Day 28: Margaree King Mitchell

February 28, 2012

If you are at all familiar with the picture book genre, you’ve likely heard of Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, the much heralded, 1994 Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Margaree King Mitchell is the author of that still-popular title, as well as Granddaddy’s Gift (1996).

Her latest book, When Grandmama Sings, was released last month to wonderful reviews. As we wind down this year’s campaign, it is an honor to feature the words and work of Margaree King Mitchell.


The Journey

When my son was in kindergarten, his school had Grandparents Day.  Students could invite their grandparents to spend the whole day with them.  We lived in Memphis, TN at the time and my son’s grandmothers lived in Atlanta and Kansas City, so he had no one to invite to school.  When he arrived at school, not only had students brought their grandmothers, some had also brought their grandfathers.  When my son got home he was very sad.  “I don’t have any grandfathers,” he said.  I explained to him that both of his grandfathers had died before he was born.  But he didn’t understand.  Every day he came home from school sad because he had no grandfathers. I searched the public library for books that would show what life was like for his ancestors. I couldn’t find any.  Then I went to all the bookstores in town.  I still couldn’t find any.  Therefore, I decided to write the books myself.

I wanted the books to be set in the rural South because that is where I’m from.  I grew up on my grandfather’s farm in Holly Springs, Mississippi. I wanted each book to focus on an ordinary person who does extraordinary things for the time period in which they lived. I patterned the Uncle Jed character in my first book, UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP, after my grandfather.  My grandfather owned his own farm during a time of segregation and racial discrimination.  And he showed me that a person can rise above their surroundings and make their dreams come true.

I wanted to show the same things in my books.  As I was thinking about my first book, I remembered my grandfather telling me about a barber who went house to house cutting hair. I made Uncle Jed a barber because I wanted all children to identify with the character whether they lived in the city or a small town. By the time I began writing the book we had moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. One day my son’s first grade teacher asked me to help out with some of the kids in her class who were behind the other kids academically.   I started volunteering three days a week and worked with five students.  Those three days turned into four days, then five days.  I really cared about the students and wanted them to do well in school.  When the end of the school year came, I wondered what would become of students who had no one to believe in them.  Then I realized that the book I was writing to teach my son about his ancestors could also inspire children to dream big dreams for their lives.

After submitting my story for two years I received nothing but rejection letters.  However, they were personal rejection letters from editors telling me that they loved my story but it didn’t fit in with their publishing plans.  Finally, frustrated that those editors could love my story and not publish it, I decided to submit it directly to the publisher of Simon & Schuster.  Within a month I had a contract.

When UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP was published, I was asked to read the story during Story Time at the main branch of the Little Rock Public Library.  This was the first time kids other than my son had heard the story so I was anxious to see their reaction.  After I finished reading the book, parents who were fascinated by the historical aspects of the story dominated the question and answer period.  And I didn’t get any comments from children.  But as I was leaving a little girl was waiting for me by the door.  She said, “I liked your story about Uncle Jed.  I want to be a doctor when I grow up but my grandmama keeps telling me I’ll never be one.  Now I know I can be a doctor.”

I knew then I had achieved my goal in writing UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP.  Since that day I have received many letters from children all across the country telling me their dreams.   They also tell me who says they can’t achieve their dreams and why.  But because of Uncle Jed’s story, they now know they can be anything they want to be if they just don’t give up.


The Inspiration

I get ideas for my stories on my morning walks.  When my mind is quiet and I’m surrounded by nature ideas come to me.  If I’m stuck at a certain part in a story I put it aside until the next day.  I know that the next morning while I’m walking and appreciating nature the right solution will come.

I’m inspired by stories that are populated by families and friends, the stuff of life.  I especially love the books of Mildred D. Taylor, whose stories are inspired by her family and their experiences.   She heard about many of these stories at family gatherings in Mississippi.  Her book ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY, is set in 1933 Mississippi during the Great Depression and deals with racial injustice.  Her stories are filled with characters who find a way to right wrongs done to them.


The Back Story

My agent placed WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS with Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, a division of William Morrow and Company.  WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS was the third book she had placed with them.  However, before the first book came out, HarperCollins purchased William Morrow and Company.  Therefore, HarperCollins inherited all three books.   After a review of my books, it was decided that WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS would be published first.  So I have waited over ten years for WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS to be published.

However, during those ten years lots of great things happened with UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP.  They are too numerous to name.  I’ll just mention a few.  An award winning musical featuring Broadway veteran Ken Prymus has been adapted from UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP.  The most recent performances were in Denver last year.  Plans are being made to take it to additional theaters.

The Federal Reserve Bank has developed lesson plans using UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP to teach students about saving, savings goals, opportunity cost, and entrepreneurship.

The Library of Congress has developed a lesson plan connecting events in history to the story in UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP.


The Buzz

From School Library Journal:

Gr-2-4 – Set in the segregated South of the 1950s, Mitchell’s poignant story features eight-year old Belle and her loving, stalwart African-American family. When Grandmama, who can’t read but whose singing voice captures the hearts of all who hear her, joins a jazz band for a tour of the South, Belle pleads to go along. Thrilled to expand her world beyond Pecan Flats, MS, she experiences firsthand the difficulties her people face: hotels marked “White Only,” diners that refuse them service, police who search their cars and luggage for no reason. Through it all, Grandmama sings to growing crowds, believing in the power of music to bring people together. When, at the story’s end, a recording contract beckons her “up north,” Grandmama tells Belle to believe in herself and “sing her own song.” Ransome’s full-page images, rich in color and feeling, portray the landscape of the South and the individual emotions of the characters with equal aplomb. Placed in the past, the message is still relevant for children today.” (Barbara Elleman, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, MA

From Kirkus Reviews:

Belle joins her beloved grandmother, a jazz singer, on a summer tour of Southern towns and sees that segregation is everywhere—not just at home in Mississippi.

Holding tight to her uncle’s lucky rabbit’s foot, Belle watches as Grandmama and the musicians face the ugliness of Jim Crow in diners and theaters and on the road. In Alabama, the police dump their belongings on the roadside, a state’s welcome. She also listens as her grandmother shares her dreams for an integrated society and thrills to her resounding performance on stage in Atlanta, one that leads to an offer to make recordings for a company up North. It’s a moment that inspires Belle to dream, because “the promise of her song helped me believe in myself.” As in Uncle Jed’s Barbershop (1993), for which Ransome won a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor, Mitchell has crafted another compelling story of an African-American family both strong and determined despite the all-powerful clamp of racism. Ransome uses watercolors in warm tones of yellows and browns to reveal nuances of expression and the warmth of family and community.

A gentle story that shows the everyday realities of segregation through the observant eye of a child. (Picture book. 5-9)

From Publishers Weekly:

“Mitchell and Ransome, the team behind Coretta Scott King Honor–winner Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, reunite for another story set in the early 20th century, in which intimate family relationships are set against a backdrop of racial segregation. Eight-year-old narrator Belle lives with her parents and Grandmama in the fictional town of Pecan Flats, Miss. Grandmama’s singing voice has earned her local fame, and when a man offers to “book her and a band on a small singing tour of the South,” she agrees, bringing Belle along for the ride. Written in the past tense, Belle’s narration has an elegiac quality, but while the band encounters plenty of discrimination on the road, triumphs outweigh setbacks (and Grandmama doesn’t come to any serious harm). Ransome’s lovely, naturalistic watercolors draw out a wealth of emotions from the characters, particularly Grandmama, whose expressions range from weariness to passion while she’s singing, and determination, such as when she slams money on the counter of a restaurant that won’t serve them. It’s a stirring reminder that it’s never too late to chase one’s dreams, no matter the obstacles. Ages 5–9. (Jan.)”

From The Horn Book:

From the author and the illustrator of Uncle Jed’s Barbershop (rev. 11/93) comes another picture book about life in the segregated South. The narrator recounts her grandmother’s story—she couldn’t read but “always had a song to sing”—which centers on Grandmama’s singing tour with her eight-year-old granddaughter there to keenly observe everything. Grandmama and her musicians initially draw small crowds, and Belle nervously points out the “whites only” signs wherever they go, but Grandmama is undeterred. Gradually word spreads about Grandmama’s talent as the tour continues, but the group still must contend with suspicion from Alabama police. The narration is calm and matter-of-fact, like Grandmama, who remains focused on what’s right, while in contrast Ransome’s paintings show the shame, sadness, and anger the characters feel. Mitchell’s latest picture book gives modern-day children a realistic depiction of the small humiliations and frightening moments African American travelers went through in their daily lives during the Jim Crow era, and it makes an excellent book for discussion. susan dove lempke

From Elizabeth Bird’s Librarian Preview:

Remember Uncle Jed’s Barbershop by Margaree King Mitchell, and illustrated by James Ransome?  I sure as heck do because that book ends up on a lot of school lists of required reading.  Well, that book came out in 1993 and is still in print to this day.  Now Mitchell and Ransome have reunited at long last in When Grandmama Sings.  In this picture book (historical) a girl can read and her grandma can’t.  When her grandmother’s singing gives her a chance to go on tour she does so with her granddaughter.  The trouble?  They’re touring the segregated south.  This is a book that covers both a meaningful relationship and history.  A good companion to last year’s The Green Book by Calvin Ramsey and Floyd Cooper, don’t you think?


The State of the Industry

Publishers should remember that there is a whole market of underserved readers who are interested in stories of the South and other stories featuring the African American experience.     There are a myriad of stories about African American life waiting to be told but if traditional publishers are not interested in these stories the literary record will be incomplete. The South is filled with rich history of how African Americans overcame racial obstacles to not only survive but thrive and be successful under unbearable conditions.  This is why ordinary people are at the center of my stories. By telling those stories students will realize that they, too, can make a difference in the world.

Regardless of how well previous books by authors of color are received, there is still someone who says no one will read your book.  Or the book has to be about a famous African American.  Or the person reading the story has no grasp of history and doesn’t believe that ordinary African Americans could be resourceful and create their own destiny.  Therefore, it is hard for new books to be published.  And it will continue to be so unless there is an advocate in publishing companies who is committed to being sure that all stories are told.

Day 27: Elizabeth Zunon

February 27, 2012

Elizabeth Zunon was born in Albany, NY and grew up in the Ivory Coast in West Africa (Cote d’Ivoire). Her artwork reflects the people, places, and things from the cultures of her childhood.

A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Elizabeth has illustrated four picture books for children with several more on the horizon.

Today Zunon talks about her journey. And this is a treat!

By Elizabeth Zunon

The Journey 

Picture books have always been a feature throughout my life. I grew up in French-speaking Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) West Africa. Being a product of a bi-lingual family, my mother often read English-language bedtime stories to my little brother and me, and our bookshelves were filled with African, French, and American picture books. The excitement I felt (as a child and as an adult), finding a book in an American bookstore or library that I had been read or owned while living in Africa was (and still is)  exhilarating!

It was no surprise then, as I realized that making pictures could be something one could do for a living, that I decided to pursue children’s book illustration when I attended the Rhode Island School of Design. I toiled in my studio for hours on end, creating stories and projects that drew from memories of my childhood in the Ivory Coast. Obsessed with depicting scenes from home, trying to relay to my classmates and professors foreign and familiar ideas about the world which I grew up in.

After graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 2006, I moved to Jersey City, NJ and started working in a flower kiosk in Bryant Park in New York. It was a green oasis in the middle of a busy, crowded, noisy city where people could take the time to sit, rest and contemplate. I had a lot of time alone in the flower kiosk among the potted orchids, hydrangeas and irises, to sit and contemplate myself. I filled up my sketchbook with drawings of people in the park, notes about clandestine conversations I overheard, and story ideas for potential books I could create. I met a lot of people and had many unexpected conversations with passers-by that I probably wouldn’t have just walking down the street.

The park was a great space for an artist’s mind to absorb sights, smells, sounds… and to generally be inspired.

During my time in New York City, I attended various Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) meetings and events where I met authors, illustrators, editors, publishers and agents. I spent my evenings after work researching publishing houses and their portfolio submissions, worked on my own painting projects on the weekends to add new pieces to my portfolio and did some portfolio drop-offs at various houses in New York (collecting rejection letters along the way). I met my agent, Lori Nowicki (Painted Words) during an illustrator-agent critique session at the Society of Illustrators. She offered to work with me and help me get “real” (paid!)  illustration jobs. Soon after she took me on, the contract for My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey came along! It was my first illustration contract, and it was published in September 2010.

The Inspiration 

My favorite author/illustrator is Ezra Jack Keats. I loved the book The Snowy Day as a little girl; mostly because the idea of putting on a snowsuit and playing outside in mounds of snow was very exotic to me at the time, living in tropical Africa (I took the palm trees swaying in the hot sun for granted until I was a teenager living in upstate New York). The various textures and colors that Keats used in his books inspired my way of working when I graduated from design school. A seamless combination of printed paper, colored paper and painting is what I strive to create today. I love pattern. I’ve started experimenting recently with stamping and silkscreening – so much fun! And addictive!

Vera B. Williams is another one of my favorite author/illustrators. As a child, I saw aspects of myself in Bidemmi, the main character in her book Cherries and Cherry Pits: “… Bidemmi loves to draw… She always tries a new marker right away… The green, the pink, the red, the purple, the brown, the black, and all the others.” She was just like me! I love the carefree  marker and watercolor style of Williams’ illustrations. I also think that this book got my mind simmering on the idea of “drawing stories” and the importance of the reader identifying with a character.

In the last illustration for My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey, I painted a little Bearden running across the page, leaving blue footprints in his own painting. This is a nod to my favorite Keats and Williams book characters.

I also love the work of illustrator Kadir Nelson. The gracefulness and sumptuousness of  his oil painted portraits is unparallelled. There is a mature quality in his paintings that I think should be seen more in children’s books. Why shouldn’t books we buy for our children consist of exquisitely executed oil paintings? They deserve it! The symmetry and balance in his illustrations makes them seem majestic- and you just can’t stop staring! Nelson’s use of light, especially highlights on dark skin, make his figures glow, sing, live.

All of the books and stories I most identify with feature characters of different colors and origins. This reflects the world we live in, which I think is very important to represent to children.

Outside of the children’s book world, I would have to say that the lyrics of Bill Withers’ songs are a great inspiration to me. The beautiful simplicity with which he communicates feelings and describes imagery is something I look to often when thinking about writing my own stories.

The Back Story 

I was lucky enough to be considered as the illustrator for The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind last year. The manuscript arrived on my desk just as I was finishing up the paintings for Lala Salama: A Tanzanian Lullaby. I felt very proud, as an African, to actually be illustrating a true-life story of innovation and ambition by another African. As the deadlines for his book were very tight, I immediately set to work researching the boy; William Kamkwamba, and his life.

One of my favorite parts of exploring a new story is posing as the characters  and taking lots of reference photos that I will draw and paint from to create the final illustrations.

William collected odds and ends of metal, rubber, rope and such from his local scrapyard and from around his home to build a working windmill. This windmill changed wind into electricity, which William  then used to light his house and ultimately help irrigate his family’s fields during a horrible drought.

I wanted to emulate William’s process of searching and gathering, so I scrounged my house for odds and ends that I could use in the illustrations for his book.

Photos I took of bottle-caps, nails, screws and lightbulbs I found all made it into the illustrations, as well as lots of pieces of paper from my (always growing) collection. Gathering and putting all these different pieces together was a thrill!

The Buzz for The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

The true story of a Malawian teenager who leveraged need and library research into a windmill constructed from found materials.

Forced by drought and famine to drop out of school, William dreams of “building things and taking them apart.” Inspired by science books in an American-built library near his village, his dreams turn to creating “electric wind.” Despite the doubts of others he begins—assembling discarded bicycle parts and other junk into a rickety tower, triumphantly powering an electric light and going on to dream of windmill-driven wells to water the land. Kamkwamba tells this version (another, for adult readers, was published with the same title in 2009) of his tale of inspiration meeting perspiration in terse, stately third person: “He closed his eyes and saw a windmill outside his home, pulling electricity from the breeze and bringing light to the dark valley.” Zunon illustrates it handsomely, with contrasting cut-paper-collage details arranged on brown figures, and broad, sere landscapes painted in visibly textured oils.

A plainspoken but inspiring tale of homespun ingenuity. (afterword) (Picture book/biography. 7-9)

-Kirkus Review

Zunon’s (My Hands Sing the Blues) oil paint and cut-paper collages amplify the entwined themes of science and magic in this adaptation of the authors’ 2009 adult book. Kamkwamba was born in Malawi in 1987, and when he was 14, drought was ravaging his country. Forced to leave school to save money, Kamkwamba studied science books at the library, learning about windmills—and their potential. “He closed his eyes and saw a windmill outside his home, pulling electricity from the breeze and bringing light to the dark valley.” Gathering materials from the junkyard, he assembles a windmill that creates “electric wind” and even lights a light bulb. Tradition and “tales of magic” combine with the promise of technology in this inspiring story of curiosity and ingenuity. Zunon’s artwork combines naturalistic and more whimsical elements; the African sun beats down on Zunon’s villagers, ribbony “ghost dancers” encircle Kamkwamba’s bed while he sleeps, and blue cut-paper swirls sweep toward the windmill. While the narrative simplifies Kamkwamba’s creative process, an afterword provides additional detail for readers who share his mechanical inclinations. Ages 6–8. Agent: ICM. Illustrator’s agent: Painted Words. (Jan.)

– Publisher’s Weekly

Based on the best seller of the same title, this picture-book biography chronicles Kamkwamba’s teen years in a Malawian village. As he tills the soil, his mind teems with a mix of mechanical questions and the magical stories relayed by his elders. When a drought destroys the crops, his education fund dries up as well. Kamkwamba seeks refuge in the American-built library, where, dictionary in hand, he decodes the function of a windmill that has captured his interest. Despite the murmurings of incredulous villagers, the young man assembles junkyard scraps to build “electric wind.” The third-person descriptions and dialogue are flavored with African phrases. Zunon’s compositions, rendered in cut paper and oils, create a variety of moods. Colorfully garbed ghost dancers populate the boy’s dreams, while crumpled tan rice paper, arranged to depict a high horizon line just beneath a blazing sun, forms a parched landscape, overwhelming in scale. Swirls of patterned blue and green paper portray the wind that propels the blades of his creation. While an extensive author’s note explains that it took several years to achieve the ability to irrigate, the lack of clear visuals to show how wind becomes electricity (and ultimately pumps water) may frustrate young children. That caveat aside, this is a dynamic portrait of a young person whose connection to the land, concern for his community, and drive to solve problems offer an inspiring model. It would pair well with one of the recent titles about Wangari Maathai.-Wendy Lukehart, Washington DC Public Library.

– School Library Journal

(website with video)

Day 26: Alice Faye Duncan

February 26, 2012

Alice Faye Duncan is a National Board Certified Library Media Specialist with 19 years of school librarian experience. Surrounded by stacks and shelves of books, writing for children seemed like the next logical step in her career. And she certainly knows how to capture the attention of her readers. The award winning Memphis, TN native has written five books: Willie Jerome; Miss Viola and Uncle Ed Lee; The National Civil Rights Museum Celebrates Everyday People; Christmas Soup; and HONEY BABY SUGAR CHILD. In high school, Alice read two books that changed her life. “To Be Young Gifted and Black by Lorraine Hansberry helped me fall in love with myself.  Toni Cade’s Bambara’s Gorilla My Love made me fall in love with words.” Alice believes everyone has a story to tell and if you’re an aspiring writer who wants to write that story, “Feel free to scream and cry about the writing process. But whatever you do, DON’T GIVE UP!” Alice doesn’t and is currently working on a picture book about blues great, B.B. King.

Today the 26th day of our annual 28 Days Later campaign, we’re honoring Alice Faye Duncan for her writing successes and her contributions to the world of children’s publishing.


The Journey

In 1991 I graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville with a degree in Library Science.  During my studies at UT, I took a couple of classes in children’s literature.  I tried writing a picture book during that time but was completely unsuccessful.  While working for the Memphis Public Library I took another children’s literature class from Mrs. Ramona Mahood at the University o fMemphis.  She was an inspiring teacher who allowed me to write a picture book for my graduate project.  That manuscript was WILLIE JEROME which became my first publication with Simon and Schuster in 1995. Tyrone Geter was the illustrator. I have not stopped writing since that time.

The Inspiration

My mother was an elementary school teacher who kept every college book she ever purchased.  Our house was filled with bookshelves and as an only child, who often rambled through the shelves for something to read, I found three favorite poets at a very early age.  They were Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou.  I loved them when I was ten years old and I love them now at forty. In terms of fine artists who inspire me, I plan to rob a bank so that I can purchase a painting by Kadir Nelson and a sculpture by Vinnie Bagwell.  Here in the city ofMemphis, I collect work by local African American artists such as Frank D. Robinson, Morris Howard, Darlene Newman and Carl Moore.  I can’t draw a stick!  However, art is my muse and my addiction. In fact, when I am short on inspiration I seek out, art museums or documentaries about artists. I recently viewed Radiant Child which is about the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat.  His work came across simplistic but it was most thoughtful and well planned, just like a great picture book.

The Back Story

My most recent book is HONEY BABY SUGAR CHILD.  It is a mother’s love song to her young child.  I hear that my book is a very popular gift at baby showers and birthday parties for preschoolers.  HONEY BABY SUGAR CHILD is presently in its 6th printing.  Its publication was somewhat circuitous. In 1999 I sent the manuscript to my editor at Simon and Schuster who left the company shortly after receiving it.  The new editor found it tucked away in the old editor’s drawer.  He liked it and offered me a contract.  An original publication date was set and changed. Finally, HONEY BABY SUGAR CHILD was released in 2005 and it remains in print.





The Buzz

In 2006, HONEY BABY SUGAR CHILD received an NAACP Image Award Nomination for Outstanding Literary Work for Children.

The State of the Industry

I did not choose writing.  It chose me.  However, what I write does not frequently excite my agent or major publishing houses.  For periods in my career this type of rejection has made me doubt my talent.  However, I recently had a new revelation. Yes, self-publishing is hard as heck.  But there are times when a burning manuscript will not be denied and you must publish it, yourself.  Religious folks might compare this to a Jeremiah experience.  It’s like fire in your bones.  Though the powers that be say, “No, that’s not it,” your soul says otherwise. On my own, I recently published, THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT—a Puzzle Book for Children. Within three months, I have sold 3,000 copies through school visits, social networking and my presence on the Web. They have not been easy sells.  However, my soul is satisfied.

Find out more about Alice Faye Duncan by visiting her website at

Day 25: Malorie Blackman

February 25, 2012

Award-winning author Malorie Blackman seems to have done it all and won it all — she’s the recipient of the FCBG Children’s Book Award, Fantastic Fiction Award, Lancashire Children’s Book of the Year, Sheffield Children’s Book of the Year — and those are just some of the awards she’s won for her groundbreaking NOUGHTS & CROSSES series. Set in a fictional dystopia, NOUGHTS & CROSSES is science fiction with action and depth, exploring love, racism, violence and more. The series is complex, offering no easy answers. When describing the inspiration for the title, Blackman said that noughts and crosses is “…one of those games that nobody ever plays after childhood, because nobody ever wins…”

Ms. Blackman’s first book, NOT SO STUPID! was published in 1990; since then she’s written over 50 books for children of all ages, including Pig-Heart Boy which was made into a BAFTA winning serial, Hacker and Whizziwig among others. An accomplished playwright and television writer, Blackman is a graduate of the National Film and Television School, and divides her time between book and script writing. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write poems and short stories,” she’s said. “I’ve always been as interested in imaginative flights of fantasy as well as reality.”

Born in London, Ms. Blackman was always an avid reader, and was partly inspired to write by the memory of her own childhood, her times searching the library in vain for ordinary stories with a black central character. “I wanted to show black children just getting on with their lives, having adventures, and solving their dilemmas, like the characters in all the books I read as a child,” she has said. In an Webchat on Mumsnet, Ms. Blackman spoke more about her love of children’s literature: “As I love strong, challenging stories, I think the best place to find those on a regular basis is in books for children/young adults. I don’t know of any children’s writer who writes on controversial topics merely to be exploitative or gratuitous and I have read books for adults which have turned my stomach, quite frankly. But there’s usually an element of hope in children’s books which appeals to me.”

Malorie Blackman’s latest published work, BOYS DON’T CRY was published in 2010, and described in The Independent as a book that “shows her writing at its best, creating characters and a story which, once read, will not easily go away.”

You’re waiting for the postman – he’s bringing your A level results. University, a career as a journalist – a glittering future lies ahead. But when the doorbell rings it’s your old girlfriend; and she’s carrying a baby. You’re fine to look after it, for an hour or two, while she does some shopping. Then she doesn’t come back and your future suddenly looks very different…

Watch the BOYS DON’T CRY trailer:

Listen to Malorie Blackman in conversation about the NOUGHTS & CROSSES series with the Scottish Book Trust,and on The Guardian podcast, discussing her work and writing from the POV of a teenage father.

For more about Malorie Blackman, visit her website.

Day 24: Sofia Quintero

February 24, 2012

A writer. An activist. An educator. A comedienne. The author of works of contemporary fiction like THE MORE THINGS CHANGE and DIVAS DON’T YIELD is also known to readers as “Black Artemis”, the author of several novels of “Feminist Hip-Hop Noir”, including PICTURE ME ROLLIN’. This self-proclaimed “Ivy-League homegirl” graduated from Columbia University with a BA in history-sociology and an MPA from its School of International and Public Affairs, then started a career as a policy analyst and advocate, and worked for various nonprofit organizations and government agencies including the Vera Institute of Justice, Hispanic AIDS Forum, and the New York City Independent Budget Office. All this, and a YA novel too. Sofia Quintero is not playing around.

With her YA debut, EFRAIN’S SECRET (KNOPF, 2010), Ms. Quintero tells the poignant and powerful story of Efrain Rodriguez, a South Bronx honor student who is desperate to realize his dream of going to an Ivy League college — and does something he’d never imagined he’d do as a result. Publishers Weekly, in a starred review (one of several), called EFRAIN’S SECRET “…an in-your-face YA debut, a passionate polemic on racial politics in urban America.” In an interview with She Writes, Ms. Quintero notes that “…writing for young people has actually made me a better craftsperson. The limitations, length, language, etc. forced me to be more imaginative.”
Ms. Quintero describes herself and her work as “unapologetically feminist”, and as such, made deliberate choices when writing EFRAIN’S SECRET. From She Writes: “I have come to believe that part of the feminist movement must include reenvisioning masculinity for boys and men, and my particular concern is with boys of color and working-class boys. Our society tells boys of a certain socioeconomic background, ‘These are the things that make a man,’ only to use racism and classism to block those paths to manhood.”

But wait, there’s more.

From her bio: “Sofia co-founded Chica Luna Productions to identify, develop and support other women of color seeking to make socially conscious entertainment. Among other projects, Chica Luna launched The F-Word and the Popular Media Justice Tookit. The F-Word is a comprehensive filmmaking institute for women of color based in East Harlem in New York City while the Toolkit is a collection of resources that deconstructs images of women of color in popular films from SET IT OFF to I LIKE IT LIKE THAT.

Sofia is also a social entrepreneur and cultural activist devoted to elevating the quality of entertainment both through her personal initiatives and business ventures. With her business partner Elisha Miranda, she founded Sister Outsider Entertainment, a multimedia production company that is developing several projects for television, film and stage including the upcoming Internet series SANGRIA STREET. SOE also co-created CONSCIOUS WOMEN ROCK THE PAGE with Marcella Runell Hall and Jennifer Jlove Calderon. CONSCIOUS WOMEN is a cutting-edge multidisciplinary curriculum that enables socially conscious educators to introduce feminist hip hop fiction into their learning environments and use it to incite social change among their students.”

We can’t wait to see what’s next!

For more from Sofia Quintero on EFRAIN’S SECRET, check out this interview at A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy.

Day 23: Teresa E. Harris

February 23, 2012

Teresa E. Harris counts Katherine Paterson, Mildred Taylor, R.L. Stine and Judy Blume among her best loved children’s book authors.  Now, she’s creating books destined to become favorites herself.

With pointy high heels, a blazer and loads of sass, her elementary school character Summer Jackson struts out of the pages and into our hearts. In this interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith, Harris says that she was inspired to make children’s literature her career focus as she considered the books that left a lasting impact: “When I look back on my life, it seems that the books that had the most effect on me were the books I read when I was young.”

Praised for its humor and spunky characterization, Summer Jackson: Grown Up, illustrated by AG Ford and published by HarperCollins, is a great start for an exciting new voice.

We’re happy to celebrate author Teresa E. Harris on Day 23 of our campaign:

The Journey

My journey began to publishing began at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I received my masters of writing for children there in 2007, and it is not an overstatement to say the faculty there taught me everything I know. I worked with some of the best in the biz—Jacqueline Woodson, Rita Williams-Garcia, Margaret Bechard, and David Gifaldi. I also met my literary agent at a writer’s retreat at Vermont College, the incomparable Sarah Davies of Greenhouse Literary. Sarah sold my first novel—tentatively titled Treasure in the Past Tense—to Clarion Books. It will pub some time in the near future—I’m working on revisions right now. Sarah also helped me to sell my picture book Summer Jackson: Grown Up to HarperCollins, and I imagine her involved in my writing life until the day one of us dies—she is that awesome.

The Inspiration

When I sat down to write the manuscript for Summer Jackson: Grown Up, I read more picture books than I ever had before, and developed a (somewhat obsessive) love for Kevin Henkes and Mo Willems—I live for their deliciously naughty characters, and I tried to infuse Summer with a little delicious naughtiness of her own.

The Back Story

I sold Summer Jackson: Grown Up, fittingly, in the summer of 2009. While an editorial assistant at Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, my boss Katherine, ever committed to diversity in children’s literature, wanted badly to publish a commercial picture book featuring an African-American girl. The catch: She didn’t want the focus of this book to be on the character’s race. But first, we needed this character. Enter New York Times bestselling author AG Ford, who sent us an illustration of the most adorable little girl, pink-clad and with ponytail and attitude to spare. When I left Harper the summer of 2009, Katherine said to me, “Why don’t you try giving this little girl a voice and a name?” I did. And that’s how Summer Jackson came to be.

The Buzz

Summer Jackson: Grown Up has received favorable reviews from Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, The Horn Book, and Publishers Weekly:

“With a little bit of sparkle and a whole lot of sass, Summer will be right at home with any young girl eager to enter the work world.”

— Kirkus

“Summer Jackson’s parents have always told her that she can be anything she wants when she grows up. The problem is, the seven-year-old does not want to have to wait until then. “From now on, I will wear very high heels with very pointy toes. And maybe a blazer. I’ll get a cell phone. It will ring all the time.” Summer imagines all of the important things she will begin doing, such as making a to-do list, reading the newspaper over breakfast, and becoming a consultant. But when she meets with several of her clients (fellow schoolmates), and begins to charge them for her services, she runs into a bit of trouble with Principal Cutter, who calls her parents. When they talk things over, her parents agree to let Summer take over the adult responsibilities, which frees them to have some fun. All too soon, the child realizes that being a grown-up is not all its cracked up to be. Ford’s charming and humorous cartoon illustrations are liberally sprinkled throughout the book, ranging from three pictures on a page to full-page images . . . ”

— School Library Journal

The State of the Industry

I’ve seen the industry from so many different angles: from the editorial side, the author side, and the librarian side—I worked as a children’s library assistant for a year and a half—and I know how hard it is to get a book on all kinds of shelves these days. Harder than it ever was, perhaps, especially for little books that don’t involve teenage girls falling in love with supernatural creatures, or teenage girls falling in love while navigating a poorly-constructed dystopian world. But there are undeniably some great books being published, overdone trends aside, and I’m as excited about the industry as I ever was, though I’m too much of a realist not to acknowledge that my path as an author may be full of more lows than highs, but there is not another career I would rather pursue. Even at its worst (bad Goodreads reviews, anyone?), writing for children and writers for children continue to excite, motivate, and inspire me.

Find out more about Teresa E. Harris here.

Day 22: Sharon Robinson

February 22, 2012

Photo Credit: John Vecchiolla

If Sharon Robinson hasn’t done it all, she’s certainly made sizable progress.

Robinson began with a 20-year career as a nurse midwife and educator, teaching at universities such as Howard, Yale, Columbia, and Georgetown. She directed the PUSH for Excellence program, founded by Jesse Jackson, from 1985 to 1990. She worked as a fund-raiser for both The United Negro College Fund and A Better Chance organizations.

Robinson is currently Vice Chairman of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and serves on numerous boards: the Roberto Clemente Sports City Complex in Carolina, Puerto Rico; Metropolitan Opera; Urban America; and Omnicom Diversity Committee. She is also an educational consultant for Major League Baseball, where she oversees school and community-based educational programs. And she has written several delightful stories for children, including the middle grade titles, Promises to Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America, Safe at Home and Slam Dunk!


On Day 22, we welcome the remarkable Sharon Robinson.


The Journey

My journey into the world of children’s book publishing started with a childhood love for books…and a locked diary. That love for books and writing grew in my adult years. My first publications were professional. While on the nurse-midwifery faculty at Georgetown University, we published a women’s health text book.

My first major market book was a memoir which took me years to write, and equally long to get published. I started writing that book with a pen and a legal pad. I didn’t even know how to use a computer. After filling several legal pads, I bought my first computer and launched a writing career.

1997 was a pivotal year: My son graduated from high school. My memoir was published. I retired from a twenty-year career as a nurse-midwife, and launched a new career (and educational program) with Major League Baseball. A passion for children’s publishing began with the Breaking Barriers program and a partnership with Scholastic. My first children’s book, Jackie’s Nine, was released in 2001. Ten years later, I’ve now published seven children’s fiction and nonfiction books. A couple more are in various stages of publication. I carry several in my head at all times.


The Inspiration

My inspirations are fluid. I spend a lot of time in schools and listen intently to the conversations of young children everywhere I go. My granddaughter, Jessica, was born last year. She’s my latest inspiration.  You can expect a whole series of books for little girls out of me in the coming years!

My father’s story has inspired several books. I have my favorites:  Promises To Keep:  How Jackie Robinson Changed America (Scholastic) and Testing the Ice: A true story about Jackie Robinson (Scholastic).  While they were both labors of love, Testing the Ice tops the charts. It’s all because of Kadir Nelson.

Kadir and I went into Scholastic as a team. Over the years, we had worked together on smaller projects and spent lots of time chatting during various joint book signings. I was determined that Kadir illustrate Testing the Ice.  It’s a powerful story, one I felt totally comfortable being in Kadir’s hands. I’m always blown away by Kadir’s art. My mother and I were speechless at the unveiling of the artwork.


The Back Story

My most recent publication is Jackie’s Gift with EB Lewis.  I met EB at a children’s book festival in Connecticut.  After meeting me, he told me that he’d read my father had given a Jewish kid a Christmas tree. He asked me if the story was true, and said that it would be a great children’s book.  The next I did the research, searching for layers to the story behind a favorite childhood family tale. Two years later, Jackie’s Gift was published.




“This fond daughter’s reminiscence is a welcome addition to the life story of one of America’s best-known athletes and civil-rights advocates.”

 Publishers Weekly

“Nelson…contributes sumptuous, cinematic paintings that immerse readers in every scene, whether it’s an eye-to-eye meeting with Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey or an idyllic summer afternoon at the family home. Readers will close the book understanding that there are many ways to be hero—and Robinson had all the bases covered.”

New York Times Book Review

“Jackie Robinson’s daughter builds a charming story around a childhood memory…Nelson’s close-ups expertly provides suspense…With the basics of his biography efficiently woven in, this is a lovely introduction to a baseball legend.”

The Chicago Tribune

“Nelson’s illustrations are intensely dramatic…Robinson ripples in action across the double-paged spreads. His courage appears before us in pictures and words. The story will be moving to parents and to children.”



Booklist, starred review

“There are numerous biographies about Robinson available for young people, but none have this book’s advantage of family intimacy. In a personal account, Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, describes her father’s youth, his rise to become major-league baseball’s first African American player, and his involvement in the civil rights movement. Sharon Robinson is an education executive for major-league baseball, and she writes about the sport and her father’s life with the same immediate familiarity. It’s her seamless blend of history and family story, though, that distinguishes this title. Through particular events in her father’s life, the author makes the realities of a segregated society immediate: when her father first showed up for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ spring training, for example, he was housed and fed separately from his white teammates. She also includes photographs of racially motivated death threats sent to the Robinson home. Robinson’s emphasis on her parents’ strong values reiterates some of the material in her previous title for youth, Jackie’s Nine (2001), but her private view of her father’s accomplishments, placed within the context of American sports and social history, makes for absorbing reading. An excellent selection of family and team photographs and other materials, including her parents’ love letters in their own handwriting, illustrate this fine tribute.”

School Library Journal

“In captivating words and pictures, Robinson chronicles the life of her legendary father. She weaves historical events into the story of one of baseball’s greatest players, revealing how they shaped his life. Her text, combined with numerous black-and-white archival and family photographs, reproductions of newspaper headlines, magazine pages, and letters, illustrates Jackie Robinson’s journey from childhood to the moment that he integrated major league baseball to his life as a businessman and civil rights spokesperson. In addition to personal details, this intimate biographical sketch and authentic glimpse into the life of a great African American provides information on the post-Civil War world, race relations, and the struggle for civil rights. It will inspire readers and enhance character-education units. Pair this first purchase with the author’s Jackie’s Nine: Jackie Robinson’s Values to Live By (Scholastic, 2001).


The State of the Industry

Thankfully, parents and grandparents want their children to experience actual books! As the industry changes, I expect children and their parents will adapt to the ebook world while continuing to embrace books.

Authors of color are still challenged to get their work out there, but I remember the days when the selection was grossly limited.  We have to be creative.  That’s why The Brown Bookshelf is so important!