Guest Post: Don’t Stop Believing

November 28, 2015

DSC01797.jpgAt this time of year, people search for inspiring holiday books to share with children. Finding one that celebrates the beauty of the season and showcases our world’s diversity is a treasure. We are proud to feature a stunning addition to this collection.

Award-winning author, scholar and activist Zetta Elliott’s new picture book, Let the Faithful Come, is a lyrical nativity story with imagery inspired by the plight of Syrian refugees. A celebration of faith and a call for social justice, Zetta’s book reminds us of our duty to show love to each other not just at the holidays but every day.

Please join us in welcoming Zetta back to The Brown Bookshelf. Here, she shares with us the splendor of Let The Faithful Come.

When a bright star shines

on a dark, silent night,

let the faithful come.

I recently spent five days as a guest of the Arkansas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts (ACTELA). For the first four days, I led writing workshops and gave book talks to students and educators in the northern part of the state. Then I was taken to Little Rock for the Afaithfulcoverkansas Curriculum Conference where I gave the luncheon keynote address to an audience of about a hundred English teachers. I concluded my presentation with a reading of my latest picture book, Let the Faithful Come. I read the 300-word nativity story with calm confidence, knowing I was “preaching to the choir” in the so-called Bible Belt.


I come from a family of preachers and teachers. Though he considered becoming a minister while attending Bible College, my father instead became a high school teacher. My mother taught kindergarten for over 30 years, and I was one of the many students who benefited from her expertise. I met a veteran educator recently and we talked for a long while about the importance of including diversity in teacher training. Before we parted she narrowed her eyes at me and asked, “What do your parents do?” I didn’t have to tell her they were teachers—it shows! I’ve worked with kids for over 25 years, and I’ve taught at the college level for close to a decade. I inherited a love of learning from my parents but my storytelling skills come from my grandparents.


From places high and low,

across deserts and over seas,

let the faithful follow that glorious star.

Let them come.


Both of my mother’s parents were preachers in the Pilgrim Holiness Church, though my File0001grandfather was later ordained in the United Church. My grandmother stopped preaching once she got married, but proudly shared with anyone who would listen that her great-grandfather was the nephew of Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the AME Church. Together my grandparents had nine children; four of the five sons became United Church ministers, two of the four daughters married ministers, and one went on to become a United Church minister herself. Unlike most of my twenty-five cousins, I didn’t grow up as a PK (preacher’s kid) but I belonged to a large, devout family and religion played a big role in our frequent gatherings and holiday celebrations.


Christmas was—and remains—my favorite time of year. And though stockings and Santa had their place in our home, it was always impressed upon me that we were really celebrating the Page6birth of a very special child. For years I helped my mother to decorate her classroom for Christmas and though she always had a tree, the most prominent display was a nativity scene that covered the entire blackboard. I don’t recall if any of her students’ parents complained, but I doubt my mother would have cared. She saw it as her duty to share the story of Jesus’ birth, and what an amazing story it was—a bright star guiding weary travelers across the desert, wise men on camels bearing precious gifts, and a poor couple welcoming their first child as an assortment of farm animals looked on.


And when they enter that lowly place,

let them bow their heads with humble hearts.

Let them gaze upon the child with adoration,

and know that God is alive in this world.


I don’t often talk about religion because it no longer plays such a big role in my life. My mother forced me to attend church every Sunday morning (“So long as you live under my roof…”), and I vowed I would never again go to church once I moved out of her house, which is pretty much how things worked out. Once in a while I accompanied my father to Brooklyn Tabernacle, but the megachurch experience wasn’t for me and mostly I just hoped he would take me to Junior’s for lunch once church let out. I still pray every morning and night, and at funerals can usually remember the hymns I sang as a child. But at 43, I find that many of my friends are atheists or prefer to think of themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious” (according to the Pew Research Center, nearly a quarter of adults in the US identify as “nones” – a term for people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, or who say their religion is “nothing in particular”). I do have some friends who identify as Christian but they tend to be radical social justice activists and are nothing like those conservatives who think their time and energy is best spent complaining about the design of a coffee cup.


For on this night a child is born,

and within this child—in every child—

God has planted a seed.


I don’t think I’ve ever called myself a Christian, so why did I choose to publish an explicitly religious picture book for the holidays? I’ve self-published over a dozen books for young readers but Let the Faithful Come is special to me, partly because I wrote it four days after 9/11. Some say faith is all that sustains us in times of crisis, and I suppose the seed my parents and grandparents planted within me was not so easily uprooted. On September 15, 2001 I was living on the campus of Ohio University where I had moved to accept a dissertation fellowship. Earlier that month I had flown to Nova Scotia to attend my friend’s wedding and then I returned to Athens, OH days later to watch my beloved city come undone. I don’t remember much about the days immediately following the attack, but I do recall needing to turn the TV off so that I could write something—anything—that would prevent loneliness and despair from overwhelming me. I wrote two other stories at that time, The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun and The Boy in the Bubble, and found that writing magical stories for children made me feel less hopeless and less helpless.


When London-based illustrator Charity Russell completed A Wave Came Through Our Window, TruckI knew she was perfect for Let the Faithful Come. We talked about drawing inspiration from the courageous refugees fleeing Syria in search of sanctuary in Europe, and soon my simple nativity narrative took on a sense of immediacy. After 14 years of holding out hope that I would find an editor who could see the story’s significance, I suddenly wanted this book out now. We tried to make sure the migrants in the illustrations were diverse, and the camels from the original Bible story were replaced by contemporary modes of conveyance—boats, trains, and pick-up trucks.


When this night has passed

and the brilliant star fades before the soft dawn,

let the faithful return to their homes

with hearts cleansed and uplifted.


I considered dedicating the book to Aylan Kurdi, the little Syrian boy whose lifeless body was photographed on a beach in Turkey, sparking outrage across the world. Aylan’s family had been denied asylum in my country of birth, and part of me wanted to implicate Canada in his death; in the 21 years since I left, Canada has become a country I no longer recognize. But then I remembered that my adopted country has also closed its doors to those in need—how many children have died trying to reach the US from Central America, and how many still languish in detention?


I don’t know the names of all the children we have lost, but I hope that the smiling faces of the travelers in this book remind readers that there is another way. And that, for me, is the true message of Christmas: we can be better tomorrow than we are today (look at Scrooge!). No weary traveler seeking sanctuary should be turned away, and we must remember that every migrant child has the potential to transform our society. I don’t remember many of the Bible verses I was made to memorize as a child, but this one still appeals to me: “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it” (Hebrews 13:2).


Let them rejoice!

Let their songs ring golden like bells in the sun,

so that all who still slumber will wake and rise.

Let the faithful come!           

Learn more about Zetta’s wonderful books for kids at

Writing About Family and Freedom, by Kelly Starling Lyons

November 19, 2015

KSL - headshot
As a kid, I remember seeing a textbook illustration of enslaved people picking cotton. They were expressionless, nameless. When I write a story that explores slavery, I want to show the opposite.

I want to create fully-developed characters that hit you in the heart. I want kids to connect with their feelings. I want children to have a new understanding of familiar objects like a conch shell or a broom and their meaning in enslaved people’s lives.

I want to crush the myths of the “happy slave,” “helpless slave,” “hopeless slave” and honor the unbreakable spirit of children, women and men who survived the unthinkable through intelligence, creativity, resilience, faith and love.

It’s said that buying a book is a political act. Writing one is too. I try to show unsung parts of history to take kids on important journeys and celebrate how much family and freedom matter. I work hard and pray that I do the stories of my ancestors justice. Slavery was twisted, brutal, horrifying. How do you share the truth in a way that young children can understand?

Three of my picture books delve into slavery –Hope’s Gift, Ellen’s Broom and Tea Cakes for Tosh. Hope’s Gift, illustrated by Don Tate, is set during the Civil War. My editor Stacey invited me to submit a story about a child growing up at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. Humbled and honored, I plunged into research. I visited a North Carolina plantation site, spoke to curators, read slave narratives and books about the experiences of enslaved children and antebellum Christmas traditions. I studied Harper’s Weekly articles and illustrations, learned about the significance of conch shells during slavery and the formation of U.S. Colored Troops.

I did so much digging that at first my story was weighed down by details. The history was there, but it didn’t come to life. My editor told me to put my notes aside for a while and feel. That’s when the real story took flight.

Hope is an enslaved girl, but bondage cannot break the love that holds her family together. One Christmas night, Hope’s father makes a heartbreaking decision: He runs away to join the war and help bring freedom to his family and others. Hope, her mother and brother experience overwhelming loss.

But like her name suggests, Hope feels something else too. She holds the conch shell Papa gave her to her ear, hears the swooshing and remembers his reassuring words: “Nothing can keep freedom from coming. Nothing.”

When the plantation owner discovers that Papa has run away, Hope hears him holler a chilling warning: “Said when he finds him, Papa gonna wish he never got that fool notion to run.” Don, the artist, pictures the overseer with a whip in his hands. Mama protectively hovers over her children. The threat of brutality is right there in your face. In picture books about slavery, showing reality is important.

What we write and illustrate helps shape what children understand. Later in the story, Hope goes from minding Henry and other kids to working in the fields with Mama from “pink light to purple dark.” Mama nurses Hope’s cotton bur-pricked hands at night. There’s fleeting joy when they hear in the fields that President Lincoln is going to free enslaved people on New Year’s. But when the day comes and they’re still in bondage, Hope holds back her tears, soothes her brother and reminds him of Papa’s words.

That scene was important to me. I remember thinking as a child that the Emancipation Proclamation liberated enslaved people all at once. I wanted to show that gaining freedom was an arduous process. And enslaved men, women and children were agents of change.

Rather than helplessly wait to be freed, enslaved people became Union spies, scouts, sailors and soldiers like Papa. Others waged their own acts of opposition right where they were. It empowers children to know that enslaved people fought for freedom. Don did a beautiful job displaying the full range of emotions in the story from the agony of being enslaved and the heartbreak of Papa being gone to joy when he returns.

It was crucial to show context in Ellen’s Broom too. Set during Reconstruction, the story celebrates the right of freedmen and women to have their marriages legally recognized. It wasn’t enough to show Ellen’s pride at her parents finally having the law honor their sacred bond. I had to reveal why it means so much.

Mama and Papa talk about the broom hanging above the fireplace in their cabin and explain how things used to be: “Husband and wives could be ripped apart, sold away at any time. It didn’t matter if they cried or even begged to stay together. Master had the final say.”

Artist Daniel Minter, who won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for our book, shows a wrenching scene of a husband and wife being separated.

The husband, in chains, looks back at his wife who is screaming for him as the plantation owner yanks her away. Why is having their marriages made legal so important? Because no one can ever forcibly tear them apart again.

In another spread, Daniel shows the thrill of Mama and Papa jumping the broom together. Their open-mouthed smiles display their commitment to a life together and spiritual victory over an institution bent on breaking them.

Ellen is charged with carrying their wedding broom on their walk to the courthouse. Now that she understands the pain of what they’ve come through, Ellen helps make their triumphant journey even sweeter.

My last book that touches on slavery is Tea Cakes for Tosh. I grew up making delicious, golden cookies called tea cakes with my grandma just like my character Tosh. Each time his grandma Honey makes them, she tells Tosh the story of their great-great-great-great Grandma Ida and he feels like he’s flying back in time. Tosh sees Grandma Ida, an enslaved cook, creating tea cakes for the plantation owner and his family. Honey tells him that Grandma Ida tasting or sharing them would be considered stealing.

But one day, she slips tea cakes into her apron pocket as an act of resistance. Honey reveals the danger: “She risked being whipped to give her children a taste of sweet freedom. Grandma Ida would give each child a tea cake, a promise of days to come.”

Artist E.B. Lewis gives Grandma Ida a somber expression as she carries tea cakes on a tray. It shows that making the cookies is not something she’s doing for fun. She’s enslaved and doesn’t have a choice. As the book shifts to present, E.B.’s gorgeous illustrations make you feel the closeness between Honey and Tosh and how much the story of Grandma Ida and the tea cakes mean. Near the end of the book, E.B. shows Grandma Ida again.

This time, she smiles as she gives tea cakes to enslaved children – an act of bravery and love. The last page is Honey and Tosh hugging as Grandma Ida’s promise has been realized through them.

Writing about slavery and freedom is not easy. But I think about the kids I serve and the girl I used to be and try my best to get it right. For children’s book creators of color writing and illustrating these books is a way to be an agent of change too. Instead of leaving it to others to tell our stories, we’re giving a piece of who we are back to ourselves.

(x-posted at We Need Diverse Books)

Writing Enslaved Narratives, by Don Tate

November 17, 2015

Don-Tate-Media-Photos-2I have two books out this year, POET: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF GEORGE MOSES HORTON (authored and illustrated), and THE AMAZING AGE OF JOHN ROY LYNCH (illustrated). Both books deal with the subject of African Americans who overcame great adversities in the backdrop of slavery and/or Reconstruction. Collectively the books have garnered 5 starred reviews from major book review journals, and have been praised widely elsewhere.

In general, with stories dealing with the topic of slavery—or history in general—I strive to be honest with children and not sugarcoat. History is not always sweet. I believe that children are smart, resilient, and can handle the truth. As one librarian recently said to me about the topic, “Children have no problem with getting down in the mud.” I owe it to children to tell the truth.

In POET, I portray the anger of enslaved African Americans during a slave rebellion scene, several enslaved people brandishing weapons. A white slave owner has been killed. A white mother reaches out to shield her child from the violence. It was a difficult scene and a lot of thought went into it. When I was a kid, I always wondered why enslaved people didn’t fight back. I’d say things like, “No one would have made me a slave, I’d have fought back!” Well, guess what, many times, enslaved people did fight back! Take Nat Turner, whose rebellion caused fear in slaveowners all over the South.

But as a kid, I never saw that depicted in books, so I didn’t know. Had I known, I might not have felt so ashamed every time the topic of slavery came up in sixth-grade history class.

In THE AMAZING AGE OF JOHN ROY LYNCH, I show the fear in an enslaved child’s face, before a relative is about to be whipped by a white man, an angry mob looks on. This is what happened, it was real life for the children who lived through it. I owe it to my ancestors to portray their stories accurately, with empathy, sensitivity, with consideration to my young audience.

Broaching the subject of slavery can be a tricky one, though. Should an enslaved person ever be pictured smiling? Well, it depends upon what is happening in a story. In POET, I pictured Horton on the cover of the book with a glowing smile, although he is enslaved and not freed until later in life. On the first page of the book, I also pictured him with a (slight) smile, all the while, the text on the page reads that “George was enslaved.” That was a tough call, and I revised that spread many times. I worried about what young Horton’s expression might communicate to young readers (and reviewers) about Horton’s condition.

In the end, I stayed true to Horton’s story, based upon reading his autobiographical sketch in THE POETICAL WORKS. Horton’s life was full of sadness, tragedy, disappointment, anger, misery. He had to perform daylong, backbreaking work, without pay. At seventeen, he was given away to the family member of his master, separated from his family. I made sure to include these sad realities in my text. But do you think Horton, still enslaved, did not smile as he held a copy of his published books in his hands? It’s all about context. What is happening in a story when the smile occurs?

As book creators, we need to be careful not to portray enslaved people as happy in their condition as slaves, but we also have to remember that smiles humanize, they offer hope.

(x-posted at We Need Diverse Books)

Call for Nominations: 28 Days Later

November 15, 2015

28dayslogoIt’s that time. Nominations are now being accepted for our ninth annual 28 Days Later campaign, a Black History Month showcase honoring emerging and established children’s book creators and their amazing literary contributions.

With your help, we’ve celebrated more than 220 black authors and illustrators. But there are so many more who deserve to be saluted.

Please nominate outstanding authors, illustrators or books in any of the following categories:

  • new children’s or young adult releases by black children’s book creators
  • unsung children’s or young adult books by black children’s book creators
  • “under the radar” black authors or illustrators
  • vanguard black authors or illustrators

Nominations will be accepted beginning today through December 1, 2015. To make a nomination, simply post a comment. Feel free to suggest as many individuals and books as you like.

To avoid nominating children’s book creators who have already been honored, please check out our previous honorees at the following links:

28 DAYS LATER – 2015

28 DAYS LATER – 2014

28 DAYS LATER – 2013

28 DAYS LATER – 2012

28 DAYS LATER – 2011

28 DAYS LATER – 2010

28 DAYS LATER – 2009

28 DAYS LATER – 2008

We’ll consider your suggestions, our internal nominations and recommendations from past campaigns. Then, we’ll announce the new class of 28 Days Later honorees on January 18, 2016. The celebration kicks off February 1.

Our mission is to raise awareness of the many African Americans creating books for young readers. With 28 Days Later, we put these talents in front of the folks who can get their books into the hands of kids – librarians, teachers, parents and booksellers among others.

Thank you for your continued support.