Writing a book: tough. Getting one traditionally published: even tougher. Any writer who has penned a work that’s commanded the attention of an editor, and inspired a publisher to commit tremendous resources to bring it to market, he or she has earned the honor and respect that such an accomplishment deserves.
But there are books…and then there are books.
Picture book authors must craft tales that include all the elements of story necessary in other genres, except they must do it in 1000 words or less (emphasis on the “less”). “Each word must be essential to the story or it mustn’t be there.” PB writing 101. But the best picture books don’t just have spare text; they use language masterfully–creating living characters and evoking vivid images that not only remain in the reader’s mind long after the book has been closed, but beg to be experienced time and time again.
Author Joyce Carol Thomas writes books like these.
Joyce, award-winning author of more than 30 books and several plays, was born in Ponca City, Oklahoma. She received her Master of Arts degree from Stanford University and has been a professor and teacher for over twenty years at some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges, including the University of Tennessee and Purdue University.
The young adult novel, Marked By Fire (Avon, 1982), was Joyce’s first published work for children; Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea (HarperCollins, 1993) was her first picture book. In the past fifteen years, she has written several other picture books, including: I Have Heard of a Land (HarperCollins, 1998); Crowning Glory (Joanna Cotler Books/HarperCollins, 2002); The Gospel Cinderella (HarperCollins, 2004); and The Blacker the Berry (HarperCollins, 2008).
Joyce is also a highly sought-after motivational speaker. She has delivered empowering presentations at colleges and universities in the United States, and workshops on creative writing and cultural studies in Nigeria, Haiti, Ecuador, Australia, Samoa, and the Mariana Islands. She currently resides in Berkeley, California. On day 18, The Brown Bookshelf welcomes one of our Vanguard Picture Book Honorees, Joyce Carol Thomas.
BBS: Hello, Ms. Thomas. It is an honor to have you here at The Brown Bookshelf.
JCT: Hello, Tameka Brown. I consider it an honor to be chosen for this interview by The Brown Bookshelf.
BBS: “Accomplished” is a word that seems inadequate to describe you as a writer. You’ve published more than 30 books, including volumes of poetry and works of fiction. You’ve written several plays which have been brought to life on stage. You’ve received critical recognition via the National Book Award, the American Book Award, the New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year Award, Outstanding Woman of the 20th Century Award, three Coretta Scott King Honor Awards, and many more.
When you reflect on all your literary achievements—and the influence your work has had on countless readers and authors alike—what thoughts or emotions does it all invoke?
JCT: I am thrilled that my work continues to receive so much attention from my readers, including young children, young adults, their parents, and teachers.
BBS: While you’re widely published in different genres, it’s obvious that writing for children and young adults is a particular passion. The young adult novel, Marked by Fire, was your first such work, and Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea was your first picture book. Both were major award winners. What was it that made you decide to begin writing for children?
JCT: When my children were born, I noticed that they watched me reading books. Then they would pick up a book and pretend to read it. Children, I think, soak up everything their parents do and say. I also noticed that most books in the libraries and in their schools did not focus on stories that might enchant African-American children.
BBS: Yours was a family of migrant workers, and as a child, you spent a great deal of time outdoors with your parents and siblings, working with a variety of crops. In many of your children’s books, you paint such lush and beautiful imagery regarding nature and our relationship to it. Would you say that your early childhood experiences with farming and the outdoors have a major influence on the stories you create?
JCT: Yes, it’s true. I loved to be outside when the flowers began to bloom. I delighted in checking the fruit to see if the apples were ripe. Biting into a crisp apple after I had worked my way to the end of a row of cotton was heaven in my mouth. It was also my reward for finishing what I started. I would make up stories in my head, and tell them to the other children in the cotton fields in Oklahoma and the tomato fields in California.
Of course, outside is also where we played and ran races.
BBS: As a picture book author and lover, I am both inspired by and enamored with your picture books, especially your last three titles: The Gospel Cinderella, The Blacker the Berry (our featured title), and Crowning Glory. The imagery of your poetry is so evocative in the latter two books, and the lyricism of your prose in The Gospel Cinderella is masterful. (I love the name “Crooked Foster Mother”– it just says it all!) How would you say your picture book writing has evolved from your first book till now?
JCT: I like to put the words in my book on stage. I ask myself if the words dance across the page. I ask myself if the words sing in harmony. The books I author now, including THE BLACKER THE BERRY represent a concoction of sweetness, self-esteem, and rhyme.
BBS: I know that you are a great admirer of Zora Neale Hurston. You’ve done three adaptations of her work for HarperCollins (The Skull Talks Back and Other Haunting Tales, 2004; The Three Witches, 2006; The Six Fools, 2006). Did you approach HC with these projects or did they approach you?
JCT: HarperCollins considered several authors to pen the Zora Neale Hurston collection. I was so thrilled that the editors chose me.
BBS: Do you consider Hurston to be your greatest literary influence? What about her work resonates with you so?
JCT: Yes, Zora Neale Hurston is one of my greatest literary influences. When nobody was there to encourage her, she wrote anyway. When early critics paid Zora Neale Hurston no mind, she kept writing. She kept creating. She focused on her work.
BBS: I’ve read that promoting multicultural appreciation through literature is an important goal of yours. Can you share more about your thoughts on that?
JCT: When I taught reading and writing as a University professor, I noticed the paucity of books that featured African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. I consider the promoting of multi-cultural books a joyous challenge. I believe that there is a connection to literary achievement when these books are included in libraries and taught in schools.
BBS: Who are some of today’s picture book authors and/or illustrators that you most admire?
JCT: I admire David Diaz, Francisco X. Alarcon, Laurence Yep, Yori Noguchi, and Floyd Cooper.
BBS: To those of us who desire to have a publishing career with the longevity and acclaim that you have achieved, please share the most important piece of wisdom you possess that will help us attain it.
JCT: Perseverance is the key. When my first MARKED BY FIRE manuscript was rejected, I did not give up. For example, my agent was very upset when she called to tell me that another publisher had rejected my manuscript. I said to her, “Don’t worry, somebody will take it.” She got very quiet on her end of the telephone. Then she added, “When somebody accepts this manuscript, I’ll call you, no matter what time of day or night that a publisher lets me know.” True to her word, she called me at 6:00 a.m. in the morning with the good news that my MARKED BY FIRE would be published!
BBS: What’s the next project of yours we can look forward to?
JCT: My next picture book’s title is IN THE LAND OF MILK AND HONEY. It is scheduled for publication in 2011.
BBS: And just for fun: Popsicles or lollipops?
BBS: Fishing, gardening, or front porch-swinging?
BBS: When you close your eyes and think of home, what do you see?
JCT: Red earth, a mother who baked fluffy biscuits from scratch, the remarkable and great teachers I had at Attucks School in Oklahoma, and the wonderful caring teachers in California.
BBS: Thanks so much for visiting with us today, Ms. Thomas. Again, it’s been an honor.
JCT: Thank you for spreading the news about writers and their books.
For an exhaustive list of her titles and awards, please visit Joyce at www.joycecarolthomas.com .