A Teen-y Change

April 30, 2009

Look up and to your right.

Notice anything different about The Brown Bookshelf main nav bar?



Do ya’ see it?

We have a Teen Lit page. ::applause here::

Thank you. Thank you. Please, take your seats.

Although our mission is to increase awareness among gatekeepers to the kingdom of kiddie lit – i.e. you our loyal librarian, teacher and parent visitors, we’re ever expanding. And we noticed that many of our YA spotlights drew teen readers wanting to reach out to the authors to say “I loved it.”

So we wanted to make sure there was a page to help teen readers find the brown books just for them.

The teen lit page will consist of authors featured during 28 Days Later and any other YA authors we mention or cover throughout the year.

Also, featured on the page, are links to other sites that highlight teen books, some specifically for brown books, others just for teen-friendly fare.

We’re always looking for ways to enhance your experience. So, in the works, similiar pages for Picture Books and MG novels.

Stay tuned.

Paula Chase is the author of the Del Rio Bay Series. The fifth and final book, Flipping The Script, was released April 1st. She nearly went cross-eyed trying to configure the covers for the new Teen Lit page, so she hopes people enjoy it.

Maybe we don’t rant enough

April 24, 2009

I come from a very politically correct family. My father was the Director of Transportation for a small city system for most of my life growing up and he instilled in me that everything is “political.”

So I’m careful what I say. Careful how I say it. It’s not being duplicitous, it’s understanding that anything you say can and will be held against you – so find a way to say it delicately.

Ask my close friends, I’m known to rant and get things off my chest in some of the most un-PC terms ever. But what I put out there in black and white for all to see…that’s a different story.

I think Doret, the Happy Nappy Bookseller blogger, knows where of I speak because a few weeks ago, she posted this “rant” about how often African American children’s lit is left out during mainstream discussions of kiddielit.

The first sentence in the blog summed up how I feel about a lot of things when it comes to blogging: “I wrote this last night. Slept on it and still wanted to post it, so here it is.”

I do that a lot. I think about whether or not I want to argue with faceless commenters. Whether what I’m about to say will impact sales of my books if I make enemies. Whether my opinions are justified because maybe I’m only looking at one side of the story.

I had these same thoughts when I posted the Oprah Book Club picks. But, in the end, decided that it was worth ranting (albeit low key) about.

Truthfully, I think, on the issue of Af-Am children’s books being excluded from so many mainstream conversations, we don’t rant enough.

But those of us who are a part of the larger children’s lit community walk a line. Like any other professional – we risk alienating ourselves from our peers if we vent too much or too vehemently.

Everything is political.

But Doret brings up another issue, that I think we’re not nearly as honest about – the expectation of inclusion on a mainstream level, when even amongst the niche audience of African American readers we’re not consistently supportive.

Or the flip side – feeling that just because we share a race we’re obligated to “read black.”

It gets messy if you let it.

So most of us just say nothing or rant so quietly you can’t tell it’s a rant.

But Doret’s rant is lovely. Eloquent. Poetic. Honest.

I’d rant more often if I could do it that way.

Paula Chase Hyman is the YA author of the Del Rio Bay series. Her latest release, Flipping The Script (Dafina 2009), is the fifth and final book in the series. She considers herself a double-threat because she can rant and rave.

R. Gregory Christie discusses Open the Door to Liberty!

April 21, 2009

With so many deadlines looming, I won’t be able to contribute to the Brown Bookshelf blog as much as I’d like to. So instead, I’ve invited a few authors and illustrators to sit in as guests, to discuss their recent projects.

R. Gregory Christie is a three-time Coretta Scott King honor recipient. He’s illustrated numerous picture books, including the biographies of many significant historical and cultural figures — Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Sojourner Truth, Muhammad Ali, Louis Armstrong, to name a few.

With his current picture book, Open the Door to Liberty!, written by Anne Rockwell, he illustrates the story of Toussaint L’Ouverture. I love it when authors and illustrators tell the stories of little-known historical figures.

The following words and images are from R. Gregory Christie, on Open the Door to Liberty! A Biography of Toussaint L’Ouverture:

gregcMy interest in creating the art for Open the Door to Liberty!: A Biography of Toussaint L’Ouverture came from a desire to shed some light on such an important figure in American history. For me he seems to have been forgotten and never before in documented time were slaves able to rebel against their oppressors, gain their freedom and successfully start a nation. The story is remarkable one that Anne Rockwell, Houghton Mifflin and I were drawn to tell. I often enjoy doing historical projects because I think that it’s an interesting way to compile dates and occurrences. Picture books based upon historical events can be a perfect summation of achievements, dramas, dynamics and facts. Additionally, Young Adult Novels often deal with difficult topics but keep an engaging pace. This book is a hybrid of a picture book and young adult novel; it tells a story that should be known by any person that wishes to know more about the United States’ origins. Open the Door to Liberty!: A Biography of Toussaint L’Ouverture has information about the Haitian, French and American revolutions and explains how they are connected.97806186057051

Even before creating the art for this book I brought up Toussaint’s name constantly because I often found that many grammar school pupils renowned Washington but not L’Ouverture. They knew about Dr. Martin Luther King but not Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman but not Sojourner Truth, the accomplishments of Edison but not Carver or Latimer. Furthermore, High school students didn’t know these people and I found that students were expected to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin but not Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

Something just feels shameful and unbalanced to me about that, so I tend to put out historical facts in my interviews and see myself as a visual griot, I tell stories of our ancestors no matter what ethnicity they originate from, but in all honesty I have a special place in my heart for deceased brown people that often are forgotten by living brown people. I want to help people reevaluate the accomplishments of historical figures whose acquired goals have become a phrase rather than a honored concept. This book about Haitian, American and French History has the same catalyst that all my historical books do. I want to bring balance in people’s mentalities. If one knows about one hero (even an antihero), then I would hope that one will use a book similar Open the Door to Liberty!: A Biography of Toussaint L’Ouverture as a means to know that historical figure’s many ethnic counterparts.

dsc00011_edited2The book came about over a conversation with Anne while we were speaking about history as we often used to do. I asked “Have You ever heard of Toussaint L’Ouverture and from there it began; pitching the book to editors that had never heard of him, getting rejected here and there until the wise folks at Houghton Mifflin agreed to give it a shot. Everyone involved with the book was very patient and encouraging as the book developed. It was very hard to give Toussaint the right visual demeanor, there are not many images of him done in his life time and most of the later portraits are pretty stoic or seemed to be an artist’s own interpretation of him based from the famous profile etching where he is in his military regalia. So I had to find my own visual path which took a long time, I also had to give Haiti’s now long gone lush landscape a visual voice as I described the brutality of jungle warfare in a honest and child friendly way.

The end result is this unique book with vibrant colors, idyllic landscapes and my best attempt at the time to do the man and his achievements some justice. In my opinion the information in the text is expertly relayed by Anne Rockwell because the important dates and places are there but not overwhelming within the text. I’m thankful that Houghton Mifflin was willing to give the telling of this story a chance, not every publisher was up for that. I hope that everyone gets an opportunity to see this book and after understanding the dynamics of the Haitian revolution leading to the encompassing of over 828,000 square miles in the US, tells everyone they know about such a powerful story.



Compiled by Don Tate, illustrator and author of numerous books for kids, including Ron’s Big Mission (Dutton, 2009), I Am My Grandpa’s Enkelin (Paraclete, 2008), Sure As Sunrise (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), Summer Sun Risin’ (Lee & Low Books, 2005). Don has three forthcoming titles, which will publish with HarperCollins, Charlesbridge and Lee & Low Books.

Oprah’s YA Picks Color-less

April 17, 2009


I think I liked it better when Oprah simply ignored children’s fiction.

Not even our vanguards made the list.

I don’t get it! I just don’t get it.

But wait…the 6-9 year old reading range features Janice Harrington and Henry’s Freedom Box illustrated by Kadir Nelson.

There is that.

And the MG list is the most diverse.

So there’s that.

BBS Chats with Deborah Taylor

April 15, 2009

For something to endure forty years, there has to be lots of love and nurturing. It’s safe to say that the Coretta Scott King Literary Award most certainly has been nurtured. This year marks its 40th anniversary honoring African American writers and illustrators for their contributions to children’s literature.

I can only imagine what the powers that be in the literary field said in 1969 when the award was conceived. Did people think – what nerve, for people of color to create their own award for books? Or was it more like – thank God, now we really don’t have to worry about acknowledging them in the mainstream?

Considering where our country stood then – at the cross roads of the civil rights movement, I’m sure there was scrutiny. But I believe there’s greater scrutiny of the award, now more than ever, because of the country’s current landscape, because we now have a president who identifies himself as a person of color. In a way, the award has come full-circle along with the rest of society.

Current CSK chairperson, Deborah Taylor, chatted with Brown Bookshelf members about the award’s journey. Where it came from, where it’s been and where it and publishing, in general, should go.
BBS: What was the racial landscape of the children’s book industry when the Coretta Scott King Awards debuted?

DT: The award was established in the late 60’s and early seventies. It was a time of racial uncertainty. The publishing world was aware of the need for books about African American life and culture, but the children’s book establishment was slow to change and slow to openly embrace the different stories and styles represented by most African American writers and artists, with rare exceptions.

We had come through the “black is beautiful” stage in African American culture, but little had filtered down to books for young readers. While there were few overtly offensive images, there were few that celebrated the images of African American culture for young readers. There were not many that fully explored the contributions of African Americans to all aspects of American culture.

BBS: How has the industry changed?

DT: As society changed, the industry became more receptive to different stories and styles. Popular culture has become more inclusive, so some aspects of African American culture have become more main stream. This is also reflected in the types of books that get published. There are non African Americans who understand that the diversity can be good for the health of the industry.

There are a few more African Americans working in the industry and the additions of African American imprints such as Jump at the Sun at Hyperion/Disney and Armistad at HarperCollins were important for the field.

What gains have made you proudest?

DT: I am most proud of the writers and illustrators who were introduced to the field by the Awards and the impact they have had. When I remember the early work of an artist such as Kadir Nelson or the writing of Sharon Flake, I am proud of the early recognition they received from the Coretta Scott King Book Awards. Now they and others like them are major names in the field of literature for young people.

Also gratifying is the increased sophistication we see represented in the works that are recognized. I see a growing understanding that while history and the arts are sources of great inspiration; universal themes set in the context of African American culture reinforce the common humanity of all people. I really like the balance.

Lastly, I am very pleased that the high standards the Awards have set help provide a more full and complete picture of African American life and culture.

BBS: What work still needs to be done?

DT: I would like to see a greater variety of books published about the African American experience. I’d like to see more genre fiction featuring young people of color: fantasy, science fiction, suspense, etc. I’d like to see stories about African Americans from many different backgrounds, middle and upper class, as well as families struggling economically. And when we do get books like that, I’d like to see some promotional weight behind them.

BBS: Explain why the task force still believes there’s a need to have ethnic/race-based literary awards/ what do you hope the future brings for African American children’s literature?

DT: The Committee believes that it is still difficult for books written and illustrated by African Americans to gain the recognition they need. The awards provide this recognition and offer a chance in the spotlight. There is an authenticity of storytelling and experience that the creators bring to their story and we think that should be encouraged and celebrated.

I hope the future brings a greater range of stories from the African American experience. I look forward to a wider range of stylistic approaches in the writing and the art. I hope we will see more African Americans producing graphic novels and experimenting with form. Hopefully, the awards will continue to encourage new African American writers and illustrators to see children’s publishing as an outlet for their talents and that publishers continue to see opportunity in these works.

BBS: Some have even gone as far as to say the award is contradictory to Dr. King and Mrs. King’s vision of peace and world brotherhood, because it’s given only to African Americans. Is that an oversimplification of what the award represents? Why or why not?

DT: It is certainly an oversimplification of the complexities of Dr. King’s views of what it would take to remedy the effects of the racial history in this country. Dr. King’s vision included a path that acknowledged the work that needed to be done for getting there. We are on that path. The purpose of the award is to highlight the contributions of African Americans in literature for young people. This broadens the landscape for all readers to read and appreciate the works of these talented artists.

BBS: Can you shed any light on whether the task force works with other ALA award committees when it comes to selecting candidates? Is it possible some African American authors aren’t considered as seriously for the other awards because it’s felt they “fit” better within the CSK talent pool?

DT: There is no “collusion” going on in the award making process. I have served on both the Newbery Committee and the Printz Committee and the ethnic background of an author is not part of the conversation. No chair of a committee would allow such a discussion.

In my experiences, discussion is centered on the works before the committee and nothing else. There have been cases, just a few, where books by African American writers and illustrators received recognition from other committees and did not receive a Coretta Scott King Book Award recognition.

I suspect this question attempts to address the discussion about Kadir Nelson not receiving the Caldecott or Caldecott honor for We Are the Ship. The book did, however, win the Sibert Medal for informational work, the first by an African American for that award or any of its honors since it was first given in 2001.

There have been three instances in the Coretta Scott King Book Awards history when its winner was the winner of another major award: In 2000, Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis won the Coretta Scott King Author Award and the Newbery Medal. In 2004, First Part Last by Angela Johnson won the Coretta Scott King Author Award and the Michael L. Printz Award (for Young Adult Literature.)

BBS: Upon reviewing a list of past winners, one can assert that they go to a small handful of recipients, repeatedly. Talk a little bit about how the task force is encouraging publishers to support African American creators of children’s lit, while also seemingly recognizing only a small pool of the authors, themselves.


DT: The integrity of the award dictates that the Committee selects the best from the works they have to examine. With a small pool of eligible books, it stands to reason that experienced quality writers and illustrators who have been working and refining their craft will certainly rise to the top. Whether a potential recipient has won before, won multiple awards or never won before is not the issue.

The quality of the work in front of the committee is the only issue. For example, The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. It was his first novel. Uptown by Bryan Collier was his second published book and it won the illustrator award the year it came out.

BBS: With such a small number of African American children’s book creators being published each year, what is the committee doing to take the lead in recognizing fresh voices, beyond the Steptoe award?

DT: One of the goals of the 40th Anniversary Public Awareness Campaign is to keep the awards and recognized books in the forefront for librarians, teachers, parents, and anyone who cares about quality children’s literature. The Steptoe Award is a pretty significant step. Before the Young Adult division (YALSA) established its prize for first novels, the Steptoe was a unique attempt to highlight fresh voices.

I think the best way we can encourage new African American voices is to work hard to maintain the integrity of the award by making excellent selections, work with all of our partners to promote the books, and encourage talented writers and illustrators to consider children’s publishing as a great place for the stories they want to tell.

Please visit ala.org/csk for full criteria on the Coretta Scott King Award.

*Excerpt from site *

Selection Criteria:
The Award is given to an African American author and illustrator for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions. The Coretta Scott King Book Award titles promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples and their contribution to the realization of the American dream of a pluralistic society.

The Award is further designed to commemorate the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to honor Mrs. Coretta Scott King for her courage and determination to continue the work for peace and world brotherhood.
The Criteria of the award is as follows:
1. Must portray some aspect of the black experience, past, present, or future.
2. Must be written/illustrated by an African American
3. Must be published in the U.S. in the year preceding presentation of the Award.
4. Must be an original work
5. Must meet established standards of quality writing for youth which include:
o Clear plot
o Well drawn characters, which portray growth and development during the course of the story.
o Writing style which is consistent with and suitable to the age intended
o Accuracy
6. Must be written for a youth audience in one of three categories:
o Preschool-grade 4
o Grades 5-8
o Grades 9-12
7. Particular attention will be paid to titles which seek to motivate readers to develop their own attitudes and behaviors as well as comprehend their personal duty and responsibility as citizens in a pluralistic society.

8. Illustrations should reflect established qualitative standards identified in the statement below:
Illustrations should… “heighten and extend the readers’ awareness of the world around him. They should lead him to an appreciation of beauty. The style and content of the illustrations should be…neither coy nor ondescending…Storytelling qualities should enlarge upon the story elements that were hinted in the text and should include details that will awaken and strength the imagination of the reader and permit him to interpret the words and pictures in a manner unique to him”
–Cianciolo, Illustrations in Children’s Books (p. 24-25)
Eligibility and Exclusions
1. Author or illustrator must live in the U.S. or maintain dual residency/citizenship.
2. Book must be published in the year preceding the year the award is given, evidenced by the copyright date printed in the book.
3. Only finished copies will be accepted. Do not send advance reader copies, galleys, etc.
4. Titles submitted for the Coretta Scott King Book Awards will not be returned. Titles received by the OLOS office are donated as part of The Coretta Scott King Review Books Donation Grant


Article compiled by contributing writers: Paula Chase, Varian Johnson, Kelly Starling Lyons, Carla Sarratt, Don Tate

Becoming Billie Holiday: Blog Tour

April 9, 2009

This month, New York Times best-selling author Carole Boston Weatherford launched a blog tour for her award-winning book, Becoming Billie Holiday (Wordsong, 2008). In her fictional verse memoir, beautifully illustrated in sepia tones by Floyd Cooper, Weatherford traces the transformation of Eleanora Fagan from Baltimore child into Harlem crooner Billie Holiday.

Weatherford, a Baltimore native, calls Holiday her muse. She tells her story in 97 first-person poems titled after Lady Day’s songs. We’re honored to have Weatherford stop here at The Brown Bookshelf.

How did Billie Holiday become your muse?

My father introduced me to Billie’s music and took me to see the biopic Lady Sings the Blues. Her music and life story resonated with me. Billie became my muse rather unobtrusively. She had made cameos in about five of my adult poems before I realized that she was my inspiration.

What called you to tell her story?

I believe that Billie herself enlisted me to write this book. When I had all but abandoned the idea, a chance encounter with a young Billie Holiday fan in front of the singer’s likeness at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum convinced me to proceed.

Please tell us about your research and writing process? Did you listen to her music as you wrote? Was writing this book a special experience because of your connection with Holiday? 

I always envisioned this book as a sequence of narrative poems written in Billie’s voice. So for starters, I listened to her early music. Then, I read several biographies and determined that the poems would be titled after her songs. The poems poured at a rate of two or three a day. In retrospect, the creative process was almost magical.  This book is my love song to Billie.

What do you want young people to take away from Becoming Billie Holiday?

I want to introduce Billie to a new generation of fans. I hope readers will empathize with her and be moved to listen to her music. I think her story speaks to today’s teens because she was orphaned half the time and essentially raised herself on the streets. Yet, she discovered her gift. I hope that aspect of her story will inspire young adults to cultivate their talents. 

Musings from the Author

Like too many youth today, Billie was a troubled child who lacked adequate adult supervision. Nowadays, she might have been called a “bad girl.” She was sent to reform school-House of the Good Shepherd-twice: first for truancy and, the second time, at age 11 as a state witness for rape.  After her second stint with the nuns, she dropped out of fifth grade.

With her father absent and her mother out of town as a live-in maid, Billie had no one to nurture her. That makes her fame all the more remarkable. Her honest voice still touches listeners today.

From “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie”

An idle mind is the devil’s workshop,

the nuns said, and confession

is good for the soul.


Once, in the five-and-dime store,

a pair of silk stockings called my name:

Eleanora, wanna dance? 

When the clerk wasn’t looking,

I balled up those stockings,

stuffed them in my pocket and waltzed

outdoors with my heart pounding.

That wasn’t the only time I stole.

Like Billie,  jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong did time in reform school-at age 11, after firing a rifle at a New Years Eve celebration. Another parallel: He was a grade-school dropout who heard jazz in bars and brothels.  Billie and Louis performed together in the film that takes its name from his hometown-New Orleans.  

“Farewell to Storyville” www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLHCR0OTqhs

Want to hear more about Becoming Billie Holiday? Visit the website:


You can also check out these podcasts:

WBGO-FM (Newark, NJ): www.wbgo.org/realfiles/jrnl2008/081219/article2.ram

WICN-FM (Worcester, MA): www.wicn.org/audio/inquiry-carole-boston-weatherford-becoming-billie-holiday

And read an excerpt here:


About Carole Boston Weatherford:

Weatherford has authored more than 30 books of poetry, nonfiction and children’s literature, including Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, winner of an NAACP Image Award, a Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration. Birmingham, 1963 won the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and the Jefferson Cup. Among her recent titles is Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane, winner of a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor.


Kelly Starling Lyons is the author of picture book, One Million Men and Me (Just Us Books, 2007), and chapter book, NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal (Just Us Books, 2004). She has two forthcoming picture books with G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Unbuzzed Books? We got plenty

April 8, 2009

Sheila Ruth, an ’06 and ’07 organizer of the Cybil’s Sci-Fi and Fantasy category, has a very extensive and heartfelt blog about how too many lists recommending children’s books are focusing on only the best selling books.

This is at the very core of the Brown Bookshelf’s mission – spotlighting those left in the shadows and comes right on the heels of the CCBC’s annual report on Children’s lit. The good news – the number of books by African American’s hasn’t fallen. Check out Kyra Hicks’ posting of the news.

Recently, I was surprised to learn that there are some who believe The Brown Bookshelf is guilty of only focusing on the award winners. Obviously I’m biased, but I beg to differ in a big way. Beyond our veteran authors, our under-the-radar authors are all legitimately selected because either their books aren’t out there enough or they, the authors, aren’t very well-recognized. Would if we could, we’d cover every children’s book out there but there are limitations to our time when it comes to research.

Which is why we rely on you, loyal visitors.

But I digress. Sheila has put out a call to arms:

Please post in the comments your favorite children’s or YA books published in 2008 that were not widely buzzed, reviewed, or awarded. I’ll compile all the suggestions into a book list and post it on my blog, with permission for anyone to copy it and post it elsewhere.

I am calling for all visitors to the Brown Bookshelf to take another step and post suggestions of brown books on Sheila’s blog. I say “another” because many of you are loyal readers who constantly spread the word about the books we post about here.

We want to make sure brown books are represented wherever children’s books are mentioned. No shame in our game, we want the masses to be aware that the literature is out there, merely “unbuzzed.”

Interpret unbuzzed that the way you’d like but it’s safe to say if it’s best selling or has garnered a significant literary award, it’s not eligible. So, unbuzzed would not include veteran authors featured during 28 Days Later, but would include many, if not most of the others. It would include books by Brown Bookshelf members, books we’ve reviewed but haven’t featured within 28 Days Later and books that you’ve nominated for 28 Days later but perhaps didn’t make the cut.

Please, head over to Wands and Worlds and recommend as many children’s books – PB, MG and YA across the genres, as you feel deserve the recognition.

Sheila has asked that authors nor their publishers submit their own books and that commenters indicate their connection to childrens’ books (librarian, teacher, parent, reader of kiddie lit, blogger).

Hey, Zetta, here I go again – waving the flag! Wanna help?