25th African American Children’s Book Fair

January 31, 2017
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Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati

Twenty-five years ago, Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati created the African American Children’s Book Fair in Philadelphia to spread the joy of reading and get books by black children’s book creators into kids’ hands. At that first event on a frosty day, 250 people attended. Today, more than 3,000 line up to buy books and meet black authors and illustrators.

The magic returns this Saturday from 1 p.m.-4 p.m. at the gymnasium of the Community College of Philadelphia, 17th and Spring Garden Streets. Find out more here. We’re excited to welcome Vanesse back to The Brown Bookshelf to discuss this special milestone.

This year marks the silver anniversary of the African American Children’s Book Fair. Congratulations on that important milestone. What makes you most proud?

The support I get from the community and my corporate partners has made this an amazing literary journey. Also, the authors and illustrators – without their participation, this would be just another book fair. People like E.B. Lewis and Tonya Bolden – who


Tonya Bolden

participated in the first event – their endorsements have helped to grow this book fair. The media – especially those in the African-American community – who have understood the importance of our message … a book does open a world of opportunities.

Take us back to that first book fair. How has it changed and grown over the years?

When I started this journey, I didn’t have a grand plan. I am a literary publicist and marketing consultant, so I’m always looking for ways to promote books. The early ’90s were an amazing time for African-American books. It is often referred to as The Literary Renaissance. I kicked off my career in the industry by representing The Urban Lit Fiction Divas. My first promotion campaign for Harper Collins landed the author Connie Briscoe on The New York Times Best Sellers list.

I was on a roll. With over 250 African-American bookstores around the country, the books were flowing like water into the hands of consumers. A number of major corporations used


E.B. Lewis

my company to promote their brand utilizing authors. It was an exciting time for books. The conversation ice breaker was not “What is your sun sign,” but, “What have you read lately.”

The media was all over these authors – both mainstream and African American outlets covered their books extensively. The book tour reigned supreme. A ten- or fifteen-city tour was the norm.

In Philadelphia, my hometown, there were 12 African-American bookstores. I remember on one block there were three bookstores that focused on African-American titles. There was enough business for everyone.

But, the one thing that was missing was a focus on children’s books. Adults, who might buy two or three books for themselves in one purchase, relied on schools and libraries for their children’s reading consumption.

I was friends with the special events person at one of the major department stores. She needed an event to draw consumers – buzz word “African-American” consumers – into the store on the weekends.

I knew adult books, but I didn’t know the children’s book market. So I partnered with Larry Robins of Robins Bookstore to sell the books and reached out to Marie Brown – who is the dean of African Americans in publishing to identify participants. She provided me with eight names – Tonya Bolden, E.B. Lewis and Jacqueline Woodson were on the list.

We got about 250 people on that cold, frosty day. Seeing the folks load on up books, I knew this was an untapped market. Still, the Children’s Book Fair was just one of many events I produced on an annual basis.

Year after year, the event grew in attendance. In the fifth year, a local mainstream newspaper saw the turnout and asked that we host a general children’s book fair. We had a cross section of books, authors and illustrators. But 85% of the attendees where African American.

So, in the words of my mama, Helen I. Lloyd, work with what works for you. Today, on average, over 3,500 people attend the two-hour event.

Please share some of the comments you’ve heard from attendees. Why does your book fair matter so much? 

Every year, during the course of the program, people walk up to me and say, “Remember me,” and begin to tell me stories about how books have had an impact on their lives or a story about an author/illustrator or their favorite book.

But, one of the stories that stuck with me is about a young girl who was waiting patiently fairflyerto get my attention. She was holding two books. I recall one was E.B. Lewis’ “I Love My Hair.” She said, “I want thank you for doing this book fair. But, I also want you to know 10 years ago, my family was homeless and we lived from shelter to shelter. But these books were a constant in my life. I owned them.” She continued, “I’m now in college, but I wanted you to know how much this Book Fair has meant to me and when we came to the Book Fair we were just like all the other kids in the room.”

I could write a book on how this Book Fair has had an impact on children in the community. Books do change lives.

But, on the flip side, as I travel around the globe, I hear from people who say there are no black books. I even heard this statement: “Black people don’t read to their children.” This is FICTION (I could use different words, but this is a book website).

My response is RUN; don’t WALK, to the African American Children’s Book Fair on the first Saturday in February in Philadelphia. You will see rows of books, numerous authors and illustrators and African Americans standing in long lines to BUY books. This is FACT.

The chorus about the lack of books is loud – as it should be. These groups keep diverse books on the radar of the publishing industry and in the minds of consumers. They’ve made some great strides in connecting the dots. But, unfortunately, when people hear the “are not,” they don’t try to seek out the “are.” Some of the best books of our generation are in the market place. Our mantra is: “Preserve a legacy, buy a book.” I get a lot of grief when I remind folks that publishing is a business and supply equals demand. Sitting on the sideline complaining is not going to change the outcome. You have to buy books.

This Book Fair is one of many ways to silence the naysayer. I also host a weekly segment on “The Bev Smith” nationally syndicated radio show introducing consumers to the world of African American Children’s Books. In the Philadelphia tri-state region (Delaware, Southeastern New Jersey and Pennsylvania) I guest host a segment call vls journeys (Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati’s Journeys) on two of the top radio stations in the market the first Sunday in the month. I am also on the speaker circuit and I do lot of advocacy work to encourage consumers and corporations to buy brand new diverse books.

What are the highlights of this year’s book fair?


Javaka Steptoe

Newly minted 2017 Caldecott Winner Javaka Steptoe will make a presentation from his book “Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.” Wells Fargo, one of the corporate partners, purchased his book to  give away to educators to use in their classrooms.

Here, everybody wins – the corporate sponsor gets visibility in radiantbookthe community, the author/illustrator gets their book sold and the consumer – teacher/children – get a brand new book.

Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie, the author and illustrator of the 2017 Caldecott Honor Book “Congo Square,” will make a rare appearance together. In fact, this event has the most author/illustrator combinations in the country and includes:

  • R. Gregory Christie, who has illustrated books for Tonya Bolden, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Carole Boston Weatherford
  • Floyd Cooper, who has illustrated a book for Carole Boston Weatherford
  • Elizabeth Zunon, who has illustrated books for Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and Carole Boston Weatherford
  • Jeffrey Boston Weatherford ,who illustrated his mother Carole Boston Weatherford’s books
  • E.B. Lewis, who has illustrated books for Kelly Starling Lyons
  • Shadra Strickland, who has illustrated a book for Renee Watson
  • Christian Robinson, who has illustrated a book for Renee Watson

congobookThe event will also include printed storytellers, like Crystal Allen, Christine Kendall, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Jewell Parker Rhodes, Patrik Bass, Jabari Asim, Morgan E. Taylor, G. Todd Taylor and Pamela Tuck.

Add a dose of first time children’s authors – Brittney Shipp, Sandra Richards, Michael Cottman, Munson Steed and Elleanor Jean Henley.

Toss in the 2016 Newbery Winner and New York Times bestselling author Kwame Alexander, and you’ve got an amazing literary event by ALL STANDARDS. Again and again,


Kwame Alexander

these are the best books of our generation.

Another highlight of the event is the NBC10-TELEMUNDO62 Reading Circle. The station’s sponsorship shows their commitment to literacy in the region.

In the Reading Circle, over 30 authors and illustrators will make presentations from their books. Hosting is NBC10’s Brandon Hudson, Harry Hairston and Aundrea Cline-Thomas. Representing Telemundo62 is Jaime Becerril and Andrea Cruz.

The PECO Literary Lounge is packed with interactive activities that celebrate reading. Participants also get to meet the authors/illustrators and receive a book.

Always Best Care Senior Services, Comcast, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and MetroPCS are sponsors of the Educator’s Book Give-Away. Health Partners Plans, Health Partners Foundation, Universal Companies, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, Charisse Lillie and The Literary Media And Publishing Consultants are also sponsors.

While we will give away over a 1,000 brand new books purchased via our sponsors through the traditional retail process, consumers come to buy books. I brim with pride watching children shopping down the aisles to make THEIR selection of books to BUY.

I use the retail model to get consumers excited about attending the event. Get them in the door and they will buy a book. It’s like Macy’s one day sale, you keep hearing the message over and over and you go to the store even if you don’t need anything. Once in, you make a purchase.

Everything about the Book Fair is designed to make the consumer better educated on what books are in the market place. The added value is meeting the author/illustrator – getting a book personalized.

The fun-filled afternoon is packed with activities that promote the power and JOY OF READING. The Literary Row will distribute book-related promotional materials free of charge.

What’s your vision for the future?

For me it is time to focus on what exists. I will scream, yes scream, if I hear one more person remark that they love black books but they just don’t exist. The more publicity, the more attention the movement gets about the importance of buying new books.

In these changing times, my message is to arm your children with books that celebrate their history. Knowledge is power.

pathfindersbookAnd finally I’m working on a very exciting project centered around the book PATHFINDERS: The Journeys of  16 Extraordinary Black Souls Written By Tonya Bolden

We are celebrating the pathfinders in communities across the country by holding pathfinders authorless events in cities around the country on February 24, 2017. The book is the focus to start the conversation.

Featured authors and illustrators at this year’s book fair include:





























For more information, contact Vanesse at: read@theafricanamericanchildrensbookproject.org

A Gift From Greensboro

January 30, 2017

It’s always nice to have a personal connection with the authors and illustrators we feature on The Brown Bookshelf. As much as we admire them, it reminds our readers and the BBS’s bloggers that they could be living on the next block or the person in front of us in the grocery self-service line.

I met Quraysh Ali Lansana at a creative writing workshop he organized at the Ralph Ellison Library for the citizens of Oklahoma City. At the time, he was a Red Earth MFA Creative Writing Faculty Mentor at Oklahoma City University. The creative writing workshops at Ralph Ellison Library are still going strong. Currently, Quraysh is He is a faculty member of the Creative Writing Program of the School of
the Art Institute of Chicago.

The other half of the collaboration is artist, Skip Hill. I have known of Skip’s work ever since he designed t-shirts for the Parkview Pioneers, our neighborhood elementary school. He also painted a mural for Parkview. Since then his career has exploded. He’s a traveler, sharing his work all over the United States, Europe, Southeast Asia, Brazil, North Africa, and Oklahoma City of course.
A Gift from Greensboro is a poem that refers to the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins in 1960. Quraysh uses that as a backdrop while sharing the magic of a childhood friendship and adventure growing up in Enid, Oklahoma in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement’s sit-ins.

Thoughts From the Author . . . Quraysh Ali Lansana

Photo by Alan Tarin

Photo by Alan Tarin

A Gift from Greensboro is an adaptation of an autobiographical narrative poem originally titled “the woolworth’s poem,” which appeared in my first full-length book of poetry, Southside Rain. Though the book version is based on the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina, widely regarded as the setting for the Sit-In Movement, the lunch counter my childhood best friend Russ Hutchison and I integrated was in our small hometown of Enid, Oklahoma. I use integrated loosely, as we ate cheeseburgers and milkshakes in 1975, eleven years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Oklahoma, like many states, didn’t comply with the law right away and many Okies didn’t co-sign the legislation at all.

The Sooner State possesses a compelling and complicated history regarding race relations. Pre- statehood, this “unchartered territory” served as both the point of origin and the repository for the earliest, largest ethnic cleansing actions in the nation’s history. Politicians, in the late 1800s, voted on this land functioning as the home for all freed Africans formerly held in the bondage of chattel slavery. The first law passed in the Oklahoma Legislature, Senate Bill #1, made Oklahoma a Jim Crow state, in direct defiance of President Theodore Roosevelt. The destruction of Black Wall Street, more commonly known as the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, is among the earliest government sanctioned bombings on US soil.

All of this history and disdain remains in the red dirt, the big sky, and many of the people. This is where I grew up, meeting Russ after my elementary school was closed due to desegregation. The bond we forged for over thirty years was also an act of defiance. Love, kindness, and respect are revolutionary acts. We need to remember these truths as much in 2017 as we did in 1975, 1965, 1955…

—Quraysh Ali Lansana, Author

Read more about Quraysh on the Penny Candy Books Blog and here World Literature Today.


Skip Hill

Photo by Doug Hill

Thoughts From the Illustrator . . . Skip Hill

The most compelling experience in producing the illustrations for a gift from greensboro was how the process opened the door for me to explore memory, time, and place. The author, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and I are of the same generation. Both of us grew up in Oklahoma. We both came of age and awareness of our complicated place in a post-Civil Rights United States with the country’s moves towards integration of public schools. In that process, in often tense environments, some of us managed to reach out, cross bridges, break through entrenched attitudes and form warm friendships undaunted by our parents’ or society’s disapproval. My memories of that era and those friendships (many of which I maintain forty years later) inform every drawing. The biggest challenge for an artist who relishes color, was to produce the illustrations in black & white.

Thematically, it was a thoughtful decision for a book indirectly addressing Race in America. The publishers forwarded an image of mine they had seen earlier, which featured a more loose figurative style with scratchy line work and squiggly shading. This style formed the foundation of the finished illustrations you see in the book. As the art process progressed, it was decided to add spot color for contrast on each page, and then to add several full color pages as a contrast within the entire book. Where I could, I managed to introduce my favorite birds motif to align this project with my signature art style.

—Skip Hill, Artist

See more of Skip Hill’s work on his website Skip Hill Art.

a gift from greensboro

a gift from greensboro










Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks

Throwback Thursday: Gwendolyn Hooks

January 26, 2017

I’d like to start by saying that when I first saw this photo of Gwendolyn Hooks, I thought that she looked like the nicest person in the world. And now that I am the “newby” on The Brown Bookshelf team, and am ALWAYS in need of someone to show me the ropes, I can personally confirm that my first impression was spot on. Then when I saw her interview from 2011, I figured what better Throwback selection could I make? So here it is, enjoy. And thank you, Gwen!


Jerry Craft

From 28 Days Later 2011


Somebody forgot to tell Gwendolyn Hooks that right-brained thinkers aren’t supposed to be creative, or that left-brained thinkers aren’t supposed to be math-oriented.  Not that such warnings would have mattered. Gwendolyn’s passion for educating and inspiring youth would have had her employing both brain hemispheres anyway.

This former middle school math teacher has written fifteen books for children, including twelve easy readers and three non-fiction titles. She is a contributor to magazines such as Highlights for Children and JAKES.  Her books, Mystery of the Missing Dog, Three’s A Crowd (Scholastic Book Fair selections), and Can I Have a Pet? (Bebop Books) have sold over 230,000 copies.

Gwendolyn grew up with an Air Force dad and by the time she was 15, she’d lived in four different states and Naples, Italy. She currently resides in Oklahoma City and says one of the main reasons she writes is “to encourage young readers to explore their world.”

Military kid. Seafood lover. Cereal box reader. On Day 24, The Brown Bookshelf is pleased to shine its author spotlight on Gwendolyn Hooks.


BBS:   Hi, Gwen! Welcome to The Brown Bookshelf.

GH:     Thank you for the invitation.


BBS:   The past year has been fantastic for you as far as publications go—8 books released by Capstone within a five month span! I know there were years of hard work, though, that led you to this point of success. What was it that inspired you to make the leap from middle school math teacher to children’s book writer?

GH:     When I was working on my nonfiction books, I would get up at 4:30 AM and write until 6:00 AM. Then I taught, tutored before and after school, planned lessons, chaired my department, attended educational workshops, and fell asleep at critique meetings. I decided what I really wanted to do was write, so I called it quits. But I still teach. I can’t quite get away from it. I work with the Arts Council of Oklahoma City and teach creative writing in after school programs. Last fall, I taught a poetry workshop for senior citizens. They wrote amazing poetry. I’m doing it again this spring.


BBS:   Wonderful! That’s sounds like a rewarding experience. Speaking of experiences, you grew up as part of a military family and lived in various places throughout your childhood–like Georgia, Texas, Washington, and Italy. Besides your love of travel, what did these early experiences instill in you that continues to impact your writing today?

GH:     Friendship is a big one. The importance of friends and finding your place in a new community. Sometimes we moved during the school year, so I had to walk into a new class with all those eyes watching me. One time my class didn’t have an extra desk. I sat on a stool. In front of the class. Horrible! It was only a few minutes, but it seemed like a lifetime. I try to remember those feelings and be sensitive to issues like that in my books.


BBS:   The first children’s book manuscripts you actually wrote were non-fiction titles, correct? What drove the decision to focus on non-fiction initially?

GH: My first published work for children was a magazine article about prairie dogs that carried the plague. Although, it was only dangerous to other animals I found it intriguing that the plague was still around. But after that, I had four fiction early readers published. Then an opportunity came my way to write those three nonfiction books. I love fiction and nonfiction. In fact, I love almost all kinds of books and writing. I’m still experimenting, trying to figure out where I belong in the writing world.


BBS:   Can I Have A Pet? (2002) was the very first book you published under Lee & Low’s Bebop imprint. It’s always interesting to hear the story behind that first book publication. Can you tell us yours?

GH:    I call it the Little Book That Could. As short as it is, I labored over those 34 words. My critique group had a cake made decorated with the cover. My kids teased me. When I said book, they thought novel. But it’s still in print after all these years. And I like to think it launched my career. I feature it when I visit early elementary classes. It’s a book they can read on their own. It’s also available in Spanish and sometimes a Spanish speaking student will volunteer to read it. The look on their classmates’ faces is precious.

Here’s the story behind the story. I’m a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I read in their newsletter that Bebop Books was accepting submissions so I sent in one. They promptly rejected it. It wasn’t very good. Once I read that a writer could succeed if they learned their craft and were persistent. I studied other early readers and wrote five more. The editor accepted one, we worked on a few revisions, and I got my first book published!


BBS:   Early Readers are a very exacting, challenging type of book to write…perhaps even more so than other picture books because the language has to be both simple (since they are designed for emerging readers to read themselves) and engaging. Not an easy task, but you seem to have mastered the formula as you’ve published 12 of them, with more on the way. Craftwise, what is the key to creating a great early reader?

GH:    I like books where things happen. So I try to think of an interesting plot. One that kids will care about. School, family, and pets are usually good places to begin. And of course you want an interesting character. My books are written for the school and library market and sometimes I’ll have to use a vocabulary list. I know in advance how many words and pages I have to work with. I write the story, then rework it to fit early reader guidelines: word count, grade level, number of syllables, number of pages, etc.


BBS:   The Pet Club Series is your new series with Capstone. So far you have written 8 books for the collection and they’re selling extremely well. How did this project come about–did you write the books first, did you pitch the idea, or did the publisher contact you to write the series?

GH:    Capstone is known for their nonfiction and I love nonfiction, too. Every fall, Oklahoma has a state conference for librarians, EncycloMedia. About two years ago, I found out that Michael Dahl, author and editor at Capstone would attend. I decided it would be a great opportunity to meet him and let him know about my interest in Capstone. I went to the library and read his books so I could have a conversation with him, memorized his picture so I would recognize him, and staked out the Capstone booth. Finally, I saw him and introduced myself. But I couldn’t remember one thing from his books! He asked about my career and I told him I wrote some nonfiction, but mostly early readers. He said that their Stone Arch Books imprint would be publishing a second grade fiction series soon. Before I could think, my mouth opened and I said, “I’m great at those.” I whipped out my brochure to prove it. He asked if I wanted to write some and I said YES! He said he’d get in contact. And he did. First, I was asked to write four books about a pet club. I created four characters each with their own pet. They are best friends and have adventures together. Then my editor asked for four more. They were fun to write. And the illustrator, Mike Bryne did a great job.


BBS:   You ultimately did publish three NF books with Rourke Publishing…and they are both interesting and gorgeous. Please tell the educators, media specialists, and parents who are reading this all about them.

GH:     Those are my food web books:

Arctic Appetizers: Studying Food Webs in the Arctic

Freshwater Feeders: Studying Food Webs in Freshwater

Makers and Takers: Studying Food Webs in the Oceans.

They are written for third – fifth graders. Besides focusing on food webs (the study of plants and animals in a certain habitat and what eats what), they discuss ways to keep our environment clean. I also talked with experts who study food webs. One was a biological oceanographer who works on ships frozen in the arctic. Another was a professor who takes his biology classes on scuba diving trips off the coast of South America to study food webs in kelp forests. I tried to show kids that the world is full of interesting occupations waiting for them.


BBS:   The business of publishing children’s books is not an easy one, and writers of color often have unique challenges to face in both the selling and marketing of their work. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way? How have you dealt with/overcome them?

GH:     I’ve read the studies showing the tiny percentage of books written and/or illustrated by people of color compared to the total number of children’s books published.  It is disheartening.

I’ve also found when I talk to teachers and librarians, they are not aware of the books that are published. If they don’t know about them, their students probably haven’t been exposed to them either. I present workshops that introduce these books that are flying under the radar. They are wonderful books and the teachers and librarians are thrilled to see them.


BBS:   Whether as teacher or author, your commitment to the education of children is clear. What is the greatest hope you have for this current generation of kids? How can we help bring it to fruition? What role can literature play?

GH:     I hope that kids will be curious about the world around them. That they’ll never stop wanting to learn. I also hope they will read all kinds of books, especially those who claim they don’t like to read. It just takes that one special book to ignite a passion for reading. As a teacher, if a student said they didn’t like books, I tried to find one in my library I thought they might like. I even put a book in a manila envelope for a boy so his friends wouldn’t know he was reading for fun. We must work hard to put books into the hands of kids.


BBS:   What projects do you have in the works now?

GH:     I am hard at work on a picture book biography.


BBS:   Markers, colored pencils, or crayons?

GH:     Crayons – It’s hard to find sky blue.


BBS:   Godiva truffles or a Snickers bar?

GH:     Godiva truffles


BBS:   What’s the last childlike thing you did in public?

GH:     I rode the carousel at the mall.


BBS:   Thanks so much for your time, Gwen!

GH:     Thank you. It is an honor to be Day 24.


Learn more about Gwendolyn at www.gwendolynhooks.com .

Where Do We Go From Here? Continuing the Conversation

January 24, 2017

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, in the second of these posts, are some thoughts from award-winning authors, artists, and creators, including Kekla Magoon-KM (Shadows of Sherwood, X: A Novel, How It Went Down), Wade Hudson-WH, author (Jamal’s Busy Day, In Praise of Our Mothers and Fathers, Book of Black Heroes) and publisher of the storied Just Us Books, Margaree King Mitchell-MKM (When Grandmama Sings, Uncle Jed’s Barbershop), and Johnny Ray Moore-JRM, (Meet Martin Luther King, Jr., Howie Has A Stomachache).

Why did you sign the Declaration?

I signed because I believe in the vision of supporting our children through art, and because it’s important in moments of social change or upheaval in my life to stop, reflect, consider, and ultimately recommit myself to my goals. Being part of a thriving creative community that fights to bring truth and light to young readers through art and storytelling has long been one of my personal and professional goals, and being a part of this Declaration affirms that intention.” -KM

“I signed because, I just can’t sit and watch what my BLACK ANCESTORS fought and died for be viewed as being unimportant. I am determined to continue the fight for justice and equality.“-JRM

“I signed the declaration because it is important that all children see themselves depicted in books. There are many stories in the lives of children that are not being told. All children need to see their lives depicted in books and in movies and know that their lives matter. I will continue to create authentic representations of children and tell their stories honestly and in the process, inspire them to be the best they can be.”-MKM

“I wanted to add my voice to those in the children’s and young adult book community who were determined to take a stand in support of our children, those for whom we create our books. I think it was (is) a powerful statement of commitment and dedication to a better future, and one in which our children are not just bystanders. The truth is, the kind of future we cultivate, water and fertilize, is for them. I was so elated by the number of folks who signed. It was a major success on this long road to the kind of world, kind of future most of us desire, inclusive, respectful of differences, nurturing and empowering.”-WH

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

“Art and activism go hand in hand. We create art from the deepest parts of ourselves, the parts that crave connection and belonging and to make our mark on the world. These are the same, most deeply individual and deeply human, parts of ourselves that cause us to strive to create a better world. The beauty of art is the ability to look at what is going on in the world and speak to it and about it from many different angles. That ability to see the world through a new lens, and the constant re-evaluation and challenging of the status quo is a core aspect of effective activism.

I’m influenced by generations of artists that have gone before, and who have attempted to shed light on the harshest conditions of life in our world through beautiful language. A handful of my favorites include Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, and James Baldwin. They used their words for activism, directly and indirectly, and the best community organizers and educators I know today still use these artists’ now-famous words to inspire and uplift new generations of activists.”-KM

I, Johnny Ray Moore, am art in the flesh, trailblazing and warring for what is right for our Black Community, first. Then, I keep trailblazing and warring for all who can’t or won’t do for themselves, for whatever reason.

I am influenced by JESUS CHRIST. He died for wretched ole me, so I might bring glory to The Kingdom of GOD, and help others step out into a better day.”-JRM

“There is a quote by Cesar Cruz which states: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Art transcends entertainment. We use our art to paint the world through our experiences. And those experiences touch others who have had had similar experiences. Whether a book, a painting, or a song, art can touch people to their core. Art activists I admire and have influenced me are Elizabeth Catlett, Sonia Sanchez, Zora Neale Hurston, Lena Horne, Ntozake Shange, and Christine Taylor Butler. “-MKM

Wade Hudson Quote
First, I think I need to share simple definitions of art and activism that work for me. For me, art is an outlet of creative expression normally influenced by culture and that is used to comment on that culture in some way. Activism is a focused and concentrated effort to bring about change in society, or to address a ill, that the activist feels will help make the society in which he or she lives, a fairer and better place.
So, with those definitions, I’ll say that I believe art and activism have been partners in battle for a very long time for us in this country. The style of delivering God’s Word to congregations by Black preachers can be considered art. I believe Nat Turner used that artistic style to inspire and motivate his followers to activism, to revolt. Frederick Douglass used the art of the written word, as well as his oratory (he was an ordained minister), in the cause to abolish slavery. Edmonia Lewis’s sculptures addressed the enslavement of her people, but she also worked on the Underground Railroad and organized support for the first Black regiment that fought in the Civil War. Spirituals were songs that lifted spirits, but some were encoded with signs and directions to assist slaves escaping to freedom. Black churches, and other black institutions, were born out of activism, with Black folks saying, okay, if you won’t allow us to be included, we’ll start our own. The truth is, I believe activism is a part of our DNA. Essentially, I am saying that art and activism more than intersect, they are married.
When I was growing up in Mansfield, LA, a small country town, the public library was for Whites only and there was no library in the Black community. Our school had a small library that contained books that were discarded by the white schools and the segregated library. Obviously, there were only a few books about Black history, Black culture, Black experiences. But as a young boy, I read the books in our library, books that focused on the White experience, the Western experience. As I continued to read them (that’s all that was there) I began to force myself into those pages, even though I was left out. For example, I ran across William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” in a collection of poems. I appropriated that poem to my experience and my challenges as a Black boy growing up in Mansfield.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

That poem spoke to me. I didn’t care about William Ernest Henley’s intent or purpose. That was my poem because it articulated how I felt, but could not put to words. “My head is bloody, but unbowed.” For me, that line meant, “my people are abused and mistreated, but they are still strong.” “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” That meant, “we have the determination and the will to change things.” That was an activist poem, because it, among so much more, helped to inspire and motivate me to become an activist. As I got older, and especially after I left Mansfield to go to college, I was exposed to a world of literature written by folks like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Haki Madhabuti, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni and others that helped to fuel my activism.”-WH

What next steps do you plan to take to carry out your pledge?
I plan to keep writing powerful stories for young readers. All I can do is use my own gifts, which include writing and storytelling, to try to bring injustice to light and share inspiration, empowerment and hope with the next generation. As part of this work, I follow my books into the world, offering author presentations and workshops around the country to help continue the conversation around literature, black history, civil rights organizing and social justice.”-KM

“I am creating stories for children, teens, and adults to showcase the rich stories of black people, not only through books, but through film and the stage as well.“-MKM

“I will continue to write in as many genres, possible, and entice; educate; and, motivate our youth and others to simply, HAVE FAITH, THEN, DO!“-JRM

“When we first started Just Us Books in the late 1980s, we recognized that a major part of our efforts to promote and sell the books we were publishing would require educating a significant segment of our market. So, we went wherever we could, sharing the importance of reading and books, presenting how books could be used to establish a family reading tradition and cultivating an appreciation for reading, etc. We did this utilizing workshops, book readings, one-on-one interactions at schools, parent/teacher organizations, churches, community organizations, etc. After a number of years of doing this (and it is hard work), we felt we could move to the more traditional model of selling and marketing our books.
I think today, the strategy we used during the early years, is still the way to go to reach more people. There is still a need to meet them where they are rather than assuming what they know and don’t know.
So, we are reaching out again to educate people rather than to merely sell to them. Whether it is via social media, workshops and author presentations, we include sharing why books are important and discuss ways that books can and should be a part of family and community interactions. And it’s not just reaching parents of children, but grandparents, uncles, aunt, cousins, godparents and family friends. A book is a gift that keeps on giving. We are renewing our efforts to take our message and books to various communities.
We are reaching out to more literacy organizations and after school programs. We continue to look for new voices, new illustrators, and often refer these talented book creators to other publishers if there is no room on our list. And, using a word used often by Frederick Douglass, we continue to “agitate, agitate, agitate” for more diversity, inclusion and equity in children’s literature, including staffing, whenever and wherever we can.”-WH

How would you like to see the children’s publishing industry do its best to support our children?
“I’d like to see the publishing industry take off the blinders and be serious and true in their dealings in regards to publishing books that should inspire our youth to do their very best. I challenge the industry to stop thinking black and white, and start thinking equality and justice for all GOD’S children. Life is not a silly venture to be taken lightly.”-JRM

“It is not enough for agents and editors to say they want #ownstories. Books have to connect with agents and editors before they will embrace them. If their worldview is white suburban or white middle class city life, then agents and editors say that books depicting different environments are not for them. They can’t identify with the characters. For example, they only accept stories showing the antebellum South because that is still their principle view of African Americans. Therefore, the publishing industry needs to have agents and editors with more diverse backgrounds.“-MKM

“This is a very challenging time in so many ways and in so many different aspects. We have a new president is who has, in many ways, opened the door to the dark side in our country where racism, homophobia, xenophobia, disrespect, selfishness and just down right nastiness live. These evils are not new. But they now have a more visible platform from which to do their damage. Our responsibilities as book creators, whether we are writers, illustrators or publishers, are crucial. We must counter and fight against this push to make the dark side pervasive and encompassing.
Through our work, the lives that we live, we can lift and give platform for our children, a more caring, respectful, loving and tolerant vision of the world in which they must live. Publishing companies must be bold and aggressive in as they embrace and implement this vision which has provided light and direction for our journeys. We have already seen how some school children have turned against fellow students because they happen to be different. Some of these incidents have been violent. The clear majority of them have occurred since Donald Trump’s candidacy and subsequent election.
Future children’s and young adult books that are published must educate and help children better understand themselves, their families, their communities and the world in which they live. These books should help children understand that despite our many differences, all people share common feelings and aspirations. And that love, tolerance, fairness, peace, respect and justice are desirable. When obstacles and challenges happen, as they most assuredly will, these lofty goals will help see us through. We have much to do!!”-WH

“I’d like to see children’s publishing continue to seek and publish new voices, and to find power and value in stories that originate from many different walks of life. There is such richness in diversity, and there is no better way to see the world more clearly than to challenge ourselves to see ourselves as we might be seen through others’ eyes.“-KM

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: Sharon G. Flake

January 19, 2017



sharon-flakeAs I read through Sharon G. Flake’s website, I realized we have a lot in common. I also dropped a book in the bathtub. I didn’t put it in the oven though, I stuffed paper towels between the pages. So mine was water wrinkled, but unburnt.

Ms. Flake has been very busy since her original 28 Days Later 2010 post. The Unstoppable Octobia May is a historical mystery novel (Scholastic Press 2015). Another novel, Pinned (Scholastic Press 2014) features a struggling reader and gifted wrestler. She has written a picture book You Are Not a Cat! (Boyds Mills 2016). In 2018, her stort story for We Need Diverse Books Anthology will hit the shelves.

She is completing another novel and planning a fall trip to the Middle East for school visits. Speaking of school visits, Ms. Flake has presented to more than 180,000 students. WOW!

From 28 Days Later 2010–

Sharon G. Flake has been a force in writing for children and young adults since 1998, when her first novel, The Skin I’m In, was published by editor Andrea Davis Pinkney at Disney-Hyperion’s Jump at the Sun Imprint. The novel was peppered with accolades, including being named a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Books of the Year. The novel also earned Flake her first recognition by the Coretta Scott King Award Committee, which honored the author the John Steptoe award for new talent.

Since then, Flakesharon-flake-photo-face has published six books, with a seventh, You Don’t Even Know Me, scheduled to hit bookstores on February 16th. You Don’t Even Know Me, a collection of stories and poems, aims to disprove old stereotypes about boys by showing them in a multitude of situations. The book has already been named a Junior Library Guild Selection, with many more accolades sure to follow.

We are proud and honored to highlight Sharon G. Flake as a Vanguard author for this year’s 28 Days Later.

Like most of your fans, I love your first novel, The Skin I’m In. How often do you get asked to write a sequel, and have you ever considered the idea?

I am asked many, many times a month if I will write a sequel to The Skin I’m In. I always tell readers that I won’t be doing one. The book is so well-loved, anything I do as a second act most likely wouldn’t live up to the first. Sometimes we need to quit while we’re ahead. But there are days when I do think, “What if Maleeka were seventeen or a grown up and married? What would she be up to?”

According to your website, you wrote your first novel while working at the University of Pittsburgh. Now, you’re a full-time author. What does your typical writing day look like?

I’m up early, most times around 7 a.m. but sometimes I get up in the wee hours of the morning say around four a.m. and write. PJ’s are my clothing of choice for much of the morning. I write about three to four hours a day (weekdays). If I’m under deadline, I might write up to eight hours a day, including weekends. I’m answering email , letters, all day long, responding to students, librarians or parents and their thoughts on my work, or scheduling visits. I update my website, check out Facebook, take some time off to watch Divorce Court (I love that show), walk the dog, have tea, back to email, talk with agent or editor or publicist (or all three)…Kicking back and reading a little of this or that is typical as well. And oh yes, I talk to my mom and a few other people who still wonder what authors do all day long.

What drew you to write your latest work, You Don’t Even Know Me?

I’ve been struggling with another novel for a few years now–my first time doing real brain drain battle with a novel, by the way. The book won, sort of, I put it on hold and decided for my brains sake to do something shorter; another collection of short stories, but this time for boys. Young men always ask me to write something about them. And boys, like girls, are always on my mind. I always feel like we can say more about them, tell fuller stories. That as adults, we can engage them in a different kind of dialogue in and outside of class, and that literature is a great way to do that.

Most of your novels feature girls as main characters. Did you have any problems with writing from a boy’s point-of-view in You Don’t Even Know Me?

I’m getting this question a lot. But people forget that for almost twelve years now I’ve spent a lot of time with boys–as characters, that is. The young men in my novels have always had a lot to say and have been very present. In Bang! and Who Am I Without Him: short stories and poems about girls, young men talk of many things, love; living with violence; outwitting possessive aunts; working through relationships, grief and lost; and learning to use ones’ gifts for good. In The Skin I’m In there is Caleb and John John and Maleeka’s deceased father.

Here is how I see it: Girls and boys don’t live on separate planets. They sit side by side in class, argue at home or on the baseball field, and cuddle on dates at the movies. They are ever present in each other’s lives so I guess from the start I never thought twice about writing from a boy’s point of view. From time to time, however, I’d have to remind myself that something I just wrote was more likely to come out of a girl’s mouth, rather than a boy’s.

Your latest two books are collections of shorter pieces—short stories and poems. What drew you to writing this style of book?

It’s funny, after I wrote Who Am I Without Him, people said to me, that there was this philosophy in the industry that young people didn’t read short stories. I’d never heard that. I tend to follow my gut when I write things, not trends. When I wrote Who Am I Without Him, I wanted to look at relationships between boys and girls. I prayed about it and the title popped in my head and so I went with it. It’s been a big seller. After that, I said I wouldn’t write another short story collection. I tend to write books and keep moving. What short stories do, however, is allow me to showcase young people in many different ways. For instance, in my new novel, a young man gets married; one boy talks about loving Cinnamon, Chocolate Beige girls while another boy in another poem says white is what he likes. Middle class boys speak up about what it’s like being them, and even younger boys have their say: one talks about what it’s like being stuck in puberty while another says fearlessly, When I am president of the world I’ll move the White House to Harlem, Outlaw guns especially the ones they make to take out you and me. A young man who is used to looking out for his mom, gets chased after by an older woman; while another boy wrestles with getting even and still more wrestle with that thing called love. Fathers play a big role in this novel, too. And not just birth fathers, but step dads, adopted dads, granddads and surrogate fathers. There are so many boys speaking their own truths in this novel, that I think it will spark all sorts of conversations in school, church, at home and community centers. I’m hoping it will help people take young men out of boxes, you know the boxes that say young men don’t read; don’t care about relationships; won’t discuss certain subjects.

Csharon-flake-bang-book-coveran you share some advice for any aspiring authors?

1) Write. It’s the only way to improve.

2) Join a writing group, even if it’s just for six months or a year. There’s something about being in the company of other writers, especially at the beginning, that helps push you along; builds your confidence; helps you understand the industry, and makes you think you can do this writing thing.

3) Pay attention to voice. Every word you write should be read out loud, no matter how many times you re-write. It will let you hear just how authentic your character’s voices really are.

4) Remember when you are writing, you are not leading a parade, you are following one. Be present. Don’t worry about what your character will do next, stay with them in the now and they will take you to the next place. I never know what is going to happen in a short story or novel. I am as surprised to know what will happen at the bottom of the first page or second, as any other reader. If you can suspend your mind and follow your gut than your writing will be fresh and your stories will have their own unique flavor.

Can you tell us a little about your next project?

If I did, some people would have to disappear:-) Mums the word. People will just have to watch and see.

Believe me, Sharon, we will!

Website: SharonGFlake.com

Her Latest:

you-are-not-a-cat2 octobia-may


We Are Here: Announcing The Honorees

January 17, 2017

28dayslogo“Where can I find black children’s books?” It’s a question asked by kids, parents, teachers, librarians and other readers. The Brown Bookshelf was founded a decade ago to advocate for more visibility and support and to be a go-to resource. Through our signature campaign, 28 Days Later,  we’ve featured more than 200 black children’s book creators. Today, we are proud to announce our 10th class of honorees.

For this milestone, we’re using a special format. Each week of our Black History Month celebration will showcase a different theme. We’ll kick off the party with creators of books for younger readers. Next, we’ll highlight ones with titles for older children and teens, those with outstanding social justice books and end with authors and illustrators who have inspired us on our personal journeys.

Stay tuned for exciting news, resources and partnerships throughout our anniversary year. Our first surprise . . . Drum roll please  . . . TeachingBooks.net has created this free link full of multimedia resources by each our 2017 honorees. Thank you to Nick Glass, Carin Bringelson and their staff for partnering with us to offer this treasure trove of information.

Please spread the word and join us in saluting these outstanding authors and illustrators:

New Voices Younger:
Feb. 1 – Andrea J. Loney
Feb. 2 – Ron Husband
Feb. 3 – Nikkolas Smith
Feb. 4 – Nadia Hohn
Feb. 5 – Olive Senior
Feb. 6 – Latisha Redding
Feb. 7 – Jeffery Weatherford

New Voices Older:
Feb. 8 – Leah Henderson
Feb. 9 – Sarah Everett
Feb. 10 – Linda Williams Jackson
Feb. 11 – Michael Cottman
Feb. 12 – Margot Lee Shetterly
Feb. 13 – Ibi Zoboi
Feb. 14 – Christine Kendall

Social Justice:
Feb. 15 – Maya Penn
Feb. 16 – Alix Delinois
Feb. 17 – Angie Thomas
Feb. 18 – Benjamin Zephaniah
Feb. 19 – Anaya Lee Willabus
Feb. 20 – Michael S. Bandy

Feb. 21 – Rita Williams Garcia
Feb. 22 – Salva Dut
Feb. 23 – Jason Reynolds & Javaka Steptoe
Feb. 24 – Andrea Davis Pinkney
Feb. 25 – Rosa Guy
Feb. 26 – Eloise Greenfield & Jacqueline Woodson
Feb. 27 – Vanessa Brantley Newton
Feb. 28 – Eric Velasquez

Carla Sarratt: Looking Back, Looking Forward

January 16, 2017


In honor of our 10th anniversary, we are proud to share this reflection by Carla Sarratt, one of our founding members.  Carla, an invaluable member of our team, worked diligently to help The Brown Bookshelf connect with teachers, librarians and kids. Today, she has a special view of two sides of the publishing world – children’s book creator and librarian. Welcome back, Carla.

Ten years ago on a Saturday morning in January, I held a copy of my first book in my hand. It was a private yet triumphant moment, just me and Freshman Focus in its purple colored cover glory. In a way, it was the birth of my first child. The book began as a dream in 2002 and slowly came to life until its birth, its publication in 2007 and I was proud to repeat it when the second book was published in 2008.

It was an honor to be invited to join The Brown Bookshelf in 2007 and to represent self-published children’s authors. I learned a lot about the publishing community and life as an author and illustrator from the inaugural group as well as the authors we spotlighted from the 28 Days Later campaigns. We were inspired by the work of readergirlz who were promoting strong girls in books in addition to other initiatives. It was great to unite with a group of authors to promote the writing and illustrating of African Americans.

Today I visit The Brown Bookshelf not as an author, but as a librarian. When I wrote about Charlemae Hill Rollins in 2007 lauding her as a Brown Bookshelf trailblazer, who knew that I would take strides to join the profession? While I am not a children’s librarian like Mrs. Rollins, I frequently interact with younger patrons and get excited when I see them checking out and requesting Derrick Barnes’ Ruby Booker series or Carole Boston Weatherford’s titles.

collage1Since I left The Brown Bookshelf in 2009, I have remained an avid reader, of course, but I stopped writing. Occasionally I have story ideas come to mind because of things I read, wondered, or learned about from various outlets, including Pinterest. I adore Pinterest! I keep the words of Toni Morrison in the back of my mind — “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” — and they occasionally call to me when I encounter possible story ideas. I recently visited the Smithsonian quotetoniNational Museum of African American History and Culture and was filled with so many possible stories to tell and people to laud.

While working on my Master of Library Science degree at North Carolina Central University, I was able to hear Kadir Nelson speak about his journey as an illustrator and author at Quail Ridge Books. I attended Kelly Starling Lyons’ launch party for Ellen’s Broom and met Eleanora E. Tate over dinner where she gifted copies of The Minstrel’s Melody.   I also interned at the State Library of North Carolina in Raleigh and later worked as a librarian with the African American Cultural Center at NC State University. While working at NC State, I finally met Brown Bookshelf member Don Tate when he came to the area to promote Hope’s Gift at area libraries and schools. We were able to host him on campus for a group of middle school students and campus faculty where he gave an engaging presentation about his career as well and impressed us with early drawings.

collage2The Brown Bookshelf remains a part of my life. I smile when I see books in my library written by Brown Bookshelf members as well as the authors and illustrators who have been spotlighted in the past. I feel a sense of pride when I see mention of The Brown Bookshelf around social media. I was psyched to sit in the audience of a workshop led by The Brown Bookshelf at the 2016 American Library Association’s annual conference in Orlando and listen to them discuss the importance of The Brown Bookshelf, their writing, and the legacies of those who paved the way for today’s African American children’s authors and illustrators.

Part of what made my experience in Orlando so special was seeing the members of The Brown Bookshelf gathered, leading workshops, and signing books. How gratifying to know that more librarians will know of their work as authors and a collective group and share their books with their patrons. It was great to finally meet Varian Johnson and tell him that The Great Greene Heist was a selection for the North Carolina Middle School Battle of the Books during the previous school year.

Years ago, when I finished writing Freshman Focus, I sought out traditional publishing and sent out query letters to prospective agents. I remember being told that it was not realistic that Black people were so educated in my books (referring to the parents of my main characters who were all college educated) and that Black people don’t speak that well. It felt like a slap in the face that in 2003, Black people were seen as lacking good education nor did they have the ability to speak the English language well. Those words came back to me this summer listening to presentations from Lee & Low Books as well as the panel discussions led by The Brown Bookshelf and other minority authors. They resonated with me when the conversation mentioned how books should be more than a mirror, but a window. The window allows us to see more than just a reflection of our own lives and experiences, but to see and experience the lives of those who are different from us in a myriad of ways. When we read those window books, we learn, we grow, and we are able to better appreciate those who are different from us, be it their racial ethnicity, sexuality, faith, or language. America is frequently touted as a melting pot, but how can that be when people who are in leadership positions lack the insight into basic ways of life for its minority citizens?

Those misconceptions are what make We Need Diverse Books and The Brown Bookshelf as well as its recent Declaration in Support of Children so vital. Children’s literature is a great way to teach young children about the world and the diversity of its people and their experiences. Diverse children’s literature shows that it is possible and quite common for African Americans to have college educations, speak well, take vacations, and so much more. Diversity in literature reduces the mirrors and increases the windows, increases respect and empathy for other people, their faith, their abilities, their special needs, their culture, and their sexuality. We have so much to learn about each other and well-written literature aids in that education.

The Brown Bookshelf and its supporters must continue to champion the cause to create more diverse literature, but we must also have more opportunities for authors to create and share those stories.

In my role as a librarian, I work with aspiring and self-published authors in my community. I plan events for NaNoWriMo as well as Indie Author Day. I connect patrons who aspire to write and publish with various library resources for them. My work has reawakened a latent desire to write again and join the ranks of published authors. To paraphrase the Declaration in Support of Children, it is my goal to sow seeds of wisdom and possibility, to move and inspire, to encourage, and to entertain.