“Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
That’s a truth that Traci L. Jones knows first hand. It was the harshly delivered criticism of a college professor that nearly destroyed the lifelong love Traci had held for the written word as long as she could remember.
It’s also true that life begets life. After the birth of her first child, Traci’s literary passions were reawakened and she enrolled in a writing course at the University of Denver. According to Traci, “My love for writing returned with a vengeance and I haven’t quit writing yet.”
Traci was born in Monmouth, Illinois and raised in Denver, Colorado. She still resides in Denver with her husband and four children–in the very same home in which she was raised. In 2006, Traci won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award for her debut young adult title, Standing Against the Wind (FSG). Two well-received YA novels have followed: Finding My Place (FSG, 2010) and Silhouetted by the Blue (FSG, 2011). On Day 6, The Brown Bookshelf invites you to celebrate the inspirational words and story of author Traci L. Jones.
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From the beginning I was a reader. It wasn’t until I got a manual typewriter for Christmas, when I was ten, that I became a writer. Then it would be another thirty plus years before I became a published author. At first, I never thought about being an author. All through high school and college I wanted to work at an advertising agency and be a copywriter. Jingles that stuck in your head, slogans you wore on t-shirts? THAT was what I wanted to create. Not novels.
Unfortunately, in my very first English class, during my very first semester in college, I was told by one of my first college professors that I was a terrible writer. Rather than hold on to the compliments from teachers I had gotten in elementary, junior high and high schools, I chose to believe him. That’s the thing about being young; you too readily believe what is negatively said about you, rather than what is positively said about you. So, although it was my big dream to come up with a commercial jingle that people would find themselves singing, I stopped taking English classes and switched my major from English to Psychology. Later, I did work in advertising–not on the creative side as I had dreamed, but on the account management side, which I did for six years until I got married and became a stay-at-home mom.
One day I was flipping through the newspaper and stumbled upon an ad for a Creative Writing Certificate. It dawned on me that I had found what I hadn’t realized I’d been missing: writing. So I enrolled at the University of Denver’s creative writing program, and that empty part of my heart was suddenly filled. It was in one of my classes that I began writing my first book. It was an assignment which eventually blossomed into an award winning YA novel called Standing Against the Wind. From the instructor’s desk, to the slush pile at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, to a Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award…not bad for a simple classroom assignment.
The range of novelists that inspire me is far too wide and vast to even begin to name them all. Suffice it to say that whatever style of book I’m reading tends to seep into my novels. I was reading a Regency romance novel by Stephanie Laurens when I wrote Standing Against the Wind, which is why the lead male character in the book is very much a dashing hero figure, albeit one who is 13 years old and from the Chicago projects, rather than an adult English Duke from Cambridge.
While I wrote my second book, Finding My Place, I was reading grittier, darker YA novels from authors like Laurie Halse Anderson. Finding My Place started out a much darker novel with a far less happy ending before my editors pulled me back into the light.
As I wrote my third book, Silhouetted by the Blue, I was reading books that focused on family interactions, and how home environment effects characters in ways in which they are sometimes unaware.
I guess I’m like a literary sponge. What I read gets absorbed into my soul, and then gets squeezed out onto the page as I write. Generally, I love the voice of Christopher Paul Curtis, the storytelling of J. California Cooper and the characters of J.K. Rowling.
The Back Story
I have been very fortunate in my career not to have to shop around my books very much. I received a contract with Farrar, Straus & Giroux for my first novel, which led them to accepting my second, which ended with them accepting my third. My first FSG editor, Beverly Reingold, found my novel in her slush pile. She brought Finding My Place, but halfway through the editing process she left FSG and I finished that novel with Lisa Graff. Lisa purchased my third, Silhouetted by the Blue. Halfway through the editing process of Silhouetted Lisa left, and I finished the book with my third editor in 5 years.
Kirkus Reviews says, “The portrayal of Serena is strong, showing both her maturity in handling her family problems and her normal seventh-grade insecurities…A compassionate portrait of an African-American family coping with grief and mental illness.”
School Library Journal says, “Jones has done a magnificent job of describing someone who is clinically depressed.”
BCCB says, “Jones creates a convincing character in Serena…Readers will be immediately sympathetic to Serena’s plight and draw a sigh of relief when she finally gets the help she needs.”
Horn Book Magazine says, “Serena’s courage, perseverance, and hesitant relationships with friends, with Henry, and with new boyfriend Elijah make her a compelling character.”
Publishers Weekly says, “…[A] moving portrait of a girl forced by her mother’s death and her father’s incapacitating depression to accept adult household and child-raising responsibilities.”
The State of the Industry
As much as I love the publishing industry, I also find it can be quite disheartening. I read close to 100 books a year, and find the vast majority well written and fully developed. Yet those are not the books that get the attention of the media and make the deserving authors millions. Like the rest of our nation, even the book industry is celebrity obsessed. It seems that any actor or reality star is able to get not only a lucrative book deal, but invaluable media exposure to help promote their books.
I also think that the industry is color struck. What I mean by this is that often publishing firms seem to pigeon-hole authors of color. They seem to believe that we can only write for readers of color, and because of this assumed narrow segment of readers, it seems that editors further believe that readers of color only want books that focus on slavery, civil rights, or on the art of being ghetto fabulous. Characters must be in some sort of race based peril otherwise the book is somehow unmarketable. Books by authors of color in which race is not a focal point seem to be ignored. For instance, Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind was an incredibly moving and fascinating book which received none of the critical acclaim and attention it deserved. The same goes for If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson. While characters I write are always African-American, that shouldn’t automatically mean that the characters are poor, speak grammatically incorrectly, and don’t know their fathers. Or that the audience for my books is solely kids of color. Good books are good books and we African-American authors should also be given the book ends and prominent displays in all bookstores. Once we are allowed to write characters whose skin color is incidental to the universal theme about which we are writing, the industry will take a huge leap forward.
For more information on Traci L. Jones and her work, visit: