DAY 17: Nikki Shannon Smith

Nikki Shannon Smith Headshot

Last summer, I visited the Little Golden Books exhibit at the Smithsonian. As I perused the historic titles, I had no idea I would meet Nikki Shannon Smith, a current Little Golden Books author. Her story is amazing. She’s a perfect picture of a “can-do-never-give-up” attitude. An attitude that resulted in The Little Christmas Elf.

Please join us in honoring Nikki Shannon Smith on Day 17 of 28 Days Later.

The Journey: My Path to Publishing

I’m not one of those people who always knew she would be an author. I wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer, the first female president, and what I actually became: an educator. Somewhere along the way, between teaching and being a wife and a mother, I lost myself. There was nothing I did “just for me.” Every moment of my day was spent on other people, and I had forgotten to play, to dream. I was becoming resentful and bored. I was wilting. I stayed home alone one day in 2007, and watched Oprah. (I know how this sounds, but I’m telling the truth.) This particular episode was about women who looked way younger than their age. Oprah asked each one of them what their secret was, and they all said they had hit a point where they realized they weren’t happy, and changed course to follow their dreams. I didn’t need to be as drastic as they were (leaving husbands, quitting jobs…), but I had to nourish myself.
Within minutes, I hopped out of the bed, ran to my kids’ rooms, and started pulling books off the shelves. I had always been a reader and a writer, even as a little girl. It was how I escaped and made sense of the world. It was how I forgot that I wasn’t sure where I fit in. It was what set my imagination free. I needed to write for children. And maybe… if I worked really hard, my stories would make their way out into the world and into the hands of little people. Maybe they would laugh, or wonder, or try, or believe… or see themselves on a page in one of my books.
A few of the books in my hands that day were by Nikki Grimes. I went to her website and found all the resources an aspiring children’s author could ask for. I methodically followed those steps. I joined SCBWI, I bought the recommended books, joined a critique group, attended my first conference… the trajectory had been set. I wrote as often as I could, usually at night. All of my early manuscripts are picture books. Many of them are light-hearted stories with African-American main characters. None of them are published.
The one that got published was the one I didn’t want to write. It was a December homework assignment for my critique group—a story about Christmas. I struggled to even come up with an idea. I waited until the last minute… and then a story that I really loved came pouring out. A couple of years later, it sold!
Elf Cover (641x800)The Back Story: How I Got “The Deal”
I submitted the story (then called The Littlest Elf) for critique at my local SCBWI conference. It landed in the hands of Diane Muldrow, Editor at Random House/Little Golden Books. She said nice things about it, and made some suggestions, but didn’t ask for it. I liked her suggestions, edited the manuscript, and sent it to her a month later—snail mail. (I did this myself, I didn’t have an agent…still don’t.) I waited and didn’t hear back. I spent a lot of time perseverating over the whole thing. I literally paced the hall. I waited some more, and then decided to move on. Thirteen months after I sent the manuscript, I got an email from Diane… wondering if it was still available. I made quite a scene in my school office, and then started researching how to negotiate my own contract. I have to say that my first publishing experience has been nothing but delightful. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about people being unhappy with their editors, or the illustrations, or the timeline, or the deal, or whatever. I don’t have a single complaint or regret. It has been a dream-come-true.
The Inspiration: Who Inspired Me
I have many sources of inspiration, so it’s hard to pinpoint just a few. When I was a very young child I was an avid reader. (I got in trouble for reading instead of doing what I was supposed to do.) There weren’t a wide variety of children’s books by and about African-Americans, though. I do remember re-reading Black is Brown is Tan, by Arnold Adoff, over and over again. I remember looking at those pictures and thinking about how the shades of the people in the family resembled my own. That may well have been the first time I was inspired by a book. Two other authors I read a lot of as a young person were Judy Blume and Stephen King. When I was a teenager, my father gave me a box of books by African-American authors that were his from the 1960’s. Among them were books by Nikki Giovanni and Richard Wright. There was an honesty in their work that struck me.

Although I still didn’t consider becoming a writer, those books stayed with me in a way that I still feel today. Once I became a mother and an elementary school teacher, my love of children’s books resurfaced. There was so much more available, in terms of diversity. I’m inspired by, and thankful for, all of those who create work with the brown child in mind.

Another inspiration for me was Bill Cosby. In my parents’ house, we weren’t allowed to watch TV on weeknights… until The Cosby Show. I knew just by that change something important was happening. I loved the way the show (and later A Different World) paid homage to the culture while still addressing universal themes. I loved that the parents were professionals, but slipped into dialect sometimes—they portrayed the complexity of being African-American. Again, I was seeing myself—my family. More than that, EVERYBODY was watching. People from other races were seeing “us” and finding similarities, relating to our lives, and laughing with us instead of at us.

These varied experiences with books and media inspired me in a way that influences my writing. I write everything from funny to serious, from picture books to young adult. I write stories with Black characters that aren’t about being Black, and stories that directly speak to the Black Experience. I have a few stories with non-human characters, and of course The Little Christmas Elf, with an elf who in my mind, is Latina. I even write poems that should never see the light of day. I feel fortunate to be witnessing a change in children’s books, and I hope I can contribute, and maybe even inspire someone else.

The Process: How I Work

The process for The Little Christmas Elf was not my typical process. This was early in my writing career, and most of the time little ideas would just pop into my head and I’d start writing, sometimes not knowing where the story was going to go. Other times, the full plot would come to me, and I’d just add details along the way. ELF was incredibly difficult for me. For one thing, I don’t like to be told what to do. It was homework, for goodness sake. Another challenge was that a Christmas story didn’t feel like “my thing.” I don’t know why; I love Christmas. Probably, I was being stubborn—putting up my own hurdles.

With ELF, I sat at the computer numerous times and got up again without writing a word. I didn’t have a single idea. NOT ONE. Right before the homework was due, I knew I didn’t have a choice, and figured it didn’t have to be good. It just had to be done. I came up with the character first: the smallest elf in the workshop. I named her Nina, for the Spanish word niña (little girl). I got a mental picture of her, very small at a great big table, making a toy, but didn’t have the plot yet. It didn’t take long to decide that she would be struggling to finish the toy on time. From there, the story flowed, until it was time for Santa to arrive. I didn’t want to give her an easy out, but couldn’t think of a way for her not to finish the toy on time and still have a happy ending. I sat for a while, and then got the idea for the end. I drafted it in one sitting, and was pretty satisfied with it. Of course, I revised and revised, but the characters and plot never changed. Sure wish I could do that again….

If you can’t tell from this, I’m not an outliner. It’s strange, because I am such a planner and an organizer in all other aspects of my life. I actually get on people’s nerves with it. With writing, I tend to let ideas marinate in my brain for a long time, and then one day I sit down and write. I’m writing young adult novels now, and I work the same way with those. By the time I start writing, I have the characters and plot figured out in my mind. Except for some reason, I get to page 60 or so, then have to plot and take character  notes get “un-stuck.”  

Nikki signing

THE BUZZ: ELF Publicity
Little Golden Books aren’t reviewed and publicized in the same way that some books are, but there has been some fun “buzz.” Little Nina even made a cameo on The Today Show for Christmas 2013.

“This sweetly tender story feels like a Little Golden classic already and the gentle art evokes the happiest of childhood memories.” Connie Goldsmith, reviewer for The Book Report/California Kids Newsletter


The Today Show: Jill’s Steals and Deals, 12/4/13, The Little Christmas Elf and other Little Golden Books are featured.

Cynsations, 11/19/11, New Voice: Nikki Shannon Smith on The Little Christmas Elf
Writing Teazurs, 7/12/12, Interview with Nikki Shannon Smith: Author of The Little Christmas Elf
California Kids! December 2011, The Book Report, p. 13
The Davis Enterprise, 9/15/11, Korematsu Teacher Celebrates her First Book
The Davis Enterprise, 11/27/11, Downtown Says Happy Holidays!
Davis Life Magazine, 4/13/12, Korematsu’s Author on Stage

More about Nikki . . .

Website: Nikki Shannon Smith and


Twitter: @nikki2smith

Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks

6 thoughts on “DAY 17: Nikki Shannon Smith

  1. This is actually pretty neat – I hadn’t realized that Little Golden Books were anything but classics, frequently reprinted, until I ran across something about this author on Cynsations. It’s really nice to see one of the authors behind such an enduring series.

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