Day 21: Dr. Gwendolyn Battle Lavert

February 21, 2014

Dr. Gwendolyn Battle Lavert standing in front of the Professional Development Center at Qatar University in Doha, Qatar.

A veteran educator, Dr. Gwendolyn Battle Lavert has made a lasting impact as a children’s book author. Her lyrical picture books, full of warmth and strength, celebrate African American life and culture. From a father who learns to write his name with his son’s help in Papa’s Mark to a boy whose uncle teaches him to play harmonica in The Music in Derrick’s Heart, Lavert mines family and history to create moving, memorable tales. “I want students to know that reading opens up the world to them,” she is quoted as saying in Gale Biographies of Children’s Book Authors. “It’s a journey that will last them a lifetime.”

Please join us in celebrating Dr. Gwendolyn Battle Lavert on Day 21:

My Journey

Every family has a recorder.  I happen to be the one for my family. Hearing my Mama’s oral storytelling about her life strengthened me. Her real life stories gave me the self-esteem, pride, and love that has navigated me onto the path that I travel today.   My first experience with writing professionally came as a first grade teacher.  I felt compelled to write stories because the students in my class were having difficulty learning to read.  The stories and the pictures didn’t depict who they were culturally.  I wanted my students to own the stories.  After searching for months with very few options, I started writing stories for them.  barberWith the stories that I wrote, the students excitedly began to read. As a result, I had a collection of stories that I had written. Afterwards, I had a strong desire to really want to write professionally.  My first book, The Barber’s Cutting Edge (illustrated by Raymond Holbert), was published in 1994.

I have worked as a principal, assistant school principal, reading specialist, university professor, and now an International Consultant.  Growing up in Paris, I was always writing and drawing.  With this offtoschoolearly childhood experience, it is no surprise that I’ve found a career as a children’s book author. In books that include Off to School (illustrated by Gershom Griffith), The Shaking Bag (illustrated by Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson), and Papa’s Mark (illustrated by Colin Bootman), I portrays young lives steeped in African-American culture and history. Off to School, for example, finds sharecropper’s daughter Wezielee so obsessing about the possibility of attending school that she over-seasons and overcooks the meals she prepares for her father and his crew at harvest time.  This book is about my Mama.  But, I used my grandmother’s name.  In reviewing the book, Booklist contributor Susan Dove Lempke praised my depiction of “a warm family atmosphere” and a “likeable African American main character” in young Wezielee. Similarly, in The Music in Derrick’s Heart (illustrated by Colin Bootman), musicinderrickBooklist reviewer Shelle Rosenfeld dubbed it as a “charming, uplifting” tale about a boy learning to play the harmonica with help from a favorite uncle. She also states that my “easy-flowing, rhythmic prose” reflects the story’s focus on “the extraordinary power of music as universal language,” Rosenfeld added.  When my mother told me about a man in the community who played the harmonica, her voice was so musical. It moved me to write in this rhythmic prose.

I love writing.  I have shared my writing with my teaching.  I have lived in Doha, Qatar for two years.  This International flair is moving my thinking and writing to another level.

The Back Story

Holiday House in New York had published two of my books before I submitted my last, Papa’s Mark.  So, as I was writing the story, I papasmarktalked with the editor of my last two books.  She was interested.  When I completed the story, I sent it to her.  It was accepted.  However, it took me several years to get to the position of calling an editor and discussing my new ideas.  This does not happen overnight.

The Process

Since my stories are expressive narratives, I like to start with a narrative graph organizer to help guide me in building the Beginning, Middle, and End. I’m a good listener.  So, I listen to other people talk. Many times they will say something in conversation that will lead to a story idea. For example, I was talking with a lady in the grocery store.  She told me how her Grandfather wanted to vote and be able to write his name on the ballot.  All of a sudden, I knew I had to write about this man. This one brief meeting gave me ideas for a story.  It was easy to write because I made connections to relatives that had the same challenges. So, I wrote Papa’s Mark.  The character Simms came to me.  That might sound crazy, but the character appears.  I give the character a name according to the period of the story.  Many of my stories take place before the  civil war.  I like that period of time.

Is there a technique or routine for drafting or revising that you find particularly helpful?

I learned from going to writing conferences that the first draft is never your final draft.  I do a lot of revising and revising.  Sometimes after I finish, I feel that I need to write it over again.

Do you have an office or other location that works best for you?

I do not have a particular place to write. I usually write on a notepad long hand just to put the ideas in my head.   I then move to my computer desk.  Sometimes I type in bed with my laptop.  So, the location depends on my feelings.

The State of the Industry

I think that it is more difficult to get books published.  However, I still believe that editors are looking for good stories.  Children are looking for good stories.  So, a writer must not give up.

The Buzz on Papa’s Mark

A Children’s Book of the Year 2004 from the Child Study Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College

Reading Rainbow Review Book 2004

Parents Choice Recommended Title 2000

The Booklist Starred Review 2000



February 20, 2014

Kimberly Reid_author_photo

Dossier: a file containing detailed records on a particular person or subject. —Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Most blogs and individual websites contain a “bio” or an “about me” section.  On Kimberly Reid’s website, her personal information is listed under “Dossier.”  Let’s use that as our first clue of the kind of books Ms. Reid writes.

According to her dossier, Ms. Reid grew up in Atlanta, but now resides in Colorado.  Both places have provided beautiful scenery for her Langdon Prep Series. Also interesting are the similarities between Ms. Reid, and her main character, Chanti.  These similarities provide the next set of clues:

1.  They both attended a prep school where they did not fit in;

2.  Their moms were police detectives and both Kimberly and Chanti wanted to help solve crimes; and

3.  Both have lived most of their lives around law enforcement types.

Have you figured it out?  Yes!  Ms. Reid writes crime-solving mysteries!

Like many authors, Ms. Reid held several jobs prior to finding her dream work as a writer.  She enjoyed many of those jobs (and they provide great background for books) but she found her joy when she became a writer, the job she dreamed of doing since childhood.

On this the 20th day of February, The Brown Bookshelf is honored to spotlight author, Kimberly Reid.

The Journey:

A decade passed between my first attempt at publication and my first sale. I knew nothing about the business and sent full manuscripts to publishing houses. After a handful of rejections, I gave up on seeing my book in print, though I continued to write. By 2005 when I gave it another go, I’d taken workshops, studied the publishing process, and learned that a handful of rejections meant I was just getting started.

I attended a writer’s conference and discussed my novel with agent Kristin Nelson during a pitch session. We’re both in the Denver area so I had met her at some local publishing events. She was the agent I wanted, but she didn’t seem excited by the story I was pitching. I switched gears and quickly pitched my work-in-progress about growing up during the Atlanta Missing Children investigation, on which my mother was a lead detective. That got Kristin’s attention. She asked me to send the manuscript when it was complete. Several months later, I sent it to her, she offered representation, and we sold No Place Safe to Kensington Books in 2006. It won the Colorado Book Award for Creative Nonfiction the following reid no place safe

The rights recently reverted to me and I just released the e-book, so now I’m a hybrid author, traditionally and self-published.

 The Back Story:

Memoir puts it all out there, which can be a little unnerving. I decided to make things up from that point on, but I wasn’t sure what to write. I studied my trunk novels to discover what they had in common: a crime and a teen protagonist even though I’d written them for adults. They also shared a failed attempt at being deep and earnest. I got over my dream of someday winning the Nobel and figured out YA crime fiction with a touch of humor is my thing. I stole from my life again, this time only for the basic premise of a story—a teen girl becomes an amateur detective thanks to skills learned from her cop mom. I really did learn a lot about detective work from my mother, but was never brave enough to put the knowledge to use. Now I can through my heroine, Chanti.

 Kristin pitched My Own Worst Frenemy to my memoir publisher. They liked the story but turned it down because they weren’t sure it was a good fit for their list. Every writer has likely received that particular rejection letter, but what happened a few months later is rare. The editor called my agent to see if the manuscript was still available.  Kensington was launching a new YA line called K-Teen and she was looking for stories for the multicultural imprint K-Teen/Dafina. You need to write a good book, but you also need a very big dose of luck and timing when it comes to being traditionally published.

Kimberly Reid MY_OWN_WORST_FRENEMY_final_cover_original

The Process: 

With my early manuscripts, I had a let-the-muse-guide me approach to writing, thinking it wasn’t very artistic to plan a book. Those manuscripts went unsold because they were a convoluted mess. In my day job as a project manager, I was all about the planning, so I applied those skills to writing. I found it especially useful to outline mysteries. You have to figure out where the red herrings go, keep track of who knows what and when—I found it was just too hard to wing it. There are mystery writers who do it well, but I’m not one of them. Now that I have a basic process, I usually tweak it with each new manuscript.

That’s the thing about The Process. Not only is it different for every writer; it’s different for every book.

Generally, I start by figuring out who the main character is and what she wants. That first step is huge because conflict drives story. My protagonist must want or need something she can’t have, but will try to get, anyway. I also have to know the end before I start. The original endings never stick, but it gives me something to work toward. All of that planning happens in my head for a couple of months before I begin writing, which goes fairly quickly because I know what has to happen to reach the end.

The writing starts with a one-sentence description of the action in each chapter. This helps with the pacing, gives me a high-level view of the story, and ensures something is happening in every chapter to move the story forward. Then I turn the one sentence into a one-page synopsis per chapter, which becomes the outline. kimberly reid sweet-16-to-lifeOnce I have the outline done, I power through the first draft because it’s my least favorite and the most difficult to write. I prefer revision to writing. The final book only vaguely resembles that original outline, but I have to trick myself into thinking I know exactly what will happen or I’d probably never start, much less finish.

The mental writing happens anywhere—grocery store lines, waiting at the doctor’s office, while riding the bus. The physical writing can only happen in my home office, on an ancient laptop with no internet connection. I’m too easily distracted (by pretty much anything) to write anywhere else.

The Buzz:

 My Own Worst Frenemy 

From Kirkus

Chanti is smart and funny, and this multicultural cast is a welcome addition to the world of teen mysteries. This clever mystery with a biting look at class and privilege is a breath of fresh air.

 Creeping With the Enemy 

From School Library Journal

Chanti is an engaging and well-developed character; she’s full of humor and spunk, and readers will definitely want to know if she gets her man—the bad one and the good one. All of her friends, foes, loves, and neighbors round out this intriguing and suspenseful mystery. A great choice for those who like a bit of romance and suspense in their mysteries and a lot of spirit in their detectives.

 Sweet 16 to Life

 From Kirkus

Reid continues the snappy dialogue and clever storytelling of the previous volumes, and readers will detect real growth in Chanti as she works her way through her difficulties. There are times when Chanti’s insight is laugh-out-loud humorous. A cliffhanger ending will have readers clamoring for more.

Find out more about Kimberly Reid on her website: 

Thank you, Kimberly, for giving us a glimpse of you, your books, and your path to publication!














Day 19: Diane Browne

February 19, 2014 smiling

Diane Browne has written over 40 stories/books. She has been published by Ginn in the United Kingdom; Harcourt Brace and Friendship Press in the USA; Heinemann Caribbean, Carlong Publishers, Arawak Publications, and the Ministry of Education in Jamaica.

She has been a visiting author for the Students’ Encounter Programme at the Miami Book Fair, and has presented papers on children’s literature at the National Association of Teacher’s of English, UK; the International Association of School Librarianship, the International Reading Association and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. She has frequently participated as trainer/consultant in writing workshops for both writers of children’s fiction and textbooks, in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean.


My journey began when I was quite young; I loved books. I read the usual books, Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys as well as listened to Anancy stories. But I knew that I wanted someone
to write books about us, people who looked like us and lived like us. I longed for this. And then when my two girls were little, I realized that this person could be me. There was nothing for them to read that represented them. There was a particular Enid Blyton book ( a British children’s author) in which there was a golliwog, which was a doll depicting black people, a caricature really, and he was always the one giving trouble or getting into trouble. A subtle but significant message. My older daughter, was then only about eight, and she remembers feeling uncomfortable about this. Our story book heroes were still the golden haired girls and princesses. I had to write children’s stories so my children, all our children would have books reflecting positive images of themselves.

However, my journey is not only a story of my writing for children. It became a journey as a children’s writer with a passion for raising the consciousness, here and in the Caribbean region, of the importance of our own children’s stories to validate our children and their lives. Children must see themselves in books.

My actual writing journey began on a project for the Ministry of Education. The project was to write supplementary readers, the Dr. Bird Readers, for our government-run primary schools (elementary schools), which the majority of the children in the island attend. This was in the late 1970s early 1980s, and it was revolutionary. Story books which featured snow, ice skating, sledding and firesides and chimneys were presented as the norm for children, who lived in a country which was hot all year round, where beaches and palm trees and towering green mountains and tropical vegetation were what they saw. When our writing team went into schools to meet our target audience, we discovered that the children thought that all writers were either foreigners or were dead. The Dr. Bird books changed this. They are still in schools, and even now, I run into adults, a policeman, a nurse, who remember favourite books from that series. My most recent experience was last year with a team interviewing at risk youth, ages 15 – 20, all male. When asked what books they could remember reading, we got the not unexpected looks of astonishment. How could anybody expect them to remember a book? And then they began to recall books they had read in school and call out their names – books I had written.

I grinned with pleasure, as it dawned on them: “Is she write it?” (Amazement!) “Yes, is she write it!”

(Discovery): And I replied, “Yes, is me write it.” Creole is often used to express surprise, a familiarity one with the other. Grins and laughter all round. We were one in this delight of writing and reading our own stories. These were their story books. These are what they remember.

One of my picture story books produced by Heinemman Caribbean at this time was Cordelia Finds Fame
and Fortune. This was also published in the USA in a library series called Passports by Harcourt Brace and Company. Although I had only used Creole structures in the dialogue, and very modified ones, the American edition totally changed those so that a folk song in the book, the first line of which read , ‘Oh Cordelia Brown, whe mek you head so red?’, became ‘Oh Cordelia Brown, what makes your hair so red?’ Nonetheless, I was thrilled that there had been an American edition; at the recognition. And I was fortunate to be part of a Student’s Encounter Programme for the Miami Book Fair where we were able to sing the original version of that folksong.

Cordelia Finds Fame and Fortune, is about a little girl who is teased because she has red hair with dark skin, an anomaly. That was connected to my younger daughter’s experience, although I did not realize that that was my inspiration then. Our passions inform our writing journey even when we aren’t looking.

My journey has taken me from picture story books to ‘tween’ books, two Time Travel novels in which the protagonists go to historical events in our past,( because we can do time travel too just like people in big countries); and to my most recent book, a novel in the YA genre, Island Princess in Brooklyn, published by Carlong Publishers, Jamaica, 2011.


ISLAND PRINCESS IN BROOKLYN is a coming of age story of a 13 year-old protagonist, who reluctantly leaves her Granny with whom she has grown, to join her mother in Brooklyn. Princess has to adjust not only to a mother she barely knows, but also to a stepfather she never knew existed, a new country and a new school.

My connections with New York go way back. Most of my father’s family migrated in the 1930s and eventually lived in Jamaica, Long Island (which we always said, to differentiate it from our own Jamaica.)

Did this back story begin with my 15 year-old self who went to visit them, and had such a magical time discovering more family, and Radio City Music Hall, and the United Nations (where she planned to work when she grew up) that she fell in love with New York?

Did that girl reach out across the years to Princess? Or was the genesis of the back story more in the present? Some few years ago when my older daughter was in New York as her husband was doing a fellowship at a hospital in Brooklyn, I went up for the birth of my two grandchildren. And I fell in love again! Big time – with Brooklyn; the Brooklyn of migrant peoples and old-time houses turned into apartments buildings, laundromats where people who did not speak English helped you anyway, dollar stores, grandmas watching children in small front yards, old men sitting on steps in the sun. Different ethnic groups, all there working for the American dream; I saw their lives, our lives.

I was dizzy with joy! I would have written an ode to Brooklyn. Instead Princess McQueen turned up and said, ‘Tell my story’. I wrote in the first person, so it is Princess’ voice we hear. By the end of the story, Princess grows to discover that it may be possible after all to love both Jamaica and New York, that family, may not be perfect – but they are family.

This theme of migration is a part of the fabric of our lives. Everybody has family or knows of someone who has migrated to the USA, the UK or Canada. And therefore there is the social construct of the absent parent who has left children to make a better life overseas before sending for them. These
children left behind here are often called ‘barrel children’ because of the barrels of goodies sent home by the parent, ‘evidence’ of their love and success.

Many have told me how much they love this book; women from cultures as different as Puerto Rico and Uganda said it speaks to them of their lives, the dynamics of their families. They recognise the various levels in the story, including that of the women in a family. In this novel there are three pivotal female figures circling around one another, Princess, her Mum and Granny. As Princess’ Mum says about the relationship to Granny: She was my mother before I was your mother, she was my mother before she was your grandmother.

We all belong to each other. Nothing can change that.

However, the character who has the greatest impact on Princess’s coming to terms with her new life is an African American boy. I didn’t plan that; he just stepped forward and played that role.

In a way Island Princess in Brooklyn celebrates my father’s family and their journey. Interestingly
enough, Cordelia Finds Fame and Fortune celebrated the fact that fame and fortune can be found here
at home (no need to migrate). However, Princess is forced to migrate and forced to make a new life
or return home. Is this back story then part of the journey, a journey in which I am now able to look outwards from our island to our people overseas? This circle of family, of story, fills me with wonder.


“This delightful well-wrought novel . . . All the challenges of the young protagonist, who tells her story in the first person, are handled with emotional impact and veracity of experience. We are treated to the world as seen by the new migrant. It is a fresh and appealing point of view that makes for fast-paced reading that often melds the two countries . . . Browne builds a solid map of Jamaican culture and mores that her youthful migrant can use to comfort herself in the strange new situations she encounters without being obtrusive or in any way false or forced. This is one of the attractive features of the narrative, for the young protagonist becomes more and more appealing as she faces each challenge that comes her way.” Mary Hanna: Bookends, The Sunday Observer: Jamaica

“a delightful read” — Geoffrey Philp

Diane Browne has won awards for her children’s stories/books in Jamaica, including a prestigious Musgrave Medal for her contribution to the field of children’s literature from the Institute of Jamaica.

She also won the special prize for a children’s story in the Commonwealth, (a worldwide association of countries) from the Commonwealth Foundation, 2011.


I was inspired by the West Indian writers of adult fiction like Sir V. S. Naipaul, Samuel Selvon, Edgar Mittelholzer, John Hearne. They were telling our stories, stories I understood about people whom I recognised. This was the understanding and recognition in literature that I wanted to bring to our children. In contemporary children’s literature I was inspired by the American Judy Blume, especially her book Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, as she presents us with the multi-faceted characters of real young people; Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce and Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time led me to a fascination with time travel, made me want to create time travel for my people. I suppose everything I read and liked, urged me onwards to create our own stories.


In the Caribbean we need more opportunities for publishing of children’s books, and more people buying books, but too often disposable income is limited. Moreover, foreign children’s books undersell local books because of their economies of scale. Nonetheless, I do not think that indigenous literature gets the support of our education institutions which our children and our countries deserve. I’m delighted that there are more and more African American children’s books. That these books, as well as Black British books are also available to us, is a good thing. They provide our children with images of children like themselves, even if there are cultural differences. What I would love to see is Americans being interested in children’s material from the Caribbean. The Brown Bookshelf by affording me the opportunity of writing this blog, has highlighted us, and I thank you.


I write as the spirit moves me, as the characters appear, as a story set in a place or time calls out to me.

I have no set pattern and often I’m thinking when next I’ll get the time to write while I’m doing other things. I usually write an entire story and then rewrite, edit, etc. over a period of time. If it’s a novel, the first draft is always done before I return to any specific thing within the story. Then I grow my story in layers.

Thank you so much, Ms. Browne! I love thinking of growing a story in layers. (*And* it makes me think of cake, which I also happen to love.) Readers, visit Diane Browne’s blog for more about her extensive work, and a wealth of resources on Caribbean children’s literature! You can also read an excerpt from ISLAND PRINCESS IN BROOKLYN over at Anansesem Magazine.

Day 18: Christopher Myers

February 18, 2014

myers_christopher_lgChristopher Myers is an award-winning author and illustrator of children’s books. In 1998, Myers won a Caldecott Honor for his illustrations in Harlem, written by Walter Dean Myers. The following year, he wrote and illustrated Black Cat, a book that received a Coretta Scott King Award (2000). In addition to writing and illustrating his own stories, Myers often illustrates books written by his father, award-winning author Walter Dean Myers. Christopher’s books also include lies and other tall tales.

H.O.R.S.E.: A Game of Basketball and Imagination (EgmontUSA), written and illustrated by Myers, won a Coretta Scott King Honor award in 2013.

Source: Wikipedia

DAY 17: Nikki Shannon Smith

February 17, 2014

Nikki Shannon Smith Headshot

Last summer, I visited the Little Golden Books exhibit at the Smithsonian. As I perused the historic titles, I had no idea I would meet Nikki Shannon Smith, a current Little Golden Books author. Her story is amazing. She’s a perfect picture of a “can-do-never-give-up” attitude. An attitude that resulted in The Little Christmas Elf.

Please join us in honoring Nikki Shannon Smith on Day 17 of 28 Days Later.

The Journey: My Path to Publishing

I’m not one of those people who always knew she would be an author. I wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer, the first female president, and what I actually became: an educator. Somewhere along the way, between teaching and being a wife and a mother, I lost myself. There was nothing I did “just for me.” Every moment of my day was spent on other people, and I had forgotten to play, to dream. I was becoming resentful and bored. I was wilting. I stayed home alone one day in 2007, and watched Oprah. (I know how this sounds, but I’m telling the truth.) This particular episode was about women who looked way younger than their age. Oprah asked each one of them what their secret was, and they all said they had hit a point where they realized they weren’t happy, and changed course to follow their dreams. I didn’t need to be as drastic as they were (leaving husbands, quitting jobs…), but I had to nourish myself.
Within minutes, I hopped out of the bed, ran to my kids’ rooms, and started pulling books off the shelves. I had always been a reader and a writer, even as a little girl. It was how I escaped and made sense of the world. It was how I forgot that I wasn’t sure where I fit in. It was what set my imagination free. I needed to write for children. And maybe… if I worked really hard, my stories would make their way out into the world and into the hands of little people. Maybe they would laugh, or wonder, or try, or believe… or see themselves on a page in one of my books.
A few of the books in my hands that day were by Nikki Grimes. I went to her website and found all the resources an aspiring children’s author could ask for. I methodically followed those steps. I joined SCBWI, I bought the recommended books, joined a critique group, attended my first conference… the trajectory had been set. I wrote as often as I could, usually at night. All of my early manuscripts are picture books. Many of them are light-hearted stories with African-American main characters. None of them are published.
The one that got published was the one I didn’t want to write. It was a December homework assignment for my critique group—a story about Christmas. I struggled to even come up with an idea. I waited until the last minute… and then a story that I really loved came pouring out. A couple of years later, it sold!
Elf Cover (641x800)The Back Story: How I Got “The Deal”
I submitted the story (then called The Littlest Elf) for critique at my local SCBWI conference. It landed in the hands of Diane Muldrow, Editor at Random House/Little Golden Books. She said nice things about it, and made some suggestions, but didn’t ask for it. I liked her suggestions, edited the manuscript, and sent it to her a month later—snail mail. (I did this myself, I didn’t have an agent…still don’t.) I waited and didn’t hear back. I spent a lot of time perseverating over the whole thing. I literally paced the hall. I waited some more, and then decided to move on. Thirteen months after I sent the manuscript, I got an email from Diane… wondering if it was still available. I made quite a scene in my school office, and then started researching how to negotiate my own contract. I have to say that my first publishing experience has been nothing but delightful. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about people being unhappy with their editors, or the illustrations, or the timeline, or the deal, or whatever. I don’t have a single complaint or regret. It has been a dream-come-true.
The Inspiration: Who Inspired Me
I have many sources of inspiration, so it’s hard to pinpoint just a few. When I was a very young child I was an avid reader. (I got in trouble for reading instead of doing what I was supposed to do.) There weren’t a wide variety of children’s books by and about African-Americans, though. I do remember re-reading Black is Brown is Tan, by Arnold Adoff, over and over again. I remember looking at those pictures and thinking about how the shades of the people in the family resembled my own. That may well have been the first time I was inspired by a book. Two other authors I read a lot of as a young person were Judy Blume and Stephen King. When I was a teenager, my father gave me a box of books by African-American authors that were his from the 1960’s. Among them were books by Nikki Giovanni and Richard Wright. There was an honesty in their work that struck me.

Although I still didn’t consider becoming a writer, those books stayed with me in a way that I still feel today. Once I became a mother and an elementary school teacher, my love of children’s books resurfaced. There was so much more available, in terms of diversity. I’m inspired by, and thankful for, all of those who create work with the brown child in mind.

Another inspiration for me was Bill Cosby. In my parents’ house, we weren’t allowed to watch TV on weeknights… until The Cosby Show. I knew just by that change something important was happening. I loved the way the show (and later A Different World) paid homage to the culture while still addressing universal themes. I loved that the parents were professionals, but slipped into dialect sometimes—they portrayed the complexity of being African-American. Again, I was seeing myself—my family. More than that, EVERYBODY was watching. People from other races were seeing “us” and finding similarities, relating to our lives, and laughing with us instead of at us.

These varied experiences with books and media inspired me in a way that influences my writing. I write everything from funny to serious, from picture books to young adult. I write stories with Black characters that aren’t about being Black, and stories that directly speak to the Black Experience. I have a few stories with non-human characters, and of course The Little Christmas Elf, with an elf who in my mind, is Latina. I even write poems that should never see the light of day. I feel fortunate to be witnessing a change in children’s books, and I hope I can contribute, and maybe even inspire someone else.

The Process: How I Work

The process for The Little Christmas Elf was not my typical process. This was early in my writing career, and most of the time little ideas would just pop into my head and I’d start writing, sometimes not knowing where the story was going to go. Other times, the full plot would come to me, and I’d just add details along the way. ELF was incredibly difficult for me. For one thing, I don’t like to be told what to do. It was homework, for goodness sake. Another challenge was that a Christmas story didn’t feel like “my thing.” I don’t know why; I love Christmas. Probably, I was being stubborn—putting up my own hurdles.

With ELF, I sat at the computer numerous times and got up again without writing a word. I didn’t have a single idea. NOT ONE. Right before the homework was due, I knew I didn’t have a choice, and figured it didn’t have to be good. It just had to be done. I came up with the character first: the smallest elf in the workshop. I named her Nina, for the Spanish word niña (little girl). I got a mental picture of her, very small at a great big table, making a toy, but didn’t have the plot yet. It didn’t take long to decide that she would be struggling to finish the toy on time. From there, the story flowed, until it was time for Santa to arrive. I didn’t want to give her an easy out, but couldn’t think of a way for her not to finish the toy on time and still have a happy ending. I sat for a while, and then got the idea for the end. I drafted it in one sitting, and was pretty satisfied with it. Of course, I revised and revised, but the characters and plot never changed. Sure wish I could do that again….

If you can’t tell from this, I’m not an outliner. It’s strange, because I am such a planner and an organizer in all other aspects of my life. I actually get on people’s nerves with it. With writing, I tend to let ideas marinate in my brain for a long time, and then one day I sit down and write. I’m writing young adult novels now, and I work the same way with those. By the time I start writing, I have the characters and plot figured out in my mind. Except for some reason, I get to page 60 or so, then have to plot and take character  notes get “un-stuck.”  

Nikki signing

THE BUZZ: ELF Publicity
Little Golden Books aren’t reviewed and publicized in the same way that some books are, but there has been some fun “buzz.” Little Nina even made a cameo on The Today Show for Christmas 2013.

“This sweetly tender story feels like a Little Golden classic already and the gentle art evokes the happiest of childhood memories.” Connie Goldsmith, reviewer for The Book Report/California Kids Newsletter


The Today Show: Jill’s Steals and Deals, 12/4/13, The Little Christmas Elf and other Little Golden Books are featured.

Cynsations, 11/19/11, New Voice: Nikki Shannon Smith on The Little Christmas Elf
Writing Teazurs, 7/12/12, Interview with Nikki Shannon Smith: Author of The Little Christmas Elf
California Kids! December 2011, The Book Report, p. 13
The Davis Enterprise, 9/15/11, Korematsu Teacher Celebrates her First Book
The Davis Enterprise, 11/27/11, Downtown Says Happy Holidays!
Davis Life Magazine, 4/13/12, Korematsu’s Author on Stage

More about Nikki . . .

Website: Nikki Shannon Smith and


Twitter: @nikki2smith

Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks

Day 16: Kelli London

February 16, 2014

kelli londonAccording to Kensington Publishing’s website, Kelli London has been writing since she was six years old. That’s not hard to believe, as she has been such a prolific writer for the company, penning seven YA novels since 2011 and co-authoring another. Her most recent title, Beware of Boys, was published last month and is the fourth title in the Charly’s Epic Fiascos series.


beware of boys kelli london cover

Kelli’s passion for young people isn’t limited to literary pursuits. She has also served as a mentor for A Dream Inc.,  a non-profit organization for teenagers. Other passions include “girly stuff: clothes…lip gloss, movies with happy endings”, as well as Ashtanga yoga and anything education-related. On day 16, we recognize University of Connecticut graduate and Atlanta author, Kelli London.


Other young adult titles by Kelli London:

charly fiascos k london

reality check k londonstar power k london

boyfriend season k london

cali boys k london

uptown dreams k london



Find out more about Kelli London’s books at

Day 15: Tiki and Ronde Barber

February 15, 2014

TikiandRondeBarberAlthough Tiki and Ronde Barber first came to fame through the hard-knocks life of NFL football, they’ve also become known for their books for young readers. The brothers collaborated on three picture books and are current working with author Paul Mantell on the Barber Game Time Books, a series of sports related books that mix the action and adrenaline of sports with themes of good sportsmanship and caring for teammates and the community. The series began with Kickoff, which found the twelve-year-old brothers getting ready for the start of ExtraInningsjunior high, when they can try out for the school’s football team. The latest novel in the series, Extra Innings, has the boys trying out for baseball. Booklist has praised the series, calling Kickoff, “an appealing story for football fans” and noting Red Zone for its “play-by-play football action”

Extra Innings is available now.