Throwback Thursday: Cheryl Willis Hudson

December 29, 2016

For our last Throwback Thursday post of 2016, I’m honored to shine the spotlight on children’s book pioneer Cheryl Willis Hudson once again.

Cheryl Willis Hudson

The Brown Bookshelf is honored to present Cheryl Willis Hudson to our readers. Not only is she an author, she is also a executive in a publishing company she built with her husband. You will be inspired and uplifted by her amazing story of dedication and passion for African American children’s literature.

The Journey
My path in publishing has been one that emerged from my adventures as a grade school doodler and teacher’s helper to that of professional children’s book publisher. As a child, I loved doing book reports where I could embellish book summaries by adding my own drawings, speech balloons and illustrated book jackets. I also helped my mom, who was a teacher, create bulletin boards and posters and correct her students’ homework. I loved making my own greeting cards for friends, cutting and pasting photographs in scrapbooks, reading poetry and nonfiction and doing things with my hands, so finding a career in publishing—specifically children’s book publishing, was a natural progression for me.

I’m basically self-taught. My first job was art-editor trainee at a textbook company. The discipline and structure I experienced through that job actually helped me find my own creative voice and express my own vision of what books for children should be. I had a lot of help along the way in terms of personal mentors and some formal classes in typography, graphic design, printmaking and life drawing, and I advanced in my career via a series of jobs in textbook publishing, encyclopedia publishing, trade book packaging and an extended stint as a freelance designer. Years of working in the industry equipped me with the skills to recognize talents in others and to merge them through creative editorial and design direction. Doodling and storyboarding via thumbnails helped to visualize concepts and stories in picture book form for young readers.

The Inspiration

JUB Name Plates...JAMALA powerful awareness of what was missing in books was the impetus for Just Us Books, the publishing company my husband Wade and I started together. When we were unsuccessful and frustrated by not getting our African-American centered stories accepted by major commercial publishers, we had an epiphany. Why not publish the work ourselves? We had voice, a vision, skills and a little bit of savings. I had done dozens of line drawings of African-American kids spelling out their names by bending their bodies in the shapes of letters. We had already made t-shirts and posters featuring these drawings and sold hundreds of them to parents and daycare centers. So in 1987, we took a leap of faith, and self-published my doodle-inspired AFRO-BETS ABC Book. This was followed by AFRO-BETS 123 Book and Book of Black Heroes from A to Z. The rest is history!

Kaylan & stephan_afro-bets kids_1985.crop or 1986
AFRO-BETS-Kids---ABC-Book__08883_1304903543_1280_500Wade and I came of age during the volatile and fertile period of the 60s and 70s. Many of our friends were writers and artists and musicians. During our college years in the late 60s, the Black Arts movement informed our perspective of literature. I met Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal and was inspired by their work as writers and critics. I listened to the poetry of Sonia Sanchez and Haki Madhubuti and was inspired by his cultural work and collaborative publishing via Third World Press with Pulitzer-prize winning poet, Gwendolyn Brooks. Wade had worked in SCLC and SNCC with southern voter registration drives and had written plays performed by Black theaters. He had worked as a sports writer during his college years. During the late 60s activist-scholar Barbara Smith and I forged a decades-long friendship through our love of books. When she co-founded Kitchen Table Press, it was a validation that we could do it too.

During the summer of 1970, I connected with a few other Black women via the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Program. That fall, in my first job as a novice art editor, in Boston I met Jerry Pinkney, whose incredible illustrations absolutely floored me. Soon after, Wade and I met in Cambridge, we began to collaborate on children’s story ideas where I designed graphics for poems and stories that Wade wrote. In New York, I took a class with Bank Street educator, Beryl Banfield, a member of the Council on Interracial Books for Children who was looking critically at the lack of diversity in textbooks and actively seeking Black writers to author authentic stories for and about Black children.

By 1976, Caldecott illustrator Tom Feelings, Coretta Scott King Award Illustrator George Ford, Watoto_1Golden Books editor Bernette Goldsen Ford and others were great influences through their organization, Black Creators for Children. When I joined them, they had established and printed issues of WATOTO, a newsletter for children and had established guidelines/criteria for art and articles by African-American book creators who were just starting to be published by a few commercial presses. At the same time, through another professional organization, Black Women in Publishing, I connected with other peers who were attempting similar goals.

Ebony Jr!_1976_6a32b8c672342266a52526914baf8094 copySeveral of my poems, stories and doodles were published by EBONY JR! Magazine and Wee Wisdom Magazine during the late 70s and this kind of encouragement fueled my desire to have more of my work published in trade book form for a larger audience.

As a new parent, I loved the work of Virginia Hamilton (Zeely was profound), Eloise Greenfield (Honey I Love), Lucille Clifton (Everett Anderson), Tom Feelings (Jambo Means Hello and Mojo Means One), Walter Dean Myers (Fast Clyde, Cool Sam and Stuff), Leo and Diane Dillon (Ashanti to Zulu), John Steptoe (Stevie) and of course, Langston Hughes (The Big Sea). There just wasn’t enough of it! There needed to be much, much more!

Moving from “Inspiration” to “Mission”
The birth of our children, Katura and Stephan fueled our desire to create and produce more books with positive Black children at their core. We wanted vibrant, stories for them that we had never had when we were children. Wade and I realized that in our work we had embraced the philosophy of Black newspaper editors John Russworm and Samuel Cornish who in the inaugural 1827 issue of Freedom’s Journal stated:

“We wish to plead our own cause…Too long have others spoken for us, too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations, in the things that concern us dearly….”
When we established Just Us Books in 1988, we made it our policy to hire Black authors and illustrators and editors and designers. We did this to establish a solid, unified, authentic voice and vision. The philosophy of our personal work extended into a corporate mission similar to the creators of The Brownies Book, which was published during the Harlem Renaissance, over 60 years before.

early counting graphic design

Early conceptual graphic for a counting book.

While we published a number of other individual authors and illustrators, Wade and I collaborated on a few titles as editors, including Kids Book of Wisdom and an anthology, In Praise of Our Fathers and Our Mothers, a tribute to the many Black authors and illustrators whose work we respected and admired. This volume was truly a labor of love and it fulfilled a continuing mission of showcasing wonderful work of African-American book creators all in one volume.

EPSON scanner Image

Being a Black Creator for Children
Although I’ve written over two dozen books for children that have been published over the past 30 years, some of my personal creative work has necessarily taken second place to the business of publishing other authors’ works via Just Us Books and later Marimba Books, our multicultural, sister imprint. Dual roles as “Author” and “Creative Director/Publisher” sometimes do battle and fight for attention with one another. As “Author” most of my stories are simply slices of Black life—realistic depictions of children simply going about their daily activities, at school, during play time, or just day dreaming. Some stories have been published by Just Us Books and Marimba Books, which we founded with our children Katura and Stephan, but Wade and I have also partnered with larger publishing companies such as Scholastic and Zondervan/HarperCollins to package other projects.

Perhaps my most popular book is Bright Eyes, Brown Skin, a collaboration between myself, Bernette G. Ford and her husband, George Ford, who illustrated the text. This book was published in 1991, but it has become a favorite read aloud book and one of Just Us Books’ best sellers.

Bright-Eyes-Brown-Skin__61941_1304420290_1280_500Pre-School visit with CWH_Little Rock 2014
Hands Can, published by Candlewick Press and illustrated with photos by John-Francis Bourke, is also very popular with pre-schoolers. My most recent book, Songs I Love to Sing, illustrated by Laura Freeman, is the fourth title in the “I Love to…” series, which Wade and I created and via a joint venture with our children Katura and Stephan via Marimba Books. My Friend Maya Loves to Dance, published in 2010 by Abrams and illustrated by Eric Velasquez, continues to gain larger and larger audiences of readers who love seeing expressions of that art form.

Pages from COVER_Songs I love To Sing (INGRASPARK)_no cropshands can do all kinds
One of my personal favorites is the text I wrote for Construction Zone, because it is nonfiction—a departure from my normal work. It involved quite a bit of research (which I loved) and required a tremendous focus to create a storyline from hundreds and hundreds of images taken by award-winning photographer, Richard Sobol. Distilling simple and informational text from a complex subject into picture book form was a real challenge!

As “Creative Director/Publisher” my role is to nurture talent and guide that talent through the publication process, ultimately helping to inspire, engage and empower young readers through final published books.

construction zone workers

So going full circle, my “doodler” self continues to inform and have conversations with my “director” self and vice versa. I continue to enjoy the process of putting words and pictures together and seeing the creative process emerge in a final concrete product. During recent years, I have been making art and telling stories via my new passion, quilt-making. In the future, I would love to create a book for children using quilts as the illustrations. So I have started translating some of my doodles into larger fabric based story quilts.

sketch_get on board lil children

Vernacular - Quilts

The State of the Industry

Although there has been some good progress during the 45 plus years I’ve worked in publishing and the almost 30 years of Just Us Books’ existence, there is still so much work to do. (See statistics on diversity in publishing from CCBC in Madison, WI) Just Us Books is one of the few Black-owned and operated publishing companies publishing for children. We need more independent presses like Just Us Books, Lee and Low and Cinco Puntos Press — that prioritize diversity and inclusion. Larger commercial houses can do a much better job acquiring and publishing works by people of color. They can do a much better job hiring diverse staff on the editorial and creative sides, but also in marketing and sales and in all areas of the business including distribution. Reviewers, journals, bloggers, scholars, schools, libraries, literacy organizations, book fairs and educators also need to be more inclusive and expansive.

diversity_tinakugler

I am encouraged by the recent attention “We Need Diverse Books” has focused on the important work that we all need to do. Authors like Zetta Elliott have added greatly to the canon and conversation concerning equity. Book fair organizers such as Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati and her African American Children’s Book Fair in Philadelphia have successfully demonstrated and addressed the need and hunger parents and children have for books that are not readily available in many bookstores. Librarian-educators like Debbie Reese have been diligent in lifting up authentic American Indian stories and dispelling “historical” lies and stereotypes about Native American history. “Reading While White” bloggers have engaged audiences in a paradigm shift. Individual authors and illustrators consistently present their work to audiences of children and young adults who are affirmed by seeing themselves reflected in the literature. Just Us Books, in cooperation with other authors, educators and librarians have created lists of outstanding multicultural books that often are missed on the radar of traditional “best books lists.” (see Multicultural Gems of 2015 and Multicultural Books to Make Your Season Bright) and Wade and I always advocate for inclusion and diversity whenever we speak at schools, libraries and literary conferences. And of course, The Brown Bookshelf has brought tremendous awareness to readers and the industry about the wealth of talented contemporary Black book creators working today.
All children have a right to see themselves positively reflected in children’s literature—in all their diversity—free from harmful stereotypes and marginalization. This is not a new concept but one that needs to be recognized and actualized.

My hope is that authors, illustrators, book creators and members of the children’s book community will find more collaborative ways of supporting each other and create alternate avenues for publishing diverse stories and voices that need to be heard.

Contact information for Cheryl Willis Hudson

Just Us Books

Just Us Books Facebook

Cheryl Willis Hudson’s website

Twitter

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Throwback Thursday: Brandy Colbert

December 22, 2016

As a teen I studied ballet, but it was already too late for me to be a professional dancer. (I was no Misty Copeland.) I loved going to the ballet, but there were no black or brown ballerinas on stage at New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theater. If there were, maybe I might have pushed a little harder. Maybe this profession might not have seemed too out of reach. Little bunheads like me would have loved books like Brandy Colbert’s POINTE, or the young reader’s edition of LIFE IN MOTION which she co-authored with Copeland. In this throwback post, Colbert talks about the path to getting her first book published, and the state of diversity in Kidlit.
~Tracey

 

 BrandyWeb

Pointe may be Brandy’s first published novel, but it is not her first attempt at writing. She is a magazine journalist. Add that to her tap and jazz dance training and you have the perfect person to write about ballet. Her life story is riveting and so is Pointe. After learning about Brandy, you will not be able to resist the urge to read her first novel. The Brown Bookshelf is honored to feature Brandy on 28 Days Later 2015.

The Journey

I’ve wanted to be an author since I was seven years old (at least that’s the first time I documented my aspiration), and have been writing stories since then. I took a bit of a break in college and afterward, while I earned a journalism degree and moved out to Los Angeles to start my career in magazine publishing. Of course I never stopped reading, and I would write sporadically, but I had a hard time finishing projects that I’d started. At the time, I also found it hard to come home and work on my own manuscripts after writing and editing all day at my full-time job.

In 2006, I decided to get serious about pursuing publication. I completed a novel during NaNoWriMo and also signed up for a writing class, as I realized I’d have to start sharing my work with others and get feedback (terrifying!) if I wanted to get published. That project was the first book I’d finished writing since I was a child. It started out as an adult book, but I soon realized the voice wasn’t right. After I switched to teenage characters, I felt like I was on the right track—exploring the issues and lives of teens, as well as writing in their voice.

The Inspiration
I think inspiration can (and should) come from various and unexpected sources. I’m inspired by honest writers, those who aren’t afraid to tackle messy subjects (and even messier characters). Some of my favorites are Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Courtney Summers, Colson Whitehead, Aimee Bender, Sarah McCarry, ZZ Packer, and Toni Morrison.

pointecover

The Back Story
Pointe is the fourth book I’d written since I began actively working toward publication, and it’s strange to look back
on this now, but I was just about ready to give up if I hadn’t found representation with that book. It was easily the most honest book I’d written to date, and the one I’d put the most work into. I ended up working on it with an agent who was interested in signing me, but unfortunately, once I turned in the final book, we saw that our visions for it were quite different. After that, I queried a few other agents at the top of my list, not expecting to get very far. But much to my surprise, Tina Wexler of ICM requested a full manuscript just a few hours after I’d queried her! She asked for a fairly big revision, which I turned in around six weeks later. She offered representation shortly after that, and just three days after I’d been laid off from my job as a business writer in Chicago.

After three books and four years of rejection from agents, I also didn’t anticipate interest from editors, though I believed in the book and finally had someone else in my corner who did, too. I’d decided to move back to Los Angeles after being laid off, and at the end of my first day driving cross-country, I stopped in Missouri to see my parents and recharge for a few days. And the morning after arriving in my hometown, Tina called to tell me we had an offer from Ari Lewin at Putnam! I was happy to have an offer, but more important, I was thrilled that Ari believed in my book and had some wonderful ideas on how to improve it while staying true to my vision.

The Buzz
Pointe received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start, is a Cybils Awards finalist, and was named a best book of 2014 by Publishers Weekly, Book Riot, BuzzFeed, the Los Angeles Public Library, and the Chicago Public Library.

The State of the Industry
I think 2014 was a turning point for the children’s books industry in that the conversation on diversity really began to make waves. Many people had noted prior to last year that diversity was an important (and often overlooked) initiative in children’s books, but We Need Diverse Books catapulted it to the forefront, turning a hashtag campaign into a pledge into a nonprofit. I’m so impressed by the group’s commitment to implementing change in the industry, including the provision of publishing internships and grants and awards to writers and authors of color.

When I was growing up, I didn’t need two hands to count the number of black kids in contemporary stories, and it’s sad to me that things aren’t much better so many years later. But I believe the conversation is a great start. And in addition to books that reflect the world around us, we also need diverse authors and agents and editors and publicists and marketing departments—people of color, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQ. I truly believe that if diversity is championed from within the industry, there will be a greater chance of seeing these stories published. And they are stories that desperately need to be told.

For more about Brandy, please check out her website Brandy Colbert. Brandy’s twitter handle is @BrandyColbert.


Throwback Thursday: Jason Reynolds

December 15, 2016
cover-ghost

Simon & Schuster, 2016; Cover Art by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

 

In 2014, he was already on his way to becoming “the” Jason Reynolds. Today–a mere two years, a John Steptoe Award, multiple CSK Awards, a Walter Dean Myers Award, a Kirkus Prize, a National Book Award Finalist sticker, and an NAACP Image Award nomination later–Reynolds has firmly cemented his status as a kidlit superstar.

Read on as we travel back in time to our seventh 28 Days Later campaign, revisiting the words of a pre-award-winning Jason Reynolds. Enjoy!

 

 

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photo courtesy of the author and http://authors.simonandschuster.com/

photo courtesy of the author and Simon and Schuster

Jason Reynolds is the author of two critically acclaimed books. My Name Is Jason. Mine Too: Our Story. Our Way. (HarperCollins, 2009), an autobiographical collaboration co-written with his friend and artist, Jason Douglas Griffin, was published in 2009 and received two starred reviews. His debut novel, When I Was The Greatest, was published in early 2014 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers. The novel has already been lauded by critics, receiving starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal. Kirkus also praised the novel, noting that Reynolds is “an author worth watching” and calling the novel “a moving and thought-provoking study of the connectivity among a family and friends that plays upon and defies readers’ expectations.” Please welcome Jason Reynolds to The Brown Bookshelf as he discusses his journey.

The Back Story

When_I_Was_The_Greatest-2The back story behind the publishing of When I Was the Greatest is…well…an interesting one. I’ll try to shorten it, as to not spiral out of control (which happens often when telling this story.) Through a strange turn of events, I found myself without a place to live in New York, and was forced to move back home to my mother’s house. I was almost twenty-five years old, and there aren’t too many instances more demoralizing than returning home to your childhood bedroom — music posters still on the wall and everything — after trying to chase your dream. At least, that’s what I thought. Turns out, there was actually more demoralization  just around the corner. I couldn’t find work. I mean, the recession was in full swing, my resume was all over the place, and I had never held any real job, so I ended up working in the stockroom of Lord & Taylor. It was my responsibility to unpack boxes and put sensors on every garment. EVERY garment. My shift was from three in the morning to noon, for a whopping $150 a week.

Meanwhile, I was working on my first novel, BOOM. I still had an agent in New York, and after BOOM was complete, I sent it to him. It took him about five months to tell me that it sucked (it was TERRIBLE.)

Shortly after my first rejection, I started a new job as a case worker servicing mentally ill people. There were twenty-seven people on my caseload, ranging from Schizophrenics, to drug addicts, and my job was to help them get back on their feet and assimilate back into society. I was also working on another novel — a dystopian tale about the island of Bermuda, a place that I had visited many times and had grown to love. My agent and I had parted ways by this point, and I decided to pitch it directly to a publishing house (had an insider) to see if anything would happen. This time, it took six months to tell me it sucked, but by then I was already on my way back to New York. My experiences as a case worker traumatized me to the point that I had to quit and was willing to take anything to get the weight of it and the stories of the people (the most amazing people I’ve ever met, by the way) off my shoulders. So I took a job, back in New York, selling jeans.

I had decided that I was going to quit writing. Maybe I’d push denim the rest of my life, or teach, or get one of those lucky New York City jobs that pay well to have fun. But there were other things in the cards. Christopher Myers, son of Walter Dean Myers, had become a close friend of mine when I lived in New York the first time (before the stockroom and caseworker stuff.) He and I were hanging out one day, and he asked me how the writing was going. I told him that I was done. No more writing. What he said next changed my life. He asked me, “When my father is done, who’s going to carry that banner, that tradition?” I suggested he do it. He suggested I do it. He told me to take one more swing, after all that I had been through, all that I had seen, all the people that I had interacted with and the stories that I had heard, and see what would come of it. What came was, When I Was the Greatest.

My Inspiration

WalterDeanMyersPhotoWalter Dean Myers has been a major inspiration for me. There’s something brilliant in the looseness of his language, though it actually isn’t loose at all. But it seems that way. He’s been able to write tight stories that still come across as eye-level, and human. And that’s my goal, to write slice-of-life, human stories about the communities that have made me who I am. And, of course, to make my mama proud.

My Process:

I always begin with a theme or a particular story I want to tell. There are so many stories, and perspectives, and angles, and I spend a lot of time thinking of which ones I could do justice. Then I think of characters, and usually I pull right from my pot of friends and family, which, let me tell you, are a colorful bunch. It means a lot to me to make sure that every character is real. That these stories read like memoirs, each character, breathing. I typically start with the protagonist. I flesh him/her out pretty thoroughly, that way as he/she begins to live, he/she will tell me what happens in the story, who joins in on this journey, what twists and turns occur, etc. I do just as much observing of the characters I create, as I do writing them. To me, that’s the fun in it all, the adventure of conceiving a character, and then having it lead you through the story it wants to tell.

Others under the Radar:

So many. But if I had to name one, Sheri Booker. She’s the author of Nine Years Under, which is about her time working in a funeral home for nine years in Baltimore City. But recently, she mentioned that she was thinking about writing a YA novel. PLEASE SHERI! I think she’d be a serious asset, especially when it comes to a fresh take on YA for girls of color.


Throwback Thursday: Malaika Rose Stanley

December 8, 2016

Since Malaika Rose Stanley was first featured here in 2013, she has released a memoir, LOOSE CONNECTIONS, and another children’s book, WHILE I AM SLEEPING. The former teacher also compiled a list of books featuring multiracial families, and wrote about her decision to create that resource here. Malaika Rose Stanley’s work offers a glimpse into a window of the global Black experience, and as a child of immigrants, living in the U.S., I especially value her voice in the world of children’s literature.

Malaika Rose Stanley was born in Birmingham – Britain’s ‘second city’ – and now lives in the capital, London. She has been a teacher in Zambia, Uganda, Germany and Switzerland, as well as the UK – and at all levels of education including supporting autistic children in primary schools, teaching adult language, literacy, numeracy and creative writing, one-to-one tutoring, conflict resolution and teacher training. She has also worked as a researcher helping adopted people find their birth parents.

She is now a children’s author, whose books feature strong, positive African, Caribbean and Asian characters and reflect the cultural richness and diversity of family life, friendship groups, schools and society in general. Her work ranges from picture books to young fiction and she has recently had an adult short story included in the US-published anthology For Women – In Tribute to Nina Simone (ed Debra Powell-Wright). Her latest books, all published by Tamarind/Random House include Baby Ruby Bawled, Miss Bubble’s Troubles (2010 World Book Day Recommended Read), Spike and Ali Enson (2010 Book of the Year in The Independent national newspaper) and, most recently, the sequel Spike in Space. Skin Deep, the first novel in her Sugar and Spice series was published in 2011 and the second, Dance Dreams, is due to be published in the USA on 26 March 2013.

Malaika has been a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at London Metropolitan University and the London College of Fashion, a British Council Crossing Borders mentor for writers in Africa and a visiting author and workshop leader at various children’s literature festivals, Black History Month, World Book Day and other events. She has compiled a list of books featuring bi-racial characters published in the UK and the USA, which is available on her blog site.

It is truly a pleasure to kick off this year’s campaign with the very versatile Malaika Rose Stanley!

The Journey:

I first started writing for children when my two grown-up sons were young and I felt that there were too few children’s books with black protagonists published in the UK – especially those that featured and/or appealed to black boys. I have always loved writing, but I only thought about trying to write for children after I went to enroll for an adult education class in French! I was so impressed by a display of covers from books published by authors who had previously attended the Writing for Children class – including Malorie Blackman – that I signed up for both courses (although I have to admit that I ditched French after just one semester).

I progressed from the basic course to a follow-up writing workshop where the one criteria for joining was to have a ‘work-in-progress’. During that time, I wrote my first published book, Man Hunt, very slowly and carefully. My editor did not demand any revisions and made only a few, small editorial changes. It left me with a very distorted and unrealistic view of the publication process. My writing journey since then has been much rockier. After my first three books, I returned to teaching and had a ten-year break from publishing, so I have only been a full-time author for the past four years.

The Inspiration:

I’m giving my age away here, but my favourite books from childhood include
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Heidi by Johanna Spyri and the Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton. The love of reading that these authors fostered in me continues to be an inspiration in my own writing.

As an adult, I have always admired and been inspired by the Australian children’s author, Morris Gleitzman, ever since I read one of his early books, Two Weeks with the Queen. I was impressed by his ability to write honestly about serious, challenging subjects but with humour and a lightness of touch. A couple of years ago, I heard him speak to about 6 adults and 60+ teenagers and he told us that the starting point for any story is to identify the biggest problem in the character’s life. He signed my copy of Now with the words, ‘G’day Malaika’ – which confirmed me as a die-hard fan.

All my own books start off based in reality, even when they stretch it to the limits and extend into fantasy, which is exactly what happens in Spike in Space:

Want a story that’s full of ALIENS and MONSTERS, and horrible, out-of-this-world smelly POO?

Then meet Spike! His adoptive family are from another planet, and now they’re taking him to live with them in SPACE!
Spike_and_Ali_Enson
Can he survive a new school, a horrible bully and a deadly attack from a hairy monster?

Background:
I wrote the first draft of Spike and Ali Enson many years before it was actually published. My manuscript went through many re-writes but I believe that tastes and trends within the publishing industry also changed. When I first started writing, the demand seemed to be almost exclusively for ‘issue-based’ books rather than stories that just happened to feature black characters – and there seemed to be little room for ‘genre’ books such as sci-fi or historical fiction. My experiences have certainly helped to cement my belief that authors should write what they know and love, rather than trying to write for the demands of the market which are likely to be inconsistent and difficult to predict.
Spike_and_Ali_Enson
I have been incredibly lucky to have secured deals directly with the publishers for all my books so far, but just over a year ago, I finally signed up with my first-ever agent, Catherine Pellegrino. The advantages were immediate in terms of the size of my admittedly still-small advance and meagre royalties for Spike in Space, but it’s a complete relief to be able to focus on my writing without diverting my creative energies into negotiations about money or foreign rights.

The Buzz:

“This fast-paced action adventure… designed to appeal to those who like their stories to be tinged with fantasy, thrills and spills, all the drama unfolds in shortish chapters, with a range of galactic vocab and cartoon-like illustrations to add zing.” (Junior Magazine)

“In a hilarious sequel to Spike and Ali Enson, Spike is off to live with his adoptive family on another planet… The combination of everyday things with which all kids are familiar and the excitement of life in space make this a fascinating and enjoyable series, which also carries a strong message about the importance of families and the reassurance they give.” (Parents in Touch)
Skin_DeepDance Dreams Cover

“This touching story of changes, new beginnings and dealing with difference is ideal for sharing with young children facing new experiences or beginning a new school year.” (The Book Trust)

My Brief Thoughts on the Industry:
I strongly believe that the children’s book publishing industry needs to actively challenge and reject the idea that books about black and ethnic minority characters will only appeal to readers from the same background. This view leads to the misconception that their commercial potential is limited and in turn makes it difficult for authors and others from diverse backgrounds to break into publishing.

The industry needs to accept that not all books by or about black people have to focus on the so-called gritty reality of racism or discrimination or identity – but that they should not ignore ‘issues’ if and when they arise in ‘slice of life’ stories – and have a wider approach in terms of ‘genre’, eg magic, sci-fi, thrillers, etc.
To find out more:
Visit Malaika Rose Stanley online at her Web home and on her blog.

Wonderful and inspiring words — thank you so much, Ms. Rose Stanley!


Where Do We Go From Here?

December 6, 2016
illustration by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

illustration by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Here at the Brown Bookshelf, we’ve spoken often and long on the issues and ideas expressed in the Open Declaration. We do this work to lift up our young readers and show them how they can survive, thrive, and soar in this world. For many of us, the way forward might be clear, for others, not so much. We may sign on to petitions and open declarations, forward emails, RT, and “like”, and these can all be good and powerful things. But we believe that it’s important to reflect on how we will hold ourselves accountable, how we will act, and reflect; how we will “live out commitment to using our talents and varied forms of artistic expression to help eliminate the fear that takes root in the human heart amid lack of familiarity and understanding of others; the type of fear that feeds stereotypes, bitterness, racism and hatred; the type of fear that so often leads to tragic violence and senseless death.” We’ll present a series of those posts here; signatories asking, wondering, and doing an essential question: Where do we go from here?

Below, some thoughts from five Brown Bookshelf Team members, Kelly Starling Lyons (KSL), Tracey Baptiste (TB), Tameka Fryer Brown (TFB), Crystal Allen (CA), and me, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (ORP).

Why did you sign the Declaration?

I signed because it’s an important statement to make right now, especially as children are dealing with unprecedented racism and xenophobia at their schools since the results of the election. ~ TB

I signed the Declaration because I wanted to express my outrage at the systemic racism, hate and brutality that’s devastating our children. I wanted to transform my feelings of helplessness into a pledge to have kids’ backs, to make sure they are seen and heard. – KSL

My parents taught me that my handshake, and my signature must always mean something to me, and to take both very seriously, because one day, they may be all I have. The Declaration serves as a reminder, and gives me an opportunity to hold myself accountable, through my signature, to use my God-given talent to provide quality stories to empower, embrace, and uplift the youth of today and tomorrow, and continuously remind them that they will always matter. -CA

I signed the declaration because, in the wake of all the injustice and bigotry that people in our community have been experiencing, I felt the need to publicly acknowledge the mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering that has affected us all—including the children. I wanted to publicly affirm that I would use my role as author to foster a predisposition to education, empowerment, and empathy in the next generation. They are always our best hope for enduring change. – TFB

I’m someone who believes in “small, good” acts, and quiet revolutionaries; I admire the people, like Ella Baker, who do the mighty and meaningful work that happens behind the scenes. But I signed on to our Declaration because I believe that sometimes holding oneself accountable in a public sense is necessary, and because I want our children to know that there are adults who value them and their voices, who hold them as precious treasures, who are paying attention. -ORP

How do you describe the intersection between art and activism? Who/what has influenced you in that area?

Art is activism. It is always saying something about the state of the world. Of course, there are books that aren’t about activism, but that’s not art, that’s a commercial product. I think I get my cues from artists like James Baldwin and Maya Angelou who understood this intersection better than most. ~TB

In college, I read about the Black Arts Movement. The belief that art should not be for art’s sake, but to make the experiences of black people seen and felt grabbed me and held on. Art is a bullhorn, an amen, a hug and outstretched hand, a pulsing beat that makes you nod and groove, an exultation to rise and soar. Art is action. Reading about how writers became warriors for change through their creativity, connection and daring helped shaped the kind of writer I strive to be. – KSL

In an article published by The Nation, Toni Morrison recounted a conversation in which a friend responded to her despair about the state of our nation by saying, “No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!” That sums up my perspective on the intersection between art and activism. If you’re a writer, your words can be written to make people understand more thoroughly the need to change. If you are a visual artist, you can create imagery that impacts the soul of man on such a visceral level that he cannot be satisfied until he changes.

Whether it be through art or not, I think maybe the whole point of life is activism in some form or fashion. I remember reading a quote from Dr. King years ago that said, in essence, if a man had not discovered something he was willing to die for, he wasn’t fit to live. That resonated with me deeply. My greatest influence, though, was probably my grandmother. One of her most tried and true sayings was, “Right is right and wrong is wrong.” If you are raised with that as one of your mantras, you can’t help but stand up to wrong when you are confronted with it. – TFB

As a child, I never had the pleasure of meeting an author or illustrator. So back then, for me, I’d say there was no intersection. But as I began my professional writing journey, I was blessed with a core of strong African American women such as Eileen Robinson, Bernette Ford, Dara Sharif, and Christine-Taylor Butler who helped me understand the importance of staying relevant, and involved. -CA

The act of writing, of producing art, of creating, is such a powerful thing. I believe that art and activism are wholly intertwined, that whatever art we make is “a political statement”, whatever we think we intend. I grew up in a home that celebrated activism in the arts, that viewed it as necessary, as a sign of intellectual rigor, of passion about one’s work and community, of a desire to serve, and think of the gifts that we give instead of what we can take from the world. I was surrounded by books music and film and fine art by and about people like Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, Harry Belafonte, Maya Angelou, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Sweet Honey in the Rock…I could go on forever. We went on marches, and we sang. Our family participated in meetings and gatherings where people of all ages spoke truth to power in song, poetry, dance, and more. I was also so fortunate to have had teachers in middle and high school who took extra time to work with us theatre nerds to explore and produce work like A Raisin in the Sun, which we took “on tour” to a local prison, and who encouraged me to write plays and stories, and to read, read, read about the intersection and power of art and activism. -ORP

What next steps do you plan to take to carry out your pledge?

I’m working on new stories, ones that I hope will do more to open up perspectives, bring people together, and help readers think critically about the messages we’re all bombarded with in the world. I’m also reaching back to my training as a teacher and using those skills to explore the effect of literature, not just on learning, but on empathy. ~TB

I will keep writing stories that center the experiences of black children, raise awareness of children’s book creators of color and Native authors and illustrators and push for publishing and marketing equity. I will listen to the children, fight for their safety, visibility, voice and future through my art and vote. – KSL

As a member of The Brown Bookshelf, I will work with the team to come up with concrete ways to get more books by African American authors and illustrators into the hands of our future leaders. First and foremost, I will pen stories that nurture cultural appreciation and empathy. I commit not only to writing such books, but also to finding effective ways to help those already in the marketplace bypass the myriad obstacles standing between them and their intended audiences. – TFB

I will continue to write stories where African American children are the main characters, but race will never drive my stories. I will continue to put my characters in everyday predicaments, show them doing normal activities, and allow them to tell their stories in an effort to encourage conversation among readers about ‘sameness’ in all races, and demolish the ignorance that drives prejudice and social injustice. -CA

I’m proud to continue working with The Brown Bookshelf to promote Black children’s book creators across the Diaspora, to share our many stories with children everywhere. I’m also especially glad to be working with the Internship Committee of We Need Diverse Books, because I believe that in order to have diverse books we need diverse voices in positions of power in all areas of the industry. As an educator, I plan to continue to do workshops such as “Reading and Writing for Change”, and share strategies for teaching and learning with an eye toward social justice in every area, and am planning a couple of long term projects along those lines. I’ll also continue to encourage and empower young people to tell their own stories, to know and hold dear the value of writing, of documenting their journeys, of creating art, and surrounding themselves with people who believe in that. I’m so grateful for my friends and support group in the children’s lit community; people who inspire and encourage every day, sometimes just by their very existence. And of course, I’m very excited about my own upcoming writing projects and opportunities to tell complex stories of vibrant characters of color. – ORP

How would you like to see the children’s publishing industry do its best to support our children?

The industry needs to publish books that are representative of the population of the United States. As it is, children’s literature is disproportionately white. This helps no one. People have been talking about this for a long time, and it’s time for action. Of course, the way to help is not by painting characters brown, but with authentic representations of people and cultures. It’s not a simple task, but the work needs to be done. ~TB

The industry needs to understand where its blind spots and biases are and find ways to correct them. Children deserve to see themselves in stories that show their history, their dreams, their fantastic adventures, their realities. In every level of the industry, we need more representation by people of color and Native people – editors, art directors, publicists, reviewers. Background can shape editorial and marketing sensibilities – what stories you believe will resonate with kids, what you invest in. – KSL

I’d like them to proactively put more marketing dollars into books written by authors of color. And to publish a greater percentage of books by African-Americans that fall outside of the civil rights and civil war time periods, across all genres, including but not limited to contemporary, sci-fi, and fantasy. – TFB

Put more money into marketing books that promote everything the Declaration stands for. I would even love a sticker or a stamp created for books by publishers for parents to know which books will help erase hate, promote unity, and provide religious, ethnic, gender understanding, and include with study guides. -CA

I’d like to see the publishing industry acknowledge the seriousness of these issues, hold itself accountable for perpetuating bias, and take concrete, measurable steps to move toward equity. I would love to see more active encouragement and development of #ownvoices, and a diversification of voices “at the table”, in all sectors of the industry. – ORP


What suggestions do you have for readers who wish to make the same pledge (specific actions, favorite resources, etc.)?

The Brown Bookshelf will be doing curriculum connections with some of the books we have featured on the site. That will be a good resource for teachers who want to promote books that are more representative of the population. There’s also TeachingBooks.net and recommended titles from We Need Diverse Books. ~TB

I urge readers to support books by children’s book creators of color and Native authors and illustrators. When these books are consistently in demand at libraries, bookstores and schools, publishers will respond. There’s power in the dollar. A quote I love is the journey of a thousand miles begins with a simple step. What can you do now? Check out books by children’s book creators of color and Native authors and illustrators at the library, request them if they aren’t there, buy them as holiday and birthday presents not just for kids of color but for all children (Take the Birthday Party Pledge – https://birthdaypartypledge.com/), review them and tell your friends about them, support publishers like Just Us Books, Cinco Puntos Press and Lee & Low. Change begins with each of us. – KSL

In whatever capacity you create or advocate books for children, keep the end goal of a more inclusive, empathetic citizenry at the fore. For example, if you are a media specialist, make sure you (very naturally and without fanfare) offer titles featuring main characters of color to your white students. In addition to offering mirror books to your students of color, offer them window books into other POC cultures as well. Same goes for parents and other adult book buyers. – TFB

Buy books from those authors who have taken the pledge, and tell your friends to do the same. This way, we can flood the world with more love than hate. -CA

In one of my presentations, I always say “Make an effort.” Don’t be complacent. Everyone doesn’t have to do something “big”, but if everyone does *something*, it will be big. If you read and share children’s literature (and you should), make an effort to seek out literature by those who are marginalized, all of the different stories that we tell. Use resources like The Brown Bookshelf, The Pirate Tree, American Indians in Children’s Literature. Read scholars like Edi Campbell, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas and Sarah Park Dahlen. Talk with your children about these issues, offer young people the tools to start doing this work themselves, to think critically about their literacies, perhaps using resources like The Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, Rethinking Schools, and Teaching Tolerance. I’ve written more about this for parents and educators on sites like Brightly. -ORP

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked “Where do we go from here?” in 1967. He wondered: chaos or community? He went on to note:  “Now, in order to answer the question, ‘Where do we go from here?’ which is our theme, we must first honestly recognize where we are now.” Where do you think we are? Where are you? And where are you planning to go?


Throwback Thursday: Margaree King Mitchell

December 1, 2016

The tagline of Margaree King Mitchell’s website is “Creating Stories that Inspire.” Indeed her moving titles, from picture books to YA, touch children and adults and show the potential for greatness that lies within each of us. Her Coretta Scott King Honor Award-winning book, Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, debuted in 1993 and became a classic featured in classrooms and libraries, Reading Rainbow and theaters. Is it any wonder that people eagerly awaited a second collaboration by Margaree and acclaimed illustrator James E. Ransome? We featured Margaree as a 28 Days Later honoree the year that stirring book, When Grandmama Sings, debuted. It was  another  intergenerational  treasure, rooted in black history, that stayed with you long after you put it down.

Enjoy Margaree from February 28, 2012

– Kelly

margareeIf you are at all familiar with the picture book genre, you’ve likely heard of Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, the much heralded, 1994 Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Margaree King Mitchell is the author of that still-popular title, as well as Granddaddy’s Gift (1996).

Her latest book, When Grandmama Sings, was released last month to wonderful reviews. As we wind down this year’s campaign, it is an honor to feature the words and work of Margaree King Mitchell.

The Journey

When my son was in kindergarten, his school had Grandparents Day. Students could invite their grandparents to spend the whole day with them. We lived in Memphis, TN at the time and my son’s grandmothers lived in Atlanta and Kansas City, so he had no one to invite to school. When he arrived at school, not only had students brought their grandmothers, some had also brought their grandfathers. When my son got home he unclejedwas very sad. “I don’t have any grandfathers,” he said. I explained to him that both of his grandfathers had died before he was born. But he didn’t understand. Every day he came home from school sad because he had no grandfathers. I searched the public library for books that would show what life was like for his ancestors. I couldn’t find any. Then I went to all the bookstores in town. I still couldn’t find any. Therefore, I decided to write the books myself.

I wanted the books to be set in the rural South because that is where I’m from. I grew up on my grandfather’s farm in Holly Springs, Mississippi. I wanted each book to focus on an ordinary person who does extraordinary things for the time period in which they lived. I patterned the Uncle Jed character in my first book, UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP, after my grandfather. My grandfather owned his own farm during a time of segregation and racial discrimination. And he showed me that a person can rise above their surroundings and make their dreams come true.

I wanted to show the same things in my books. As I was thinking about my first book, I remembered my grandfather telling me about a barber who went house to house cutting hair. I made Uncle Jed a barber because I wanted all children to identify with the character whether they lived in the city or a small town. By the time I began writing the book we had moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. One day my son’s first grade teacher asked me to help out with some of the kids in her class who were behind the other kids academically. I started volunteering three days a week and worked with five students. Those three days turned into four days, then five days. I really cared about the students and wanted them to do well in school. When the end of the school year came, I wondered what would become of students who had no one to believe in them. Then I realized that the book I was writing to teach my son about his ancestors could also inspire children to dream big dreams for their lives.

After submitting my story for two years I received nothing but rejection letters. However, they were personal rejection letters from editors telling me that they loved my story but it didn’t fit in with their publishing plans. Finally, frustrated that those editors could love my story and not publish it, I decided to submit it directly to the publisher of Simon & Schuster. Within a month I had a contract.

When UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP was published, I was asked to read the story during Story Time at the main branch of the Little Rock Public Library. This was the first time kids other than my son had heard the story so I was anxious to see their reaction. After I finished reading the book, parents who were fascinated by the historical aspects of the story dominated the question and answer period. And I didn’t get any comments from children. But as I was leaving a little girl was waiting for me by the door. She said, “I liked your story about Uncle Jed. I want to be a doctor when I grow up but my grandmama keeps telling me I’ll never be one. Now I know I can be a doctor.”

I knew then I had achieved my goal in writing UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP. Since that day I have received many letters from children all across the country telling me their dreams. They also tell me who says they can’t achieve their dreams and why. But because of Uncle Jed’s story, they now know they can be anything they want to be if they just don’t give up.

The Inspiration

I get ideas for my stories on my morning walks. When my mind is quiet and I’m surrounded by nature ideas come to me. If I’m stuck at a certain part in a story I put it aside until the next day. I know that the next morning while I’m walking and appreciating nature the right solution will come.

I’m inspired by stories that are populated by families and friends, the stuff of life. I especially love the books of Mildred D. Taylor, whose stories are inspired by her family and their experiences. She heard about many of these stories at family gatherings in Mississippi. Her book ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY, is set in 1933 Mississippi during the Great Depression and deals with racial injustice. Her stories are filled with characters who find a way to right wrongs done to them.

The Back Story

My agent placed WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS with Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, a division of William Morrow and Company. WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS was the third book she had placed with them. However, before the first book came out, HarperCollins grandmamapurchased William Morrow and Company. Therefore, HarperCollins inherited all three books. After a review of my books, it was decided that WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS would be published first. So I have waited over ten years for WHEN GRANDMAMA SINGS to be published.

However, during those ten years lots of great things happened with UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP. They are too numerous to name. I’ll just mention a few. An award winning musical featuring Broadway veteran Ken Prymus has been adapted from UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP. The most recent performances were in Denver last year. Plans are being made to take it to additional theaters.

The Federal Reserve Bank has developed lesson plans using UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP to teach students about saving, savings goals, opportunity cost, and entrepreneurship.

The Library of Congress has developed a lesson plan connecting events in history to the story in UNCLE JED’S BARBERSHOP.

The Buzz

From School Library Journal:

Gr-2-4 – Set in the segregated South of the 1950s, Mitchell’s poignant story features eight-year old Belle and her loving, stalwart African-American family. When Grandmama, who can’t read but whose singing voice captures the hearts of all who hear her, joins a jazz band for a tour of the South, Belle pleads to go along. Thrilled to expand her world beyond Pecan Flats, MS, she experiences firsthand the difficulties her people face: hotels marked “White Only,” diners that refuse them service, police who search their cars and luggage for no reason. Through it all, Grandmama sings to growing crowds, believing in the power of music to bring people together. When, at the story’s end, a recording contract beckons her “up north,” Grandmama tells Belle to believe in herself and “sing her own song.” Ransome’s full-page images, rich in color and feeling, portray the landscape of the South and the individual emotions of the characters with equal aplomb. Placed in the past, the message is still relevant for children today.” (Barbara Elleman, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, MA

From Kirkus Reviews:

Belle joins her beloved grandmother, a jazz singer, on a summer tour of Southern towns and sees that segregation is everywhere—not just at home in Mississippi.

Holding tight to her uncle’s lucky rabbit’s foot, Belle watches as Grandmama and the musicians face the ugliness of Jim Crow in diners and theaters and on the road. In Alabama, the police dump their belongings on the roadside, a state’s welcome. She also listens as her grandmother shares her dreams for an integrated society and thrills to her resounding performance on stage in Atlanta, one that leads to an offer to make recordings for a company up North. It’s a moment that inspires Belle to dream, because “the promise of her song helped me believe in myself.” As in Uncle Jed’s Barbershop (1993), for which Ransome won a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor, Mitchell has crafted another compelling story of an African-American family both strong and determined despite the all-powerful clamp of racism. Ransome uses watercolors in warm tones of yellows and browns to reveal nuances of expression and the warmth of family and community.

A gentle story that shows the everyday realities of segregation through the observant eye of a child. (Picture book. 5-9)

From Publishers Weekly:

“Mitchell and Ransome, the team behind Coretta Scott King Honor–winner Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, reunite for another story set in the early 20th century, in which intimate family relationships are set against a backdrop of racial segregation. Eight-year-old narrator Belle lives with her parents and Grandmama in the fictional town of Pecan Flats, Miss. Grandmama’s singing voice has earned her local fame, and when a man offers to “book her and a band on a small singing tour of the South,” she agrees, bringing Belle along for the ride. Written in the past tense, Belle’s narration has an elegiac quality, but while the band encounters plenty of discrimination on the road, triumphs outweigh setbacks (and Grandmama doesn’t come to any serious harm). Ransome’s lovely, naturalistic watercolors draw out a wealth of emotions from the characters, particularly Grandmama, whose expressions range from weariness to passion while she’s singing, and determination, such as when she slams money on the counter of a restaurant that won’t serve them. It’s a stirring reminder that it’s never too late to chase one’s dreams, no matter the obstacles. Ages 5–9. (Jan.)”

From The Horn Book:

From the author and the illustrator of Uncle Jed’s Barbershop (rev. 11/93) comes another picture book about life in the segregated South. The narrator recounts her grandmother’s story—she couldn’t read but “always had a song to sing”—which centers on Grandmama’s singing tour with her eight-year-old granddaughter there to keenly observe everything. Grandmama and her musicians initially draw small crowds, and Belle nervously points out the “whites only” signs wherever they go, but Grandmama is undeterred. Gradually word spreads about Grandmama’s talent as the tour continues, but the group still must contend with suspicion from Alabama police. The narration is calm and matter-of-fact, like Grandmama, who remains focused on what’s right, while in contrast Ransome’s paintings show the shame, sadness, and anger the characters feel. Mitchell’s latest picture book gives modern-day children a realistic depiction of the small humiliations and frightening moments African American travelers went through in their daily lives during the Jim Crow era, and it makes an excellent book for discussion. – Susan Dove Lempke

From Elizabeth Bird’s Librarian Preview:

Remember Uncle Jed’s Barbershop by Margaree King Mitchell, and illustrated by James Ransome? I sure as heck do because that book ends up on a lot of school lists of required reading. Well, that book came out in 1993 and is still in print to this day. Now Mitchell and Ransome have reunited at long last in When Grandmama Sings. In this picture book (historical) a girl can read and her grandma can’t. When her grandmother’s singing gives her a chance to go on tour she does so with her granddaughter. The trouble? They’re touring the segregated south. This is a book that covers both a meaningful relationship and history. A good companion to last year’s The Green Book by Calvin Ramsey and Floyd Cooper, don’t you think?

The State of the Industry

Publishers should remember that there is a whole market of underserved readers who are interested in stories of the South and other stories featuring the African American experience. There are a myriad of stories about African American life waiting to be told but if traditional publishers are not interested in these stories the literary record will be incomplete. The South is filled with rich history of how African Americans overcame racial obstacles to not only survive but thrive and be successful under unbearable conditions. This is why ordinary people are at the center of my stories. By telling those stories students will realize that they, too, can make a difference in the world.

Regardless of how well previous books by authors of color are received, there is still someone who says no one will read your book. Or the book has to be about a famous African American. Or the person reading the story has no grasp of history and doesn’t believe that ordinary African Americans could be resourceful and create their own destiny. Therefore, it is hard for new books to be published. And it will continue to be so unless there is an advocate in publishing companies who is committed to being sure that all stories are told.