Marguerite Abouet

January 31, 2010

Marguerite Abouet

Marguerite Abouet was born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast in 1971, and sent to study in France at the age of 12, under the care of a great uncle. She now lives in a suburb of Paris, and remains closely connected to the country of her birth.  Aya, her graphic novel series, taps into Abouet’s childhood memories of Ivory Coast in the 1970s, a prosperous, promising time in that country’s history. The Aya books tell an unpretentious and gently humorous story of an Africa we rarely see–spirited, hopeful and resilient. I devoured the first three in the series in a couple of days — the stories are simultaneously sweet, fast-paced, and full of heart. Yopougon, or “Yop City” is populated with mothers, fathers, sisters, friends, lovers — it is a place we all know.

In the preface to Aya,  Myriam Montrat’s 1988 essay From the Heart of an African is quoted:

“The vision of Africa in the American mind is shaped by films, music, art, entertainment and the news media… (but) only the news media have the mission to inform. With regard to Africa, the media fail in this mission.”

With more than 300,000 copies sold, translations into 12 languages including English, a number of prizes and more from Aya and her friends on the way, one thing’s absolutely clear — Marguerite Abouet’s stories have struck a chord across the globe.AYA

You’ve mentioned in interviews that you felt a sort of liberation when you moved from novels to graphic novels. Can you talk a bit about that, and what most appealed to you as you started working in the graphic novel form? What inspired you? What were the surprises along the way? What do you see in graphic novels today that is exciting? Will you return to novels at some point?

My writing process rests mainly on creating character portraits. I like to determine their psychology, to accompany them through a history, and my imagination is fed by their interactions. In addition, I am also very much at ease with dialogue, and this is why graphic novels came easily to me; the style is similar to theatre. It is enough for me to go to a place where I can settle into my world, with a coffee, at a park, on the subway, and to feel the world to live around me so that the inspiration comes. Everything inspires me: the street, a face, a situation, a sentence, a word, a behavior, the life in general inspires me. What interests me as an author is to create characters and to discover their motivations, what will push them to act in such and such manner. Now that I’ve explored the graphic novel form, I plan to return to the novel, which is in a certain way a more solitary activity, more cerebral, because it requires more concentration and isolation.

The AYA stories, while they are ‘domestic’ in the sense that they focus on the  daily lives of a community, and everyday things, are really thrilling. My mouth dropped open more than once when I got to the end of the first volume, and you do such a wonderful job of keeping the tension high through the rest.  Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? How do you work out the structure of your stories? What aspect of storytelling most appeals to you? What’s the biggest challenge?

I hope that I’m not disappointing anyone when I say that I do not plan my stories. I don’t really have a particular writing technique or method; I go by my instinct. As the story moves along, I become better and better acquainted with my characters, I am more and more at ease with them, and at the end of one moment it is the characters who guide me. I let them live, they evolve/move. I just try to adapt my story to the structure of the graphic novel while thinking of the page breaks, the number of boxes, etc..

Who are your favourite characters in the Aya series, and why? Which characters are more difficult to write?

I love all my characters, the good and the bad ones, they’re all dear to me, but I am particularly sensitive to and inspired by the characters of Herve and Félicité, because they have nothing, only their determination.

AYA: The Secrets Come Out

The books are also stunning. Can you tell us a bit about the collaboration between you and Clement Oubrerie (your husband)?  What is that process like?

In an author/illustrator collaboration, it is necessary for me to like his graphic style, his sensitivity, his colors, and vice versa — he must feel the same way about my work. I liked all of that about Clément Oubrerie. When I showed him my project, he appreciated it immediately and decided to take part. So we developed a method of working: I have a small drawing notebook (even though I cannot draw) where I write the text and make the first storyboards, then I read the entire story to him and then together we rework the storyboards in order to create a first draft of the book. We are particularly aware of the rhythm that the graphic novel format engenders. The stories are complex, and have so many characters, we try to facilitate reading by creating short vignettes of one or just a few pages.

aya of  yop city
What are your thoughts on the African literary tradition? Do you think that African cultures are misrepresented or under-represented?

It should be said that the Francophone literary tradition was situated in a postcolonial context marked by questions of power/relationship conflicts between “traditional” cultures and “modern” cultures, between Africa of yesterday (corresponding more or less to a mythical image) and contemporary Africa with its crises and its upheavals. The main novels that characterize this period are of course Les Soleils des Indépendances by my Ivorian compatriot Amadou Kourouma, Le Pauvre Christ de Bomba by Cameronian Mongo Béti, or Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. The previous period was really concerned with affirming the humanity of Black people, and a newfound appreciation for African cultures! It was the trend known as Négritude, popularized by Senghor and Césaire. This literature was at the forefront of the African Présence movement that began in 1947.

It’s not up me to judge what would or would not be authentically African. Are there authors who bring a certain freshness, a new vitality to the canon? The answer is yes. Many efforts are being made in this direction. Gallimard is a publisher that I know well; this year they are bringing us “Continents Noirs”, an original collection of 70 titles and 35 authors. We’ll also see more progress when the Bayou collection publishes “Aya de Yopougon”, the Témoins collection (which includes the 2006 account of a young farmer from the Ivory Coast, Gbahi Kouakou, “Le Peuple N’aime Pas Le Peuple”), and with more widespread publication by houses like Gallimard so as to avoid the risk of literary ghettos.

I know that you’ve made special efforts to bring your books to the Ivory Coast. Can you tell us about that, and how those projects came about?

I am committed not only to promoting a more positive image of Africa outside of the continent, but also to act on the ground. I founded the association “Des Livres Pour Tous”, which supports literacy education of children in disadvantaged districts in Africa. We began by opening a library in a district in Abidjan and then in 2010 we will move on to Dakar and many other African capitals. In these reading centers, children who would not normally have access to books will be able to interact, to develop their reading and writing skills, to nourish and develop their imagination, to argue, exchange, and discuss books in ways that will open up their worlds.

What were the ‘turning points’ for you as a young reader? What literature do you continue to treasure? What made you think?

I have always treasured the stories that my maternal grandfather told me around the fire during the holidays in the village. All of those stories in our oral tradition were rich, imaginative accounts of mythology, wonderful tales. He taught me to pay attention to what occurred around me, to listen to the stories, and then become a storyteller. These stories of the Ivory Coast provided fertile ground for my imagination. Then when I arrived in Paris, I discovered the libraries and I started to devour all kinds of literature. The 4 girls of Doctor March, Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Shakespeare, Maurice Leblanc, Jules Romain, Welles, were my favourites at that time. I loved to read mysteries and try to guess at the culprit in the first pages of the story.

What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future? What are you working on now?

A feature-length animated film adaptation of Aya is coming in 2011. “Akissi”, a collaboration with Mathieu Sapin. Akissi depicts the adventures of Aya’s younger sister, a real tomboy, in the Yopougon district. “Bienvenue”, a contemporary Parisian story with a white heroine, will be a part of the Bayou collection, and a collaboration with the artist Singeon. The last volume (No. 6) of Aya de Yopougon, and “Commissaire Kouamé” a police graphic novel with Clement Oubrerie, which will explore the life and methods of an African police chief.

Thank you, Marguerite. We’re looking forward to all of it!

18th Annual African American Children’s Book Fair

January 29, 2010

Nearly two decades ago, 250 people braved the cold to attend the first African American Children’s Book Fair at John Wanamaker Department Store in Philadelphia. Year after year, word spread and enthusiasm for the celebration grew. Today, the book fair, held in the gymnasium of the Community College of Philadelphia, attracts thousands. In fact, not only is it one of the oldest single-day events for African-American children’s books, it has grown to become one of the largest too.

Founder Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati is a tireless advocate and promoter. It’s all part of her mission to preserve our legacy through books.

“The 18th Annual African American Children’s Book Fair will highlight some of the best books our generation,” says Lloyd-Sgambati. “These authors and illustrators cover every aspect of African American lives.  The books are well-written and beautifully illustrated.  These books will open the door to a love of reading and enlightened children of all ages.  This year also opens the door to our campaign to stress the importance of having a home library. Our mantra is “TAKE A BOOK HOME.”  Every home should have an area that is the family reading center.  Also getting our children to read means everyone in the family should be reading.”

Lloyd-Sgambati started The African American Children’s Book Fair to meet a need she saw in her community. For some children, the book fair will be the first time they meet a black children’s book author or illustrator, the first time they receive a personalized book.

“Every time a book is sold that means a story is told,” Lloyd-Sgambati told BBS in this interview. “Telling those stories enables the African American book industry to grow. This growth will mean that our legacy, our history is preserved.”

Lloyd-Sgambati said securing sponsors for these non-profit efforts is always a challenge, but those who come to the table support the effort to make sure our children have books in the home.  NBC10, a local television station, will give away brand new books of the guest authors/illustrators: “For some children this ownership and the opportunity to meet the person who wrote and illustrator the book make the pages comes to life.”

Several companies and organizations support classroom libraries by giving away new books of the fair participants to educators including PECO, the local utility company;  The Philadelphia Daily News and I Lead- The Urban Genesis Project. Other sponsors include The Literary, Cabot Creamery Cooperative, Comcast and Health Partners which provides resources to parents.

Please spread the word about this important event and stop by if you’re in the Philadelphia area. Several of the guest authors and illustrators are past and current 28 Days Later honorees. Here’s your chance to meet a children’s book author or illustrator of color, support literature and purchase a treasure — a signed book.


18th Annual African American Children’s Book Fair

Saturday, February 27, 2010, 1-3 p.m.

Community College of Philadelphia (Gymnasium)

17th Spring Garden Street

Free and open to the public

For more information, please call 215-878-BOOK


Guest authors and illustrators include:

 E.B. Lewis

Carole Boston Weatherford

Tonya Bolden

Deborah Gregory

R. Gregory Christie

Sean Qualls

Eric Velasquez

Nicole Bailey-Williams

Walter Dean Myers

Linda Trice

Charisse Carney-Nunes

Lynda Jones

Lorraine Dowdy Gordon

Jerry Craft

London Ladd

Kelly Starling Lyons

Booker T. Mattison

Kekla Magoon

Felicia Pride

Wade Hudson

Gerald Purnell

Cheryl Willis Hudson

Mutiya Visions

Vanessa Newton

Lori Nelson

28 Days Later, 2010 poster

January 28, 2010

The celebration officially kicks off on Monday, February 1. But you can get a sneak peek of the campaign now. Click here to download the 28 Days Later, 2010 poster.

Upon completing the layout, I felt encouraged. Sure, the number of African American children’s literature creators is small, relative to the industry as a whole. Visit any children’s and YA section of your local book store, and you won’t see many titles authored and/or illustrated by African Americans (other than during Black History Month). You might conclude that these books don’t exist.

But they do.

As an African American children’s book illustrator and author myself, in an industry that really isn’t as color-bind as it would have you believe, sometimes I get discouraged. But my work here at the Brown Bookshelf, specifically the 28 Days Later campaign, always inspires me. Whenever I find myself getting down, when I start to feel that the cards are stacked against me — and believe me, they are — I look at all the faces on the posters from past and current campaigns, and I feel hopeful.

African American children’s book writers and illustrators, keep doing what your doing. You’re paving the way, you’re making it easier for the next generation.

Thank you.


Mainstream Mission: Fuse 8 Top 100 Chapter Books

January 25, 2010

Over at Color Online (this year’s recipient of 28 Days Later spotlight books) Doret has posted about Fuse 8’s call for people’s favorite Fictional Chapter books.

Do go over and check out her post, as she’s saying exactly what I would for this call of action. Then, head over to Fuse 8 and submit a few brown chapter books. Submissions accepted only until January 31st.

Now and again, I’ll post these mainstream missions. Essentially, they’re a call to action so that brown books will routinely be mentioned in favorite lists, Top 10’s, 100’s or 1 millions.

Lately, I’ve struggled with this issue. On one hand, I don’t care who picks up a brown book as long as its picked up. But on the other, I feel like if we’re not mentioned in high profile places outside of the CSK we’re forever doomed to middling sales and stay-in-your-lane marketing.

I’ve seen progress in the area of brown books getting mentions outside of brown blogs and brown readers. But I believe we still have lots of work to do.

Betsy Bird is a great resource and her blog is read by many. It’s definitely a place we’d like to see our brown books listed, so the word continues to spread. So go.

EXPERT SCOOP with Jennifer Rofé

January 22, 2010


Jennifer Rofé is a literary agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency (ABLA). Jennifer earned a BA in English with a minor in Social and Ethnic Relations from UC Davis, and has a background in secondary education. Jennifer has been on faculty for the Big Sur Writer’s Workshop; the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop; and WNBA, PCCWW and SCBWI conferences.


BBS:    Welcome to the Brown Bookshelf, Jennifer.

JR:      Thanks for having me!

BBS:    PBs have reportedly been a very tough sell for the past few years. Is that still the case today?

JR:      Across the board, the marketplace has become even more difficult on account of the economy. This has certainly affected the already challenging picture book market. But, they’re still selling, so take heart.

BBS:    What types of PBs are selling best right now? What types do publishers seem to be “over”?

JR:      Short, snappy, character-driven picture books are doing the best right now. Picture book writers should aim for texts under 1,000 words, though I encourage aiming for 500.

BBS:    When publishers say they’re looking for “multicultural” books, does that mean books with more than one culture represented–or does it mean books that feature a specific ethnic group? Does the definition of “multi-cultural” vary from publisher to publisher?

JR:      There’s no across-the-board answer to this question. I’d say it’s each and both. Ultimately, it’s important that an author’s representation of all characters be realistic and genuine. I, for one, find myself somewhat put off when it seems an author is including a rainbow of characters in an attempt to make her book multicultural.

BBS:    How does the unpublished PB author know when the time is right to seek representation for their work? Should they have a certain number of manuscripts in their portfolio?

JR:      For those writing only picture books, I do think it’s best to have at least three strong texts when looking for an agent. A challenge that picture book writers can run up against is that they may be very prolific, but a small percentage of their manuscripts will be viable for the market. Having an offer from a publisher is also a fine time to secure an agent.

BBS:    What are the qualities an author should look for in an agent?

JR:      A positive reputation and/or being connected to a well-respected agency are qualities authors should consider when looking for an agent. Beyond that, an author should consider if the agent has (recent) sales to major publishers and if the agent’s body of work aligns with the author’s project(s). There’s a great deal of information out there about agents, and authors should have no problem doing their research. Of course, this research should be done before querying agents.

BBS:    What are the qualities you look for in a prospective client?

JR:      First and foremost, I need to know if a prospective client is willing and able to revise – if not, then I won’t be able to work with the writer and I certainly won’t be able to connect her with an editor, who will expect revisions. I also consider how many projects/works in progress the writer has and if she is knowledgeable of the industry, belongs to a critique group of some sort, and is willing to spend time marketing her book once it’s published.

BBS:    What percentage of your current clients are African American (or people of color)? Do you actively seek out writers of color to represent? Why or why isn’t that a primary factor in your selection process?

JR:      Ten percent of my clients are “people of color”. Though this isn’t a primary factor in my selection process, I do find myself attracted to stories featuring multicultural characters where race isn’t the issue. For instance, Paris Pan Takes the Dare by Cynthea Liu (Penguin 2009) and the forthcoming How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen (HarperCollins 2011) feature a Chinese and African-American protagonist, respectively, but race is not the central focus of either story.

            I’ve never really explored why this is. It could be because of my own background, it could be a personal taste. I minored in Social and Ethnic Relations in college with a focus on multicultural literature, so this is something that has appealed to me for some time.

BBS:    It’s been suggested that the industry tends to keep Af-Am writers in a box regarding the types of books they’re willing to publish (i.e., street lit, historical fiction, historical non-fiction). Have you experienced this with any of your clients? Why or why not, do you think?

JR:      I haven’t experienced this with my clients, but I have been in the situation where a book featuring African American characters that the author intended for the mainstream audience was, had we gone with an interested publisher, slated to be published under the company’s “ethnic” imprint. As this wasn’t the author’s vision for the book, we went with another publisher.

BBS:    What are some of your favorite books recently written or illustrated by African Americans?

JR:      My current favorites are the picture book Around Our Way by none other than Tameka Brown (Abrams, 2010) and the middle grade How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen (HarperCollins, 2011).   :)

Outside of children’s lit, I’m a big Toni Morrison fan, and The Known World by Edward P. Jones is one of my all-time favorite books, so any chance I have to talk it up, I do. It’s a must read!

BBS:    How important is networking for the unpublished author? With whom should they be networking…editors? Agents? Other writers? Is it more important to network with one group above all others?

JR:      Networking definitely plays a role, and I think authors should be networking with other authors and attending conferences where they can meet agents and editors while learning about the industry. SCBWI ( is an absolute must for aspiring authors. But even more important, unpublished authors should be focusing on honing their craft. It doesn’t matter how many people you know if you don’t know your craft. 

BBS:    You speak to writers a lot and you give out lots of advice. What’s the one piece of advice you’d like to leave our readers with…that you almost hesitate to say out loud, but you know would make a tremendous difference in their writing careers if they heeded it?

JR:      Publishing is an art and a business. Aspiring authors need to really, truly study their craft. I have a client who literally takes published books apart to see how the author built and developed the story. An aspiring author should also aim to understand how his/her book fits within the business – where on the shelves would your book go? Who is your audience? How does your manuscript stack up to those currently being published? Is your idea marketable for a broad audience? If a writer is serious about being a published author, then he/she must study and do research.

BBS:    Thanks so much, Jennifer, for your straightforward and honest answers. In keeping with that openness…meatloaf or sushi?

JR:      Wimpy sushi. In other words, California and shrimp tempura rolls.

BBS:    New York or LA?

JR:      “From the South Bay to the Valley, from the West Side to the East Side…looks like another perfect day. I love L.A.”

BBS:    Charlie Brown or Lucy?

JR:      A delicate balance of both.


For more information on Jennifer Rofé and ABLA, visit

Let’s Get It Started

January 18, 2010

Well, you know it’s award season (CSK, what say you?) so that also means it’s 28 Days Later announcement time.

This year, I find myself in a position of having to stay in my rabbit hole. In other words, I’m knee deep in my latest work in progress. Between that and pondering 28 Days Later candidates, I’m not afforded much time to focus on what’s happening in the real world. So I’ve missed all the good talk about ALA and NAACP Image Awards and such.

Perhaps someone will fill me in when I come up for air, say around April.

Meanwhile, we here at The Brown Bookshelf had a typical time coming up with the roster for our third annual campaign. And by typical I mean, just when you think you know for sure one author deserves the spotlight, darn if another name doesn’t contend just as well. It’s tough and rewarding work, if you can get it. And one look at the lit scene says you can get it plenty if you want it.

There’s no shortage of niche campaigns all with a similiar goal as BBS, showcase good work. And while I’d love to see brown books mentioned more in the mainstream, announcement day of the 28 Days Later showcases fills me with pride. Every time I think about spreading the word about good books it feels like a giant step forward.

So, enough rambling from me. Check out the release, or the 28 Days Later page for the complete roster and spotlight dates.

Helping Haiti

January 13, 2010

Yesterday, unimaginable devastation struck Haiti. Homes collapsed. Schools crumbled. Dreams exploded into dust. According to a article, the powerful earthquake affected about three million people — one third of Haiti’s population. The Prime Minister said thousands, maybe even 100,000 or more, are feared to be dead. That’s mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers, grandparents, friends.

Here’s one way to help: Text Yele to 501501 to donate $5. It will be charged to your cell phone bill. You can also visit to donate online. Yele Haiti is Wyclef Jean’s foundation. A message on the site promises that 100% of money raised will go to relief.

Here is a list of more charitable organizations that aid Haiti: