MAKING OUR OWN MARKET: JQ Sirls, Illustrator, Author and Founder of Moodi Studios

May 30, 2014

IMG_0319Why I chose Kickstarter to fund my Children’s Picture Book

by JQ Sirls

There are many reasons why I decided to go in the route of Kickstarter, all of which stem from a common idea about people in my generation (millennials). People of my parent’s generation often claim that we are lazy, entitled, ungrateful, selfish, the list goes on. The truth is that we are a highly observant and instinctual group of people, who have watched how the effects of following certain traditions harmed our parents, grandparents and families in general. 

I witnessed past generations endure jobs that they hated, while missing special moments with their families, only to be laid off later on down the line, for someone younger who will accept less pay. I chose to honor their sacrifice, by using it as a trampoline to aim higher, so that no one in my family will ever have to endure that pain again. I took control of my own destiny by starting my own multimedia company that also publishes books. I would not only publish my own books, but in time, merge multimedia with physical product development to potentially create a whole new market for children’s storytellers.


JQ paces the story, inks final touches to NO MONSTER NO!

Yes, I could have published traditionally, and done exactly what history’s insanity cycle said was the correct path to comfort and happiness. But I witnessed too many others get burned from following that path. Many authors and illustrators of color follow the traditional path of publishing. They publish to critical acclaim, they win many awards, only to end up wondering why their books aren’t given the same marketing support as fair skinned creators. I did not want to become another goldfish in the same ocean. These are just a few of the many reasons why I chose Kickstarter over traditional publishing. It was my goal to shift history’s insanity cycle, and to create a better path for tomorrow’s children’s book creators. For the children’s book creators who came before me, I want to make them proud.

In 2007, my company, Moodi Studios, wrote and successfully funded our first picture book, No Monster No. The story is about a bold little girl who takes the monster under her bed to school and teaches him manners. I’d heard about Kickstarter through friends whose projects had been successfully funded. I was raised on two core principals: do better than the best you can with what you have and no matter what, keep moving forward because motion itself is a professor. So, without any extra marketing funds or heavy marketing experience, I started a campaign. However, the first campaign failed, and boy-oh-boy, was that an emotionally heavy learning experience. But without that failure, I wouldn’t have learned the steps that allowed my second campaign to soar beyond expectations.


Here’s what I learned:

1. Focus your fundraising on professional colleagues and social networks. And don’t rule out total strangers who are meeting you and your work for the first time. Imagine going to a department store and being exposed to something really cool. You talk about it, share it, and support it with a purchase. Then after you make that purchase, it’s like you justify it by getting others to agree with how cool it is and have them get one too. It’s kind of like that. They don’t  necessarily know you, just the work you represent. Close friends and family will likely be the last to support you — if at all. Keep them informed, though. When they see your success, they may want to join in at a later time.

2. No one is too little or insignificant. You will need to promote your Kickstarter campaign in various IMG_0279ways — but for now, lets focus on blogs and social networking (Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest etc). When you create a crowd-funding campaign, you are asking hundreds of people to be somewhat tech-savvy and pay for something they can not interact with. That requires trust. Social Media and blog articles create that trust, and trust is equivalent to the rarest stone on earth. Blogs allow you to communicate who you are, what you do and what you are trying to say. Much like what’s happening with myself and this very article. Social media, on the other hand, is like cable television where everyday people are searching for new channels to ‘follow’ for new content. Like television, many people do not want to think. You have to think for them. Your job is to create specific content that cater to the specific needs of a specific audience. You then have to remove the bells and whistles of distraction and communicate your topic simply and effectively. I am still learning this. Once you do that, your following that will come to see you as the foremost authority of a certain topic or product (think Apple and a new iPhone or Oprah and practically anything). Your following will buy whatever you sell and pledge on your crowd-funding campaign through trust. However, If you focus only on big blogs, like Huffington Post, or Buzzfeed, and promote on social media with no clear niche definition, you could miss the golden opportunity to grow outrageously. Smaller blogs (blogs with very little following) should never be counted out as they need content as bad as you need crowd-funding pledges. If the blog grows, you grow. Social media is crowded with millions of people who do millions of things. You will stand out through consistency of posts, clarity of topic, and discipline of work-ethic. If you plan on crowd-funding your book, Trust is your best friend.

JQ sought and received the support of various music and media stars, such as Da Internz and Timbaland, pictured here.

JQ sought and received the support of various music and media stars, such as Da Internz and Timbaland, pictured here.

3. Define it as it is—crowd-funding is pre-ordering. Never look at your campaign as soliciting  for donations. You are selling a product and getting pre-orders for that product. Market or sell it as anything else and you destroy the cool-factor and lose the magic, as you look like your are begging. Your product is amazing and one of kind. When people make a pledge, they are securing a copy of your first edition. I can’t stress this one more.

4. Don’t assume that everyone knows about Kickstarter and what it is. Even though Kickstarter has had millions of dollars pledged from millions of users, you have to assume and act as though NO ONE has ever heard of it or crowd-funding before. Then, you must assume that more than half of your potential pledges are people who think the internet is out to get them and steal all their money. Go with that assumption from the beginning and have a clear, holding-of-the-hand method to address it.

JQ documents his journey

JQ documents his journey

  • 5. Create an amazing video. Luckily for us, we had a cinematographer, video editor, audio engineer, and motion graphic artist on hand to create a nice video. However, with the first campaign, I failed in not having a great shot of me reading the book to kids. I added these features just days before the campaign ended, only reached half of my goal, making it unsuccessful. But I did use the same video for the second campaign that I started just two weeks later that eventually became funded. 


Here is what I learned from the second campaign (that succeeded).

1. There is power in happiness and a positive mind. Basic laws of attraction work here. You have to believe and be happy. It’s infectious and people are drawn to it like a magnet. They want what you have. The first campaign I let lack of support and struggle turn me into a stressed out bitter guy — totally the opposite of my own message with Moodi Studios. The second campaign, I approached it with peace and tried to remain childlike and optimistic. My faith changed for the better and I noticed other people noticing it.

2. People tend to help those who help themselves. Many people were moved by my determination to get back up and try again just weeks after the first project failed. If you believe in it this much, then it’s worth pledging in to find out why.

3. Don’t just post, become social. Don’t get on social media and talk at people like a club promoter. Engage in things with them and build a conversation. Let your profile or page say all that is needed to bring them to Kickstarter, with a post or two a day. But engage with people on their topics and ideas. Post a comment and retweet. Being self-centered will not create a following. I highly recommend the book Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, by Gary Vaynerchuk. Whether or not you choose crowd funding, it’s a must read if you have a product or service you are selling.

4. “Thank you” goes a long way. There is nothing else more to write on that.

5. Like-ability is golden. You have to be likable and charming. If you aren’t, then let your campaign be led by someone who is. Be completely honest with yourself and set your ego aside for the success of the project. No one should want to punch you in the face after watching your video. 

Launching NO MONSTER NO with friends and family.

Launching NO MONSTER NO with friends and family.

And the biggest step of all:

6. Trust your instincts and embrace failure.I cannot stress that more. If you allow it, your instincts will tell you step-by-step what works and what doesn’t work. They already know what you want to do as they are the compass to how you will get there. Kickstarter success is primarily instinctual. It’s entire model is to grab and touch the hearts (and wallets) of people. But you have to embrace fear and failure to hear your instincts clearly. My biggest fear during my first campaign, was failure and the embarrassment of everyone seeing that failure. My ego, pride and hinge of doubt caused me to become deaf to my instincts and walk with panic. Following your instincts involve further risk, and when you are already in the midst of a larger risk, taking another is scary. However, when I eventually saw failure and embarrassment from the first campaign, my greatest fears came to pass and they didn’t kill me. I was just fine. The book didn’t explode and life as I know it didn’t end. I jumped off a cliff, expecting wings, but fell on my face instead. From there I learned that as long as you trust your instincts and jump, you can survive the fall. So keep jumping and embrace the fall. Embrace failure.

Celebrating with young fans at a school visit

Celebrating with young fans at a school visit

Greene on the Scene

May 29, 2014


heistAny time a new book enters the world is a great day. But it’s even more thrilling when the book comes from one of our own. The Brown Bookshelf co-founder Varian Johnson celebrated the birthday of his new stand-out middle-grade novel, The Great Greene Heist (Arthur Levine Books), on Tuesday. It’s already winning raves.

Today, Varian is featured in Kirkus. You can read the article here. Elizabeth Bird wrote this review in SLJ. And check out this inspiring movement: Bookstores are taking varianThe Great Greene Heist Challenge where they work to make Varian’s book a New York Times bestseller. A big thank you to author Kate Messner for championing Varian’s book and issuing the first challenge to readers. The contest runs through June 30.

We’re proud of Varian and so excited about his success. Learn more about him and his books at his site. And get your copy of The Great Greene Heistnamed a Publishers Weekly Best Summer Book of 2014, today. Here are links to two wonderful indies to make it easy: Buy The Great Greene Heist at Book People.

Buy The Great Greene Heist at The Book Spot.

Thank you for supporting our brother and showing that diversity matters.


“The Great Greene Heist is one crazy cool caper!”

Rita Williams-Garcia

“A smart, charming, and hilarious novel featuring one of my favorite protagonists in years. I’d follow Jackson Greene anywhere, and The Great Greene Heist is a fantastic ride.”

Matt de la Peña

“The elaborate bait and switch of this fast-paced, funny caper novel will surprise its readers as much as the victims.”

Kirkus, starred review

MAKING OUR OWN MARKET: Why I Leaped into Print-on-Demand and Ebook Publishing by Carole Boston Weatherford

May 28, 2014

Carole Boston Weatherford starting writing poems in childhood and never looked back. Her first picture book, Juneteenth Jamboree, about a summer celebration in memory of the Texas Emancipation, was published in 1995 by Lee & Low Books She’s written numerous picture books, board books, poetry collections, chapter books, and more, including the award-winning The Sound That Jazz Makes, a poem that traces the history of African-American music. It’s our great pleasure to re-introduce Carole Boston Weatherford and her exciting latest ventures!

africaweatherfordA year ago, my son Jeff Weatherford and I partnered in establishing Great Brain Entertainment, a digital media company that produces books, video, and graphic T-shirts. The company’s has released two books: Africa, an ebook for preschoolers; A Bat Cave: An Abecedarian Bedtime Chronicle (for Pre-K-1). Princeville: The 500-Year Flood, a new chapter book edition of an out of print picture book title, is coming soon.


Here’s why Jeff and I became publishers.

  1. Printing and publishing have been the family business since the 1950s. My father was a printing teacher, I have been an author, editor, publicist and professor, and my son Jeff is a digital and fine artist. I may have ink in my blood, but Jeff has microchips in his. Ebooks and print-on-demand publishing are a natural evolution for both of us.
  2. For years, self-publishing was synonymous with vanity publishing. Then, services like Amazon CreateSpace provided a model that skipped the middleman and gave author-publishers higher royalties. Granted, few self-published books or ebooks become bestsellers. Fortunately, self-publisher don’t need blockbuster sales to make a profit.
  3. I had seen other upstarts succeed. I figured I could too—with my son’s help. I watched with awe as professor/blogger Sylvia Vardell and poet/ex-lawyer Janet Wong launched Pomelo Books. Using the print-on-demand model, the new press published the Poetry Tag ebook series and several Poetry Friday anthologies for K-12 classrooms. I am proud to have contributed to their projects.
  4. I want to meet my readers where they are. Today’s children are practically born with tablets in their hands. Reading Rainbow is even an app.
  5. Ebooks are the fastest growing segment of book sales, especially for children and young adults. I want a stake in that digital future.
  6. At a time when unemployment rates are high among young men, the publishing business is my son’s way of making a job for himself. Through his digital media company, Great Brain Entertainment, Jeff is putting his degree in computer graphics and animation to work.
  7. I couldn’t wait to show off my son’s mad design and illustration skills. We’re pitching collaborations to major publishers. While we await acquisition decisions, we are publishing on our own.
  8. Although I have 40-plus books and several projects in the pipeline at major houses, the wheels are turning slower in the publishing industry. The intervals between my new releases grew longer. I did not want to fall off the radar. Self-publishing gave me more control over the timing of my new releases.
  9. There is a market, and need for, more multicultural books and ebooks. The number of multicultural children’s books being released each year has plateaued at fewer than 100 titles a year. This at a time when the U.S. population is increasingly diverse.
  10. The reason I became an author in the first place was for my words to reach readers. I have built up a backlist of out-of-print and never-published titles, which editors say have promise but are too “niche.” For an ebook or on-demand publisher, the so-called niche doesn’t need to be as large as that of an established press facing higher overhead and lower profit margins.

This has been an adventure. Not that we have worked out some of the kinks in production, marketing is the next frontier. I had hoped to trade on the name recognition that I have as an award-winning children’s book author. To promote the books, Jeff plans to use social media more aggressively.Image

Carole Boston Weatherford, the author of more than 40 books, is a professor at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina.


MAKING OUR OWN MARKET: Share your books

May 23, 2014

This week, we’ve shared books by three stand-out children’s book creators who have chosen to publish their own work, Zetta Elliott, Jerry Craft and Kathleen M. Wainwright. We know there are more great authors and illustrators our readers should check out. Please post your self-published titles, link and a one or two line summary in the comments. We can’t promise a future feature or review, but we hope showcasing your work here will get it on more people’s radars. Thank you for using your talent to create books for kids.

MAKING OUR OWN MARKET: Kathleen M. Wainwright, Independent Publisher

May 22, 2014

kathieWhen I read Summer in the City written by teacher and blogger Kathleen M. Wainwright, I was taken back in time. I remembered playing hide-and-seek and freeze tag with my neighbors and cousins, sailing on the swing at the playground, chasing fireflies under a quilt of stars. With illustrations by Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor winner Nancy Devard, Summer in the City delivers something magic. We’re happy to feature Kathie in our Making Our Own Market series.

Here’s her story on choosing to be an independent publisher:

I decided to self-publish because I had a story I wanted to share with the world and I wanted to share it on my terms. Initially, my plan was to use a vanity publishing  company but after following the advice of Jerry Craft, I decided to put my goal on pause and really research what it would take to start my own publishing company. That is when my role shifted from a “self-published” author to an “independent publisher/entrepreneur.” In 2013, I started my publishing company, Willa’s Tree Studios, LLC. Summer in the City was my first publication and a year later I published my newest book, Ziggie Tales: Ziggie’s Big Adventure. Going the traditional publishing route would have been ideal at the start of my journey as a writer, and it is something I would consider if the opportunity presented itself. However, I truly enjoy the publishing process, the creative control and the opportunities that come along with working as an indie author.

Why did I initially choose to self-publish?

I first wrote Summer in the City in 2006, did a search on the internet, and sent my manuscript out. I never heard anything back from the two or three places I sent it. This could be for several reasons, but it was most SITC_SZ_ASSORTED_FRONT_COVER_EDITlikely due to my story being underdeveloped at the time. I had a vision – I knew exactly how I wanted to transform my readers when they read my book. I knew the type of illustrations I needed to make this possible. I just didn’t know where to start so I stopped. I put my publishing goal to the side and wasn’t really sure at the time what would happen. Over the years I would tweak it here and there changing a sentence or two. But Summer in the City didn’t truly come full circle until I sat down with my illustrator in 2011 and added my final revisions as we mapped out the illustrations and layout of the book.

I actually think waiting to publish on my own was the best thing I did. During the time between writing Summer in the City and actually publishing the book I made great leaps as an educator. I earned my Master’s degree, a certificate as a reading specialist, began my second Master’s while pursuing a certificate in special education, and successfully completed National Board Certification for Professional Teachers. I also participated in several organizations, developed lasting relationships with other professional leaders. I created a teacher’s blog, The Diary of a Not So Wimpy Teacher, which now has a following of over 6,000 readers. All of these experiences have helped to position me for making my presence known as a new up and coming children’s author.

Once I decided to start a career as an independent publisher I did a great deal of research. I attacked this process as if it were another program or certificate that I wanted to complete. Only this time my instructors were established authors, illustrator, publishers, bloggers, marketing professionals, and content specialist. I read whatever I could get my hands on, I asked hard questions, and I hired a consultant. I used my network and I soaked up any bit of information that I could get my hands on. I took a few writing courses and I bought a ton of books. I even flew out to New Mexico (to visit my mother at the time) and had the opportunity to schedule a meeting with someone who had established their own publishing company and was willing to let me sit down and pick his brain.

I founded Willa’s Tree Studios, LLC in February 2013. Willa is my grandmother, my mother’s mother who passed when I just a few months old. My grandmother represents the foundation/ roots of our family and my mother, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and I represent her branches. Collectively we are Willa’s Tree and she lives on through us and the legacies we leave behind – for me, my books.

In 2010, the plan to independently publish was intentional. It was something that I wanted to do and knew I would find success with. I wanted the control over what my book would look like. I wanted to choose my own illustrator and I wanted to control my timeline. Although the Ziggie Tales Front Cover.inddprocess came with a hefty price tag, I looked at it as an investment and knew that it would take work if I wanted a return. I was told by several people in the industry not to pursue publishing on my own and to wait for a publishing company to pick me up. But at this stage in my career, I didn’t want to. I wasn’t concerned with not putting out quality work. I am an avid children’s book collector and have over 1,000 children’s books. I know what quality looks like. I wasn’t concerned with the amount of work I would have to put in to marketing and promoting- the consensus was it doesn’t matter, independent or traditional, you have to be willing to market your own book. In fact, that is one of the aspects I enjoy most about being an author. I wasn’t afraid of failing- because it has been instilled in me that “if at first you don’t succeed, try again.”

I don’t want to paint a picture that independently publishing a book is easy- it is not! It is a lot of work and I am still learning. There are so many things that I would like to do but because I am not a full-time writer it is challenging. Additionally, I don’t have the backing of a large distributor just yet so that is also a major bridge I have to cross. I take advantage of any opportunity to share my book (i.e. teacher conferences, school visits, career fairs, flea markets and bazaars, speaking engagements, etc). Because I wear all of the hats, I am responsible for seeking out those opportunities and making those connections- and this can be overwhelming at times, too. Despite all of this, I love this process and I am looking forward to what this journey shall bring.

Currently, I am drafting book two in my new Ziggie Tales series- Ziggie Tales: Ziggie’s Trick or Treat. My goal is to release this book by October 1, 2014.

Kathleen Wainwright is a dedicated teacher in the School District of Philadelphia. She is also an adjunct instructor at her college alma mater, Temple University, where she teaches foundational literacy courses to pre-service teachers. Kathleen is the writer of the teacher’s blog, The Diary of a Not So Wimpy  Teacher. She is also the creator of Not So Wimpy Teacher Resources, specializing in Common Core Aligned reader’s companions for a variety of children’s books. For more information about Kathleen Wainwright, visit  

MAKING OUR OWN MARKET: Jerry Craft’s Journey

May 21, 2014

JerryCraft_wSyndicated cartoonist, illustrator, author, nice guy.  That’s the tagline for Jerry Craft’s website. Love that last part. Jerry is one of those special people who makes a difference wherever he goes.

With more than a dozen books to his credit, he has made the dreams of many self-published authors come true. From alphabet book A is for Anacostia by Dr. Courtney Davis to empowering middle-grade novel Khalil’s Way by David Miller, Craft brings characters to life with his expressive and engaging art.

Jerry is busy making his own literary dreams come true too as the author with his sons, Aren and Jaylen, of The Offenders, an inventive mash up of superheroes, friendship and bully prevention and his first book with Scholastic, The Zero Degree Zombie Zone! written by Patrik Henry Bass. We welcome Jerry back to BBS as he shares his publishing journey and his mission to make his own market:

It was back in 1997 when I first came up with the idea that I should do a book. I had been drawing my Mama’s Boyz comic strip for a few years and had enough material to put one together. I grew up reading both comic books and comic strips and was a big fan of both. I also loved the collections of comics such as Peanuts and For Better or For Worse. The one thing that was missing was that I almost never came across collections of the strips by African-American cartoonists. People such as Ray Billingsley, who did Curtis, Robb Armstrong (Jump Start) and Barbara Brandon (Where I’m Coming From) had had loyal followers for years, but still no books. Meanwhile the shelves of Barnes and Noble were full of collections of comic strips that had only been around for a year or two without having nearly the readership of the comics by black cartoonists. So I thought, “why not Mama’s Boyz?”

Over the next few weeks, I put together a book featuring my best reprinted work along with brand new stories. Then proudly mailed off my submission to the publishers who specialized in that type of book. After a few weeks, I got my first reply. A rejection letter. Nothing at all personal. Nothing hopeful. Just rejection. A few weeks later, I got my second reply. Same thing. Well, they always say the third time’s a charm, so I excitedly opened the next letter. And it was … a rejection letter. BUT this one had a hand-written note. Finally, someone had taken the time to give me some feedback that I could use to get published. Although it was 17 years ago, I still remember reading, “We’re not interested in this ‘Good Times’ style of humor.” My smile turned to a frown, and then to whatever look you have when you’re a combination of angry and offended. The only thing that Mama’s Boyz had in common the TV sitcom Good Times was that it was about a Black family. While the TV Evans family lived in the projects and struggled to make ends meet, the Porter family in Mama’s Boyz owned their own bookstore. The mother loved to read. Tyrell and Yusuf are two brothers who did well in school and actually LIKE each other. Unlike the siblings on Good Times who did nothing but insult each other. Would this editor have also compared someone else’s comic strip to Gilligan’s Island just because the characters were white? I doubt it. That’s when I realized that whoever sent that letter, just did not get what I was trying to do. Nor did they want to. Nor did they care.

So, instead of giving up, I used that note much the way athletes use things their opponents say about them, to get motivated. I went to the library to pick up a book on self-publishing, and six weeks later I sent off a digital file of Mama’s Boyz: As American as Sweet Potato Pie! to be printed. 2,500 copies to be exact. During the wait, I was able to use some great connections to get all kinds of press in some pretty big mainstream comic publications. I sat back and waited for the sales to come in. Then I got tired of sitting, so I laid down to wait. Then I went to sleep. I didn’t get a single order from ANY of that press. That was when I realized that the mainstream audience did not embrace my book, because I am not a mainstream cartoonist. Neither was Ray Billingsley, Morrie Turner, Brumsic Brandon, Stephen Bentley and the other black cartoonist who either didn’t have a book, or had one that was black and white and fit inside your pocket, as opposed to some of the full color books, in large format, and on glossy paper, that filled the shelves at bookstores.

From that moment on, I never tried to reach out to an audience that wanted no part of me. Instead, I began going to local book fairs. At one of these fairs, I had a man ask if Mama’s Boyz was for kids. “Well, I guess it can be,” I remember answering. Although I didn’t do it for kids, there was nothing that was inappropriate. I still remember the kid going off to a corner of the fair and reading my book cover-to-cover and laughing hysterically. I had not made my market, my market made ME!

During this time, I also had a full-time job, so I didn’t do nearly the amount of fairs that I do today. And before I knew it, 10 years had gone by. It was time to do another. So in 2007, I published Mama’s Boyz: Home Schoolin’. But this time I knew my audience was going to be kids and teens. I didn’t change the humor at all, but what I DID do to make it more kid friendly was add things like a flipbook, and a section on how to draw. This book sold even better than the first. Partly because I was better at selling, but also because I was able to get my first schools and libraries to buy them. One library bought 50 copies and gave to their kids. And not just African-American boys either. So for the first time I had girl readers as well as kids from various nationalities. Kids whose parents would have NEVER bought them my book. But luckily since the library GAVE them out, we were able to bypass the parents. And this new crop of readers LOVED the book. So much so, that when I did my third book a few years later, I added a few new characters to reflect my growing audience. In fact, I didn’t realize until after Mama’s Boyz: The Big Picture had been printed, that all of the blurbs on the back cover were from female fans. Something I never had before.BigPixCover In fact, I’m currently redrawing the first book as a graphic novel that will feature some of the newer characters that weren’t in the first two books.

It hasn’t been all fun and games though. More than 15 years later, I still need to find innovative ways to sell my book. For example, I know that my Mama’s Boyz books still will not sell outside of the African-American community UNLESS it’s a book fair where the kids have their own money. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to watch Billy’s mom take one of my books out of his hand, stroke his blonde hair and tell him that they, “needed to walk around first to see what else was there.” Then they spend the rest of the fair trying to redirect Billy’s desire to buy one of my books. They’ll spend $50 on cotton candy to keep from buying my $10 book. Mama’s Boyz will not turn your kids into gangstas! I’ve done studies!


Art by M’Shindo Kuumba

The other big hurdle is not having a close network of supporters. Meaning people I know. For example, if I could get 10% of my 4,000 followers on Facebook, Twitter and every other social media site to order one of my books in the first month of its release, I could immediately make back my print cost. It would also allow me to have to confidence to release more books that I think are necessary for our kids. For example, one of the next books I hope to release is Positive Force, the story of a 16 year old superhero who fights crime in Harlem with the help of his father. Yes, a black teenage boy and his Father as crime fighters! But since this one is geared mainly towards black boys, I would need more than 200 people hitting the “like” button on Facebook, or telling me how important I am to the community but not actually purchasing a copy. So I’m still a little nervous. People forget that this is also a business. And like any business, if you don’t support it, it goes away. If you want your kids to read, and you think the books I do are important, than it seems like a natural fit. But often it doesn’t work out that way.

That was also why I moved up production of The Offenders: Saving the World While Serving Detention! which is the first of my books that I’m also shopping to publishers. It’s the story of five middle-grade kids who are the bullies of their school and are given superpowers. But instead of turning into really cool heroes, they take the characteristics of the kids that they pick on. So one gains 50 pounds, one gets super skinny, one get big metallic buck teeth (he teases kids with braces), one gets super smart but physically uncoordinated, and the last girl (who is always calling kids mousey) literally shrinks down to the size of a mouse. And the multicultural cast features three boys, (one black, one Korean and one Puerto Rican) and two girls as superheroes who have to save the school, even though they’re too embarrassed to go outside. Because now they’re the ones getting teased.

I’m really proud of this book because of its anti-bullying message, multicultural cast AND boy and girl superheroes. And I did an enormous amount of research to write CraftMenAndArt300both the Korean and Puerto Rican characters. In addition, my two teenage sons, Jaylen and Aren are my co-writers! How cool is that. But again, one of the biggest problems I face is that instead of people writing about the book along with other books on bullying, I often have to wait until February to be featured in an article on Black History Month.

And last but not least, I recently illustrated my first book for Scholastic called The Zero Degree Zombie Zone! written by Patrik Henry Bass that will be out this August. It’s one of the first books I’ve done that I have not published through Mama’s Boyz, Inc or helped an author to publish themselves. Thank you, Scholastic.

So I guess I’ll see if people really DO want diverse books. If not, make sure to wave to me when you go to your local Wal-Mart. I’ll be the guy in the blue vest.

To see samples of my work and see the books I’ve authored and or illustrated, check out my website at



MAKING OUR OWN MARKET: Dr. Zetta Elliott on the power of self-publishing

May 19, 2014

An important part of the conversation of Making Our Own Market is opening the door to quality, independently-created books. Self-publishing has long empowered African-American children’s book authors to tell our stories and blaze a new path.

A bedtime storyWade and Cheryl Hudson self-published their AFRO-BETS ABC Book when they found few children’s books that reflected African-American culture and history. Their success led to them creating their award-winning publishing company Just Us Books.  Acclaimed author and poet Kwame Alexander, self-published his first picture book, Indigo Blume and the Garden City. It was nominated for a 2013 NAACP Image Award.

But self-publishing still brings a stigma. The books are less likely to be reviewed, considered for school and library collections and seen as on par with traditionally-published titles. At The Brown Bookshelf, we grapple with covering them too. We receive a range of work from outstanding to less than professional. But if we want to change the face of publishing, we need to welcome self-published treasures too.

This week, we put three amazing children’s book creators who have independently published front and center. First up is Dr. Zetta Elliott, a professor, children’s literature scholar and award-winning author. Even with accolades for her traditionally-published picture book, Bird (illustrated by Shadra Strickland, published by Lee & Low), and acclaimed speculative fiction YA novels A Wish After Midnight, Ship of Souls and The Deep, she has struggled to find homes for her work. But rather than keep her stories out of children’s hands, Dr. Elliott is bringing them to kids herself. Check out her powerful post, It’s Not Me, It’s You: Letting Go of the Status Quo, on The Huffington Post. We’re honored to have her share her journey and insightful thoughts on publishing for kids.

Objectives over Illusions

By Zetta Elliott

zettapicI started working with kids when I was sixteen—25 years ago—but many people in my life were surprised when I began to write for children in 2000. I clearly recall the stunned look on the face of my graduate school advisor when I shared my ambition of becoming a children’s book author. For five years he had guided my evolution as a scholar, and the only writing of mine he had read focused on representations of terror and trauma in African American literature.

Earning my PhD should have prepared me for the yearsbird of rejection I was to face as an aspiring author. I entered the publishing arena fully aware of “the myth of meritocracy,” and I knew all about the long history of racist stereotypes and deliberate distortions of the Black image in US popular culture. A decade of studying lynching taught me a lot about white supremacy and so I knew, as Mychal Denzel Smith recently explained, that “the ‘real’ racists” have no need to hide behind burning crosses and white hoods. I understood how institutional racism operates invisibly so that certain people are privileged while disadvantaged individuals are blamed for their lack of success. Yet it still took me a long time to relinquish my illusions about the industry and embrace self-publishing—why?

Like most lovers of literature, I bought into the popular perception that people who self-publish are devoid of talent and lack the commitment it takes to win a legitimate shipofsoulspublishing contract. I was certain that my storytelling skills were so extraordinary that eventually I would be recognized by the very best agent who would then introduce me to the most discerning editors. I never imagined I would become an award-winning author and still be left with more than twenty unpublished manuscripts. If publishers were so desperate for multicultural material, why weren’t they knocking down my door? What did I do wrong?

Well, I naively believed that an industry dominated by women would welcome a The-Deepfeminist writer with a commitment to social justice. I wrongly assumed that the people who work in publishing care about children of color as much as I do. I made the mistake of thinking that publishers would be eager to woo African American consumers who have a collective buying power of over one trillion dollars. I met with white female editors who spoke passionately in public about their commitment to diversity but then manufactured reasons to reject my work. As my eyes opened to the ugly reality of racism in children’s publishing, I let go of my illusions and spoke out. I rocked the boat and, no doubt, burned some bridges. I also began to reassess my priorities and search for alternatives.

At this point in my career, self-publishing is probably the only way I can put my books Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00049]in the hands of the urban kids I serve. I published four chapter books this month and plan to publish four more books in the fall. That will still leave me with fifteen unpublished manuscripts, but at least eight more books will exist that reflect the realities—and fantasies—of kids and teens of color. The publishing industry has barred me from entry and the bias against self-published authors ensures that my books won’t compete for any major awards; they won’t be reviewed in any of the major outlets and bookstores probably won’t stock any of my titles. But some child somewhere may open one of my books and find a mesmerizing mirror that makes him or her want to read more.

For the past three years I have taught at a community college in Manhattan; most of my students come from low-income communities, many are immigrants, and the vast majority are people of color. Very few of my students love to read, which makes college-level work challenging for them. As a professor I often leave the classroom feeling frustrated and demoralized; in one sixteen-week semester I can’t reverse years of inadequate public schooling, poor study Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00047]habits, and a general disinterest in literature. I have decided instead to focus my energy on making an intervention in the lives of younger students. Armed with twenty-five years of experience and (eventually) twenty-five self-published books, I believe I can get—and keep—kids excited about reading.

So have I given up on traditional publishing? Yes and no. The overwhelming whiteness of the children’s publishing community has led many to plead for greater diversity in the ranks of editors, reviewers, agents, and conference organizers. My voice used to be part of that chorus but I no longer think simple inclusion is the solution. As Jelani Cobb points out, “To speak of diversity, in light of this country’s history of racial recidivism, is to focus on bringing ethnic variety to largely white institutions, rather than dismantling the structures that made them so white to begin with.” I think what’s needed now is innovation—entirely new ways of connecting kids Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00046]with books. And so I’m willing to collaborate with anyone who shares my core objectives:

  1. To generate culturally relevant stories that center children who have been marginalized, misrepresented, and/or rendered invisible in children’s literature.
  2. To produce affordable, high-quality books so that families—regardless of income—can build home libraries that will enhance their children’s academic success.
  3. To produce a steady supply of compelling, diverse stories that will nourish the imagination and excite even reluctant readers.

If you, too, are willing to trade the publishingPageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00045] industry’s illusion of equity for these basic objectives, I hope you’ll keep an open mind when a self-published author offers you a book. My four new titles are available online now and will be available through the major distributors (Baker & Taylor and Ingram) in the coming weeks, which means bookstores, schools, and public libraries can add my books to their collection. I hope you’ll give one a chance!

Find out more about Dr. Zetta Elliott’s wonderful books and scholarship on diversity in children’s literature on her website and her blog.