More than two decades ago, Wade and Cheryl Hudson began creating stories for kids that spoke to African-American heritage and experiences. One, the AFRO-BETS ABC Book, celebrated the alphabet and affirmed Black children like their own. When a publisher told them there was no market for such a book, the Hudsons knew what they had to do — publish it themselves. In just three months, they had proof their book was something needed and special: thousands of copies sold.
Not only did the Hudsons have the sales to show that diversity mattered, but touching testimonies too. Letters poured in from teachers, parents and even children, who wrote thank yous in crayon. A mission was born.
The next year, the Hudsons launched their ground-breaking publishing company, Just Us Books. And their careers as authors took flight. Soon their concept books like the AFRO-BETS series, picture books like Bright Eyes, Brown Skin (written by Cheryl Willis Hudson and Bernette Ford, illustrated by George Ford) and Jamal’s Busy Day (written by Wade Hudson, illustrated by George Ford), began winning acclaim and filling home, bookstore and library shelves.
Over the years, the Hudsons have opened the door to countless authors and illustrators while continuing to write stories that reflect the images and voices of young people around the world. Their inspiring body of work includes books which celebrate church, dance, poetry, friendship, history, heroes and hope.
We are proud to honor the work of pioneering authors and publishers, Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson, for Day 6 of our campaign:
Please tell us about the path that led you to children’s book writing. How did your Afro-Bets ABC Book come to be? What was the response from children? From adults? How did that lead to starting your own publishing company dedicated to Black-interest children’s books?
Cheryl: The Afro-Bets ABC Book is a concept book that grew out of a collection of personal drawings I created as a freelance graphic designer and new mother. In 1976, I made a nameplate to decorate the nursery of our first born child, Katura, using as figures African-American children who twisted and turned their bodies to form letters of the alphabet. As more of our friends had babies and requested customized nameplates for showers and birthday presents, I began giving drawings as gifts. Pretty soon I had created almost the entire alphabet. By the time Wade and I self-published the actual ABC Book in 1987, together we had refined my original drawings into six distinct characters that we named the AFRO-BETS® Kids (Tura, Stef, Robo, Glo, Langston and Nandi). I created an alphabet book based on a need we felt as young parents to have books that were authentic and culturally relevant for our own children. We hired a professional illustrator to render and design pages based on my original concept, and the AFRO-BETS series was born. The response from children, their parents, librarians and teachers was phenomenal. For them, the concept and relatively simple idea was really a no-brainer. What parent wouldn’t want their children to see positive reflections of themselves in the very first books that they saw? Why hadn’t someone else thought of this earlier? As a child growing up not seeing pictures that looked like me in my textbooks, I had illustrated my own stories and colored the characters brown. So my path to a career in publishing started early. Even from a young age, I saw myself as an “idea” person rather than solely an illustrator or a writer and this translated into my developing editorial and art director skills as a publishing professional. Together Wade (who had strong writing and public relations skills) and I decided to take a leap of faith and in 1988 we established our own company.
Wade:I began writing when I was a little boy growing up in Mansfield, LA, a rural town in the deep South. When I was eight, maybe nine years old, I would write two and three page short stories and poems, too. Because of segregated schools, there were virtually no books in our school library that featured positive Black characters or that explored and shared Black experiences, Black culture and Black history. So, I wrote short stories and poems to address those gross oversights and injustices. I continued to write through my elementary, junior high school and high school years. In high school, I approached Mr. John Sherman Johnson, my home teacher who was also my American History instructor, about writing a play about the difference between democracy and communism. He encouraged me to do so. When it was completed, I submitted it to him and he was really impressed. He helped to get the play mounted and presented at school. Of course, I had one of the leading roles in it. It was a court room drama that actually put communism on trial. I was fifteen years old.
I began writing books for children because I recognized the need to have more books in the market place that spotlighted Black experiences, Black culture and Black history. That’s the same reason Cheryl and I founded Just Us Books in 1988. I began writing for young people, however, some years before we started Just Us Books. In the 1970s and early 1980s, several children’s stories and a children’s play I penned were published by educational publishers. I have also had five plays produced on the professional stage and I have worked as a newspaper journalist.
As Just Us Books grew, your careers as authors bloomed too. Tell us about the stories behind some of those early bestsellers like Jamal’s Busy Day and Bright Eyes, Brown Skin?
Wade: My first successful published title for children was AFRO-BETS® Book of Black Heroes from A to Z, which I co-authored with my friend Valerie Wilson Wesley. Jamal’s Busy Day, illustrated by George Ford, another dear friend, was my second successful title. Both were published by Just Us Books. AFRO-BETS® Book of Black Heroes from A to Zwas written because there was a need for a book that introduced a wider variety of important black achievers than the few that were recycled year after year. Jamal’s Busy Day was inspired by my son, Stephan. The elementary school he attended was located directly across the street from our home. Almost every morning when Stephan was in the first grade, I would watch him dash excitedly up the sidewalk and across the street on his way to school. I wanted to capture that youthful spirit of a boy, a black boy, filled with excitement and expectations. Today, Jamal’s Busy Day is a favorite in classrooms around the country.
My first major success with another publisher was Pass It On: African-American Poetry for Children, illustrated by Floyd Cooper. That title was published by Scholastic. During my career as a writer of books for children and young adults, I have been published by presses such as Children’s Press, Abingdon Press, Zondervan, Macmillan/McGraw Hill, Scott Foresman and, of course, Scholastic.
Cheryl:Bright Eyes Brown Skin was a collaborative effort that began as a single 22-word poem that I originally envisioned as a 12-page board book. When we asked our friend Bernette Ford to review it and friend and veteran artist George Ford to consider illustrating it, the poem took on a whole new format and focus. It expanded from a 12-page board book to a 32-page picture book. My original poem about a 4-year-old pre-school boy thus evolved into a storyline that depicted a series of events involving four lively pre-schoolers interacting with each other during a typical day. My editor-friend Bernette then became a co-author. Photos of the Fords’ daughter, nieces and nephews were used for models for the characters and the published book was widely received by parents, librarians and educators alike. Because skin color and African American features were presented in such a positive way, many people of color could readily identify with the message it conveyed—that black was indeed beautiful and a normal part of children’s identities. Bright Eyes Brown Skin was excerpted in Sesame Street Magazine. It continues to be a favorite picture book on our list.
You’ve each written more than 20 books for children published not just by Just Us Books, but many other publishers including Scholastic, Abrams and Candlewick. They span genres from board books and picture books to books for older readers. How has your voice and vision grown and developed over the years? What is your mission as an author?
Wade: My goal is to always try to write a story that resonates with the reader and to provide a little more insight into the world in which we all live. Through that insight, I hope those who read the story will be able to take another step, even if it is a tiny one, toward a greater understanding and appreciation of all humankind, no matter how different we may be or how unique our experiences are. There are always the common threads that bind us. Of course, I want to entertain as well, and make reading a joyous experience. So, it is really about combining all of these elements, which isn’t easy.
Cheryl: My mission as an author is to create beautiful, meaningful books that all children will relate to. For me, books should be vehicles of wonder and self-discovery. As an author, I loved creating Hands Can and Construction Zone, both published by Candlewick, because through them I stretched my boundaries as I worked with an editor who suggested photographs rather than illustrations as the final medium for the finished books. In the case of Hands Can, a British photographer’s multicultural perspective informed the interpretation of my story about the versatility of young children’s hands. The cast was multicultural but a white child’s photo appears on the cover. That was a first- time experience for me. In the case of Constuction Zone, I was asked to create a story based on a collection of thousands of existing photos taken by photographer Richard Sobol. Richard had already published an adult book documenting the building of celebrated architect Frank O. Gehry’s Stata Center at MIT in Cambridge, MA. My editor at Candlewick asked me to create a similar nonfiction book aimed at a much younger audience. I loved working on that project because it was a challenge to shift through so much visual information, select key images and then connect them in a unified narrative that would make sense to a 9-year-old. It was like putting together a puzzle from hundreds of little pieces and coming out with a wonderful painting at the end. I’d say that my voice and vision has expanded and matured over the years by working with a variety of illustrators, photographers and excellent editors. Working with publishers outside of Just Us Books has helped me to mature as an author because I have had the freedom of not having to function as the editor of my own work.
The books you’ve written celebrate history and the beauty of every-day moments. Your bibliographies include a rich range of titles from inspiring nonfiction like Poetry from the Masters: The Pioneers (written by Wade) to delightful picture books like My Friend Maya Loves to Dance (written by Cheryl). Why do you write both? Why is it important for children to have that diversity?
Cheryl: I love the process of developing concepts for children’s books. For me, incorporating diversity into these books is always a part of my natural way of thinking about children and their lives. I also write to satisfy a longing to see good stories for children of color appear in print. As a self-taught artist, creating picture books gives me a vehicle to express visual ideas that I have, but that I know are much better expressed and executed by professional illustrators and designers. In the case of My Friend Maya Loves to Dance, published by Abrams, the publisher’s vision for a beautiful art book illustrated by painter Eric Velasquez was a perfect complement to my story about a little girl who loved another art form, dance. The illustrator’s added vision also expanded my own perceptions. Not only was Eric able to capture the energy and enthusiasm of Maya’s personality, but he was also able to incorporate a great deal of Black history and rhythmic music moments within the individual spreads by infusing such passion into the paintings. His artwork is multilayered and the end result was a picture book about dance, music and art. He captured every-day moments as unique works of art. That kind of diversity for children is as important as racial and ethnic diversity.
Wade: I agree with Cheryl. It is important that we have a diversity of subject matter. This has been made clear to me in profound ways during school visits. When I first started visiting schools, my central focus was on racism, discrimination and prejudice and their impact on our society and our nation’s psyche. I showed students how people are hurt by these evil things. During my presentations, I explain why I wrote AFRO-BETS® Book of Black Heroes or Pass It On: African-American Poetry for Children (Scholastic). Invariably, one, and sometimes several students, almost always Black, would talk about the pain with which they were dealing because they were picked on because they were fat, skinny, had a big nose or a big head. It became clear to me that my presentation was important and was serving a much-needed purpose. But it also became clear to me that exclusion, lack of acceptance, etc., and the pain and humiliation they caused, had to be viewed in much broader context. The Two Tyrones, a title I wrote for our dear friend Bernette Ford’s ColorBridge imprint, which is distributed by Scholastic, was about two African-American boys who shared the same exact name in a classroom at school. This may seem trite, but not for one of the boys who is losing his identity because of name confusion. The story makes a point, but it is also quite funny. At least, I think so. Covering the breadth and depth of children’s experiences is extremely important.
You’ve given many authors and illustrators their start and continue to publish amazing books each year. How do you strike a balance between the demands of running a publishing company and nurturing your own writing?
Wade: Quite honestly, it isn’t easy to do both. As anyone who has chosen writing as a career will tell you, it is a full time job. Running a publishing company is a 24/7 endeavor, too. God has given us both. So we are thankful just for the opportunity to do our best in each of them.
I usually do most of my personal writing late at night and on Sundays after church. It is essential that priorities are set and a daily schedule or to do list is in place. Prayer helps too.
I would like to share this thought. Over the years, we have met and have been befriended by so many wonderful and loving children’s book creators. I often wish that the wider world was as nurturing, caring, supportive and loving as the children’s and young adult book world in which we spend the bulk of our time. There is something special about the people in that world.
Cheryl: I think the answer to that is establishing a schedule and being disciplined about the tasks you need to complete and the list of things that you would just love to do as your personal work. It’s hard to maintain a balance but it’s helpful that the publishing process is just that—a process. You find pockets of time to get different tasks done. Finding and nurturing new talent takes time and that, too, is a process. At Just Us Books and Marimba Books, we develop relationships with writers and illustrators over time and over distance and our friendships with them have also grown. But it’s the part of the business that we love. We do quite a bit of marketing and sales and conferences on weekends. And we get lots of work done via e-mail. Thank God for the Internet!
For my personal creative work, I tend to do my most creative work early in the morning. I am extremely fortunate to have my family as supportive partners in my personal creative work and in terms of the company’s work. I can always count on Wade for an insightful critique of any ideas I have in development. He has excellent instincts for developing a storyline and a journalist’s ear for a hook to get a piece started. Our daughter, Katura, has an eagle’s eye for copy editing and proofreading. She’s also an excellent writer who helps me fine tune my thoughts. Our son, Stephan is a talented designer and photographer on whom I can rely on for actually executing some of my concepts. I think Wade and I rely heavily on our children’s talents and expertise in terms of the business and our personal work. Still, there are so many books and seems like never enough time!
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?
Cheryl: Read widely. Write every day. Re-write just as often. Stay active with writing workshops and associations. Do your own research and rely on your personal relationships to build a wide range of marketing opportunities. Have faith in yourself and don’t expect success to come overnight or to stay forever. Be a life-long learner. Be open for criticism. Keep dreaming. Keep working but don’t be too hasty in quitting your day job!
You’ve received many honors for your work including being inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent and winning many other literary and lifetime achiever awards. What do those accolades mean to you? How do you measure success?
Wade: It always means a lot to receive recognition for what one has done. We were especially honored to be inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. We have so much respect for Haki Madhabuti, a visionary and institution builder, who is reponsible for establishing this much-needed honor for Black writers. To be included in the hall of fame along with outstanding writers such as Walter Mosley, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Marita Golden, Octavia Butler, Walter Dean Myers and Eloise Greenfield is truly humbling.
Most of all, for me, receiving honors and recognition is more of a testimony to the love, support and encouragement we have received and that has sustained and often motivated us to keep going, whether we were faced with success or challenges.
What was the racial landscape of children’s literature when you entered the field? What gains have you made you proud? What do you hope the future brings?
Cheryl: The racial landscape in children’s literature in 1970 was pretty dismal. (see statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison) Although some strides had been made in the mid 60s to “integrate” school textbooks, there were only a handful of writers and illustrators of color being published in the trade book arena by 1976. (Virginia Hamilton, Jerry Pinkney, Walter Dean Myers, Eloise Greenfield, Tom Feelings and Leo and Diane Dillon were a few.) During the past 40-plus years, this core family of writers and illustrators has grown and the range of subject matter has expanded—partially due to the activism of the Council on Interracial Books for Children, the founding of Black Creators for Children, the establishment of ALA’s Coretta Scott King Book Award, the agitation of activist parents and librarians, and the work of independent and self-publishers. Our hope is that African-American writers, illustrators and all children’s book creators of color will continue to be fierce and tenacious in their determination to tell our stories with beauty, respect and in authentic voices. We hope that our society as a whole will embrace that diversity is a normal and natural part of our country’s literary heritage.
Wade: When we first started, it was very difficult to find books about Black history, Black culture and Black experiences in the general market. That still is a major problem today. But in the 1980s and early 1990s, these books were virtually non existent in the general market place, although there were some wonderful titles written by Black children book creators being published every year.
From the beginning, we sought out the major retailers such as Kmart, Target and Toys R Us, as well as chain stores, independents and Black books stores and were successful in getting our books into these outlets. We helped to establish a broader market for Black-interest books for children and for multicultural books in general. Today, that market is almost completely dominated by major publishers.
What have been some of the most meaningful moments of your writing careers? What have been the most challenging?
Wade: The most meaningful moments for me are seeing children and young adults’ faces brighten when they are reading one of my books. I think most authors would agree that making that connection with readers is paramount. When you can witness that, it is truly quite awesome. And, of course, seeing the finished product of a process that has often taken a year to two years to complete.
Do you have other books on the way? What can we look forward to next?
Wade: On a personal level, I have just finished updating the AFRO-BETS® Book of Black Heroes from A to Z. I am now working on three other books in the series. One will spotlight Black educators; another, Black entertainers; and the other Black athletes. I am also working on an adult novel that I’m really excited about.
As far as our publishing efforts are concerned, we are releasing two titles from the Marimba Books in spring 2011, Aloha for Carol Annby Margo Sorenson, illustrated by Priscilla Garcia Burris and Allie’s World: Block Party, a second title in a series developed by Karen Valentin, illustrated by Michelle Dorenkamp. This fall we are publishing a hardcover book written by Coretta Scott King and Newberry Honor recipient Rita Williams-Garcia. It is titled Bottle Cap Boys Dancing on Royal Streetand is set in New Orleans. Just Us Books will release a poetry collection by Tony Medina this fall as well. The working title is The President Looks Like Me and Other Poems. It is aimed middle school students.
Cheryl: I’ve been compiling an exciting work of nonfiction for readers aged 9 to 12. It’s a unique presentation of Black history that is much longer than pieces I have written in the past. Since it’s over 150 pages long, organizing, researching and condensing big chunks of information has been a formidable task. But it’s also been a lot of fun and my family has been involved as part of my research and backup editorial team. Hopefully, the finished book will be published by 2014 and a digital interactive format will be available as well. I also have other shorter works brewing on the back burner.
What’s your greatest joy?
Wade: I see writing as one of my gifts. My greatest joy is that God has blessed us to make available so many wonderful, engaging, enlightening and entertaining books that probably would not have otherwise been published.
I know these books have and will continue to make a difference in the lives of the young people who read them. I also think that having built a publishing company that has become an institution in many quarters of Black communities is crucial when there are so few national businesses that are owned by Black people. It is not and has not been easy to continue to do what we do, but it is essential that we continue. One’s contributions should always be larger and more significant than the individual who makes them.
Cheryl: Seeing a child’s face light up when she or he reads or recognizes one of our books. Hearing a parent say, “We love your books.”
The Buzz on My Friend Maya Loves to Dance by Cheryl Willis Hudson:
“A delightful story in which a girl, unseen until the end, tells of her friend Maya’s love of dance. Whether dressed in a leotard and tutu, or a shirt and jeans, or wearing kente cloth, “Maya dances with grace/And a look of pride on her face.” Full-page, fluid illustrations, rendered in oil on watercolor paper, feature a willowy, long-limbed African-American child who dances to the music of jazz, blues, rap, gospel, Bach, and reggae. When she taps “on slick wooden floors,” wearing a red vest, gray pants, white gloves, and a hat, she’s accompanied by four boys similarly costumed. Maya even performs at the mall for a small audience that includes the narrator, a girl in a wheelchair. The last, touching page reveals Maya and her friend smiling at readers. A simple, sweet story about music, dance, and friendship.”
— School Library Journal
The Buzz on Powerful Words by Wade Hudson:
“In this handsome, large-format book, black history in the U.S. unfolds through the words of those who shaped and experienced it. The well-chosen title gives Hudson wide latitude in selecting passages that will inform and inspire readers. He offers selections from 34 writings and speeches by African Americans, famous and not, stretching from the late eighteenth century to the present. Samuel B. Cornish and John Russwurm explain why they are starting Freedom’s Journal. Thurgood Marshall argues Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court. Malcolm X addresses African American teenagers. Toni Morrison accepts the Nobel Prize for literature. Short enough to hold attention, the selections, accompanied by information about the context and the writer, are also long enough to show the writers’ tone and style. Many sensitive full-page portraits are included; also provided are a chronology of African American history and detailed source notes for the numerous excerpts quoted in the text. Given the increased emphasis on primary source documents in history classes, this well-designed volume will be an excellent addition to many library collections.”
A Few of Their Awards:
— International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent
— Lifetime Achiever Award, East Orange YMCA Achievers Program
— Newark Public Library Stephen Crane Literary Award
The Brown Bookshelf is designed to push awareness of the myriad Black voices writing for young readers. Our flagship initiative is 28 Days Later, a month-long showcase of the best in Picture Books, Middle Grade, and Young Adult novels written and illustrated by Black creators.
You can read more about the members of The Brown Bookshelf here.