Jerdine Nolen

February 21, 2010


“Stories help us examine and shape the world we live in. Stories give us hopeful answers and insights to questions no one person can answer on their own — stories help us share our lives. This is what I love about being a writer.”

So says Jerdine Nolen–wife, mother of two, educator, school administrator, and author of numerous picture book titles, at least 11 of which are currently in print: Harvey Potter’s Balloon Farm, In My Momma’s Kitchen, Raising Dragons, Big Jabe, Plantzilla, Plantzilla Goes to Camp, Hewitt Anderson’s Great Big Life, Max and Jax in Second Grade, Lauren McGill’s Pickle Museum, Thunder Rose…and her latest, Pitching in for Eubie (Amistad/HarperCollins).

Since 1994, she has consistently entertained the young (and the young at heart), with her imaginative and tender tales of family, folklore and childhood. It is an honor and a privilege on this 21st day of our campaign, to present to some and introduce to others, Vanguard Picture Book Author, Ms. Jerdine Nolen.


BBS:    Welcome to the Brown Bookshelf, Jerdine.

JN:       Thank you very much—and what a pleasure and a privilege for me. 

BBS:    You’ve stated that writing and words have been an important part of your life for as long as you can remember. You even “collected” words. Tell us about this formative part of your youth.

JN:       When I do school and library visits I love to tell young people about my young life.  I think we are all so eager to know about each other.  I remember feeling desperate and starved to hear the stories of my parents’ childhood.  It didn’t matter what it was they were telling me, how they walked to school or got in trouble.  I simply loved hearing about when they were my age—in “the olden days.”  So, when students ask what I did for fun when I was a little girl, I tell them about “my olden days.”  

I don’t think I was ever bored as a child.  I was always making up games.  I enjoyed the company of my dolls or my little toy lamb, and I enjoyed my own company.  Among some of the other things I did to amuse myself, I collected words.  I collected words because I liked the way certain words sounded, what they meant, how they made me laugh because they sounded so silly.  And I loved putting words together.  

My mother noticed this tendency in me and gave me a hand with my deep and abiding desire.  She gave me an empty cardboard cigar box.  Then we made what would be the equivalent of index cards (the cardboard from my dad’s shirts from the dry cleaner, cut to size).  Because I loved the sounds of words, some of them would give me a tickle.  And certain words–words like “chutney” or “cucumber” or “watermelon”— these food words would crack me up just to say them.  Words I thought sounded mighty silly, I wrote down on my makeshift index cards and kept them in my empty cigar box.  It was my great treasure.  If I ever needed to be entertained, or have a big belly laugh, I would look at my word supply. And I laughed a lot.  Sometimes I played with the rhyme and rhythm or cadence of the words, too. It was fun.  I mean it was really a lot of fun.  I know what you’re thinking…and that’s o.k. because you had to be there to see just how fun it was!!!!!  :o)  

BBS:    So what was it that made you decide to focus on writing in the picture book genre?

JN:       I love the genre because it represents the sparkling and wonderful time of our lives:  childhood.  I love writing picture books because they are very child-centered and family-focused.  The idea of creating a story (beginning, middle, end) within 2-5 typewritten pages is very magical, especially what comes after that.  When the words are matched with illustrations—I consider this a kind of high magic.  It is amazing to witness the way the process comes together.

BBS:    About how long was it from the time you decided to pursue writing PBs as a career, until your first book was published?

JN:       Writing picture books is a lot of hurry up and wait, and it is a long convoluted story.  Sometimes I think the back-story of how a book appears on the shelf is just as amazing as the story itself.  Harvey Potter’s Balloon Farm was my first publication for the trade market.  I wrote the story in the late 80s.  It was accepted for trade publication in 1990 at Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books, a division of William Morrow.  It did not publish in trade until 1994.

BBS:    And that was the book which became a made-for-TV-movie called Balloon Farm. How unreal did it feel at the time, to have your very first book be so wildly popular that Disney wanted to make it into a movie?

JN:       You said it…UNREAL. With a capital AWESOME.  It’s was an amazing and an exhilarating experience to see my name float across the television screen, noted as the creator of the story.

BBS:    After the success of Balloon Farm, how easy was it to get that next picture book deal? 

JN:       I don’t seem to remember any kind of difficulty or separation.  I had already developed a good publishing connection with the editor of Balloon Farm who was interested in seeing the next thing.  But, even before all the numbers were counted and scored, I had already written the next two books, In My Momma’s Kitchen, which I wrote just at the birth of my son.  And at the time, an editor at a different publishing house contacted me, and what followed after was Raising Dragons. Both of these stories were “waiting in the wings” for submission.

BBS:    So your second published book, Raising Dragons, wasn’t the second book you wrote?

JN:       I had written Momma’s Kitchen, but we were waiting for the illustrator’s calendar to clear. In the meantime Raising Dragons was completed and released.

BBS:    Pitching in for Eubie (which I love) is your latest picture book.  What was the inspiration for this story?

JN:       Thank you, I love it, too.  The inspiration for that story was my dear, dear, Mother.  It is not the highfaluting, tongue-in-cheek silly humor; it is a story of family solidarity, togetherness and strength. It was based in part on a chapter from my mother’s life; and her desire for each of her eight children to get a college education—something she so wanted, but was not able to achieve for a variety of reasons.

BBS:    You grew up in Chicago, yet I’ve noticed that many of your picture books are set on farms. Was farm life a significant part of your childhood?

JN:       Both my parents grew up on farms, so it was significant and in a way, in my genes, I guess.  I grew up in the City of Chicago.  As we were growing up, my parents kept to their farming ways.  They liked eating food that they knew where it came from.  And they continued in their farming ways for most of my childhood.  Thankfully, they were able to cultivate an acre of land in downstate Illinois.  And they took their children with them, every step of the way.  Every Saturday we loaded our tools and supplies and lunch into the van, and we headed about 2 hours south and we worked the land.  Actually, farming wasn’t my cup of tea.  The farming life was too hard for me.  But, it made my parents happy.  I mean they were actually glad about turning up the soil and planting things.  At one point we had chickens in our backyard.  I didn’t know why we didn’t have more normal pets like a cat or a dog, or even fish.  I mean, there was nothing cute or cuddly about a chicken.  They never came when you called them…but my sister Katie and I pretended they did.  Unfortunately, we learned too soon that having chickens as pets was not the plan at all.  Those chickens were really food in disguise.  What a heartbreak.  I think I stopped eating poultry for quite some time.  So alas and alack, that is the story.  I suppose in some deep part of me I wish I could farm. And so I dream and fantasize and write about it instead of actually doing it.  I think that is a fair trade off.  As my heroine admits to in Raising Dragons, “There are some things you just know!”

BBS:    Your body of work is so wide-ranging:  From In My Momma’s Kitchen to Plantzilla; Lauren McGill’s Pickle Museum to Hewitt Anderson’s Great Big Life.   How do you manage to generate such a plethora of story ideas?  Is there a common thread that runs through them all?

JN:       I don’t know where the story comes from.  It is an intriguing thing to think about, but I do not spend too much time considering or pondering this.  Like Thunder Rose (my cowgirl heroine of the old west) says—and I agree—it is a wellspring that is “registered at the bull’s-eye, set in the center of my heart”. I think stories, good ones, have a universal message and appeal that connects us on a deep level.  If there is a common thread, I think it is one of a search for each other and a search for self…and how that search is wrapped in a blanket of love.   I think Mrs. Henryson, Mortimer Henryson’s mother in Plantzilla, says it best:  “When you give a living thing love, you never know where it will lead.”  I love to tell a good story well.

BBS:    Did you ever have to fight to keep yourself from being confined to someone else’s “box”? To their idea of what types of stories you should stick to?

JN:       I can’t say that has ever been an issue.  I have been lucky and blessed with finding my own multi-layered voice, and beloved editors to support that.

BBS:    Where do you find your muse? Is there a certain place where you feel most creative?

JN:       I think my muse is all around me…at least the opportunities for creation are all around.  I especially enjoy being in my home and with my family.  Families do so many things to center us.  At least that is true for me.  I think all my stories come from a very real, heartfelt place…a desire to connect and be connected.  When I look back on the landscape of my work, I see each story is attached to my family life in some way.  I wrote Balloon Farm as a joke.  I just wanted to tell a story that would make my father laugh. He had a great sense of humor and loved to laugh a hearty laugh.  He especially loved to laugh hard and loud when it was warranted.  I did what I set out to do.  And he gave me the biggest compliment after he caught his breath.  He said I was, “right witty.”  To me, my dad was someone who really knew how to put words together.

BBS:    Why do you still love writing for children?

JN:       I guess I can’t help myself.  I think the best and most we can do for ourselves is to find the thing we love to do, and then do it as if our very life depended upon doing it.

BBS:    What new projects are you working on?

JN:       I have a Christmas story, CHRISTMAS IN THE TIME OF BILLY LEE coming out next year with Hyperion.  And I have written a novel with a working title of ELIZA’S DIARY to be released through Paula Wiseman Books.  Both books will be released in 2011.  And there’s IRENE’S WISH, a fairy tale for children with our fathers in mind.  I am not sure of the pub date for that, maybe 2012.

BBS:    Is ELIZA’S DIARY your first novel? What’s it about?

JN:       Yes—YIKES!  It is historical fiction written in a diary format.  I don’t want to say anymore about it until it is closer to the pub date.

BBS:    What’s the most important piece of advice you can give writers of color trying to make it in today’s children’s literature industry?

JN:       The same advice I give to myself that I take because I have no choice in the matter.  You have to believe in yourself.  You must never give up on yourself in your quest to move the reader to feel and to see. You have to believe and know beyond a shadow, that what you are doing is something that matters. I feel as though I never had choice not to be a writer.  I feel in my heart of hearts that writing chose me and this is what I must do.  I have no choice but to write, and to write, and to write, because my very life depends on it. And to assume that, of course, everyone in the entire universe wants to read what I’ve written (no matter how scary saying that sometimes feels).

BBS:    You are an educator, a writer and a parent.  What charge would you give all three groups when it comes to “books” and “our children”?

JN:       Be very generous with reading and with books.  Foster the love of the written and spoken word.  Slather your children and charges with generous amounts of excellent literature, and with writing.  Talk with them…and wait and listen to what they have to say.  Be conversational.  Have intelligent conversations.  Pretend you have at your disposal (to borrow from Maya Angelou) oil wells and diamond mines full of books, and use them unsparingly.  Teach and show by example what it means to be a good problem solver, a good thinker.  Show children how to use their intelligence to navigate a world that is yet to come.  Reading and writing drives our ability to think. 

My parents, like most parents, parented from the viewpoint of:  “What was good for the goose is good for the gander.”  Have you ever heard that expression?  I heard it a lot when I was growing up. Both my parents grew up in rural Mississippi just 50 and so years after the end of the Civil War.  Now the childhood life both my parents led was not good for any growing human, so even as a small child I knew this thinking was flawed.  We must parent and teach our children to live in a world that is yet to come—and no one can even fathom what that will be…and it will be in such a very short span of time.

BBS:    Thanks so much, Jerdine, for spending time and sharing your thoughts with us today.

JN:       Thank you.  This has been most enjoyable, and a delight to answer your questions.  Best to you.

BBS:    Before you go…  Pickles or peanut butter?

JN:       Hmmmm…decisions, decisions. Pickles first…and then on another day, smooth peanut butter and grape jelly and a cold glass of milk.

BBS:    Basketball or ballet?

JN:       Could I do BalletBasketball?  I think it would be a lovely art form-y kind of sport?

BBS:    Dragons or Dinosaurs?         

JN:       Dragons first, please.


Learn more about Jerdine at

Author Photo Credit: Pat Cummings

Janet McDonald

February 20, 2010

Janet McDonald once wrote about her mis-adventure with psychic Sylvia Brown. The experience was much less than she’d anticipated and she spoke of the sick, sinking feeling that came over her as the reality that the reading was more scam than paranormal science.

It didn’t shock me that McDonald consulted a psychic. Many of us are curious about our futures, even if we never take steps to actually peer into them.

What shocked me was that the author’s questions for the psychic were more aligned with “what’s the greater meaning of life” than – will my book (at the time Project Girl) be best selling? Or, how do I make them best selling?

Perhaps as an attorney – analytical and practical by profession, and a member of Mensa, McDonald knew such answers weren’t for her to know since they couldn’t be controlled. So it would have been a waste of a question. Or maybe, McDonald knew that one of the secrets of being a sane author was letting her stories speak for themselves.

Perhaps it’s as it should be. A search on Janet McDonald’s name yields more eulogies than coverage during her successful writing run.

So, the stories speaking it is.

Before she passed of cancer in 2007, at the age of 53, Janet McDonald blessed the literary world with six YA books. A self-proclaimed project girl, she rose from them – living in Paris at the time of her death, and never let the stories of young people who were products of the projects go unheard.

From the trilogy of stories that followed the young ladies of the Hillside House housing project, to her two “boy” books – Brother Hood and Harlem Hustle, McDonald’s stories always focused on rising above circumstances. Although her characters were urban, McDonald’s stories are far from crying inner city blues. Instead, they focus on the character’s inner strength and how they used their surroundings to succeed.

We celebrate the work of Janet McDonald in hopes that her books find their way into the hands of young readers, today and beyond.

Project Girl – McDonald’s debut was a memoir about her days as a bookish teen Brooklynite. Hard hitting and real, the book covers her heroin use, her love affair with Paris and life while being Black in the Ivy League world of Vassar and Columbia University.

Spellbound – McDonald’s YA fiction debut about a sixteen year old, teen mom who sees a spelling bee as her ticket to upward mobility.

Chill Wind – With two kids and sixty days before her welfare benefits run out, teen protag Aisha Ingram turns to modeling for “big” girls.

Twists & Turns – McDonald shows readers that a little skill goes a long way as the Washington sisters set out to use hair braiding as their ticket to a successful life after high school.

Brother Hood – Straddled between life at prep school and life back at home in Harlem, Nate Whiteley faces the pros and cons of “keeping it real.”

Harlem Hustle – Eric “Harlem Hustle” wants to find a way out of the streets and Hip Hop may be the answer. But finding the strength to leave what you know, behind, becomes the real test.

Off-Color – Flipping the script on her in-the-hood take, McDonald tells the story of Cameron, a white teen who moves from a working class neighborhood to public housing. A fresh spin on acceptance and fitting in.

The Buzz on Janet McDonald’s Work

“One of the best of the many recent stories about teens in the city projejcts, this first novel is read-aloud funny, even as it tells the harsh truth about how hard it is to break free.” –Starred, Booklist (Spell bound)

“McDonald deserves kudos for her gritty, unsentimental portrait of day-to-day life in the projects.” —Kirkus Reviews (Chill Wind)

“Janet McDonald brings the dreams and personal battles of the Hillbrook Houses residents to life…The author offers an even balance of hardship and humor as the determined teens combat their many obstacles.” —Publishers Weekly (Twists and Turns)

“A vibrant spectrum of oral expression that brings both Hustle and New York City vividly to life.” —The Horn Book (Harlem Hustle)

“Readers will enjoy Cameron’s attitude which, despite her roller-coaster moments of anger and sadness, is relentlessly upbeat as she explores what it means to be black—and white.” —The Chicago Tribune (Off-Color)

Freddi Williams Evans

February 19, 2010

As a mom, Freddi Williams Evans made sure her children’s world was filled with books. She read to them often and found herself swept away by the stories too. Evans searched for books that showed reflections of African-American kids and culture. She found some, but knew there could be more. Evans decided to add her voice.

Despite receiving rejections for first efforts, she persevered. Her break came when she wove a story inspired by family history. Her first book, A Bus of Our Own (Albert Whitman, 2003), illustrated by Shawn Costello, explores the life of Mable Jean, a black girl who has to walk five miles to school and endure jeering from white children who ride on a bus. Mable Jean asks a question that rallies African-Americans in her rural Mississippi community and changes her future and that of other black children in the area. That debut title won honors including a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People and the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award. Evans was on the scene.

Her most recent title, Hush Harbor: Praying in Secret (Carolrhoda, 2008), illustrated by Erin Bennett Banks, continues her tradition of celebrating unsung heroes and moments. In the moving and acclaimed story, she creates a special window into a sacred space enslaved people created for themselves.

We are happy to salute Freddi Williams Evans on day 19 of our campaign:

What early influences helped ignite your interest in writing?

My passion for history and with my desire to preserve some of my family’s stories served as an early impetus for my writing.

I read that you grew up hearing stories from your relatives about enslaved ancestors. Could you please talk about that? How did that experience affect you and your future goals?

The stories that I referred to were about relatives who lived as children in the early 1900s. I was particularly intrigued with their stories about the games that they played, their schooling, and holiday traditions at Christmas. Of course, they had to make all of their toys – even the balls that the boys played with. This was also true of the Christmas decoration for their trees and the gifts that they received.  My goal is to share those kinds of experiences with the children of today.

What inspired you to write for children?

When my children were young, my reading list consisted mainly of their books – and lots of them. In addition to not having time to read adult books, I feel in love with children’s literature. I particularly looked for books with African American characters and storylines; but in the 1980s there weren’t as many available as there are now. My desire to write about the characters and stories that I wanted my children to read inspired me to write for young readers.

How did your first picture book, A Bus Of Our Own, come to be? Please share your path to publication. What were the toughest and most rewarding moments?

A Bus of Our Own is based on a true story from my family and community in rural Mississippi. I first heard about the story at my uncle’s funeral when, during a tribute, someone thanked him for bringing the first school bus to the “colored” children. I began asking my family members about the bus immediately after the funeral and each person sent me to another. The sacrifices that parents made and the fact that the community came together for the children’s education were powerful and commendable. While this was not the first story that I wrote, I’m happy that it was my first to be published.  

Getting the book published was not an easy task because I received lots of rejections and made many re-writes. I persevered because of the story itself and the layer of themes that it embodies. It’s a story about determination, education, family, community, church, school, segregation, sacrifice, team work, self reliance, and more.  The toughest moments were when family and friends inquired about the status of the book before I found a publisher. I would say, “Oh, I’m still working on it.”   The most rewarding moments were when I returned home for a book signing or presentation at a school or church. Initially, family members including Mable Jean, the main character in the book and my cousin in real life, attended many of those events. She also signed books with me.

What surprised you most about the children’s book industry?

I was surprised about the length of time it takes for a book to get published. After signing the contract, it takes at least two years if the illustrator is available.

Your beautiful books like A Bus of Our OwnThe Battle of New Orleans: The Drummers Story (Pelican, 2005) and Hush Harbor: Praying in Secret capture  historical moments. Why is it important to write history stories for children? What do you say to people who think children don’t connect with tales from the past?

It is important to expose young readers to historical texts that show the values, strength and courage of African Americans in the midst of struggles and injustice. Culturally conscious books not only inform children, they also empower them. 

 Children may not be able to connect to stories from the past, but they can learn from them. Historical texts that are grounded in truths and based on what really happened enable children of all backgrounds to better understand the past and ultimately better understand the world around them

What’s your mission?

My mission as a writer is to preserve and promote untold and under-told stories of the African American experience. Some of the themes that resonate in my work are community, family, perseverance and courage; and my intention throughout is to engage, enlighten and inspire young readers.

Please take us into your writing life. What’s a typical day like for you? How much time do you devote to researching and writing? What’s your writing space like?

My full-time job as a public school arts administrator soaks up my day hours. So, my writing and research are done after school, week-ends, holidays, and summers. As all of my books for young readers are historical fiction and my work for adults is non-fiction, I devote the majority of my time to research. This includes libraries and archives in and out of town (New Orleans). The bulk of my writing takes place in my office at home which is book shelves on three of the four walls.  

Your books have won many accolades from starred reviews to notables lists. What writing accomplishments make you most proud? How do you measure success?

I am very honored by the recognitions that my books have received. However, the one that stands out to me is the 2003 Living the Dream Book Award because my book was selected by the students at two schools in Manhattan, New York,  and I had the opportunity to travel there and meet them. I determine success in writing by the responses that I receive from students – who are after all my targeted audience.  

You do a lot of arts education and work with young people. What feedback do you get from them about your books? What kind of books do they hunger for? How do books affect them and their lives?

When students hear that I am an artist and an author, they immediately think that I am a visual artist and that I illustrate my books. Students appreciate the fact that these stories are based on real events and/people. During my presentations, they get to view photographs of the real characters setting involved in the stories.

I believe that students would like any books that have contemporary and timely themes.

For instance, a book about the Saints Football Team winning the Super Bowl would be a great hit in New Orleans now.  I believe that books remain relevant in children’s lives – and always will, despite the world of media and technology.

What gains for African-Americans in the children’s book industry have you made your proud? What do you hope the future brings?

I am very proud to see the increase in African American authors and illustrators who are writing about and depicting our history and culture. These authors and illustrators enable African American children to identify with heroic characters who look like themselves.   It is my hope that the future continues to bring great books, but most importantly African American children who are avid readers and who will embrace the wonderful literature that is available to them.

Do you have other books in the works? What’s next for you?

Yes. My first nonfiction book for general audiences, a history book on Congo Square in New Orleans, will be published in 2010.  

What’s your greatest joy?

One of my greatest joys is to see the stories that are on my heart and in my mind come to print and touch the hearts and minds of others.

The Buzz on Hush Harbor:

Enslaved Africans in the antebellum South were forbidden to gather for fear that they would plan uprisings so they met at night in secret locations called “hush harbors” to practice their religion. Evans captures the drama and tension of one such meeting as word is quietly passed through the cotton fields and anticipation builds. Simmy, a child assigned as lookout, describes the meeting, first with its joyful singing and prayer, the behavior of those moved by the Spirit, and the terror when the barking dogs of the “paterollers” are heard. Banks’s highly stylized paintings are wonderfully expressive and amplify the deep emotion of the situation. Her palette of yellows and browns shows people who are swathed in moonlight yet avoids the dimness that night scenes sometimes have. An extensive author’s note outlines African religion from the arrival of slaves in America to the founding of the First African Baptist Church.

— School Library Journal

“Meetin’ tonight,” Uncle Sol whispers to his fellow slaves in the cotton fields. It’s going to be down in the hush harbor, where slaves sneak away to pray and praise the Lord. Evans takes a little-discussed topic—the faith practices of eighteenth-century slaves—and turns it into a moving narrative, if not quite a story. Young Simmy is given the job of lookout as the slaves gather to pray for Mama Aku, who is ill. As the worshippers sing and pray, Simmy spots a rustling in the bushes—it’s a runaway slave, who warns them about the dogs and guns of nearby slave catchers. Simmy’s quick actions allow the slaves to get home, where they learn that Mama Aku has died. Still, they’ll continue to pray, sing, and shout in the hush harbor. Illustrated with extremely stylized pictures that don’t prettify their subjects, this captures some of the fear and horror associated with slavery. However, it’s the detailed author’s note that will really give kids insight into the subject. A good choice for both religion and history shelves.

— Booklist

When enslaved Africans were brought to the United States, they brought with them their cultures and traditions. Slaveowners worked diligently to strip them of both, but the Africans found ways to maintain their history and evolve in their new environment; worshipping together secretly in remote locations was one of them. ‘When the oil lamps went out in the big house and the overseers’ cabin, folks who had a mind to go stole away one by one, with Uncle Sol leadin’ the way.’ A young boy narrates the tale of one such illicit prayer meeting, his joy and fear of discovery both clear in text and illustrations. Banks’s oversized, almost muralistic figures reflect the strength of the Africans’ spirits and their tremendous physicality. The red outlines used throughout evoke both warmth and danger as the characters steal away to their meeting place. Evans handles the issue with clarity, understanding and pride, briefly touching upon Africans’ attempts to escape the slavery system. The author’s note provides additional information for interested readers. This is a fine addition to any collection.

— Kirkus

M. LaVora Perry

February 18, 2010

I was so excited at the prospect of interviewing M. LaVora Perry — I’ve been admiring her enthusiastic spirit, sense of humour, and won’t-take-no-for-an-answer attitude for a long time. Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, LaVora fell in love with writing in the 4th grade thanks to Mrs. T.–a teacher who was mean to her but who nonetheless provided LaVora and her classmates with many opportunities for creative expression.

LaVora is a former actor who has performed on stage and in film in New York City and Europe. Fans of her MG novel , TANEESHA NEVER DISPARAGING, include Teaching Tolerance magazine and the Teaching for Change organization. Reading Today reviewer David Richardson called Taneesha “a joy to read”. Her upcoming PEACEBUILDERS: Daisaku Ikeda & Josei Toda, Buddhist Leaders got a rave review over at Multiculturalism Rocks!. LaVora’s work is full of personality, wit, and charm — just like the author herself.

What were you like at Taneesha’s age? What was your reading life like?

As fifth-grader, I was very self-conscious and felt like an outsider. A few books I remember from fifth and sixth grades are James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk; the still popular Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume; Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations; Where the Lilies Bloom by Bill and Vera Cleaver; and the play, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.

I was a Taneesha! Except, even though she might not think so, she has way more guts and a better sense of humor than I did at her age. Taneesha is the girl who, back then, I wished I was.

What were some of your inspirations for that character?

In third grade, my best friend had a slight physical disability. Once, we watched as older girls picked on one of our classmates. On the way home, I
told my friend that those girls were wrong for teasing our classmate. Unfortunately, the older girls, who were sisters, heard me. They taunted me forever after that. Plus, unbelievably, they moved into the house next door! This experience inspired some parts of Taneesha Never Disparaging.

What do you love most about Taneesha? 

I love the way Taneesha stands up to her fears even when she doesn’t want to. I also love her honesty—the way she’s willing to self-reflect and learn and grow from her mistakes.

How did you decide to create Evella?

A few years ago, Linda Johnson, the women’s leader of the Soka Gakkai International-USA (SGI-USA) Buddhist association, who happens to be African American, talked about how it’s like we each have two minds–our enlightened mind and our unenlightened mind, which she called our personal “evil twin.” It’s the part of us that recites an endless list of reasons why we’re going to fail at everything we try to do. Evella grew out of Linda’s description of the “evil twin.”

Taneesha and Carli have such a dynamic relationship. What inspired that? And perceptions of illness and physical challenges are an important part of Taneesha’s story; how did that come about? 

The third-grade friendship I mentioned inspired Taneesha and Carli’s relationship. I wanted Carli to be a fully fleshed out character, not just Taneesha’s sidekick. It was important to me that Carli not be a wimp.

Your dialogue and description jump off of the page. You write wonderfully descriptive phrases, like “crease in his pants could have sliced a hunk of cold cheddar cheese”, “multicolored laundry powder from a box turned upside down”. How do you suggest writers be descriptive without overwriting?

I can overwrite with the best of them! But my advice would be what anyone who’s studied writing has already heard: Use concrete language and imagery. Employ all five senses. Read your writing out loud; if it sounds boring to you, it’ll sound boring to everybody else, too.

What’s your favorite part of the writing process?

I love it when I make what I’m thinking jump of the page.

Are there any particular resources or exercises you recommend?

I list several writer’s resources on my website at

It’s wonderful to see a Middle Grade novel in which the main character’s spiritual life plays an important role. Why did you include this aspect of Taneesha’s life?

I’ve practiced Buddhism for almost twenty-three years and my husband has done so even longer. We’ve raised our three children as Buddhists (our oldest is fourteen). However, there were no books that reflected this aspect of our lives that I could read to them and that their school and Buddhist friends could read. So I set out to create a literary world in which urban African American Buddhist kids do stuff.

Have your choices been challenged in any way? What was most challenging for you about making faith part of the story?

I struggled with how to write a non-preachy story in which faith plays a central role. When I shared my frustration about my challenge to write such a story, and get it published, some Buddhists suggested that I just write books that didn’t mention Buddhism. Ultimately, however, this advice fueled my determination to write what I really wanted to write—and to learn how to write it well.

Taneesha was the first children’s novel published by Wisdom Publications. How did that relationship come about? 

After I attended a Highlights Foundation writers’ workshop and revised Taneesha Never Disparaging for the zillionth time, I telephoned Wisdom, whom I’d found online, to see if they’d read it. I didn’t want to send them the manuscript if they would never publish a book like mine. Ultimately, they offered me a contract to write the first and only novel they’ve ever published.

Tell us some of the experiences you’ve had as you’ve shared Taneesha with students, educators, parents.

Children ask questions about why the teenage girl who bullies Taneesha acts the way she does. When I read the scene in which an elderly Japanese woman who lived near Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was dropped describes what that was like, they ask lots of questions and share insights.

Teachers are often surprised to learn that a book about a black Buddhist girl exists. Frequently, they are eager to share a new type of “diversity” book with their students.

Parents are typically glad to find a fun book that their children will like. 
Usually, African American parents are glad to find a book featuring a child of color.

Successful self-publishing is an amazing achievement. Why and how did you make that choice?

When I published my first book, I was simply afraid that my kids and their peers would be too old to want to read a story about a Buddhist kid by the time I found a publisher for it. So, I published it—Taneesha’s Treasures of the Heart—myself.

What were some of the surprises along the way? 

My biggest shock was discovering that most writers keep their day jobs! Often, the big names we know about wrote for years and years in obscurity before they became “overnight” successes.

Tell us more about the birth and wonderful life of Forest Hill Publishing. 

When I first published Taneesha’s Treasures of the Heart, I used a subsidy publisher, which is sometimes called a “vanity
press.” This was expensive.
Forest Hill Publishing, LLC
But, because I was very energetic about marketing and promotion, I recouped my investment by having the book go into reprint several times at no additional cost to me. After two years, the publisher released me from my contract. They don’t normally do this, because most of their authors don’t sell as many books as I did and therefore most of their authors don’t keep ordering more books at the publisher’s expense.

Once I learned how the business worked, I realized I could publish books myself. However, if it weren’t for the advent of print-on-demand (POD) printing, I would not have been able to start my company when I did because it wouldn’t have been able to afford the cost of printing books or making the books widely available.

But with POD printing, and by using the company Lightning
, which is a division of Ingram, one of the world’s largest book wholesalers, I can affordably print, publish, and sell books to booksellers and individuals worldwide.

How did your work in the greeting card industry affect your book projects?

Working for a global greeting card company helped me learn the importance of writing in such a way that the broadest number of people will understand what I’m saying.

On March 16 of this year, Forest Hill launches, PeaceBuilders: Daisaaku Ikeda & Josei Toda, Buddhist Leaders, a chapter book biography. How did you decide to tell the story of Daisaku Ikeda and Josei Toda?

I’ve always known I would write this story. Daisaku Ikeda’s achievements on the world stage have been huge. He’s founded universities, cultural institutions, and received over 3,000 honors and awards—more than any person in human history.

Often, we look up to historical figures and their lives seem so large we don’t think of them as people like us. That’s why I began the opening scene of
PeaceBuilders with Daisaku Ikeda as an ordinary nine year-old. From there, the story depicts his growth, fears, and struggles from boyhood to young adulthood.
I hope PeaceBuilders inspires children to believe that, just like Daisaku Ikeda—a man from a simple background—they, too, can achieve great things in their own unique ways.

What were some of the challenges of writing narrative nonfiction? Did you learn anything new in the process?

I hate the thought of writing something that’s boring. So, I kept revising PeaceBuilders to breathe life into lifeless parts—or dump them all together. I hope I succeeded.

I was greatly helped with this book by critique partners and by a wonderful editor that I met at our last Northern Ohio Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference. I was told to focus on one or a few key aspects of my larger-than-life protagonist’s life, rather than tell his whole life story. Another great nugget of advice I received was to show him as a real person with human flaws. I was also advised to leave dates out of the narrative all together—otherwise, it would read like a dry encyclopedia entry. That’s how the book ended up in two parts—a story-like biography in part 1 and a reference section in part 2 that includes a timeline and achievements.

I know Forest Hill is seeking stories of transplant survivors; can you tell us more about that? 

This project grew out of a publishing contract I had to write a book about a friend of mine who is African American and who, along with her twelve year-old son, discovered that they both had a rare hereditary heart condition
and needed new hearts. When my publisher went out of business, after talking it over with my friend, I decided to publish the book through Forest Hill and expand it to include stories about several people. (*Note: For details of this project, visit the Forest Hill Web Site.)

My goal with this book is to raise awareness among people of color of the need for us to be organ donors. We represent the group of people least likely to sign up to be donors and most likely to need an organ or tissue transplant—and to die while waiting for one.

You’re a mother; what would you like to share with other parents about their role in their children’s literacy development? How does your parenting affect your work as a writer? 
My advice to parents is to read to babies before they even pop out into the world and keep reading to your children and talking about books with them.

My kids keep me in touch with children—how they think, what’s important to them. They help me stay connected to my own childhood dreams, aspirations, and fears. And they keep me from getting the big head.

What challenges have you faced as a Black author and publisher, and how did you move past them? What advice do you have for other authors?

The challenges of being black in this world are so ginormous and ingrained in the way things are done everywhere, that, for the most part, while I’ll stand up to them, I don’t dwell on them.

My advice to authors is to READ; WRITE; join a critique group; take advantage of every opportunity to learn about the craft and business through online information and social networks, books, classes, workshops, conferences, et cetera; and, most important, never ever give up on your dream. As long as you keep moving toward it, you’ll reach it. BELIEVE that.

What do you wish someone had told you?

That most writers keep their day jobs and the best selling books are non-fiction.

What do you see happening in the marketplace now that encourages/discourages you?

We are at the same place in the world in terms of changes in how communication is shared as the difference between the world before the printing press and after. I intend to ride the new wave of communication into the future, and to play a major role in creating the waves of the future.
I am not discouraged.

What role do you see self-publishing playing in the future? How do you see self-publishing changing?

I think we’ll see more and more independently published titles gain traction as more people use the endless stream of new technologies to reach readers. However, in order for new publishers to last, they must produce excellent publications.

You have a blog and web site; how do you use social media in your work?

I have two blogs—one’s my personal musings about whatever; the other focuses on kid-lit. I use the Internet to let people know where and when I’m doing workshops or book events and when my books are coming out. I use Twitter and I created a short and slightly longer book trailer for PeaceBuilder and posted them on YouTube. I created a PeaceBuilders Facebook fan page. Activities like these help build book buzz.

I use social media to promote other writers as a way of informing folks and giving back to the writing community that supports me in countless ways. In addition, I use social media to say whatever’s important to me at a particular time.

What makes you smile these days?
My kids make me smile—when I’m not fussing at them and we’re just having fun. Yesterday, I literally jumped up and down and shouted with joy after a friend phoned to tell me that Michelle Obama had publicly clarified that her new child health initiative was about being fit, not all about body size. (In a
post on my blog, and in an email to Mrs. Obama, I’d asked her to please not make size the focus of her initiative.) When I shared the news about her clarification with my husband and asked him to “Give me some skin!” instead of high-fiving me, he kissed me. And I smiled.

What’s your favorite word?


What’s next for M. LaVora Perry?

March 19 – 21, I’ll join, hopefully, several other writers and aspiring writers of color at the first Multicultural Literature Advocacy Group
conference in Mobile Alabama. Attendees will learn from writers and publishing industry and other media professionals and leaders. I’ll be presenting a workshop on affordable and successful self-publishing based on my book, Successful Self-Publishing–From Children’s Book Author to Independent Publisher, A Simple Guide for New and Not So New

Successful Self-Publishing--With strategies that work to sell books by self-published authors and authors of book published by general trade publishers.

In 2011, Forest Hill Publishing will release a health book I’ve coauthored with internationally-acclaimed Cleveland Clinic super doc and teaching surgeon, Dr. Linda Bradley (

At some point, I’d like to complete a novel that’s been simmering. I like to
write fiction and non-fiction. But being a writer is only part of who I am. So, all of “what’s next,” I can’t say because I don’t even know. However, I do know that I will make sure that whatever it is, by the time I’m done with it, it’s magnificent.

Can you tell us about the M.? 

The M is for my mother’s and my first name—Mattie. She’s Mattie Mae Perry and I’m Mattie LaVora.

No one in my family calls me Mattie, though—except for Ma when she’s playfully calling me “Miss Mattie.” I keep my “M” in honor of her—the self-named “Big Mama” of our family.

Thank you so much, LaVora! You are an industry trailblazer indeed, and it’s been a true pleasure.
LaVora is sponsoring an essay contest! Students in grades K-12 can win a copy of PEACEBUILDERS in the PEACEBUILDERS Essay Contest. Entry deadline is March 16, 2010. For details go to: her blog. To learn more about LaVora, click on the image below.

To learn more about M. LaVora Perry, click here.

Dinah Johnson

February 17, 2010


Accomplished. Creative. Family-oriented. Passionate.                         Four qualities embodied in today’s featured author.

Dr. Dianne “Dinah” Johnson obtained her undergraduate degree from Princeton University in English, with concentrations in African American Studies and Creative Writing. She then received her Master’s Degree in African American Studies, and her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University.  Today, she is a professor of English at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, and—most importantly—the mother of Niani Sekai Feelings.

Johnson–the daughter of an Army Colonel father and educator mother–is an intellectual who has travelled the world. She’s written six picture books for children, and edited or co-edited various publications including:  The Best of the Brownies’ Book (a compilation of fiction, poetry, photographs and more, from the 1920’s children’s magazine edited by W.E.B. Dubois and Jessie Fauset); the African American Review (a special issue devoted to black children’s authors and illustrators); and The Collected Works of Langston Hughes.  She is also involved in the production of a documentary film called Beautiful by Design: The Story of African American Children’s Literature.

On day seventeen, we proudly present to you a true renaissance woman, Dinah Johnson.


BBS:    Hi, Dinah. Welcome to the Brown Bookshelf

DJ:       Thank you. I’m excited about speaking with you.

BBS:    Growing up in a military family, you lived in many places as a child: ten different states in the U.S., plus Iran and Germany. How does your extensive travel history inform your writing today?

DJ:       Growing up around the world has given me an appreciation for the richness and uniqueness of various places—the sounds, the smells, the color palettes are all unique. The people in different places, collectively, have their own ways of expressing themselves, their own relationships with the concept of time. I could go on and on; they have their own orientation to the world. Seeing different places gives me an informed appreciation for the richness of human cultures and reminds me, as writer, to make my writing “truthful” to the extent that that is possible. And if I tell the truth of a particular character, the specifics make the story rich, while also depicting a character whose humanity is evident to all readers.  

BBS:    Professionally, your life’s work seems to revolve around African American children’s literature—not only writing it, but unearthing and preserving its history as well.  Can you expound more on your passion for this genre?

DJ:       I earned a master’s degree in African American Studies at Yale. As part of that program, I wrote my thesis on the work of the magnificent Lucille Clifton. Her Everett Anderson series is a masterpiece as are her other pieces for young readers, in particular The Times They Used to Be. When I went on to write my dissertation, I decided to expand upon the earlier work and research the history of African American literature for young people. I’m especially interested in writers who have devoted their careers to writing for children. But it’s worth noting that many of the most important writers in our tradition, such as James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, also produced work for children. Our writers have understood that children’s literature cannot simply be cute and innocent. It has to communicate to our children something about our complex and rich identities as Africans and as Americans. It has to do with beauty and with power and with love.

BBS:    Which came first: your desire to promote the rich history of Af-Am children’s literature, or your desire to write books for children?

DJ:       I’ve always been a writer. I began writing seriously in sixth grade when my teacher, Miss Carol Johnson, required her students to write creatively every week. As an undergraduate, I majored in English with a specialization in creative writing. My thesis was a collection of poetry inspired by a trip I made to West Africa after my sophomore year. I was definitely a writer before I became a scholar.

BBS:    What were the circumstances surrounding the publication of your first book, All Around Town? How did this project come about?

DJ:       Actually, the first book for which I landed a contract was Quinnie Blue. Because of timing issues with James Ransome, the fabulous illustrator, it was the third to be published. But to answer your question about All Around Town, photography has always been one of my passions. So I started off thinking I’d write a book about a family going to have its portrait made. But as the project evolved I decided to honor Richard Samuel Roberts, who so elegantly chronicled the lives of dignified people in my beloved home state. The most disheartening part of doing this project was learning, after communicating with some of Mr. Roberts’ children, that the family does not control the Roberts photographs. It’s too long a story to get into here. Suffice it to say that in my opinion, this is a case of cultural appropriation. But as for my book, it’s beautiful. Henry Holt’s design team does exquisite work, subtle but powerful.

BBS:    In the span of two years—from 1998-2000—you published four books. In addition to All Around Town, there was Sunday Week, the aforementioned Quinnie Blue, and Sitting Pretty: A Celebration of Black Dolls. Each one of these titles is a meaningful and important addition to the literary landscape.  For the sake of our readers, can you briefly describe these last three works, including what it was about each that made it “necessary” to you?

DJ:       Quinnie Blue was “necessary” because it is an homage to my four great-grandmothers—Hattie, Lottie, Annie, and Quinnie—all of whom I knew. I was closest to Grandmama Quinnie, who didn’t die until my junior year in college. Sunday Week was illustrated by my friend Tyrone Geter, who lived in Ohio at the time he illustrated the book; we met only afterwards. Sitting Pretty was inspired by my doll rather large doll collection. My editor, Christy Ottaviano, did not like the first manuscript I sent to her, a fiction piece about the dolls. She’s the one who suggested I try poetry. And it worked out beautifully. When I visit schools, those poems are very popular; children get up and act out some of them in the voices and personalities of the characters. I hope that all of my work is read aloud; only then can the books be experienced and appreciated in their fullness.

BBS:    Hair Dance, had an interesting evolution. The photographs—which are especially gorgeous— existed before the text. Can you tell us how you became involved with this project?

DJ:       Actually, there’s a long back story that I won’t recount. The short version is that my editor knows that I like to write in response to visual prompts. For example, to create All Around Town, I responded to the Roberts photographs. For Sitting Pretty, I put myself in conversation with my dolls. So my editor thought I might come up with an interesting manuscript in response to Kelly Johnson’s gorgeous photographs. I love the final project. (And I love hair: At the University of South Carolina I occasionally teach a course on the cultural politics of black hair!—in addition to my English Department courses.)

BBS:    Your latest book, Black Magic, was just released this January. By all accounts, it’s a must-read. You’ve received several favorable reviews, including ones by Kirkus, School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and a starred review by Booklist.  Tell us about this book. What do you hope children experience, or extrapolate, while reading it?

DJ:       When I was a freshman in college, in 1979, I picked up a book entitled Black Is Beautiful in the campus bookstore. Written by Ann McGovern in 1969, the book is made up of spare text and black and white photographs. I read it as her subtle contribution to changing race relations in this society. Black Magic is to some extent a revision of that book. Gregory Christie has done a brilliant job of illustrating the words so, so joyfully.  But our hope is that children of color will understand the deeper meanings; that they will understand that everything that is black is not bad, an idea so entrenched in our language and thinking.

BBS:    All six of your children’s books have been published by Henry Holt BFYR. What do you like best about working with this publisher?

DJ:       Henry Holt stands behind its writers and artists, and gives every book everything they can give it—beautiful design and attention to detail. So whether or not a book makes a splash, they know that they’ve produced a quality product, a work of art. Though my work has not garnered the attention Holt thinks it deserves, they have continued producing my books, standing by their belief that my work deserves to be out there.

BBS:    You’ve been in the publishing game for over a decade.  Tell us what some of the differences are in the industry now, versus when you started out?

DJ:       I’ll defer to the publishing professionals for a detailed response to this question. But my general impression is that when things are bad, people of color are hit the hardest. Editors take fewer chances on newcomers. Christy Ottaviano found my Quinnie Blue manuscript in a slush pile she inherited. I don’t think that would happen today, with so many editors no long accepting unsolicited submissions. But I would tell aspiring writers and illustrators that where there’s a will there’s a way.

BBS:    What have you learned along the way, that you wish someone had been honest enough to share with you at the beginning of your journey?

DJ:       Nothing that I can think of….I’ve had great mentors, including the prolific and pioneering Joyce Hansen and the late, great Tom Feelings. I was part of a journey to South Africa with a group that included Virginia Hamilton. I’ve been blessed to learn from and to be embraced by some of the best in the business.

BBS:    Do you have any new children’s projects in the works?

DJ:       First, I’d like to comment on a commitment that is very, very special and important to me—serving on the advisory board for the Children’s Defense Fund’s Langston Hughes Library, located at the former Alex Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee. I urge everyone to visit their website and to support them in any way possible. They serve as a depository for invaluable works of literature and they host important gatherings—all in the interests of our children.

            And I always have numerous projects in the works. One very special project is book I’ve co-written with my daughter, Niani Feelings, about her special relationship with her father, who died when she was eight and half years old. Another project that is dear to my heart is a book for young adults inspired by my first trip to the African continent the summer after my sophomore year in college. It was the most important journey of my life—other than the journey of motherhood!

BBS:    Thanks for your time, Dinah. We appreciated the opportunity to speak with you today.

DJ:       My pleasure. Your questions are thoughtful and evocative.

BBS:    Last questions–A.M. or  P.M.?

DJ:       A.M. all the way.

BBS:    Backyard pool or front porch rocker?

DJ:       Depends on the day.

BBS:    Red Velvet Cake or Sweet Potato Pie?

DJ:       There’s a time for everything. But it’s always a good time for chocolate!


Praise for Black Magic:

“While Johnson’s prose is crisp and definitive, Christie’s artwork takes the words and imaginatively whirls them in stylized, riotously colored pictures that will remind some of Maira Kalman’s work. The exuberance this child feels in exploring black in all its permutations can’t help but spill over to young listeners, who will have fun thinking up pieces of black magic in their own lives.”—Booklist, Starred Review

“This expressive book combines well-matched text and pictures to pay tribute to the myriad qualities of blackness. Buoyant yet reflective, Johnson’s (Hair Dance!) free-flowing verse presents an imaginative girl’s musings on the essence of black…With vibrant colors offsetting velvety black images, Christie’s (Bad News for Outlaws) acrylic gouache illustrations playfully tweak perspective and scale, echoing the verse’s energy and fluidity.”—Publishers Weekly

“These early literacy concepts are conveyed in short, snappy lines of text that make the book an outstanding choice for preschool storytimes. The African-American children in Christie’s illustrations have a variety of hairstyles and skin tones and are shown playing with children of other races. The bright acrylic colors capture the energy of childhood, and the artist’s bold, loose brushstrokes further underscore the dynamic nature of the text, and of the little girl who narrates it.”—School Library Journal

“‘My hundred black braids make a spiderweb around my head, / and Mama’s voice is black and sweet as I fall asleep.’ This emotionally rich sentence is representative of this winning celebration of blackness. Johnson successfully uses figurative language to describe basic concepts and more complex connections, such as using color to describe emotions. She effortlessly zigzags from the immensity of the sky to the comfortable warmth of a puppy. The illustrations are bright and vibrant and provide an excellent contrast to the actual color black, which appears throughout the book. …. Adults will find this book a great conversation starter with little ones.”—Kirkus Reviews

Find out more about Dinah Johnson at

Eric Velasquez

February 16, 2010

To describe illustrator Eric Velasquez as a “prolific artist” would be an understatement. Before snagging his first picture book contract, he created art for more than 300 book jackets and interior illustrations — more published art than many illustrators create in a lifetime.

A few of those titles include Journey to Jo’Burg and its sequel Chain of Fire, written by Beverly Naidoo; The complete series of Encyclopedia Brown; The complete series of The Ghost Writers; The Terrible Wonderful Telling at Hog Haven; and Gary Soto’s The Skirt and its sequel Off and Running. He also illustrated the cover of the 1999 Coretta Scott King award winning title Jazmin’s Notebook by Nikki Grimes.

His first picture book, The Piano Man, written by Debbie Chocolate (Walker & Co.), won the 1999 Coretta-Scott King/John Steptoe award for new talent.

In addition to illustrating, Eric is also a writer/storyteller. Grandma’s Records was his first authored title. It published in 1999 to rave reviews from School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly and others.  Grandma’s Records is autobiographical, based on Eric’s childhood in Spanish Harlem with his grandmother.

Houdini: World’s Greatest Mystery Man — the interviewer’s personal favorite — is like magic in and of itself. The images are uncanny, and nearly jump off the page.

He received his BFA from the School of Visual Arts, and studied at The Art Students League with Harvey Dinnerstein.

For our third illustrator of 28 Days Later, 2010, we present vanguard illustrator and author Eric Velasquez:

Please talk about your most recent book.

My most recent book is My Friend Maya Loves to Dance (Abrams, 2010), by Cheryl Hudson. I always wanted to do a book about a ballerina, however I never took into account how technical a project it would be. Inspired by the work of Edgar Degas, I figured I’d hire a model and photograph her in a variety of poses, and then use them as reference.

Once I read the manuscript six times, I realized that Cheryl was telling her story in a very personal and heart-felt way. It demanded attention. Suddenly I wanted the images to be far from those of Degas. I abandoned the thought of doing the book in pastels (my original intention). I wanted Cheryl’s words to come through the images unencumbered by the comparisons to Degas.

Cheryl and I went to a ballet school in an African American community, in New Jersey. We hired the dancers, and had the staff pose them. Every pose in the book is the real thing, as well as the model for Maya; she is a real ballet student.

Of the many books and covers you’ve illustrated, what are some that mean the most to you. Why?

I feel fortunate to have had a chance to illustrate a lot of my heroes. Muhammad Ali, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Houdini, and Jesse Owens. However I would have to say that the book I am especially proud of will always be Grandma’s Records, which is my story. I am not particularly fond of my illustration work technically.  But the book has resonated with so many people. I still get emails from people thanking me for writing it. Walker Books informed me that the book is their second all-time bestseller.

Grandma’s Records is a simple story about a boy who spends the summer with his Grandma, listening to records and her stories. Three famous Puerto Rican musicians visit them, and they attend a show that changes both of them forever. The book has helped bridge a generational gap that is widening between grandparent and grandchild. People write to me all the time explaining how they are playing old records for their grandchildren, ultimately that is most rewarding.

What is the primary medium used in your work?

My primary medium is oil on paper. I have also done three books in pastel and one in charcoal.

Who are other illustrators or fine artists who’ve inspired you?

I love them all, the old illustrators for different reasons at different times. I am a lifelong student of illustration. However, this is a serious question to me for many reasons. Not all illustrators whose work I admire would have invited me to spend a day in their studio. This is something that I have been aware of since childhood.

Therefore, if I could spend the day in the studio with any artist, it would have been Tom Feelings. Tom and I became friends after the masterpiece The Middle Passage was published.  It was the first time that looking at artwork made dizzy. I really had to sit on the floor of the bookstore when I first saw the book. It is everything that a book should be, a true Masterpiece. When I met Tom, I complimented him and I began to walk away. I guess he sensed my shyness and immediately called me back to thank me and to tell me that he was honored by my words.

We would meet again at the New York Public Library picture collection. We spoke for three hours. Tom Feelings was his artwork. Every pencil line and every composition was evident in his personality. He was as real as his art. I was inspired by his reality and his generosity.

Tom would often call just to see how I was doing and encouraging me to take ownership of my African heritage. A lot of art that is credited as being created by Europeans had in fact originated in Africa. Perhaps my only regret is that I never had a chance to spend a day in his studio and watch him create his magic.

The Middle Passage, Tom Feelings

What was the biggest change, unexpected result, or interesting observation noted since you received recognition by the Coretta Scott King committee, or any other award or honor?

Public speaking. That has been the most significant change in my life. Up until I won the award I never spoke publicly. I hid in my studio and painted. Many doors opened, especially when I began doing school visits. Most notably, teaching.  I was hired by the chairman of the Illustration Department at FIT (The Fashion Institute of Technology), Ed Soyka, after he viewed a school presentation I gave on C-Span Book TV.

Three books recently illustrated by Velasquez: I, Matthew Henson: Polar Explorer, written by Carole Boston Weatherford; The Rain Stomper, written by Addie Boswell; Voices of Christmas, written by Nikki Grimes.

Can you talk a bit about your process for illustrating a book?

After reading the manuscript several times I begin to do my rough thumbnail storyboard sketches.  Next I begin to research the story in terms of costumes, location, books, etc. Basically I try and learn everything I can about the subject within the time I have.

From there I create a book dummy (a pagination) of the book. This involves cutting up the manuscript and pasting it down next to the corresponding images.  I submit the book dummy to the publisher for approval. Sometimes there are changes at this stage. Next I find models and costumes, then I set up a photo shoot.

Next, I begin the final artwork. First I create a detailed drawing of the image then I paint on top of it using oil paint.

If you could wave a magic wand and completely change professions, what would you be doing today?

I waved a magic wand when I was seven and I wanted to be an illustrator. Nothing has changed.

Why do you illustrate for children? What do you find most gratifying?

The ability to change the future through art. For instance, let’s say I have text that reads: “Then he laid his eyes on the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.”

Now, let’s say I paint an image is of a darkly complexioned African woman. My point: If enough artist are courageous enough to depict a variety of images of beauty, regardless of country of origin, slowly the next generation will begin to open their eyes to another more truer sense of beauty, that of a broader spectrum.

For aspiring children’s book illustrators,  please talk about your path to publication.

There are so many obstacles today perhaps more than ever. There are lots of closed doors in publishing. It’s a small community that seems to be getting smaller. Currently I am a loss for words. I am very concerned with the future of publishing.  Persevere.

If you could put your career in reverse, is there anything you’d do differently as a young artist?

I would read more. Aside from Baldwin, Hughes, Wright, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky. Gogol, Zola. These writers really formed the basis of my perspective in illustration.

See the trailer for Racing Against All Odds: The Story of Wendell Scott, Stock Car Racing’s African-American Champion, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Eric Velasquez, above.

What is the most challenging thing about illustrating a children’s picture book?

Finding your voice in the story without overshadowing the text.

What was your favorite book as a child?

The Lollipop Party by Brinton Turkle. I grew up at a time where there were no images of African Americans in children’s books. I gravitated toward this book because there is a little brown boy in the story that I identified with.

Most Americans have no idea what is like not to see themselves represented in books or films. They don’t know what it’s like to constantly see images of themselves portrayed in a negative light or subservient role to the main protagonist.

How do you find balance in your busy schedule?

Very carefully. I pretty much work all the time.

What would be your dream manuscript? Is there an author you’d especially like to work with?

My dream author would be James Baldwin.

A current author would perhaps be Willie Perdomo, the poet. I really would like to explore more of the Afro-Caribbean perspective; sadly there is not enough of it in children’s books.

Who are your cheerleaders, those who encourage you?

My lady, Elizabeth, E.B. Lewis, James Ransome, and the countless  fans that write telling me how my work has affected them.

Do you visit schools? Is there any particular message you like to leave with children when you speak?

Yes. My message is that everyone has a story to tell that is unique. Don’t be satisfied with the same old story being retold, like the stuff that comes out of Hollywood. Tell me a story that I have not already heard.

What’s on the horizon, what can your fans expect?

I have just completed all of the art for Grandma’s Gift, the prequel to Grandma’s Records. I am very excited about it.

This book deals with art the way Grandma’s Records dealt with music and explains where the sketchbook comes from.

********* Just For Fun **********

Favorite M&M color: I don’t really eat candy

Favorite TV show: Dexter

Favorite food: Salmon

Favorite sport: Biking

Favorite ice cream flavor: Coconut

Favorite Author: James Baldwin

Favorite American Idol winner: Huh?

Favorite Pop culture personality: Huh?

Favorite Day of the week: Any day that I don’t have to leave the studio.

Favorite genre of book: Nonfiction

Myspace or Facebook: Facebook

Tonya Hegamin

February 15, 2010

photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Tonya C. Hegamin is an author that refuses to be penned down to one category. She has degrees in both poetry (from the University of Pittsburgh) and in creative writing (from the New School University). She’s penned both picture books (Most Loved In All The World, Houghton Mifflin, 2008) and novels. And even within her novels, she’s avoids categorization. Her first novel, M+0 4EVR (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) is a seamless blend of contemporary fiction and historical drama, and her second novel, Pemba’s Song (Scholastic, 2008) co-written with Marilyn Nelson, blends poetry and prose.

For the 15th day of 28 Days Later, we are proud to present Tonya C. Hegamin.

After receiving an undergraduate degree in poetry, why did you decide to back to school for your MFA? Why in writing for children and young adults?

After undergrad I decided to take a few years off to “experience the real world”.  I worked as an educator for Women Against Rape in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. I also prepared teen moms for the GED in a town whose median income was $9,000. Then I was the teen safe sex educator for Planned Parenthood.  I even taught 6th grade math for a minute!  That was a total disaster–I barely know the times tables!  I only knew that I wanted to help and teach kids and teens and reading was my number one passion as a kid.  It was something I always wanted to do–write the books I loved.

M+0 4EVR is mainly a contemporary story, but you also weave in narrative about a runaway slave named Hannah. Was it difficult to intertwine the two stories together?

Writing M+O was like watching some complex organic biology experiment unfold.  I had written long stories before but never attempted a novel.  It was really just the beginning of a puzzle for me when it was sold off of 30 pages.  Nobody expects that!  I didn’t really have a plan for it, I was just fascinated by the characters and the story they wanted to tell.  It was like a vine in my brain.  Every character took on a complete life of their own.  I’m working on a sequel that is in the voice of M.  Gran has perhaps an entire book to her life, as well as the rest of the characters.  Hannah and Mine were just a story that the characters wanted to tell.  The only thing I consciously did was make Mine a Nanticoke; my Grandfather Coursey’s family was from a line of chiefs in that community so I added some of his history.

What gave you the idea to write the novel?

I think the idea germinated when I was in High School and my mother and I had moved to Rochester, NY from the suburbs of Philadelphia where I grew up.  We drove hours through the wilds of Pennsylvania several times a year and it gave me the opportunity to dream unlikely dreams.  I love wondering what people’s lives are like in those houses you get a glimpse of when driving through country highways.  I wanted characters that I had never seen written before in those places.  It’s the perfect storm for a melodrama.

According to some reviews, Opal’s love for Marianne goes beyond platonic? Did you or your publisher have any concerning about including this thread in the novel?

Yes, Opal is in love with Marianne; it’s not totally overt because I’m not an advocate for gratuitous sex scenes in teen lit.  One of the reasons I read so much as a kid was looking for “sex parts” in Norma Klein books!  Reading them now, they were so ambiguous and tame, but that tension was what led me to keep reading.  I wanted to write a love story that wasn’t typical or urban and Opal’s story was important for me to tell.  She is the witness to tragedy but not tragic herself.  Understanding that makes her realize that being open about her sexuality is actually not going to cause the Earth to stop spinning.  I wanted the love stories that surrounded her to be untraditional yet unconditional so that she knew how to love well.  I think most teens can relate to longing for someone they can’t have.  I wasn’t trying to write a “coming out story”, just a good love story. Of course, Opal is the first African-American lesbian protagonist in teen lit; that’s not easy to market and that’s what publishers think about.  Strangely, I’ve had more direct ‘controversy’ over my picture book, MOST LOVED IN ALL THE WORLD. Recently I spoke to a group of Queer teens at the New York City LGBT Center.  Even though my publishers haven’t put vampire money into M+O, getting to see those kids’ faces and to hear how much they needed the book was payment enough.

You also wrote a novel, Pemba’s Song, with Marilyn Nelson. How did this novel originate?

We wrote it to help our friend, Abraham Haqq (who is a character in the book).  Abraham did a lot of research about African-Americans who built the town he lived in, which did not celebrate or note the integral part that African-Americans played throughout history.  Abraham taught himself to read and do research.  He recently left his life in Connecticut and is now living in Mexico.  He’s a blazing fire of information as well as an amazing inspiration!

You wrote the voice of Pemba, and Marilyn Nelson wrote the voice of Phyllis? What was your process of working on the novel?

Marilyn wrote Phyllis first since her story is chronologically first.  Once she gave me her poems I wrote Pemba’s story around them.  Originally Pemba’s story was going to be all poems but I felt that the narrative flowed better and would interest more readers if told in a hybrid fashion.

Tough Question—do you consider yourself more of a poet or more of a novelist?

I’m a storyteller.  In teaching fiction and in teaching poetry I want to get my students to the same underbelly of human beauty that strikes a chord in the reader.  I write poetry for instant voluntary torture and novels for prolonged voluntary torture.  It just depends on my mood or the nature of the story I want to tell.  My Introduction to Poetry class (in 1996?!) was with Toi Derricotte (co-founder of the first African-American poetry retreat, Cave Canem) and she taught me that the most important thing about writing was to open your heart onto the page.  It really doesn’t matter to me what form it comes out in.

Can you talk a little about what you’re working on now?

Mostly these days I’m working on teaching writing as an extension of my craft.  Over my winter break I worked on another historical novel and a graphic novel.  I have a large section of the sequel to M+O that needs to be edited (again).  I’ve got a short story or two for adults percolating and I’m refining a performance of a poem/song about John Henry’s wife, Polly Ann.  I’m also trying to write two really good Haiku poems a week.  It’s harder than you’d think!

(Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths (