical fiction and nonfiction, I want my readers to understand the history of our people as Americans of African descent.

Your last book, African Princess: The Amazing Lives of Africa’s Royal Women, was a beautiful testament to the richness of African heritage. Can you please give us a preview of your next book? When will it debut?

My next book is historical fiction set in 1855 in New York City about the life of a free black family.  It’s a five book series and this first book will be published in the fall of next year. 

 What’s your greatest joy? 

 When a teacher tells me that a student who never read a book, read and liked one of my books.

The Buzz on African Princess: The Amazing Lives of Africa’s Royal Women:

“A beautiful book from cover to cover. A portrait of Princess Njinga (of Matamba c. 1582-1663) graces the cover of the volume, representing the qualities of strength, pride, and conviction that the six royal women profiled in this title possessed. Hansen’s introduction addresses the varied nature of the continent’s land and people and informs readers that the six “…princesses and queens whose stories are told in this book give us views of Africa we do not often see.” The map of the continent that faces this introduction features small portraits of each person positioned over the area in which she lived and ruled. Each chapter covers the life and times of one leader from Hatshepsut (c. 1497-1457 B.C.) to Elizabeth of Toro (1940-), and opens with a stunning, full-page portrait. In addition, there are quality reproductions of artwork and photos of artifacts, sites, and individuals. In the early profiles, the author sometimes shares what she imagines the women might have thought or felt given the time or circumstance. Chapters on later individuals include a few quotes. Captions and occasional sidebars add additional information. These intelligent and dedicated women all overcame obstacles, took risks, and often challenged the status quo. Their stories will provide inspiration to all readers.”

— School Library Journal

“The history is compelling in this collective picture-book biography of six highly successful African women–warriors, builders, businesswomen, and administrators–whose exciting personal stories show the rich diversity of the continent and celebrate their achievements during times when most women had little power. From Hatshepsut of ancient Egypt and Amina of sixteenth-century Zaria (now part of Nigeria) to contemporary Princess Elizabeth of Toro, a Ugandan lawyer, model, foreign minister, and U.N. ambassador, Hansen’s lively, well-researched accounts bring close each woman’s struggle and place it within the context of her country’s changing politics and culture. The spacious book design is inviting: the paper is thick and glossy, the type is small but clear, and attractive geometric designs border the pages. The six full-page artist renderings of the women are glamorized, but there are also plenty of fully captioned historic prints and photos of carvings and artifacts. Hansen is always careful to distinguish fact from surmise, and her research will stimulate readers to find out more . . . “

— Booklist

A Few of Joyce Hansen’s Awards and Honors:

2005 NAACP Image Award Nominee, African Princess

1999 Coretta Scott King Honor Award, Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground

1998 Coretta Scott King Honor Award, I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl

1995 Coretta Scott King Honor Award, The Captive

1987 Coretta Scott King Honor Award, Which Way Freedom

For more about Joyce Hansen, please visit

NEWS: Meet The Brown Bookshelf

February 14, 2009

We’re mid-way through our 2009 campaign and hope you’ve enjoyed this year’s interviews, so far. The last half of the month will be just as informative and fun.

Normally, we here at The Brown Bookshelf tend to take a “vacation” of sorts once 28 Days Later ends. As much as I wish it were a real one that involved lying on the beach, we simply tend to take a small break from blogging.

But not this year. Every day, during the first week of March, we’ll give visitors a “behind-the-scenes” peek with Meet The Brown Bookshelf profiles.

If you comment on any posts that week, you’ll be eligible to receive one of our books.

So stick around once the 28 Days Later profiles are done, because there’s nothing wrong with the chance to win more free books.

Remaining committed to our mission, even when defining the mission can prove tricky

February 14, 2009

When we set out to define our mission for the 28 Days Later campaign, our vision was crystal clear: To highlight African-American (Black) youth literature creators. Children’s books written by or about African-Americans make up a small percentage of the publishing pie, and those works often flow under the radar of teachers and librarians. Our goal was to shine a light on those authors and illustrators.

Our intentions were good, but there was a problem: How does one define African-American? What does an African-American look like? And what does it mean to be Black?

Last fall we took nominations for the 28 Days Later campaign in the form of comments and emails from our readers — teachers and librarians, authors and illustrators, publishing houses and their editors, anyone with an interest in children’s publishing. We culled the nominations and discussed them. We argued them, cheered them and sneered them, before we left them to simmer awhile more. Then we tossed in a few names of our own. Finally we took a vote, formed a final list, and then our research began.

Our team is made up of published authors and illustrators, so we know many of the people in consideration, or are at least familiar with them. Some are obviously African-American. Others, we weren’t so sure about. We don’t use a litmus test or subject the authors to genealogical surveys. And we don’t draw blood, so there’s room for error.

The author we’d planned to highlight today came highly recommended by someone influential in the children’s publishing industry, so I took the nomination and ran with it. For research, I began with pictures. But again, what does Black look like? My own mother is African-American, and she is just as fair-skinned as any Caucasian (recent photo), and her hair is naturally straight.

I attempted to contact the author and his editor for an interview, but I was unsuccessful. Finally I called his job, but I didn’t get him. I explained the 28 Days Later campaign to the receptionist who answered the phone.

Sheepishly, I asked, “Is Greg Foley African-American?”

“Y-yes,” she answered slowly, careful how she let it roll off her tongue. “Well . . . he might be African-American.” There was a long pause. “He could be.” Another long pause. “Honestly, I don’t know his racial makeup.” she said. “He’s definitely not White.”

Last week I finally made contact with the author. Greg is not African-American. Not even a little bit. He’s Filipino, Irish and French. Stop giggling.

What to do, what to do?! We considered changing the poster, hoping that no one would notice. But more than 600 posters had been downloaded; We weren’t going to fool anyone. We’ve decided to be up front, admit our (my) mistake, and hope ya’ll wouldn’t write I told you so posts on your blogs.

Thankfully, Greg was understanding. I asked him to complete the interview, and he graciously did. I am posting it on my personal blog, Devas T. Rants and Raves, and I ask you to shoot over there and check it out. Maybe even link to it from your own blog. I’m a fan of Greg’s work. I love his simplistic yet powerful illustrations. Nothing, absolutely not a thing changes that.

But in order to remain committed to the mission of the 28 Days Later campaign, today we’ve decided to commemorate author Virginia Hamilton. Please see her highlight below.

Our apologies, and thank you for your understanding.

Virginia Hamilton

February 14, 2009

I’d planned to begin this post by stating the number of books written by author/storyteller/lecturer/biographer Virginia Hamilton. But I couldn’t find a definitive answer. One source credited the author with writing 30 books. Another, 35. Yet another, 40. So let me begin by stating that Virginia Hamilton has authored a whole lot of books!

A prolific author, to say the least, she is sometimes called the “Toni Morrison of children’s literature.” (Though I would say that Toni Morrison is the Virginia Hamilton of adult literature.)

Virginia was born in 1936 on a small farm in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She began writing early on, inspired by stories told to her by her parents, often about her “Grandpa,” Levi Perry, an exslave who escaped to freedom using the Underground Railroad.

Her first published children’s book, Zeely, actually began as a short story, and is now considered a classic. My personal favorite, The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales, is a compilation of folk tales, illustrated by the great Leo and Diane Dillion. It has received many honors, including the Coretta Scott King Award.

Virginia Hamilton has been the recipient of every major award in children’s literature. She was the first African American woman to win the Newbery Award, for M.C. Higgins the Great. She is a three-time Newbery Honoree, a three-time Coretta Scott King Award winner, and in 1992, she was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, in recognition of her entire body of work. She was the first writer for children to receive a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship. Other awards include the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, the Edgar Allan Poe Award, the Regina Medal and an NAACP Image Award.

Virginia Hamilton passed away in 2002. My words could never do the woman or her career justice, so instead, I offer links to her website. I encourage you to go tere, dissect it, enjoy!


Awards, prizes and honors


A Visit With Virginia Hamilton

Brenda Woods

February 13, 2009

woods2-169x275There’s probably not a children’s author out there who hasn’t had to answer the question, “So what’s it like writing for children? How do you do it?”

I always have an answer, but it’s something that’s much easier answered by simply picking
up a children’s book and reading it. Once you do, you realize that the primary difference between a good children’s book and a good piece of adult fiction is that the protagonists are younger. That’s about it.

Brenda Woods’ novels deal with challenges and issues even adults would find daunting. But the author refuses to shield her young characters from life’s harsh realities and tough lessons. Not much different from raising a child in real life.

Woods’ 2003 debut, The Red Rose Box, about two sisters orphaned by a hurricane was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and she’s not shied away from the tough subjects since.

BBS: The loss of parents (The Red Rose Box), the death of a friend (Emako Blue) and the brutal reality of slavery (Sally Little Song) your books portray characters batting against some of life’s toughest curve balls. What made you want to portray these topics through a child’s eyes?
BW: When I started writing, I don’t think I consciously intended to write solely about young people confronting harsh realities or learning hard lessons. Truth be told, I love a happy ending. Perhaps because my own childhood was traumatic, (a parent who was ill and time spent in foster care), my literature has unfolded in this way.

Digging deeper, I suppose I want kids to see themselves as capable of overcoming obstacles. Though I may put my young characters on sinking ships, whenever possible, I give them life boats.

BBS: Despite the complex subject matter, your books are told so delicately from the character’s point-of-view. They’re classified middle grade novels, so the readers may be as young as nine. What challenges did you face unraveling the emotions surrounding loss and death in such a beautifully straight forward manner?

BW: I was nine when one of the boys who lived on our block was killed by a car while riding a bicycle. He was only twelve. His funeral was where I learned about loss. I remember watching his mother grieve and having compassion for her. Once we got home, my mother wouldn’t let us talk about him. It was as if she was trying to hide death from us. But she couldn’t and we talked about him anyway.
Depicting death or loss from a child’s point of view is very much the same as depicting it from an adult point of view, at least it is for me. So, I can’t admit to feeling challenged in that respect. Young or old, loss is loss.

BBS: Your website bio says “sometimes kids who feel different, weird, and misunderstood grow up to write books and such.” How much of your feeling like that as a child/teen go into your characters and how they approach challenges?

BW: Growing up, feeling different, like you’re always outside the house, peering in through the windows, can make you a keen observer. Imagination blossoms and sensitivity takes root.

How much of that goes into my characters? Often, my protagonists are imaginative, sensitive observers.

BBS: What’s most interesting about My Name Is Sally Little Song is the blending of cultures – there’s the slave culture, the African culture and the Seminole culture. And for some reason, I was surprised that the males in Sally’s family adjusted better than she to the Seminole ways. But you captured the various cultures well. What went into research for this book?

BW: It’s true, Sally does have trouble adjusting. Her brother Abraham has his father to emulate but Sally’s eleven and still needs mothering. More than any character I have written, my love for this motherless, displaced child remains constant.

In terms of research, it was both substantive and substantial. One of my goals as a writer is to write authentically. Not only did I have to know what slave quarters were really like I also had to know how the Seminoles lived. I had to gain an understanding of the: geography of the area, the swamp environment, animal life, crops, language, and ways of dress. It was months of work.

BBS: What do you enjoy most about writing for young readers?

BW: What I enjoy most is meeting young people in person. They are bright and always genuine.

The next best thing are the letters…some are so heartfelt. Every so often, I get a letter from a young lady who confides that she decided to be a better person after reading Emako Blue. Once I received a letter from a young man who told me he had never read a book from cover to cover until Emako Blue. What a pat on the back that was.
BBS: What will you be offering young readers next?

BW: I am currently working on a young adult novel. I have received many requests from young readers to please write something where no one dies. At this point, all I can say is there will be some trauma as well as romantic drama but I promise…no one dies.

The Buzz

“The searing historical fiction shows that there can be no sunny ending; while slavery exists in America, the family will never truly be free.” – Booklist on My Name is Sally Little Song

“Steered by perceptive dialogue, the story takes readers from Emako’s funeral, through flashbacks, to the moment she is killed, to the shock and sorrow that follow her death, bringing it full circle.” – School Library Journal on Emako Blue

“She creates some memorable characters, especially Leah, and probes historical events in a personal context that may open many readers’ eyes.” Publishers Weekly on The Red Rose Box

Derrick Barnes

February 12, 2009
Derrick Barnes

Derrick Barnes

Derrick Barnes is no stranger to the Brown Bookshelf community.  Last year, we did a spotlight on his book The Making of Dr. Truelove as well as announced the debut of the Ruby and the Booker Boys series.  In case it is not clear, the future is bright for author Derrick Barnes.  Full of optimism, this Brown Bookshelf shining star is poised to take children’s literature by storm.

When you read Derrick Barnes’ biography on his website, you get a true sense of who he is as a person.  I could picture the kid version of him in the closet reading his encyclopedias experiencing life in the footsteps of others.  Now he is the creator of words that today’s children can read and broaden their horizons by being a part of the stories that he tells.

Barnes write stories that are meant to empower his readers even at a young age.  On a quest to change the face of children’s literature, Barnes writes from a sincere desire to appeal to readers of all races.  Barnes is determined to shake up the African American literary community without isolating us from the mainstream literary community.

With characters like Ruby Marigold Booker and her rambunctious, charming, loving brothers, fans of mainstream characters like Ramona Quimby, Amber Brown, Judy Moody, and Junie B. Jones will find a new friend in Ruby.


Carla:  What drew you to the field of being a children’s author?  What is your dream for children’s books by black authors and illustrators?

Derrick:  I used to say that I just kind of fell into children’s books, but there’s no such thing. God has a plan for each and every one of us. All of my experiences as a columnist, poet, greeting card writer, husband and father lead to this point.

My dream for children’s books by black authors is that they bust out of being created exclusively for and marketed to Black children. For decades, Black children have had to live vicariously through white children in books, on cartoons, and movies. When the truth of the matter is, all kids deserve the chance to dream and to see themselves in the books and entertainment made available to them.

Carla:  Besides the infamous encyclopedias that you read as a kid, what authors did you read growing up?

Derrick:  I was deeply influenced by two writers in particular:  1) Langston Hughes and his “Simple” short story series really inspired me to work on my dialog skills and character development. 2) Stevland Hardaway Morris aka Stevie Wonder added color and rhythm to my writing style. I tell kids all of the time that they used to make these big round things called records or LPs. They used to come in record sleeves for the liner notes which contained the lyrics to every song. Imagine me at age seven reading:

Summer soft…
Wakes you up with a kiss to
start the morning off
In the midst of herself
playing Santa Claus
She brings gifts through her breeze

I couldn’t sing like Stevie but I was determined to be able to manipulate words like him.

0439568676Carla:  What is your author style?  Do you outline?

Derrick:  My author style is similar to my presentation style, very conversational. I really study human behavior and interactions and try to convey every single nuance from our body language to every color on our emotional pallet.

I definitely outline. I arrange them by chapters, and then fill in as the story evolves. Sometimes the outline changes, which is to be expected. The characters’ story often changes through out the course of their journey, similar to what we go through.

Carla:  Describe a typical day in the life of Derrick Barnes the author.  Do you write full time?

Derrick:  I started writing full time almost a year ago, and it takes discipline, structure and time management skills. I’m still working on that aspect of it, but each author has to do what works well for them. May day usually consist of getting my three sons ready for school, dropping them off, going to the gym for an hour and a half, coming back home to answer emails, send emails, telephone calls, and then writing. I do housekeeping, run errands, and make sure dinner is ready for the fam. Although, I do my best writing at night between 10-2 AM. Then it’s just me and John Coltrane working it out.

Carla:  As you write, are there voids within the literary arena that you would like to fill?  What are 0439568706some of the stories that you yearn to tell?

Derrick:  The obvious voids are African American characters playing key roles in stories that are universal to all children. I promised myself that I wouldn’t create characters and place them in down trodden, hopeless, violent situations or environments. To me it seems like the publishing industry embraces stories that feature African American characters that are one dimensional; characters that fit into ‘their’ ideal and image of who we are. We have to continue to create our own reality in our own voices.

I want to tell stories about Black love, create complete families with both parents, educated, progressive characters. It may seem idealized to some, but it gives children something to aspire to become. I want to tell stories of hope.

Carla:  As I watched the video clip on your website, your words that it is okay to be different and to set trends stood out to me.  What are you doing to be different as an author?  What trends are you setting in the literary arena?

Derrick:  I think the trend I’m setting is being one of only a few young Black men that write children’s books as well as being an aggressive promoter of my work. I have a BA in marketing from Jackson State University and it definitely comes in handy. I am very conscious of my image, my brand and all of my target readers. I learned quickly that being an author doesn’t stop with writing great books. You have to be a salesperson. You must come up with ideas that will get your stories in the hands of people that will appreciate them. I want to be the Usher of children’s book publishing. I want my books to be everywhere for children of all colors to appreciate and love.

0545017610Carla:  The world is your oyster, what would you love to see happen for your books?

Derrick:  First and foremost, I want every single child that is able to get a Ruby Booker book in their little hands to become huge fans of the book series; millions of books sold! Second, I’d like the series to transcend the books and become either a series on Nickelodeon or Disney or a cartoon series. I created the characters to leap off of the pages and become bigger than life. Third, I’d like Ruby to become as big merchandise-wise as Dora the Explorer, Hannah Montana or High School Musical. Every time I see a little sister wearing  a Dora backpack, a Hannah t-shirt, or High School Musical notebook, I say to myself it sure would be nice to see them rockin’ Ruby. It’s going to happen. I’m full of optimism.

Carla:  I read an article in the Kansas City Star about your career with Hallmark and was amazed about the history of the Mahogany line.  Looking back over your entire writing career from your days as an advice columnist at Jackson State to today, if you could go back and give yourself any advice, what would it be?

Derrick:  I think I would have done more to reach out to writers and authors of all genres. Just like in every other aspect of our lives, you never can learn enough. I’m always a sponge and willing to pick up as much as I can from others in order to become a better writer.

Carla:  Reading about your career at Hallmark and the aftermath, I am curious about other obstacles you faced as a writer.

Derrick:  I think the biggest obstacle as an African American author/writer is getting your books and ideas across effectively and efficiently to the audience you’re trying to reach. The decision makers, most of the time, are not people of color. It’s been my experience that because of the lack of understanding and connection with our culture, there doesn’t seem to be a marketing machine in place to properly promote product that is unfamiliar to them.

That goes back to what I was saying earlier about the author having to throw on their promoter and marketer hats. Although those obstacles exist, it doesn’t mean that our books will not succeed. You must work your butt off, make as many contacts as possible, and most importantly believe that there is an entity more powerful than your publisher, editor, PR rep or agent. God is amazing!

Carla:  What are the moments that you have experienced as an author that makes it totally worth it to craft stories and get the first draft ready for readers?

Derrick:  It’s always about the kids. Always. When I receive emails from little Black girls saying thanks for making a character that acts, thinks, and dreams like they do, it pushes me to do more, to go further as an author.

1416914390Carla:  Do you plan to write more for young adults?  Will you return to Diego, the protagonist in The Making of Dr. Truelove?

Derrick:  Dr. Truelove is quietly my favorite book. I would love to work on a sequel, and I’d REALLY love for a legendary indy movie production company to purchase the rights to the book and make it a hit underground film (What’s up, Spike!? Get at me!)

Carla:  What’s the story behind Ruby?  How did she come to be?  What’s next for Miss Ruby?   How many books will the series have?

Derrick:  The series was created in 2002 as simply The Booker Boys. Tyner was the protagonist and the books were slice-of-life from three little African American boys. Then, Ruby was just a sub character; just the little chatty mouthed little sister to the brothers (kind of like Dee from What’s Happening).

We tried for a couple of years to land a deal, but a series about three little African American boys just wasn’t in demand at that time. So I put the series on the shelf. In 2006 my agent (the lovely Regina Brooks of Serendipity Literary Agency) suggested that I pull the Booker Boys back out, but this time make the little sister the star. I dusted the original four manuscripts off and rewrote them for the new star Ruby Marigold Booker. It took us a year but we finally landed a four book deal with Scholastic!

Just recently, the publisher asked for two more books. We just signed that deal so expect books five and six in the near future. Until then Ruby fans should look forward to book four, Ruby Flips For Attention on March 1st of this year.

Carla:  Will you ever focus on her brothers for a YA boys series?  Do you have plans to write more books for male readers?

Derrick:  I’m researching right now for a boys series. It’s a detective/super hero/hip-hop idea I’ve been mulling over for the past two years. On school visits, teachers ask what they can do to get their boy students to read more, and the little guys ask when I am going to make something cool for them. The bottom line is 1) boys have to see the male role models in their lives reading on a regular basis. Period. When boys see their dads, uncles, grandfathers reading they accept it as being cool. 2) Just as in the case of Ruby, boys like to read books that reflect their own interest and ideals. Help is on the way little brothas! I’m hard at work now.

I also have a middle grade novel coming out in 2010 entitled We Could Be Brothers. I have high “Coretta Scott King Award” dreams for that one.

0545017629Carla:  I know that you have three sons.  How much of Ro, Ty, and Marcellus are based on your sons?

Derrick:  All three of the Booker Boys’ personalities eerily mirror those of my own sons. When I created this series, my wife and I only had one of the boys. And now, six years later my two year old son is just like Ty; really considerate and sweet, bright, and he has a little round head just like Ty. My four year old is the catylst in the family just like Ro. He keeps things interesting; he keeps the ‘pot stirred’ in the house. And my eight year old is a know-it-all, pretty boy just like Marcellus. A real life Ruby would be cool…but I don’t know. You never know, right?

Carla:  From reading three of the Ruby titles as well as your biography, I know that family is very important to you. Share with our readers how you incorporate family in your stories.  Besides the importance of family, what else do you hope readers come away with after reading your books?

Derrick:  Family, my family in particular, is the main reason I do what I do. I pray everyday to become a better husband, father, friend, son, brother, etc. One thing that I’ve learned over the years is that no matter what my profession is, my main obligation is to my wife and children. I take my role in their lives seriously.

In the Ruby series I always incorporate one or two scenes where the family is together, maybe during a meal or on an outing. That togetherness, the exchanging of ideals, feelings, and laughter is priceless. I don’t know where I’d be without my family, and I try to impart that core necessity of love and support in every single book.

0545017637Carla:  While reading Ruby’s stories, I pictured the very exuberant and adorable Sasha Obama as Ruby and reading your books.  How cool would that be to have the President’s daughter reading your books?

Derrick:  I have tried two or three times to get all three of the books in the First Lady’s hands. I have no way of knowing if I was successful. I autographed all three of the books for Sasha and Malia and gave them to a friend that was involved in a rally attended by the First Lady here in Kansas City on 18th and Vine; the historic jazz district where Charlie Parker once ruled. I saw him hand the books to Mrs. Obama, but they were quickly confiscated by her staff, for security reasons. I hope the girls received them and are stark raving mad Ruby fans. That would be a dream come true. Little Sasha giving my girl Ruby a shout-out from the White House? Amazing.

Carla:  Five years ago, your first two titles debuted.  How does it feel to celebrate five years as an author?  What changes have you seen and experienced since 2004?  What are your plans for the next 5 years?

Derrick:  I guess I haven’t really had the chance to reflect on it. There are so many more things I want to write about, and so many more books I’d like to write. I’m always looking towards the future; never allowing myself to get comfortable. I’d like to work on essays, more middle grade and YA novels that reflect positive imagery and hope for African American children. A picture book or three would be nice too. In five years I see Ruby as a literary icon, Dr. Truelove has been made into a film (…and its dope!), plus a couple of big time awards under my belt. But most importantly I’ll still be working hard every day to be the best family man that I can be. It’s a never ending journey, and the ride has been well worth it.

Carla:  What’s up next for Derrick Barnes?

Derrick:  I’ll be a featured author at the Bush family’s Celebration of Reading conference in Florida February 13 (that’s right thee Bush family: George H.W., Barbara, and Jeb will be in attendance). My eldest son, Ezra asked why the Obamas didn’t invite me to a book conference, especially since Ruby Booker is a beautiful, smart little Black girl like their daughters. I told him that the Obamas are really, really busy, so they haven’t gotten around to it yet, but they will. I’m sure of it.

Wow!  What an awesome opportunity that should be for you.  Enjoy the Florida sunshine and the networking opportunity.  Thank you for sharing your journey with us.  We wish you all the best in your writing endeavors.

Stop, Drop and Chill (2004)
Low-Down Bad-Day Blues (2004)
The Making of Dr. Truelove (2006)
Ruby and the Booker Boys:  Brand New School, Brave New Ruby (2008)
Ruby and the Booker Boys:  Trivia Queen, Third Grade Supreme (2008)
Ruby and the Booker Boys:  Slumber Party Payback (2008)
Ruby and the Booker Boys:  Ruby Flips for Attention (2009)

The Buzz on Ruby and the Booker Boys
“Many younger siblings find themselves in this exact predicament and will find strength and motivation in Ruby’s spirit.” – Kirkus Reviews

“Derrick Barnes captures the hearts and minds of young readers with the very colorful Ruby Marigold Booker. . . Barnes cleverly writes to entertain, as well as educate young people.” ~ The RAWsistaz Reviewers

Breaking News: Shadra Strickland wins 2009 EZRA JACK KEATS (illustration) AWARD!

February 11, 2009

Shadra Strickland is the illustrator behind the book BIRD, written by Zetta Elliott. Congrats! (announcement here) (interview here).