Day 28: YA Panel

February 28, 2018

As the sole resident YA author on the BBS team, I’m often consulted about potential candidates to cover for 28 Days Later.  Having returned to the campaign after a very long hiatus, the sound my colleagues heard when asking that question was akin to *crickets.* Not because I’m unaware of the authors out there, but because there aren’t nearly as many as there should be 10 years after somewhat of an explosion of Black YA authors. Nearly everyone I suggested, BBS had already covered.  Why hadn’t the explosion continued? How could I not find five solidly under-the-radar YA authors?

As I looked around, I realized a few things 1) Those of us who debuted 10 years ago are now writing MG and 2) Today’s YA is a bit edgier, a true reflection of our fragile social times, and so…go back to number one.

Out of this conundrum, a fantastic idea presented itself – chat with YA authors who were 28 Days Later “Alum” and put publishing under the microscope. On top of the chat being more fun than I’ve had in a long time, it was insightful. Treat yourself to today’s spotlight: an industry chat with authors Justina Ireland (Dread Nation), Brandy Colbert (Little & Lion) and Dhonielle Clayton (The Belles).

BBS: Finish this thought – “Before I was published, I thought YA was missing…”

brandy_n5d7247Brandy:  Before I was published, I thought YA was missing black people, in general. But especially black people with agency, who weren’t reduced to stereotypes by authors who were writing outside of their experience.

I grew up in a very white community and probably 100% of the books on my shelf were by and about white people, so I’m not sure I noticed. Which is sad to think about now. I started writing when I was seven years old, and that also affected my stories, which were all about white people. I felt that I was meant to be a writer but I didn’t think anyone wanted to read about black people.

Justina:  Like Brandy, I didn’t really notice how white books were, because I kind of thought it was just that all of the Black kids were in books I didn’t want to read (Like Sounder, Roll of Thunder). It was until I got older that I realized Black characters existed, just in a very narrow range. As I scooted over to the adult section I found books about Black people…in the African American literature section.

BBS:  The narrow range is important to note because not existing was issue one and then existing only in one frame was the other.  

Brandy Yes, exactly! I remember the first time I saw the African American section in a bookstore. It was a very strange feeling. Like, yay! But also—why do we have to be shelved in a different section entirely?

Dhonielle: Before I was published, I thought YA was missing stories of brown kids and magic, Brown kids falling in love, fantasies that featured non-western worlds.

BBS:  So, now what? Because whether it’s sexuality, mental illness, racism and zombies, or the power of beauty in society – looking at today’s landscape, through the three of your books alone, makes it clear that a broad variety of books featuring characters of color are here. 

Justina: Exactly, and that’s awesome. And now we need people to show up and buy them.

Brandy: Yes, indeed. And we need to allow Black/POC creators to publish a wide range of books and not pigeonhole us into certain categories or celebrate a certain type of narrative over another.

DhonielleDhonielle:  Now, it’s times for marginalized and black content creators to get the same roll outs that white women have gotten for decades for their books. Tours, big marketing campaigns. Our books deserve a shot at big audiences.

Justina: Seriously though: THUG by Angie Thomas has opened the door for a lot of other authors also writing gritty contemporary YA. Imagine what Dhonielle’s book could do for Fantasy or Brandy to do for intersectional contemporary or mine for whatever Dread Nation is this week.  I think it’s horror this week. And of course I’m talking about Black authors, since this isn’t a problem for white authors.

BBS: My next question came about specifically because Dhonielle is a sensitivity reader (SR). In the Vulture article about her work as a SR, she hit on a lot of great points.  One being that the most important piece of the conversation revolves around the number of white authors writing about characters of color.  Are we reaching a point where publishers are starting to overthink sensitivity reads? How do we refocus the discussion on what Dhonielle believes is the important piece of the conversation?

Brandy: I’m not actively doing sensitivity reads but I find the whole topic fascinating. I had a LOT of reads from friends on Little & Lion because I wrote outside of my experience for so much of it.

Justina: So, I do sensitivity reads and I had to back away for awhile because of everything D said in that article. But I stopped doing the reads because I started to feel like I was helping other folks tell my story and that pissed me off.

Dhonielle: Sensitivity reads are a bandaid.

Brandy: Yup. I just wish there were more of our stories being told by us so there was less of a need for sensitivity reads to begin with.

Justina IrelandJustina: Exactly! Because if there was, editors would know what a good story looks like because they’ve had a sampling, instead of the one or two books from the prior year. But we also need ownvoices books that meet the basic elements of craft. There are a lot of ownvoices books that are getting rushed through editorial that are just not going to help, and that’s unfortunate.

Dhonielle: I agree, Justina.

BBS: Own voices shouldn’t be a fad. My concern is this type of thing becomes a campaign. We have far too much catching up to do for it to be that.

Justina: Exactly.

Brandy: Yes!

Dhonielle: We can have mediocrity from every group, because gods knows so many mediocre white folks get published every day, but we need marginalized folks to win the marathon and not the sprint.

Justina: My fear is that if they finish poorly in the sprint they’ll never even get to run in the marathon.

Brandy: And a lot of it seems like back-patting, so publishers can feel like they’re doing their part to participate in the “diversity movement” instead of seeking out stories they actually believe in and authors they want to nurture through a successful career.

BBS:  But what’s great about right now – with just the three of you – finally we’re in a moment where more than one of us is winning!  That’s a big step.

Brandy:  It is! I still remember getting my first contract and being like, But they’re just gonna let me publish this book about a black girl who looks and acts a lot like me? And that’s it??

BBS:  Pay it forward – shout out two or three YA authors who are either an up and coming author, someone unsung or someone who has been dormant and deserves a fresh look by readers. Extra points if that author hasn’t already been covered by BBS.

Justina: There’s a lot of exciting YA by Black authors this year. [Goes on to name authors being covered in 2018 28 Days Later and those we’ve already covered. The struggle was real!] Kosoko Jackson will have a book out here in a minute. His book is slated for late 2019, I think.

Brandy: I’m a big fan of Tiffany Jackson’s work. And I’ve been reading Janice Lynn Mather’s Learning to Breathe, which is an extraordinary debut that comes out in June, and I can’t wait for everyone to read it.

Dhonielle: Sarah RaughleyRebecca Barrow. JA Reynolds – not to be confused with Jason. *laughter* I dropped in non-US based Black authors. They need a little shine. Sarah Raughley is from Canada. Rebecca Barrow is in the UK.

Brandy: It is interesting seeing how much the landscape has changed since we were first published a few years ago. I think black-authored debuts are much more accepted and celebrated. Oh and I just saw a cover reveal for a new debut: Dana L. Davis, Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now.

Justina: Yes! That’s a great cover.

Dhonielle: I need them [Kosoko and Dana] on my radar.

BBS: Good stuff. The fact that I’m able to only get a few names new to me shows that it’s not as many of us out there doing YA as it should be. 


Come back, tomorrow, for part two of our chat where the authors discuss author social media etiquette in the age of outrage and tell us what soap box they’re on.


Day 27: Gilbert Robertson IV

February 27, 2018

It is so impressive to know that Gilbert “Gil” Robertson earned a B.A. in Political Science from Cal State Los Angeles and is a professional member of the National Press Club, National Association of Black Journalists, The Recording Academy, The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Motion Picture Association of America. He is also a national lecturer who speaks on such issues as fostering diverse representation in the entertainment industry, as well as personal and communal development.
It is even more impressive to know that through it all, he never lost his desire to write. His path to children’s literature is incredible. So today, The Brown Bookshelf is honored to highlight:


The Journey

My childhood dream was to be an author. I wrote essays, short stories and plays as a kid, which I would share with my parents and their friends. So, I was motivated early to pursue this path. As I began my adult life following college I was perplexed as to how I could achieve this dream, and so I became an A&E (Arts & Entertainment) freelance journalist armed with a plan that I would create a profile that I could leverage to enter publishing. Over time I established a reputation as a go-to journalist for publications seeking A-list talent and my byline became well-known in the industry. My life as an A&E journalist soon took over my life and I spent the next decade pursuing goals within that career space. However, my passion for writing books gradually rebooted, which lead me to expand my career to include work as an author.

My first book, Writing as A Tool of Empowerment, came about solely because of the notoriety that I had established as an A&E journalist. My profile had risen to point where the public began to take note of my work. I sought to exploit that exposure by first doing a series of lectures via the Learning Annex, which lead me to finally writing my first book. After successful engaging an audience with that project, I began to pursue other opportunities as an author, which led me to assemble the anthology Not in My Family: AIDS in the African American Community. The success of the project finally opened a path of opportunity for me to pursue my dream of being an author.

The Back Story

My previous projects were targeted to adult readers and I wanted to “shift-gears” with a book that would speak to young adult readers. Barack Obama’s presidency represented such a pivotal point in history that I thought should be examined for young readers. I became fascinated by others political “firsts” and so I outlined a book proposal that would highlight the men and women behind these accomplishments. I really wanted to partner with a black publisher and immediately set about putting together a proposal that I sent directly to Wade Hudson at Just Us Books. Thankfully, he recognized my vision and we struck a deal and the process of writing the project began.

The Inspiration

I’ve always been a tremendous fan of Children’s books because of the influence those projects potentially have for their target audience. When you write for adults is basically like “preaching to the choir”. Whatever you write appeals to a certain type of reader who shares or is open to your perspectives and interests. For me, writing for children presents an opportunity to introduce new ideas and concept to an unfiltered mind. It’s an audience who are still forming their thoughts and opinions about life. So, writing for them presents amazing challenges and responsibilities. Partnering with Cheryl and Wade Hudson was another inspiration for me in that I have long admired how they blazed a for books targeting black children.

The Process

Because I live in LA and Atlanta and travel a lot in between, I usually write early morning, but sometimes may start writing after dinner and continue well into night. I always begin with a starting concept, which I outline and start work from that point. I also write in block periods – that is, I may write on consecutive mornings or nights and then break for a week or two before revisiting the copy. This helps me view the material from a different light and perspective.


Continue to stand tall, Gil Robertson, IV. We at the Brown Bookshelf are proud of you, and thank you for your contribution to children’s literature.

Please visit Gil at his website:


Day 26: Quvenzhané Wallis

February 26, 2018

Quvenzhane Wallis

At the age of 5, Quvenzhané Wallis secured her first acting role as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Her spectacular performance in the film earned her the distinction of being the Academy Awards’ youngest nominee ever for Best Actress (the third youngest among all categories), and the first African-American child actor to be nominated for an Oscar. Since then, Wallis has appeared in several other projects, including Trolls (as the voice of Harper); Beyoncé’s musical film, Lemonade; and the movie remake of Annie, starring as its title character and earning herself a Golden Globe Best Actress nomination for a Motion Picture Comedy or Musical.

Remembering the emotions she’d experienced during her first Academy Awards show at the age of nine, Wallis was inspired to write a picture book based on that special evening. The delightful A Night Out with Mama (beautifully illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton, published by Simon & Schuster) is a meaningful tale of superlative achievement existing in tandem with normalcy–the kind of normalcy that a loving, supportive, keep-you-grounded type of family is wont to provide. In addition to A Night Out with Mama, Wallis has also created the “Shai & Emmie Star in…” chapter book series (with Nancy Ohlin, illustrated by Sharee Miller, published by S&S). Series titles include Break an Egg!, Dancy Pants!, and the forthcoming, To the Rescue!.

Fourteen year-old Wallis took a few moments to answer some rapid-fire questions for The Brown Bookshelf. We present her responses below and celebrate her contributions to children’s literature on day 26 of 28 Days Later!


BBS:  Name some artists–children’s book writers, illustrators, actors, musicians, etc.–whose work inspires you.

QW:  For children’s book writers, I like Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl.

For illustrators, I like Vanessa Brantley Newton and Sharee Miller. I chose to use them as the illustrators for my books because I think their pictures help the reader see the author’s thoughts.

For actress, Zendaya. For actor, Jamie Foxx. For musician, Beyoncè.


BBS: What’s your writing process? How do you work? 

QW:  My process is that I think of the concept first, and then I outline. I figure out the story and then I assign the characters names.


BBS:  Name an author or illustrator of color that you believe is a rising star. 

QW:  Poet Morgan Parker.


BBS:  Describe the impact you think the children’s book industry can have on young people.

QW:  I think children’s book publishing is very important because books and reading are the foundation for building imaginations.

Quvenzhané-Wallis-book signing night out w mama

Day 25: Tami Charles

February 25, 2018

Tami Charles describes herself as a “former teacher. Wannabe chef. Debut author.” We here at the Brown Bookshelf just know her as awesome. She was also in a R&B group (and I really, really want to know which one), and has serious love for empanadas.

We’ve got love for empanadas too, but we’re really excited about her debut novel, LIKE VANESSA, that will be published next month (pre-order now!), and her picture book, FREEDOM SOUP, out in 2019. Tami is dynamic, talented, and so much fun — we’re so glad to welcome her to The Brown Bookshelf.

The Journey

I’ve been writing since I was a child. I was also an avid reader and devoured books by Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and Lois Lowry. (Anastasia Krupnik was my friend in my head!) And while I loved these authors and their books, the truth was that none of the signature characters looked like me, nor did I find myself in their stories. It wasn’t until I became a teacher that I discovered the wonderful, diverse books of today. I would have begged for the books of Meg Medina, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Kwame Alexander as a child! As a teacher, I enjoyed sharing diverse books with my students, but as a woman whose childhood dreams never took flight, I was itching to reignite my passion.

The Backstory

My debut novel, LIKE VANESSA, is set in Newark, New Jersey, 1983. Though I was very young at the time, I clearly remember a moment in history that impacted my understanding of beauty and its representation in mainstream society. On September 17, 1983, Vanessa Williams was crowned Miss America. As in the most beautiful and talented girl in these great United States. And get this. . .her skin was brown. . .like mine and every other girl who watched Miss America faithfully, hoping and praying to see someone like them win.

Vanessa Williams’s victory wasn’t about some sparkly crown or a bad-to-the-bone dress. This was a win for all of us. A seat at the table. A moment that manifested into the reality that beauty is not, nor will it ever be, one-size-fits-all.

The Inspiration

The Process

For me, everything begins and ends with music. My tastes vary widely. I can go from Vivaldi to the Notorious B.I.G. and not bat an eyelash. The music drives my writing. My writing day begins early at 4:30 a.m. when the house is sleeping and no one is begging me for a snack. It’s my best time to spill out my thoughts.

First drafts are typically horrible. Seriously, every sentence begins with “I.” But I’m okay with that. I just need to keep going until I can type those two magical words: The end.

Then, I celebrate round one and gear up for round two. More music, better craft, and a little dancing in between.

I write from home while my son is at school. Once school dismisses, the writer hat comes off and I return to my favorite job of all: mom.

The Buzz

“Charles evades the clichés and imbues Vanessa with an inner life that’s so real and personal, it’s hard to deny the charm, heartbreak, and triumph of her story.”
— (Booklist, starred review)

“Like Vanessa is an emotionally potent, engaging young adult story with a heroine whom it is impossible not to root for.”
— (Foreword, starred review)

“This debut is a treasure: a gift to every middle school girl who ever felt unpretty, unloved, and trapped by her circumstances.”
–(Kirkus, starred review)

Twitter: @TamiWritesStuff
Insta: @tamiwrites

Day 24: Patrice Lawrence

February 24, 2018

Patrice Lawrence was born in Brighton, Sussex, and raised in an Italian-Trinadadian family.  She has an MA in writing for film and TV.  Her novel Orangeboy won The Bookseller’s YA Book Prize in 2017, The Watrstons Children’s Book Prize for Older Children 2017, and was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Children’s Book award.

I agree with Patrice that more English writers need opportunities to present their books in the United States.  Hogwarts school and Downtown Abbey should not define them.  Patrice has an amazing story to tell as she takes us on her path:

From a Brown Girl in a White School to an Orangeboy on a Bookshelf

It is with great honor that I present to you:


The Journey
My brother recently discovered my teenage diary. It is cover to cover angst driven by hormones and an unrequited infatuation with a boy in my history class. (Or was it unrequited? There are many, many paragraphs dedicated to ‘did he know’?) In between protracted daydreaming about slow-dancing with my prospective loved one to Barbra Streisand’s Woman In Love (on a barren planet, for goodness sake!) and stressing over my best friend beating me in a Chemistry exam, I’ve kept letters responding to the poems that I had sent off in hope. And these are old school letters beaten out on an old school typewriter. Some are rejections, but one is from the local newspaper, the Brighton Evening Argus, paying me one pound to print my poem. It was my first paid gig.

I was thirteen.

I have been a writer for a long time. I was encouraged to read from an early age and always lived with people who loved books. In secondary school, English teachers encouraged me to write and, rather splendidly social media has done its thing and two of the most influential have recently contacted me to congratulate me on my success. I was so happy to be able to tell them how much their encouragement helped me, because as well as supporting my writing, they suggested I read widely. Early forays into Paul Zindel and S E Hinton certainly influenced my YA books!

Prior to the publication of my YA novels Orangeboy and Indigo Donut I wrote short stories for adults and children and two books for younger readers for educational publishers looking to diversify their range of authors and stories. Granny Ting Ting is set in Trinidad and Wild Papa Woods in Trinidad and Lamu, off the coast of Kenya. It was a joy to explore the mythical characters from my mother’s homeland, Trinidad.

The Back Story
Orangeboy was an accident. I had decided I wanted to write crime novels and booked on to a residential course to learn the ropes. We were all given individual prompts to hide, like clues, in a piece of prose. My prompt was: He woke up dreaming of yellow. My first thought was an apocalypse in Springfield. My second was mustard. Suddenly, I saw it clearly – a shy sixteen-year-old boy on a date with a girl way above his league. They’re at a fairground and she’s adding mustard to his hot dog. He hates mustard, but doesn’t want to ruin the vibe. They go on some rides together and he’s not always sure if she likes him. When the ghost train stops, she’s dead. It was very different from my planned work set in 1940s post-war Port of Spain, Trinidad.

Orangeboy was shortlisted for the prestigious Costa Children’s Book Award, as well as many other awards and won the Waterstones Prize for Older Children’s Fiction and the YA Bookseller Prize. It had been rejected by all but one publisher, but Emma Goldhawk, the editor whose desk the manuscript landed on, championed it within Hachette and beyond. It was contemporary YA told by an older young man of colour – not the most commercial of propositions. As a lifelong Londoner, Emma thought it was an important story. The fact that she recognized one of the bus routes in the book, clinched the deal.

I was offered a two-book deal. My second book, Indigo Donut, was published in the UK in July 2017. I only became a freelance writer at the end of last September. For the previous twenty years I have worked in the UK charity sector in a range of areas supporting justice and equality and this has fed into my writing. Indigo Donut was partly prompted by the deaths of Peaches Geldof and her mother, Paula Yates. In both cases, children had been in the house. No matter how much their families tried to protect them, the circumstances and speculation about their mothers’ deaths would always surround them. Their grief would always be public. Indigo is a young woman on the cusp of leaving the foster home she loved. She is still processing mother’s death at the hands of her father and the fact that anyone could find out one of the most tragic and important moments in her history. I also wondered, what would it be like to be in love with this girl and know even more than she did? Oh – and what if they both loved Blondie?


The Inspiration
My books are full of music. I recently wrote a blog post about my random trigger songs – the ones where you hear the first few notes on the radio and you are catapulted back to another place and time. Mine range from Lee Marvin singing ‘I Was Born Under A Wanderin’ Star’ to a calypso by the Trinidadian great, the late Lord Kitchener. I am a big Bruce Springsteen fan. Okay, in the 80s there was a sort of aesthetic admiration and my way into his music was via the very English Frankie Goes To Hollywood cover of ‘Born To Run’. I love the stories behind Springsteen’s songs and the fact they always felt like the soundtrack to S E Hinton books. I’ve always been a sucker for songs with stories from Elvis’s ‘In The Ghetto’ to Green Day’s ‘Basket Case’ to Kirsty McColl’s cover of Billy Bragg’s ‘New England’.

Films are fantastic for story inspiration. It’s a cliché but Pixar films can be something special. So much is crammed into the opening minutes of ‘Up’ – it’s a masterclass in storytelling. I will always stop everything to watch any of the ‘Toy Story’ films if they come on TV and even now, I catch jokes that I missed before. Studio Ghibli films are another joy because of the combination of strong female characters and beautifully realised backgrounds. I also often write to their soundtrack. Actually, I’m doing that right now.

And books? So many, but can I just say that I read A LOT of Stephen King at a formative time of my writing life.

The State of the Industry
Hmmm. Where do we start? I wrote a long article about being a writer with privilege and making it to publication. How did I get through when other ‘own voices’ didn’t? A friend, the blogger Miriam Khan, recently tried to pull together a list of YA books by writers of colour being published for the first time in the UK in 2018. I think she struggled to make it to double figures and that was including mainstream anthologies that may have a story or two by writers of colour.

There is ongoing discussion and many initiatives but still, the current situation does feel quite dire in mainstream publishing. One of the exceptions was Stripes Publishing who commissioned YA writers of colour to write short stories for an anthology called A Change Is Gonna Come. They also put out a call for unpublished writers to submit short stories and paid the four new writers whose stories were selected. Paid! That’s how it should be done. There were also paid opportunities to gain editorial experience and for the design of the book.
But, we can’t forget that young people are creative, innovative and clever. If the mainstream ignores them, they will find their own way to get their voices heard.
However, can I have a little gripe about the US? In the UK, we have been consuming US books and films from babyhood onwards. Be it Disney, Pixar, Twilight or the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, we have embraced it! I grew up having absolutely no idea what ‘sophomore’ or ‘freshman’ was, but I read on. A whole generation learnt about adolescent sex from Judy Blume. So come on – give something back, US!

Last year, I was lucky enough to be on a panel with Angie Thomas when she was touring the UK. As Harry Potter fans pointed out, it was like the Waterstones bookshop had found the room of requirement as the demand for tickets was so heavy, new space had to keep being found. Many bloggers, including many white bloggers who would not necessarily share many points of reference with Angie, have named THUG as one of their top books of 2017. UK readers are an open-minded and generous bunch.

So why can’t the US embrace versions of England that aren’t shaped by JK Rowling or Julian Fellowes, the writer behind Downtown Abbey? Why do publishers believe that contemporary multicultural London with all its flaws, complexities and stories is too difficult a concept for US readers? In our session together, Angie Thomas mentioned how little many US people of colour know about their peers in the UK. If we don’t exist in your popular culture, your film and TV programs, is it a surprise? I would love Orangeboy to be published in the US. I think readers would absolutely get it, because in the end it’s about a young man who makes difficult – and wrong – choices. For me that feels universal. So USA, how about demanding more books by UK writers of colour? Honestly, it would really help us!

Thank you, Patrice, for your hard work and amazing contributions to children’s literature!

You can contact Patrice through her Facebook page: or her Twitter handle of @LawrencePatrice


Day 23: Deloris Jordan

February 23, 2018

Deloris Jordan, the mother of basketball star Michael Jordan and four other children, once worked as a bank teller, but is now known as an inspirational author and speaker. Jordan is regarded as an advocate for children and families with her work through the James Jordan Foundation in Chicago, Illinois, as well as the Jordan Institute for Families at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her book, Family First, highlights the seven principles of parenting and what it takes to raise an accomplished family in a challenging world.

Deloris Jordan has also devoted much of her time to being an acclaimed children’s author. Many of her children’s books are collaborations with her daughter, Roslyn, providing insights into motivated, driven attitude of the Jordan family. Her inspirational books encourage children to overcome obstacles, strive to achieve their goals and work hard! Dream Big is a picture book that follows the life of a young Michael Jordan as he turns his dreams of becoming a basketball star into reality.

True testaments of patience, hard work and determination from the perspective of the Jordan family make up Salt in His Shoes. It’s a heartwarming story about how any family that works together can help a child accomplish his or her goals. 

Michael’s Golden Rules teaches children the value of teamwork, doing your best and friendship while relaying to children that winning is not the only thing that makes a champion!

The power of a mother’s love is celebrated in Jordan’s reassuring book, Did I Tell You I Love You Today? Children are encouraged to remember that there are many ways to cherish those we love, whether they’re near or far.

Deloris Jordan’s books also reflect her faith and beliefs, as well as an openness to celebrate the faiths and beliefs of others. The touching story, Baby Blessings: A Prayer for the Day You Are Born, emphasizes the bonds of family and the blessings new parents wish for their children throughout their lives. A Child’s Book of Prayers and Blessings: From Faiths and Cultures Around the World motivates children to reflect on the larger world around them and to remember the joys of life.

Day 22: Junot Díaz

February 22, 2018

junotdiazBefore I read his moving words, I saw his actions. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Díaz was a keynote presenter at a state literary festival. In an article, he was asked to share some authors whose work he appreciated. Out of the more than 100 who were appearing, his mention included me. I’ve never met Junot. The festival roster included blockbuster names. His kind gesture told me everything I needed to know.

Junot believes in celebrating and empowering people of color. Co-founder of Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA), an organization dedicated to supporting diverse voices, he champions those whose tales have been unsung. Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey, Junot’s powerful stories center the experiences of Dominican immigrants.  What a blessing that he is now writing for the picture book audience.

From the moment I saw the cocoa cutie with the puff on the cover of his forthcoming book, Islandborn (illustrated by Leo Espinosa, published by Dial), I couldn’t wait to read it. I opened the book and was captivated by the beautiful story. When Lola, who left the Island as a baby, is asked to draw memoriesislandborn from home, she comes up empty. But as she walks around her loving neighborhood, she collects heartwarming and chilling recollections. Just as Junot uplifts writers of color around the world, he empowers his heroine Lola to draw her story and cherish the home that lives in her.

Islandborn will be released March 13 and a Spanish edition titled Lola will publish simultaneously. It has already earned three starred reviews.  A concern raised by Teaching for Change resulted in a new version of the first edition book being printed in time for the debut. I can’t wait to share it and hope many more stories for young readers will follow. Please join us in celebrating the important work of Junot Díaz on Day 22.

The Buzz About Islandborn:

“A sensitive and beautiful story of culture, identity and belonging–a superb picture book outing for Díaz and one to be shared broadly in a variety of settings.”

–  School Library Journal, starred review

“With his tenacious, curious heroine and a voice that’s chatty, passionate, wise and loving, Díaz entices readers to think about a fundamental human question: what does it mean to belong?”

– Publishers Weekly, starred review

Learn more about Junot Díaz here.