When we first spotlighted Zetta Elliott during our 2009 28 Days Later Campaign, we were celebrating the release Bird (Lee and Low, 2008), her picture book with illustrator Shadra Strickland. A critical darling, Bird received a number of accolades, including winning a Lee and Low New Voices Honor Award, receiving a Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent in Illustrations, and being placed on the ALA Notable Children’s Book List. Please welcome Zetta Elliott back to The Brown Bookshelf as she discusses her journey, her inspiration, and her latest works, including The Deep, just released in November 2013.
The Journey: I’ve been writing seriously since I was a teenager, though it took me a long time to publicly claim the title of writer. I finished my first adult novel in 1999 but couldn’t find a publisher so I started writing for kids. In 2005 I won the New Voices Honor Award from Lee & Low and my first picture book Bird was published in 2008. When I couldn’t sell any of my other manuscripts, I started my own press and self-published A Wish After Midnight in 2008; it was acquired by Amazon’s new publishing company the following year and rereleased in 2010. My second fantasy novel, Ship of Souls, was also published by them in 2012.
The Back Story: My first two novels were published by AmazonEncore and I was happy with that team; they didn’t offer an advance but had an “author first” policy that I loved and a quick turnaround time. When Amazon started its new YA imprint Skyscape, my titles were transferred to a new team that operates more like a traditional press. They continue to promote my novels here in the US and in the UK and Germany. But they wanted to release The Deep in 2015 and I wasn’t willing to wait that long so I opted instead to self-publish. I have so much unpublished material that I could easily publish a book a year for the next decade—but only if I do it myself. The Deep is part of my “freaks & geeks” trilogy, so I want to make sure readers aren’t left hanging. The third book, The Return, should be out by August 2014.
The Inspiration: Octavia Butler was the first Black speculative fiction writer I encountered; her prose is quite plain but her stories are always riveting. I’ve tried over the past ten years to focus more on developing my storytelling skills and less on “technical virtuosity” (I love when readers say, “That book was a real page turner!”). Writing plays for several years taught me to create compelling dialogue and since I’m trying to reach reluctant readers, pacing and length matter a lot. I want to write books that excite kids without being intimidating.
I often listen to Emeli Sandé and I once heard her say in an interview that she felt the people attending her concerts were outsiders; she was happy that her music served as a vehicle for creating community among people who often felt alone. I identify with that idea—I love that more and more Black people are openly identifying as geeks and nerds (or “blerds”). The Afropunk community creates space for so many different kinds of Black folks, and that didn’t seem possible when I was growing up. If you weren’t into hip hop, you weren’t Black—end of conversation. I’m drawn to artists who support the idea of Black multiplicity. We aren’t monolithic; here in the US and across the African diaspora we’re an incredibly diverse group and that’s a strength, not a weakness. I think young adult literature needs to reflect that reality.
Under The Radar: Haitian-American writer Ibi Zoboi recently joined me in discussing race in The Hunger Games. She’s finishing up her MFA at VCFA and I’m looking forward to seeing her fantasy novels on shelves soon.
The State of the Industry: After Nelson Mandela passed away last year, I took some time to reflect on his impact on my life and my understanding of Blackness and social justice. I had just self-published The Deep and my beloved aunt had passed away the week before; it was a really difficult time and I wondered if I should have waited to release the book once my semester was over. In my writing on race and publishing I often quote poet/activist June Jordan who asserted that our “urgencies” would never be truly understood by those outside our community. I’ve spent several years advocating for greater equity in children’s publishing and then last year I called it quits. I’m tired of all the people who pay lip service to diversity but take no further action to transform the industry; even established writers of color seem satisfied with the status quo. I thought about Mandela and the ANC, and the global response to South Africa’s apartheid regime. Mandela sat in that prison cell for decades before folks in the West sat up and took notice—and then took action. And one of the strategies to win his release and end apartheid was DIVESTMENT. Right now that word defines my relationship to the US children’s publishing industry.
Check out the trailer for The Deep:
Lyn Miller-Lachmann review at The Pirate Tree: Social Justice & Children’s Literature blog: “The Deep does lead readers on “fabulous adventures,” and Elliott deserves applause and support for making this extraordinary story available now to fans of Ship of Souls and other readers at the middle and high school level looking for tales of ordinary kids who find themselves superheroes.”