Throwback Thursday: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

March 23, 2017

Since we’re on the subject of boys and books from our Monday post, here’s some information about boys and reading:

From The Guardian UK: The truth about boys and books: they read less — and skip pages.
The Nation’s Report Card on student reading scores in 4th and 8th grade show that black children, and boys in particular lag behind other groups.

In light of this, I’d like to throw it back to a February 2015 post by Tameka Brown about an author with loads of boy appeal (though plenty of girls like hoops too).

 

When I went to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s website to get a little background info on him for this post, I discovered a man that has contributed more to our society than I believe most people are aware of. While I don’t have the space to recount all of his accomplishments here, I’ll bullet-point a fraction of them:

  • NBA All-Time Leading Scorer
  • US Cultural Ambassador, 2012
  • California’s STEAM Education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Mathematics) Afterschool Ambassador, 2012
  • Cancer Research Advocate
  • Columnist for TIME Magazine and LA & OC Registers
  • Award-winning Filmaker
  • New York Times Best Selling Author of 9 Titles (including 3 children’s books)
  • Two-time NAACP Image Award Winner (What Color Is My World & On the Shoulders of Giants)

It is his for work as a children’s book author that we celebrate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on this final day of 28 Days Later. The three, well-reviewed children’s titles he has co-authored with Raymond Obstfeld (thus far) are:

 

Streetball Crew Series, Book Two: Stealing the Game

 

“Abdul-Jabbar and Obstfeld…team up for another exploration of the intersection of sports and life conduct. Chris is a good, quiet kid who likes to keep his head down. As he says, ‘I was friendly to everyone but friends with no one.’ Still, if the machinery of thought made much noise, Chris would be a one-man band. For a 13-year-old, he does considerable shrewd, high-ground thinking, as do his friends (‘You know,’ one says, ‘not talking about things doesn’t actually make them disappear’). Where it really shows itself is on the basketball court, where he plays a savvy, court-wise game. Enter his brother, Jax, a golden boy who appears to have fallen from the pedestal upon which his well-intentioned parents have placed him, and Chris’ still waters are about to feel a hefty stone break their surface. Add his classmate Brooke, a sharp girl with plenty of her own baggage, and a waterspout is in the making. The authors’ light hand allows readers to inhabit the characters; to taste the value of respect, dignity and vulnerability; and to embrace the elemental joy of sports-all without ever feeling like they are being tube fed. The shifting structure of the story and a clever series of blind alleys keep readers on tenterhooks. A deft, understated sports thriller with a solid moral compass.”Kirkus

“In another exemplary mix of issues and action both on and off the court, the middle-school cast of Sasquatch in the Paint (2013) returns to take on a team of older, bigger, thuggish rivals amidst a rash of local burglaries. Thirteen-year-old Chris is stunned when his golden-boy big brother, Jax, suddenly shows up at home with gambling debts after (he claims) dropping out of law school. With extreme reluctance, Chris agrees to help Jax get out from under-both by enlisting his street-ball buddies against a club team to settle a bet and by helping his brother break into a pawnshop. At the same time, Chris asks his Sherlockian friend Theo to check out Jax’s story, and he also definitely beats the odds by finding common ground with brilliant, acid-tongued classmate Brooke. Along with vividly drawn characters, the coauthors craft a mystery with artfully placed clues that Jax might not be the loser he seems to be, and also inject plenty of exciting, hard-fought basketball in which speed, strategy, and heart play equally strong roles. Flashbacks crank up the tale-s suspense, flashes of humor brighten it, and the end brings both surprise twists and just deserts all round.”Booklist Online

 

Streetball Crew Series, Book One: Sasquatch in the Paint

 

“The author team behind What Color Is My World? opens the Streetball Crew series with the story of Theo Rollins who, though only an eighth grader, is already more than six feet tall. A self-proclaimed nerd, Theo gets recruited for the school basketball team, even though he’s terrible at the sport. Additionally, Theo is puzzled by new girl Rain, who’s smart but being threatened by a guy on a motorcycle; his widowed father is unexpectedly interested in dating; and he might be kicked off the school’s Aca-lympics team if he can’t balance his responsibilities. The depth and realism Abdul-Jabbar and Obstfeld bring to the novel keep it from being a run-of-the-mill sports story. Rain, for instance, is Muslim, while Theo is one of only a few black kids at his school; their ostracism doesn’t overshadow the action, but it isn’t ignored, either. Perhaps most refreshing is the fact that the authors allow Theo to gain confidence in basketball without the predictable game-winning shot. Readers will feel a kinship with Theo as he maneuvers through tough but realistic choices.”Publishers Weekly

“A crisp tale of sports, smarts and what it means to be your own man or woman-or boy or girl, if you happen to be 13. It seems to be an embarrassment of riches to be, say, one of the best basketball players in history and also write tightly entertaining novels for kids, but there you have Abdul-Jabbar. Surely Obstfeld added polish and framing, but this obviously is a work of someone intimate with sports and, by extension, how sports can serve as metaphor for a way of being in the world. Here, newly tall eighth-grader Theo Rollins is trying to find his way between the brainiacs and the basketball players. Along the way, he meets Rain-aka Crazy Girl-a sort of ‘girl with the dragon tattoo’ minus the heaviest baggage. Characters, both friend and foe, feel real; there is talk of abandonment as well as serious comments about the skewed vision Americans have of Islam. The deepest running narrative pivots around sports, but the story has much to give. Theo’s cousin’s taxonomy of basketball players is broadly applicable: There are the happy-go-lucky, the self-conscious and ‘those who never want the game to be over, because each minute is like living on some planet where you got no problems….[They are], for that brief time, in a place where everything they thought or did mattered.’ Fearless, caring sports fiction.” —Kirkus

 

What Color Is My World?: The Lost History of African-American Inventors

 

“Making use of an unusual format, former NBA star Abdul-Jabbar and his On the Shoulders of Giants coauthor Obstfeld offer an upbeat history lesson set within a fictional narrative framework. Siblings Ella and Herbie, whose story unfolds in typeset chapter booklike pages surrounded by warmly lit paintings of their adventures, are less than enthusiastic about their fixer-upper of a new house. But as eccentric handyman Mr. Mital unveils the house’s potential, he also teaches them about contributions made by African-American inventors (‘There’s more to our history than slavery, jazz, sports, and civil rights marches,’ he says). Flaps show lifelike portraits of individuals like Dr. Mark Dean, a v-p at IBM; Dr. Charles Drew, who developed the concept of blood banks; and nuclear engineer Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker squirt gun. Ella’s off-the-cuff notes appear inside the flaps, while several spreads provide detailed profiles of other inventors and graphic novel–style passages. The banter between the siblings and, in particular, Ella’s snarky zingers keep things from feeling didactic—it’s an entertaining and often surprising exploration of lesser-known innovators, past and present.” Publishers Weekly

“A fictional story lies at the heart of this unusually formatted collective biography. Twins Herbie and Ella and their parents have just moved into a run-down older home; while they work to fix it up, Mr. R. E. Mital, an eccentric handyman hired by their parents, recounts the contributions of African American scientists and inventors. As the figures are introduced, foldouts on the sides of the pages contain Ella’s notes (full of humor, as well as facts) about each one. More detailed profiles of other inventors fill the spreads, and some are introduced in graphic-novel-style pages. Instead of famous inventors such as George Washington Carver and Benjamin Banneker, readers are introduced to lesser-known individuals, including Alfred L. Cralle (inventor of the ice-cream scoop), Dr. Henry T. Sampson (gamma electric cell), and nuclear engineer Lonnie Johnson (Super Soaker). Information about the subjects’ home, lives, and avocations is a welcome addition…the large trim size, numerous illustrations, and unusual format (not to mention the celebrity author) will certainly attract browsers. And a surprise discovery about Mr. Mital’s identity at the end will leave readers with something to ponder.”School Library Journal

 

For more information on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his work, please visit his website.


11-year-old Starts Book Club for Boys

March 20, 2017

Most 11 year olds are playing Minecraft and into the latest bottle tossing craze. Sidney Keys III however, has recently started a book club for boys focused on helping them find characters who look like themselves.

On a trip to the University City, Missouri bookstore EyeSeeMe, Sidney and his mom found an entire children’s book section dedicated to books that featured characters from the African diaspora. Sidney was thrilled. “Every time I go to the library at my school, there aren’t many African American literature books there,” he told radio program St. Louis on the Air. His mother, Winnie Caldwell, shot a video of him reading which has been viewed more than 60,000 times.

Sidney decided to start a book club for boys like him who wanted to see themselves in books. Books ‘n Bros had their first meeting at EyeSeeMe. The club costs $20, and for that, boys of all races can come together once a month, discuss the book they decided on, enjoy snacks, and play video games on the store’s console.

The first meeting was a success according to his mother, teaching him leadership and speaking skills. Ty Allen Jackson, the author of their inaugural book, DANNY DOLLAR MILLIONAIRE EXTRAORDINAIRE joined the boys via Skype. But more importantly, the club continues to grow.

You can find out more about the Books ‘n Bros club at their Instagram page or at their website.

Additional resources: Sidney’s interview on St. Louis Public Radio.

 


Throwback Thursday: Lamar Giles

March 16, 2017

overturned cover lamar gilesThere is something extremely satisfying about being present at the start of a good thing. The beginning of Lamar Giles‘ career as a critically-acclaimed YA author was that good thing, and we at the The Brown Bookshelf are happy to have been there to celebrate it.

Since our original feature on Giles and his first traditionally published YA novel, Fake ID (HarperCollins, 2014) , Giles has gone on to publish Endangered (HarperCollins, 2015), and the soon to be released Overturned (Scholastic Press, March 28, 2017). Another YA novel with HarperCollins, as yet untitled, is forthcoming. Giles is also a founding member of We Need Diverse Books.

Please enjoy today’s Throwback Thursday spotlight on 28 Days Later honoree, Lamar Giles.

 

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LRGiles_Fake_ID_Headshot_Color_med

Lamar Giles grew up in a small, riverfront city in Virginia called Hopewell.  It is a diverse community known for its busy ports.  Like most towns in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Hopewell is highly decorated with American history.  Mr. Giles later moved to Chesapeake, Virginia, another city rich with history and natural wonders, where he currently resides with his wife.  

A love for comic book heroes and sci-fi novels started Mr. Giles on his path to publication.  Although his debut, FAKE ID (Harper Collins) is the first book he published through traditional methods, this is not his first novel.  From the blurbs sited on his website, he also has a flair for writing dark fantasy thrillers!

 On this 8th day of February, The Brown Bookshelf is honored to highlight young adult author, Lamar Giles.

 

 The Journey  

My journey to publication began with a radioactive spider bite. I was drawn to comic books as a child (Spider-man in particular) and would beg my mom to buy them off the convenience store rack even before I fully grasped the English language. As I became a more competent reader, and learned to care about the captions and speech bubbles as much as the four-color action panels, it occurred to me that someone had to decide what happened in the stories each month. To a 6 year old, that seemed like power on par with the Hulk and Superman. Not that I craved power, but I was curious. Could I make up a character? Could I put him in danger and pull him out again? I got my chance a few years later when my elementary school held a Young Author’s Contest.  

I wrote a story called “Giant Dinosaur Inside” about a boy who roots through his breakfast cereal box for the toy at the bottom only to unleash a Godzilla-like reptile on the city. The story took 1st place and my questions were answered. I could make up a character. I could control the danger. I had a superpower. With great power comes great…well, you know. From that point, I felt compelled to tell stories.  

Though comics were my first love, I began to gravitate towards long-form prose when I discovered Stephen King at the wise old age of 11. Specifically, the novel IT, which, if you squint, COULD be considered 50% MG/YA. I started my first novel when I was 14, finished it when I was 17, then decided it was best for me and the world to never show it to anyone. I stand by that decision.  

I spent more than a decade after that writing stories and novels, mostly dark fantasy and horror. There were small successes, many rejections, and an infinite well of doubt. But I never gave up. Spider-man would be proud.

FakeID_final

 

 The Back Story  

I started FAKE ID in early 2009. Before then, I’d been writing stories for adults, and my intent was that FAKE ID would be an adult book, too. However, the story just wasn’t coming together. Around that time, I was reading some really great YA books and I thought about ways to shake up my stalling novel. I decided to change the age and gender of my protagonist, and I ended up with 15 year old Nick Pearson. The change offered fresh perspective and challenges that were really fun. I swear, the book just about wrote itself. I had a clean draft by the end of that year, but a number of setbacks followed. 

Even though seven out of ten agents queried requested my entire manuscript, I ended up with no offers for representation. Back to the drawing board. One agent offered a critical piece of feedback along with her rejection. I altered a major plot point based on her feedback, and queried a small number of agents in Summer 2010. Within two weeks I had an awesome agent, and we were out on submission by Fall of that year. Though FAKE ID received near universal praise from each house and imprint we submitted to, many editors seemed reluctant to take a chance on a “boy book.” One editor’s note even said, “YA thrillers aimed primarily at boys are often dead in the water.”  

After four months of similar reactions from the major publishing houses, I got fed up and decided to experiment with self-publishing, putting some of my adult horror and dark fantasy work out in the world. I had some modest success and, frankly, forgot about FAKE ID. My self-pubbed work got the attention of the GoOnGirl! Book Club, a huge national organization that was holding their annual conference in Washington, D.C. in May 2011. They invited me to come hang out and speak about my work. It was on the train ride to that conference that I received a call from my agent about an incredible offer for FAKE ID from HarperCollins Children’s books. Nine months after going on submission, one of America’s biggest publishers wanted my high school murder mystery. It was exciting and I tell the story that way to make a point. I truly believe part of that offer coming when it did was because I’d decided not to leave my hopes and dreams in the hands of strangers. If no one wanted to publish FAKE ID, I was laying the foundation to publish it myself. I think the universe rewards preparation. 

Not only that, I feel like all those previous rejections were for the best. After all, I didn’t want to be with an editor/publisher who had lukewarm feelings about my work. I’m with a publisher who GETS me. HarperCollins has shown great faith and we’ll be doing at least two more books together. I never thought my work was “dead in the water” and I’m happy to be with a publisher who feels the same.  

 

The Inspiration 

Well, as I mentioned, there was Stephen King. IT, followed shortly after by THE STAND and THE SHINING. Once that fuse was lit, well, let’s just say I learned to hide my paperbacks in my backpack because I was reading at a level that seemed to frighten my 6th and 7th grade teachers. King wasn’t all I read at that time, though. I had an appreciation for the Charlie books (Chocolate Factory/Great Glass Elevator) by Roald Dahl, probably because I read them like horror stories. There were others, but it was discovering the work of Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes in my late teens that really put me on the path of pursuing a publishing career. Those writers were like me, and wrote the kinds of stories I liked to write. They’ve published two YA zombie novels recently, DEVIL’S WAKE and DOMINO FALLS that really appealed to my sensibilities. Some people find it strange that I now write YA Thrillers when I have such strong ties to darker work, but I don’t see a huge difference. In my thrillers, my heroes still face off against monsters, they’re just human monsters.

 

 The Buzz 

FAKE ID has received some lovely reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist. And, it’s been selected as a spring pick by the Junior Library Guild. Here’s what folks are saying:

 

Kirkus: “Fast action, judicious plot twists, and sufficiently evil teens and adults should keep thrill-seeking readers awake long into the night. ”

PW: “This engrossing thriller blends gritty crime storytelling with solid, realistic family drama.”

Booklist: “Conspiracy theorists and thriller fans alike will be guessing right up to the end of this exciting debut.”

  

For more information on Lamar Giles, his blog, and his books, please visit his website at http://www.lamargiles.com

 

Thank you, Mr. Giles, for your contributions to the world of YA novels!

(originally posted by Crystal Allen)


Throwback Thursday: Alice Randall and Caroline Williams

March 9, 2017

We first featured Alice Randall and Caroline Williams in 2013, after the publication of the joint debut middle grade novel, The Diary of B.B. Bright, Possible Princess, with illustrations by Shadra Strickland. Kirkus offered high praise: “Sweet, sassy and mystical, this novel deftly melds an old-fashioned story of princess preparation with the modern twist of body image and self-esteem. Young readers will respond to the voice as well as the predicament, while grown-ups will appreciate the values.” The duo went on to publish Soul Food Love, a book that “relates the authors’ fascinating family history (which mirrors that of much of black America in the twentieth century), explores the often fraught relationship African-American women have had with food, and forges a powerful new way forward that honors their cultural and culinary heritage.”

For Throwback Thursday, here’s our 2013 profile.

My daughter was immediately enchanted by The Diary of B.B. Bright, Possible Princess, big time. From the moment she saw the luminous cover to her nonstop read of the lyrical, lovely tale, she was hooked. And no wonder. AliceandCarolineCookbookCaseThis mother-daughter team packs a powerhouse punch.

At Vanderbilt University Alice Randall teaches Bedtime in the Briarpatch: African American Children’s Literature. Briarpatch is an intensive examination of African-American children’s literature from the 17th century to the present. In her course and in her writing Randall is concerned with how African-American children’s literature can be used to reflect and challenge the larger society. Some of the books her students read include: Peeny Butter Fudge, by Toni Morrison and Slade Morrison, Please, Baby, Please, by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lewis, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, by Kadir Nelson; Stitchin’ and Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend Quilt, by Patricia McKissack; Zeely, The House of Dies Drear, and M.C. Higgins, the Great all by Virginia Hamilton, Monster and All the Right Stuff, both by Walter Dean Myers;
Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor, The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 , by Christopher Paul Curtis, Tar Beach Faith Ringgold, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou and Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Caroline Randall Williams is the great-grand daughter of the man many consider to be the father of African-American children’s literature, Arna Bontemps. Like Bontemps, Williams is poet and a children’s author.

Many thanks to both for their wonderful and wise words (and a fabulous bit of history below!):


    A Gift To You

“First, we want to wish all the readers out there a very, very happy Valentine’s Day and an inspiring Black History Month. Because it is Valentine’s week and Black History month we have a cyber Valentine for you made possible by the Library of Congress—a link that will allow you to peruse one of the great treasure troves of Black Kid Lit—The Brownies Book.

Edited by W.E.B. DuBois and Jesse Redmon Fauset , The Brownies’ Book was a
“Monthly Magazine for the Children of the Sun.”According to the cover The Brownies’ Book was “designed for all children but especially for ours. “ We love the Brownies’ book. And we think you’ll love it too. What reader of the Brown Bookshelf wouldn’t love a magazine that states on its cover that “it aims to be a thing of Joy and Beauty, dealing in Happiness, Laughter and Emulation, and designed especially for Kiddies from Six to Sixteen.”

There’s poetry, and short stories, there’s history, and letters. And there are wonderful photographs and drawings. Page after page of brilliance by and for African-American children. Elegant and amusing The Brownie’s Book was a kind New Yorker for children.”

    The Journey

Our journey to publishing was a bit circuitous. Though we have a big New York agent for this book, Conrad Rippy, we ultimately chose to publish with a distinguished independent publisher, Turner Books located in our hometown, Nashville.
B.B.coverandsketch

    The Inspiration

Working on the creation of a Black Fairytale Princess, B. B. Bright, we were very, very inspired by The Brownies’ Book which was only published for a year or two starting about January 1920. The Brownies’ Book celebrates the writing of Black children by publishing their letters. That was part of our inspiration to narrate our novel in the forms of letters written into a diary. The Brownies’ Book assumed that the child reader was sophisticated and curious and recognized that adults often peer over the shoulder of the children reading in the house. Like The Brownies’ Book our novel is written for children, and for folks who once were children. Other writers who have influenced us significantly that we love include Virginia Hamilton and Patricia McKissack. Both of these writers bring beauty and grace to the page—are willing to summon a kind of archetypical elegance—and they always tell a good story in a voice that is at once feminine and universal. That’s hard. But they do it and do it well. Creating a girl’s voice that boys would listen to was something we were seeking to do. But we were most strongly committed to writing to empower girls to be their full authentic selves and to know when they are being fully and finally themselves—they are royal. No matter who their parents are or what the situation into which they are born or live.

    The Back Story

This story began in a doctor’s office over twenty years ago. Caroline got bored and Alice started telling her a story—about a fairytale princess that looked like young Caroline with beautiful brown skin and brown eyes. Immediately Caroline started changing and adding to the story. Twenty years later we had a book—and a contract for seven more.

    The Buzz

We were so excited that The Diary of B.B. Bright, Possible Princess was nominated for a NAACP Image Award; that was a big honor. Making it better we got to sit next to a hero of ours, Christopher Paul Curtis (The Watson’s Go to Birmingham) at the awards! We were also excited that The Diary of B.B. Bright, Possible Princess was nominated for a Cybils Award in MG Fantasy. We’re even more excited that there’s been some talk of turning The Diary of B.B. Bright Possible Princess into a movie. We’ve begun talks with an Oscar nominated producer about optioning the rights.

    The State of the Industry

It has always been hard to get African American children’s books published and hard to get the word out about them once they are published. There are precious few of us working as agents booksellers, editors, publishers, or publicists. And precious few writing and illustrating. But our children read. There is a growing audience that gets larger by the day. Children are profoundly influenced by the books they read and don’t read. This keeps us writing, to close gaps. There are still far too many aspects of ourselves not reflected on published pages.

We take heart from our history from knowing what our foremothers and forefathers endured to get published and read. The history of African American Children’s literature (something Alice teaches at Vanderbilt) is a history of writers who manage to triumph over obstacles and land in homes and schools, and set up residence in the hearts and heads of children of color.
ALICE

Many thanks for your amazing work!

Visit Alice Randall online at her Web site.


Bringing Books Back Home, Part Two: More with Elaine Dickson of Reading Owls International

March 7, 2017

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Part One of my conversation with Elaine Dickson of Reading Owls International. Here, she tells us more about the work and future of the organization and its impact.

Where/when have you seen the impact of your work?


Part of our strategy for “creating readers for life” in Jamaica is to focus on a geographic area, saturate it before expanding to other areas of the island.
We have been focused in Western Jamaica and built (capital project) and opened our first library in September 2015. Because of the way schools are structured in Jamaica, one school can have students from several communities attending. We have been able to touch a number of communities without having a physical structure in them as all of our libraries have to be lending libraries. In some cases we have created an adult section to help mitigate the absence of a public library close to a community. Some of the communities we work with are in deep rural or remote parts of the country so access to a public library is a real challenge. One of the heartwarming stories from our first library project is that a teacher at the school sometimes opens the library on weekends for the entire community to use.

Since our inception and through 2016, more than 4,400 children now have access to books at a lending library at their school. Our collaboration with the Peace Corps has also given us access to literacy experts on the ground who have been an amazing extra level of support and give us immediate feedback on some of the resource challenges they are seeing and experiencing. We are able to provide a level of support that is a win-win for everyone.

What else would you like us to know about you and your work?

Nonprofit work is both exhilarating and grinding. As we share information with other NGOs, we hear similar stories across channels. Yet the challenges pale in comparison to the joy of seeing a child open their first book and learn to read. Providing access to a great education is not just good public policy, but I firmly believe it is a human right. If we are able to equip and inspire children in Jamaica to be scholars, independent readers and life-long learners, we will begin to address some of the systemic ills – illiteracy, high unemployment, and high crime – plaguing communities across Jamaica. If we truly deliver on our mission, and we cannot do it without help, then we will start to close the book on illiteracy and create an environment where all kids can compete in a global environment.


What does the organization need right now? What’s next for Reading Owls?

The simplest ways people can help our organization is to follow us on Twitter and Instagram (@thereadingowls) and like our Facebook page so they help us spread the word. We also need volunteers and are recruiting board members who are committed and passionate about education and literacy. To create libraries goes beyond gathering books; we do need lots of books and have a carefully selected wishlist at Amazon; we also welcome multicultural, beginner, picture and chapter books of all genres from publishers and book distributors, etc primarily focused on ages infant-tweens. Many of our schools have infrastructure needs and lack access to technology – these are two areas that we want to place additional focus on as we think strategically about how to bring information in real time into the classrooms to help students learn and compete with their peers across the globe.

Safe learning environments, comfortable and age-appropriate seating all make for a better learning experience and many of our schools lack good infrastructure so before we can deliver books, we often have to renovate or help create library spaces and it is an expensive undertaking. Pallets of books are heavy and a significant amount of our funds raised are spent on shipping/custom related expenses. We need partners in the supply chain, especially shipping overland and sea to help us mitigate the cost of shipping.

We are also actively exploring more alliances to support program implementation and expansion. We are devising ways to provide more training and support for our partner organizations. We are also exploring best methods reassessments/outcomes. We will be getting much-needed support from a first class management consulting team to brainstorm best metrics in the next few weeks.

Lastly, we are staying focused on growth so that every child has access to books, if not at home, then certainly at school. The challenge is real: In 2015, 45% of Jamaican girls and 63% of boys in grades 1 through 3 were not proficient in reading.
If these students do not get immediate intervention and ongoing support, they might not become grade-level readers.


Where Do We Go From Here?

As a society, we have to see every child as our child. Our world is becoming more and more connected and challenges in any part of the world affects us here in the US. It may manifest in the form of immigration or more foreign aid, but we are not immune from it. I still believe that education is the best vehicle for getting families out of poverty and providing access to a good education has to be part of any economic development strategy for any country.

We all have a role to play, starting with reading to/with our own kids and presenting books as a wonderful choice for enjoyment and leisure. Then we must engage in ways that effect public policy and make sure that all levels of government provide adequate funding for schools, public libraries and community development. On a more global scale we can lobby our governments to divert aid to countries that value all lives equally and are investing in girls’ education as well. For those of us who are able, we can give to charities/NGOs that promote literacy and education around the world.

Specifically to Jamaica, I would like to see the Jamaican government provide increased funding for early education programs. Plus, higher salaries for teachers. A great education for students starts with ensuring the best and brightest want to enter the teaching profession and stay there. There has been a strong appetite over the last decade for investments in early education and by all measures – gains in the national literacy rate, which is currently in the mid-80s (the goal was 85% for 2015) and up from 77.4% only a few years ago is a good sign. Special attention also needs to be paid to Jamaica’s boys as they consistently lag girls by double digit points.

At Reading Owls we are committed to being on the front lines and are buoyed by the tremendous support we have received to date. Together with our supporters, we are “creating readers for life.”

If you would like to learn more about Reading Owls International and how you can help, visit them online. Thank you for sharing your powerful story, Elaine!


Bringing Books Back Home: A Chat with Elaine Dickson of Reading Owls International

March 6, 2017

elaine_3053I was e-introduced to Elaine Dickson through a friend who is one of those people who know, you know what I mean? If Shelly Ann refers someone, you *know* they’re good people. So I was ready to be blown away, and I was not disappointed! Ms. Dickson and her husband founded Reading Owls International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing literacy levels in Jamaica. Reading Owls does more than just collect and donate books; the organization works with educational institutions and their surrounding communities to build sustainable, community-based programs, giving thousands of children access to literature. Today, Part One of our Interview. Welcome, Ms. Dickson!

Tell us the story of Reading Owls. Why did you start the organization? What were some of the first steps that you took?

Reading Owls International (ROI or Reading Owls) was started out of a desire to give back to Jamaica, the country of my birth, in a way that felt tangible and long lasting. My husband Easton and I had been saying for years that we needed to “do something” as the crippling lack of opportunity and resources was still so evident in places we would visit on the island. When we went back to our communities it was often dispiriting as access to books, a public library and basic educational opportunities – which are a basic human right – were still absent.
clifton-basic_1877
I grew up in eastern Jamaica and there was no library in my community or at my school and I had no books at home. To be able to borrow a book to read, I had to travel several miles by foot and three communities away in order to nurture my love of reading. Easton’s story is similar; at one point he was fortunate enough for a book mobile to travel through his town, but very soon it was discontinued because of a lack of government funding.

For us the time had come to take action. We wanted to fundamentally change the outcome for the current and future crop of kids and felt that we could rally enough support here in the US to make a difference.

Family and friends were very receptive to the idea and this made it a lot easier to organize as a 501 (c)(3) public charity. From December 2013 through the first half of 2014, we spent a lot of time in strategy sessions to really craft a mission that spoke to the needs we saw on the ground. We also wanted to make sure that even as a nascent organization we were strong administratively, so getting needed federal and state registrations, drafting protocols, crafting marketing collaterals, and seeking out as many vendors, partnerships and collaborations as we could was critical in the first half year of 2014.

Then it was on to a full-fledged marketing and social media campaign to get the idea out to the general public. We could not have imagined the tremendous support and reception we have received.
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Tell us a bit about your day-to-day work. What are some of the challenges in what you do?

Our day to day operations are led by a volunteer board and several committees. Our board is not just a strategic board, but also a “working” board. We are heavily focused on growth, building as many libraries as we can to bring access to books as early as possible to as many kids as we can, but in a deliberate way that does not compromise our mission of increasing the literacy levels of school-aged children by partnering with grassroots organizations in Jamaica to create or supplement libraries.

Much of the day-to-day operational work also revolves around increasing our footprint, having social media content to create awareness around our brand and mission. We are focused on finding new partnerships and collaborations, so that we can do more. It is critical for us to have a strong local presence in Jamaica as our challenges are exacerbated without the right local help. Getting back accurate data from the field, as well as the stories and photos that provide the appropriate level of update to our supporters is critical and sometimes challenging, as we are not consistently on the ground and depend largely on our partner organizations to provide information in the absence of our visits.

There have been so many requests for creating or supplementing libraries and as a up-and-coming organization we do not have the capacity to meet some of the needs. Our goal for this year is to create/supplement 5-6 new libraries and for a three-year-old company this is a major milestone.

Finding exceptional and committed board members and fundraising at a level to match our scale and plans for growth are challenges not unique to us, yet they are critical to our success. Currently, it is not possible for us to hire paid staff and finding great and committed talent that is willing to volunteer is challenging. We are extremely fortunate and grateful to have the success we have had with a team that is dedicated to our mission, but we have to carefully guard against burnout. Hopefully with more exposure we will see a greater influx of participation, especially from members of the Jamaican Diaspora. The needs in Jamaica are acute and with the right blend of participation here and locally, I believe we are poised to make even bigger strides this year.

Are there any books, stories, or people that inspire you and your work?

Books – I approach book conversations very carefully because I can never end them. Even with limited resources, I was still very fortunate to have been exposed enough to books so much that to this day I am a voracious reader. In terms of contemporary writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a favourite. I have read all of the books written by the late Buchi Emecheta after being introduced to The Joys of Motherhood. I am drawn to the works of female writers, writings that explore female independence or a desire to be, especially when it is achieved by gaining more knowledge or formal education. The desire to be one’s true, independent self is a human right issue and works that dig deeply into the subtlety and challenges of gaining such freedom is arresting to me. In so many parts of the world the right to an education – especially for girls – is still aspirational.

John Wood at Room to Read really inspires me. What he has done – certainly with a lot of help – for people in the developing world by building libraries is nothing sort of astounding. He is passionate and relentless and I admire his work ethic tremendously. Likewise, Bill and Melinda Gates with their foundation.

While this is not tied to education, the staff and volunteers at Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have my tremendous respect and admiration. Their bravery and selflessness is truly inspirational.

As a teenager and young adult on the cusp of deep social consciousness, I was – and still am – quite drawn to the works of Claude McKay, Samuel Selvon, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and more recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates. They are my go to readers even as a roborant during quiet reading time. More recently, I am attempting to read from Book Riot’s, “Around the World in 80 Books,” including works by Ondjaki, Margaret Atwood, Marcela Serrano and Gabriel García Márquez, all phenomenal writers.
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Why do you think it’s important for children to see themselves in literature?

All the research shows that children relate better to books when they are able to see themselves and their experiences in the literature they read. There has been much talk recently – especially with the explosion on the scene in 2014 of We Need Diverse Books – that children need windows and mirrors, to view themselves and to see the rest of the world.

At Reading Owls, we view it as a critical component of the curating we do before sending books to Jamaica. We have an even more difficult task as we are attempting in many cases to get kids immersed or hooked on reading. All children have to be able to relate to some of the books they read and the characters and experiences in them. We stress a great deal that our books need to be high quality and culturally relevant. It is hard work finding a significant amount of books that are relevant for Jamaica as there is a dearth of Caribbean (and persons of color) writers who get published. I am aware that many of the books published annually do not have minority characters as the protagonist. While I continue to be encouraged by the uptick in diversity, children’s literature needs to better reflect diversity across the spectrum.

I still vividly recall the introduction of books that reflected me and experiences that I could relate to both at the primary (elementary) level in Jamaica as well as at the college level in the US. For someone who grew up reading lots of Shakespeare, Bronte, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Louis L’Amour (the latter my father had gotten as a gift and I was hooked), finally reading books written by and about Black people was a watershed moment. Green Days by the River by Michael Anthony, The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon, Miguel Street by V.S. Naipaul, No Telephone to Heaven by Michelle Cliff, Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, The Children of Sisyphus by Orlando Patterson and the poems of the late Louise Bennett Coverley and Claude McKay totally altered my perception of self and Blacks in general. I began to see us as amazing writers and storytellers whose writing is just as beautiful and arresting, but lacking in exposure.

Be sure to come back tomorrow for Part Two with Elaine Dickson! Learn more about her work, and how you can help.


Throwback Thursday: Elizabeth Zunon

March 2, 2017

zunonIn 2012, we featured artist Elizabeth Zunon and her acclaimed second picture book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. A Junior Library selection, that title won accolades and raves about her style. Since then, Liz has created many treasures including Don’t Call Me Grlegendandma by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and The Legendary Miss Lena Horne by Carole Boston Weatherford which debuted in January. You can learn more about her amazing work on her website and blog. Here’s our 2012 spotlight on Liz whose first authored picture book, Grandpa Cacao, will debut in 2019:

Elizabeth Zunon was born in Albany, NY and grew up in the Ivory Coast in West Africa (Cote d’Ivoire). Her artwork reflects the people, places, and things from the cultures of her childhood.

A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Elizabeth has illustrated four picture books for children with several more on the horizon.

Today Zunon talks about her journey. And this is a treat!

By Elizabeth Zunon

The Journey 

Picture books have always been a feature throughout my life. I grew up in French-speaking Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) West Africa. Being a product of a bi-lingual family, my mother often read English-language bedtime stories to my little brother and me, and our bookshelves were filled with African, French, and American picture books. The excitement I felt (as a child and as an adult), finding a book in an American bookstore or library that I had been read or owned while living in Africa was (and still is)  exhilarating!

It was no surprise then, as I realized that making pictures could be something one could do for a living, that I decided to pursue children’s book illustration when I attended the Rhode Island School of Design. I toiled in my studio for hours on end, creating stories and projects that drew from memories of my childhood in the Ivory Coast. Obsessed with depicting scenes from home, trying to relay to my classmates and professors foreign and familiar ideas about the world which I grew up in.

zunonsketchesAfter graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 2006, I moved to Jersey City, NJ and started working in a flower kiosk in Bryant Park in New York. It was a green oasis in the middle of a busy, crowded, noisy city where people could take the time to sit, rest and contemplate. I had a lot of time alone in the flower kiosk among the potted orchids, hydrangeas and irises, to sit and contemplate myself. I filled up my sketchbook with drawings of people in the park, notes about clandestine conversations I overheard, and story ideas for potential books I could create. I met a lot of people and had many unexpected conversations with passers-by that I probably wouldn’t have just walking down the street.

The park was a great space for an artist’s mind to absorb sights, smells, sounds… and to generally be inspired.

During my time in New York City, I attended various Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) meetings and events where I met authors, illustrators, editors, publishers and agents. I spent my evenings after work researching publishing houses and their portfolio submissions, worked on my own painting projects on the weekends to add new pieces to my portfolio and did some portfolio drop-offs at various houses in New York (collecting rejection letters along the way). I met my agent, Lori Nowicki (Painted Words) during an illustrator-agent critique session at the Society of Illustrators. She offered to work with me and help me get “real” (paid!)  illustration jobs. Soon after she took me on, the contract for My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey came along! It was my first illustration contract, and it was published in September 2010.

The Inspiration 

zunoninspireMy favorite author/illustrator is Ezra Jack Keats. I loved the book The Snowy Day as a little girl; mostly because the idea of putting on a snowsuit and playing outside in mounds of snow was very exotic to me at the time, living in tropical Africa (I took the palm trees swaying in the hot sun for granted until I was a teenager living in upstate New York). The various textures and colors that Keats used in his books inspired my way of working when I graduated from design school. A seamless combination of printed paper, colored paper and painting is what I strive to create today. I love pattern. I’ve started experimenting recently with stamping and silkscreening – so much fun! And addictive!

Vera B. Williams is another one of my favorite author/illustrators. As a child, I saw aspects of myself in Bidemmi, the main character in her book Cherries and Cherry Pits: “… Bidemmi loves to draw… She always tries a new marker right away… The green, the pink, the red, the purple, the brown, the black, and all the others.” She was just like me! I love the carefree  marker and watercolor style of Williams’ illustrations. I also think that this book got my mind simmering on the idea of “drawing stories” and the importance of the reader identifying with a character.

In the last illustration for My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey, I painted a little Bearden running across the page, leaving blue footprints in his own painting. This is a nod to my favorite Keats and Williams book characters.

zunonchildI also love the work of illustrator Kadir Nelson. The gracefulness and sumptuousness of  his oil painted portraits is unparallelled. There is a mature quality in his paintings that I think should be seen more in children’s books. Why shouldn’t books we buy for our children consist of exquisitely executed oil paintings? They deserve it! The symmetry and balance in his illustrations makes them seem majestic- and you just can’t stop staring! Nelson’s use of light, especially highlights on dark skin, make his figures glow, sing, live.

All of the books and stories I most identify with feature characters of different colors and origins. This reflects the world we live in, which I think is very important to represent to children.

Outside of the children’s book world, I would have to say that the lyrics of Bill Withers’ songs are a great inspiration to me. The beautiful simplicity with which he communicates feelings and describes imagery is something I look to often when thinking about writing my own stories.

The Back Story 

I was lucky enough to be considered as the illustrator for The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind last year. The manuscript arrived on my desk just as I was finishing up the paintings for Lala Salama: A Tanzanian Lullaby. I felt very proud, as an African, to actually be illustrating a true-life story of innovation and ambition by another African. As the deadlines for his book were very tight, I immediately set to work researching the boy; William Kamkwamba, and his life.

zunonwindOne of my favorite parts of exploring a new story is posing as the characters  and taking lots of reference photos that I will draw and paint from to create the final illustrations.

William collected odds and ends of metal, rubber, rope and such from his local scrapyard and from around his home to build a working windmill. This windmill changed wind into electricity, which William  then used to light his house and ultimately help irrigate his family’s fields during a horrible drought.

I wanted to emulate William’s process of searching and gathering, so I scrounged my house for odds and ends that I could use in the illustrations for his book.

Photos I took of bottle-caps, nails, screws and lightbulbs I found all made it into the illustrations, as well as lots of pieces of paper from my (always growing) collection. Gathering and putting all these different pieces together was a thrill!zunoncovers

The Buzz for The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

The true story of a Malawian teenager who leveraged need and library research into a windmill constructed from found materials.

Forced by drought and famine to drop out of school, William dreams of “building things and taking them apart.” Inspired by science books in an American-built library near his village, his dreams turn to creating “electric wind.” Despite the doubts of others he begins—assembling discarded bicycle parts and other junk into a rickety tower, triumphantly powering an electric light and going on to dream of windmill-driven wells to water the land. Kamkwamba tells this version (another, for adult readers, was published with the same title in 2009) of his tale of inspiration meeting perspiration in terse, stately third person: “He closed his eyes and saw a windmill outside his home, pulling electricity from the breeze and bringing light to the dark valley.” Zunon illustrates it handsomely, with contrasting cut-paper-collage details arranged on brown figures, and broad, sere landscapes painted in visibly textured oils.

A plainspoken but inspiring tale of homespun ingenuity. (afterword) (Picture book/biography. 7-9)

-Kirkus Review

Zunon’s (My Hands Sing the Blues) oil paint and cut-paper collages amplify the entwined themes of science and magic in this adaptation of the authors’ 2009 adult book. Kamkwamba was born in Malawi in 1987, and when he was 14, drought was ravaging his country. Forced to leave school to save money, Kamkwamba studied science books at the library, learning about windmills—and their potential. “He closed his eyes and saw a windmill outside his home, pulling electricity from the breeze and bringing light to the dark valley.” Gathering materials from the junkyard, he assembles a windmill that creates “electric wind” and even lights a light bulb. Tradition and “tales of magic” combine with the promise of technology in this inspiring story of curiosity and ingenuity. Zunon’s artwork combines naturalistic and more whimsical elements; the African sun beats down on Zunon’s villagers, ribbony “ghost dancers” encircle Kamkwamba’s bed while he sleeps, and blue cut-paper swirls sweep toward the windmill. While the narrative simplifies Kamkwamba’s creative process, an afterword provides additional detail for readers who share his mechanical inclinations. Ages 6–8. Agent: ICM. Illustrator’s agent: Painted Words. (Jan.)

– Publisher’s Weekly

Based on the best seller of the same title, this picture-book biography chronicles Kamkwamba’s teen years in a Malawian village. As he tills the soil, his mind teems with a mix of mechanical questions and the magical stories relayed by his elders. When a drought destroys the crops, his education fund dries up as well. Kamkwamba seeks refuge in the American-built library, where, dictionary in hand, he decodes the function of a windmill that has captured his interest. Despite the murmurings of incredulous villagers, the young man assembles junkyard scraps to build “electric wind.” The third-person descriptions and dialogue are flavored with African phrases. Zunon’s compositions, rendered in cut paper and oils, create a variety of moods. Colorfully garbed ghost dancers populate the boy’s dreams, while crumpled tan rice paper, arranged to depict a high horizon line just beneath a blazing sun, forms a parched landscape, overwhelming in scale. Swirls of patterned blue and green paper portray the wind that propels the blades of his creation. While an extensive author’s note explains that it took several years to achieve the ability to irrigate, the lack of clear visuals to show how wind becomes electricity (and ultimately pumps water) may frustrate young children. That caveat aside, this is a dynamic portrait of a young person whose connection to the land, concern for his community, and drive to solve problems offer an inspiring model. It would pair well with one of the recent titles about Wangari Maathai.-Wendy Lukehart, Washington DC Public Library.

– School Library Journal

http://www.wegivebooks.org/campaigns/harnessing-the-power-of-reading