Throwback: London Ladd

January 12, 2017

We last highlighted London Ladd during our 2009 28 Days Later campaign. Since that time, Ladd went on to illustrate many more award-winning picture books including Under the Freedom Tree, written by Susan VanHecke, Lend a Hand: Poems About Giving, written by John Frank, and Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass, written by Doreen Rappaport. Here is a throwback to our original post.n

londonladdEvery now and then, a new artist sneaks onto the children’s literary stage and dazzles us with such unbridled talent, that we’re left standing on our tippy-toes begging for an encore. Last year, one of those artists was London Ladd.

Ladd made his debut illustrating the book March On!, written by the sister of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Christine King Farris. With this book, Farris offered her account of the day Dr. King delivered his historic I Have a Dream speech. The book published last month, on the 45th anniversary of King’s march on Washington.

In a video, Ladd talked about living his dream illustrating children’s books, and about the day when March On! published. The excitement in his eyes sparkled as he recalled the day he gathered up his family and headed for the book store to take pictures.

When he’s not illustrating, you’ll find him teaching art at the Kuumba Project, an after school program that introduces visual and performing arts to inner city kids.

Here’s my chat with London Ladd:

Don: How did you become involved in the March On! project?

28593667London: Andrea Davis Pinkney hired me after a mutual acquaintance of ours referred her to my website. She liked my work and thought it would be perfect for this project.

How did you become interested in illustrating for children?

London: I wanted to bring words to life for children with my artwork. My first love was comic books, especially graphic novels. I loved the imagery and storytelling that came across in these books.

What kind of training have you received to prepare for your career as an artist?

London: I graduated at Syracuse University where I received my degree in illustration. I was lucky enough to study with great illustrators like James Ransome, Bob Dacey, Yvonne Buchanan, John Thompson and Roger DeMuth who taught various aspects of not only illustration but design and painting.

mlk-with-leaders What is your mission as an artist?

London: That’s a great question, I think my mission is to tell a story with beautiful vivid illustrations that children will enjoy.

What is your primary medium?

London: Acrylic paint on Bristol board because it doesn’t rip, buckle or bend, when I’m painting on it. I also love painting in my sketchbook. The Earthbound recycled paper is the best at handling thin washes and/or heavy opaque layers.

Tell us about your process of illustrating a children’s book.

London: After I except the project I read the manuscript over and over so I can understand what’s being said by the author. I really try to find myself in the story because then it becomes more personal to me, like a form of “method illustrating.” This gives me a better understanding of the projects composition, design and color choices. I quickly sketch down ideas and keep sketching then I put the drawings away for a few days and do some research. When I return I combine my research and refined sketches to compose the dummy book. I send the dummy book to the publisher and after they review and make suggestions I begin the paintings for the final art work. When art work is completed I package it and send to the publisher.

What inspires you as an illustrator? Are there certain topics/stories you enjoy more than others?

London: I love history so anything historical fascinates me because it allows me to learn while working. African American history especially interests me because there are so many untold stories.

mlk What were the biggest challenges in illustrating March On!

London: I wanted to create an MLK that conveys an intimate feeling, a behind the scenes perspective without making him too iconic. Christine’s story is a personal first hand account so I wanted to show him as an ordinary man who happened to do something extraordinary. There are so many books, magazine articles, photos, documentaries, etc, about Martin Luther King Jr., I wanted my vision to be unique.

How long does it typically take you to illustrate a children’s book, and how do you balance work, family, and other?

London: The entire process from first call to handing in finished work takes 7-9 months depending on the subject matter. Sometimes it’s difficult to juggle everything with my families various schedules. But we make an effort to really spend quality time together.

Do you visit schools, and can you speak a bit about your program?

London: Yes, I started visiting schools recently. During these visits I talk about my personal journey from student to illustrator. I explain the career of an illustrator and I try to inspire the kids to persistently reach for their dreams no matter their circumstance. I share with them the struggles that I experienced and how it built my character. I want kids to know that they can achieve any level of success if they put their mind and heart to it.

What are your interest/hobbies beyond art?

London: I love to travel and enjoy being around my extended family. In the summers I like visiting state parks around the State of New York.

What were some of your favorite books as a child?

London: I don’t remember any children’s books as a child only comic books but I know the first children’s book I gave to my daughter, Goodnight Moon. I love that book, not just because of the sentimental value but also the simplicity of everything about it, from the words to the illustrations.

Who are some of your favorite children’s book authors and illustrators today? And why.

London: There are so many illustrators whom I admire because they blazed the path and are successful and so amazingly talented.

Jerry Pinkney, Ashley Brian, Floyd Copper, Leo and Diane Dillon, James Ransome, Brian Collier, Kadir Nelson, Shane Evans, Ezra Jack Keats, E. B. Lewis, Greg Manchess, John Thompson, Bob Dacey, Yvonne Buchanan, James Garney, N.C. Wyeth.

the-long-night-thumbAs an illustrator who is African American, do you ever feel the pressured to illustrate certain types of manuscripts?

London: To be honest with you as an artist just entering the field I am grateful to illustrate books regardless of the subject. As long as they are good quality projects that are interesting and challenging I am open to them. If these projects happen to be African-American themed I’m fine with it. Maybe after a few years I’ll feel differently and want to do other types of projects.

Who are your cheerleaders, those who cheer loudest for you along the way?

London: My wife, daughter and mother, they’ve been there with me from the beginning through the good and the bad that’s why I dedicated the book to them.

What advice can you offer to aspiring illustrators of children’s books.

London: Passion, Perseverance and Patience. Passion in what you do, perseverance to fight through tough times and patience in knowing that you will reach your goal.

What can your fans look forward to in the future?

London: I’m currently working on my second children’s book which is about a well-known African American. I’m excited and blessed to have an opportunity to do what I love.

Buzz about March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World

Ladd, in his first picture book, demonstrates a rare talent for portraiture-even the faces in his crowd scenes are individuated. Like Farris, he resists the temptation to lionize his subject: instead of looking iconic, his King looks human-in other words, capable of inspiring the reader.

–Publisher’s Weekly

Ladd’s acrylic paintings are an excellent accompaniment to the text. His use of color and varying perspectives creates a great deal of visual energy, extending the excitement of the event.

–School Library Journal

Ladd, a talented figure painter and first-time picture-book illustrator, offers his own fresh and affecting take on these now familiar events; his images expand and enliven the well-known facts and ably expand on Farris’s powerful family story.

–Kirkus Reviews


January 5, 2017

sundee3There is a Maya Angelo quote on Sundee Frazier’s website.  It reads “You cannot use up creativity.  The more you use, the more you have.”

This is the perfect quote for Sundee.  Since her first spotlight on The Brown Bookshelf’s 28 Days later program back in 2008, she has published three more wonderful books:  THE OTHER HALF OF MY HEART, BRENDAN BUCKLEY’S SIX-GRADE EXPERIMENT, and CLEO EDISON OLIVER – PLAYGROUND MILLIONAIRE, for which she received a starred review from Kirkus!

It is our honor, on this Throwback Thursday, to spotlight:


Steptoe’s and Coretta Scott King’s…oh my.

In a blink of an eye publishing time (so more like a slow droop) Sundee Frazier went from debut author to award-winning author. It’s the honor of an elite few, but the dream of many.

With Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in it snug on shelves with its new shiny Steptoe Award Winner sticker, I caught up with Sundee during a most perfect time – that window between the wonder of it all and the reality.

BBS: How did you find out you’d won the John Steptoe award? Describe the moment. What were you doing?

Sundee: I opened my email inbox that morning to several messages titled, “Congratulations!” The first one I read was from MT Anderson because I thought, “Why in the world is this children’s literature giant writing little ol’ me?”

He said that Vermont College (he was the faculty chair there when I earned my MFA) was very proud but didn’t tell me for what.

The second email I opened was from my agent, Regina Brooks. She had heard through the grapevine I’d won the award, but needed to confirm.

After my husband got on the Internet and found the ALA press release, I realized I should probably check my voicemail. Sure enough, there were messages from the Coretta Scott King committee chair and my editor, and I knew it had really happened. I was ecstatic.

BBS: How has the landscape changed for the book? Has there been a jump in orders from stores/libraries or sales? Are you seeing or hearing about it being in bookstores, across the nation, that it wasn’t before?

Sundee: Well, the day of the announcement my book’s ranking rocketed from around 700,000 to 4,500! So that says something.

It has continued to do well on various sub-category lists on Amazon. And my publisher immediately ordered a second printing of the book, so there are double the copies out there now.

My husband was in Milwaukee for business in early February and found three copies at Barnes & Noble (as far as I know, the chain didn’t originally pick up my book on any widespread basis) – and they already had the medallions on the covers! That was exciting to hear. So, yes, I’d say the exposure was very helpful for getting the book into more libraries and stores.

BBS: Brendan Buckley tells the tale of a bi-racial boy. You’re filling two literary voids with one story. Why this story? Why now?

Sundee: As for why now, some people may think I strategically picked this topic because of the rising numbers of biracial children or the increasing interest in the biracial experience or even the dialogue around a certain presidential candidate’s ethnic identity.

In truth, I had no idea what this story would turn out to be when I started. I knew the main character was biracial, with a black dad and a white mom, but the character actually started as a girl. Yes, Brendan Buckley was originally Brenda Buckley!

I changed the character to a boy, again, not out of some strategic marketing choice, but because I woke up one morning and realized the character was supposed to be a boy. The change actually helped free up my imagination – I was able to let Brendan be who he was instead of continually seeing myself as a kid as I wrote.

The farther I got into the story, I realized I was really asking the question, “What if my white grandparents, who were initially against my parents’ interracial relationship, had never turned around?”

As it was, I grew up knowing both sides of my family and had close relationships with all of my grandparents, but I thought it would be interesting to explore a family that has splintered because of a white parent’s inability to accept his daughter’s choice and the effect of that on the grandchild. Unfortunately, families are still torn apart to this day over this kind of racial and ethnic intolerance and rejection.

BBS: Writers like to playfully debate, if given a choice, whether they’d choose critical or commercial success? Assuming your Steptoe award leads to greater commercial success, what would your answer have been prior to the win? And what’s your feeling on the topic now that you’re in the midst of it? Has it impacted your writing process or writing at all?

Sundee: I have always been more interested in critical success, but if I’m honest, I figured if I achieved critical success, my books would sell well, too!

My feeling on the topic now (as well as before the award) is that I always want to write the best story I can. “Best” to me means moving readers, broadening their understanding of themselves and others, and most of all, helping kids know they’re not alone in the things they think and feel.

BBS: I’ve often said that I’ve felt “invisible” because there were so few books that portrayed my own teen upbringing and my daughter’s (suburban, middle class African Americans). Talk a bit about that “invisible” feeling as it relates to literature and being bi-racial.

Sundee: I’m so glad you’ve brought this up. People tend to think of racial groups (racial minority groups, in particular) as being monolithic, when in fact there is a wealth of diversity and a broad range of experiences even within our groups. I certainly didn’t have any books growing up that portrayed biracial kids. I don’t think the term “biracial” even existed!

Obviously that is changing, and I’m glad to be able to contribute stories that validate the existence of kids growing up in interracial families or who are conscious of their mixed racial heritage.

I’ve often said that being biracial can feel like being a “minority within a minority,” so it can be a lonely experience, but on the other hand, the more I accept myself and my particular experience of being African American, the more I find people who accept me, as well. And the fact that Brendan Buckley’s Universe was chosen for the John Steptoe award tells me there’s a growing acceptance of our diversity as African Americans. That’s encouraging to me.

BBS: Often we’re forced to either focus on the race of characters or we tell ourselves, race shouldn’t matter to a story. But why do you think it’s important that there be portrayals of mixed race characters?

Sundee: Race has been a significant shaping factor in my life, so it’s going to play a role in the stories I tell. There’s just no way around that, and I don’t want to get around it because I believe it’s a big part of what will become my unique contribution to the field of children’s literature.

I want mixed race kids to know they’re not alone in their experience, and I want to expose other kids to the reality of interracial families.

I also think that what I’ve experienced as a biracial African American is not that different from what many people experience, regardless of race. We all have questions about where we fit, whether we belong, if we’re okay the way we are – adolescents, especially – and these are the kinds of questions my characters are usually asking.

Brendan Buckley knows he’s okay, but his grandfather’s views and past rejection confront him with the reality that not everyone will always think so and propel him forward in his evolving view of himself.

BBS: What’s next for you after Brendan Buckley?

Sundee: Brendan Buckley was sold to Delacorte as a part of a two-book deal. The second book is in process. It’s not a sequel or companion book to Brendan, although I’ve had several requests for one!

I’m working on another middle grade novel – this one about twin biracial girls, one black-appearing, the other white-appearing, who go to stay with their Southern black grandmother when their parents’ marriage falters. The grandmother enters them in a pageant for black pre-teen girls. I’m very interested to see what happens!

The Buzz on…Brendan Buckley’s Universe

“Frazier delivers her messages without using an overly heavy hand.” – Booklist

“This is an absorbing look at a 10-year-old boy who has never had to deal with race and prejudice, who collides into years of anger and hurt in his family and must create a new identity for himself.” – School Library Journal

“A good, accessible selection to inspire discussion of racism and prejudice.” – Kirkus Reviews

Reflections: The Tiny Bigness of Ten Years

January 2, 2017

Do you know what can happen over a span of 10 years?

Let me help you…

Personally, my oldest daughter has grown from a thirteen-year-old into a young woman with a college degree and a full time job (my pockets cry amen).

My youngest has gone from a toddler to a middle-schooler with aspirations to be a professional ballerina. A goal I’ll do whatever I can to help her reach – to the dismay of my wallet.

I’ve gone from a debut author to, dare I say, a veteran with five books under my name and a sixth soon to come.

And that’s to say nothing of the world itself having traveled from a place of hope, as our first Black president came to the end of his first term onto his second, to one of abject confusion as we face the consequences of electing a President supported by bigots and hate groups.

Yes, a lot can happen in ten years. But what hasn’t changed is my passion for the world to embrace a wider variety of books that feature and include characters of color by authors of color. Sure, my absence from The Brown Bookshelf as a contributor might make you wonder about that.  No need to.  I’m as committed to that cause as I was, ten long years ago, when I approached an author I knew only from a message board.  When I think back on it now, I wonder where I got the nerve to think that he and I, me a brand new author and he a relatively new one, could start a movement designed to bring attention to our voices.

Had Varian and I had given any real thought to it, we would have both said no.  It would have made more sense.  We were both WWW – working while writing. In other words, writing was not our full time job. It was something we did on our lunch hours, after our family’s had gone to bed, or on scraps of paper while sitting at a stop light commuting to work. Neither of us had the time, to be truthful. And we were essentially strangers to one another.  All we knew about one another was what we purported to be on the message boards. And yet, he said yes when I said – Hey…maybe we should join forces.

I shouldn’t speak for him, but I believe we did so out of instinct (it was just right) and survival.  We knew we couldn’t entrench ourselves in a bubble of only authors of color. The world is bigger than any one circle you belong to. But we also knew if we didn’t advocate for voices like ours – who would?

Along the way, that instinct led us to invite Kelly and Don into our vision. And they have carried the torch the last five years, inviting new authors to sustain this very important site. I remain in awe of it. Of what it stands for, a beacon for librarians, parents and other gatekeepers of children literature. And of what it is – a strong voice that will never be silenced despite those wishing to dilute the importance of diverse books.

Over the years, I’d sometimes get frustrated. I so badly wanted The Brown Bookshelf to be validated by traditional publishers and traditional news outlets that guided folks to books. I wanted us to be THE voice to help folks find good books featuring our stories.

And early on, we faced mild criticism wanting us to be more inclusive beyond African American authors. After all “brown” encompasses a great many people.

But every good fight starts with a step.  And no war can be waged alone.

The Brown Bookshelf was started to help brown authors – those primarily of African American descent. Along the way, we have made many allies to ensure the message supports inclusion of all types. So it’s doing what we hoped it would.  And while some days I still feel like we’re at the start line of the race to diversify publishing, our Open Declaration in Support of Children is exactly why BBS exists – to galvanize our voices so that inclusion of our stories, by us, is understood to be a right not a privilege.

Happy Anniversary to a warrior in the fight for inclusion. A luta continua*!


*The struggle continues!