Day 20: Frank Morrison

February 20, 2011

Frank Morrison is an award-winning children’s book illustrator and fine artist. A few of his picture books include Sweet Music in Harlem (Lee & Low Books, 2004); Jazzy Miz Mozetta, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004); My Feet Are Laughing, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006);  and more recently Quacky Baseball, (HarperCollins, 2011). He’s also the illustrator of many chapter books, including the Keena Ford series (Dial); Play, Louis, Play!: The True Story of a Boy and His Horn, (Bloomsbury, 2010); and Long Shot: Never Too Small to Dream Big, (Simon & Schuster, 2009).
In 2005, Frank received the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent for Jazzy Miz Mozetta.

Frank began his career as a graffiti artist and break dancer. While traveling and performing in Europe, he “met his Muse,”and has been painting ever since.

Day 19: Rachel Renee Russell

February 19, 2011

Rachel Renee Russell grew up in Saint Joseph, Michigan, a small city located on the shore of Lake Michigan. She has 2 younger sisters and 2 younger twin brothers. She wrote and illustrated her first book in 6th grade as a birthday present for my brothers. Her New York Times bestselling series, beginning with DORK DIARIES: TALES FROM A NOT-SO FABULOUS LIFE (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2009), and DORK DIARIES TWO: TALES FROM A NOT-SO FABULOUS PARTY GIRL (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2010) is a favourite of kids everywhere (I see children clutching it on NYC subways all of the time!), and was recently name-checked in a Times article about the growing popularity of e-readers among kids and teens.

Called “charming and funny”, by Graphic Novel Reporter, DORK DIARIES follows eighth grader Nikki Maxwell, who chronicles through text and sketches her move to a snooty new school; her epic battle with her mom for an iPhone; her enthusiasm for drawing & art; and a love/hate fascination with the new school’s queen bee, a girl named Mackenzie who becomes Nikki’s rival in a school-wide art competition.

The saga continues, when, settled in at her new school and flanked by awesome friends Chloe and Zoey, life is looking up for Nikki Maxwell, especially since her crush, Brandon, asked her to be his lab partner—a seriously awesome development. However, when Nikki overhears mean girl Mackenzie bragging that Brandon’s taking her to the Halloween dance, a bummed Nikki signs on to spend Halloween at a kids’ party with her little sister, Brianna, instead. After she finds out Mackenzie was lying and her dream of going to the party with Brandon could be a reality, Nikki has two events to juggle… plus plenty of other entertaining trials and tribulations along the way.

You can feel the fun, can’t you?

Russell is an attorney, but enjoys writing children’s books more than practicing law. She currently reside in northern Virginia.

What aspect of storytelling most appeals to you? What’s the biggest challenge?

I enjoy taking my readers on an exciting journey that will ultimately lead them to some sort of self-discovery. I feel the most challenging aspect of storytelling is plot development. I also work really hard to present unique and interesting characters that readers can relate to.

Which of your characters are favorites (I know, that’s a hard
one!), and why? Which characters were more difficult to write?

My favorite character is Nikki Maxwell. Although she is insecure and a bit of a dork, she has a wicked sense of humor. Because I have two daughters, I’m very familiar with how teen girls think, act and speak. However, I sometimes struggle with writing authentic teen male characters.

How do you discover and get to know your characters?

Actually, I’m still in the process of getting to know my characters. I’ve found that the more time I spend writing about them, the better I get to know them.

What would you like to write that you haven’t written yet?
Is there anything, a different genre or style, that you’d like to try?

My Dork Diaries books are realistic fiction, so I would like to try writing fantasy or paranormal. I’d love to one day write a Young Adult book for older teens and a Chapter book for younger children.

What brings you joy?

I’m happiest when I’m spending quality time with my family.

What interview question would you like to be asked, and what’s your answer?

Your daughter, Nikki, helps illustrate the Dork Diaries series. Has she ever considered writing and illustrating her own book?

As a matter of fact, yes. Nikki is currently working on her own illustrated novel.

Congratulations to her! And a mother-daughter collaboration is inspiring. What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future? What are you working on now?

I’m looking forward to releasing a book offering fun and creative tips about how to keep your own personal Dork Diaries. I’m currently finishing Book 3 which is Dork Diaries: Tales From a Not-So-Talented Pop Star. It will be released in June 2011.

Ooh, there are a lot of people looking forward to that — thank you, Rachel!

See reviews of DORK DIARIES from School Library Journal and Graphc Novel Reporter.

Visit Rachel Renee Russell online, and be prepared for fun!
Check out the Dork Diaries book trailer and hilarious blog. And hear from Rachel herself on her inspiration, writing process, and more.

Day 18: Vanguard PB Author, Joyce Carol Thomas

February 18, 2011

Writing a book: tough. Getting one traditionally published: even tougher. Any writer who has penned a work that’s commanded the attention of an editor, and inspired a publisher to commit tremendous resources to bring it to market, he or she has earned the honor and respect that such an accomplishment deserves.

But there are books…and then there are books.

Picture book authors must craft tales that include all the elements of story necessary in other genres, except they must do it in 1000 words or less (emphasis on the “less”). “Each word must be essential to the story or it mustn’t be there.” PB writing 101. But the best picture books don’t just have spare text; they use language masterfully–creating living characters and evoking vivid images that not only remain in the reader’s mind long after the book has been closed, but beg to be experienced time and time again.

Author Joyce Carol Thomas writes books like these.

Joyce, award-winning author of more than 30 books and several plays, was born in Ponca City, Oklahoma.  She received her Master of Arts degree from Stanford University and has been a professor and teacher for over twenty years at some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges, including the University of Tennessee and Purdue University. 

The young adult novel, Marked By Fire (Avon, 1982), was Joyce’s first published work for children; Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea (HarperCollins, 1993) was her first picture book.  In the past fifteen years, she has written several other picture books, including: I Have Heard of a Land (HarperCollins, 1998); Crowning Glory (Joanna Cotler Books/HarperCollins, 2002); The Gospel Cinderella (HarperCollins, 2004); and The Blacker the Berry (HarperCollins, 2008).

Joyce is also a highly sought-after motivational speaker. She has delivered empowering presentations at colleges and universities in the United States, and workshops on creative writing and cultural studies in Nigeria, Haiti, Ecuador, Australia, Samoa, and the Mariana Islands.  She currently resides in Berkeley, California. On day 18, The Brown Bookshelf welcomes one of our Vanguard Picture Book Honorees, Joyce Carol Thomas.


BBS:   Hello, Ms. Thomas. It is an honor to have you here at The Brown Bookshelf.

JCT:     Hello, Tameka Brown.  I consider it an honor to be chosen for this interview by The Brown Bookshelf.   


BBS:   “Accomplished” is a word that seems inadequate to describe you as a writer. You’ve published more than 30 books, including volumes of poetry and works of fiction. You’ve written several plays which have been brought to life on stage. You’ve received critical recognition via the National Book Award, the American Book Award, the New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year Award, Outstanding Woman of the 20th Century Award, three Coretta Scott King Honor Awards, and many more.

When you reflect on all your literary achievements—and the influence your work has had on countless readers and authors alike—what thoughts or emotions does it all invoke?

JCT:     I am thrilled that my work continues to receive so much attention from my readers, including young children, young adults, their parents, and teachers.


BBS:   While you’re widely published in different genres, it’s obvious that writing for children and young adults is a particular passion. The young adult novel, Marked by Fire, was your first such work, and Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea was your first picture book. Both were major award winners. What was it that made you decide to begin writing for children?

JCT:     When my children were born, I noticed that they watched me reading books.  Then they would pick up a book and pretend to read it.  Children, I think, soak up everything their parents do and say.  I also noticed that most books in the libraries and in their schools did not focus on stories that might enchant African-American children.


BBS:   Yours was a family of migrant workers, and as a child, you spent a great deal of time outdoors with your parents and siblings, working with a variety of crops. In many of your children’s books, you paint such lush and beautiful imagery regarding nature and our relationship to it. Would you say that your early childhood experiences with farming and the outdoors have a major influence on the stories you create?

JCT:    Yes, it’s true.  I loved to be outside when the flowers began to bloom.  I delighted in checking the fruit to see if the apples were ripe.  Biting into a crisp apple after I had worked my way to the end of a row of cotton was heaven in my mouth.  It was also my reward for finishing what I started.  I would make up stories in my head, and tell them to the other children in the cotton fields in Oklahoma and the tomato fields in California.

Of course, outside is also where we played and ran races.


BBS:   As a picture book author and lover, I am both inspired by and enamored with your picture books, especially your last three titles: The Gospel Cinderella, The Blacker the Berry (our featured title), and Crowning Glory. The imagery of your poetry is so evocative in the latter two books, and the lyricism of your prose in The Gospel Cinderella is masterful. (I love the name “Crooked Foster Mother”– it just says it all!)  How would you say your picture book writing has evolved from your first book till now?

JCT:     I like to put the words in my book on stage.  I ask myself if the words dance across the page.  I ask myself if the words sing in harmony.  The books I author now, including THE BLACKER THE BERRY represent a concoction of sweetness, self-esteem, and rhyme.


BBS:   I know that you are a great admirer of Zora Neale Hurston. You’ve done three adaptations of her work for HarperCollins (The Skull Talks Back and Other Haunting Tales, 2004; The Three Witches, 2006; The Six Fools, 2006). Did you approach HC with these projects or did they approach you?

JCTHarperCollins considered several authors to pen the Zora Neale Hurston collection.  I was so thrilled that the editors chose me.


BBS:  Do you consider Hurston to be your greatest literary influence? What about her work resonates with you so?

JCT:  Yes, Zora Neale Hurston is one of my greatest literary influences. When nobody was there to encourage her, she wrote anyway. When early critics paid Zora Neale Hurston no mind, she kept writing.  She kept creating.  She focused on her work. 


BBS:   I’ve read that promoting multicultural appreciation through literature is an important goal of yours. Can you share more about your thoughts on that?

JCT:     When I taught reading and writing as a University professor, I noticed the paucity of books that featured African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. I consider the promoting of multi-cultural books a joyous challenge.  I believe that there is a connection to literary achievement when these books are included in libraries and taught in schools.


BBS:   Who are some of today’s picture book authors and/or illustrators that you most admire?

JCT:     I admire David Diaz, Francisco X. Alarcon, Laurence Yep, Yori Noguchi, and Floyd Cooper.


BBS:   To those of us who desire to have a publishing career with the longevity and acclaim that you have achieved, please share the most important piece of wisdom you possess that will help us attain it.

JCT:     Perseverance is the key. When my first MARKED BY FIRE manuscript was rejected, I did not give up.  For example, my agent was very upset when she called to tell me that another publisher had rejected my manuscript.  I said to her, “Don’t worry, somebody will take it.”  She got very quiet on her end of the telephone.  Then she added, “When somebody accepts this manuscript, I’ll call you, no matter what time of day or night that a publisher lets me know.”  True to her word, she called me at 6:00 a.m. in the morning with the good news that my MARKED BY FIRE would be published!


BBS:   What’s the next project of yours we can look forward to?

JCT:     My next picture book’s title is IN THE LAND OF MILK AND HONEY.  It is scheduled for publication in 2011.


BBS:   And just for fun: Popsicles or lollipops?

JCT:  Popsicles.          


BBS:   Fishing, gardening, or front porch-swinging?

JCT:     Gardening


BBS:   When you close your eyes and think of home, what do you see?

JCT:     Red earth, a mother who baked fluffy biscuits from scratch, the remarkable and great teachers I had at Attucks School in Oklahoma, and the wonderful caring teachers in California.


BBS:   Thanks so much for visiting with us today, Ms. Thomas. Again, it’s been an honor.

JCT:     Thank you for spreading the news about writers and their books.

For an exhaustive list of her titles and awards, please visit Joyce at .

Day 17: E.B. Lewis

February 17, 2011

E.B. Lewis is the award-winning illustrator of more than fifty books for children, a few of which include Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys, (Simon & Schuster, 1999); Talkin’ about Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman, (Orchard, 2002); Coming on Home Soon, (Putnam, 2004); The Negro Speaks of Rivers, (Hyperion, 2009).

In 2003, Mr. Lewis won the Coretta Scott King Illustration Award for Talkin’ about Bessie, and in 2005 he won a Caldecott Honor for the book Coming on Home. The awards don’t stop there. He is also the recipient of Notable Book selections from the American Library Association and Notable Books for the Language Arts citation, and more.

E.B. Lewis entered the world of children’s books in 1993, when his art appeared in Jane Kurtz’s Fire on the Mountain (Simon & Schuster). As a fine artist, E.B. first declined an offer to illustrate a children’s book. But then agent Jeff Dwyer schooled him on the business of trade picture books, and encouraged E.B. to seek out the works of other illustrators. After doing so, E.B. changed his mind, saying, “Hey, I can paint better than those guys!”

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to snag an interview with Mr. Lewis. I know, bummer, but what to do? Here are a few links concerning the artist:

The artist’s website:

R. Michelson Galleries:

E.B. Lewis Video Interview, Scholastic:


Day 16: Kevin Lewis

February 16, 2011

Parents know the name Kevin Lewis and storytime go together. His debut picture book, Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo (Hyperion), has 121 — that’s not a typo –five-star reviews on 

Reading just a few you feel the special connection people have with his story:

“This was my son’s favorite book, and one that I never tire of reading.”

“My girls absolutely MUST hear this book at least five times a day.”

“My boys . . . wanted to read it every night for the longest time. They even memorized it at 2 1/2 years old. The book was ‘read’ so many times that it is falling apart and I ordered a copy for each of them that I will give to them when they have children.”

Kidlit folks also know Kevin Lewis as one of the top children’s book editors in the industry. He has edited award-winning authors such as Angela Johnson, Cynthia Rylant, Ntozake Shange and many more.

So who is Kevin Lewis? Author or editor? Lucky for us, he’s both. His work, creating stories and helping to shape them, inspires children — and adults — around the world.

Please join us in honoring Kevin Lewis for Day 16:

 Along with being a beloved children’s book author, you’re executive editor of Disney-Hyperion Books and were formerly editorial director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Which dream came first, writing for children or being an editor of children’s books? What was your path to both?

I feel like I’ve always enjoyed writing, but it was just something I did, like singing in the shower. I never really considered being published. So the dream of being an editor came first.  I was a sophomore English major and decided to try the Children’s Lit course offered by my alma mater’s Education department.  I thought it would be a fun (and easy) three credits.  Well, it was definitely a lot of fun, but not all that easy. My professor assigned a crazy amount of outside reading each week –  something along the lines of half a dozen novels and a dozen picture books – on top of the assigned class work.  One of the books was Chris Van Allsburg’s WREAK OF THE ZEPHYR.  I was taking a survey of World Lit course and had recently studied the Icarus and Daedalus myth and the idea of hubris in literature. I was surprised to find the motif so elegantly and efficiently expressed in a picture book.  Suddenly I knew why I was studying English… to make books that embraced literary ideals and heritage.

Becoming a published author simply grew out of doing my job.  Back in the mid-90s, I had a boss who was quite adept at ghost writing.  So I started ghost writing as a way of developing projects. Dan Kirk had done an amazing illustration of a train, and I wrote a text to go along with that illustration.  But instead of working out the way I’d planned, it ended up being my first book.

Your first book, Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo, earned praise for its catchy rhymes and rhythm. Today, more than a decade after its debut, it’s still a favorite. What called you to write for the very young? Why do you think that book resonated with so many? What are your favorite memories of sharing that story?

I write for the very young because I tend to see the world like very young children do.  Everything mystifies me, including the day-to-day routine of trains.  There’s something comforting in being steadfast, day after day.  I think kids respond to that. And I’m convinced that book resonates so well with kids because of the Dan’s interpretation. I wrote about a real train. Dan made the train a toy in a child’s room.  And what’s more lovable to a child than a steadfast toy.

Illustrator Daniel Kirk has been a frequent collaborator of yours. Along with Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo, he illustrated acclaimed titles including Tugga-Tugga Tugboat (Hyperion), Dinosaur Dinosaur (Orchard) and My Truck is Stuck! (Hyperion) Are you ever surprised by his illustration of what you wrote? How does his work, and that of other illustrators, bring another layer of meaning to your stories?

 I don’t know if surprised is the right word, but it’s certainly awesome to see something I’ve written interpreted though his eyes.  He always manages to amplify whatever I’m doing with the text, or at the very least, he focuses the themes in a way that the very young can appreciate. That’s always a delight to witness.  I think that’s what the best illustrators do.  I once heard it said that the words illuminate and illustrate share the same root – to bring light.  So the best illustrators shine a light on a story so it can be seen like never before.

Your books are known for their playfulness and lyricism. What inspires your work? What authors and illustrators do you admire?

Kids inspire my work.  I like trying to see the world through their eyes, and I write to help them find joy and comfort in words and, in my sillier moments, just to see them laugh.  As for illustrators and authors I’d admire, I’d probably have to say any of them that take what they do seriously.   To really make a go of it in this field takes the ability to recognize and pursue inspiration and generate a lot of perspiration, which is the product of hard work.

Please tell us about your latest book, The Runaway Pumpkin (Orchard), illustrated by S.D. Schindler. How did that story come to be?

I wanted to do a version of the “The Gingerbread Man” and decided that a runaway pumpkin would be fun because when it was finally caught, it could be eaten and turned into a jack-o-lantern.  The refrain came first.  And it wasn’t until that part was written that I realized my pumpkin wasn’t a runner…  but a roller.  From there, it was just a matter of making each escape as bombastic as possible.  I also got a big kick out of having the little sister in the tale foresee all the mayhem. Little Lil is my homage to Cassandra in the Trojan Horse myth.  If only the Trojans had listened to her.

What is your mission as an author? What do you hope children take away from your stories?

Mostly I want kids to see words as something they can play with just like they play with their toys. Kids can make fun with just about anything. My biggest fear is that kids start seeing words as precious little objects that can only be encountered under the strictest of rules.  In reality, words are more like sand on the beach – effortless and eternal and there for anyone.  Build a castle out of it, dig a hole in it, and just scrunch it with your toes, but you can’t hurt sand and sand can’t really hurt you.  Same goes for words. So have fun!

 You’ve been the editor of many award-winning authors including Ntozake Shange and Cynthia Rylant.  How do you strike a balance between the demands of being an editor and nurturing your own writing?

I can’t.  When I’m editing, I usually can’t write.  I don’t think of it as a bad thing.  It’s like not being able to ride a bike when you’re jumping rope.  When you’re doing one, it’s hard to miss the other.  But then again, I’m sure there are folks out there who can do both at the same time.  I’m just not that coordinated.

Some authors of color feel that the publishing industry locks them into a box of what they should write. You’ve written books that feature trucks, trains, tugboats, dinosaurs and more. How can others who want to write without limits find their way?

I honestly believe that you don’t find your way but make your way. No one ever gave me permission to write, or to write for children, or to write about truck and trains and dinosaurs. Who would seek out a childless reluctant reader with no practical knowledge of vehicles (or dinosaurs, for that matter) to do what I do? But I love kids and trucks and trains and dinosaurs and telling stories, so this is what I do. 

What’s most rewarding about your writing life? What’s most challenging?

The most rewarding thing is hearing from parents how much their sons and daughters have responded to the books I’ve written, or hearing it from the kids themselves. I met one young lady — she was around twelve or thirteen — who said she wanted to be a writer because of me. I was 100% floored. The most challenging is finding time to support both writing and editing careers.

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?

Write what you love, read everything you can find, and surround yourself with people who will encourage you to keep writing even when you don’t feel hopeful about it.

What tips can you offer people who would like to write for young children? How can someone with interest in that area get a start?

Write what you love, read everything you can find, and surround yourself with people who will encourage you to keep writing even when you don’t feel hopeful about it …  Wait a minute…  I said that already. So let me add that anyone interested in creating books for kids should seriously look into The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  They’re an outstanding organization and one of the best places to start in the biz.

You’ve held many trailblazing editorial positions. What was the racial landscape of the children’s book industry like when you entered the field? What gains have made you proud? What do you hope the future brings?

This answer may get me into a LOT of trouble, but I have to say that very little seems to have changed on the publisher side. But I wouldn’t say it’s a racial thing, because there there still aren’t a lot of men in the industry either (except in finance). That’s shocking to me. This summer I will have been in the industry for 20 years, and in that time I’ve never sensed any resistance to my being black or male. My colleagues have always judged me on my character and quality of my work. And we’re all focused on creating as diverse a list as the market will bear. But it seems that people of color and men aren’t focusing on the creative side of publishing as a viable career choice. And until that happens, I can’t see there being any significant gains.

The New York Times article, “Picture books no longer a staple for children,” got the blogosphere buzzing. As someone who edits picture books and writes them, what do you see? How has the genre evolved? What is your hope for the future? How can authors and illustrators navigate these changing times?

That article last fall over simplified a very complex set of circumstances and made a rash judgment. Twenty years ago, some people made the same types of arguments about teen fiction, but the industry adjusted and now look. The audience for picture books has gotten younger and most picture books don’t reflect that. As the industry adjusts to the needs of the picture book audience — by creating more appropriate characters and telling more appropriate stories — we’ll begin to see growth in the marketplace. In the meanwhile, picture book authors and illustrators shouldn’t follow trends without considering the long-term viability, because some current trends are vestiges of an older mindset — and the clock is ticking.

Do you have other books on the way? What can we look forward to next?

I have a new book coming out at the end of summer called NOT INSIDE THIS HOUSE (Orchard).  It’s illustrated by and extraordinary new artist named David Ercolini.  Remember the name.  We’re also doing a book app together called BLEEP!  OBSOLETE that’s due out in a month or so.

What’s your greatest joy?

Being alive now doing what I do and having the beautiful set of friends that I have.  I’m a blessed boy!

The Buzz on The Runaway Pumpkin:

“Lewis, the author of Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo (1999) and My Truck Is Stuck (2002) offers another silly, rollicking action story for preschoolers. Rhymed couplets tell the tale: Buck and Billy Baxter and their little sister, Lil, are climbing a hill on Halloween when they happen upon an enormous pumpkin. The brothers Baxter ignore wise Lil’s cautions and cut the pumpkin from its vine. Down the hill it tumbles, crashing through the family farm, finally coming to rest after Papa uses his tractor to dig a ditch to catch the gigantic squash. That night, the family gathers in costume to enjoy a smorgasbord of pumpkin treats, joined by the pumpkin itself, now transformed into an enormous jack-o’-lantern . . . Lewis’ words capture the rolling pumpkin’s ‘thumpin’ bumpin’ rhythm, and Schindler’s paintings extend the story’s tall-tale humor with detail and action that’s perfect for entertaining a crowd. An obvious choice for rowdy, fall story hours.”

— Booklist

“A story about an enormous pumpkin that gets out of hand. The Baxter boys make the mistake of cutting it from the vine before they have worked out how to get it safely home. With a repeated rhythmic chorus that kids will love to chime in on, the pumpkin makes its way through the hillside farm, scattering animals and Baxters in its wake. The family members finally manage to get it inside, and Granny cooks up a feast for Halloween supper. Schindler’s gouache-and-pencil illustrations are amusing and rich in detail. Children will enjoy seeing the animals’ reactions, as the out-of-control pumpkin wreaks havoc on sty and henhouse, and will also appreciate the family’s inventive Halloween costumes. This is a fun read-aloud, without the dark overtones of so many of the holiday’s stories, but it pays to practice the text once or twice as it can be a bit of a tongue-twister . . .”

— School Library Journal

Day 15: Lynn Joseph

February 15, 2011

Lynn Joseph was born in Trinidad in 1963 and was raised in a family of three children by a mother who loved books, and who read Shakespeare to her and her sister Christine, as bedtime stories.

Lynn, like most writers, loved to read and she remembers her very first book, a collection of Grimm Fairy Tales with a hard blue cover given to her by her parents when she was very young. She read that book until the cover fell off and then had to be taped back on over and over again.

From the time Lynn was six years old, she walked along the dusty dunes of the river that ran next to her house in Petit Valley, Trinidad, making up stories in her head and often telling them out loud to herself. She began writing creatively at eight years old, starting with poetry. On the shelves of her mother’s bookcases were many books of poetry including books by Derek Walcott, and Kahil Gibran, which she tried to read.

At the age of nine, Lynn moved to the United States with her family, but continued to return to Trinidad for three months of summer each year. The world became divided into school (the States) and summer (Trinidad). Lynn wrote all the time, poems, short stories and entered school contests and published in school literary magazines and newspapers. She became an editor of her high school newspaper and later an editor on her college paper.

Lynn attended University of Colorado, Boulder and graduated from the Denver branch in 1986. She moved to New York City and immediately was hired to work at Harper & Row Publishers, now HarperCollins. It was heavenly to be surrounded by books all day long and to be paid to read manuscripts and to give her opinions on books.

Lynn went on to attend law school; she had drawn up a life plan at 15 years old that included being a published author by 25 and graduating with an advanced degree from some institution by 30. She did both and then was confounded as to what else to do with her life. Somehow, at 15, the age of 30 seemed so far away and unlikely that she couldn’t plan any further than that. After she published her first book, Coconut Kind of Day: Island Poems, Lynn went on to write short stories, A Wave in Her Pocket and The Mermaid’s Twin Sister, several picture books, and then a novel, The Color of My Words (HarperCollins, 2001).

Featured on Summer Edward’s Caribbean Children’s Literature blog and Anansesem literary magazine, The Color of My Words has been described as “evocative”, “lyrical”, “poetically structured, vividly imagined” (The Horn Book), and “achingly beautiful” (Kirkus Reviews). If you haven’t read The Color of My Words, Lynn Joseph’s words below offer a hint of the gorgeous story mosaics she constructs.

Lynn has two sons, Jared and Brandt, who read her manuscripts first before anyone else. Lynn worked as an attorney for the City of New York, where she was a trial lawyer. She currently works for a law firm in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Lynn loves writing more than anything else in the world. She also needs to live near the sea. She now resides in Long Beach, New York and doing what she loves most, writing and watching the ocean.

Why do you write? What inspired particular works — an image, a conversation, a person, a situation, etc.? Can you describe some surprises along the way of a story?

I write because I am supposed to write. It is my true purpose in this world and I have always known that since I was 8 years old. Before I went to law school and got married and had children, I wrote all the time and managed to publish 8 books. Then nothing . . . . I was living LIFE! Being a mother, an attorney, and always thinking in the back of my mind, one day, one day, I will get to the writing again. Well, my youngest of two sons is 16 now and I work from home as a lawyer, so now, at long last, I am truly writing again. And it helps that my 16-year-old son, Brandt, encourages me. And I figured, what better way to show him that following your dreams is what matters than by doing it myself. And I love it. I just finished a new manuscript for HarperCollins who published The Color of My Words and I am excited to be back!

As for what inspires my books — well, The Color of My Words and my new novel, The Flower Girl, are both set in the Dominican Republic or in Dominican communities and I would say that what inspires me is traveling and living in different countries and cultures. I realized that kids and teenagers are the same no matter where you go, they really are remarkably special in their curiosity and wonderment and once you can see that, it inspires characters and stories set in their world, but which embrace universal themes.

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?

Without planning it out, my writing process was the same for my new novel, The Flower Girl as it was for The Color of My Words. I wrote between midnight and 6 a.m. while drinking a pot of black tea (caffeine) with lemon and I was completely alone with my characters; no noises in the house, no one talking, or disturbing my immersion in this other world.

I also do a lot of research before and while writing. I research anything that is factual about a setting or a character’s hobbies. Either I try to experience it myself, or I read about it, or I interview people for their expertise. For my new book, The Flower Girl, the protagonist Nina grows orchids on her fire escape in Washington Heights, NY, so I went to Orchid Shows, and I researched online how to grow orchids and I also spoke to orchid fanatics, of which there are many! I even tried taking care of my own orchids, but . . .that didn’t go so well! The point is to live your story as much as you can, so that when you sit down to write it, it is real to you as the author: your characters are real, the setting is real, the music my characters enjoy, I listen to as well! For The Flower Girl, I not only went to Washington Heights and hung out with my Dominican friends, but I also went to see the Broadway show, In the Heights, and I read everything I could online about the neighborhood, the police presence, the public schools, the stores, etc.

There is nothing like that night quiet with a pot of black tea — the magic of story flows. What were the magical stories for 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?

Like most authors, I read all the time as a child and teenager, and, of course, I won’t go anywhere in the world without one or two books in my backpack or car. The idea of being caught somewhere without a book to read is horrific. And it has to be a real book, not something on a tiny phone where I can’t feel the essence of the words pouring into my soul. One summer when I was about 12 years old I decided to keep track of every book I read. I was in Trinidad, sitting on the cool tile floor of the steps, and I read book after book every day, until I had read 101 books in about 99 days. Most of the books were by the famous British children’s and YA author Enid Blynton. Enid Blynton, a truly prolific author, wrote the books that influenced me most, specifically her Famous Five and Secret Seven series and her Malory Towers series. I also borrowed all of the Hardy Boys books from our cute neighbor, Marcus. No one had the Nancy Drew books so I missed out on those.

I still find YA books the most interesting and I read them more than any other genre. I not only read the Twilight series before women my age were reading it but I read it twice!

Perhaps the most influential book was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, which I read at 16-years-old over Easer vacation. It is over 1100 pages long and it was wonderful to have an entire week to do nothing but read, read, read! That was when I knew that I wanted to be a writer. That book was also pivotal for my older brother Gerard who was 18 at the time and just finishing high school as a mediocre student. I was so excited about this book that I was jumping up and down telling him about it and he actually picked it up and read it. It changed his entire life. He went from disliking reading to finishing an 1100-page novel and then plunged headfirst into reading all kinds of books on philosophy. As a result, he went on to become a writer, actor and producer and owner of his own movie production company, a subsidiary of which is named after the leading character in Atlas Shrugged. The power and magic of books is immense!

It’s amazing, yes? The deepest insights into our joys can be drawn from story. What brings you joy?

My son, Brandt Scott. Brandt lives in the present moment only, yes with goals and hopes, but always in the present, and that is what makes him so joyous to be around. It is what I strive for myself, to live in the present moment. I enjoy nothing more than listening to him play jazz piano or play his guitar and sing, and when he learned my favorite song on the guitar and sang it for me on my birthday, I cried tears of joy. So, whether we are taking practice SAT tests, and going over the answers together, or riding bicycles through Copenhagen as we did last Summer, I’d have to say that living with Brandt fills my heart with pure joy.

Tell us about a favourite book you’ve read lately.

I am currently reading very slowly so that it won’t end, The Fire in His Mind, the biography of Joseph Campbell, the eminent mythologist, and author of books, such as The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and Masks of God. Campbell lived a remarkable life from 1904 to the 1980s and his journey could be summed up in three words, by which I try to live my own life: Follow your bliss! I highly recommend Campbell’s works on mythology as well as his biography for every creative soul. It is without comparison the most influential body of work I have encountered in my life. Reading The Fire in His Mind, I am learning more than I did as an English major in college! I am constantly jotting down books to read, ideas to pursue, and I even ordered online two old out of print books on the writing process, read by Campbell himself. As soon as I finish reading his biography I am going to start over again.

Thank you so much, Lynn! It’s been a pleasure.

Praise for The Color of My Words:

“In finely wrought chapters that at times read more like a collection of related short stories than a novel, Joseph (Jump Up Time) presents slices from the life of Ana Rosa just as she is about to turn 13. Through the heroine’s poetry and recollections, readers gain a rare intimate view of life in the Dominican Republic. Ana Rosa dreams of becoming a writer even though no one but the president writes books; she learns to dance the merengue by listening to the rhythms of her beloved ocean; and the love of her older brother, Guario, comforts her through many difficulties. The author’s portraits of Ana Rosa and her family are studies in spare language; the chapters often grow out of one central image — such as the gri gri tree where Ana Rosa keeps watch over her village and gets ideas for her writing — giving the novel the feel of an extended prose poem. The brevity of the chapters showcases Joseph’s gift for metaphoric language (e.g., her description of Ana Rosa’s first crush: “My dark eyes trailed him like a line of hot soot wherever he went”)…it’s a testimony to the power of Joseph’s writing that the developments readers will empathize with most are those of greatest importance to her winning heroine.”
-Publishers Weekly

“Joseph paints the world of Ana Rosa and her family in this gem of a novel. The girl dreams of being a writer, but knows that this is a very unusual wish in the Dominican Republic. Like her ever-drinking father, she is a dreamer, but like her Mami, who fears for her daughter’s safety if she writes, she learns that time is like the river that rushes by and never passes again. When the government tries to destroy the houses in the village to make room for foreign investors, Ana Rosa writes an article quoting her beloved older brother, Guario, and tries to get support for protecting their homes. Her article is distributed by three newspapers, but her words are not powerful enough to divert money, contracts, bulldozers, and guns. On her 13th birthday, the government troops arrive, shooting begins, and Guario is killed. Six months later, as a late birthday celebration, Ana Rosa receives a typewriter and hundreds of sheets of white paper. Now she has her brother’s story to tell and the words are filling up her head. Although Ana Rosa lives in a Caribbean country, readers everywhere will connect with her story, especially those who have dreams, disappointments, tragedy, environmental concerns, and a love of words and writing. Each chapter opens with a poem that sets the mood. A finely crafted novel, lovely and lyrical, this book is a unique addition to library shelves.”
–School Library Journal

Visit Lynn Joseph by the virtual sea.

Day 14: Ernest Hill

February 14, 2011

One day, we’ll probably actually get rid of the terms “boy” book, “black” book and other such tags that dictates who the reader should be. But until then, so that everyone is speaking the same language and so that gatekeepers get an idea of who the lowest hanging fruit audience is for a novel – the categories remain.

Ernest Hill has lent his talents to help fill the void in books available to African American teen boys.  His work is realistic and speaks to the sometimes harsh realities of what being young, male and Black is like.

The sequel to Hill’s, A Life For A Life, Family Ties follows main character D’Ray upon his release from jail.

A Life For A Life

D’Ray is 15 when a local drug dealer threatens to kill his younger brother unless he comes up with $100 within an hour. Panicked and desperate, D’Ray decides to hold up a convenience store. In the process, he kills another person, the teenage clerk who tries to foil the holdup. D’Ray escapes and makes a living as a pimp before he’s caught and sentenced to six years in jail. In jail he finds God and Mr. Henry, the father of the dead teenage clerk. Mr. Henry insists that D’Ray become a credit to his race and also be the replacement for his dead son, the one D’Ray killed.

Satisfied With Nothin’
Fifteen years after court imposed desegregation, Jamie Ray Griffin is among the first students at his Louisiana high school to integrate. Berated by many of his white classmates, Jamie channels his anger into football and lands a starring role. The brutal assault and lynching of his cousin prompts him to enroll in a black college in pursuit of a career in football. When an injury sidelines him for good and his grades slip beyond resurrection, Jamie returns to a low-paying job in his hometown and begins to confront the truth about himself.

The Buzz on Ernest Hill

“An exceptional literary piece that some readers will compare to Richard Wright’s Native Son.” Booklist on Satisfied with Nothin’

“A skilled storyteller.” New York Times Book Review