Day 28: Lori Aurelia Williams

February 28, 2011

For the 28th day of 28 Days Later, we’re happy to celebrate the works of author Lori Aurelia Williams. Williams is the author four novels, including When Kambia Elaine Flew In from Neptune (Simon and Schuster, 2000), Shayla’s Double Brown Baby Blues (S&S, 2001), and  Broken China (S&S, 2005). She holds a master’s degree in English from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was awarded both a James A. Michener Fellowship and a scholarship in creative writing. Born in Houston, Lori Aurelia Williams lives in Austin, TX.

When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune was praised by critics and authors alike. Michael L. Printz Award Winner Angela Johnson said that the novel, “intrigues, breaks hearts, then soars,” while two-time National Book Award Finalist Rita Williams-Garcia called the novel “one of those stories that shoots straight to the heart and hits dead-on.” In her second novel, Shayla’s Double Brown Baby Blues, Williams continued 13-year-old Shaya’s story, with Publishers Weekly noting that, “Readers will feel the undercurrent of authenticity in her characters and situations throughout the novel.”

In Williams’s latest novel, Maxine Banks Is Getting Married (Roaring Brook, 2010). we follow seventeen-year-old Maxine as she marries her longtime boyfriend, Brian. Publisher’s Weekly called Maxine, “a gutsy and likeable protaonist” and Booklist praised the novel for its “honest story of love, heartbreak, and kindness….”

For more information about Lori Aurelia Williams, check out her interview at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s website

Day 27: Dimitrea Tokunbo

February 27, 2011

As a writer, amateur sketcher and wannabe singer, I find myself enthralled by people who successfully develop their artistic gifts in multiple areas.  With that confession, my enthusiasm regarding Dimitrea Tokunbo will come as no surprise.

Dimitrea is an author, illustrator, mural painter, graphic designer, and full-time mom. She studied illustration at the Moore College of Art for Women (now the Moore College of Art and Design) based in Philadelphia, PA. Her authored titles include The Sound of Kwanzaa (Scholastic, Inc.); her illustrated works are Amadi’s Snowman (Tilbury House), Sidewalk Chalk: Poems of the City , and Has Anybody Lost a Glove? (Boyds Mills Press). 

A New Yorker who takes pride in her multicultural heritage and two talented daughters, Dimitrea describes herself as “a dreamer whose quiet steps savor the glory and stillness of manicured gardens, glistening fountains, and ivy-covered castles…[and] a singer whose clapping hands carry the tropical song of steel drums, bongos, and tambourines.” As we approach the end of this year’s 28 Days Later campaign, it’s my pleasure to be able to share with you the immense talent and creativity of Dimitrea Tokunbo.


BBS:   Welcome to The Brown Bookshelf, Dimitrea.

DT:   I am thrilled and honored. Thank you for having me.


BBS:    You’re an author, illustrator, graphic designer, and mural painter.  Which did you start out as? (i.e, What was your first paying gig and how did it come about?)

DT:    My first paying gig was as an illustrator. I was a freshman at Moore College of Art for Women when I was recruited do some artwork for WDAS in Philadelphia.


BBS:   What about your mural work? Do you still do them? Where can some of your murals be found?    

DT:    Unfortunately none of my early murals exist anymore, but I have just begun the process of volunteering with a group named Groundswell. Groundswell is a non profit organization that connects professional artists with city kids to do murals in the community.


BBS:   Speaking of city kids, the first picture book you illustrated was called Sidewalk Chalk: Poems of the City. What’s the story behind your getting involved with the project? How did you go about tackling this new challenge practically/artistically/ emotionally?

DT:   Well, I got the Sidewalk Chalk project after attending the Chautauqua Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference sponsored by the Highlights Foundation. I was able to go because I was awarded a full scholarship. I felt like Cinderella. I had a mentor and an advisor for a manuscript I’d submitted. I got to meet and make friends with the staff at Boyds Mills Press. It was magical.

When I got home from the conference, the publisher called me and asked if I was interested in doing the project. Of course, I said yes. I called my mentor from the conference, who happened to be married to a seasoned illustrator. Together, they gave me support through my first book.    


BBS:    The Sound of Kwanzaa is your latest picture book. What’s the backstory regarding your inspiration for this one? How did you decide to add writing to your creative portfolio?

DT:    When I moved to Brooklyn, almost ten years ago now, a good friend of mine invited my daughters and I to celebrate the last day of Kwanzaa at her family’s Karamu (Swahili name for “party for feast”). It became a time we looked forward to each winter.

I was coming home from a poetry slam when I imagined a Griot calling the children around to pass down the traditions of Kwanzaa. It was my effort to distill the explanation of Kwanzaa into the simplest terms I could think of while still allowing my love of poetry to play out.

Phillis Wheatly, the first African American to have a book published, was the catalyst to my writing career. I was touched by her story in elementary school. When I got to college, my new best friend reminded me of Phillis Wheatley. We promised each other when we grew up, we would write a children’s book about her together.

We gave it our best shot but when it didn’t get published we almost gave up…I couldn’t let the project die. I went to library and started reading how to books for writing and illustrating children’s books. I didn’t really know if I could do it. I just closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it would be like to be Phillis Wheatly. The manuscript I wrote is what won that Highlights scholarship I told you about earlier. So actually it was my writing that opened the door for me to illustrate children’s books. I am actually still working on that manuscript!


BBS:    You now have several picture books under your belt, three as illustrator and two as author. I know you must love both forms of artistic expression, but do you find one more difficult to accomplish than the other?

DT:    Actually I love to do both and ideas flow or are blocked with equal measure in both areas. I find that when I am engaged in my creativity–singing, dancing, socializing with other artistic people (whatever the genre)–I am inspired and I have no problem producing.

My latest passion is face painting. In the summer time you can find me at the zoo where I am turning children and adults into tigers, alligators and butterflies!


BBS:    Most (if not all) writers of children’s literature are influenced by various aspects of their childhood as they pen their stories. How would you say your upbringing influences the stories you write, the art you create?

DT:    I think having a culturally diverse heritage has had a great influence on what I create. I love the manicured gardens, bagpipes and quilts from my mother’s European lineage and the vibrant textiles, sculpture and drums of my father’s African ancestry.

Growing up in diverse communities for most of my live, I have been influenced by the melting pot of New York.   


BBS:    You had one of those cool moms who supported your passion for art unconditionally, even letting you draw pictures on your bedroom walls (gasp!).  Tell us what her early encouragement meant to you then…and what fruit it is still bearing within you today.

DT:    My mother is an amazing artist herself. Being around her and watching her create gave me a great role model in the arts and in appreciating art. The fruit is that I have been able to do the same with my children. I have two amazingly artistic daughters who surprise me with new ways of expressing themselves.


BBS:    In who/what/where can your creative muse be found?

DT:     I love history. People’s stories are so fascinating to me. People tell their stories in so many ways. They sing their stories, they dance their stories, they paint their stories. A good story will set my gears in motion to share the stories I’ve got in me too.


BBS:    Why children’s books, Dimitrea?

DT:     I love the format for expansive illustrations and the simplicity of straight-forward story telling that make excellent children’s books. I have to say, although I haven’t done one yet, I also love graphic novels for that very same reason.


BBS:    What projects are you currently working on?

DT:     I am working a few picture book biographies…and I am in the process of divising a plan to become a rock star (sssshhhh, that will be our secret).


BBS:     (Don’t worry. I’ll keep it quiet.)  In spite of growing up with the challenge of dyslexia, you ultimately learned to love the written word. What or who helped you in your journey? What can we—artists, educators, media specialists, parents—do to encourage the reluctant readers of today in theirs?

DT:    I have a team of people to thank for my educational achievements. My mother never stressed me about what I had trouble accomplishing, she focused on the things I could do well. She recognized my love of color and provided me with plenty of opportunity to exercise that love.

My break through with reading came when I was about 13. My cousin, Mary Alice, asked me to read her some pages of Harriet the Spy (a book she’d given to me as a gift). The book had so many pages and the words seemed so small that I got all jumbled and frustrated and embarrassed as I tried to read to her. She was really patient, and then she said to go slowly… as slowly as I wanted. She said no one needed to know why I am reading slowly. It could appear as confidence to others. The idea of tricking people made it fun. When I took my time, it seemed the letters untangled.

That summer I read my first YA cover to cover. It was Zeely by Virginia Hamilton.

I actually didn’t start loving to read aloud until I had children. I read easily 15 to 20 children’s books a day for years. They loved how slowly I read, and I loved entertaining them.


BBS:    Now. Regarding the weightier matters of life:  Skittles or M&Ms?

DT:    When I was a kid it would have been Skittles. When I was in College it was M&Ms but now its Fine & Raw Chocolate (non-dairy and sweetened with Agave) made in Brooklyn.


BBS:    Pictionary or Scrabble?

DT:    Definitely Pictionary though I come from a family of fierce Scrabble players. My mom has the fancy Scrabble set that spins!


BBS:    You’ve travelled back in time to the one place you’ve always wished you could. Where are you? Is it a re-experience or a do-over?

DT:     That’s a tough one. I have recently been making peace with leaving my past behind so I can focus on this amazing adventure unfolding around me right now.


BBS:   I hear you.  Dimitrea, thanks so much for being with us today!

DT:    You are so welcome. Thank you, again, for having me.


The Buzz On…

Amadi’s Snowman (From School Library Journal): “The vibrant illustrations depict the setting and bring richness and depth to the story. An important addition to any library….”

The Sound of Kwanzaa (From Booklist): “With an effective use of shape, silhouette, and bold color, [the illustrations] are ideal for group presentation.”

Sidewalk Chalk: Poems of the City (From School Library Journal): “The joys of living in a city from a child’s point of view are jubilantly expressed in this very readable collection…Every selection is set into one of Tokunbo’s remarkable textured watercolor paintings that reflect the diversity and richness of a big-city neighborhood…This partnership of word and illustration works well and belongs in most collections.”

Has Anybody Lost a Glove? (From School Library Journal): “The colorful watercolor paintings are filled with action and capture quite well the big-city flavor of the story. Children will be drawn to the characters’ engaging faces, with their realistic expressions…The large pictures and accessible language make this appealing book appropriate for reading aloud.”

Day 26: Jewell Parker Rhodes

February 26, 2011

As a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, Jewell Parker Rhodes was the one who always had a book in her hands. Books were better than dolls, she writes on her website, better than food. It’s no wonder  she wrote her first children’s book while still in  elementary school. She illustrated it and shared it with her classmates. The magic of creating a story herself ignited  a lifelong passion for writing.

Rhodes went on to write five acclaimed novels for adults, a memoir and two writing guides. She became the Piper Endowed Chair of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. But she was missing something. When Hurricane Katrina hit, a question haunted her: What about the children?  Three years later, with Hurricane Ike threatening New Orleans again, she heard a voice: “They say I was born with a caul, a skin netting covering my face like a glove . . .”

That voice of her main character Lanesha inspired Rhodes’ debut middle-grade novel, Ninth Ward (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers). The book has won big praise from a Publisher’s Weekly starred review to a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award and Parents Choice Foundation Gold Award. “My entire life has been a journey on the way to writing Ninth Ward,” Rhodes shares on her website. ” Grandmother, my community, and teachers and librarians showered me with guidance and love. They all gave birth to Lanesha. A girl with hope, a big heart, and a firm belief that always, eventually, ‘The universe shines down with love.'”

We are proud to celebrate Jewell Parker Rhodes on Day 26:

You’re an award-winning author of novels for adults. On your website, you share that writing a children’s book is a dream come true for you. Why?

My childhood was difficult.  Books and my Grandmother’s “porch stories” stirred my imagination and kept my spirit alive.  I always wanted to write a story that perhaps, one day, would inspire a child when they needed it most.

You wrote your first children’s book at eight years old. Here’s what you say about it on your website:  “It was a very thin book, bound in yellow construction paper, and illustrated by me!” How did that early experience put you on the path to publication?

My teacher brilliantly arranged for me to read my story, “The Last Scream,” to my elementary school classmates.  It was an amazing experience to see, feel, and hear my classmates’ responses.  I had always valued the connection and communication I felt with books and with different authors, but reading to my classmates, I felt the power of my own storytelling.

It took four decades for you to write your next children’s book — the middle-grade novel, Ninth Ward. Why was now the right time to write for kids? Why did the story of Hurricane Katrina call to you?

As an adult novelist, I’ve been writing about Louisiana for decades. I feel such a “calling” for the landscape, the music, and the food. When Hurricane Katrina hit, I worried and wondered about the children. But it wasn’t until 2008, when Hurricane Ike was bearing down upon New Orleans, that I thought, “Oh no, not again.” This time, Lanesha’s voice popped inside my head. I needed her voice to begin writing.

You share a parallel between your life and your main character Lanesha’s — both of you were raised by amazing elders. How did your Grandmother Ernestine inspire Lanesha’s caregiver, Mama Ya Ya?

Mama Ya Ya is based on my Grandmother Ernestine.  Grandmother gave me “unconditional love” and she taught me my values:  “Do good,” she’d say, “and it’ll fly right back to you;”  “Respect yourself.  Wear clean underwear;”  “Dream big, Jewell, child.”  Grandmother also taught me that the world was a good place and that I should use my intelligence, my senses, and empathy to thrive.  Grandma was the neighborhood “griot,” and, by telling her oral tales, she encouraged my profession.

What feedback have you received about Ninth Ward? From children? From adults? How does that make you feel?

I’ve been lucky to receive lots of love and appreciation.  Children tell me that they’ve never read a story like mine before!  I think they like how a girl, Lanesha, a boy, TaShon, and a dog, Spot, can band together and become a “family,” depending upon one another to survive.  Adults often tell me how much they appreciate my writing (I really did my best!) and how the story is pro-school and shows how Lanesha uses her language and math skills and her spiritual strength to endure, survive, and thrive during Hurricane Katrina and the levees breaking.

Ninth Ward just won a Coretta Scott King Author Honor. Congratulations! What did that achievement mean to you? How do you measure success?

I’m thrilled by the Coretta Scott King recognition!  When I heard, I shrieked, did a happy dance and called my loved ones.  For me, the award celebrates how I honored the glorious spirit and heritage of African Americans.  I want our children to read about Lanesha and TaShon and know that they, too, are as heroic and resilient.  Ninth Ward is very much a love song to our community and to the people of New Orleans.

What moments along your writing journey do you treasure? What moments have been most challenging?

When I’m writing, I love to discover new details about my characters.  I love when they behave in unexpected ways.  Douglass’ Women, Magic City, Voodoo Dreams—my historical novels—were long, fascinating journeys into African American history and heritage.  But, all the main characters, at one time or another, surprised me.  This, I think, means that my characters had come alive, had begun to “live” not just inside, but, outside my imagination.

The most challenging moments during the writing process always come near the end.  I may have spent years working on a book.  I’ll have grown tired, cranky, and uninspired.  That’s when, as a writer, I have to dig deep.  I have to re-ignite my creativity and remain true to my artistic standards.   Writing can be like running a marathon.  Everyone can start the race, but it’s how you finish that counts most.

What’s your mission as a children’s book author?

My mission is to write my very best.  Children deserve no less. 

You’ve written two guides on writing, Free Within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Authors and The African-American Guide to Writing and Publishing Non-Fiction. What advice do you give to aspiring authors? How can they turn their dream of writing for children into reality?

I’ve written for adults and children.  I’ve written plays, fiction, and nonfiction.  My basic advice is always the same:  “A writer doesn’t talk about writing.  A writer writes.”  So many people grow fearful of their dreams and ultimately, don’t really try.  Or else they sabotage themselves.  Keep a journal.  Set aside a few hours a week to write.  Most importantly, believe in yourself.  I’d also add “A writer reads.”  Books can teach effective, writing skills.  When you read something you’ve enjoyed, ask yourself, how did the writer do that?  Eventually, through analyzing, you’ll teach yourself patterns and ways of writing well.

On your children’s site you mention that you finished the draft of a young adult novel and are working on a middle-grade adventure tale. Can you give us a hint of what’s to come?

My new middle grade novel will also be set in Louisiana; but, instead of the twenty-first century, it’s set in the nineteenth century.  It’s all about a spunky little girl named Sugar.  I’ve also finished a draft of a young adult novel; it’s going to be part of a gothic trilogy. 

What’s your greatest joy?

Being alive.  Being a mother.  Being a wife.  Having imaginative dreams.

 The Buzz on Ninth Ward:

2010 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award

2010 Parents Choice Foundation Gold Award

2010 Al Rocker “Today Show” Book Club Selection

“New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina is the setting for this tense novel that blends the drama of the catastrophic storm with magic realism. Twelve-year-old Lanesha’s teenage mother died while giving birth to her, and, because her mother’s wealthy uptown family won’t have anything to do with her, she is raised in the Ninth Ward by loving Mama Ya-Ya, 82, who feels like her “mother and grandmother both.” Born with a caul over her eyes, Lanesha is teased at school, but she is strengthened by her fierce caretaker’s devotion and by a teacher who inspires Lanesha to become an engineer and build bridges. Lanesha also has “second sight,” which includes an ability to see her mother’s ghost. As the storm nears and the call comes for mandatory evacuation, Mama Ya-Ya envisions that she will not survive, but Lanesha escapes the rising water in a small rowboat and even rescues others along the way. The dynamics of the diverse community enrich the survival story, and the contemporary struggle of one brave child humanizes the historic tragedy.”

— Booklist

“With a mix of magical and gritty realism, Rhodes’s (Voodoo Dreams) first novel for young readers imagines Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding through the eyes of resourceful 12-year-old Lanesha. Lanesha lives with Mama Ya-Ya, an 82-year-old seer and midwife who delivered Lanesha and has cared for her since her teenage mother died in childbirth. Living in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Lanesha is viewed as an unusual child (she was born with a caul and is able to see ghosts) and is ostracized at school. Lanesha finds strength in Mama Ya-Ya’s constant love and axioms of affection and reassurance (“When the time’s right… the universe shines down love”). The story becomes gripping as the waters rise and Lanesha, with help from a young neighbor and her mother’s ghostly presence, finds a way to keep body and soul together. The spare but vivid prose, lilting dialogue, and skilled storytelling brings this tragedy to life; the powerful sense of community Rhodes evokes in the Ninth Ward prior to the storm makes the devastation and the hardships Lanesha endures all the more powerful.”

— Starred Review, Publisher’s Weekly 

For more about Jewell Parker Rhodes, please visit  She also has a site just for her children’s work:

Day 25: Harriette Gillem Robinet

February 25, 2011

Vanguard author Harriette Gillem Robinet was born in Washington D.C. and spent her childhood summers in Arlington, Virginia where her mother’s father had been a slave under General Robert E. Lee. She attended the College of New Rochelle in New York and received graduate degrees in microbiology from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. And she didn’t stop there.

Harriette Gillem Robinet’s list of awesome achievements is LONG. Four of her books books were named Notable Books in social studies; CHILDREN OF THE FIRE won the 1991 Award from Friends of American Writers; WASHINGTON CITY IS BURNING won the 1997 Carl Sandburg Award; THE TWINS THE PIRATES AND THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS won the Midland Authors Award in 1998; FORTY ACRES AND MAYBE A MULE won the 1999 Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction for children; WALKING TO THE BUS RIDER BLUES was nominated in 2001 for the Edgar Award by Mystery Writers of America; and was a Jane Addams Award Honor book in 2001; a finalist for the 2003 William Allen White Award in Kansas; a finalist for 2003-2004 Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List; and a finalist for the 2003 Rebecca Caudill Young Readers’ Book Award in Illinois. Her most recent, TWELVE TRAVELERS, TWENTY HORSES, is an action-packed favourite of chilren everywhere, telling the story of Jacob 13, Chloe 13, and Solomon, 9, who travel West with other slaves and a foolish young master who calls himself Honorable Mister Higginboom. They must keep their master from robbing a stagecoach and make sure the Pony Express takes Abraham Lincoln’s election news to keep California in the Union. School Library Journal said of it: “The details of the difficulties on the trail and the mini-mysteries regarding gold and murder both serve to ratchet up the thrill level. While valuable for curriculum support, the true gift of this historical adventure is its offering of a slave narrative that builds esteem rather than pity.”

Today Harriette Gillem Robinet lives in Oak Park, Illinois with her husband, McLouis Robinet. They have six adult children and four grandchildren.

Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? How do you work out your stories? Do you always begin the same way, say with story or character? Do you have any routines or resources that you’d like to share?

I do research for six to eight months, gathering information about the pivotal historical events, names at the time, foods they ate, and other details. Then I begin to set my characters into the story.

Which of your characters are favourites (I know, that’s a hard one!), and why? Which characters were more difficult to write? How do you discover and get to know your characters?

I love all of my characters. To make sure that no character is the same from one book to the other, I use character charts. My characters have their own lives, hopes and fears. I have European American children, as well as African American children, boys as well as girls, and in the end goodness triumphs.

What kind of reader were you as a child? What did you connect with? What were the ‘turning points’ for you as a young reader? What literature do you continue to treasure? What made you think? What kinds of readers have you met along the way?

As a child, I loved books. My mother took books away from me and made me go out to play. At night, I read with a flashlight in the closet. I haunted libraries and I read a lot of non fiction, such as about going to the North Pole and about the revolutionary war.

Can you elaborate on why think that historical fiction is essential at this time? How do you see today’s readers connecting with the stories of history?

History is like a lantern that can light children’s paths throughout life. How can we know where we are going, or appreciate where we are, if we do not know where we are coming from?

You’ve also written about people with physical challenges. What drew you to those stories?

We have a son with cerebral palsy, and I spent hours in clinics and hospitals with him. Disabled children need to find themselves in books. Each one of my books has a disabled character, such as Pascal in FORTY ACRES AND MAYBE A MULE. He is hemiplegia cerebral palsy, that is, paralyzed on one side of his body. That book won the Scott O’Dell award for Historical Fiction.

What’s the best advice that you’ve gotten/or would like to give to writers today?

If you love to write, you have to write. Put the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, and do it.

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

I have two new books written and looking for a publisher.

Thank you so much, Ms. Robinet! It’s been an education and a real honour.

Visit Harriette Gillem Robinet online and get schooled.

Day 24: Gwendolyn Hooks

February 24, 2011

Somebody forgot to tell Gwendolyn Hooks that right-brained thinkers aren’t supposed to be creative, or that left-brained thinkers aren’t supposed to be math-oriented.  Not that such warnings would have mattered. Gwendolyn’s passion for educating and inspiring youth would have had her employing both brain hemispheres anyway.

This former middle school math teacher has written fifteen books for children, including twelve easy readers and three non-fiction titles. She is a contributor to magazines such as Highlights for Children and JAKES.  Her books, Mystery of the Missing Dog, Three’s A Crowd (Scholastic Book Fair selections), and Can I Have a Pet? (Bebop Books) have sold over 230,000 copies.

Gwendolyn grew up with an Air Force dad and by the time she was 15, she’d lived in four different states and Naples, Italy. She currently resides in Oklahoma City and says one of the main reasons she writes is “to encourage young readers to explore their world.”

Military kid. Seafood lover. Cereal box reader. On Day 24, The Brown Bookshelf is pleased to shine its author spotlight on Gwendolyn Hooks.


BBS:   Hi, Gwen! Welcome to The Brown Bookshelf.

GH:     Thank you for the invitation.


BBS:   The past year has been fantastic for you as far as publications go—8 books released by Capstone within a five month span! I know there were years of hard work, though, that led you to this point of success. What was it that inspired you to make the leap from middle school math teacher to children’s book writer?

GH:     When I was working on my nonfiction books, I would get up at 4:30 AM and write until 6:00 AM. Then I taught, tutored before and after school, planned lessons, chaired my department, attended educational workshops, and fell asleep at critique meetings. I decided what I really wanted to do was write, so I called it quits. But I still teach. I can’t quite get away from it. I work with the Arts Council of Oklahoma City and teach creative writing in afterschool programs. Last fall, I taught a poetry workshop for senior citizens. They wrote amazing poetry. I’m doing it again this spring.


BBS:   Wonderful! That’s sounds like a rewarding experience. Speaking of experiences, you grew up as part of a military family and lived in various places throughout your childhood–like Georgia, Texas, Washington, and Italy. Besides your love of travel, what did these early experiences instill in you that continues to impact your writing today?

GH:     Friendship is a big one. The importance of friends and finding your place in a new community. Sometimes we moved during the school year, so I had to walk into a new class with all those eyes watching me. One time my class didn’t have an extra desk. I sat on a stool. In front of the class. Horrible! It was only a few minutes, but it seemed like a lifetime. I try to remember those feelings and be sensitive to issues like that in my books.


BBS:   The first children’s book manuscripts you actually wrote were non-fiction titles, correct? What drove the decision to focus on non-fiction initially?

GH: My first published work for children was a magazine article about prairie dogs that carried the plague. Although, it was only dangerous to other animals I found it intriguing that the plague was still around. But after that, I had four fiction early readers published. Then an opportunity came my way to write those three nonfiction books. I love fiction and nonfiction. In fact, I love almost all kinds of books and writing. I’m still experimenting, trying to figure out where I belong in the writing world.


BBS:   Can I Have A Pet? (2002) was the very first book you published under Lee & Low’s Bebop imprint. It’s always interesting to hear the story behind that first book publication. Can you tell us yours?

GH:    I call it the Little Book That Could. As short as it is, I labored over those 34 words. My critique group had a cake made decorated with the cover. My kids teased me. When I said book, they thought novel. But it’s still in print after all these years. And I like to think it launched my career. I feature it when I visit early elementary classes. It’s a book they can read on their own. It’s also available in Spanish and sometimes a Spanish speaking student will volunteer to read it. The look on their classmates’ faces is precious.

Here’s the story behind the story. I’m a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I read in their newsletter that Bebop Books was accepting submissions so I sent in one. They promptly rejected it. It wasn’t very good. Once I read that a writer could succeed if they learned their craft and were persistent. I studied other early readers and wrote five more. The editor accepted one, we worked on a few revisions, and I got my first book published!


BBS:   Early Readers are a very exacting, challenging type of book to write…perhaps even more so than other picture books because the language has to be both simple (since they are designed for emerging readers to read themselves) and engaging. Not an easy task, but you seem to have mastered the formula as you’ve published 12 of them, with more on the way. Craftwise, what is the key to creating a great early reader?

GH:    I like books where things happen. So I try to think of an interesting plot. One that kids will care about. School, family, and pets are usually good places to begin. And of course you want an interesting character. My books are written for the school and library market and sometimes I’ll have to use a vocabulary list. I know in advance how many words and pages I have to work with. I write the story, then rework it to fit early reader guidelines: word count, grade level, number of syllables, number of pages, etc.


BBS:   The Pet Club Series is your new series with Capstone. So far you have written 8 books for the collection and they’re selling extremely well. How did this project come about–did you write the books first, did you pitch the idea, or did the publisher contact you to write the series?

GH:    Capstone is known for their nonfiction and I love nonfiction, too. Every fall, Oklahoma has a state conference for librarians, EncycloMedia. About two years ago, I found out that Michael Dahl, author and editor at Capstone would attend. I decided it would be a great opportunity to meet him and let him know about my interest in Capstone. I went to the library and read his books so I could have a conversation with him, memorized his picture so I would recognize him, and staked out the Capstone booth. Finally, I saw him and introduced myself. But I couldn’t remember one thing from his books! He asked about my career and I told him I wrote some nonfiction, but mostly early readers. He said that their Stone Arch Books imprint would be publishing a second grade fiction series soon. Before I could think, my mouth opened and I said, “I’m great at those.” I whipped out my brochure to prove it. He asked if I wanted to write some and I said YES! He said he’d get in contact. And he did. First, I was asked to write four books about a pet club. I created four characters each with their own pet. They are best friends and have adventures together. Then my editor asked for four more. They were fun to write. And the illustrator, Mike Bryne did a great job. 


BBS:   You ultimately did publish three NF books with Rourke Publishing…and they are both interesting and gorgeous. Please tell the educators, media specialists, and parents who are reading this all about them.

GH:     Those are my food web books:

            Arctic Appetizers: Studying Food Webs in the Arctic

            Freshwater Feeders: Studying Food Webs in Freshwater

            Makers and Takers: Studying Food Webs in the Oceans.

They are written for third – fifth graders. Besides focusing on food webs (the study of plants and animals in a certain habitat and what eats what), they discuss ways to keep our environment clean. I also talked with experts who study food webs. One was a biological oceanographer who works on ships frozen in the arctic. Another was a professor who takes his biology classes on scuba diving trips off the coast of South America to study food webs in kelp forests. I tried to show kids that the world is full of interesting occupations waiting for them.


BBS:   The business of publishing children’s books is not an easy one, and writers of color often have unique challenges to face in both the selling and marketing of their work. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way? How have you dealt with/overcome them?

GH:     I’ve read the studies showing the tiny percentage of books written and/or illustrated by people of color compared to the total number of children’s books published.  It is disheartening.

I’ve also found when I talk to teachers and librarians, they are not aware of the books that are published. If they don’t know about them, their students probably haven’t been exposed to them either. I present workshops that introduce these books that are flying under the radar. They are wonderful books and the teachers and librarians are thrilled to see them.


BBS:   Whether as teacher or author, your commitment to the education of children is clear. What is the greatest hope you have for this current generation of kids? How can we help bring it to fruition? What role can literature play?

GH:     I hope that kids will be curious about the world around them. That they’ll never stop wanting to learn. I also hope they will read all kinds of books, especially those who claim they don’t like to read. It just takes that one special book to ignite a passion for reading. As a teacher, if a student said they didn’t like books, I tried to find one in my library I thought they might like. I even put a book in a manila envelope for a boy so his friends wouldn’t know he was reading for fun. We must work hard to put books into the hands of kids. 


BBS:   What projects do you have in the works now?

GH:     I am hard at work on a picture book biography.


BBS:   Markers, colored pencils, or crayons?

GH:     Crayons – It’s hard to find sky blue.


BBS:   Godiva truffles or a Snickers bar?

GH:     Godiva truffles


BBS:   What’s the last childlike thing you did in public?

GH:     I rode the carousel at the mall.


BBS:   Thanks so much for your time, Gwen!

GH:     Thank you. It is an honor to be Day 24.


Learn more about Gwendolyn at .

Day 23: Dia Reeves

February 23, 2011

Dia Reeves has only been on the literary scene for a little over a year, but she’s already a veteran author. Dia’s first novel, Bleeding Violet (Simon Pulse, 2010), received praise from all corners of the YA universe, with Booklist praising biracial main character, Hanna, for her “poignant, memorable voice.” In starred review, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books noted that, “[Bleeding Violet] is wonderfully baffling, and as lush, warm, and conflicted as Hanna herself.”

Simon and Schuster released Dia’s second novel, Slice of Cherry (Simon Pulse, 2011), earlier this year, and the novel has achieved just as much acclaim as Dia’s debut. In a second starred review, the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books stated, “Fans of Reeves’ first novel, Bleeding Violet (BCCB 3/10), will relish a second…glimpse at the deeply fascinating town of Portero and its bizarre, memorable residents.”

For the 23rd day of Twenty-Eight Days Later, please welcome Dia Reeves!

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The Brown Bookshelf (BBS): Your first novel, Bleeding Violet was published to great acclaim last year, and recently came out in paperback. I know that you started the novel as part of NaNoWriMo is 2005, but how much of the novel changed between that original draft and the final, published version?

Dia Reeves (DR): Acclaim, huh? I was wondering why people keep throwing flowers at my feet when I leave the house. I did indeed write Bleeding Violet for NaNo, and the first draft is nothing like the finished book. BV was originally called The Snippens, had twice as many characters, a different villain, and an apocalyptic ending. It was kinda stupid, that first draft. BV didn’t become BV until after several revisions.

BBS: Based on glowing reviews (including a starred review from the Bulletin), it seems like your second novel, Slice of Cherry, has avoided the dreaded “sophomore jinx”. Can you talk a bit about what inspired you to return to Portero, Texas for this novel?

DR: I intend to set several stories in Portero. I’ve always seen it as my own personal Twilight Zone–a place where anything can (and does) happen. The town doesn’t have any rules, and I love the freedom of that.

BBS: Both of your novels are dark, and at times violent. Do you ever worry about backlash from your audience? Also, during the writing process, how do you avoid “self-censoring” yourself?

DR: I don’t care if my books offend or anger people. I’m upfront about the kind of stuff I write, so people read at their own risk. As far as censoring myself: I have to watch what I do and say in public and at work, but not when I write. In my novels I can do and say what I want. It’s like having my own happy place, if you will.

BBS: In addition to writing books, you also work as a librarian. Can you speak a little about how both jobs influence each other?

DR: They don’t. I’m like Superman–“Librarian” is just the disguise I wear during the day.

BBS: What’s your typical writing day like? More importantly, how to do find time to write?

DR: I don’t have a typical day; I write when I feel like it. And I don’t find time–I make it. Writing is an act of will. You just have to do it.

BBS: Do you have any advice for new authors?

DR: Don’t get caught up on just the one manuscript. If you want a career, you have to get used to moving on to the next thing.

BBS: Can you tell us a little about your next project?

DR: I’m working on a third Portero book about a girl born without a heart who has to steal hearts from living people in order to survive. I’m hoping to have the first draft finished soon.

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For more information about Dia, check out her website at

Day 22: Sharon Dennis Wyeth

February 22, 2011

I was in my 20s when I received a book that would change my life — Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth. That was my first time seeing an African-American girl on the cover of a picture book.  Entranced, I read page after page until I reached the end. Then, I smiled, stroked the cover and read it again.

That book sent me through so many emotions — wonder, sadness, delight and finally contentment. The story was told with such economy and grace. It touched my heart and lingered long after I put it down. I decided right then that I had to write for children too.

So I am thrilled to honor Sharon Dennis Wyeth as one of our vanguard authors. She has written nearly 50 books and inspired not just me, but children and adults around the globe. Parents Magazine, Reading Rainbow and the Children’s Book Council, to name a few, have all honored her work. But her ultimate measure of success is character: ” . . . I believe that if a person is able to embody their work with something of themselves, they’re making a mark in this world.”

Her stories, filled with heart, integrity and lyricism, have left an indelible impression. Whether picture books, middle-grade or YA, they come from a special part of her and touch a special part of us.

Please join us in celebrating Sharon Dennis Wyeth on Day 22:

What did reading mean to you as a child? How did it inspire your dream of becoming a children’s book author?

Reading was a refuge during a period when there was violence in my home. When I was reading fairy tales I was able to experience the terror I had to keep under wraps. Fairy tales told me that a child could make it through horrible times and yet survive. Laura Ingalls Wilder sparked my interest in history and reminded me of the good times I had on my grandparents’ farm where cooking was done on a wood burning stove and farming was accomplished with a horse drawn plough. Reading was also the one sure way I had to please my youthful parents who, in spite of their stormy relationship, offered up all they had to their children. I have a memory of my father and mother teaching me how to write my name before I was even three. I knew how to read well before kindergarten because they taught me. I associate reading and storytelling (along with listening to records) with love.  

It would have been impossible for me to conceive that I would one day write books. The library was a palace to me. Since I owned very few books, those shelves were lined with treasures. In spite of my advanced vocabulary, I doubt I even knew the word author when I was young. Yet when I left D.C. to go to school at Harvard, I announced in a dorm room at Radcliffe that I was going to “write books for children.” I shocked myself and felt ashamed of lying–it was the first time I’d ever articulated such an ambition even to myself. I guess my intuition was speaking up for me because a few years down the road I had become just that, a person “who writes books for children.”

Please tell us about your road to publication. How did you get your break?

Oh, please. There was no road. I bush wacked. Having made a false start in the New York theater…well, not false….I made a genuine attempt to become an actor at a time when it was very hard for people of color to get roles. Now, you might think because I have so little melanin in my skin I would have had it easy. But I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. In other words, I wasn’t about to “pass” and that’s what it would have felt like accepting a white role without revealing my authentic identity as a black woman to the producer who hired me or the agent who might represent me. And taking on a role written for a woman of color, well, it was absurd to think the audience would buy that. The one part I played that was tailor made for me was that of the half white sister in Langston Hughes’ play Mulatto.

In the small theater I started with some friends in Chelsea (that’s a whole ‘nother saga!), I performed Strindberg and Chekhov and wrote and directed an adaptation of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, the guy whose famous line is “I prefer not to.” That started me writing in earnest. I wrote a play called Room, a one woman show I also performed. (By the way, all of this is my road to publication.) Then I wrote Tapper a full length play.  By then my partners and I had closed our little theater because the landlord had tripled our rent.

I was ecstatic when Sam Barton of Amistad World Theater in New York (neither Sam or the theater are around anymore except in some folks’ memories) did a staged reading of Tapper  a play that was in so many ways my own story—a light skinned black woman obsessed with the disappearance of her father. At that time I was teaching speaking voice to support myself. I’d soon marry Sims Wyeth whom I’d met in acting school and had been one of my partners in the little theater.

Though I was still getting work as an actress here and there, more and more writing took me over. Every morning I hopped up, sometimes before dawn, to sit with my work at the dining room table. I could get four hours of writing in before going off to teach speaking voice or whatever.

When Sims and I got married and I became pregnant, I decided that I wanted to stop acting and I needed a way to make more money. A friend told me about a job writing mass market books based on soap opera story lines. I was over persistent and finally got a shot. I wound up writing nine of those, one each month. That work gave me experience in structuring a story. I also found out that if need be I could write real fast.

I kept my ears open and heard about a packager who was looking for people to create proposals for books series for younger readers. They paid a small fee for the proposal but promised the writer that if the idea sold, she’d get to write the books in the series. Parachute Press was the company and I’ll always remain grateful to them. I wrote a proposal fleshing out an idea they had for a group of girls in boarding school who had boy pen pals. I created the characters, setting and plots for six books in the course of a weekend. Two weeks later I got the news that Delacorte has bought the series. 

Another series (Annie K.’s Theater) quickly followed based on an idea of my own about kids who put on plays. At that point I had a deep desire to write a novel using some of the material from my childhood. Since I’m a person of color, this decision planted me squarely in the multicultural genre. My first single title novel of this kind, also published by Delacorte, was The World of Daughter McGuire. My first picture book Always My Dad  soon followed. After that I just kept going.

Each of my books has been a challenge not only because I’m a self taught writer, but because I use emotionally charged material taken from my own experiences. The Pen Pals series was something I could write quickly. Books dealing with the issues I knew from the inside–divorce, bullying, racial identity–took much longer because they were so painful to probe. I see now that through my writing I’ve been healing myself.

While we’re on it, I can’t omit the fact that so many people reached out to me in the beginning. If Mary Pope Osborne hadn’t handed on my picture book Always My Dad to her editor Anne Schwartz, I’m not sure it would have ever been published. Michelle Poploff, my editor at Delacorte, exercised extraordinary patience when I struggled to complete the novel that became Orphea Proud. Arthur Levine offered me a two book contract at the beginning of my career on the basis of proposals. Though he moved on before I completed those books, the promise of continued publication guaranteed me a career.

You write on your website that: All of my experiences have contributed to my work as a children’s author.” You’ve had many jobs from being an actress and television writer to family counselor and playwright. How does that rich background help inform your stories?

My love of drama feeds my story telling. I have a good ear for dialogue which I developed writing plays. Acting requires flexibility and emotional responsiveness. When I put characters on the page I write them as if they are actors engaged in improvisation. I allow them to speak through me. That kind of experience doesn’t always occur, but once I’m on the track my characters show me what they’re made of.

My challenge at times is letting go and allowing things to happen on the page, to resist self-editing in early drafts. The time I spent as a family counselor deepened my understanding of family relationships and lent a perspective to what my own family had been through when I was a child. It was a job that let me give freely. An author of children’s books is also a counselor in some way. My audience is so impressionable; I’m aware of the responsibility. In difficult moments when I’ve questioned why I became a writer (generally when my income is uneven), I try to convince myself that the some of the books I’ve written help people. That makes me feel like I’m giving something back, that I’ve done something worthwhile with my life.  A lot of teachers and family members and fellow writers have sustained me over the years. My former agent Robin Rue was extremely supportive.

Your picture books, Always My Dad (illustrated by Raul Colon, published by Knopf) and Something Beautiful (illustrated by Chris Soentpiet, published by Doubleday), were inspired by parts of your life. What did it mean to you to see those books in print?

I felt so grateful! Writing Always My Dad was a painful process because the relationship with my father was so complicated. But putting down the loving memories I had of him released me from ambivalence. The book with its stunning illustrations by Raul Colon is still a balm to me when I read it. It reminds me that my father did love me even though he wasn’t around much. Even at my age, that’s important somehow.  

Something Beautiful is a book about my old neighborhood Anacostia in Southeast Washington, D.C. It’s also about my mother’s love, a steady force in my life. She was always there for me and my brothers in every way. My mother also loved beauty, visual art, music, theater, fashion. When I read that book out loud, I imagine how delighted she would be if she were in the audience. In some way it is a testimony to her sensibility.

You recently read Something Beautiful to children in Cameroon. What was that experience like? Why do you think that book continues to resonate with so many people?

First of all you have to understand that I was in a highly emotional state when I was in Cameroon during the end of December and early January. I’d had my DNA analyzed in 2006 along with the DNA of several family members and received the news that I had ancestral ties to the Tikar tribe in Cameroon as well as the Hausa and Fulani. That was huge for me. Then when I was invited to tour the country recently it was a dream come true. All my life I’ve wanted to know the story of my ancestors from Africa.  It was the missing piece in my personal narrative. Truly, not knowing the location or any of the particulars of my African ancestry left me feeling incomplete as a person. So when I was in Cameroon it was as if a vital piece of the puzzle that had been missing for years was finally in place.

 When the group I was with visited the school in Kribi, Cameroon, I was so moved by the children all of whom are orphans. They performed for our group, reciting both in French and English, singing and dancing. Though I’ve read Something Beautiful before hundreds of audiences, reading for the first time in a place that my ancestor once called home touched me to the core. At one point I could scarcely hold back my tears. It felt as if I had come home. The book was my offering. I am sending one hundred copies to the school.

True, Something Beautiful has resonated for a lot of people. I’m so grateful it has remained in print. What can I say? The concept of beauty has captured human beings since the beginning of time. As a child it captured me when I learned to spell the word in kindergarten. For years and years it was an inner mantra. I spelled beautiful  to myself walking down the street. When I decided to write the book, it took so many drafts not only to get to the real story but to grapple with the quality inherent in an object or person that made a human being regard that person or thing as beautiful.  I’ m not a philosopher after all, so it took months and months of pondering.  It’s an intriguing question for many people. Maybe that’s why the book has engaged so many readers. It prompts them to ask themselves:  what is beautiful to me? Another reason for the success of the book is Chris Soentpiet’s extraordinary illustrations. He renders everyday objects as luminous. What we view as ordinary becomes sacred.  I’d have to add that beauty brings hope. I believe that firmly. Artists have the ability to create beauty,  to find beauty in unexpected places and to reveal it to others.  

How did your Corey’s Underground Railroad Diary (Scholastic) trilogy come to be? 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?

I was contacted by an editor at Scholastic and invited to submit a proposal for My America using the theme of the Underground Railroad. I was ecstatic. The ideas for the characters, the title of the series, even the voice came to me immediately. Within an hour of speaking to the editor, I had the pages I would submit. My character Corey leapt off the page and into my arms. I knew right away that my story would take his family to Canada where they’d live free lives.

While I was writing scenes detailing the hardship and danger of their lives as enslaved people, I knew, as the author, that by the end of the book this family would experience freedom. Though the characters are fictitious, the act of taking them to freedom in the story gave me a sense of power and extraordinary joy.

I’ve visited many schools where the series is featured and the kids love these books. They enjoy learning about history through a narrative and are often prompted to begin their own research. So, I’m not sure who’s spreading it around that children don’t like historical stories. A good story is a good story. And children need to know where they came from. The past informs the present, right? So much of our behavior, our attitudes towards ourselves and others has to do with past behavior and attitudes. Bringing personal history and social history to light provides possible explanations for why things are the way they are, giving us a chance to make a change for the better if it’s needed.

Some people would like to forget the past. But the past teaches us lessons. As my understanding of the experience of enslavement deepened, my regard and admiration for my ancestors deepened as well. Surviving that kind of life required faith, resilience, and ability to endure. That’s a legacy I want to own and to tap into. If I cut off the past, I cut off the people who lived then. Those people need to be honored. Disparaging history is dangerous. Ignoring where you came from can get you lost. Like it or not, personal history roots us just as social history gives us the lay of the land. Children deserve as much clarity as we can give them about these things.

What inspired your young adult novel, Orphea Proud. Will you write more for that age level?

Orphea was very hard for me to write. The book was originally inspired by the setting, a place I call Proud Road in the novel. I modeled it on the small town in Virginia where I spent time with my father’s parents. There was such a sense of security and unconditional love there. When I was younger, at times I felt like an outcast, maybe because I was bullied. So, I wanted to write a book about a girl who felt cast out and alone and who discovered healing through art.

The character Orphea is a poet and I’ve always loved poetry. After writing that novel, I began to write my own poetry and I haven’t stopped doing that. The theatrical frame of the book comes from own experience in the small theater I described.  I’m not sure when I’ll write another young adult novel. It’s my way to let the work dictate its form and genre. I have to say I feel very identified with characters that are a bit younger. Sometimes I wonder if I’m still eleven years old.

You’ve written books in several middle-grade series including the Pen Pals series and Annie K.’s Theater. What are the demands of that work? How can someone interested in that genre get a foot in the door?

The demands of writing for middle-grade are the same demands I’ve experienced in all my projects. One of those is finding the right voice. By that I mean the voice that the reader will identify with, the voice that the reader you have in mind will be able to hear. I have voices in my head nearly twenty-four hours a day. When I wake up in the middle of the night I’m talking to myself in poetry or I’m making up the words to a song or I’m inventing a dialogue between two characters. I’m not talking out loud, don’t get me wrong. But the voice inside my head is very loud and insistent and has great clarity most of the time. It’s a story teller’s voice and the same one I use when I’m writing.

When a story teller writes, she’s talking to somebody, keeping their attention, making them think, making them laugh, comforting them, so many things….Think about that middle grade reader while you’re writing and I believe it’ll help you find the voice that he or she can hear as well as the story that he or she can identify with and want to follow.

Getting your foot in the door? Well, stick it in when you get a chance. If I had started out to become a children’s author, it wouldn’t have happened because I didn’t know the route. And there’s still no clear route as far as I can see. But if you have a fever to write and a vision of what you’d like to produce, you will find the way. Writers find one another and create groups and networks. And believe it, there are people out there, editors, who need fresh ideas, fresh voices. They are waiting to get excited. Just get yourself there. But first you’ve got to write and that is hard work. Writing children’s books isn’t simple.  

You’ve written nearly 50 books and won many honors from places like Parent’s Magazine, Reading Rainbow and the Children’s Book Council. What writing accomplishments make you most proud? How do you measure success?

I’m proud of all my work. I respect my books once they’re independent of me. I don’t sit around telling myself how I could have done it differently. As for the honors, it was so wonderful when Always My Dad made Reading Rainbow. I went on the set and that doesn’t always happen and I’m a real fan of Levar Burton’s. I’ve also been keenly aware of the honor bestowed upon me when I was asked to be a keynote speaker for a group like NTCE or IRA. I love teachers and librarians.

 How do I measure success? It’s clear to me that material wealth is not number one on my list. Not that I’ve given up on that score. But I believe that if a person is able to embody their work with something of themselves, they’re making a mark in this world. I believe that honesty with one self is huge and a lifelong endeavor of mine. I also value compassion. In feeling compassion for others we have to be compassionate with ourselves, to own our weaknesses and to accept our strengths with gratitude.

I guess I measure success in terms of character. Having the personal security that allows generosity is a trait that I admire. I also value gratitude and humility. I feel sorry for know-it-alls. There’s so much I don’t know which means there’s so much more to learn. I think giving to others and being true to yourself are marks of a person I would regard as successful. I also think there’s a lot to be said for finishing projects you start and having the courage to get them out there. I admire people who stand up for what they believe in, too.

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

When I entered the industry there was a new excitement about books featuring protagonists of color. The timing was fortunate for me.  After Pen Pals I wanted to write something that sprang from my own experience and there was space for that. I am proud to be a small part of that changed landscape in children’s literature that has promoted harmony, provided comfort and allowed for a broadened perspective in young minds and in the minds of their teachers and parents. There are so many great books out there by writers and artists of color. I hope that it continues and that the  market one day perceives a good book as simply that and not written for someone particular. I write for all children. Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing for me, wasn’t she? As far as I’m concerned, she was.

What have been some of the most meaningful moments of your writing career? What have been the most challenging?

I think I’ve covered some meaningful moments. A real challenge was one of my first middle grade series novels. Not one of my own series but a series that had been established where I was contracted to write a single book.  I had to revise over and over and get it in quite quickly. Though I gave it my all,  I never could please the editor. But I learned a lot.

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

I would say the door is wide open for people of color, much wider open than before. That said, it’s a difficult world to break into. So often people phone me or write to me to say that have “a children’s book” they’ve written or have always wanted to write and they want to know how to get it published. Those facts are readily available. Write, revise, submit, expect rejections, keep on going.  

The person I respond to is the one who wants to make a life’s work out of writing for children, because that’s what I’ve done and that’s what I know. If my ambition had been to simply get a publisher for one story that I thought might be good for children, I wouldn’t have had anything published. I have written children’s books because I am compelled to do so. It takes that kind of motivation and motivation is the source of my “staying power.” Before I showed Always My Dad to an editor, I had revised it on my own without showing anyone at least twenty times. In my desk drawer are ten manuscripts that never reached anyone’s desk because it wasn’t their time.

There’s no great big pay check guaranteed in this business. For some of us it truly is a calling. I also write poetry now and memoir, hoping for publication but with the knowledge that there is no guarantee. But I’ve got to write it and I’ve got to get it out there and all that takes time. So I make additional income in other ways by teaching and coaching, hoping for bigger book sales.

What keeps me going is temperament. I am persistent, stubborn and rely upon common sense and native intelligence. I maintain an interest in what makes people tick. I connect with people wherever and whenever I’m able. This isn’t always easy for me because as a writer I require solitude and I am not thick skinned socially.  But I watched my mother work to raise four children while putting herself through school at night. I come from people who often faltered but knew how to pick themselves up and keep moving.

Bottom line is that unless you’re a celebrity and have built in marketability, in order to get work published you’ve got to produce the work and believe in it enough to get it into the right hands.  I’m a creative artist and that’s what creative artists do. I don’t write because it’s a glamorous sounding profession. I write out of necessity and a sense of obligation to my family, my community, to myself and, yes, to the past.  

Do you have other books in the works? What can we look forward to next?

My next picture book is The Granddaughter Necklace published by Arthur A. Levine Books.  I’m  hoping for a 2012 pub date or early 2013. I’m extremely excited about the book. The illustrator is Bagram Ibatoulline . I’m also completing a memoir at the moment. I have a collection of poems as well. I have an idea for a middle grade novel. While I’m working on one project, I’m often sketching out others.

What’s your greatest joy?

My greatest joy is family. That has to be the answer. I also love my standard poodle Little Bear.  He’s part of my family too.

 The Buzz on  Corey’s Underground Railroad Diary series:

“Secretly taught by his father to read and write, a nine-year-old slave keeps a diary but knows that he must hide it from his owner. Corey’s spelling and grammar improve over time as he learns from others and from observation. In addition to recording life on a Kentucky farm in 1857, the journal traces the boy’s flight to freedom by way of the Underground Railroad. The writing is sparse but compelling, pulling readers along every dangerous step of the way. Wyeth infuses the narrative with historic references to people like Frederick Douglass but also acknowledges the nameless men and women who believed in freedom enough to risk their lives to help others. The historical note and photographs strengthen the link between fact and fiction.”

— School Library Journal (Review of Book 1: Freedom’s Wings)

“In 1858, nine-year-old Corey Birdsong and his family flee Kentucky and their lives as slaves. With the aid of the Underground Railroad, the Birdsongs arrive in Amherstburg, Canada. There, an entire community of people of color welcomes them and helps the family build new lives in freedom. Children need not be familiar with book one of Corey’s diary, Freedom’s Wings (2001), to take up this continuation. Through Corey’s entries and the informative notes, children find out about African Canadians, like those in Corey’s new home, who owned land and businesses, had their own churches and schools, and eagerly helped newcomers like the Birdsongs get on their feet. In the course of his diary, Corey escapes a slave catcher and helps a friend steal away from Kentucky to freedom–episodes that add excitement as well as historic relevancy. A solid addition to the My America series.”

— Booklist (Review of Book 2: Flying Free)  

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